Is Mental Illness the new “In” thing?

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I’m thinking of myself as the “Carrie Bradshaw” of mental illness right now. In fact, right now I’m wearing my pajamas and a sleeping mask on my head as I write this, sipping a black coffee and chain smoking cigarettes with a photo of Mr. Big on my nightstand. Okay, I don’t have the coffee or cigarettes or the photo.

And I’m sitting in a living room, so there isn’t even a nightstand nearby. I am sort of like Carrie in that I write, not a column for a trendy New York city paper, but a blog for dorky, silly people such as myself. Sorry, I called you dorky and silly if you’re reading this. But I’m dorky and silly, so I imagine if you enjoy my writing that you must like dorky, silliness if you’re still reading this. Where was I?

Oh yes. I’m like the “Carrie Bradshaw” of mental illness. If I did write for a trendy, New York paper, my column would be called Crazy and the City. Seeing as how I live in the Maritimes though, I would likely write for The Coast and my column would be Crazy in the Tiny City.  But am I crazy? I thought I was but some things have happened recently that called into question all the things I thought about mental illness previously. Let me tell you all about my BFFs, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. We all went to lunch the other day and…

Okay, I am not so much like Carrie. I do actually have a Samantha friend. She may be better known to you as the Blog Broad. But she’s gay, and too crippled up with fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and slipped discs in her back most of the time to engage in the sexual acrobatics of Samantha from Sex in the City. 20180110_175922.jpgI also have a Miranda-ish friend, T. But she isn’t really very Miranda-like other than she has short red hair most of the time (she likes to change her hair quite often). She isn’t very sarcastic, she is an optimist and she’s very Catholic. And I don’t have a Charlotte friend at all.

So back to that thing that happened that caused me to question my insanity. Those of you who may have started following my blog may have noticed that I have disappeared for a while. In the days leading up to Christmas, things in my life went very… weird? No, not weird. They went crazy, literally. Someone very close to me went into a state of mania. So the last month was spent going back and forth from a very well known mental institution located here in the Maritimes. 20171226_171956.jpg

I’d never seen anyone in a state of mania before. It was an eye opener- seeing someone whose mind was broken to smithereens, going from one thought to another at the speed of light; seeing someone who was speaking to objects and dead people. Then visiting them at the hospital surrounded by other people in various degrees of true mental health crises. I couldn’t help but question all my previous-held notions about mental illness. I realize that there are varying degrees of mental illness, just like there are different stages of cancer. I suppose someone with mania would be at Stage 4 if they had cancer. Whereas I would likely be in the pre-cancerous cells stage or Stage 1 if I were to compare my “mental illness” to cancer.

20180127_063754.jpgBut it got me thinking about all of the people I know who are struggling with mental wellness, including myself, and I couldn’t help but wonder, are there really so many people who are mentally ill? Everyone seems to be on some sort of prescription: Zoloft, Effexor, Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, etc.. Is it possible for so many people to be mentally ill? Is it legitimate mental illness or is our society making us sick? Are we all so obsessed with being happy that we need to take happy pills to find fulfillment? Or is it technology that is creating havoc and anxiety in our minds? Is there really an increase in the incidences of mental illness or is it an increase in awareness of it, a combination of both, OR is mental illness the “In” thing? Could we all just be normal?

I also have been wondering, what is “normal” anyway? I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs about mental illness and I’ve read Jenny Lawson’s books about the same topic, and I find I identify with the writing because as I read, I’m connecting- OMG- This is EXACTLY how I feel. But maybe we’re not really the crazy ones at all. Maybe we’re just the ones who are brave enough to share our true thoughts and feelings and bare our souls to the world. Maybe the so-called (self-called) “normal” people are actually JUST LIKE US but are pretending they don’t ever feel socially awkward, or isolated, or whatever. I think they are pretending! I think everyone has some element of craziness, but some of us are better at hiding it than others. I think crazy IS normal. And that the “normals” are really the crazy ones among us because they are crazy and don’t even recognize it!! Oooooh…. you “normal” people really piss me off, thinking you’re all that and a bag of dill pickle chips, making me think I’m the crazy one and you’re crazier than a pack of wild hyenas running around in a Walmart.

Yes, I have stopped taking my pills. I’m normal, after all.

 

 

 

 

A visit from St. Dymphna- Blogmas 24

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the hospital,

Not a creature was stirring, not even an animal,

The bedsheets were hung from the ceiling with care,

With hopes that Saint Dymphna soon would be there,

The patients were all locked down snug in their beds,

While visions of dead people danced in their heads.

And the nurses in their scrubs and the doctors in their coats,

Had just gotten ready to get the fuck out,

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter,

Security rushed out to see what was the matter,

Away to the buzz door they rose in a flash,

The patients were ready to get into a clash,

The exit door lights lit the linoleum floor all aglow,

Hints of red shone down on the patients below,

When what to their wondering eyes should appear,

But Saint Dymphnas and her confessor Gereburnus dear,

With two trusted servants and the King’s only fool,

Fleeing from her father’s evil, big, long and hard tool,

More quickly than a cheetah, along Saint Dymphnas came,

She whistled, sang and called the patients by name,

They gathered around her and formed a neat row,

Their strength to resist temptation did grow,

She meticulously tended to each patient’s need,

Showed love, empathy and compassion, indeed,

She did not leave until each patient was helped,

And she laughed out loud in spite of herself,

And when each patient had had their needs met,

She took the bedsheets and created a large safety net,

Only then did she turn to see her father with dread,

And with his sword, Damon cut off her sweet head.

The patients now cured were all filled with sorrow,

Knowing today would unfold to Christmas  tomorrow,

Their suffering took on a holy new strife,

For them, Saint Dymphnas gave up her life, 

In the mental hospital, the patients will all be alright,

And so they call out, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”


Saint Dymphnas is the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill and those with neurological disorders.  She is also the patron saint of psychiatrists, neurologists and psychologists. 

Dymphnas was born in Ireland in the 7th century. Her father, Damon, was a pagan and her mother was Christian. Dymphnas also became Christian. When her mother died, her father was overcome with grief and vowed only to remarry if he found a woman who compared in beauty with his dead wife.

His grief led him to become mentally unstable and his daughter was resembling his dead wife more and more each day. He vowed he would marry her. Dymphnas fled to Geel in present-day Belgium with the help of a priest, Gereburnus, two servants and a fool.

When she arrived in Geel, legend has it that she built and ran a hospice for the sick and the poor. However, her father was able to track her location using the money trail. (Pretty fucked-up, without computers, right?) Anyway, King Damon had his soldiers kill the priest who helped her escape. And when he found his 15 year old daughter who refused to marry or go back with her father, Damon cut off her head with his sword. Saint Dymphnas is also the patron saint for victims of incest.

Education & Mental Health- It’s time to examine current practices and make changes NOW

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Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening world, wherever you may be. It’s Ocean here, and again, I cannot sleep. It is 2:07am where I am and my circadian rhythm is off. Way off.

I think I’m depressed. No. I am depressed.

I’ve been off work again for a while now. I haven’t been sleeping for awhile. Years even.

I have had a lot of ideas in my head. Things I want to write about. Things I need to express. This may get dark. Really dark.

I’ve decided this piece is going to be about mental illness and the education system. I think it is a commonality in most places that there has been an explosion of mental illness within the children we teach today. I am a high school teacher; so I speak from that perspective. I’m sure, or I hope, that the issues I see are not as prevalent in the younger grades as they are in the demographic I teach.

Two years ago, a student who I taught took his own life. It came as a surprise. Z was a very pleasant young person. He arrived at my class every day earlier than everyone else, would sit in his seat and ask me how I was doing. I’m not even sure if I asked him how he was. I probably did. He probably said he was having a good day. There were no signs. He was always so concerned about the feelings of others though… maybe that was a signal.

On New Year’s eve of 2015/2016, he took a jump off of a high roof and said goodbye to the world. Apparently, he was having issues with a girlfriend.

I know a lot of people tend to blame the victim in these cases- I have heard people say that suicide is a very selfish act. What most people don’t know about me is that I was very depressed in my school days. It started slowly in elementary school from being bullied and continued into junior high/ middle school. I thought about taking my life a lot. It wasn’t about wanting to die, but feeling like things were so terrible that I couldn’t see any hope of it getting better in the future. We recognize that bullying today is a very serious thing. For me, I developed a deep mistrust of people. The kids who bullied me would switch from pretending I was one of their best friends to pulling some sort of stunt to bring me back to the reality that I was not well liked.

quad-pedal-boat-green-lakeFor example, one time two older girls in my neighbourhood who were the “cool kids” invited me out for a ride in their pedal boat in the lake. I was excited, so I went. Then it was getting close to my supper time which was always an hour earlier than when everyone else ate. So I asked them to drop me off at the shore. They took me close-by to the shore to where the water was about waist deep and told me that they just didn’t have the time to take me the whole way. It was April, so the water was pretty cold. I said, “Come on, it’s not that much farther, you can take me into the dock.” But still they refused. Feeling that I’d been duped yet again, I climbed out of the boat and into the waist deep water wearing my long jeans and sneakers. I was soaked from the waist down. And cold. very cold. They laughed. “You didn’t really think we weren’t going to take you all the way to the shore,” they said. Well, of course, I thought that. Based on all of my prior experiences with these girls, I had no reason to think they were joking. This just one of the more mild experiences of the kind of bullying I endured. It led to me becoming very socially isolated and awkward because no matter what I did, I was picked on for it. I came to believe that people couldn’t be trusted and that true friends were few and far between.

Image result for sticks and stones will break my bones butSo I became a very sad and depressed young girl, with high anxiety in social situations, always having in the back of my mind, Can I trust these people? Feeling socially isolated, uncared for, and like no one understood, I started to think that life was not worth living; that things would never get better and what was the point? You may at this point be wondering, where were your parents? Well, this was the 1980s, and parents were a lot different then. When I cried because my feelings were hurt from being bullied, I was told that there was no reason to cry- I wasn’t physically hurt, that I had to grow a thicker skin and stand up for myself. I remember specifically my mother saying “When the kids make fun of you, you just tell them, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So I did. And the neighborhood kids threw rocks at me. Thanks, mom, for your stellar advice.

Every teacher comes into the classroom with their own past histories of school experiences. Many of my classmates during teacher training and my colleagues now were “the cool kids” in their school kids. A lot of them, I think, went into teaching because their best memories were of playing sports and being popular. I went into teaching for two reasons mainly. One was that I already knew I was good at it; I was often the student in class who understood concepts the teacher explained and was able to put those concepts into language my classmates understood. Another reason was that I wanted to be able to support the kids who didn’t fall into those roles of being the typically sporty, cool kid. I have a knack for connecting with the kids who suffer from mental illnesses and over the years, I like to think I have made a difference for a lot of kids who have felt hopeless. I am not afraid to share with them my own struggles from my own school days and how glad I am that I didn’t take my own life. I try to remind them that high school is only 4 years of their life and that things after high school do get better. It’s just a matter of making it through.

But back to my student Z. As I said, I don’t believe Z thought about the consequences his actions would have on those of us left behind. I know he didn’t; he was in a moment of deep distress and took the only way he could see out. But those feelings are still left behind with all the lives he touched. I’m sure most students have no idea how much their teachers care about them. I’m sure if Z knew the impact his act would have on his parents, friends, and teachers, he may not have gone through with it. But I’m also sure that in that moment, he just wanted his pain to end. Even so, I feel so much guilt for not having recognized the signs, for being so caught up in advising extra-curricular activities and not taking the time to build the relationships and trust with my students so that I would be a person they can turn to. Two years later, I still can’t get Z out of my head and the pain of losing a kind-hearted young man with hopes and dreams of being a crane operator.

Teachers today don’t just teach subjects and students. Teachers today often take on the roles of guidance counselor, confidants, and even parental responsibilities. We often pay for kids to have a meal at lunch when we know they don’t have money to eat. We pay for school supplies for kids who we know can’t afford it; we buy jackets and mittens for kids who can’t afford it. Teachers have become more than just educators. We bridge a much needed gap in how our social system is set up. There is just simply not enough human resources or money to provide support for all the kids with mental illness or who live in poverty, and our students are paying the ultimate price in too many cases.

As a system, we add to the stresses that kids face with standardized tests, and focusing so much on getting the grades, instead of actually learning the material. All of these things also add stress for teachers. Education systems need to be updated and changed. Supports need to be in place for students and teachers dealing with emotional distress and mental illness. Education around how to deal with anxiety and depression, as well as where to go for help is desperately needed. How many more students have to die before we make drastic changes to an archaic public education system created in the 19th century for the sole purpose to train people for factories? The system is defunct and all stakeholders should be working with teachers, those with the education and training to know what works to completely change the system instead of a top-down approach where politicians decide policies that don’t help kids learn at all and just pile more and more stress on both students and staff in schools alike.

I leave you with this amazing take on how archaic our education systems are:

Sources:
Pedal Boat photo. Green Lake Boat Rentals. <http://greenlakeboatrentals.net/boat-rentals/&gt; November 13, 2017.

Robinson, Kenneth. RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&gt; November 13, 2017

Sticks and Stones Quote. Pinterest
<https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/323837029429635078/?autologin=true&gt; November 13, 2017.

Mental Illness: A Cancer

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So it’s 4:39 am. I am awake. I’ve been awake since 3:50 am. So I thought… maybe I’ll write something. My good buddy, Sam, said to me, you haven’t been blogging lately. What’s up? Nothing is up. Everything is down.

You see I haven’t been writing because I haven’t been feeling the greatest. My anxiety and PNES has swallowed me up like a person trapped in a cove when the high tides of the Bay of Fundy come roaring in. I’m off work again because people have suggested to me that I should be. I didn’t want to leave my classroom. I love teaching; it is who I am. It was a difficult decision to take time off. The worst of it the fear of judgement. I have left the small town I live in and am staying with family in another city. Being in a small town and appearing healthy makes the anxiety worse: If I go grocery shopping, people will think I’m not really sick. If I go to the gym, people will think I’m not sick. But even being with family and friends in another far-away place is difficult. They want to know why- why aren’t you at work? It’s October, how come you have two weeks off? And then the anxiety…what do I tell them? The truth: I’ve gone completely off the rails because I can’t handle the requirements of my job? Or a lie. I have cancer. I do have cancer figuratively. Cancer of the mind. It starts off as a small bit of questioning. Can I do this? And it snowballs like a growing tumor until it takes up all of the space in my brain. Just get through one more day… one more day. All the things you didn’t get done, you can do tomorrow. Except that tomorrow is the same as today. There isn’t enough time to do all the things. Everyone has a breaking point.

So here I sit…trying to think but trying not to think. I need to sort it out, but thinking about all the stuff is exhausting. All of the players in my world have their own ideas of what is “best” for me. Some of the players don’t seem to understand that I am not well. Here are some of the things I have been told/ asked to do:

  • Take two weeks off. Don’t think about work. You’ll be fine in two weeks.
    • Will I? “Don’t think about work.” Asking a teacher not to think about how their students are doing is like asking a person not to breathe. It is in my nature to think about what went wrong. To question, to wonder, to worry.
  • Come up with a plan of how we can support you if you have a seizure in front of your class.
    • Okay, but generally I don’t have seizures due to the students. It’s due to the immense amount of bullshit…er… paperwork, policies, etc.. So what do I do to get out of that? Not check emails so I don’t know about all of the new requirements of my job this year? Don’t talk to anyone who might tell me about things I’m supposed to have done and haven’t because it’s not humanly possible to do all the things required in my job and do my job well?
  • Since you’re off, take this minimum wage job as a housekeeper/nanny.
    • So my mother-in-law thought it would be a good idea to volunteer me to help look after her niece’s house and twins. You know, they put me off work to ease my stress and for me to focus on taking care of and healing myself but why don’t I just go take care of other people for two weeks.
  • Since you’re off, can you input this data into a computer for me? And set up a website?
    • My husband, god love him, is excited at the prospect of me having time to help him with his job. I spent much of the summer doing that at the expense of my own planning for new courses. Maybe if I had been better prepared for the 5 different courses I was teaching, I would not be in this situation right now. I love my husband, and I do want to help. But right now, I have to focus on what to do to heal myself.

I guess I wrote something. It’s not my best work. I’m sorry for being a Debbie Downer. Wha-Whum…

Hopefully, I’ll be in a better place soon. I’ve gone through this before and gotten through it. I have no reason to think I won’t get better this time.

-O.H.

Featured image:

“Debbie Downer.” Wikipedia. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debbie_Downer&gt;

October   11, 2017.

 

Playing with PNES

By Ocean Hayward

Anxiety. ADHD. PNES. Okay, you’re probably all well versed on the first two, but the last acronym is probably not as familiar. About a year and a half ago, I was officially diagnosed with Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES). I always like to joke that, yes, it is an acronym that if stated phonetically would sound an awful lot like penis. Pee-Nes. Just my luck. I don’t typically share my PNES with most people. I used to because the seizures were so frequent that I was afraid I’d have one in front of people. I’d rather them know up front why I’m shaking and trembling like a person during DTs so I don’t alarm anyone.

I started having seizures about 8 years ago. They aren’t fall down, unconscious on the floor-type seizures. They are tremors, twitches and jerking motions that I have no control over. They can last for a few seconds, to a few minutes, to a few hours. It all depends where my state/ level of anxiety is. During the attacks, my blood pressure elevates as well. My seizures are my body’s way of dealing with extremely high stress situations. I’m not sure why it reacts with seizures. Maybe it’s because I tend to be a quiet person, especially when it comes to how I feel. I try to avoid conflict as much as possible and when faced with the anxiety of having to confront someone, that tends to set off the seizures quite a bit.

Certain situations are much more stressful than others. A big one for me is crowds. I hate crowds. Over the summer, my husband and I were walking along the Saint John waterfront and it was “Saint John Idol” night. You know, like American Idol? But with Saint Johnners singing instead. For whatever reason, the whole “Idol” show concept is still surprisingly popular in Saint John, even though in every other place in the world the craze has fizzled out.  It seemed that everyone in Uptown (That’s right, every other city/town has a “downtown” but Saint John has an “Uptown,”) and surrounding areas had amassed into this tiny closed-off-to-vehicles street. Some idiot (because it should be called Saint John Idiot/ American Idiot, in my opinion) was up there singing their heart out and I was stuck with my husband trying to walk on this street through the crowd of both people standing still and watching the Idiot and people also just trying to use the street as a through-way to another part of town (like my husband and I). I started to feel the panic because of all the people around me. My husband was behind me and he could see my body jerking, shaking and trembling as I tried to keep my calm. If I’d been asked to rate my level of panic, it would have been a 10+.

Suddenly, I couldn’t stand it anymore; I needed to be out of that crowd and quickly. You know how they say to stay calm in emergency situations, like if you’re in a crowded building that’s on fire? I was that person who panics and pushes through and stomps on people and kills them. That was me. I was pushing people out of my way in a mad dash to get the hell away from all the fucking people! I don’t remember much about it other than my feeling of panic, but I’m sure I pissed a lot of people off. Although perhaps my panicked voice saying to my husband, “I have to get out of here” made them sympathetic. All I know is my husband grabbed me suddenly by my waist and pushed me into a pub, and out of the crowd. I was still seizuring, but I was out of the source of my anxiety. In about 2 hours, it was as if it had never happened. But it did.

The worst thing about having PNES is I never know when something is going to happen that will spin me into a frenzied state of nervous energy. It’s unpredictable. Some people with PNES can never hold a job. I am determined, however, to beat PNES. (To improve the humor in the piece, read PNES phonetically in the last two sentences.) Where was I? Oh, yes, I will beat PNES. Er… I will overcome PNES. I have strategies. I use self-talk to calm myself down. I try not to take on too many things at once. I try to make sure I take time to take care of myself. I take drugs. Lots of prescription drugs. And I try to always find the humor in life, even in my PNES. The most important thing I’ve learned on my journey with PNES is that I have to put myself first, and keep myself healthy. I’m no good to anyone else if I’m not good to myself first. And on that note, I’m going to go play with my PNES.