Staring at Pain Killers

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I was about 16 years old. Perhaps a year younger or a year older. I was home alone, a rare commodity amongst my large family. I had just gotten into an argument with my parents, the subject of which is no longer important enough for me to remember. I had convinced myself that I was unloved. More importantly, I thought I was unlovable.

As a teenager, I was deeply unhappy. There was no real cause for my unhappiness. I had a great childhood. A good group of friends. I didn’t do too badly in school. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. But my unhappiness grew to be the only thing I could really see. Some days, I knew that things would eventually get better, that it wouldn’t always be like this; I looked forward to those days. On other days, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. All I could see was darkness. On these days, I allowed my demons to control me.

I remember feeling a sense of calm, but I also felt manic. I walked around the house looking for pill bottles, painkillers that I hoped would subside a hurt that went far beyond the physical. I purposefully left alone any prescription medications my parents or grandmother might need. I didn’t want anyone to suffer because of me. I gathered a collection of capsules in a dish and stared.

I don’t think I ever truly wanted to not be alive. The issue was that I wanted to feel alive, to feel as though I was really living. And if I wasn’t, if i was constantly succumbing to those darker places, what was the point? Without a real purpose, I wasn’t able to grasp why I should continue living. I felt as though I was a burden, as though my unhappiness was causing my family to become unhappy. And it was my fault.

I don’t remember crying. I don’t think I did. I was shaking, though. And it wasn’t long before I realized that I was about to do something that I didn’t actually want to do. I knew I didn’t want to die. I picked up the phone and called my friend. She conveniently lived next door. I asked her to come over and she was at my doorstep less than a minute later. She could hear in my voice that something was wrong.

It’s only now at almost 30 years old, that I am starting to face what I have spent more than a decade trying to ignore. Depression. It’s the word I’ve always been afraid to use. I was afraid of the stigma and afraid of what that meant of me. It doesn’t mean that I’m weak, it doesn’t mean that I’m a lesser person. It means that I’m human. And on my most anxiety-ridden days, I have to remind myself of these things.

My friend sat with me on the couch. We didn’t say much to each other. We didn’t have to. I just needed her there to sit with me. She eventually ventured into the kitchen and found my collection of pain killers. “What were you planning to do with this?” she asked, not expecting an answer. She quietly and calmly returned the pills to their respective bottles, cleaned out the dish and returned it to its place in the cupboard. We never again spoke about that day. And when my family returned home, all signs of my panic had disappeared. It was as though it never happened.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if she didn’t come over, if she didn’t answer her phone. Would I have taken the pills out of sheer desperation? It’s clear that I didn’t actually want to kill myself. But I’m not sure that I knew that then.

This is just a small piece of my story, and I’m not telling it because I want people to pity me, or look at me through sorrowful eyes. I’m telling it because it has taken me many, many years to come to terms with what I have been battling for so long, and I’m finally ready to start talking about it. And we should talk about it. We should all tell our stories, whatever they might be. Because mental health needs to be discussed. Because there are other teenagers out there staring at bowls full of painkillers. And maybe if we talk about it, maybe if I start to tell my story, I can finally stop hiding and start healing.

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In Defence Of Mental Wellness

there's more to mental health than mental illness

I don’t like the way we talk about mental health, mostly because the conversation is usually framed around “mental illness.” Mental health is so much more complex than that. There’s this entire other side to the equation, one we don’t talk about as much or often enough, and that is mental wellness. When we forget about wellness, we remove not only the element of hope that is so crucial when you are depressed or anxious or angry or lost, but also the opportunity for things to get better.

I’ve written a lot in my life, and on occasion I’ve even gathered up the courage to put something out there that is really personal. It is terrifying to admit to the world that you are flawed, that you have complexes, that sometimes the things you do or think are not normal. I’ve shied away from talking about my own battles with depression and anxiety because I too fall victim to the stigma. But I’m starting to care less about what people think these days. Depression and anxiety may be a part of my life, but they do not define it.

I started shifting my thinking about this late last year. I realized that I had a problem with how I viewed my own mental health. My perspective mirrored society’s. I too looked at my condition as a mental illness and I forgot about my own mental wellness.

It’s easy to do that when you are sick. But after a while, I became sick of being sick. I was sick of feeling sorry for myself, sick of being sad, sick of crying all the time, sick of feeling like nothing was ever going to get better, sick of talking to people, sick of taking pills, sick of drinking too much, sick of feeling the way I felt, sick of being tired all the time, sick of fighting it. I cycled through years of this and every time it felt just as bad as the last.It felt like things would never improve, like I was destined to live in this cloud of darkness.

I read memoirs about other people’s struggles with depression and even the ones I cherished, most notably Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, didn’t do much to make me feel better, even if I felt less alone. At some point, I accepted depression and anxiety as part of who I was, and that was a dangerous thing for me to do. With acceptance comes comfort and once you’re comfortable, what desire do you have to ever change things?

It’s not like I didn’t try. I spent a lot of time getting referred from one place to the next and listening to one person’s opinion then another. I worked hard on my career, determined not to let my sickness bring me down and even though it did at times, I was further determined not to let anyone know that this sickness existed. I got pretty good at it too. My reputation for being social and bubbly and hard working never faded. But it was not a very effective method for me because at the end of every day I still felt sad, this deep crushing sadness that made me question everything in my life, including my value and my worth. I wondered if people thought I was talented. I wondered if people loved me. I wondered, when they told me that they did, what they could possibly see in me, a shell of a girl.

Then I started thinking about it and I realized I was actually just sick of thinking of myself as mentally ill. How I hated that term. I’m not mentally ill! I shouted from the inside out. There’s so much more to me than that. I’m ambitious, I’m funny, I’m loving, I’m fun. I like to plan events and parties and talk to people and travel places and take pictures and document life and try new things and take chances. I realized it’s not that I was mentally ill, it’s that I wasn’t mentally well.

This idea of wellness seemed new to me. I hadn’t quite looked at things through that lens before and this changed things. I started to recognize that I really did need to learn how to shift my thinking patterns, and I realized this would take time and effort. I stopped thinking about the things that made me sick and instead concentrated on the things that could make me better. I sat down to write a list of 25 things that made me happy and before I knew it I had 47, then 60, then 82. I had a totally new perspective on my own mental wellbeing and I knew it was up to me to make some changes.

I decided to embrace mind over matter and I stopped looking at myself as sick and started looking at myself as someone who had the power to be well. I started embracing the very idea of wellness. All these things that were contributing to my depression and anxiety, I realized I could change them. And if I couldn’t change them, I realized I had to let them go. Maybe I’ll always struggle with my mental health to some extent, as I still do now, but I’ve realized I have a responsibility to myself to not make it any worse. I have a responsibility to myself to make it better.

Everything is going to be okay because what other option is there? ~ Me

In order to become okay, I had to put work into myself, a different kind of work than I was doing before. I had to be proactive and less passive. I had to decide what was worthy of occupying what I call my mental real estate, the places in your mind where all your thoughts, fears, and dreams live. I had to decide to be okay.

After so many years of feeling trapped and running in the big fat hamster wheel that is depression and anxiety, realizing I have the power to open the door was a huge discovery for me. And being ready to open that door was life changing.

The Dragons Are Dead And We Killed Them

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A few days ago, I was riding the subway, and there was a man talking to himself. Now this in and of itself is not entirely an oddity – there are subways, and men ride them, and sometimes the men (and, indeed, the women) who ride the subways talk to themselves. However, while I don’t usually listen to the people who talk to themselves (I prefer to eavesdrop on conversations and sneakily record them to use as dialogue later), something about what this man was saying caught my ear, and I decided to listen further.

            This particular man was speaking about dragons. More specifically, he was talking to Lucifer about dragons – how us, humans, as a species had doomed ourselves from the beginning, because we killed all the dragons and pretended they were just regular dinosaurs.Back when the world was new, we killed all the dragons, and cut off their wings, and that’s why we are so awful as a species, and all bound for hell, etc. And yet, when this man told other people about how we as a species killed all the dragons, the other people would simply say: “Whatever. Everyone’s done things in their past that they’re ashamed of.” And this man was so very upset, because why couldn’t people understand that this was not just a minor transgression – we killed all of the dragons. There used to be dragons, and we killed them, and we cut off their wings, and we tried to pass them off as regular dinosaurs, because we were so afraid of what would happen if people found out there used to be dragons. And then this man said, “I wonder if these people” – meaning the other passengers – “I wonder if these people know that they’re a bunch of soulless robots, because they don’t believe in dragons.” And then he said; “I wonder if these people think I’m a robot. Probably they do. Sometimes I think I’m a robot.”

            These three sentences, to me, were so heartbreakingly human: the condemnation of others for being different than you, while inside there lurks the fear that you secretly embody the very thing that you hate. For all that I am (supposedly) going into the business of recreating human emotion and human suffering, I have never experienced half as much emotion as this man did, simply over the fact that we’ve killed all the dragons, and over the fear that he is a robot. His final statement also spoke to me, like nothing has for a very long time. I frequently fear that I am a robot living in a world filled with robots.

            Now at the same time, there was another man on this subway, sitting across from me. He was an attractive young man, with coarse black stubble and large glasses and a dark brown vintage hat that went well with his tan vintage coat. He was holding a new edition of 1984, and every few minutes he would glance up at the dragon-man and glare at him. He would shoot these awful, disapproving looks at the dragon-man, every time the dragon-man uttered a swear word, or got a little bit too loud, or stumbled around drunkenly.  This young hipster is a part of My People. He is smart, well educated, comparatively wealthy (although he complains about how poor he is), and fully immersed in the culture of Montreal. This young hipster embodies the sorts of people that I surround myself with on a day to day basis, and he is the sort of person that I frequently hope I am – well put together, smart, engaging, cultured.

            However, as I reached my stop, and stood up to get off, I happened to glance down at this young man’s copy of 1984… and it was not a copy of 1984 at all.

            It was a Kindle.

            It was a Kindle encased in a 1984 book cover.

            This image, of this intelligent, well put together lad holding a Kindle encased in a 1984 book cover, led me to a lot of revelations. Most of these involved jokes about books and judging them by their covers. Some of them included trite commentary on robots hiding in plain sight – the technologically cold hidden by the intellectually human. A clockwork orange, if you will. (I stole that!)

            I think this may be the point when I should worry about myself – when the man talking about dragons and robots to himself has become the person with the most real and stirring words. The attractive, well put together young man has become the crazy phony, and the man talking to himself has become the sane one. A homeless person with severe mental health problems has said a deeply deeply personal thing about himself, and I had thought, yes! That is true of me as well, this deeply personal thing! At this point you’ve got to think – would it be a good idea if I started maybe seeing someone?

            I feel as though this young gent with the Kindle could have told me what’s going on, and that seeing someone might maybe be a good idea.

            Or, instead, I could keep having empathic life connections with homeless men in subways who talk to themselves.

            Let’s go with that one.

Calla Wright is an aspiring playwright and all round theatre-beast, hailing from Edmonton. She likes a bunch of things and also has hobbies.

The Widening Gyre

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“ Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing or that, but simply growth.  We are happy when we are growing”. – William Butler Yeats

 October 13th 2013 marks the 4th year anniversary of my brother’s death, and my brother being 3 years older than myself, I grew up following him.  As I begin to write, the feelings of chaos, complexity and inadequacy that encompass my attempts to express this swarm over me, like phantasmic wasps answering their call to arms.  My father had died the previous year from pancreatic cancer. Between my Dad’s death on August 10th 2008, and my brother’s death on October 13th 2009, a good friend was killed in a motor vehicle accident.

I spent the year following my father’s death in a state of relatively open bereavement among those close to me. After my brother’s death I didn’t want my grief to manifest in any way that people could recognize or assume to fathom.  At that point, it was as though expression would have only served to affirm others’ preconceptions of what it means to feel pain and loss.  I preferred “they” assume I was “taking it well”, which to me, served to magnify their ignorance.  About a month after my brother was killed, dead skin inside my cheeks and on the sides of my tongue began peeling off in layers.  This was due to having kept my mouth clamped shut and immobile during most of that time.  Sometimes I feel vibrations at different points in my body; sometimes I have a strange sensation while walking of my hips being in my chest, or of having another head above my head.  Sometimes I can only take very shallow breaths; it is a suffocating sensation.

The strength of a person is not defined by how much they can carry or withstand.  I’m very absorbent. After some time I began to realize that my ability to absorb does not qualify as strength.  A sponge has no solid boundary; it is thoroughly accessible and exposed.  Also, the exposure from sharing something so visceral becomes a dangerous act in itself.  To romanticize circumstances and people displaces them from the realm of reality into that of fantasy. Apathetically entertaining the projections of other people lures the unstable soul into a hopelessly unsatisfying state.  Foreign projections are ineludibly crude and all are biased according to personal experience and exposure to media, stories, and fairytales. Pretentiousness and condescension presupposes an omniscient understanding in the real world of people’s points of reference.  The inconsistencies between my self-perception and the identity projected onto me by friends, family and peers caused a writhing discomfort within me that I became accustomed to.  Followed by a wooly and detached horror-fascination when I observed that I could really disappear in front of people and no one would stop me, no one would know.  I appreciate the subjectivity of individual understanding very keenly.

Sometimes I feel as though even attempting to elevate myself beyond or within this grief is a sacrilege.  There have been times truly unbearable, but somehow they were borne and I’m still here, but that does not make me feel strong.  Somehow it makes me feel weak.  I understand this disposition to find roots in the Catholic value/hoax, that martyrdom is the ultimate expression of love.   I struggle with which memories to protect and keep private, and which to share and how.  It has taken a long time to take the most fundamental step of committing to a life in the living world.  Now I try to accept the responsibilities that come with that decision.

Grief, trauma, and mental illness are incapacitating.  I stayed in university for four years, not wanting to “give up”, or let go of another piece of my identity.  Early on, I decided on a degree in English Literature because stories were the only things that still made any sense.  Each semester followed the same pattern, goals, procrastination, paranoia, self-sabotage, and guilt, until in December 2012 I finally flunked out.

For a while there was nothing I could have done but go round and round in the chaos.  There is this terrible joke; how do you make a baby crawl in circles? Nail one hand to the floor.  I would liken the hand nailed to the floor to my experience of remaining in school. The anchorage to a spinning top at least keeps it moving, if only around and around.  There are worse things a baby could get into; there are better things.  There are no shortcuts when it comes to grief, but time widens the gyre.   Mostly I feel compassion for myself now that I realize the irony of my maddened logic; that due in part to my unwillingness to be misperceived by others, I became dissociated to the point of my own self-loss.   I believe in relativity and in process.  I believe in my own truths as they emerge under my perception of this complicated framework I’ve been bearing witness to all along.  Aspects of this framework are still very blurry, but tending to those places, deconstructing and constructing are among my responsibilities.  Truth will emerge during the process.

Polly Malone