It was the Friday evening of Labour Day weekend, so going to the ER was my only option. I asked my husband to wait in the truck for me. This man emptied my bedpan when I was hospitalized after a spinal tap gone wrong four years ago; he’s seen me in just about every embarrassing situation you can imagine. But I felt weird having him listen in on what was sure to be a difficult conversation with the doctor.
I went to the hospital that night because I was feeling like I couldn’t live another day in the fog I’d been in. I had recently changed the medication I was taking to treat clinical depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and my state of mind had been steadily declining:
Take a breath, you’re OK.
Step back, look at this logically, everything will be alright.
Just sleep, this will pass.
What’s the point, really?
Can I really live another day like this?
I can’t live another day like this…
In the ER, I mumbled my way through registration, keeping my eyes down. The lady behind the glass asked me to have a seat in the waiting area. There was no triage nurse. A doctor came out and called my name, then led me to a curtained area with a standard ER bed, draped in paper. He pulled the curtains shut and asked what had brought me in that evening. I consider myself reasonably intelligent, but I couldn’t get through a sentence to explain how I was feeling. Start with the facts, I thought. I told him about my medication change, and he asked for the dates and doses of each. I tried to answer, but my mouth refused to cooperate. He asked what my main concern was, and I replied, “I can’t do this.”
The doctor recommended that I go to the town’s mental health facility on Tuesday. I had been there before; one of the counsellors had advised me to reduce my caffeine intake and told me I’d have to wait six months, then travel three hours to see a psychiatrist, as they had no doctor on staff.
The tears came, and I told the ER doctor that the facility was a joke. He told me to find another one, that he couldn’t help me unless I wanted to help myself. I wanted to scream that if I could do that, I wouldn’t be here. But my time was up. The curtains were opened. I was exposed, crying and embarrassed. Was that it? I was just supposed to go now? But I can’t do this, I kept thinking. I can’t do this.
I’m not sure exactly when I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was sometime during my teen years. My school binders had pages upon pages of half-finished dictations; I would give up writing because my handwriting wasn’t “even” enough. I would stand in front of an open cabinet of dishes, not knowing which was the “right” one to choose. I had an irrational fear of doors not being locked at night, and would be up to check on them again and again. If it was late or dark, I’d be afraid to check, so I’d lie in bed awake. I missed countless school days because I was too scared to close my eyes at night. Finally, I went to see a child psychologist, who diagnosed me and prescribed medication. After a few visits, I missed one, and never heard from the office again. I stopped taking my medication, and just kept living.
Flash-forward about 10 years. I was 27, married, and had two boys, ages one and eight. I had everything I’d ever wanted, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was always angry, overwhelmed, and fed up. My husband was scared by the things I would say, the allusions to wanting to end my life. I shrugged it off; “I’m not suicidal, I’m just pissed,” was my go-to line. Then one day, almost 10 years ago, the blueberries spilled in the grocery store aisle, and all I could see in my mind was the barrel of a shotgun.
On the way home, I cried hysterically, with my boys crying in the backseat. My husband said he was taking me straight to the hospital; it was time to get help. When my eight-year-old spoke up and said, “I agree with Dad,” my heart broke in ways I’d never imagined possible. I promised to make an appointment the next morning, and we went home. I will never forget the look of fear on the face of the man I love as he tucked me in to bed that night.
I kept my promise, made an appointment, and went back on medication, prescribed by my family physician. I never spoke to a psychiatrist; I guessed that this was standard practice. And in my mind, it worked. I thought I could understand myself better than anyone else; all I needed from a professional was medication. There were increases and decreases in dosage; a dance of finding what worked for me. For a couple of years, it worked. I could see the world as it was, not my skewed, over-analyzed version of it.
In December 2015, a job opportunity for my husband moved us across the country to a small town in Alberta. For about four years before that, I had been staying at home with my younger son, as well as caring for other children in my home. After the move, I went back to working as an aesthetician in a small spa, a profession that I love. I was so happy; our family was thriving, and I was making great strides in my career.
It didn’t last. The pain started to creep back in after about six months in our new home. There was no quiet in my mind. I would pick and dig until I found something to blame for how I felt. If I was overwhelmed by dirty dishes, it must be because no one cared enough to help me. If I was angry that the house wasn’t quiet, it must be because no one cared that it was bothering me. When you “know” what’s hurting you, you can try and remedy it. There’s hope in logic. You feel so many things; exhausted, hopeless, overwhelmed. People you love tell you it’s normal, that you’re a busy mom, that everyone feels that way. You find their reassurances patronizing, almost embarrassing. “If everyone else feels this way, I should shut up about it.”
I realized that my mood and symptoms seemed to fluctuate with my monthly cycle. There were no physicians in town accepting new patients, and it was next to impossible to find an appointment time with a nurse that fit into my work schedule. I went to a walk-in clinic and asked a doctor there about premenstrual dysphoric disorder. He’d never heard of it. He gave me a refill of my medication, along with something to help me sleep. I don’t even remember his name.
I finally met with a nurse practitioner about four months ago. She agreed that I probably had PMDD, and started me on the road to finding peace again. She suggested changing my medication, which I knew would be a difficult process. But I was desperate to end the roller-coaster ride I’d been on.
I thought I’d been having a hard time, but the nightmare hadn’t even started. As my usual medication lessened in my bloodstream, my old demons showed their faces. Only this time, it was worse. At first, I felt dizzy and tired. Then I felt confused, irritable, and even more tired. I figured the new medication just hadn’t built up in my system enough to be effective yet. Everything was too loud. I lost sight of what could make me feel better. I kept thinking, Am I really even needed here? Would anyone even miss me? I snapped at my son, my husband snapped at me, and that was it. I sobbed the words, “I just want to die.”
I was terrified. I’ve never thought of myself as suicidal. I’ve never wanted to actually commit the act of ending my life. At times, I’ve felt completely overwhelmed by panic and confusion and despair, but I’ve always been able to see through that to know that it’s chemical. I want to have air in my lungs, feel the beat of my heart. I want to watch my kids grow up. So when those words came into my mind, I knew I needed help.
After the doctor released me from the ER that Friday night, I went back to my husband’s truck in tears. No one had stopped me as I walked out; no one even looked up. My chest felt like it was caving in; my teeth were vibrating from crying so hard. My husband was ready to drive me to another hospital in the next town, 45 minutes away. I felt stupid. I had wasted that doctor’s time; did I want to waste someone else’s too? This is my hell and I’m doomed to live it.
I called 811, the number for Health Link in Alberta. At least if I’m a waste of time, I thought, the person won’t be able to see my face. They can’t pull back a curtain and expose my stupidity for everyone to see. At least I can be a waste of time in private.
The registered nurse I spoke with didn’t ask for my identification right away. She didn’t need the exact dates of when I stopped one medication or started another. She asked: “Are you in a safe location? Do you have someone there for you?” Maybe that’s in her job description, to be caring, but in that moment, it didn’t matter. I immediately felt validated, like someone was listening. Through my crying, my slurred words, she listened. The weight on my chest was still there, but I could breathe again.
Patiently, she collected the information she needed from me, and advised me to make that 45-minute drive to another emergency department. There was never a question that I was having a medical crisis. I wasn’t down on my luck, stressed out, or just in need of a hot bath with a scented candle. Well-meaning people don’t realize these suggestions are like saying to put a Band-Aid on a severed finger. I did not have the ability to “help myself.” I was a woman experiencing a problem with my brain’s chemistry.
I managed to calm down, to tighten my grip on the reality of the situation. I was going to be OK. I needed to make an appointment to adjust my medication, but in the meantime, I could fight again. We didn’t go to that other hospital. The reassurance the nurse had given me over the phone, the fact that she acknowledged me and my illness, helped me regain my strength. I took my medication, added an Advil for good measure, and went to sleep.
Life will never be easy for me. Living with mental illness, at least for me, is like hauling around a weight that no one else can see, let alone help me carry. I’ve been blessed with people who have chosen to walk with me and help me stand despite that weight. But reaching out takes more than some people understand. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. Sometimes the thought of showering, dressing, and leaving my house seems insurmountable. When you’re feeling this way and, by the grace of God, you manage to get yourself to a doctor, and then the doctor doesn’t hear you, every negative thing you’ve ever thought about yourself has just been proven right. You weren’t worth the time, there’s nothing to be done, too bad, so sad. No one is coming to help you. The curtain is open again, it’s time for you to leave.
There have been amazing strides made toward de-stigmatizing mental illness. People are talking, resources are becoming available. People are learning that it is OK to seek help. I want to speak to those who have tried and come up empty. I want to tell them: You did not fail. No one can ever bear the weight of your illness, but there are people in this world who will stand beside you. You are worth standing beside. You are not beyond help; help just takes many forms. Fight for your right to be heard, to be helped, and to live in this world.
If you are worried about your mental health and need to talk to someone, there are 24-hour telephone lines across Canada. To find one in your area, go to suicideprevention.ca/need-help/.