Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Bell Let's Talk

My name is Robyn Flynn, and I suffer from anxiety and depression.

Living with mental illness is incredibly challenging, for several reasons. Not only do you have to deal with the actual illness itself and the ways in which it manifests itself, but you have to deal with the stigma attached to it.

You have to deal with people acting awkward when you tell them that you suffer from anxiety and depression.

You have to deal with questions like “what do you have to be depressed about?” and “have you tried going for a walk or taking a multivitamin?”

You have to deal with friends and family members who don’t understand that you’re having a bad day, and who get mad at you for missing events and dinners and parties. If I called and told you that I fell and broke my leg, or that the medication I was taking for a heart condition was making me sick, you wouldn’t hold it against me for missing your birthday party. So why is having a panic attack, or being so depressed that I can’t get out of bed any different?

I have always known that I felt things differently than most people. But the anxiety really only started to become unbearable after there was a shooting at my school, Dawson College. All of a sudden I went from having manageable anxiety to suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, without even realizing it. The first symptom that I experienced was that I stopped being able to sleep at night. I’m not exaggerating; I slept no more than 4 or 5 broken hours a night for several years. There was even a stretch of about a year where I would panic just getting into my bed, so I had to sleep on the couch every night.

I’m also a rape survivor, which has probably messed me up in ways I’ll never begin to be able to understand. It feels like the girl I was before that night nearly four years ago died the moment she was pressed up against that brick wall. The woman left behind is scared, terrified, sad and ashamed most days. She’s a shell of the vibrant, brave woman she used to be.

I went from being confident and ambitious to being anxious in a room where I can’t see the exit. I started jumping when I heard loud sounds. My heart starts to race, and I start dripping with sweat when I see school shooting coverage on the news. I panic when I see crowds of people running, even if it’s in a movie or on TV. I actively avoid certain streets that I’m too afraid to walk down. I’m scared of walking alone at night. I feel sick to my stomach when I hear about accused sexual predators walking free. These might sound like normal reactions, given what I’ve experienced. But sometimes, it doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes I’ll start sweating and my chest will feel like it’s going to explode when I’m sitting at my desk answering an email.

Sometimes I’ll feel fine as I’m getting ready to leave my house to meet a friend, and then all of a sudden it’s like there’s a steel wall blocking my door and I can’t physically leave my house.

Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie and start crying and be unable to stop for hours.

Sometimes I cry myself to sleep.

Sometimes I lay in bed for hours, thinking about every mistake I’ve ever made.

I spent years being unable to sleep for more than 45-60 minutes at a time, waking up constantly in a cold sweat.

Sometimes I sleep 14 hours straight and wake up more exhausted than I was when I went to bed. I’ve felt like a lead blanket was preventing me from getting up and out of bed.

Some days are worse than others, and I’ve come to be grateful and appreciate the good days. But the bad ones weigh heavily on me.

I’ve been seeing a psychologist on and off for the better part of the last decade, and she has given me a lot of tools to help me deal with my anxiety. I got a fish tank, and watch my goldfish swim. I drink herbal tea in the evenings to wind down. I started colouring in patterned colouring books. I practiced breathing techniques. I visualized places that I felt safe and happy. But despite my best efforts, it doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, dark thoughts will creep into my head, and I’ll get mad at myself for not being normal. And dealing with my anxiety every single day is exhausting and depressing. When every day feels like life or death, and you can’t help but feel like you’re disappointing everyone around you, things can get pretty dark.

So many people don’t realize the struggle I’m dealing with on a daily basis. All they see is that I have a great job that I love, and have slowly been building a career that I can be proud of. But lately, I stopped feeling good about my achievements. I resented encouragement, accolades and praise. I stopped believing the people who told me they loved me and believed in me. I started feeling worthless. And I didn’t want to be on this planet anymore.

I made up my mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. But then my youngest sister told me that she was pregnant. And I decided that she needed me. So I decided to stick around for a little while longer. And then I heard my nephew’s heart beat. So I decided to stick around for a little while longer. And then I was in the delivery room the day he was born, and witnessed a miracle. It was the most incredible moment of my life, and I fell head over heels in love with him. I decided then that I needed to stick around, for him.

No one knew what was going on inside me. No one knew about the pain in my heart, and the darkness in my mind. It started to get better for a little while, but then it got worse.

It got so bad this past fall, that I started missing therapy appointments. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed and to her office. I started showing up late for work. Turning down extra shifts. Ditching my friends, and avoiding places I enjoyed hanging out. I stopped eating, and started losing weight, telling anyone who noticed that it was because I was playing Pokemon Go. I was too ashamed of the wreck of a human being that I had become to admit the truth. No one knew what was going on. I plastered a big fake smile on my face. I covered up the panic attacks. I made jokes with co-workers, who had no idea I was just coming from the bathroom where I cried so I hard I threw up. Believe me when I say that it’s no way to live.

So I went to see my doctor earlier this month and he prescribed me Sertraline (the generic name for Zoloft). It’s a medication meant to help with both anxiety and depression. It’s only been three weeks and I basically just feel sick all the time, and haven’t yet started to feel the benefits. It can take as much as 6-8 weeks for the medication to start to work, so in the meantime, I’m nauseous, dizzy and groggy, while still feeling anxious and depressed. Oh, and the dry mouth. The dry mouth! My mouth feels like the Sahara Desert twenty four hours a day.

But the nausea and the dizziness are nothing compared to the family members who won’t talk to me about my illness. Or the friends who don’t believe that I’m actually sick. The people who have written me off and given up on me. The people who tell me that medication isn’t the answer, that I should eat more greens, exercise more, and be grateful for the good things in my life. I wish it were that simple.

Today is Bell Let’s Talk today, and my hope is that you will stop shaming those of us who struggle. I want anxiety and depression to stop being dirty words. I want Post Traumatic Stress Disorder conversations to stop excluding those of us who weren’t in the military. But mostly, I just want us all to listen to each other and be a little more compassionate. I don’t want to be ashamed of my illness. I want you to realize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Most importantly, I want the people in my corner that have stood by me to know how much they mean to me. Lucas, Alyssa, Jenn, Hadleigh, and Z… Thank you for your kindness, love and support. Each of you saved me in a different way, and you’re literally the reason I’m still alive.