“Get Loud”? Get Real.

This is Mental Health Week in Canada. The slogans tell me I’m supposed to “Get Loud” for mental health. Problem is, I’ve been getting loud for years now, and I’m exhausted. I’ve done TV and radio interviews. I’ve spoken at national conferences. I’ve blogged. I’ve written articles. Writing is an essential function for me, little different from breathing or blinking. I need to do it, and to share it. Being a mental health advocate, on the other hand, does not come as easily. Whereas writing is invigorating, advocating for better mental health services and understanding is depleting. And I’ve gotten so little back, in return.

What has Getting Loud gotten me? It’s gotten me judgement. Isolation. Pity. What has it not gotten? System change, and a decrease in stigma.

I have PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted when I was 20. I was only officially diagnosed this past year. For almost three decades, I’ve lived with anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, fear, self-loathing, an eating disorder, and an inability to trust myself or others. I’ve made poor decisions, and tried on and discarded jobs, friends, and relationships in an attempt to be someone (anyone) other than who I am. No mental health or medical professional ever attempted to connect all the dots. I was left to conclude that I was simply flawed; a peculiar collection of undesirable ailments packaged into a small, unlikable and unstable person. Getting the PTSD diagnosis and proper treatment has been like being reborn. There is a long recovery journey ahead of me, but everything feels new and promising. I mourn the decades I’ve lost.

Finding a mental health provider who understood sexual violence and PTSD should not have taken 29 years. I know it’s not just a function of my age or the era, either. Halifax has a fabulous sexual assault centre, but it recently had to close its waiting list for counselling services. Demand is simply too high. Like me, other women are going to have to lose years of their lives to the aftermath of trauma. They, too, will experience providers who pass judgement, or who suggest they should just ‘get over it’ because it’s in the past. People they considered friends will turn away, uncomfortable with the pain and subject matter. Family will tell them it’s better to keep these things quiet and not make a fuss.

How are these women supposed to “Get Loud” when they are silenced?

I also have a child with mental health and neurological issues. I have spent almost 10 years advocating on his behalf. What does “Getting Loud” for a child with mental health issues look like? It means hours of research about conditions, treatments, and possible outcomes. It means months of sifting through policies and academic articles in order to make a case that he deserves funding for special education. It means being on call 24/7 to be his personal counsellor and to do crisis intervention when he wants to self-harm (seriously, this is the most use I’ve ever gotten out of my MSW). It means explaining to teachers, other parents, and even our own family members, that this isn’t something that will just go away. “Getting Loud” means resigning yourself to the fact that this is your reality, likely forever. “Getting Loud” means knowing that teachers and other parents see you as ‘THAT mother”…the one who is always kicking up a fuss about what her disruptive, odd child needs. It means that not only is your child pushed aside and isolated….you are, too.

“Getting Loud” for a child with mental health issues is a full-time job, with no support. I know it’s taken a toll on my own mental health issues and financial resources, but not one of his mental health professionals have ever asked how the rest of the family is coping with having a child who is often in crisis. We’re simply expected to do it. And to keep on doing it, ad infinitum.

How are parents supposed to “Get Loud”, when they’ve been screaming so long their voices are giving out?

I know the idea behind the slogan “Get Loud” is that we, as a society, need to talk about mental health. The reality is, those of us who talk about it — who live it, every damn day — aren’t being heard. The message many of us read behind “Get Loud” or “Let’s Talk” is that if you’ve never ‘come out’ about your mental illness before, you should tell your story. We’ll applaud you, and pat ourselves on the back for being so supportive!

(But if you’ve been talking or getting loud for years, could you please tone it down? We don’t need you to *keep* talking. It makes us uncomfortable. Are you okay?)

I haven’t posted in my blog for months now, because of the comments I was receiving about my mental health posts. For every person who said they understood what I was writing about, there were so many more who suggested I was being difficult. They said I couldn’t possibly expect the system to change in a timely way. They pointed out that everyone has struggles, and that I am just whining. They told me that this is just part of parenting, and to deal with it. Some said I really should just keep these things to myself.

So which one is it? Get Loud? Let’s Talk? Or Let’s Keep Things Quiet and Not Make a Fuss?

It’s been almost nine years since I first started working with an amazing group of community members and health professionals to create Nova Scotia’s first mental health and addictions strategy. We held consultations with thousands of Nova Scotians to get their input and ideas. We encouraged people to “Get Loud”. The strategy that we created wasn’t perfect, but it was more than this province had ever had before, and I was so proud to have been part of its creation. Sadly, it’s more than we’ve had in quite a while. When the Liberals were elected in 2013, the mental health and addictions strategy was quietly pushed into the corner, and hasn’t been replaced or updated.

How are Nova Scotians supposed to keep getting loud when nothing ever seems to change in the way our mental health services are funded, delivered, and valued?

So please, stop asking those of us with mental illness to Get Loud. We’ve been loud for years. Maybe you just need to Start Listening, and Start Acting.

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Christmas 2018: A Weary World Rejoices

Last week, a woman threw her coffee at me. This kind of sums up my 2018, really.

I had parked my car along a curb to pick someone up from an apartment building. Another car pulled alongside mine, blocking me in. I waited a moment for them to move forward. They didn’t. I waited another minute or two, started my car, and gave a gentle honk of the horn to let them know I was there. 

After a moment, a woman got out of the passenger side. I gave her a friendly wave. She slammed her door and yelled obscenities at me. Then she threw her cup of Tim’s coffee at my windshield and stormed into the apartment building. 

I was shattered for the rest of the day. I asked myself, over and over, what I’d done to provoke it. I hadn’t been hostile. Why had she? I kept seeing the coffee splattering across my windshield, the mess obscuring my vision.

And that, for me, was 2018: I pinballed through the year thinking I was doing okay only to meet with the worst, until I could see only the mess.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like 2018 has dragged on for much longer than its allotted 12 months. This year has been a long slog through a dank pit of ugly. For me, I’ve been trying to emerge from a cocoon, but I am far from a beautiful butterfly (at best, I am a stubby moth). It’s been a year when I felt like the universe was shouting “NO” each time I tried to move forward — almost as if a physical roadblock was placed in front of me, forcing me to stop, check my map, and recalibrate. I’ve learned not to take stability of any kind for granted.

I shed a work situation that was financially ruinous for me; on the upside, it forced me to be intentional and creative about the path I want to take going forward.  Puck emerged from the worst (knock wood) of his challenges; his confidence and peace are a wonderful mystery to me, but I’m always on alert for things to change. Daisy, on the other hand, has struggled mightily this year against her own demons. My heart aches for her, and I worry about the road ahead. But my concern is tempered by the fact that my sweet girl shares her feelings and fears with me. We will find the strength to get through these things, together. 

2018 was the year I confronted the demon that’s been riding on my back for almost 30 years: I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the sexual assault I experienced at age 20. I’ve long suspected the diagnosis, but as so many of us do, I saw the problems I’ve experienced more as character flaws and personal failures. I saw the symptoms individually rather as connected parts of a constellation. The hyper-vigilance and startle reflex. The nightmares. The flashbacks and invasive thoughts. The fear of groups of people. The fear of people who are drinking. The inability to trust people or open up to them. The constant, punishing self-hatred and self-sabotage. It was only when someone helped me to see these things together that I understood this wasn’t just something I could just shake off.  Parts of me are still stuck in that August afternoon in 1989, and I’ve started the hard work of facing them. World events have certainly forced my hand in this. It’s hard to deny your own experiences when watching Christine Blasey Ford give her brave testimony, or when listening to so many #metoo stories. The more women come forward, the more others make sense of what has happened to them.

There is relief in knowing that I can, finally, work through this, and that the world is in a more supportive place for it to happen. There is exhaustion and dismay at doing it at the same time my children need my full attention. And there is so much emotion. I am raw, and vulnerable, and I cry a hell of a lot. I am so angry, and so sad, but I have also found my voice and a new energy. I feel like kicking things. I want to kick at my memories, and at insensitive people. Inadequate systems. The patriarchy. 

It’s tempting, after such a year as this, to turn one’s back on the holiday season. It may seem needlessly exhausting, frustrating, and even pointless to turn on the Christmas tunes and put on a merriment we don’t necessarily feel. There are oh, so many moments when I want to just pull a blanket over my head and hide until January 2nd. Many of us feel shame about our lack of Christmas spirit. But there should be no shame is noting what’s lacking in our hearts. Focussing solely on the happiness of the season ignores the polarity that’s inherent in Winter Solstice. This time of year and its celebrations are traditionally as much about the darkness as the light. Death and rebirth. Ends and beginnings. I feel that more than ever, this year. So despite the emotional exhaustion and confusion that’s been my 2018, I can embrace that polarity and drag myself across the year’s finish line. We’ve made it. It’s almost done. I might not be able to clearly see the light yet, but I can celebrating the fading of the dark.

This year, I find myself clinging to traditions. I’m not doing it out of a fear that it MUST be done or Christmas will be a failure (which is how I’ve felt in the past). This year, revisiting traditions and holiday memories feels healing and therapeutic. We dig our traditions out of boxes and recipe books each year not just to make things look good for those around us, but to connect with what’s missing. I do them because they bring me closer to the women who have gone before, who have struggled hard to make a magical holiday out of very little in times or war, unemployment and illness. I look at their cookie recipes, written in fine cursive on the back of a receipt in the 1940s, and I know I am another chapter in our family story. I feel less alone. There is continuity and renewal.

This year, Daisy and Puck are both teenagers. I’m less concerned with the external trappings of Christmas, and much more focused on how things feel. My rituals exist not just to give them magic and memories, but to give them tools for the future, for times when the pressure to have a holly jolly Christmas exceeds the happiness they feel. The tools aren’t fancy, and they aren’t necessarily ones I learned in social work school. But they can, I hope, help them fill their cups at times when they’re running dangerously low on magic and faith. This year, I’m teaching them to make the Acadian meat pie generations of my family has eaten on Christmas Eve, so that they can feel more connected to who they are and where they come from. We’re talking through memories as we choose which decorations to put out. Christmas 2018 is about careful, quiet activities that bring us peace, and that we choose for ourselves. If we don’t want to do it, we’re saying no. The three of us have come to realize, this year, that living up to others’ expectations — and sometimes, our own expectations — can be where trouble begins. Defining happiness for ourselves (and defining what Christmas will look like), can be where peace starts.

Traditions ground us, providing a reminder that no matter how unrecognizable life becomes, there are still elements of comfort and joy and familiarity — things that can take us back to what feels like a simpler time. They don’t have to be done to Martha Stewart standards. Half-assed will do very nicely, sometimes. Having the right decorations and an Instagrammable meal doesn’t guarantee holiday happiness. To be honest, some of the years when I had the most picture-perfect holidays was when I was feeling my absolute lowest. 

There was a Christmas when Puck and Daisy were still babies, when everything looked perfect. The house was perfectly decorated. The gifts were just right. My freezer was stuffed with cookies. But my world smelled of gingerbread and despair. I woke in the wee hours the day before Christmas and thought, for an instant, that the best gift I could give everyone was to no longer be here. The thought was fleeting, but it was terrifying. Despite the brightly coloured lights around me, I could see only blackness. Later that day I went into my office, closed the door, and called a crisis line. A photo from a Christmas party I attended that evening shows me cuddling a young Puck in my arms, smiling and laughing. You’d never have known. 

You never do know. 

That’s why kindness — to ourselves, and to others — is so important. Everything is fleeting. Happiness. Life. The holiday season. Troubles.

The solstice approaches. The darkness has drawn out, but the light will return. 

And to the woman who threw the coffee at my car — I get it. I do. A cup of kindness can be hard to find, sometimes, and the smallest thing can become too much. I hope your cup and your spirit are well replenished. 

 

*NOTE: if you need help over the holidays, do reach out. There is hope beyond the dark.

https://www.crisistextline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645

Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266

or DIAL 911, or visit your local emergency department.