Sunday, April 21, 2024

My Journey to Mental Wellness

Submitted by: Carly Young, Bay St. George campus

CNA recognizes the importance of talking about mental health to help reduce the stigma. and will be promoting awareness activities throughout the month of May. This year’s theme is “My Story” which emphasizes that everyone has a unique and valuable story to share, all of which can be used to promote a meaningful message: that we must work together to reduce the barriers that so many people face when seeking mental health support.

This is Carly’s story.

My name is Carly, and I am from St. George’s, a small town on the west coast of the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador

From an early age, I knew what mental health issues were, as I was raised in a family with members who suffer from mental health issues. Despite not intending to, being exposed to mental illness at an early age affected me, though I did not know it at the time. I felt older than I was and that I was not like the other children because I had to grow up quickly and lost some of my childhood along the way.

I was severely bullied in school. They made fun of me relentlessly, and I felt alienated. This caused me to withdraw and isolate myself as much as possible. I had a lot of social anxiety as well and felt that nothing I had to say mattered. I was very lonely and longed for people to accept me. I just wanted to be normal. I felt like there was something wrong with me and that I was defective because of the bullying. I kept to myself as much as possible, trying to blend in and become as invisible as my peers made me feel.

My symptoms began to become more present when I was 12 years old. I also started to have obsessive thoughts, especially when it came to germs. I was always worried that the things I touched were unclean or contaminated. I began washing my hands compulsively, and I felt that if I didn’t do this, terrible things would happen to me. Even if I tried not to, I would experience intense panic, my fists would clench, and my obsessions and compulsions would become worse. My condition intensified, and I was washing my hands so much that they were red and scalded from using hot water. At the time, hand sanitizer was not something that was readily available. It was only when it was that this became a little more bearable for me.

I wasn’t aware that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and because I didn’t understand this, I thought I was a bad person. The thoughts would keep me up at night, and I would cry alone in my room. I would pray night after night for God to make me normal. Help didn’t come.

When I was 15, I lost my best friend and cousin, Nathan, in a tragic house fire. I was devastated, and I couldn’t attend school. I was in so much pain that I blocked it out of my mind — I don’t even remember his funeral because I was in so much pain that my brain would not allow me to process it. I turned to alcohol and cigarettes to ease my agony. This made things worse, as I developed issues related to binge drinking and slipped further into depression. I would drink until I blacked out, and the depression encompassed me. I would drink and cry, wondering why life had to be so unfair.

This is also when I first started experiencing panic attacks. I didn’t know what was going on, and thought I was having a heart attack. I told my parents, and they comforted me by saying they both experienced anxiety attacks as well. Despite this, the attacks were intense and terrifying. When these symptoms first started to develop in 2010, there was no discussion of mental health in school like there is today, and I literally thought I was going crazy (I know that it’s an acceptable word for mental illness today). This made me feel even more isolated and alone.

I spent many years suffering in silence because nobody knew I had mental health issues, including undiagnosed ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). I had been misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which is often the case because ADHD and borderline personality disorder have many overlapping symptoms. I flew under the radar because I had always done well in school, and girls with ADHD are often underdiagnosed because of this. I missed a lot of school due to my suffering mental health and ADHD. I was absent for more than 50 days in Grade 12. I could barely get out of bed in the morning, and often I missed school because I couldn’t muster the energy mentally or physically to go. I had always done well in school and was able to graduate, but I felt disappointed in myself – like a failure.

EMANCIPATION

In my early 20s, my mental health problems became significantly worse due to working in a toxic environment. Yet again, I felt like I could do nothing right and felt defective. At the time, my mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer, which I found difficult to accept, and I was in denial about the seriousness of the condition. I reached a point where I considered taking my own life. The only reason I didn’t is my fear of death and I didn’t want to hurt my parents.

I reached my breaking point, and I decided to leave my job. I knew it would be hard and that I would struggle, but it was better than not wanting to wake up in the morning and going to a place that made me feel so bad. After leaving, my eating worsened, and I gained a lot of weight. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror without seeing a physical manifestation of how miserable I felt on the inside. I was later diagnosed with a binge eating disorder.

Day after day, I isolated myself and didn’t let many people into my life. I felt very lonely and cut off from others and the world. I wanted and needed to have healthy relationships with others, but I did not know how to do it on my own. I reached a point in my life where I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I had no plans on ever returning to school because I had lost faith in myself, and I didn’t want to work because I was traumatized by my previous job. As a result, I stayed unemployed for years. Instead of addressing my problems, I masked and avoided them using alcohol and medication. I would sleep my days away because it was a temporary escape.

I was becoming increasingly angry as the years passed. I wasn’t able to handle my feelings anymore, and I was tired of not having a voice and not being heard. I began having angry outbursts that became explosive and intolerable. I was getting so mad that I was throwing and breaking things. I was volatile. For those who had to bear it, my tongue was like a knife that cut deeply and wounded those whom I cared about the most.

I was pushing everyone away, especially the people I cared about, because I was unable to control my emotions and didn’t have the coping mechanisms to do so. I wanted to meet new people, but I didn’t know how. All I knew was that I couldn’t continue feeling this way for much longer and no idea what to do about it. At the time, there was a waitlist for Mental Health and Addiction Services, and I had been waiting for two years to see someone. I learned through a friend that, as an Indigenous person with status, I was qualified for funding to see a private counsellor. I then self-referred to a counselling center in Corner Brook, where I was introduced to dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).

DBT helps people learn to live in the moment, cope with stress, regulate emotions, and improve relationships. It is taught through a combination of group therapy, individual therapy, and phone coaching. It involves tracking your problem behaviours and emotions through a diary card; your counsellor then reviews it and helps you choose a skill to use instead of engaging in the problem behaviour.

I began group therapy and counselling at Mental Health & Addiction Services in Stephenville. Considering my past experiences, I didn’t believe it was going to work. Despite my uncertainty, I decided to take it seriously and go hard at it because I desperately wanted to get better.

FOUND MYSELF AGAIN

After working with my counsellor, Jade, and the DBT group for several months, I stopped overeating as often and started identifying the emotions that were causing my overeating and applying positive coping mechanisms instead. I was astonished by the changes I had made after just six months of DBT and decided to repeat it to get the most benefit. I decided I wanted to do the programs again; although the second round of DBT was challenging, things got clearer and stuck more with each session.

I was also gaining more confidence in myself and decided to apply to school. When I received the acceptance letter, I couldn’t believe it and began to cry. Was this really happening to me? I didn’t think I could ever find the courage to return to school. My ability to communicate with people was also improving, and my interpersonal relationships were getting stronger. I found it easier to talk to people, and I no longer required counselling to treat my anger issues or binge eating disorder because they were under control. It was a surreal moment. I didn’t think I could change, but here I was a year later, a changed person.

My counsellors, Jade and Cathy, have been invaluable resources for me. They helped to empower me and instill confidence in me. They helped me regain my identity and sense of pride in myself and helped shape me into the person I wanted and knew I could be. The support and confidence these women gave me helped to emancipate me. Without them, I am not sure what I would have done or where I would be today.

Now, rather than limiting myself, I try to be the best version of myself that I can be. Volunteering at our local SPCA is something that has helped me to feel a sense of purpose, pride and has a lot of value for me — it is my happy place. I have met so many good people that I am happy to call my friends. Also, I am now a full-time student at CNA (College of the North Atlantic) enrolled in the Community Leadership Development program with the goal of furthering my education and pursuing a career in Social Work.

I recognize now that I can reach my potential because of my work on my skills and behaviour. I still have struggles with my mental health; healing is not linear. As humans, it is natural to have difficulties. Whenever I feel down, I know how to cope with these obstacles in a healthy way and not allow myself to go back to that dark place.

After years of being silent, I have come to the realization that I do have a voice, and I can use it to help others who are experiencing the same difficulties as I am. If there is one thing that I want people to take away from my journey, it is how important it is to reach out when you are in a difficult place. You don’t have to suffer alone or in silence. There are several resources available to connect you with supportive and caring people who want to help you. Always remember that you have a voice. Please use it as loudly as you can. By doing so, I believe we can eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness.

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Ryanne McIsaac
Ryanne McIsaac
Ryanne is Editor of CNA Currents. Born and raised in Stephenville, NL, Ryanne moved back to Newfoundland after spending 16 years in Calgary, Alberta. Ryanne has a Journalism Diploma from College of the North Atlantic and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Cape Breton University. She worked for many years as a reporter and freelance writer. She is happy to be back in her hometown and working for CNA.

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