Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bell ~ Let's Talk

Today, Wednesday, January 28th, is Bell Let's Talk Day, an initiative from Bell Canada that focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues.  The premise is simple and one that is close to my heart, that if people will tell their stories and listen to the stories of others, much of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness will be replaced by understanding, compassion and empathy.

My sister, Dana, started the story telling this morning by sharing her struggle with depression. The truth is that my family is and has been full of brave, intelligent, capable, resilient people who have walked their life paths hand in hand with the darkness of mental illness, including the black dog of depression, and in my life, anxiety.

I can't remember ever not being anxious.  From infancy and probably even earlier, for various reasons, my body and brain, my personality and intellect developed while awash in a potent cocktail of stress hormones, specifically cortisol.  From a very young age, I learned to deal with overwhelming stress by "disappearing."  I froze, withdrew, and was compliantly, passively and quietly non-existent.

Anxiety controlled my life.  "Disappearing" could, at least in some respects, protect me from the outward stressors, but I could never get away from the inner turmoil.  As an introvert, when faced with a fight or flight trigger (which, due to the chronic anxiety, happened often), I withdrew.  Shut down. Shut up. My mind, though, was rarely quiet.  I was, and am an introvert, but I am also passionate, thoughtful, strong minded and full of questions.  I struggled with the silence. I was bright and opinionated, but repeatedly had to choose safety over freedom.

Because I had never been free from anxiety, I thought everyone felt this way.  As an adult, I became a Christian and began to grow in faith. I heard over and over, "Fear not."  It had the authority of a command, but there was always a whisper of hope attached to it.  Fear not. Was that even possible? The God I knew, the One who had rescued me from a life of darkness, who loved me in ways that I was only beginning to understand, would not ask something of me that wasn't possible, that He couldn't or wouldn't help me acheive.  As I walked with Jesus, through Bible study and with the help of faithful and honest counsellors and friends, I began to gain control of my thought life. The Scriptures and God's intimate counsel led me through a path of cognitive training that set me free from negative thoughts that kept me trapped in fear.

One of the aspects of mental illness that is often overlooked involves physical symptoms. A lifetime of chronic anxiety had conditioned and fitted my body to react in extreme ways to situations and circumstances that my mind, emotions and stress hormones were slapping danger signs on.  Retraining my mind, and even my emotions set me free to some extent, but I soon realized that my body had a mind of its own in these matters.  I was diagnosed with a chronic bladder disease called interstitial cystitis (IC) or painful bladder syndrome (PBS) when I was in my early 30s.  One of the most consistent and frequent triggers was stress.  A few years after the IC diagnosis, I suffered a heart attack. I had no markers for heart disease, other than the fact that I was overweight.  My blood pressure and cholesterol were low to normal, I had no family history of heart disease, I didn't smoke or do drugs, and I was young. The diagnosis was coronary artery spasms, a condition that was very susceptible to stress. 

It felt like my body was saying, that's enough! I had to face the possibility that cognitive training and the peace that I felt in God was not going to stop my body from reacting to the stress of life.  I prayed for healing, and I knew that it was possible.  I had experienced healing in my mind and heart.  As I continued to struggle with the physical effects of stress, I began to think about asking for help from my doctor. As in meds. I hated the very thought of it. Nerve pills. Oh, pshaw.

I saw it as an easy fix, a sign of my weakness.  I never questioned the strength of my faith. God and I had been though that when I first got IC. I knew that He could heal me. There was no question in my mind. I struggled with Him, when He didn't heal me, and we worked it out.  Somehow, though, I had gotten to the point where I believed that I had to tough it out to be strong, that being brave always meant pushing through the fear, pushing, pushing, pushing until I wasn't afraid anymore.  Unfortunately, my body wasn't getting the message, and the pushing through was killing me. It was one thing when the stress only meant searing pain in my abdomen, but when it also meant my coronary arteries spazzing closed, choking off the blood supply to my heart, I needed to pay attention.

So I went on meds.  The first time I took a anti anxiety medication, I was at home. The phone rang, and as I answered it, I was acutely aware of an odd sensation. Or, more accurately, an odd lack of a sensation. Fear.  Every single time I heard a phone ring, a swoosh of adrenaline would go through my body, burning through my stomach and bladder, trembling my hands, muddling my thoughts. Except this time.  This time my stomach stayed calm. My hands didn't shake.  I was amazed.  Is this what normal feels like?

Adding anti anxiety medication to the cocktail of daily meds that I take for the IC and heart problem was the right choice for me.  I still struggle with anxiety, and I have moments when my body spirals out of control and all I can do is hang on and wait it out.  I have discovered that sorrow feels very much like fear to my body. Sometimes I choose to deal with triggering events and the resulting flash of anxiety and pain through yoga, meditation, deep breaths, laughter and reaching out to loved ones. The amount of medication that I take daily works for the stress of daily life. Sometimes I take less. Sometimes more. I pay close attention to my body, and try to take care of myself. I am learning to nurture my body in the same way that my heart calls me to nurture and care for those around me.

Chronic anxiety is still a part of my life, but it doesn't own me.  I am grateful for the availability of medications that can help, for the grace and understanding of my family, and for the opportunity to tell my story, and to listen to the stories of others.  Yes, there are dark voices from the past, taunting, mocking, complaining voices that grew angry at me when I could not be what they demanded me to be, but the loving voices are stronger, bolder and most importantly, truer. 

I pray that as we walk this path together, we will be encouraged and emboldened to turn to the voices that are saying to us, "Tell me your story. It's okay, I'm listening."

Tell me your story.  It's okay, I'm listening.
My Zimbio