I Have to Be Well Adjusted
I’m in 2B systems trying to survive the term affectionately known as ‘2B or not 2B’. I would say that my mental health journey started towards the end of high school. For me it didn’t start off with mental health, it started as physical health issues, which affected my mental health and caused a lot of other problems. I have a chronic illness which causes me to have chronic migraines and headaches. At its worst this was four or five months of 24/7 headaches with 3 or so migraines per week. Essentially five months straight of constant pain. The headaches were bad enough and affected my ability to work but the migraines would make me completely non-functional. With the migraines would come nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, and a whole bunch of other symptoms. I would pretty much lose my entire day after one started because I had to lock myself in a dark room.
One of the most common side effects of chronic illness, especially chronic pain conditions, is depression because it completely takes over your life. You can’t function in the same way you used to. As anyone who’s ever broken a bone, had the flu, or even had a really bad hangover would know, you’re just not physically or mentally functional in the same way anymore. Over the last two to three years, I’ve kind of been trying to figure out both my physical health and my mental health because they are tied so closely together. That is in addition to navigating an engineering degree which is hard even at the best of times.
So you’re in second year now, how have you coped with your illness and become so well-adjusted?
I kind of have to be well adjusted because I am never going to get better. This is pretty much going to be my life for the rest of my life. People always say that your illness doesn’t define you, but for me that’s not true; it’s literally a part of who I am and how I interact with the world. So yeah, I’d say I’m relatively well adjusted, considering.
Having migraines and headaches is something I’ve had to accept as a constant part of my life. Currently I am on medication for the migraines as well as depression, “Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors” (SSRI’s). Migraines aren’t just a physical thing happening in your brain, there’s also a chemical/hormonal component to it where your brain chemistry doesn’t operate like a normal person. Low serotonin is often found both in people who have chronic migraines and people who have depression though doctors don’t know for sure what the link between the two is or why the levels are low. I’ve been on these meds for about a year now and they basically help to keep my serotonin levels steady so that I don’t get migraines and headaches in the first place. They also helps me keep the accompanying depression at bay so I can be a functional person.
Have you found that your condition or the accompanying mental health issues have affected you professionally, for instance during classes or while at work?
The worst of it was during my first coop when I was first starting to be diagnosed. At that point, my doctors all thought I had a brain tumor so I was going in for MRI’s and blood tests, and then they were looking at all kinds of potentially fatal progressive illnesses. Having to deal with all of that definitely puts a damper on your mood.
When I do get a migraine I am basically non-functional; like my brain doesn’t work and my body wants to shut down and there is nothing that fixes it other than sleep and a dark room. I’ve had to write midterms while I had a migraine before, and because stress is a trigger I’ve had migraines before midterms which caused me to be worrying more about school which only made it worse.
In terms of the depression, it’s hard to get motivated when you are exhausted and it’s 8 o’clock and you still have hours of studying left. Motivating yourself to get up on weekends at a normal time and do work is hard when all you want to do is lie in bed and do nothing. It has definitely impacted my school work. When it was at its worst during my 1B term, I ended up with the lowest grades I’ve had since coming to university. I failed one course and got 50’s in a few others. So it definitely affected my grades.
There’s a limit to how well you can only schedule doctor’s appointments and physio when you need both of them weekly which led to missing class. I would say it has definitely affected my ability not only to attend class, but to do homework, and to take in the information. When you have a headache paying attention in class gets that much harder.
Have you reached out to accessibility services?
I did, and accessibility services does offer good services but they don’t really work for me. What I needed wasn’t writing my midterm in a quiet room; it was more along the lines of I have a migraine right now so I physically am not able to write this exam the to best of my ability. They need a week of notice for that kind of accommodation and I only know about 6 hours beforehand that I’m going to have a migraine and am not going to be functional during the exam. So while they do offer a lot of useful services which might help people who have more predictable or constant issues, for me it honestly didn’t help at all.
Have you found that your condition has gotten any better over time? And if so, what changed?
Since I got on my medication, my life has changed completely. I don’t have headaches daily anymore; I get migraines once or twice a month, if at all. Health-wise I can function that way, and in terms of the depression the issues have kind of cleared.
The one thing I want to convey is that medication helped me a lot. When I was going through the whole process, a lot of friends I was talking to about this would mention that their doctor had suggested they go on medication but they were against it or were reluctant to take it. They would say that exercise or eating well alone or meditation would solve the problem, or that you don’t want to be on medication because you’re just putting more chemicals in your body, or that medication would have horrible side effects. There was one point when I went off the medication for a couple months and tried eating healthy and exercising but it didn’t work at all, I just went backwards really fast.
I’m not saying that medication is right for everyone, but I think that it’s something that a lot of people are more hesitant than they should be to consider. It doesn’t have to be that bad, the side effects don’t have to be that bad; if there’s a medication that works for you and you’re able to find it, then it is a very good option. There is a lot of stigma around taking medications because people think that you stop feeling things, or that you feel numb, or that it’ll make you tired all the time, but I honestly didn’t experience any of that. For me I started taking the medication and then after about a month it started to kick in and once I was at the correct dosage all of a sudden I had the energy to go to the gym, or spend the entire day studying. I wasn’t completely exhausted, I was actually productive, and I actually had the energy and desire to go out with my friends and do fun things on Friday night instead of wanting to go to bed at eight. So I don’t want to say it was magic, but with depression and mental illnesses a lot of the time it is a chemical imbalance or something physical. You wouldn’t tell someone who has an infection that they shouldn’t be on antibiotics or someone with asthma that they don’t need a puffer, it’s a physical thing just the same way depression is. The stigma around medication keeps a lot of people from exploring it as a viable option and keeps them from working with their doctors because they’ve already discarded is as an option.
As someone who has been through all of this do, you have any advice for someone who has a friend also going through something similar?
Be really open to talking to them about it, because when you’re dealing with it and you’re having a hard time figuring things out exactly what’s going on in your head and exactly what you’re feeling, having someone there who you can use almost as a soundboard just to talk to them about anything — even if it’s that you still feel shitty and it’s been two weeks and nothing has changed — you can just tell them what you’re feeling. Even if it’s the same boring stuff, having someone who you can talk to about it so you don’t feel like you’re alone is a big help. I had this one really good friend in high school and she wrote a blog for a few years, basically chronicling her life and all of its different aspects. She dealt with major depression and she was really open and upfront about it, and would lay it all out on this blog. Getting to read that, and having that person who understood, really really helped me understand there’s nothing wrong with getting help. I would say just be open to talking and conversation and don’t make the person feel like there’s something wrong with them or that they’re weird for feeling that way or that they should deal with it on their own.
Also, hugs every now and then is good.
Is there a song or band you jamming to right now?
Rhodes’ cover of Florence + The Machine’s Ship to Wreck