Out of the Woodwork.

You know how when you buy a new car, it seems that suddenly, everywhere you look, that same car is there? It’s strange, but as soon as you slapped your insurance sticker on the licence plate, you realize that you’re not the only one who had your idea.

You probably chose this car because it’s unique. Maybe it’s flashy, or maybe it’s understated – either way, you chose it because it’s uncommon on some level. You’re exceptional and not like everyone else, so you chose that car to parallel that.

But it turns out that you’re not the only one with that car after all. There are tons of other people just like you, who didn’t choose a Mazda 3. Those fuckers.

As soon as you think you’re the only one, others like you come out of the woodwork.

Same goes for mental health issues. You think you’re the only one, but the reality is that you just weren’t paying attention. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of people out there just like you. You just have to be deep within it to notice the numbers.

Damn, girl.

I felt very alone before I started writing here a month ago. It’s just as well that I have social anxiety, because misery hates company anyway. But as I delved deeper into this online world, I learned a lot. If I look up the hashtag “anxiety” on my blog reader, I find hundreds of blogs on the subject. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with them all! And when I started my Instagram account? I was blown away with how many similar accounts are out there. Mental health warriors like me are out there – they’re everywhere. Maybe they’re in the deep end of the anxiety pool like I am. Its omnipresence is overwhelming and interlaces itself into every aspect of their lives. Some just throw out a #panicattack after an acute flare-up. But look for it, and you find that people everywhere are struggling. They’re everywhere.

Recently I learned that my go-to esthetician wasn’t working full time anymore. We aren’t friends per se; since I’ve been seeing her for years, we do have a bit of a relationship. We have chatted about our personal lives a fair bit and I do think she thinks of me as more than just a client.

But her new schedule struck me as odd because she was previously a cyborg who was working 15-hour days and had a management role in the salon. My mental health radar was beeping.

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I thought I’d drop her a text. Just in case something was up. If nothing else – was she working elsewhere? My eyebrows are very important to me.

When this girl text me back, I learned I had been right: she was working part time due to work stress and burn out. I obviously will not get into her story here, because it’s not mine to share.

I offered her my words of support and told her if she ever needed it, I can be a good listener. She thanked me politely and graciously.

When my appointment time finally rolled around, I was a little nervous to see her face to face. I was freaking out that I had overstepped a boundary. Who am I to barge into her life, assuming she’s not happy or something is wrong? Did I make her uncomfortable? Did I make it awkward? Would I need to find a new eyebrow girl?!?

My need for great eyebrows is apparently stronger than my anxiety.

Once we were alone, I timidly asked her how it was going. A nice, gentle, normal conversation opener. She also took the safe route and asked me a similar question. I realized quickly that this was 50/50. How could I expect her to feel safe if I lied and told her life was great and everything was “fine”? If that’s how I would proceed, she would surely follow my lead and the mere exchange of pleasantries would be the extent of our conversation. There’d be no depth. We’d do nothing but grimace behind our masks and add to the stigma that the tough shit in life is something to be ashamed of. That we need to convince everyone that everything is fine. That talking and being real is not okay.

That’s not real life. I wanted her to feel safe. I wanted her to feel normal, and not alone. So instead of telling her things were “fine”, I took the first scary step forward and told her things were going okay….. but that I was off work and on stress leave so things were not perfect.

At least I got to do this while laying on a table with my eyes closed. Which was awesome since eye contact is fucking impossible for me.

To my relief, she took the same scary step and opened up. She spoke about what she was going through too. I think perhaps it evoked a sense of relief for her as well. Our conversation was not long, but we both rattled off such a mirror image of thoughts that it actually made me smile. We even tentatively made plans to get together for coffee or wine and have a real girl date.

I was on a mission for the greater good and her wellbeing. But an amazing side effect was that I ended up feeling better about myself. I hope she did, too, but it made me realize I am not the only one in my life going through tough times. We all know your 20s are for learning and making mistakes, but apparently your 30s are for falling on your ass. And if you’re brave enough, talking about it. Opening up about it. And that can lead to healing and growth.

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Tinfoil.

There is a reason I have tinfoil as my backdrop on my page. It’s not my attempt at conveying my love for 90s kitsch design.

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Fun prank: tell a friend this is a Magic Eye picture and watch them struggle with it for 10 minutes.

Although, forgive me, it is a symbol for something, and that is just as lamenting.

I’ve mentioned that I have a wonderful, compassionate partner in life: Boyfriend. We’re not married (yet – we’ll get around to it one day), but we live together. We’ve built a home and life together and are truly committed to one another. His love for me includes all of my flaws – including my anxiety and depression. He is my best person. 

It wasn’t like I revealed everything about myself on day one of our relationship. I managed to keep my crazy in check for months and months, actually, and it was a long time before I felt comfortable enough to share this side of me with him. Mental health isn’t something people tend to talk about in general. It can take a long time to gauge whether or a person is someone you can trust and rely on. Whether they are wired with that element of sympathy or empathy that’s required of something to be lean-on-able is not always obvious.

Realizing someone has the capacity to be your “rock” doesn’t happen in a snap, either. It is a series of learning, of reading your feelings and emotions in symphony with their actions. You just kind of slowly discover that yes, this person is a good one. You can share your secrets with him or her, and you are safe. This person is a cornerstone. Your counterpart.

When I first explained to him that I had an anxiety disorder (admitting to multiple disorders seems like a lot to swallow, so I like to start with just one), I was able to recite to him a brief canned address that allows most people to understand anxiety on a beginner level. I never expect much of a response, or even many questions. It’s just something for them to digest. He digested it well.

Like most decent people, his response was positive and supportive. It was a good first step to handling the unhinged bag of loose screws I can sometimes be. It provided him a bit of a warning that I could, at any given moment really, have a full fledged panic attack.

Which did eventually happen, of course.

The first time I had a panic attack near him, he was the supportive person I’d hoped he would be. I couldn’t have asked for better. That doesn’t mean he 100% understood what was going on. After I had calmed down, I did my best to guide him through what it really feels like to have a panic attack.

The best way I was able to explain the epicentre of my anxiety attacks is to think of the heart as being made of tinfoil. It keeps you alive by pumping blood through it effortlessly and rhythmically. It is reliable and steadfast. But it needs to be handled with care: in reality, it is vulnerable, delicate, and intricate.

Now imagine that your fragile tinfoil heart is physically being squeezed.

It takes literally no effort to crush that tinfoil into a hard, compact little ball. All of the life is squashed out of it. It cannot function properly in this state. It feels tight and tense and tiny. It hurts.

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It feels irreparable.

And the rest of your body is useless when that feeling takes place. Every sense is affected: your vision seemed darkened and blurry, your hearing is muffled. You are shaking and sweating. Your breathing quickens. Your mind is out of control.

The only thing you can really concentrate on is the fact that your heart, once open and light, is now dense and solid. Nothing passes though it with ease. The heart centre you’d thought of as your axis of stability isn’t there. This stupid little crushed ball has taken its place.

That’s what an anxiety attack feels like to me. Like my heart is made of tinfoil, and it’s being crushed. It’s kind of hard to un-crush a ball of tinfoil.

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Panic Attacks 101.

Here are a few things that have thrown me into an ugly panic tornado:

  1. Confronting someone about something I feel passionate about.
  2. When I’m about to text or call someone new in my life.
  3. Calling the pizza guy.
  4. When I’m meeting friends, and have to show up alone.
  5. Waiting for anyone and they are even a tiny bit late.
  6. When I’m misunderstood in regard to my feelings.
  7. When someone disagrees with me.
  8. When I need to present in front of my company and someone asks a follow-up question.
  9. When someone looks at their phone when they’re talking to me.
  10. When I’m laying in bed at night, going over the day’s events.
  11. Recalling an awkward or humiliating event from XX years ago.
  12. When I don’t wear makeup in public.
  13. Shopping alone and everyone is judging me for it.
  14. When someone doesn’t return my text or call or email.
  15. When I do something somewhat embarrassing – like I mispronounce a word.
  16. When I do something really embarrassing – like my skirt flips up in public.
  17. When I think that maybe the facial expression I have had while talking to someone is really ugly or not appropriate and now I need to change my facial expression, but I am not sure how my face is supposed to look.
  18. Making a typo in an email.
  19. When I have no direction when starting a new project (usually work-related).
  20. Doing math.
  21. When I need to talk to an authoritative figure.
  22. When store clerks try to talk to me.
  23. When store clerks ignore me when I need help.
  24. When my alarm goes off and I have to go to work.

There may or may not be other triggers (read: there are definitely other triggers).

I’d say the worst trigger is, well, not a trigger at all. It’s when I’m just hanging out and anxiety creeps in like a shadow.

What is it like for me?

Before I know it, I can feel my chest tightening, and I get a sick feeling in the back of my throat. I start to look for ways out – physical exits. I need privacy and I need to get away from wherever I am. Immediately.

It may or may not turn into a full blown attack. If I am somehow able to get myself under control, then it basically ends there. I still feel that feeling of dread and tightness in my chest, but it doesn’t escalate.

If it does, though, things get really yucky.

My breathing quickens. I may begin to hyperventilate. I break into a cold sweat. My senses dull. I can’t hear properly, and I can’t see properly. Sometimes I get tunnel vision and I begin to black out.

I cry.

That might be one of the worst symptoms, because you can’t hide tears when you’re in public. And drawing attention when you just want to disappear just makes everything worse.

Not just the feelings, but the anxiety attack itself. It is immediately amplified if I know that people I don’t know or trust can see it happening.

I mean, that’s one of my real triggers – being judged by people. So when I am literally in my most vulnerable state, and people are watching me, things are officially over for me.

I’ve passed out in big crowds because of this. Sometimes I feel like my response is to pass out because then people won’t know it’s a panic attack, and might instead suspect it’s a medical emergency of some sort.

People don’t understand invisible illness, of course. It’s only natural that humans believe that people around them should be experiencing and reacting to situations the same way they are. I don’t even blame them.

I have a wish list when it comes to other people who witness someone having a panic attack:

  • If you know the person, be there for them. Ask them before assuming they need something. Bring the person a glass of water, a tissue. Depending on your relationship, give them a hug, rub their back, or hold their hand. Say nice things. If the person doesn’t want you there, they will tell you.
  • If you do not know the person, but they are alone, offer your support. It would get weird if you started stroking their hair, but you can help them not feel so stressed and awkward. See if you can move them to a more private place. Empathize if you can. Don’t overstay your welcome.
  • If you’re uncomfortable (we get it), don’t watch the person like they’re a side-show. Have some respect. Move your group elsewhere if you can, don’t talk about the person or ask them stupid questions. I’ve seen randos looking at me with this disgusted, judgy face. Exercise a little restraint. giphy
  • Don’t tell the person to calm down. Fuck off.
  • Do remind them that this will pass. It’s temporary.
  • Breathe with them. Help them to catch that rhythm with you. You may not be aware of anxiety-expert-approved breathing exercises, but you can certainly figure out something. A friend of mine once said “let’s do pregnancy breathing!” It was the best thing she could come up with, and it helped a lot.
  • Above all, just be accepting of what’s happening, and convey that. If you think it’s going on longer than you thing it should, keep your mouth shut. They’re already overwhelmed and very self-aware, and making them feel like they’re abnormal or that you don’t approve is going to ruin any progress they’ve made.
  • Follow up. If you’re pals, send a text, stop by their office, or give them a call that night. I’ve had friends send me funny memes the next day to show their support. A simple “how are you doing?” can mean the world to someone. If they get sketchy and embarrassed, just smile and leave it at that. They know.
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K thx.

 

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Panic at the Workplace.

I can confidently say that 90% of my anxiety these days is associated with the workplace.

I can also confidently say that I spend about 90% of my waking hours at the workplace.

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It’s funny because it’s true.

If only this meme weren’t so fucking accurate for so many people. Workplace anxiety is something I obviously have strong feelings about.

Something that’s been bothering me lately is the lack of mental health support at my workplace. It’s been hitting very close to home, since that’s why I’m at home for the next 6 weeks (if I can handle being home that long – I am only on day 6 and I am feeling very unsettled and restless). Coincidentally, my company’s director/shareholders recently revealed that taking on the title of one of “Canada’s Best Employers” (or something similar) is high on their list of goals.

To me, providing a mental health program would be an enormous step in the right direction for them.

My boyfriend’s workplace, for example, provides better extended benefits in terms of psychotherapy than mine. But they take it a couple of steps further and will pay for a number of psychiatrist appointments outright. They also top up their staff’s pay if they do have to take sick leave. I feel that just knowing this support is there would make a big difference for me. But to be honest, it’s not something I inquired of my company when I took the job.

There is a bit of a catch 22 when you accept a position with any company. Do you ask about mental health benefits specifically so you know what your options might be? Or do you avoid drawing attention to yourself, and risk it? How do you learn the work place’s policy on mental illness without outing yourself?

There is obviously still stigma attached to mental illness – any “invisible” illness, actually. People might have some form of it themselves, but it won’t necessarily stop them from hiring someone they know is prone to some kind of issue. I mean honestly… what’s the better choice: someone who might have an emotional breakdown and leave? Or someone who’s stable and can power through stressful times unaffected? Hiring someone without mental illness is the easier choice. It’s the safe route. It’s less complicated.

I recently read a news article that suggests that 60% of Canadian employers do not have any sort of mental health plan for their employees. That sucks. The odds are that if you are working, you don’t have a resource.

Mental health support is fucking expensive. Seeing a psychologist in my city is anywhere from $150-$200 per hour. Prescription drug costs of course vary, but I know they are prohibitively expensive if you don’t have extended benefits. And the cost of being away from work due to mental health? Oh lord. Depending on your situation, that can literally put you on the street.

My current situation is not the worst, but that’s only because a few well-dealt cards. I’m just lucky. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be for single people, or for those who don’t have a higher income, or those who don’t get paid sick days.

I may not be getting paid right now, but I was granted a free week off a few months back (in addition to my vacation days). My employer doesn’t seem to have a limit on sick days, so I’ve always been paid when I left early or took a day off. I also make a decent-enough living that I will have maxed out employment insurance and will get the maximum amount available. My country also has free healthcare – I wouldn’t have visited the doctor as many times as I’ve been able to (at least once a month) if I lived in a country that didn’t have that.

But despite these advantages I have, it’s still not easy. I’ve made a psychotherapy appointment for Thursday that I cannot afford. It is $168 per hour. This is why I have held off on seeing one for so long. My current extended benefits plan only covers up to $300 of counselling – so that’s less than two appointments.

If you know anything about therapy, you know that two sessions is far from adequate. $300 towards therapy is a slap in the face. It’s insulting. Honestly, employers? Don’t bother.

So how am I paying for this? I’m going to run out my benefits, and then my spouse is going to pay for it for me. I’m also trying to get onto his work’s benefits plan, which might add a little more to my $300 cap.

Dude, that is fucked up. That is not fair. That is not fair to me, not to my partner, and not to the community of people who need help. It’s also not fair to my country.

There is no doubt in my mind that if I had the option to go to counselling months ago, somewhat preventatively and before things got as bad as they currently are, I would not be on medical leave right now.

I would be at work, I would be contributing to society, and I would not be accessing social assistance. Feeling like a societal hindrance is something that’s adding considerably to my unease these days. I feel like a lazy piece of shit, to put it bluntly. It’s a confusing feeling. No, I am not a lazy piece of shit, despite my love for naps. And a percentage of my income has been paid into the insurance program for about 15 years, so I cannot consider myself a leech. And this is temporary.

But that feeling of being some kind of freeloader usurps all those rational responses. I still feel very, very guilty right now.

I’m trying really hard to be rational, know that my anxiety is what’s making this harder, and trying not to blame my workplace’s lack of options and resources for what’s happening to me now.

This morning, I emailed a local women’s shelter and offered my time. Giving back may be the only way I can perceive balance and justify taking from the limited funding.

I’m also going to put my nose to the grindstone when it comes to my counselling. Therapy, as I touched on in my last post, is not magical and is a two-way street. I need to do the work to see the results and get better. I’m going to make sure that the investment into my mental health that my partner is making is going to be worth it.

There is a lot of change needed in our society (I’m talking North America, since that’s all I really know) when it comes to mental health. And I can point fingers in the direction of employers and governments that can make a difference. And I believe I am right in doing so.

But I’m also slowly learning that I also have a responsibility. And that responsibility is to take the advantages that I do have, and make the best of things.

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