Don’t Wait

I was a bit of a strange kid. I’d always stay awake during trips in case something happened, I’d always be the designated driver, and when I was in university I’d always be the one who helped (and sometimes carried) the drunk people up to their dorm rooms and check in on them. It wasn’t fun but I always felt like I had to be the responsible person in the room.

Fast forward some years to when I started working in my current job. I was responsible for ensuring business continuity in the event of a disaster. Disaster planning became one of my specialties – at the time I didn’t realize it, but I was feeding my OCD and using it to help me be a better planner. Other people would send me their disaster recovery plans and I’d always find something that they’d missed, regardless of how unlikely it was.

Then, in 2012, management changed. I could no longer get spare parts for the equipment that I was responsible for and had to start cannibalizing redundant systems. Management didn’t seem to understand or care how important the systems were. I was starting to spin out of control, my OCD and anxiety opening the door to panic attacks and severe depression.

All along, J was trying to get me to go and see someone about what was going on. I was sure I could handle it myself – I figured all I needed to do was put my head down and work harder. I started getting headaches every day. I was grinding my teeth in my sleep. I was not pleasant to talk to. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t able to get angry anymore, I just felt dull irritation and resignation to everything.

J was very patient and supportive of me, and when I finally started to listen to her and looked around for a therapist, she was 150% onboard. My first session was very difficult. I wasn’t sure how things went, and to be honest, I wasn’t completely sure I needed to be there. It didn’t take long, though, for Dr C to figure out what was going on. My OCD had taken over and I was spiralling downwards like a bird with a broken wing. She suggested I speak with my GP about medications, which, while terrible at the time, paved the way for me to meet Dr W and get the proper medications.

Could I have avoided a lot of these problems and heartache if I’d just listened to J and went to a therapist before I was already in deep trouble? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is yes. Maybe not all of them, but it would have helped. Even just the grounding techniques that Dr C taught me were invaluable and, if I’d known them earlier, would have helped me tremendously at work. I don’t think I would have ended up in the psych ward twice, and, with luck, I wouldn’t have experienced suicidal ideations or auditory hallucinations.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you have family or friends who are worried about you, or you’re worried about yourself, don’t wait to see someone. There are resources out there you can access, people who want to help you, and people who are paid to help you. Don’t wait until you feel like there’s no way out or nobody who you can talk to. Millions of people experience the same feelings – you are not alone. Nip mental illness in the bud by talking to someone before things get out of control!

Stay safe!

My Worry Time

I have a lot of anxiety. I’m taking medication for it and undergoing therapy for it, but I’ve always been an anxious person. You know the type – the guy who’d rather get to the airport three hours early and go through security right away just in case? That’s me. Whenever I hear sirens, my first thoughts are that I did something wrong or one of my family or friends is in trouble. Once I became ill, my anxiety shot through the roof and was making me do all kinds of strange things. I’d pace back and forth with my arms moving around like someone else was running them, stutter or lose words mid-sentence, and be completely unable to relax.

One of the more difficult but rewarding tools that Dr C has taught me is how to compartmentalize my worry. I found the idea kind of silly at first but now I’m a firm believer. The idea is to reserve a specific block of time each day where you can sit down and concentrate on all the things that are worrying you. It can be everything from OCD matters to family issues, to the irrational fears that tell you you’re never going to get better. You concentrate hard on those worries and think through them one at a time.

Once you’re done, you set aside the worries and go about your day. Now, it would be ridiculous to think that just because you’ve worried for an hour you won’t have any worries the rest of the day, but now you can tell them that you’ll get to them again tomorrow. Sometimes I treat the worries like bullies and tell them in my mind (and sometimes out loud) to get lost. Other times I tell them to go ahead and say whatever they want but I’m going to ignore them for now.

I’m still not very good at it, but with the practice I’ve had so far it’s definitely helping. My worry time is from 9 to 10AM every day (unless something else comes up), which makes sure I’m awake and alert and am ready to worry my face off. I think it’s important to set aside a specific time so that I can tell the worries that I’ll talk to them at 9AM tomorrow. That way, it feels less like a therapy tool and more like some kind of strange office meeting.

What do I worry about? Well, pretty much every aspect of my life. Am I getting better? When will I be able to go back to work? Is J getting tired of me having crisis after crisis and is thinking of leaving? What’s going to happen if J loses her job? Am I going to be of any use in a crisis situation, like one of my parents getting sick or worse? Is the house okay? Are DA, FA, and WG still going to be my friends in a year? What the hell am I going to do if we get bedbugs?

That’s just a small sample. Like I said, I worry about pretty much everything. At the end of the hour, I say to myself that the worry period is over and will begin again tomorrow at 9AM and all of the worries are invited back. I hope they don’t come back, but if they do, I’ll deal with them then.

I have also found that this takes some of the bite out of the worries for the rest of the day. Being able to tell myself I’ve already worked on it helps a great deal.

This is another very useful technique that I’m going to keep in my tool box. Maybe someday I will be able to use less than an hour. That would be great!

Stay safe!

My Problem With The Phone

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

One of the things that really bothers me about my illness is how it’s got its tendrils wrapped around almost every aspect of my life, making normally simple tasks difficult or impossible. One of the best examples of this is answering the phone, or rather, how I’m unable to.

It started happening while I was still at work. At first I was just dreading getting phone calls. Then I would sit there and stare at the call display and be unable to answer the phone unless I was sure I knew who it was. It finally got to the point where the phone would ring and I would get up and leave my office because I was afraid of who was calling or what they may have wanted. The same thing was happening at home – the phone would ring and I would try to ignore it or wait until it was done ringing and then check the call display log to see who called.

Here’s what happens when the phone rings: my pulse and breathing speed up, I start to sweat, and there’s an uncomfortable feeling in my chest that reminds me that a panic attack is probably on the way. All I can think about while the phone is ringing is that someone’s calling to call me back into work, wants to question the legitimacy of my illness, or has terrible, world-shattering news to tell me. I feel like a frightened little kid who wants to hide under a piece of heavy furniture – just because the phone is ringing! It’s embarrassing and frustrating at the same time.

I have tried Exposure Response but as I have no control over when the phone rings, it’s difficult to get myself ready for it. I’ve tried changing the ringer volume and sound but that hasn’t helped either. I’m not sure what the best course of action is at this point but I think this is something I need to work on with Dr C. If I ever want to get back to work (and I do want to get back to work), I really need to be able to reliably answer the phone.

Even typing the previous sentence out makes me feel silly. I’m a 40+ year old man who gets scared whenever the phone rings. I understand that mental illness has a lot of manifestations, but of all of them that I’ve experienced so far, this one has to be right up there with the most embarrassing.

I am hopeful, though. Dr C and Dr W have guided me through many dark and scary corners of my mind and I’m able to do a lot more than I used to. Hopefully this will be no different.

Stay safe!

The Stress Box, Part II

In my last post about Stress Boxes, I talked about a box that’s full of ideas for activities you can do when you’re feeling anxious or down. I have another kind of stress box that is very useful for other situations. If I’m having a lot of anxiety or am feeling very down and grounding methods aren’t helping all that much, I turn to this box. Inside of it are items that have different feels, smells, or interesting behaviours that help drag me back to the here and now.

Here’s my Stress Box:

And here’s what’s in it, and what each item does for me:

– A set of magnets (curiosity),

– A prism (curiosity),

– A Ziploc bag of cotton balls infused with peppermint oil (strong smell),

– A little rubber character whose eyes bug out when you squeeze him (touch and amusing),

– A plastic sheet that shows magnetic field lines (curiosity),

– Two fabric stress bags full of buckwheat (touch),

– Two oversized old-style keys with beads strung through them (touch and sound),

– A stress squeeze ball (touch),

– A plastic toy that you can arrange into different shapes (touch, curiosity),

– A wooden toy that you can arrange into different shapes (touch, curiosity),

– A little toy catapult with tiny plastic cats as ammunition (touch), and

– A bookmark from J that says, “Life is tough my darling, but so are you” (touch, message).

I find that this kind of stress box is much more useful for sudden attacks or when I can feel myself starting to whirl out of control. I just pop it open, open up the peppermint bag, and grab something to play with. There are times that peppermint smell and a stress ball don’t help, but most of the time this kind of stress box can help me when I’m on my way to a panic attack or feeling really down.

Stay Safe!

When The Wheels Fell Off, Part I

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

I grew up thinking that mental illness was something that happened to weak people, and that only cowards committed suicide. I thought that all you had to do was be strong, ignore the doubts and anxiety, or just put your head down and push it aside using sheer willpower. I didn’t need help – I would get through this just as I had everything else.

I was wrong, and it almost cost me my life.

I have always found it difficult to ask for help, and even when I knew I was having problems and J was urging me to see someone, I couldn’t do it. My family, friends, and coworkers all knew that something was wrong with me. Some of them were polite about it (are you okay?) while others were more direct (what the &$#% is wrong with you?). I kept saying I was fine, maybe a little tired, or any excuse to get away from the situation.

I finally went to see Dr C after much urging from J and many nights full of nightmares and little sleep. I knew something was wrong but I was sure a couple of quick therapy sessions would fix things and, more importantly, get everyone off my back. It quickly became apparent that stresses from work were taking over my life when Dr C suggested I ask my GP at the time about medication to help me get over the proverbial hump.

Unfortunately, my GP at the time wasn’t well versed with psych medications. He gave me sertraline. A month later I was back because I wasn’t sleeping. He added aripiprazole. Three weeks later I was back again because I was getting even less sleep. I was off work by that time, and barely able to function. He added nortiptyline.

For the last few years, I’d been wishing for a massive heart attack to put me out of my misery, but suicide had never really made any sense to me. Then one day, J came home from work a little upset and unnerved. She’d heard that one of her friends’ children had committed suicide. We talked about it for a while, and after we’d finished talking I thought about it a lot. The next day I thought about it non-stop. And suddenly it hit me – I could understand why he did it and even worse, I agreed with him.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. Dr C made sure I had all the information for the local crisis lines and told me that if I felt like I wanted to act on anything to call her or get my butt to a hospital. A few days later, I called the local Suicide Line and told them I was thinking about suicide a lot. The woman on the other end then asked if I was thinking about doing anything about it. I said no and she wished me good luck and then ended the call.

A few days after that, I had an enormous panic attack in the middle of the night. I got out of bed, thinking that I couldn’t handle this anymore, and sat down to think. The only answer that kept coming to me was I was on three different antidepressants and getting therapy and it wasn’t working so there was no point in continuing on. I grabbed a notepad and started writing down the names of the people I wanted to write letters to, then sat back and thought about how I was going to end my life. I was miserable. Panic attacks, auditory hallucinations, no sleep… I was falling to pieces.

Then, a tiny but urgent voice in my head reminded me what Dr C had said and told me to go wake J up. I ignored it at first but after an hour or so, I got off the couch and did what it asked. I woke J up, told her I thought I was in trouble and needed to go to the hospital. She was out of bed in a flash and a short time later, we were in the emergency room at the local hospital. After I was checked over for physical issues, I was sent to another facility where they did psych evaluations. I spent the night there and then was transferred to another hospital where I came under the care of Dr W. It took medication changes, sessions with Dr C, and a lot of tears and work before I was steady enough to go back home three months later.

But I was back – and more importantly, I was safe and feeling MUCH better.

If you’re thinking of harming yourself because you can’t see any way out of your situation, please don’t do what I did and put off asking for help. Get on the phone to your local crisis hotline, call an ambulance, or go to your local emergency room. There are many people out there like Dr C and Dr W and they WANT to help you. You don’t need to suffer – things will get better!

Stay safe!

The Stress Box, Part I

When I’m really anxious, I find it difficult to remember that there are activities I can do that will make me feel better and help pass the time. I also find it difficult to remember what those activities are or pick one or two to do. I learned about stress boxes when I was participating in a group session at the hospital and I think its a good way to help with anxiety or other unpleasant emotions.

The concept is very simple: write down things you enjoy and put them in a box. When you’re stressed out, you can go into the box, pull out a random piece of paper and on it will be a suggestion for what you can do.

In my case, I wanted my box to look distinct and a little whimsical:

And inside are the ideas:

Here are the ideas I have in my stress box. Maybe you will find some of them useful:

– Write a letter,

– Read a book,

– Electronics,

– Talk to someone,

– Journal,

– Cook something,

– Learn to draw,

– Motorcycle maintenance,

– Go for a walk,

– Learn something new,

– Watch a movie,

– Make bread,

– Exercise,

– Look at stuff with microscope,

– Watch the lightning (if applicable),

– Sit outside,

– Meditate,

– Practice grounding exercises,

– Write something – a story, blog post, poetry, anything,

– Listen to music,

– Play some bass guitar,

– Do some welding,

– Play a game,

– Fix something around the house,

– Go out, close eyes, and listen to the birds, and

– Clean something.

It’s really important to keep yourself occupied while dealing with mental illness. If you set up something like a stress box ahead of time, it can help out a lot when your mind is blank and you can’t think of anything to do.

Stay Safe!

Driving

I grew up out in the country so driving to get anywhere was a way of life. I enjoyed it and was very comfortable doing it. In 2009 I bought a motorcycle – and I’ve done one motorcycle trip to British Columbia in 2011, and another to Alaska in 2013 (by way of British Columbia). Aside from getting cold and wet, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips, camping by myself or with a friend, and just soaking in the scenery, wildlife, and smells. I’ve done 900km days back-to-back on the bike and just loved rolling down the highway and watching the world around me as the scenery changed.

I started having trouble driving in late 2013 or early 2014. I would shoulder check to change lanes, see that it was clear, and then not believe myself so I’d shoulder check again. I didn’t know at the time I had OCD, and it was quite frustrating. I never got into an accident, but I did have to start planning my lane changes much farther ahead of time so I could find a large enough gap that I could obviously fit into.

Fast forward to April 2016. J and I were going to the clinic so I could talk to my GP at the time about what was going on and to hopefully get my medication adjusted. J works near the clinic so we decided to take both vehicles, drop mine off in the parking lot where she works, and then both take her car to the clinic. At that time, I really wasn’t feeling well. My anxiety, depression, panic, and OCD were running rampant and the medication I’d already been given wasn’t helping. J got into her car, I got into the truck, and I followed her towards her workplace.

About five minutes into the drive, a MASSIVE panic attack hit me. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, the only thing that was going through my head was “YOU’RE GOING TO KILL SOMEONE”. I don’t know how I did it but I managed to stay behind J in the pre-dawn rain and met her at the parking lot. I was trying all of the grounding techniques I knew but they weren’t helping. Deep breathing, pretending I was somewhere else… nothing worked.

About a month after that visit I was admitted to the psych ward. Three months later, I was out, but terrified of the idea of driving. I just couldn’t do it. Once again it was J to the rescue when she shuffled around her hours so she could drive me to my appointments (best wife in the world!) and anywhere else I needed to go.

I worked on the problem with both Dr C and Dr W, and my father had some good ideas too. I went out to the truck and just walked around it, patting the hood and just feeling it. I did that for a couple of days and then went out, popped the hood, and looked at the engine and all the fluids. That took about a week before I could do it comfortably, at which point I started opening the door and just sitting in the truck. Sometimes I’d turn on the radio, but for the most part I was quiet and listening to my thoughts. That took another week or so. Then, I would start the truck and just sit there idling. Shut it off, start it back up, and sit there idling some more.

Finally I was comfortable enough to try and move the vehicle. I released the emergency brake, put the truck in reverse, and… nothing happened. I put it back in park, gave it a couple of light revs, then put it in reverse again. Still, nothing. Feeling sick to my stomach and on the verge of panic, I tapped the gas pedal lightly. There was a loud BANG as some dirty or rusty part let go (I’m guessing the emergency brake) and I started rolling. I must’ve been quite the sight as I would go out to the truck every morning and drive it up and down the driveway, but I was taking things slowly.

Eventually I was comfortable enough with that to try driving around the block. That took me quite a while to get used to, but since then I’ve been expanding the distance from home that I’m comfortable driving. Lighter traffic is much easier for me to handle, but I’m slowly making it a little farther from home each week. I’m now able to drive myself to my appointments with Dr C, which both makes me a little proud of myself and makes me happy that J doesn’t have to switch around as much of her work time. I have two goals right now: be able to drive myself to my Dr W appointments (which is a much larger commitment), and go for a ride on my motorcycle (which has been sitting for a year and a half doing nothing).

When I got home from the hospital, I never thought I’d be able to drive again. Baby steps are the trick, and I thank Dr C, Dr W, and my dad for the helpful ideas that got me rolling again. I also want to thank J again for all of her patience and support while I’ve been sick and recovering.

Stay Safe!

My Anxiety

Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.

Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think that I’ve always been more anxious than the average person, and I’ve felt that it’s my responsibility to keep everything (and everyone) around me safe and happy. Back when I was five years old, my family went on a trip to the coast. The plane ride was quite long, and they shut off the lights for people to get some sleep. Everyone around me was sleeping, but I couldn’t. What if something happened to the plane? It was a fundamental thing – I must keep watch.

But what could a five year old kid possibly do to help if there was a problem on a DC-10 plowing through the night skies?

The same thing happened with high school trips – the bus would be cruising along in the dark and the last of the students had either nodded off or picked up a book, but not me. I would be sitting straight in my seat, watching the front of the bus, the back of the bus, the terrain sliding by outside the window, and any approaching vehicles in case they were in the wrong lane. I just couldn’t close my eyes and relax.

Between the anxiety and the OCD, I was an excellent Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity (DR/BC) planner. At work, I’d embrace the anxiety and OCD to find the worst case scenario and then find something worse… and worse. Then I’d plan for it. It was quite similar to the freezer scenario from my earlier post about my OCD. My bosses encouraged me to imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen, regardless of whether it was rational or irrational. I was so good at it that people from different places would send me their DR/BC plans and ask me to see if there was something worse that they needed to plan for.

I could always find something.

Fast-forward to today and it takes an effort for me to not think of the worst case scenario everywhere I look. I have to think about what’s going on and try to only listen to the rational side of my mind. Unfortunately, I’m still not great at that.

My anxiety is pervasive and has its ugly tendrils everywhere. My father used to be a fire fighter so I was well acquainted with the colours and sounds of the trucks. Since before my first breakdown last year, something happened and I’m no longer able to cope well with any kind of siren, klaxon, or warning alarm. I freeze and my mind goes wild, thinking of the worst possible thing those sirens could mean. Is the building I’m in on fire? Has J been in an accident? Is there a real fire or a false alarm? What do I need to do to help?

Even typing this out makes my pulse rate climb.

When things were getting bad at work, I would leave my office and hide if I heard footsteps coming down the hall. If my phone rang, I’d leave my office so I wouldn’t have to answer it.

I still have difficulties answering the phone, even when I’m safe and secure in my own house. I can call people with no problem, but when the phone rings… I just can’t answer it because it could be something awful.

For years, I was able to corral my anxiety and use it to my advantage, but eventually it got too big for me to handle. Now I find it difficult to go outside or do things I used to be good at and enjoyed or even something simple like answering the telephone. With therapy and medication I have come a long way but still have a long way to go.

If you feel anxious or nervous or worried all the time or find yourself thinking about the worst possible outcome for everything around you, don’t try to fix it yourself. Don’t make my mistake – get help sooner rather than when you’re at (or have exceeded) your breaking point.

Stay safe!

A Little Anxious This Morning

So today I’m going to meet up with WG and we’re going to go to the record store. I’m a little nervous because I haven’t seen WG in months and I need to drive to our rendezvous point. I really hope things go well – I really value WG’s friendship and don’t want to ruin it. He’s the one who got me into record collecting and really expanded the musical world for me. Late ’70s UK punk is not something I had ever given any thought to, but he introduced me to it and now I really enjoy it.

As an aside, If you’ve never heard of The Undertones, I strongly recommend listening to almost any song from their first two albums. “Get Over You” is a great song. It’s one of the songs I turn way up and immerse myself in whenever I’m feeling bad. It usually helps cheer me up.

So anyway, I’m really hoping things go well today. WG is pretty laid back but you just never know. People change, right? I know I’m not the same person I was a year ago. Wish me luck!

Stay safe!