Back-to-work anxieties

I’m going back to work.

Starting the week of July 25th I will be re-entering the workforce for the first time in over a year. I’m going back to work. The words fill me with excitement and anxiety. I’m excited about feeling like a contributing member of society again. I’m excited about having something that gives me purpose. But I’m also anxious.

What if work doesn’t want me? What if my boss thinks I’m a liability? What if my coworkers think I’ve been faking it? What will it be like walking into the office again after all of this time? Will everyone stare? Will they ask me how I am? Do they even care? What if they try to fire me? What if they like my replacement more than me? What if there’s no longer any place for me there? They’ve done so well without me for over a year.

These are the (irrational) thoughts that are cycling through my brain. I try and remind myself that there are policies in place that protect me from being fired due to illness. I try and remind myself that my boss is a kind and caring individual. I try and remind myself that colleagues are probably too focused on their own lives to even think about me. I try and remind myself that people are generally kind and will have more concern for my well-being than being cruel.

Anxiety

Unfortunately this doesn’t stop the anxiety from creeping up. I’ll be watching TV or riding my bike and suddenly my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and my arms tingle. And yes, I’ve tried talking about my fears with various people. I tried talking it out with my therapist who simply told me, “These aren’t productive thoughts to have.” Like, oh shit, I’m so fucking enlightened now. My husband reminds me of the rational counterpoints to my irrational fears. And although I appreciate it, it still doesn’t stop the thoughts from coming back. My friends, who are also colleagues, remind me of the kindness and understanding that people can have towards those of us who suffer from a mental illness. But these aren’t the people I’m worried about. These are the people who know me and my illness. I’m worried about the people who don’t.

And these are just the tip of the ice berg of fears that I have about going back to work. There’s also the thoughts that are about my recovery and my mental health. What if I’m not ready? What if I fail? What if I go back only to relapse all over again? I don’t think I could take such a huge set back. It’s only been five months since I was hospitalized because of my depression. Only fives months ago I was seriously thinking about suicide. Only five months ago I had thoughts of self-harm.

Then I have to stop and remind myself that that was five months ago. That was then, this is now. I remind myself that my psychiatrist, who helped me through that depression, thinks I’m ready.

I feel ready.

lets do thisI’ve been stable for three months. My medication is working. I sleep well. I’m working out. I’m socializing. I’m cooking and eating like a normal person. I’m happy and healthy.

I know my anxieties about returning to work won’t go away. Actually, I expect them to increase incrementally as my start date approaches. Despite all of this there’s one major shift that has happened over the past year that I know will ensure that my return-to-work is successful.

I’ve acknowledged that my mental health has to be a priority.

Bipolar disorder isn’t something that I can ignore and expect to be healthy. My mental health is something that I need to work at everyday. I need to find productive ways to manage my stress, like working out and asking for help when I need it. I need to make sure I’m eating well. I need to make sure I’m sleeping well. I need to make sure I’m making time for fun and not working all of the time.

If I can manage all of this, despite my anxieties about returning, I know I can make my return to work successful. So wish me luck!

I’m not fucking crazy

Language is a powerful tool. It has the ability to rouse people into a frenzy. It can inspire people to create. It can touch people’s souls. But sometimes, language has the ability to hurt. The old adage goes: “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Well in my experience that just isn’t true. Words can cut to the bone. And sometimes it’s the most benign situations that can incite the most hurt.

I was in a situation recently where someone said some careless things. The conversation revolved around a new mental health and addiction facility that was being built. The facility was across the street from this person’s home. That’s when the word crazy was thrown around. Someone said:

“You’re going to have all of those crazies in your backyard now.”

I sat there, shifting in my seat uncomfortably, as their words sunk in. In this person’s mind, people who access services offered by a mental health and addiction facility were crazy. This means, as someone who routinely accesses mental health services, I am crazy.

Fuck you

I’m not fucking crazy.

I have a mental illness.

People who access mental health services are not fucking crazy. They have a disease that is no different than having cancer or diabetes. Why is it okay to throw around the word crazy like it’s no big fucking deal?

Stop talkingNow, I’m not suggesting this particular individual had any ill intention behind their word choice. It was a casual remark, made in jest. Had they known about my situation, maybe they wouldn’t have made the remark. But that’s sort of the point. We shouldn’t only care about the language that we use when we personally know someone who may be hurt or offended by our words. We should be consciously choosing our words to ensure that no one is hurt or offended by them — whether we know their situation or not.

Now you may be thinking that I’m being oversensitive and should learn to take a joke. But the truth is, using words like crazy, lunatic, or psycho stigmatizes a group of people who were among the unlucky that got stuck with a disease. Using words like crazy can prevent people from seeking help because they’re afraid of being called crazy. Or, they may already think they’re crazy because of the stigma associated with having a mental illness. The fact that people can laugh so easily when the word crazy is thrown around to describe people with serious mental health issues illustrates the pervasive stigma that is associated with having a mental illness. You wouldn’t make fun of a person who had diabetes, cancer, or any other illness. So why is it okay to make fun of people who suffer from a mental illness?

Over time there have been many words that we no longer use because they’re offensive or derogatory to a group of people. I think it’s high time we retired the word crazy when talking about people who suffer from a mental illness. The reality is mental health problems are pervasive. Every Canadian will be touched by mental illness through a family member, friend, or colleague. 1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from some form of mental illness or addiction in their lifetime. So the next time you’re thinking about calling someone a lunatic, psycho, or crazy take a moment to reflect on who you’re with and that it’s very likely that someone in the room suffers from a mental illness. You wouldn’t call your friend with depression crazy, would you?

Can we stop blaming mass shootings on mental illness?

On Sunday, June 12 a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando, Florida. It’s being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The perpetrator has been identified as Omar Mateen. In an attempt to explain this tragedy, reports have said that he had ties to ISIS.

Eye rollBut it never stops there. It was inevitable. Reports started coming out that Omar Mateen was bipolar and “mentally unstable.” Of course. Of course he is. It’s bad enough that a mass shooting happens on a semi-regular basis in the U.S., but it’s even worse when every single one of them are attributed to some form of mental illness. He was Schizophrenic. Bipolar. Depressed.

Well, I’m really tired of being lumped in with people who commit atrocious acts. I have bipolar disorder and I have never taken a gun and gone on a shooting rampage. In my worst mania or depression, I have never even had a violent thought. And then there are these comments: “Of course he had a mental illness. You need to be crazy to do what he did.” Well, I’m also really fucking tired of people equating the word crazy with having a serious mental illness. We’re not fucking crazy, we’re sick.

Let’s go over the facts about mental illness, violence, and more specifically, gun violence. First, experts have reported that “people with a mental illness like schizophrenia or severe depression are no more likely to commit gun violence than anyone else.” Second, people with a mental illness are no more violent than anyone else. Third, a person with a mental illness is actually more likely to be a victim of violence rather than a perpetrator of it. You heard that right. A VICTIM OF VIOLENCE.

The media often portrays those of us suffering from a mental illness as dangerous or scary and when reports allege that a shooter was bipolar, or more commonly, schizophrenic, we start to equate these illnesses with violence. This in turn furthers the stigma about people with a mental illness. The underlying message is that a psychotic break makes someone go on a shooting rampage. But, violence and psychosis, hallucinations, or paranoia don’t go hand in hand. Someone who is receiving effective treatment for their disorder is no more prone to violence than anyone else.

Over it.gifSo can we just stop blaming mental illness on mass shootings already? Mass shootings are a complex subject. The truth is, we’re too quick to jump on the “of course he was crazy” bandwagon. Instead why don’t we talk about how issues like misogyny, bigotry, and radical religious beliefs (Christian or Islamic) are often at the root of these mass shootings? Because it’s just easier to say that “he was crazy” and continue on with your day.

I didn’t want to write this piece because I was afraid of co-opting a tragedy from a community that is still in grief. But, the reality is, LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. LGBTQ people are at a greater risk of having mental health problems than the general population. So, blaming this shooting, or any other, on mental illness further stigmatizes an already marginalized community and I think that’s worth talking about.

Suicide is never a blessing: A response to Amanda Lauren

Please note: Since publication of this post XOJane has apologized for publishing an article that “perpetuated stigma and diminished the lives of people with mental illness.”

In a list of top ten fucked up things I have recently read the article, “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” is definitely number one. XOJane published this piece of shit that simultaneously perpetuates stigma towards people who suffer from a mental illness while promoting suicide.

The author, Amanda Lauren, talks about her former friend, Leah, who suffered from Schizoaffective Disorder. She spends an inordinate amount of time talking about how Leah was a filthy, boyfriend stealing, good-for-nothing parasite whose “mental illness took demonic possession over her.” Lauren writes: “there was always something about her that wasn’t quite right.” She then goes on a rant about all the petty things that Leah did wrong and why the author eventually ended their friendship.

The description of Leah as “filthy” and her inability to keep a job are essentially a caricature of people suffering from a mental illness. We’re all incapable of holding a job or keeping a tidy house because our illnesses “possess us.” The reality is that those of us who suffer from a mental illness lead full and productive lives.  And although the Lauren writes: “I realize there are plenty of seriously mentally ill people who take meds and get better. I don’t think the prognosis for all people diagnosed with severe mental illness is death. There are people who learn to manage and live happy and productive lives,” I don’t believe her.

Judging You.gif

If she truly believed this I think she would have extended a hand to help her friend rather than watch Leah’s deteriorating state via Facebook in a Mean Girl’s kind of way.” Unlike what the author believes, it wasn’t the Schizoaffective Disorder that “robbed [Leah] of reaching her full potential.” It was the fact that she didn’t receive help.

People suffering from a mental illness can lead full and productive lives, but only if they receive effective treatment.  Unfortunately only 43% of adults with a mental illness receive help and the main factor in preventing people from seeking help is stigma. It’s bullshit articles like this one that stigmatize those of us who suffer from a mental illness and stop us from asking for help. Lauren, Leah and by extension other people suffering from a mental illness, are “beyond help” and therefore shouldn’t be given a fucking ounce of consideration. We’re not some fucking train wreck to be watched from afar and then held up as some sort of karmic tragedy.

But it’s not just the stigma that this article perpetuates and the insensitivity of Lauren that I find appalling. It’s the fact that a media outlet like XOJane thought it was smart to publish a piece of writing that essentially argues that people with a mental illness are better off dead.

Lesley KnoppAnd this isn’t hyperbole. Lauren literally writes that her former friend is better off dead: “It sounds horrible to say, but her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was.” This is a fucking horrible thing to say and she is a horrible fucking person for saying it. The piece is essentially an encouragement to an extremely vulnerable population that suicide is an acceptable means to end their suffering. The article promotes the idea that people with a mental illness shouldn’t be alive and that our lives are a “tragedy.”

In the ten years or so that I have suffered from Bipolar Disorder, I have had a few depressions that resulted in my hospitalization because of suicidal thoughts. Most recently, in February, I was seriously considering jumping off the top floor of my apartment building because I couldn’t deal with the pain of my disease any longer.

Lauren and XOJane, in a very public space, vocalized all of the thoughts that were already tumbling through my head. “I’m worthless.” “My life is pointless.” “I’m a waste of space.” “I’m better off dead.” Had I read this article in February, on the edge of that precipice between ending my life or continuing to fight, this article may have been the push I needed.  

It’s completely irresponsible to publish writing like this and XOJane should be ashamed of themselves. Suicide is never a blessing. 

All I want to say to anyone who will listen is to not give up hope and never think that you are beyond help. You just keep fighting and there are always people out there who care if you live or die.

For more on this topic I suggest reading this open letter by Sam Dylan Finch.

Negative self-talk & becoming your own Cheerleader

I recently started swimming in an attempt to get more active. I hate working out and going to the gym, but I used to be a competitive swimmer and thought I’d try and do something I used to love to do. It turns out muscle memory is an incredible thing and I feel like I never left the pool.

On one of the days that I swim I have a coach that runs me through drills. She also cheers me on while I swim. As I swim laps, she yells encouraging things like: “super,” “you’re doing great,” and”good job.” This week, while I was swimming with her voice was echoing in my ears, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someone encouraged you through life like that? Wouldn’t it be great if you had a little cheerleader on the sidelines as you went to work or school reminding you how awesome you are? And then I thought, why don’t I cheer myself on?

The idea of speaking positively to myself is a foreign concept. My self-talk is almost exclusively negative. My thoughts are a constant barrage of “you’re not good enough,” “you’re not thin enough,” and “you’re not smart enough.” Nothing I ever do is enough. I’m never enough. Even as I write this, my negative self-talk is spinning:

“This blog post is shit.”

“I’m an awful writer.”

“Why do I even try? Everything I do fucking sucks.”

If someone else talked to me the way I talk to myself they would be the meanest and cruellest person on the face of the planet. I wouldn’t be friends with them. I wouldn’t even remotely tolerate them in my life. They would be considered abusive and toxic. And I wouldn’t hesitate to tell them to go fuck themselves (or I’d at the very least think it). This sort of negative self-talk is a form of abuse that we tolerate and to some extent, encourage. We think talking ourselves up or speaking highly of ourselves is conceited — a negative quality. But it’s not. Acknowledging you’re good at something or have a good quality is a form of self-love.

The adage goes, “treat others the way you would want to be treated.” And I think that’s a good rule to live by. But, I think most human beings walk around with a basic sense of decency towards other people. Sure assholes exist and I’m not completely naive to the fact that some people are really out for themselves. But for the most part, people are genuinely good. Generally, some random guy on the street isn’t going to hurl insults at me for no reason. They’re more likely to say hello and thank you. So what if we turned the adage on its head.  What if we said: “Treat yourself the way you treat others.”

For example, the other day I tried driving my car with the emergency brake on. When I realized what I was doing, I immediately called myself an “idiot” and smacked myself in the head. Now let’s turn it around. If I treated myself the way I treat other people I would have never called myself an idiot. What would I have said to a friend? I probably would have just laughed it off because in the grand scheme of things, it’s really no big fucking deal. So why am I an idiot? Why does kindness extend to everyone else except for me?

So I’m vowing to you, my mad lovelies, to be nicer to myself. And I encourage you to do the same thing. Be your own cheerleader.