I’m not much of a joiner, but mental health is such an important topic to me that I’m going to use #BellLetsTalk day to share my story. 1 year ago, I was having the worst anxiety crisis of my life. I was scared of everything. I couldn’t go through a car wash, or drive, or shower, or work, or sometimes get out of bed. I couldn’t sit still; I couldn’t stop crying.
I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, long before I knew what it was. I had been one of those people who just dealt with it as best I could. I didn’t know there was an alternative. I hadn’t had much luck with doctors in the past, especially when my symptoms were vague, so to break through my usual fear of medical appointments, to talk about something strange and undefinable, and to risk the doctor being completely unhelpful and/or uncaring – it wasn’t something I was willing to do.
But when the crisis hit I was non-functional. I had to do something if I wanted to stay alive. And enough of intellectual me was left, that I knew living was the better choice in the long run. Luckily 2 of my friends mentioned the outpatient program at the U of A hospital psychiatric unit. I had no idea such a thing existed. People who specialized in mental health issues? That sounded like a good place to try. Plus no waiting for a referral.
I drove down there (a terrible idea in hindsight) the next business day. Now, trying to drive and park at the U of A hospital is enough to give someone without anxiety a fit; me already in the middle of a crisis, by the time I finally parked and found a hospital entrance, I was in such a state I was ready to just lie on the ground in a ball of tears. Again, a person came to my aid. A hospital volunteer, that I will never forget, immediately found me and walked me to the right area.
Within a few hours I’d completed a long survey, spoken to a therapist about my issues, been prescribed a medication to try, and was on the list for follow-up care.
The struggle didn’t end there. When I started the medication it took about a week for my brain to straighten out. That week was truly terrible. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed, some days the anxiety was strong as ever, and most of the time I struggled with thoughts of suicide. I told my partner to hide medications from me.
I am forever grateful to the people who helped me out during this period of my life: my spouse, who is not unfamiliar with mental health issues himself, and didn’t make me feel bad for being ill, and was the right level of concerned, keeping some stability in my life; my sister who understood the days when I didn’t feel safe to be alone, and let me just hang out at her place; my long distance friend who texted with me in the middle of night, and remains a great advocate for me.
I will interject to say that I understand medications are not for everyone; there are many treatment options. For me, they allowed me to understand what had been my anxiety vs. my personality. They have almost eliminated the compulsive thinking and the generalized ill-at-ease feeling. I still struggle with social anxiety and I definitely still worry about things. But it’s like that background static has become toned-down. It is much easier to think and function and make decisions that aren’t strictly fear-based.
That’s my story. Now I want to talk about how you can care for a person experiencing similar problems, in my opinion.
It’s critically important to understand how absolutely terrifying it can be to admit that you are having suicidal thoughts or think you may need psychiatric help. We are scared of your reaction – will it be overreaction or underreaction? Will we lose our job, our friends, our relationship?
So if someone approaches you and says they are having trouble, assume they are screaming for help. They will likely tone done the severity of the issues, to feel the waters, as it were. We want to know if you are a safe person to confide in. Don’t ignore these signals, thinking that it is a “just a bad day”.
Calmly ask some follow-up questions and see what the person actually wants. Try to read between the lines if you can. “Where are you now? Are you safe? Have you eaten yet today? Are you having dark thoughts? Can I bring you anything? Do you want me to come over?” Of course if you think the problem is severe you should take them to any emergency department, call 211 in Edmonton, or use one of these numbers in Alberta. But assuming the person isn’t imminently suicidal there are other ways to help.
Some types of support you can offer:
- Bring food and drinks to them. Sometimes the situation is so severe that going to the bathroom or kitchen feels impossible. Not eating or drinking isn’t going to make someone feel better. Sometimes there is only 1 type of food you feel like eating. This isn’t the time to worry about nutrition. Getting some liquid and calories in is what matters.
- Give them a ride. If they want to see their doctor, or need to go the emergency department, or a place such as the U of A hospital, it doesn’t matter if they normally drive themselves or are independent. Help them out! Sit with them if it helps.
- Take them to do something fun. For me this was playing with kittens or the Muttart Conservatory. Maybe it’s puppies, or the zoo, or Galaxyland, or a hot tub — whatever.
- Hang out. Just be there. Watch a funny movie. Talk about whatever comes up.
- Let them know that they can tell you anything without judgment, and STICK TO THIS! Everyone says they are non-judgmental until they start judging you. Don’t argue or say their feelings are invalid or crazy. Don’t tell them that “everything will be all right”. If they are more sensitive than normal, don’t worry about this; just go with it. Keep the conversation focused on them, on their feelings, what they need and want.
- Offer help with daily tasks. Not everyone wants someone touching their stuff, so always ask first. But if spending 5 minutes doing the dishes takes a weight off of their mind, do that. Walk their dog. Buy some groceries.
- Do things even if they sound crazy. During my worst week, I asked my husband to hang out in the bathroom while I showered. Normally I can do this perfectly fine by myself, but in a crisis you aren’t normal, you aren’t necessarily rational. But that doesn’t make the need less real.
- If in doubt, just ask random questions, until something gets a response.
Be aware of their responses and that they will probably tone down their need, and not want to be an imposition. Assume answers like “maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, if you can, whenever you get around to it” mean yes, please!
I hope this post gives you some insight into at least one person’s experience. Please share your own experience and tips. We need to talk about this. We need to take care of each other.