Welcome 2017…Burn 2016 to the Ground

20161221_170835Without a doubt, 2016 has been one of the worst years of my life.  I survived a massive, never ending family law trial.  My psychiatric records were released to my abuser.  My privacy was breached again and again.  My children’s privacy was destroyed again and again.  By the end of the court process I felt like I had only shards of trust left in anything.  My belief in justice was shaken to pieces.  My trust in the system to protect my family was gone.  As I entered into this Christmas season, I felt like believing in justice for my children was akin to believing in Santa Claus.  A myth, a tale told to pacify young infants.  There is no justice here.  Certainly not in 2016, and certainly not for my family.

I’ve been waiting patiently for 2016 to end.  On the Winter Solstice I burned a fire with my children, symbolizing the end of the year and welcoming back the light of the new year.  An end to the darkness and inviting the brighter days leading to summer.  In the fire I burnt away my fears and dark thoughts from 2016, leaving behind those bad memories and making space for positive karma for 2017.

I am a superstitious person.  Despite my scientific, thoughtful, highly rational mind…my obsessive compulsive nature leads me to have some strange superstitious, ritualistic thoughts.   Some of them are not quite spiritual, but take on an element of obsession.  I believe in signs.  I want to believe that things happen for a reason, even if we can’t see what that reason is.  There is no reason to explain the things I have endured in 2016.  None at all, except for oppression, broken systems, delays, inadequacies and incompetent workers.  No reasons that can satisfy me, or any reasonable person.  But at the end of the year, there are still many things to be grateful for.

I believe that I am a stronger person than anyone should ever have to be.  My children are also stronger than children should have to be.  I suppose in a way, this is something to be grateful for.  Though I almost cry out in pain at times, watching the innocent 2 year old children of my friends’, as they laugh and play with very little cares in the world.  I want that for my children again.  I miss their baby smiles and laughter.  It breaks my heart that they are no longer innocent, though they are still so young.  But they are strong and they are kind and they believe in justice, with a fierceness that has replaced their childhood innocence.  For that I am proud and grateful.

Things I am Grateful for at the start of 2017:

  1. A safe home that I love
  2. Wonderful caring neighbors and a beautiful neighborhood
  3. Enough money to buy the things I need for my family
  4. A job that allows me to help others, be challenged, learn and give back to my community
  5. My coworkers who I consider friends and who have supported me and helped me grow
  6. My family for always supporting me
  7. My children for giving me a reason to keep living and for being wonderful tiny humans
  8. My friends across the world, online and in real life, text and in person
  9. The rainbow community for supporting us and loving us and showing us where we belong
  10. For my citizenship and for this amazing, safe country I had the privilege of being born in
  11. For coffee, for tea, for coffee shops, for hot chocolate and for hot drinks everywhere
  12. For all the people I’ve met through my work, the people I’ve helped and everything I’ve learned from them this year
  13. For my car, for getting me and my family everywhere I need to go
  14. For my health, though it’s not perfect, I have a lot of ability
  15. For fresh air, for sunshine, for the woods, for nature, for being outside
  16. For the internet, cell phones and the ability to stay in touch
  17. For this blog, the ability to write and being able to share my experience with so many

Thank you all readers, for following my blog, for sharing it, for reading and commenting.  I wish you all the best for a peaceful, happy and healthy new year in 2017.  Be well.  I hope to see you all here in the New Year!

Talking to kids about mental illness

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At dinner tonight my  kids were joking about various things and my younger child started joking about being in the “mental health room” and the “mental health unit” and basically laughing about people being crazy.

I felt frozen.  I’m a social justice warrior parent and I’ve been quick to call in, correct, and stop my kids around issues like racism and oppression.  But I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject that I’ve been a patient in mental health hospitals.   My older daughter knows about some things from my past.  They both have seen my scars and know that I used to self harm.  My older daughter knows a bit more, she was more aware of my depression before I left her father.  But they don’t know even a fraction of the story.   I wondered today about what they will think of me when I tell them.

I wanted to jump into the conversation with “it’s not polite to joke about people with mental health problems.”  But that didn’t seem like enough and I was so tempted just to honestly say: “I’ve been in mental health hospitals and it’s not something funny to joke and tease about.”  I wasn’t ready for the conversation and they were happy and I didn’t want to add stress to the evening.

But now, hours later, I’m thinking about it.  What will I tell my kids about my past?  When will I tell them?  Will it be planned, or will it spill out one day in a situation like this one?   I don’t want to talk too much about things that might upset them, but I also don’t want them to feel like mental illness is a taboo or a stigma that people should be ashamed of.

How do we talk to children about mental illness?   Before my first child was born I downloaded a fact sheet from CAMH called “talking to children about mental illness.”  I told myself that I had a few years, until she was 2 at least, to fully recover.  I told myself that she would never know and that I’d be 100% better by the time she was old enough to be aware.

I was optimistic.  But even when I downloaded the fact sheet, I think a part of me realized that it wouldn’t be that simple.  Anorexia, depression, anxiety and PTSD weren’t going to disappear the moment my new baby was born.  It made me (and makes me) so sad to think about talking to my children about my mental health struggles.

The fact sheet suggested reassuring the child that they were not responsible for my health.  Reassuring the child that I was seeking my own help and talking to other adults about my issues.  In this way, she would not feel responsible for me or worry about my health.

I struggled with postpartum depression after both my kids were born.  My older child was impacted more severely because she lived through both episodes.  I struggled to cope with taking care of my toddler after my second baby was born.   I hated myself for it and I still struggle to forgive myself for how I felt during the postpartum depression after my second baby.  By the time my older one was 5-7 years old, I was again coping with depression due to the abuse in my marriage.

My child was bright and extremely emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent.  I knew she worried about me and it broke my heart.  I knew she was aware that I was not happy.  When she was about 6, I read her some books from the public library which explained depression to children.  I told her the words from the fact sheet: “I love you,  I talk to my doctor and my friends when I am sad, you aren’t responsible and it’s not your fault.”  But it was difficult and I felt like a horrible mother.

My eldest was 18 months old when she first noticed my scars.  She was sitting on the potty and she looked at my arms and said “draw, draw?”  She thought they were marker marks on my arms.  I told her they were just marks and not to worry.  I knew I was only buying time until she would ask again.

When my eldest was 7, I separated from her father.  My mood improved and we no longer talked about depression. But over the next year she started to ask me incessantly about my scars.   For a year I told her that I would “explain when you are older,” but after a time it wasn’t enough.  She began to cry at night, get angry at me and say that I didn’t trust her enough to tell her.  She started refusing to talk to me about her problems because I wouldn’t explain the scars.  I spoke to my doctor and together we came up with a plan of how I could talk to my daughter.   He said that the fighting was likely more damaging to our relationship than just telling her an age appropriate version of the truth.

So I told her.  I told my 8 year old child about my past self harm.  I told her that all the scars were due to me injuring myself.  It was very difficult for me and I had a lot of guilt.  I told her a version of the truth.  I told her that when I was younger someone was mean to me and not respecting me and that I never told anyone.  I told her that sometimes when you keep secrets like that inside you start to cope in bad ways like hurting yourself.  I explained to her that this is why I always encourage her to talk to an adult about her problems.   My daughter was sad.  She told me that self harming was a very bad decision and that I should have talked to someone.  She asked me such a wise question: “If someone was hurting you, why did you hurt yourself?”

Since I told her, the questions stopped.  Once in a while I notice her looking at my scars with a sad expression, sometimes when I read to her at night she touches them and looks wistful.  I hope that my honesty will allow her to make choices to help herself in her own life and not turn to such negative coping.   My younger child still thinks the scars are cool, like battle wounds that make me funky and unique and a warrior of sorts.  She knows on some level that they are from self harm, but I’m not sure she is ready to accept that and she doesn’t ask questions.

I don’t think that talking to an 8 year old child about self harm is ideal.  But what options do I have?  My scars are obviously visible and it’s impossible to deny them or hide them.  If I had another type of physical disability I would have to explain that to my children.

Why is it so difficult to have open and honest conversations about mental health and mental illness?

I would like to tell my children that joking about the “mental hospital” isn’t funny.  I would like to tell them that it is triggering for me and could be upsetting for other people as well.  I want them to know that there is no shame in asking for help and getting treatment for a mental illness.  I do want them to know some aspects of my story when they are a bit older.  I want them to know because I made a lot of mistakes, and I hope that the knowledge I’ve gained on this journey could help them avoid the same mistakes.  I also want them to be the kind of people who help others rather than judging them or putting them down.

I want to shatter the stigma.  But today I was tired, my kids were happy and I didn’t want to put a shadow over a good day.   The conversation that started at 18 months old with an innocent “draw, draw” is likely one that will be taking place in stages as they grow up.  My psychiatric survivorship story IS my life, it is a part of me, and because of my scars I can’t hide it, even if I did want to.

And maybe one day I won’t feel ashamed and embarrassed to talk about it.

The leaving.

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When I was 19 years old, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

This mistake potentially changed the entire course of my life until my children are adults and possibly longer.  I was a teenager.  I was in fragile recovery from anorexia and depression and had not yet been correctly diagnosed with PTSD.  I was living in a city away from my family and the majority of my close friends.  I was happy that year, doing well and enjoying life. I had taken up swing dancing and I loved it.  I’d made some friends and we often went out dancing together.  Shortly before my 20th birthday I met him.  He proposed to me after 3 months.  It was one of the worst moments of my life.  I remember physically shaking, thinking frantically in my head “oh my god, this can’t be happening, why is this happening, why is he doing this, why, what should I do, what will I say, why is this happening right now!!!”  In the moment I didn’t want to break up with him, so I said yes.  I honestly figured I had lots of time to get out of the promise, but life didn’t turn out that way.

Thirteen years passed.

Three years ago this week I made the biggest and most complicated decision of my life.

Ironically, the things that ended my marriage came together in a culmination of empowerment and decision for me.  I’d been battling with thoughts of leaving for over a year, slowly gaining strength, processing the ideas and planning.

The soul crushing depression I’d been living with for a few years slowly began to lift about a year before I left him.  I began to see options for myself.

For many years I had seriously considered suicide.  After trying ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and slews of meds, I believed I had exhausted all options for treatment resistant depression. I was ready to give up and only my children held me to this world.  I had irrational, almost psychotic thoughts, in the depths of that depression.   But in my mind, when I was thinking more clearly, I told myself that suicide was only an option for those who had literally tried everything, people who had no other option.  Sometime in summer 2012 I realized that wasn’t my situation:  there was something I hadn’t tried.

I hadn’t tried moving. Living in my own house away from my partner.  I hadn’t tried starting over, changing my environment, removing myself from the ongoing sexual abuse which I knew was both triggering me and traumatizing me in equal measure.

In 2012, I was experiencing terribly severe migraines which at times left me unable to function.  I remember throwing up in the parking lot of a restaurant on my daughter’s birthday.  I went to the ER at times to receive IV pain meds.  Around that time I began taking a medication called Topimax for the migraines.  And suddenly, my depression lightened.  My obsessive compulsive suicidal and self destructive thoughts relented almost immediately.  I never self harmed in a way that required medical attention again. My migraines improved.  I began to see colours again.  I noticed the world around me.  I began to re-emerge into the world of the living.  And I started to consider my options for leaving my partner

As I grew stronger over the course of the next year, I started talking to more people in my life about the abuse.  I chose very carefully.  I told people who didn’t live in my city.  I told counselors and doctors who were sworn to keep confidentiality.  I was careful, but I started to talk.

I had some good friends who began to tell me that what I was experiencing was not okay.  Friends encouraged me to leave, to tell my parents, to get more counseling and they empowered me.  I started volunteering at a women’s organization. It happened gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly.

In the end, the last time we had sex was the end of that marriage.  I made the decision the next day and told him a few days later.  That night he initiated sexual touching while I was asleep and drugged.  I woke up with him touching my breasts.  Maybe he had been touching me for a while before I fully responded.  On that occasion I woke up and was lucid enough to respond.  Because he had been touching me (without consent), I said yes to sleeping with him.  I verbally said yes.  We had sex and I felt disgusted.   Even though I said yes to the sex, I knew in my mind that I had not consented to the touching. I knew if he had asked me when I was wide awake I would have said no.   I realized that even IF I said yes, I still wouldn’t feel safe, comfortable or at all okay.  I knew it was over.  I knew that would be the last time.  So many times, when I was lying awake at night after being assaulted, I thought to myself “this could be the last time, I could get up and walk away” but I never did.  I was always afraid and I didn’t want to leave my kids.

There are a lot of reasons why people who are being abused do not leave.

And at the end of the day, it only takes one reason to decide to leave.

Leaving an abusive relationship can’t be rushed or forced.  The person being abused has to hit a breaking point and decide that “enough is enough” and that point is different for each individual survivor.

This happened three years ago, but anniversaries are always difficult for me.  I feel it all again.  I have more nightmares, more anxiety and lower self esteem.  I don’t believe in myself.  I have difficulty trusting. I hate my body so intensely that I struggle to look in mirrors or wear certain clothes. I don’t feel safe or relaxed anywhere.  I return to the automatic living, zombie like state.  I have trouble remembering things and difficulty concentrating.  I sometimes wonder if it has been worth the fight.  The suicidal thoughts creep in suddenly, ambushing me in my day to day life.

But at the end of the day, I have to remember that there were only 2 options left for me:

  1. Leaving
  2. Suicide

As difficult as my life is, and as much pain as I’m in, I believe I made the right choice.

I’m still alive.

 

Scars.

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What is it like parenting two children when you are a psychiatric survivor?

Pretty damn scary.

I remember when I first got pregnant and for the first 2 years of parenting my kids, my biggest fear was that someone would call Children’s Aid and report me as an unfit parent.  I worried that my first baby would be taken from me at birth.  You might ask why would someone whose baby isn’t even born worry so much about being an unfit parent?

My body is covered with scars from self inflicted wounds.  I was terrified someone would see this, make assumptions about me, and consider me a danger to a child, especially my child.

I’ve been parenting for almost 10 years now and so far this fear has never materialized.  I still worry about being considered “crazy” and thus “dangerous” and thus “unfit.”  In fact, this is the weapon my ex-husband has used against me since the time I began leaving him.  Just accusing someone of being crazy tends to impact the way others view that person.  My ex-husband took moves out of Dr. X’s playbook and began telling everyone, including the children’s health professionals, our neighbours, the kids’ school AND Children’s Aid that I had borderline personality disorder.

Despite the fact that my own doctor and many other doctors have testified that I do not have borderline personality disorder, this label is still haunting me 15 years after it was first, incorrectly, applied by Dr. X.

Let’s just break this down for a minute.

In the days of insane asylums, a man could have his wife committed against her will since she was essentially his property.  I’m sure asylums were full of women who were wrongly diagnosed as “hysterical” or something, just because they spoke out against the men in their lives.  Maybe they were being abused and dared to say something, maybe they didn’t conform completely to patriarchal societal standards, but one way or another they were put away.

The days of asylums are gone, but the stigma of diagnoses like borderline personality disorder remains.

It’s a very convenient excuse to deflect responsibility for perpetrating abuse.  “Oh, she’s crazy don’t you know.  You can’t believe her story because she’s mentally ill!”

Sound familiar to anyone?  Yes, accusing survivors of being “crazy” is an aspect of rape culture.  Survivors are not crazy.  They are speaking a truth that many in society do not want to hear and thus they are labelled, marginalized and stigmatized.

Every spring when the weather gets warm and t-shirts start to appear, my fear returns.  In the winter I can usually “pass” as “normal.”  My scars are safely hidden under layers of winter clothing.  In the summer, I stand awkwardly with my hands behind my back when I meet new people and when I pick the kids up from school.  I keep a cardigan at work to throw on before meeting with service users.  I see the scars myself, day after day, and sometimes it triggers me and makes me think about a time in my life I’d rather forget.

I still worry that people will view me as an unfit parent because of the coping choices I made.  But I wear t-shirts, because it’s hot outside in the summer.  I won’t hide under clothing everyday for the rest of my life.

If you have used self harm to cope, don’t be ashamed.  You survived and that is the most important thing.  Your scars tell the story of your survival.  If I could tell you a hundred times that you aren’t crazy I would.  But honestly, I’m spending a whole lot of energy reassuring myself that very same thing these days.

My scars tell my story.  Sometimes I wish my story was different, or that I had the privilege of having an invisible mental illness, but that isn’t my reality.

And believe it or not, some people think my scars look pretty damn cool.

 

Post-it notes

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Possibly one of the saddest moments in my entire story revolves around a post-it note.

During a particularly dark time in my life, sometime in early 2011, I wrote a series of 3 suicide post-it notes.  This is something I haven’t really shared with anyone.

I was completing my Master in Social Work, I was about to start my final placement.  I was working as a Teaching Assistant, attending classes and taking care of my kids.  On the outside I was functioning, but on the inside I was consumed with depression.  Looking back, I know a good part of the darkness was being caused by my increasing unhappiness within a sexually abusive marriage.  I began to feel like I had exhausted every option for recovery, every medication, every type of therapy, every treatment program and as a parent of two young kids I felt I had even fewer options.  I felt trapped and disconnected from myself and the ones I loved.

I don’t remember why I was upset or what happened that day, I do remember I wanted the pain to stop.  I was home alone, the kids were at school or daycare.  I saw a pad of yellow post-it notes one of the kids had left in my bedroom.  On it I scrawled three separate notes, one for my husband and one for each of my kids.  The notes basically said “I love you ___” and had a heart drawn under the words.   They looked like innocent little notes, the kind family members leave for each other to wish them a happy day.

But to me those were the most tragic post-it notes in existence.  In that moment where nothing was really making sense, I was saying goodbye.

I did hurt myself that day, but I went to the hospital to get it taken care of.  I didn’t tell the hospital staff about the post-it notes or about my despondent thoughts.  I let them fix me up and I went home.  I rarely discussed my suicidal thoughts in the Emergency Room unless I wanted to be admitted to the hospital.

When I got home my family was there and so were the post-it notes, unassuming and cheerful yellow papers.  But seeing them reminded me of my dark plans.  I hated those post-it notes with great passion.  They made me angry every time I saw them, but luckily anger was at least a feeling and not just numb emptiness.

The post-it notes stuck around the house for months before I finally threw them away.  I won’t ever forget them though.  They are a symbol of just how little anything ACTUALLY makes sense when you are severely depressed.  Things that seem logical in the moment are completely ridiculous and nonsensical when you are feeling brighter.  Choices that seem like the only option are revealed as unhelpful and fatalistic when you are recovered.

It’s important to hold onto this realization.  When you are severely depressed you are not thinking clearly.  When you are starved from an eating disorder you are not thinking clearly.  When you are triggered and in the middle of flashbacks you are not thinking clearly.

Don’t make decisions that could harm you or someone else when you are not thinking clearly.  Chances are you might regret it when you are calmer.   If possible focus on grounding and self care, or get help from others if you realize you are not thinking clearly.

Suicide wouldn’t have solved the problems in my life, it would have passed them on to my children, my parents and my close friends.  I can say this now, but I know for a fact that in a dark place I just won’t care.  The only thing I will think about is getting the pain to stop.

Luckily, in recovery, I know that depression is temporary and impulses to harm myself are passing thoughts.  Suicidal thinking and gestures are symptoms of depression and PTSD for some people.  Thinking about suicide can be a normal coping reaction to surviving violence.  Just thinking about suicide is not necessarily dangerous.  Sometimes it can be a way of feeling in control of something, which is actually a method of self preservation.  It is necessary to challenge the self destructive behaviours, but I try not to judge myself for the thoughts.

At the end of the day there is no difference between a person who sometimes thinks about suicide and one who does not.  There is not a special “crazy” class of folks who contemplate dying.  Suicide doesn’t discriminate.  Anyone can have the thoughts and it doesn’t make them weird, dangerous or a person to be feared or shunned.

Suicide survivors walk among us.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend who contemplates suicide is to allow her to talk about her thoughts and impulses and listen without panicking and without judgment.  Validate her, let her know that you are sorry she is feeling SO awful that she feels life is hopeless.  Allow her to explore the thoughts with you, or encourage her to talk to a counselor, support worker, crisis line or doctor.  It isn’t your job to save her, it’s your job to be her friend.  Thank her for trusting you.  Let her know you care. By letting someone talk about suicide, you are reducing shame and creating a connection.

Connection is the opposite of depression.

It’s Census Time and a box is missing

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I’d like to write about something different today.

Canadians across the country are excited about the 2016 Census.  So many of us wanted to be counted that we collectively crashed the website on the first day.

So why is an entire diverse group of individuals in Canada not able able be counted?

The 2016 Census reads like a 1950 Census.

The options for gender are:

Male

Female

And that’s it. Even though our Prime Minster says he is a feminist, and was often quoted after being elected as saying “Because it’s 2015,” the government completely lost the plot when they created this Census document.  Why?  Because it erases an entire group of folks who already face systemic discrimination and oppression.

Transgender folks, non-binary folks, gender non-conforming folks, intersex folks, two-spirit folks

How can all of these folks correctly indicate their gender when many of them do not identify as male or female, but maybe as both, neither or something that doesn’t fit into any check box?

My Census form would include the following options for gender:

Man

Woman

Transgender Man/Boy

Transgender Woman/Girl

Intersex person

Two-spirit person

Non-Binary Person

Other:__________

Give us options!

Also, for the record sex and gender are not interchangeable terms!

I am a cisgender (born female, identifying as a woman) person who realizes that this is a privilege and I would like to use my voice to be an ally for those who are gender non-conforming.   I certainly do not want to speak over voices of people who are not cisgender.  I do want to tell my government that I do not want their voices ignored. I will write more about why this issue is one I feel passionately about in another blog entry.

This entry is relates directly to the mental health theme of my blog. Supporting, validating, hearing, recognizing and empowering gender non-conforming folks contributes to better mental health outcomes for them.   Also, transphobia is a form of systemic oppression.  Being oppressed isn’t conducive to health.  It’s also important to remember that oppression is layered and multiplicative.  Trans and gender non-conforming folks who are also People of Colour face even more risks and exclusion because they experience with racism and transphobia.  Same goes for trans folks who live with disabilities (abelism) and those who identify as, or are read as women (trans misogyny).

The 2016 Census, in my humble opinion, does not support, validate, recognize or empower gender non-conforming Canadians.  It erases their very existence and clings to the rigid gender binary.  It further marginalizes a marginalized group of  diverse citizens.

Shame on you Census!  It’s 2016 and everyone’s voices deserve to be heard.