The signs were there - I just didn’t want to see them. I would go to work and care for others with a smile on my face, but days were dark, and I struggled to find the good in things. I would stop at the grocery store after work to get junk food which I would eat before my husband got home, hiding the trash in my nightstand, ashamed of what I was doing. Most days, I would lie in darkness and nap. Some days I might watch a movie or two. I would often skip dinner and stay in bed until the next day. My husband (Adam) would try and get me out of bed, but my ambition to do anything was gone. I started skipping our after-work workouts together in our home gym as I fell deeper into my depressed state.
With unpredictable mood swings, I was often irritable and would take it out on Adam or anyone who had the misfortune of crossing my path. Work was beginning to give me anxiety, and I became a broken record telling Adam about the same “work problems” over and over. I found myself unable to let things go and would vent about things that had happened months ago. My anxiety also affected my sleep. I found it hard to shut my mind off, and frequently found myself stressing about something. Instead of getting the rest
I badly needed, I was counting down the hours until it was time to get up for work. All the while, stressing about how tired I was going to be the next day, running on little to no sleep. This was me.
In the spring of 2018 I was seen by our family doctor for a routine physical. I remember breaking down on the bed during my exam, barely able to get my words out as I admitted that I could barely cope anymore with stressors at work and in my life. Through my tears they asked me a series of questions and had me fill out a questionnaire following my physical. My score was alarming. I showed signs of moderately-to-severe depression and my doctor told me I needed to take some time off of work. At that moment, all I could think of was “How am I going to provide for my family?” and “How are the bills going to get paid?” I felt completely helpless. I felt like I had let myself, and everyone else around me, down.
My doctor started me with a two week leave, with no set date to return to work. Their instructions were to take that time to work on self-care. Read, colour, exercise, get a pedicure –anything that filled my cup. I was able to do a few things for myself, but most of those two weeks I spent crying and digesting my diagnosis. I was still in complete denial.
When I returned to the doctor’s office after two weeks we discussed treatment moving forward. They wanted to keep me off work with routine check-ins with my doctor. Part of my treatment plan was medication to help increase the level of serotonin in my brain (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI for short). SSRIs are designed to help improve your mood, but the correct drug and dosage can be very individualized. The first SSRI I was put on saw some improvements but the side effects I was experiencing were not something I was willing to live with. So on to a second medication I would go. The challenge, though, is you have to wean on and off these medications – which takes time. It certainly took some time to find the right dose and see improvement with this second SSRI. I noticed an improvement in my mood and energy levels which began to restore interest in daily life.
While an effective tool, medication isn’t the panacea for mental illnesses. Part of my plan was to seek guidance and someone to talk to. My workplace’s employee assistant program offered over-the-phone counselling, which was a quicker way to speak to someone compared to waiting to see someone in person. Over the phone with my therapist I completed exercises, talked about my feelings, and shared the journaling I had been doing. I found these one-on-one chats to be very beneficial. They were able to ask the types of questions that encouraged me to divulge my true thoughts and feelings; helping me start to heal wounds I had buried deep inside.
In addition to these “virtual” visits, I was intent on completing a mindfulness program. I had to fill out another questionnaire before speaking with a therapist to determine which program would be a fit for me. Ultimately, I was enrolled in a nine week, in-person program designed to help me let go of the past, worry less about the future, and live more in the present. I learned about meditation techniques, self-acceptance, patience, kindness and compassion, attaining inner peace, and I was challenged to change my negative thinking. Every week, there were handouts, audio files to listen to, and activities to complete. With this increased focus on mindfulness and meditation, I found yoga. There, I could practice the skills I learned in the program without judgment. Yoga became a positive outlet for me; I would go early and stay late to meditate – using this time to find peace and quiet my mind.
From the first day I was initially put on a leave until I returned to work was about fifteen weeks, but this was no vacation. Countless tears were shed as it felt I was waging a constant battle with my employer to support my leave. The increased stress and anxiety from this added uncertainty and conflict were the last thing I needed as I worked at finding balance with my mental health. It felt as though the goalposts were constantly shifting, but I was incredibly fortunate that my doctor was a strong advocate for me. They made sure to meet the adjudicator’s demands for paperwork, plans, assessments and reassessments throughout my treatment plan and leave. When I returned to work, I started with gradual, modified hours and days - helping me work my way back up to my previous hours and duties. This was integral to helping prevent a relapse from happening, and ensuring I was able to manage my depression and anxiety when confronted with my “normal” day-to-day responsibilities. Some days were harder than others, but the time to transition allowed me to adjust my mindset about my stressors at work as well as my overall wellbeing.
During my journey, I also found my voice - sharing my story with family and friends. Some were receptive and supportive, while others needed help to understand what I was going through. Mental health is not like a broken bone, and it can be difficult for people to grasp something they cannot physically see. At first, my dad struggled to understand what I was going through. He would always ask me the same question - “What’s the matter with you and why aren’t you back at work yet?” He didn’t realize that this was more harmful than supportive. It didn’t come from a place of malice, but rather the perpetuation of ideas like “it’s all in your head” and “shake it off” that were prevalent in older generations. I am proud of the efforts he’s put in to better understand my diagnosis and how it impacted me. Small things can make a big impact - telling someone you care, or asking how you can help can make all the difference in someone’s day. Above all else, be supportive and express empathy and understanding.
I did not want medication to be a permanent solution. If it was possible for me to go off my medication and work hard on managing my triggers that was my goal and one year after I was diagnosed I was ready to try. My doctor guided me through weaning off the medication while monitoring my symptoms. It was a scary transition to make, and I knew that there was a chance that this was not the right time to go off my medications. There certainly were times when my anxiety would begin to creep back in and I had to decline some events to focus on myself. I would feel that heaviness in my chest as the stressors piled up from the week. Without medication to rely on, this was the true test of the tools I had developed to help me manage my mental illness. I am happy to say that two and a half years later I am still off my medication.
Adam has always supported me during this journey and has stuck with me even in my darkest of days. As I type this, happy tears are flowing because without his support at home I believe my journey and outcome would have been very different. We have been together for almost thirteen years now and married for eight. From the outset of our relationship, we both were adamant that we did not want children. As we grew older, priorities, wants and needs changed and we began to have conversations about children. Adam was steadfast that he would not consider children until I had taken steps to address my mental health. He worried that bringing a child into the world while in a state of turmoil would be detrimental to our child, myself, and our relationship. Now, here we are, three years later with a happy little boy, Asher. Following his birth, both of our families have stepped up immensely, helping in any way possible. As any parent knows, there are some days when I have patience to spare and others where I can’t find an ounce of it. Thanks to these supports, I have been able to enjoy this new chapter in our lives and it brings me great joy that I am able to be myself around my son. As Asher grows we want to create a safe space for him and teach him that his feelings are valid and should be heard. It is important to us that he understands that mental well-being does not mean you have to be happy all the time - that it is okay to feel frustrated, angry, and even sad.
Unmuted is about telling your story - whatever that may be. We all are in different chapters of our own stories, but that doesn’t make them any more or less worthy to tell. I will always be working on myself and do not want my diagnosis to define me. I want to feel empowered and share with anyone willing to listen. I hope this inspires others to find their voice and tell their story - I want to hear it!