The Failings of the Canadian Healthcare System

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I want to start by saying that I think the Canada’s healthcare system is a pretty good one, for the most part.  However, my experience with depression and anxiety has made me lose a little bit of faith in this system.  I was crying out for help, but I didn’t get it.  This post is a chance for me to share what I went through in hopes that just maybe it can help to make a change.

I was diagnosed with depression when I was 14.  I don’t really remember a time where I was happy, but I thought that was normal until I took middle school health classes.  In those classes, we learned about mental illnesses.  That’s when I started to think that maybe something was wrong.  After learning about some of these illnesses, my friend told me that she had bipolar.  This age is also when I started to self-harm by cutting.

In August, right before starting high school, I was lying in bed crying.  I wasn’t crying about anything in particular.  I was just miserable, and I didn’t know why.  Lying there, I decided that I was fed up with this.  I was going to something about this.  This was around the time where the Bell Kid’s Help Phone ads where everywhere.  I remembered seeing the number on one of the cereal boxes that we had in our kitchen, so I went downstairs and called them.  The number was temporarily unavailable.  I was determined to get help, so I went to the phone book and found a Youth Help Line for the area.  I called the number.

After talking to the woman on the phone, my mom walked into the living room where I had been talking.  I guess I had woken her up.  I was crying, so she asked what was wrong.  I told her everything, and I said that I wanted to make a doctor’s appointment to address my issues.  She hugged me, and told me that she would make the appointment so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

When I met with my doctor, he was hesitant to put me on anti-depressants because I was so young, but he prescribed me Cipralex.  I hated Cipralex.  I didn’t even notice whether or not my mood was improving or worsening because I was so distracted by the terrible headaches I was getting.  At the time, I had never had a hangover.  Now that I’ve had one, I can tell you that the headache that comes with a hangover was nothing compared to these headaches.  These headaches were so bad that I would start to cry because the pain was so bad, but the crying made the headaches worse.

When I told my doctor about the headaches I was having, he told me that was a normal side effect and that I should just keep taking the pills.  I told him that I couldn’t.  That is when I started my very long journey to find the right medication.  Finding the right antidepressant can be a difficult journey.  The meds take a few weeks to start working, so you have to wait to see if they work for you.  Then, if they don’t, you spend a few weeks on another medication.  As you’ve probably figured out, it can take a long time to find the right one.  Eventually, I found Cymbalta.  Cymbalta wasn’t perfect, but it had worked better than any other medication I had been on.  Plus, my doctor had warned me that we were running out of options for medication, so I went with it.

I was also starting therapy, but not for the first time.  I saw my first therapist when I was 8 years old, but I lived in France at the time.  I didn’t speak French well enough to see a therapist on my own, so my mom came to translate.  I was seeing my second therapist, this time in English, when I was 9.  Our family’s insurance only covered 10 therapy sessions a year.  So, basically, I could see a therapist for a while every year, but not continuously.  This meant that I was in and out of therapy quite a bit, but I could never go long enough to really make a difference in my mental health.

Meanwhile, I started to have panic attacks in grade 9, when I was 15.  At this point, they didn’t happen that often, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  They started to get a lot worse and happened more frequently in grade 12, then even worse and even more frequent in university.  You can read more about my panic attacks here, if you feel so inclined.  It wasn’t until university that I was given medication for my anxiety.  I was prescribed Lorazepam, or Ativan, to take as needed.

I was very hopeful that university would be the place I finally got help because Student Counselling Services was paid for in your tuition, which meant that I could go to therapy for more than ten sessions.  I was also looking forward to possibly getting better healthcare with Student Health Services, which was also covered in my tuition.  I hadn’t really liked either of my family doctors from the past very much.  My doctors never met with me about my medications, and they didn’t really ask me about how the meds were working.  They just prescribed away.  Unfortunately, the university services disappointed me.

My journey with Student Health Services started at the hospital.   I had been sitting on the floor in my room with all the pills I had in my room in front of me and a bottle gin.  I was planning on swallowing all the pills and chugging the gin afterwards.  I wanted to die,  but I kind of didn’t.  I really just wanted to escape from my depression and anxiety.  Instead, I went to the hospital.  I told them that I was afraid that if I didn’t get the help I needed, that I would end my life.  They sent me home, but they faxed Student Health Services and Student Counselling Services to make sure that I would have appointments with them.

Since Student Health Services was so busy, and it took so long to get an appointment with a doctor, I had my appointment with an intern who was only at the school for a few weeks.  She was amazing.  She wanted to know exactly what was going on with me to make sure that she gave me the right kind of treatment.  She didn’t just say, “Oh, your depressed,” and pick up her prescription pad.  She had scheduled me for a half-hour appointment right before her lunch break.  She told me that if the appointment carried on into her lunch, that was fine.  She also scheduled me for a follow-up appointment the week after to check up on me.  But then her internship ended, and I felt lost in the crowd again.

When I went to Student Counselling services, I was set up to meet with a counsellor every other week.  However, my appointments were always cancelled, or pushed back a week or two.  In a three month period, I had met with a counsellor twice.  After this, my mom took it upon herself to pay $90 and hour for me to see a therapist outside of the school once a week.  This therapist was actually very helpful.  I was starting to feel less alone, and I was recognizing that I had been emotionally abused.  I was starting to see that I was worth a lot more than I thought I was.  Although my self-esteem was improving, my mood was not.

At this point, I had given up.  And that’s when I tried to kill myself.  It’s also when I started to get help.

Before explaining what I went through after I made my suicide attempt, I just want to say one thing.  The lack of treatment I received was most definitely one of the major reasons that I attempted suicide, but it wasn’t the only one.  There was a lot more going on.

After spending a few days in the ICU of the general hospital, I was checked into a full-lockdown unit in the psychiatric hospital across the street.  This unit was terrifying.  The blinds on my window were behind bulletproof glass.  You had to get one of the nurses to open them for you, but mine were broken.  I didn’t see sunlight for four days.  But I did see a psychiatrist.  I was informed that Cipralex and Ativan should not be prescribed to anyone under 24 because they can cause suicidal thoughts in people under that age.  I was put on Prozac for depression, Trazodone for sleeping, and Seroquel as needed for anxiety.  I also learned that the panic attacks I was experiencing were due to a panic disorder.

The psychiatric hospital was great, and I received wonderful treatment.  I was lucky.  I was in one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the country, by coincidence.  I just happened to have been in the city that had this hospital.

There were two things that bothered me about this.  The first was that I had to do such an extreme thing to get the treatment I needed.  I had told healthcare professionals how serious my illness was getting, but I hadn’t gotten much help until I had tried to end my life.  Is that the way it is with everything?  What about the people who succeeded in committing suicide?  Had they had a chance to get the right treatment?  I was especially bothered by this because the nurse who admitted me didn’t believe me that I had asked for help.

“Did you ask specifically?” she asked.

“Yes.  I told the people at the hospital that I was worried I would kill myself if I didn’t get help.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”  I was beginning to feel like I had absolutely no credibility as a mental patient.

The second thing that bothered me was how lucky I had been to have gotten into this hospital.  I had heard stories from other patients about how terrible other places were.  The hospital I was in was a private hospital.  If it was the hospital in your area and your insurance didn’t cover it, OHIP would pay for it.  However, if you weren’t from the area and couldn’t afford to stay there, you would end up somewhere a lot worse.

I sometimes wish that I could have taken a different path to where I am now, but my determinism to make a change might not be as strong.  I want to make a difference.  I want to change the way mental health is seen in society.  I want to change how mental health is treated.  This blog is my first step to try to make this change.

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Avoiding Avoidance

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I spend most of my day in fear.  What am I afraid of?  I don’t really know.  Going into any given situation, especially social situations, I truly believe that something bad WILL happen.  I don’t know what I think is going to happen.  My mind isn’t making sense at this point.  All I know is that I have an overwhelming sensation of fear.

Because of my fear, I avoided certain situations.  I have avoided going out with friends in case I have a panic attack when I’m with them and someone will have their night ruined by having to calm me down.  I have avoided elevators with too many people in them in case I have a panic attack while I’m stuck in a small space with strangers.  I have avoided going to the library to work on projects in case I have a panic attack and interrupt people’s study time.  I live in fear of my fear.  Anytime I go anywhere, I worry about the possibility of having a panic attack in front of a bunch of people because I don’t want to be a burden on anyone.

Avoiding things was made easier by people who would say things like, “I don’t know if you should go out tonight.  You had a panic attack last time.”  I had an excuse to avoid situations because other people told me that it was a good idea.  I was too passive.  I let other people control me, and I let my panic disorder control me.

Now, I’m trying something else.  I’m doing the things that make me nervous.  I’m not letting my panic get the best of me.  I am going to beat it!  I’m still trying to figure out how, but I am determined that this fear will end because there is no worse feeling than having a panic attack.  I am going to be assertive!

When my panic attacks start, I notice myself shaking.  Then my vision starts to blur.  All the faces around me are indiscernible, I start to have tunnel vision, and I’m starting to feel dizzy.  My hearing starts to fail me.  Everything sounds like I’m underwater, listening to the people above the surface and unable to make out their words.  Then I notice the tightness in my chest.  Is that new, or did I just not notice it before because I was trying to get my vision back to normal?  It’s getting harder and harder to breathe.  I want nothing more than to escape this situation because I am certain that something terrible is going to happen to me or someone around me.  Someone is going to get hurt, raped, murdered.  My panic peaks.  Sometimes I start to hyperventilate or scream, but not always.  Slowly after this, my panic starts to subside.  I feel ashamed for being unable to stay in a group where everyone else is laughing and having a great time.  I feel like an inadequate person, so I avoid similar situations in the future.

As I started to avoid more and more situations, the number of places I could go and the number of things I could do started to dwindle.  Eventually, it was hard to even have a one-on-one conversation with someone.  So, I isolated myself.  I only talked to people when I had to, just enough so that they wouldn’t worry about me too much.  When people asked me why they don’t see me as much anymore, I made up excuses.  “I haven’t been sleeping well.”  “I’m sick.”  People believed it, so I got away with lying in bed most of the day with very few questions asked.

But not anymore.  No longer will I continue to waste away, avoiding eating because people would see me when I went to the kitchen to make  food, avoiding going to the bathroom as long as possible because I was afraid of seeing someone in the hallway and having to socialize.  I am going to be in control now.

Romantic Comedies

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Have problems.  Meet the right person.  Fall in love.  Problems solved.

This is the plot of almost every single romantic comedy.  It’s the plot of other movies too, ones that aren’t even meant to be cheesy and all lovey-dovey.  In so many movies, we see someone who is struggling with their own issues.  These issues could be anything: low self-esteem, commitment issues, shallow personality, mental illness, etc.  But then this person meets someone who changes their entire outlook on life, and solves their problems for them. What I want to know is:  What will happen to the rest of us?  What happens to those of us who have these same issues, only we’re not in love?  Do we have to wait until the right person comes along and makes all of our problems go away?

Now, I know that these movies are just fiction.  They aren’t supposed to be realistic.  They are supposed to play at our emotions to reel us in.  I have no problem with this for entertainment value.  I love a good rom-com as much as the next girl!  The problem that I have with it is when people seem to think that this is how their lives will get better, that they just need a new boyfriend or girlfriend to make them happy, that a relationship should be everything they need to lead a happy life.

This isn’t the case, though.  I see many of the people who think this way go into relationships, but they still have all the same problems that they did before.  When I’ve dated guys, my mental illness doesn’t go away.  If anything, I’m more unhappy in relationships than when I’m on my own because my relationships are so unhealthy.  Depending on someone else to make you happy is not healthy.  It’s destructive.

I think that the best way to work through your issues is to do it on your own.  Yes, it is helpful to have people support you through your issues.  I don’t know what I would do without my friends and family.  What isn’t helpful is having one person be the solution to your problems.  Who wants that kind of dependence?

Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t fall in love.  I think that finding the right person in life is wonderful!  I don’t mean to say that you should go and live alone forever.  Inviting people into your life is great!  In fact, I wish that I could be better at it.  I just think that the way movies teach us that all we need to solve our problems is to fall in love is unrealistic.  I’ve had someone tell me that they would help me work through my depression, and that they would fight it alongside me.  That relationship ended up to be the most destructive relationship I’ve ever had with anyone.

Maybe my point of view is askew because I’m so damaged.  Maybe I’ve just only ever had unhealthy relationships, so my judgement is clouded.  I don’t know.  I just think that the best way to solve our problems is to get the help we need from either ourselves, a self-help book, or a professional, but it’s not to fall in love.  What do you guys think?

What Am I Going To Do About It?

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A couple of days ago, I was on my way to a group at the psych hospital.  I stopped at Starbucks on my way there.  As I’m waiting for my drink, this pretty cute guy asks me what my plans are for the day.  All I can think is, “Say anything other than ‘I’m going to a psychiatric hospital for group therapy.'”  But why should I feel that way?  Why should I feel like I need to hide my mental disorders?  Why I am I so ashamed of them?

When you are ill, you get treatment.  If I had been going to physiotherapy, or had a doctor’s appointment, I wouldn’t have been ashamed to say where I was going.  Why is it so different with mental health?  Why do I feel like everyone will think, “Oh, man.  That girl is crazy!” if I tell them what’s going on?  I think a lot of it has to do with the way our society teaches us to feel about mental illness.

On tv, and in movies, people with a mental illness always keep it quiet.  They don’t want anyone to know about what they suffer from.  I’m sure you can think of a scene from a movie or a television show where someone with a more obvious or visible mental illness is ridiculed.  In fact, I bet you have seen it happen in real life.  I bet that you have seen someone make fun of another person for doing something that appears “crazy.”  Maybe you’ve even done it yourself.

Coming back to my life, I have been told that I should keep my mental illness under the radar.  I have been told that my mental illness causes other people unhappiness.  The words of others have made me ashamed of my diagnosis.  For the longest time, I didn’t want anyone to know how “crazy” I was.  I was ashamed of my anxiety especially.  That was worse than my depression, for me.  I didn’t want anyone to see me have a panic attack.  For the most part, I was really good at keeping them hidden.  The only times I had public panic attacks were when I was drunk.  To fix that, I stopped going out with my friends.  I was retreating into my room, and I only left when I had to.

At this point, people were noticing that something was going on.  “You spend a lot of time in your room,” they would say.   I would come up with excuses.  I’d say that I hadn’t slept well the night before so I was resting, or that I was getting sick.  People thought I was sick all the time.  I guess I was, but not with a cold or the flu like everyone thought.  I was depressed.  I was anxious.  And I was ashamed of it.

I could keep asking all these “why” questions: “Why did I feel like this?”  “Why does society put a stigma on people struggling with mental illness?”  Instead, I will ask a “what” question:  “What am I going to do about it?”

In my opinion, the most important thing I can do to change they way we perceive mental illness is to share my story.  So, that’s what I’ll do.  I think that the more people who share their stories about mental illness, the less judgemental others will be.  And that’s the goal of this blog.  I am going to share my story, bit by bit, with you guys.  You, the readers, are important.  I’m relying on you to go out into the world and be more open-minded about the people around you.  I thank you in advance.  Get the ball rolling!

The Panic Attack

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Tad bit of background information:  I spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital.  Four weeks total in hospital, but one week was at the general hospital.  I have decided to be open about where I was because I want to work towards de-stigmatizing mental illness.  This post will not be about why I was in the hospital, but I may write about that another time.

I still go back to the hospital on a regular basis for groups.  Today, I had my CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy]: Skills for Anxiety group.  At the beginning of the group, we went over the homework from the last session.  We were to write down our thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviours when our anxiety level was at a 10, at a 50, and at 100.  Since I have a panic disorder, my anxiety can go from zero to one hundred in less than a minute.

Just to fill you guys in, a panic disorder is when you have sudden overwhelming sensations of fear.  For me, I’m not really afraid of anything concrete.  I just think, “Something bad will happen!”  Logically, I know there is no danger, but I still feel terrified.  This can last for hours, but it usually only lasts a few minutes.  The fear often brings on panic attacks, which I will describe more in-depth momentarily.

For confidentiality purposes, I can’t say much about the group.  But after describing what my 100 feels like, I keep having flashbacks to my very worst panic attacks.  My mind is racing, remembering all of the shaking, trouble breathing, sweating, chest pain, dizziness, loss of focus, and nausea that I feel when I start to get extremely anxious and have panic attacks.  Then I notice that in the present I’m starting to shake, I have a pain in my chest, and I’m losing focus on what is going on in the room.

Then BAM!  I see myself pacing in my room in residence, crying, pulling at my hair, not knowing what to do to make the panic stop.  I just want it to stop.  I feel helpless, hopeless.  And so hot.  I feel like I am overheating.  My breathing is fast, and I’m shaking.  I want this to just – be – over!

BAM!  I see myself getting up to leave the University Centre when a sudden wave of panic comes over me.  I see myself walking out the building and aimlessly walking around campus until I think, “Where the hell am I going?”  Then I go into one of the building’s bathrooms to cry.

BAM!  I’m drunk and screaming, and I don’t even know where I am.

BAM!  I’m at my friend’s Christmas party, and I can’t make out people’s faces because I am so rattled with fear.  So I take my anti-anxiety meds then drive home.

BAM!  I’m in the car with my mom, and she pulls over because I can’t breathe.

BAM!  I’m lying on my bed, wrapped up in one of my best friend’s arms.  He’s stroking my hair, saying, “Sophie, what’s wrong?”  I tell him that something bad is going to happen.  “Like what?”  I don’t know what to tell him, and he just keeps stroking my hair telling me, “Nothing bad will happen.”

This last flashback calms me down a little.  “Nothing bad will happen,” I think to myself, and I am able to bring myself back into the present moment.  There’s no danger, and nothing bad does happen.

The Hardest Thing To Lose

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Write about the most precious thing you’ve ever lost.

When I was four or five years old, I lost my most prized possession.  I lost my Tamagotchi.  I loved my Tamagotchi.  I always wanted a dog when I was little, but I never had one until a few years later.  My Tamagotchi was the closest thing I had to a pet.  It was a virtual pet, but it was better than nothing.

I always took really good care of my Tamagotchi too.  While some of my friends would forget to feed theirs or give them baths, I always had mine in tip-top shape!  Mine always grew into old age and died of natural causes.  Then it would be reborn, and I would start all over again.  Kind of like the electronic version of a phoenix.

I remember that my family was on vacation in California when I lost my most-prized possession.  I don’t remember anything about the trip other than not wanting to leave because I hadn’t found my Tamagotchi.  I remember how upset I was that I couldn’t find it, and that my parents wouldn’t at least buy me a new one.  I also remember the trip to the store when I first bought it.  I was almost hit by a car in the parking lot.  You see how much I loved this thing.  Some of my earliest memories surround this tiny object.

When we got back to Canada, I was convinced that I would somehow find my Tamagotchi.  I was sure that it had made its way into my luggage and back to my house.  Of course, it hadn’t.  Then I spent the next few months asking random people, “Excuse me, have you seen my Tamagotchi?”  I was just hoping that I would find someone who would reply saying, “Why, yes.  I was on vacation in California when I came across this,” and that they would present my pink virtual pet to me.  Unfortunately for me, it never happened.

To this day, I still sometimes miss my Tamagotchi.  When I got an iPhone, I searched to see if there was a Tamagotchi app.  (There is, by the way.)  However, I finally got the dog I had always wanted.  In fact, for a while, I had two.  I had one at my mom’s house and one at my dad’s house.  The one at my dad’s is the only one still here today.  In between the Tamagotchi days and now, I had a bunch of other pets too.  I had hamsters, a mouse, a rabbit, fish, hermit crabs, degus.  None of them came back to life when they died, but they were all pretty good companions.  Except for the fish, who never really did much.  But no matter how many pets I’ve had, or will have, I think a part of me will always miss my pink Tamagotchi.