Please welcome new guest writer Karin with a beautiful post to round out Mental Illness Awareness Week.
October 10 is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week. Per usual, I am squeezing this in on the very last day because I have procrastinated until the very last minute like I always do.
And also because I’m kind of terrified.
I’ve learned in the past couple years that a huge part of the reason I always procrastinate and put things off till the very last minute is because I have ADHD. And mild depression. On top of the anxiety disorder I already knew I had.
OK, there. I said it. ALL THREE OF THEM. Fingers a little wobbly on the keyboard, but the world has not ended. Yet.
11-ish years ago, I underwent what I now understand is a “triggering event”: a significant change/upheaval in your life that can move a mental health issue from “something that makes you kind of quirky” to “something that starts significantly screwing up your day-to-day life.” Immediately after I delivered our first child, my husband got a dream job offer in a different country; our wee one’s first flight was from San Francisco to Edmonton, Alberta. In January. It was cold, but the job was indeed a dream; we packed up everything, and moved away from our family, friends, and life we knew.
And I stopped sleeping. Even beyond the new baby. Sleeping and fretting and keeping everyone else awake until we hit a breaking point and I went to our new GP. He didn’t really call it an “anxiety disorder,” but he did tell me a lot about anxiety and stress and sleeping and seasonal affective disorder (which wow is a thing here in the great white north) and said, “there’s this medication called Celexa, and it might help you sleep. Want to give it a try and see how it goes?” Being fairly desperate for anything that would help, I did, and it did! My worry that it would alter my personality was soon displaced by actually sleeping, and all was well. It was “medicine I sort of took for anxiety, but more for sleeping.” I didn’t mention it much to anyone, because it wasn’t actually mental illness™, right?
I don’t regret moving. We love Canada and our life here is really good. I also look back on that, though, and say “What the hell were you guys thinking? Of course that triggered your anxiety disorder. You’re lucky that’s all it did to your brain.”
Ugh this is taking too long How can I say I’m an editor when ramble on like this? OK, just write it down, you can cut it back later.
Fast forward just short of a decade later. We now have two awesome sons, a house, and a bunch of pets. I have a great job at the same great company. I work with wonderful colleagues, many of whom have also become dear friends. We are legitimately lucky and blessed.
Our kids have always been “quirky” in some of the same ways we are. One starts having actual trouble at school.
Ugh, is it OK to “out” the kids? It’s not like they’re not dealing with it already and we all talk about it a lot. It’s probably OK, #wearestigmafree, right?
I start tentatively reaching out and talking to a few people about this. They are hugely, wonderfully supportive. (More on that in a sec.)
Over the course of a year, we explore and read and talk to friends and family and doctors, and it’s scary and tearful, but also a relief because maybe there’s a reason beyond “we suck”; and if there’s a reason, we can deal with it. Lo and behold, son is diagnosed with ADHD.
OK, but we don’t have to give him drugs, right? I’m reading that medication = lazy parenting and ADHD isn’t actually a thing. Wait, but I take drugs for anxiety, and I sleep better and I’m still me, but this is an Actual Diagnosis. Maybe if we do enough therapy…
Therapy isn’t bad, but no actual progress is made. New doctor finally explains it along the lines of:
“So, it’s like the neurons and stuff in your brain are a bunch of airplanes flying all over, giving messages to other parts of your brain. There are some really amazing robotic air traffic controllers that keep all the planes flying, but some of them in this one control tower are broken. You can’t just talk them into waking up and doing their jobs, you have to plug them in to get them working. It always seems weird that we use stimulants for ADHD, right? It’s not the symptoms you’re zapping, though: the medicine is jump-starting those broken air-traffic controllers.”
Thank the stars for childrens’ psychiatrists who can explain things in a way that I can finally understand.
So we try some medication, I am a nervous wreck, and holy crap it helps quite a bit. Not a magic bullet, but between that, and researching, and learning about how to arrange life in ways that make things more manageable (coping strategies!), school actually becomes not terrible. It is not magically perfect, but no longer the overwhelming horror it had felt like.
Then, one of the wonderful friends who was helping talk (gently drag, kindly push) me/us through this very gently and intelligently and subtly said one day, “You know, a lot of moms realize after their kids are diagnosed that THEY have ADHD as well.” Huh. That’s interesting. But ADHD usually affects guys, right? “It can look really different in women and girls than it does in men and boys, and it’s hugely underdiagnosed in females.” FINE. Harrumph. So this percolates for a day, and then I hit the internet.
And damned if I’m not the freaking poster child for the typical woman with ADHD.
And a whole lot of stuff falls into place and starts making sense.
But I help make big ol’ video games, and I did well in school and participated in lots of activities and got scholarships for both my bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and I have held down many jobs just fine and really like talking to people…
…and have always been late for everything always, and have hardly any long-term friends, and weird fears and phobias, and lose things and can’t stay organized and forget stuff if I don’t write down EVERYTHING, and my abodes are always cluttered… and…
Is this why I freaked out and drove my mom crazy anytime my dad was 2 minutes late coming home from work? Why I lay awake at night terrified of nuclear war, listening to the radio in case they started talking about the bombs dropping? Why I had a paralyzing fear of flying during my teens/early 20s? Why I have a ridiculous vomit-phobia that makes it uncomfortably weird when my kids are sick? Why how often my kids are late to school has become A Thing?
These are apparently called “coexisting conditions.” Professionals aren’t entirely sure how much of it is chemistry, and how much of it is cause-and-effect, but they are sure that it’s all tied together.
Well, this is good to know and makes sense on one hand, but on the other hand, how broken am I? Are we…? Oh, shit. I gave this to my kids. They’re going to be like me please please please don’t make them be like me. Please.
And then, another triggering event. This one is the sum of kids/school stress, extended family stress, a fear of my husband going blind/having eye surgery, and a long haul at work during which I did not take good care of myself physically or mentally. And my quirks started screwing up my life again. Missed deadlines, work not done, disastrous house, bills, taxes, weight gain, dark places, spiral…
I can’t do this, it’s all stupid why did I even start writing this, I’m losing steam and it’s all jumbled and I should go back to bed. Ugh. Get it together and on to the important part.
Off to relatively new family doc with husband holding my hand to Talk About All of This. Doc is great, and a rotating psychiatrist happens to be at the clinic next week, would you like to make an appointment? I do. I breathe deep and tell him All The Things, and come out with a diagnosis of ADHD (inattentive and impulsive), depression, anxiety, and medication suggestions for all three.
Off we go. One prescription doesn’t do anything, the next one does nothing till it makes me over the top emotional, so let’s not do that. Then, other son is diagnosed with ADHD, his first meds make him over the top emotional, yeah this is all going great.
And then at some point I have to face the way I self-harm sometimes. It doesn’t FEEL like “self-harm.” It feels like frustration and being afraid and that I suck. Other times, it honestly just feels like habit.
GAAH this is the one I’m not OK talking about yet. This one will back people off and freak them out. This one people can actually see if I don’t cover it up. Who am I kidding, they probably see. I’ve done it since I was a teenager, it comes and goes, but it’s not THAT bad, I don’t actually cut myself, but it IS a thing… well, maybe next year’s mental health week.
I guess I’m still in the middle of all this. Our collective prescriptions are stable, and we all keep trying to learn ways to Make Things Work Better. I don’t feel like I’ve won or gotten well, though I do feel like I’m starting to Know My Enemy… but my enemy is really just me. The parts of me that I hide and am ashamed of and don’t want anyone else to know are there.
Kind people on Twitter sometimes say that I inspire them or am a role model, and I usually want to yell “Whatever good things you think are a ruse, you don’t know what a huge loser I actually am!” I am terrified that the dark, yucky stuff cancels out anything positive I might ever send out to the universe. But I’m starting to see that maybe the good and bad are all part of it… and I guess this is a step towards trying to have the bad be less “bad” and more “it just is, and is part of what makes me, me.” #iamstigmafree #hyperventilating
So why subject anyone outside my head to possibly reading this hot mess and giving half a crap about it?
Because I need to thank some people. A lot of people.
And I couldn’t explain the full magnitude of my gratitude until I explained what I am actually thanking them for.
The first thanks are for anyone and everyone who’s discussed living with mental illness in a place where I could access it. You helped me so much. I hope writing this might be a way of paying your bravery forward, that it might help one other person feel like it’s OK that they can talk to their friends or look for a professional to help them take a step away from the dark—that things can improve, yes even for you. Especially for you.
I first I publicly tweeted about having ADHD last week. I didn’t know it was the week before Mental Illness Awareness week, because I don’t have my shit nearly that together. I’d had a bad evening in the dark place and felt just AAAGH enough to dare to throw a little light on it and see what happened.
What happened was heartwarming. Every single message. Kindness and support and “I’m there, too” and “I’m not there, but it must be frustrating and I’m sending you hugs.”
Thank you, to every single person who was kind to me that night.
Thank you to my wonderful GP for taking me seriously and not judging and listening to everything, for suggesting I visit the psychiatrist (thank you, too). Thank you to the myriad professionals from the schools to the clinics who have worked with our family to help us all start getting a handle on this.
Thank you to everyone in my life who still puts up with me even though I’m always late. I’m trying to get better.
Thank you to Susan, Russ, and everyone at Take This. I was inspired by the work you were doing for our community before I realized how much I might need that support, myself. Your work made wading into this less scary, and I am grateful to realize #It’sDangerousToGoAlone.
Thank you, Can’t Talk—Amelia, Bell, Rosie, Ness, Andrew, Chachi, Kelly—for all the inspiring things you have shared this week, and for introducing me to the #iamstigmafree hashtag. I have been reading and RTing your work, and wanting to say something, and terrified to say anything. Thank you for sharing your courage with me. I do feel more cold and broken hallelujah than victory march, but it’s a step. #IAmNotAlone
To my new nail polish buddy, for being a deeply inspiring example of the good that comes from embracing one’s entire self. #IAmNotGoingAlone
Maybe this isn’t all awful. Sure, my impulses have led me to places I wish they hadn’t. But they’ve also lead me up a heather-covered hill in Scotland to hang out with velvet-faced sheep. To the top of the spiral staircase in St. Paul’s Cathedral (choral performance attire be damned). And, honestly, to Canada, to start a new chapter that now feels comfortable and right. And the singing—my lifeline. Thank the heavens for music and the people who enable it.
Thank you, editorz, for listening and talking and being patient with me, and for letting me fumblingly say things that needed saying. And for still keeping on keeping on. #IAmNotGoingAlone
Thank you to my parents, both born to and married to, for listening, and hearing, and researching, and talking, and supporting. For making thoughtful, considerate suggestions to help. To my grandmother for our wonderful recent lunch visit. I was awkward talking to you all about this stuff at first, and I’m sorry for the times I was scared to. And for being late all the time. I love you. #IWasNeverAlone
Thank you to my siblings, my kids’ dear uncles and aunties, for the patient love you give my quirky lads. Thank you to my sisters for listening to me, for sharing advice, for keeping it real. Thank you both for being just the right kind of party animals and thoughtful women that make life fun and beautiful. Thank you, Seester, for being there for my dark times before I even knew what they were. #IWasNeverAlone
Thank you to Essy, Jaye, Bea, and Em. You got me over the brink and into the light, are smart and sensitive enough to know what I needed to hear and how I needed to hear it. That damn spotlight still swings all over the freaking place, but you showed me that it’s there. We’ve talked so much, I don’t know how there can be any words left. There will be more, and I wish I knew the right ones to say thank you. I don’t, but I hope you know the depth. #IAmNotGoingAlone
Thank you to my lads. We’re in this together, guys. Thank you for your strength and empathy and frustration and realness, for wielding these goofy brains with their dark spots and still so many other parts that are smart and creative and funny and joy. #WeAreNotGoingAlone
Thank you to my non-platonic life partner, my friend. You endure the darkest of my dark. The full force of both barrels when it’s not anything to do with you. You still care enough to tangle with me, and I’m shocked to full stop when I think about that. Thank you for thinking the weird things I think are funny are funny, too. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for this wonderful, scary, wacky life we’re living. Thank you for, through everything, still feeling like we’re better together than we are apart. I know I wouldn’t be better—I might not even be here—if it weren’t for you. #WeAreNotGoingAlone
Karin lives in Canada with her husband, 2 school-age sons, and numerous rescued pets. She edits big video games for a living; when she’s not busy with that, she likes to sing, game with her family, run/hike/stroll, costume anyone who’ll hold still long enough to be measured, and be outside somewhere pretty. Find her on Twitter @karinweekes