Month: November 2018

Growing Up With Illnesses Like Bipolar and Also Having Severe Anxiety

This is a shot I took of a soccer field near my house. When I look at this photo, I tend to notice that though an exciting game of soccer is going on, the bleachers are empty. It takes me back to the one year I played organized sports in my home town of St.Albert. There was a rep team made up of hand-picked players, one for boys and another for girls. Both of them beat us royally, which was not considered a fair match, so when, in our final game–in overtime–we beat the only team that had ever beat us in a fair match, for a few brief moments we were on top of the world.

Soccer is a wonderful experience, and I suggest any parent should encourage their kids to participate. For a long time I used to try and encourage parents to put their kids in cadets, but few have ever done it. With all the training, the sports, the friends, and the travel you get from it, it seems almost ridiculous that anyone would not want their kids to join. Air cadets was something that taught me skills that got me through a lot of very difficult times, and still to this day, 31 years after I left, I rely on a lot of those skills to make my living and get along in the world.

But to try and keep more on the topic I wanted to speak most about, I would like to try and discuss anxiety. Because I was never given any kind of diagnosis, and it is even unclear today at the ripe old age of 46 what exactly the doctors think is wrong, I missed out on a lot of opportunities in my life. I don’t know if there really was any good treatments for anxiety when mine was at its’ worst. I can try and describe what it was like though.

I was 14. I had been taken out of school for an assessment at the General Hospital in Edmonton for two weeks, and during that time I was allowed to attend cadets. On one of those two nights, I had been assigned to get in front of a class of my peers and give a talk about my hobby-which was collecting military combat uniforms. Now, I will digress for just a moment. When I gave that talk, I hadn’t interacted with anyone my age for quite a few days. I felt that my social skills had just gotten rusty, when it was actually a diagnosable illness I had that wasn’t being treated. I got up in front of the room, and I felt a strong pull taking my gaze away from the audience and looking down at the floor. I also became aware of my looks, my acne, and I blushed crimson red. Maybe what hurt the most was walking past a person who was in the class having a laugh with a friend about how horrible my performance had been.

All through my younger days I drowned in anxiety. I would sit out every single song of every single dance the cadets held. The idea that someone could like me or find me attractive was seemingly out of the question. There were a few times I can recall though that I clearly had bipolar disorder as well (I also have a third diagnosis, of schizoaffective disorder). A friend gave me a ride home from the cadet hall where we had been dropped off after a weekend camp at a base near Red Deer. I can’t even describe it. Maybe the tiredness set me off, I really don’t know. But it was the first time I can remember feeling elated, talking way too fast about too many things, and not having a clue that this was something very out of character for me.

All through my teen years I struggled with insomnia, and a good part of it was my own fault. I would stay up late, eat hot dogs or muffins I had brought home from work, then for some reason as time for school approached, I would get this idea in my head that I could be a superior student like I had once been if I studied every word of a textbook. So many times I got these big ideas, then ended up sleeping, and also sleeping in for class. Skipping breakfast, I would race off to school. When the day ended, I would go home and take a nap. This was not only a bad idea that made it harder for me to sleep properly at night, but I would get these nightmares that were just horrible. This was one of the few times that I started to realize that something was going very wrong with my mind. I told my mom about the bad dreams, and she basically responded by asking me what I thought she could do about it. As problems piled up with me, the loneliness, the social anxiety, the insomnia, the depression, and poor sense of self piled up, I almost went to see a psychiatrist but instead waited until I was forced to see one. I really hope anyone who reads this doesn’t tread down that path, especially the young people.

Back at that time, along with anxiety, I had severe depression. I often say that I wasn’t really sure if I was experiencing depression because I had no real close friends, or if my severe depression made it hard for me to open up to and form solid friendships with people. It may apply to a lot of people, but when I think back now to the three or four really close friends I had, I regret ever meeting them.

One of them was a clear alcoholic who was overweight and wore thick glasses and somehow thought he was the coolest and most attractive person ever. Sometimes I am taken back to the odd fun times we had, and I think it would be neat to look him up. Years ago I tried to do so and he really seemed to feel the need to compete with me over anything I said and look for ways to humiliate me. Him and the people he hung around with never really left my home town. There was one guy who I actually really liked and has always been a friend, though a casual friend, and he became a University Professor and moved out of province.

Come to think of it, a lot of the people I knew in school were alcoholics. I was desperately trying to quit back then, but was encouraged into binging a few times with another fair weather friend. Drinking in some ways was magic. It lifted my depression, relaxed me, helped me overcome my social anxiety. The only bad effects was that it was killing me, I was leading an extremely dangerous and risky lifestyle while I was drinking, some of the hangovers I had were epic, and as I drank I watched my family fall apart from similar and different addiction issues. I hate the term ‘self medicate’. I drank because, like many people, I had a subconscious connection with booze and the rarer and rarer good times I would have when using it. Now the very idea of what I used to do as a teen seems ridiculous. Ego contests to see who could drink the most, drinking parties in a delivery car while delivering pizza. Turning into some kind of monster, picking fights with friends or making moves on females that only a 15-year-old could ever get away with.

Getting over those depressions and anxiety was a long road. It was nearly impossible while I was adjusting to medications my doctor prescribed me to try and deal with my fractured social skills. Finding the Schizophrenia Society has been so key in getting me healthy again. I work a few days a week, I earn a little extra money for groceries. I have some solid friends and a lot of self respect from finding a way I can help others even when I am kind of broken myself. Of course having an incredible, intelligent and caring father means a great deal as well.

At first, I really didn’t know what to expect from the Schizophrenia Society. I figured if any students I was going to speak to were anything like I was in my teens it would be hell. But 98% of the students I present to are incredibly interested and responsive to what I have to say. I worked my way up and have given presentations to police recruits, student nurses, criminology classes. It isn’t all that uncommon for me to speak to lecture halls with 200 students. The difference in my anxiety and social skills have been massive.

Well, dear readers, that is all I think I have to say about bipolar and anxiety for now. If you want to know more, or ask a questions, please contact me. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, talk to your family doctor about a referral. And if you are in crisis or feel suicidal, please go to your nearest emergency room. Best,

Leif G

 

Stigma: Maybe the Worst Thing About Mental Illness

This is an iPhone night shot of the gate where Chinatown begins and Little Italy ends on 97 street in Edmonton.

 

I wanted to talk about Stigma today for many reasons. I don’t know how many of you may experience this like I do, but all the time I replay things over in my head, especially events where I felt so incredibly ashamed that I actually sometimes feel I don’t even deserve to be alive. This is not a suicide note, my mood is good, I have friends and family who care, a life I love. But there are things that happened as a result of my illness (bipolar, as well as schizoaffective, and anxiety) that I just feel I will never live down.

Things go back a long way. As a kid I didn’t have many friends, my short haircut made me stand out, and I loved reading and books more than hockey. There were so many fights in elementary and somehow I won most of them. Those experiences laid some pretty horrible groundwork for a young teen with low self esteem. I went into high school thinking I was unloveable, ugly, and thinking that everyone hated me. Then, as I got older I found evidence to the contrary due to some attention and even strong friendships with some very attractive women. There was one I was totally head over heels infatuated with. It was an unhealthy obsession. One day I wrote her a letter and she was very nice about things, she told me she herself was very stuck on someone–her boyfriend.

Eventually I stopped calling her and meeting her for lunch and such. It was very hard, but I thought if I made a clean break I could move on, forget her. Things only got worse. I was spiralling down into a serious depression that put me into such a funk that I didn’t think I would ever get out of it. A lot happened. I developed severe symptoms of my mental illness and was hospitalized. Again, due to extreme stigma I didn’t want to have a label on me, didn’t think that I had any problems I couldn’t handle on my own. I stopped taking my medications and hitch-hiked out to the coast.

In Vancouver, I made some close friends, but after a while my illness caught up with me again. I went back to Edmonton and was soon unfit to be outside of an institution. I went back to the hospital again. The fact that I had ridiculous delusions of grandeur, voices, times of no sleep or deep depressions didn’t convince me. Once again I left the hospital and went off my medications. I contacted one of my Vancouver friends and in days I was planning to go out there again.

What was odd about these times is that somehow I had developed some self-confidence, and a lot of social skills, and I was meeting young women left and right. I no longer saw myself as ugly, I saw myself as pretty handsome. I never slept around with any of these women, but I enjoyed their company and was almost never alone or without someone to call. Then my birthday rolled around and as a present to myself I called up my old flame from school.

We got along well, and she seemed happy to hear from me and had a few long talks about people we knew and the stages of our lives we had gone through in the years that we weren’t speaking. I don’t know how it happened just then, but at an extremely rapid rate I started having more delusions. I remember one hallucination that I thought she told me that she would love me until the day I died. I started calling her too much, writing letters every day. Soon she changed her number and I ended up in a psychiatric ward.

The worst part of it was finding her number some years later and calling her up and asking:

“Surely you didn’t just think I was some kind of psychopath?”

“Yes I did think you were some kind of psychopath.”

Those words cut me deeper than any injury or knife ever had. They very nearly drove me to take my own life. I never spoke to her again.

Stigma takes so many things away from us. It can take away any feeling of safety a person might have. When I was in high school I missed school for a while before I actually had my biggest breakdown and was arrested in school, and many people knew what had happened. My best friend, who was half my size seemed to think that he was in charge of me and could threaten me with violence to make me do anything he wanted. Remarks were made, lies were made up, accusations of things like pulling a knife or other things came out of thin air. Then there were the threats.

Perhaps what sux the most about mental illness and stigma is that it never goes away. Any place you can find a person who picks their friends based on their supposed social status or popularity among whatever circle you will find people who will cut you out of their life no matter how long you knew them. I had gone to school with one guy, did everything with him from age 14 on. There was a period of maybe two or three months when he would drive out to my apartment, pick me up, buy me lunch and take me to a movie. He was unemployed at the time and I was underemployed and it made for a really enjoyable and memorable summer. Then one day I was experiencing debilitating depression and went into the hospital to get medications worked out and I called him up. I told him where I was and he said to me, “Oh I wish I could do that. Any time I decide I can’t handle life I’ll just go to the hospital like you did.” I couldn’t believe he said that, my best friend.

The funny thing is that there is simply so many forms of mental illness that these people who stigmatize others are damning themselves in many cases as well.

I hate to admit it, but when I was 18 and was coming from a private, upper-middle class suburban high school, I didn’t want to make friends with anyone in the hospital. Fortunately I was able to overcome that as I matured. Very fortunate because I now teach creative writing to patients in a hospital and that attitude wouldn’t have gotten me very far.

For about seven years, I worked for the union that handled labour for entertainment. This was not only a very difficult job physically, the mental stress it loaded on a person was ridiculous. I recall this one guy, a real asshole who had so much seniority that he had no problem at all insulting people right to their face. I was talking with another co-worker once and when I came within range of this stinking fart of a human being, he said, “So what did you f%*$ up now?” I don’t know if he had any awareness of my psychiatric disability, but to me saying something like that is a lot like insulting a paralyzed person in a wheelchair for not getting up for a run.

So what happens then as a result of stigma? People feel isolated, demoralized, insulted, persecuted, on and on and on. They eventually give up trying, their condition gets worse, they start to collect benefits, and one in ten (at least of those people with schizophrenia) die by suicide.

I had occasion not long ago to give a talk about mental health to a group of security guards. One of them was so incredibly insensitive that he put up his hand and gave me a lecture about how important his job is and how he and his co-workers didn’t have time to deal with people in psychosis the way we were suggesting. Some people, and it is often these untrained and likely sociopathic security guards see those with mental health issues as some kind of dangerous threat that has to be quickly neutralized and removed from the mall for public safety. I would have very much liked to mention that  a fellow Air Cadet I knew well was harassed by a security guard with very similar opinions and won enough money from the mall in a lawsuit that he no longer had any money problems in his life.

That is a bit of a digression. There was this one time though when I myself was working as a security guard and a woman ran up to me yelling for help. I told her to stop and to come inside the hotel I was working at so we could phone whoever was needed but she kept on yelling and running. About a block away a police officer ran up behind her and tackled her. That kind of set me off. Tackling someone on grass is one thing, tackling a woman on cement is another. But it was okay, she wasn’t really a human being. Sickening.

Something I would like to write about if people out there are able to concentrate after all this rambling, is what can you do to overcome stigma? And to say stigma, I also refer to the bad memories I often can’t get out of my head. For me, one thing that really helped was to volunteer at a University radio station which was also a community radio station and I got my own show. I met people, learned a lot, and it was a confidence booster. The logical path would be to volunteer at your dream job, learn if you really like it, then try and get some training or school in the field and then try, even if it is low pay, part-time or difficult, to work that dream job you have.

I really have a lot I could say on this topic, but I will leave off there for now. I want to leave you with a quote that has always helped me get through some very difficult times, it is an ancient proverb, most likely from China that simply states, “A man with one friend is a rich man.” So that is my assignment: go out and make a friend. Make a few friends, so you don’t put too much of a demand on just one of them. It can be a stepping stone, a destination. It can also be one of the best ways to tell stigma to go and jump in a lake.

I’m Home After Psychiatric Inpatient Care. When Will I Ever Feel Normal Again?

A random shot of Jasper Avenue, the main downtown street in Edmonton, Alberta. With people everywhere, vehicles battling to be ahead by split seconds, it becomes so easy to feel lost and alone. Yet, when a person goes into a psychiatric ward or hospital, the staff discourage at every turn any friendships or relationships. Sometimes, people with severe illnesses will be discharged with a bag of medications and directions to the homeless shelter. I don’t really have any solutions to these problems. I do know that people in my family cared a lot about me and tried to make my transition from my last hospital stay to the outside world a smooth one. It went well for me, but not 100%. I feel I owe everything to two men in my life, my Doctor and my Dad. Neither of them stopped helping and neither of them asked anything in return.

When I try and think of my recovery, which I will define for the purposes of this blog as the point where I was diagnosed up until the point where I was able to travel overseas on my own, (both Atlantic and Pacific) the word ‘mindfulness’ keeps coming up.

Mindfulness is something that you will often find in books about Buddhism and meditation. Meditation supplies a person with the tools they need to tune out the world, and just embrace the nature of who they are deep down and not analyze or self-talk or really do anything but breathe. This journey for me began with books about Buddhism, mostly ones that my brother Kris loaned me. I found some profound truths of human nature in these books, which was amazing because a lot of the wisdom came from times when the western world was in the dark ages by comparison (if not literally). There were even times when I would delve deep into these books that I was so struck by things that were said it was close to what many people call an epiphany. But I needed more. I was reading dry words on a page, though they were some pretty earth-shattering words. I devoured books by the Dalai Lama, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But where things really started to come together was when I joined a meditation group that was led by a real Tibetan Monk, and incredible man full of joy, decked out in the beautiful robes of a true monk. What did he teach me? He taught me how to breathe, and then he taught me how to clear my mind. That was really about it.

In our minds, especially those of us who have had mental disorders requiring treatment and/or medication, there is a constant dialogue going on, telling us we aren’t good enough, that people are judging us, that we can’t do something. There are also positive messages and neutral ones. In Tibetan meditation the goal is to train yourself not to let these voices control you, something that changed my life after being in Alberta Hospital. I became so much more thoughtful, kind, I had more energy and mental ability. I was able to absorb books and lessons that I could never have completed before despite my high mental functioning. This led me down a path to become a writer, a teacher, a traveller, an Uncle, and more.

I don’t meditate much anymore sitting on a pillow, legs crossed, counting my breath. I like to walk. I like to go for miles, and simply be. To be aware of the blue or grey sky, to look for wildlife or even domesticated life, to not count the steps or measure the distances, just to go out and feel the fresh air on my skin, be aware of increased rates of breathing, from how my heart beats just a little faster to how I begin to warm up no matter how cold it is. I play no music, bring nothing to distract me. I rarely walk with anyone, but it is so healing. I love to make up excuses to walk. One thing that was interesting was that deep inside I have always thought I may have in a past life lived in England and had a special kinship to the Island Kingdom. When I was in London I took a great risk and instead of taking the tube to where I was staying, I just walked and walked for miles to see if I could truly find my way around that great and massive city. I must have walked ten kilometres and never for a moment did I feel lost or on the wrong path.

One of the other ways I love to practise mindfulness is through photography. Anyone who has read a few of my blogs will have seen photos I took with my collection of cameras and lenses. I basically gather all I need for my camera from charged batteries to memory cards and what lenses I need and start out walking. If I can go somewhere I don’t normally go or get off the beaten path all the better. There is no need for me to calculate rights and wrongs, feel angry about someone who cut me off in a checkout line at the grocery store or was rude to me on the bus. I am totally absorbed in finding that split second, that disappearing moment when a shot is perfect. I rarely find it, but in seeking after that perfect shot I seem to mature, grow in some way.

Meditation is something that has been studied a great deal. One of these studies I came across declared that it had proof that people who meditate a lot each day over the course of years can actually reverse brain damage, something so far thought to be impossible. Even now as I am a little tired I long for those moments in bed just before my mind begins to switch over to sleep rather than being awake and I can feel the true joy of just being.

All of that doesn’t really answer the question though, when will you feel normal again after leaving the hospital. I feel obligated to try and give some of what I feel are facts gained from my own experience. First of all, being in the hospital can put a person into shock, especially if this person was lucky enough to go through such things as ECT or being wrestled down and locked in an isolation room. It isn’t natural for humans, which means that in this time it is actually natural for us to feel the fight or flight reaction. Some lash out, some beg not to be treated that way. Either way, it takes a little bit of who we are as human beings away from us. When you leave the hospital, all of a sudden you are responsible for everything. You may even return to a family that doesn’t fully understand or to school where people know where you were and have no kindness or compassion.

The first thing you need to know is that the effect, the shock of being in the hospital is something powerful. It is also something Doctors and Nurses are aware of and they tend to over medicate people while they are in the hospital. When you leave the best thing you can do is educate yourself as much as you can. When I left after one of my first stays, there was no Internet to Google search on. I went to the library and read for hours on treatments only to be laughed at by a Doctor I spoke to who said they hadn’t used any of those treatments for years. Now, we have Google, so I suggest you search everything you can about each and every medication, each word of your diagnosis and make sure you have a solid understanding. Going in blind to see my Psychiatrist years ago when I was at the end of my rope got me onto a medication I still take to this day that at that time was rarely used. It saved my life. As I built up more awareness of my condition though, I looked for ways to decrease the amount of medication I took.

Often there really is nothing you can do except to kill time, and finances are almost always short for people who just leave the hospital. The first thing I suggest is that you keep a journal, a wellness journal where you talk about how you feel, and what level your mood is, and any other pertinent symptoms. Take a time each day to write, and as you hit milestones, look back at what worked and what didn’t. To people I know who want to make more friends or meet that special ‘life partner’ I always say there are a few steps in the perfect plan at doing that. One is that you settle into a place you can afford, keep clean, and have your privacy. Two is that you look for ways to become involved in your community. Three is that you look for genuine ways to help and care for others. Four is that when you meet someone you want a relationship with, and they themselves have indicated they want a similar relationship, focus on getting to know them, becoming their best friend before worrying about making a move. Don’t force anything, don’t make a fool of yourself automatically thinking this person is the one for you and overwhelming them with attention and gifts. Just be their friend, and your time will come.

Well, Dear readers, that seems to be a good time to draw everything to a close. Your assignment is to 1)get a library card if you don’t have one. 2)take out a book on healing and recovery (my two are “Through the Withering Storm” and “Inching Back to Sane”), and read as much as you can and take some time to sit down, become conscious of your own breathing and clear your mind for five to ten minutes, more if you prefer, then schedule a good time to write in your journal. Who knows? Maybe if you heed this lesson, your recovery will accelerate and I will be reading your blog on WordPress some time soon.

Sincerely,

LG