The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – My Journey Through Relapses of Depression

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly…” Who knew the title of a Clint Eastwood movie could so eloquently describe my life with anxiety and depression. The good days can be hard to come by and I sometimes take them for granted. I know in my conscious mind when I’m feeling good, however, it’s the depressive side of my brain that continues to nag at me and say to me: enjoy it while it lasts, I’m going to come back and make your life miserable again. Relapse is an inevitable part of the battle. It is bound to happen eventually. Suddenly the “good” days start to become “bad” days, and it’s only a matter of time before the “ugly” takes over and I am thrown back into the darkness that is my depression.

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The early months of 2015 were difficult to say the least. I was working part time and continued to take medication and see my psychiatrist regularly. My husband and I were still living with my dad and my brother’s family. The only word I could use to describe life at my dad’s house was tense. Although I deeply believe that the truth should always be told, I will not be going into detail about the events that occurred during this time. I wish to preserve the privacy of my family. What I can say is that there was constant fighting and unrest in the house as my brother’s addiction remained all-consuming. In early May a traumatic event occurred and my husband and I were forced to find our own place to live. Although the timing could have been better, we managed to get enough money together for a down payment on a new house. Even though we were putting ourselves back into debt, we did what we had to do to protect ourselves. Staying in that house was terrible for my mental health and had begun to take it’s toll on my marriage. It was like living in a pressure cooker about to explode. I had to get out.

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Relapse 1

The Good

By mid-June we moved into our new house. The feeling of being on our own again was incredible. It was as if a mountain had been lifted off our shoulders. It was quiet, it was peaceful, and it was ours. I didn’t care that we had little furniture, that it was a horrible mess and was painted all the wrong color. I was just grateful to be freed from the chaos and dysfunction that had been my dad’s house. It was nice to sit back, relax and just breathe again.

The summer of 2015 was great. I was happy. We purchased season tickets to watch our local football team, went to concerts and welcomed another beautiful baby nephew. We slowly turned our house into a home and I was fully settled at work and thriving. I learned how to run hemodialysis and discovered that I was good at it. I considered this to be quite an achievement. During the previous summer, I had myself convinced that I would never be able to learn anything new. My brain was overflowing with negative and self-defeating thoughts. There was no room for anything else and I had lost my ability to concentrate. Needless to say I was quite proud of myself for busting through the brain fog and learning a new skill.

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The Bad

As many of you who have suffered with depression and anxiety know, the good only lasts so long before the dreaded and inevitable relapse begins to show it’s ugly face. After the high of my football team’s championship win and as winter began to settle in, my mood started to change. I was tired. It was about a month before Christmas and I wasn’t having any of it. No matter how much I slept I continued to feel exhausted. I was lethargic and “not all there.” Nothing brought me joy and I woke up every day thinking I can’t do this.  It was becoming increasingly difficult to get up in the morning and go to work and when I was there I wasn’t really thereI became lazy, disinterested and grouchy. Simple tasks like making coffee, taking a shower or putting on my makeup were too big, never-mind getting the housework done. My marriage began to break down again. I was emotionally unavailable and started to reject my husband. Christmas was approaching but I had no energy to bake, shop or decorate – activities that I once enjoyed tremendously. I asked myself: could it be the medication that is making me so drowsy and lethargic? Or am I slipping into depression again? I had been taking Cipralex for just over a year and always felt tired, but this was different. I decided to bring it up at my next appointment with my psychiatrist.

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The Ugly

“So what’s on your mind?” The conversation always started the same. I sat down in my usual spot in the armchair beside the window and spilled the beans. I described in detail what I had been going through. I told him I didn’t want to feel exhausted and sick anymore. Something had to change. My psychiatrist scratched his head and decided that maybe I needed to try a different medication. He wrote me a prescription for Prozac and told me to simply switch medications because they were very similar.

The first week or so went okay. I experienced the usual nausea that comes with any medication change. I started to feel a bit more anxious but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. As time passed my mood began to change. I had gone from a spaced out, disinterested zombie to an emotional nightmare. It felt like all of the emotions the Cipralex had been suppressing suddenly bubbled up to the surface and I couldn’t control them. Everything either made me cry or made me angry. It was like PMS on steroids. My poor husband didn’t know from one day to the next if he was going to wake up to his sweet, soft spoken wife or She-Hulk. There were even times when I felt hyperactive and giddy. One minute I’d be laughing, the next I’d be crying and before I knew it I was angry at the world for no good reason. I kept trying to convince myself that it would pass.

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One day, in early December, I decided to decorate the Christmas tree. I felt excited, almost too excited. I poured myself a glass of wine and got to work wrapping the tree in twinkly lights. I took a piece of garland and wrapped it around my dog’s neck like a boa. Apparently this was the funniest thing I had ever seen because I was laughing hysterically, tears streaming down my face and everything. My husband asked me jokingly if I smoked some crack in the bathroom while he was outside. This behavior wasn’t like me. I quickly brushed it off and told myself it must be the Prozac. Even if it was, at least I was enjoying myself.

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Once I finished decorating the tree, I walked into the kitchen to tidy up. Suddenly it hit me… I started to panic. My heart was racing, I became nauseated and my body felt like it was made of Jello. It felt like my arms and legs weren’t working and I could feel the blood draining from my face and ears. I was cold, lightheaded and felt detached, as if the world around me wasn’t real. I was terrified. Although I had been through this multiple times, the only thought going through my mind was I am going to die if I don’t do something. I hobbled my way up the stairs and took a hot shower in a desperate attempt to bring myself back to reality. It didn’t work. With tears in my eyes I went down into the basement to find my husband. He could tell by the look on my face that something was wrong. I told him I didn’t feel good and that I was panicking. He took me in his arms and I started to sob. I begged him to squeeze me as hard as he could. I needed to feel something. I needed to be brought back to reality. It felt as if his embrace was the only thing keeping me alive.

A few days later I went back to see my psychiatrist. I sat in the waiting room feeling panicked. I looked disheveled wearing dirty clothes, no makeup and sporting a wonderful morning hair-do. I was pale, shaky and nauseated. I was convinced that I was going to pass out or throw up. I looked around me and located a garbage can. If it was going to happen at least I had a plan. I knew where the door was and where the bathroom was. It took everything in me not to run out of there and never look back. The doctor came out of his office, took one look at me and said “young lady, you look terrible. Please come in.”

“How are you feeling?” he asked. I just shook my head and started to cry. “That good huh?” It took me quite some time to find my words. When I was able, I told him what I had been going through and that I didn’t believe the Prozac was helping. In fact, I thought it was making me feel worse. He asked me what my thoughts were and what I wanted to do. I told him that the Cipralex had always worked well for me, that it was the drug that got me back to work. At that point I didn’t care that it made me feel depressed, at least I didn’t have this horrible, debilitating anxiety. “Fair enough” he said “we will put you back on Cipralex.”

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Over the next two weeks I fell back into depression. Christmas was fast approaching and I couldn’t bring myself to get anything done. When I wasn’t struggling through shifts at work I was at home either lying in bed or on the couch, unable to find the energy or the will-power to do anything. Life seemed too difficult and the feeling of hopelessness started to settle in. Each time I walked into the garage to go out I thought to myself: I could just start the car and end it all right here. I wouldn’t have to suffer like this anymore. What’s the point of living anyway? It took everything in me not to give up. I started to research death by carbon monoxide poisoning and how to do it properly. I also pulled out my life insurance policy to see if there was a suicide clause. I didn’t want to leave my husband with nothing. One day I even found myself sitting on the floor of the garage, crying, with my keys in my hand, wanting so badly to die. I stared at the car for a good 15 minutes before I made the decision to get up and walk away. I thought: how could I be so stupid? How could I kill myself right before Christmas? What would that do to my husband? To my family? I decided to keep pushing on, to keep fighting.

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 Relapse 2

The Good

Despite how awful the month of December had been, I still managed to have a decent Christmas. I saw my psychiatrist one more time before the holidays and kept him up to date about how I was feeling. At the end of each session he would say to me: “you’re going to be okay. I believe in you.” As the Cipralex began to take effect once more, my mood started to improve. I was still tired and lethargic but I was free from the horrible anxiety I had been experiencing and the suicidal thoughts disappeared. I managed to get my shopping done and host a Christmas party. The dark clouds of anxiety and depression were beginning to clear and I could see a hint of sunlight shining through.

In January of 2016 I started writing this blog. I decided that I didn’t want to suffer in silence anymore. I wanted the world to know what I was going through. I wanted to help others see that they were not alone and that someone just like them had been through similar experiences. I exposed my heart and soul and became an advocate for those suffering with mental illness, myself included. It has become the best thing I have ever done. I discovered that by simply sharing my story with others, I could touch their lives in a way nobody else had before. I received an overwhelming amount of support, encouragement and gratitude from family, friends and even complete strangers.

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In February we welcomed another beautiful baby nephew (yes that makes 4 little boys in my family!). He was another shining star in my world that was sometimes filled with darkness. In late March I had a growing number of people following my blog and I joined Twitter in an effort to expand. It was here that I discovered a mental health community called Sick Not Weak, founded by TSN sports personality Michael Landsberg. Their message was simple yet profound: we are here for that lonely person. It was quickly growing into a tight-knit community of people who had suffered with mental illness and who’s mission was to let others know that they were not alone. It didn’t take long before I joined their anonymous chat room as “cupcakegirl” and began to make friends.

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The Bad

In early April the anxiety began to creep back into my life. My sister was visiting and I met my newest little nephew. He was a beautiful and perfect baby but he suffered with colic and lactose intolerance. The poor little thing would cry for hours on end. There were moments when I would feel overwhelmed by the noise and felt the need to get out of my own house. I was still struggling with infertility and the thought of having my own child one day filled me with doubt and anxiety. How was I going to handle being a mother? I would tell myself: you’re not good enough. You have anxiety and depression. You can barely take care of yourself half the time, how are you going to survive pregnancy let alone care for a baby? The one thing I wanted more than anything in life had become the thing I feared the most. I quickly turned to my Sick Not Weak family for support. They told me I would make an incredible mother but I failed to see the truth in their words.

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Throughout the months of April and May I began to slowly fall back into the dark hole of depression. For many people, depression can be at it’s worst during the winter months, but for some reason mine was worse in the spring. I was tired, emotional and scared. I started to believe that this was going to be my life forever, that I was doomed to suffer until the day I died. I started to lose interest in all the activities I once loved. Baking cupcakes felt like a chore. I barely spent time with my nephews (or any family for that matter) because I didn’t have the energy to interact with them. I tried desperately to keep the “mask” on so others would believe that I was fine. I kept telling myself to “fake it until I made it.” In reality, I was screaming on the inside. My husband and I started to fight again. He was worried and frustrated which sometimes translated to anger. He would ask me “why can’t you just be happy?” and when I couldn’t find the words to explain how I was feeling, he would get even more frustrated. I felt guilty and useless as a wife, as a daughter, sister, aunty and friend. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, I didn’t want to hurt anymore, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt the people around me. I continued to see my psychiatrist once a week and he tried decreasing the dose of Cipralex I was on thinking  maybe it was causing my depression to get worse. The only silver lining was the fact that I had an incredible community of people behind me who were always there for support. I developed several close friendships. It was refreshing to talk to someone who understood exactly how I was feeling and who had struggled through similar experiences. I further exposed myself on social media, posting what I now call mood selfies. If I was crying and couldn’t get out of bed I posted a photo. If I hadn’t slept and didn’t think I could make it at work, I posted a photo. When I felt reasonably okay, I still snapped a photo and posted it to my Twitter page. I was determined to expose the real thoughts and emotions of a person suffering with a mental illness. I didn’t want to feel alone.

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The Ugly

At the end of May I reached a breaking point. I told my psychiatrist I didn’t know what to do with myself anymore. He said “tell me exactly how you have been feeling, what are your symptoms?” I told him I stopped sleeping, that I was exhausted, sluggish and disinterested. I told him I was also having mood swings and emotional meltdowns at work. I was losing my ability to cope, having more bad days than good. He asked me if I had ever considered taking Wellbutrin. I was very hesitant about trying a new medication given the effect it had on me the last time, but in the end I agreed. I had to make a change,  I had to do something.

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That afternoon I went to the pharmacy to fill my prescription. I was to start taking Wellbutrin right away and take the Cipralex every second day for a week and then stop. The pharmacist nonchalantly told me I may experience mild headaches and nausea for the first week or so. She gave me a fact sheet, as they always did with any new medication, and off I went. I asked myself: how bad could this be? I’ve experienced migraines so a mild headache will be no problem. I got this! I did not expect that the next few weeks would be by far some of the worst weeks of my life.

The next day I took the first dose of Wellbutrin in the morning. By the evening, I started to feel anxious. I was vibrating. I remember sitting at the dinner table at my in-laws feeling like I could crawl out of my own skin. It took every ounce of my will-power to keep me from reaching up and ripping my hair out. I gripped my husband’s hand tight in an effort to keep myself grounded. He was kind and understanding, telling me everything was going to be okay, that it was just the medication. I went to bed that night hoping the next day would be better.

The following morning I woke up feeling reasonably okay. I took the second dose of Wellbutrin and went to work. About an hour into my shift I started to develop a headache. At first it felt like my head was heavy, like I had a bad sinus infection. Then I started to feel dizzy and I could see light trails every time I turned my head. An hour later it progressed to a full blown migraine and I was forced to go home. I spent the afternoon in bed or on the couch clutching my head in agony. I took several anti-inflammatories but was only able to dull the pain a little bit. By the end of the day I was ready to put my head through the wall. I felt defeated. I barely had any sick hours left and the thought of having to go back on disability terrified me. The headaches lasted for six days. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t do anything. I wanted so badly to take those damn pills, flush them down the toilet and never look back. I was angry at my psychiatrist and the pharmacist for not properly warning me about the side effects.

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Most antidepressants come with a warning: the symptoms of depression may worsen before they improve and it may take six to eight weeks to feel the full effect of the medication. In my case, these statements could not have been more true. After the headaches subsided, my mood began to plummet and my depression reached a new low. The mood swings and anxiety were almost unbearable, but I still attempted to go back to work. I had to. I could only afford a few more sick days before I either took leave without pay or applied for short term disability. Disability was not an option as my husband and I would not have been able to pay our bills. I knew I couldn’t handle losing another home. I didn’t want to go through that again, so I pushed on. Several times throughout the day I found myself sitting alone in the locker room trying to hide my tears. All I could feel was profound sadness without any identifiable cause. I wanted nothing more than to go home and hide from the world. I wasn’t able to control my emotions and I desperately hoped that my co-workers couldn’t tell how much I was suffering. The “mask” I was trying to wear was hanging on by a thread.

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One day, in early June, I became consumed by the darkness. It took every ounce of energy I had just to get out of bed. The only thought going through my mind was I can’t. I put some eye makeup on, attempted to make my hair look presentable, grabbed a coffee and went to work. I tried to put the mask on one more time, for one more day. I had to keep fighting. I spent the entire twelve hour shift trying to fight back tears, escaping whenever I could to silently let them out. I was without my usual energy, enthusiasm and sense of humor; depression had stolen everything from me. At that point it was almost impossible for me to put on a smile and I didn’t even have the energy to carry on a simple conversation. Luckily I was orientating a new staff member who was incredibly helpful throughout the day in keeping our patient safe and well cared for. At the end of the day, while giving shift report to a coworker, I made a comment about how terrible I was feeling. She tried to explain to me that my life wasn’t that bad and that so many other people had it worse. I told her that I suffered from depression but it didn’t seem to matter. Although she may have meant well, I felt like I was standing at the edge of a cliff and she had just walked up behind me and pushed me over the edge. I got out of there as quickly as I could, without saying a word to anybody. I couldn’t hold on much longer. I attempted to reach out to a couple of friends who understood how I was feeling, but even their words of encouragement couldn’t reach me. I cried the entire drive home. I felt lost.

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I pulled into the garage and thought: this is it. It’s happening again. I can’t cope at work or with life. I am going to lose everything. I started to panic. I saw my entire life crashing down around me and I was powerless to stop it. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, only darkness. The future I had once hoped for myself had suddenly disappeared. I’d never live a happy, comfortable life or have a child; all I could see was suffering. As the catastrophic thinking continued, I started to hyperventilate and cry harder. The car was still running and I rolled down the windows. I grabbed the garage door opener and held it in my hand. I wanted so badly to push that button, get out, sit on the floor by the tailpipe and take deep breaths until I passed out. I didn’t want to feel anymore.

I don’t know why, or how, but suddenly I decided I needed help. I was so close to the edge that I didn’t think I would be able to stop myself this time. I picked up my phone with shaky hands and stared at it wondering who I should call. I didn’t want to call a friend or family member because I knew they would just call the police. I scrolled through my contacts and came across the distress line. That was it, I needed a professional, someone who wouldn’t judge me or make me feel ashamed. The person on the other end was kind. I told her I was panicking and thinking about suicide. She guided me through a deep breathing exercise until I stopped crying and step by step I turned off the car, rolled up the windows and closed the garage door. She told me to call back or go to the nearest emergency room if I found myself in crisis again.

When I walked into the house and saw my husband, I started to cry again. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I had a bad day. I couldn’t bring myself to admit to him that I wanted to die, that I was in one of the darkest places I had ever been. He had just gone back to work and I didn’t want to be a burden or a reason for him to stay home. I don’t know exactly what was going through his mind, whether it was helplessness, frustration or fear, but he started to get angry. He told me he couldn’t take it anymore, that he didn’t want to live like this anymore. I became overwhelmed with guilt and anger. I had to walk away before I said something I would regret.  A few minutes later he came upstairs to apologize. I told him I was sorry, and that this was just as hard for me as it was for him. He took me in his arms and I started to cry. This time there was no stopping it, I sobbed for what felt like hours, until I was sick. When it finally subsided I took a long hot shower then passed out for the night. There were no words to describe how beat down and exhausted I felt. I was numb.

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The next morning I woke up and went to work. I lasted half the day before I became so emotional I wasn’t able to do my job. I barely had enough energy to get up out of my chair let alone care for somebody who was critically ill. I desperately wanted to reach out and talk to somebody. I told a few people close to me what had happened but nobody really understood just how terrifying and real it was. I couldn’t help feeling that I was just making everybody around me uncomfortable. I didn’t want their pity. I took the charge nurse aside and with tears in my eyes, told her I needed to go home. I decided to take a few days off to sort myself out.

Early the next week I went to see my psychiatrist. Reluctantly, I told him everything. In the back of my mind I was afraid that he would take action and try to have me admitted. We sat in silence for what felt like forever. I could tell that he had no idea what to do with me. “What do you think we should do?” was all he said. I was angry. I thought to myself: why is this up to me? You’re supposed to be the doctor! I remembered something that someone in the mental health community had suggested to me: that I try a combination of antidepressants. I told him that I wanted to start taking Cipralex again on top of the Wellbutrin in the hopes that my anxiety and depression could be balanced out. He agreed and wrote me yet another prescription. He also suggested that I be open and honest with my husband and the rest of my family. They deserved to know how sick I was. I left his office with a small glimmer of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this would work.

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Over the next few weeks, I began to heal. I started to experience the full effect of the Wellbutrin and the Cipralex had reduced my anxiety to a slow-burning flame. The dark clouds of depression began to clear and I continued to become involved with and meet new people through Sick Not Weak. We continued to support each other through good times and bad. I opened up to my husband and my family. I told them everything. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. How do you tell the people you love that you wanted to die, that you were almost lost to them forever? My husband felt very guilty and apologized for his behavior that night. Had he known how serious things were he would not have reacted as he did. I promised him that from then on I would be 100% honest with him about how I was feeling, whether he liked it or not. In early July I turned 30 years old. For the first time in my life I realized just how grateful I was to be alive. I chose to believe that life would keep getting better, that there was always hope.

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I’ve had to come to the realization that my depression and anxiety will never completely go away. I go to sleep every night wondering how I am going to feel when I wake up in the morning. There are still days, even weeks, where I feel exhausted, sad or anxious. I still suffer from low self-esteem and doubt my ability to one day become a mother. I’ve learned that even though I may feel awful, there have been times where I have felt worse and managed to get through it. I’ve learned to embrace the small victories. Sometimes taking a shower and getting dressed is all I can manage in a day, and there is nothing wrong with that. Anxiety and depression have made me a kinder, more compassionate person. I have been able to take one of the worst things that has ever happened to me and turn it into something positive. I will continue to shout as loud as I can about my illness until the entire world hears me. I want every person who suffers with a mental illness, no matter who they are or where they are from, to know that they are not alone, that there is always hope. Never be afraid to speak up and ask for help. I’ve been through the good, I’ve been through the bad and I’ve been through the sometimes very ugly and I haven’t given up. As Michael Landsberg would say.. “you gotta fight for your happiness.” Do whatever it takes to feel better and never be ashamed.

I may be a little burnt with a few sprinkles out of place, but I am still a beautiful cupcake and I still have a lot more to say. Thanks for reading and stay tuned….

Courtney 🙂

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The Oven is on Fire and I’m In Hell 

Anxiety is depressing. This short and simple phrase carries such a profound meaning for me. Let me tell you why.

In the first few days of 2014 I decided to make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. After a year and a half of trying various antidepressants I became frustrated with the amount of weight I had gained and made up my mind it had to be the medication. I was feeling good and no longer felt I should have to rely on a tiny white pill to make me happy. During the month of January I weaned myself off of my antidepressant medication. By early February I had hired a personal trainer and joined Weight Watchers. Throughout the next few months I lost 45 pounds, was eating healthy and felt great, like nothing could knock me down. My anxiety was still there but it had become quiet and I was thriving at my job in the ICU. I even started working night shifts again after a year of trading them away to my coworkers. Was it foolish of me to think that I might have actually recovered from the crushing anxiety and panic attacks I had been experiencing for months? Absolutely.

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In early May the anxiety monster began to slowly claw it’s way back into my life. I started to experience episodes of vertigo while I was at work and had developed a nagging lump in my throat that never seemed to go away. By this time I was so into my fitness that I began to go to the gym after working a twelve hour shift, no matter how tired I was. Heaven forbid I missed a training session! On one such day, half way through my workout,  I was blindsided by panic. My heart rate was already up, I started to feel light headed, nauseated and shaky. I laid down on the floor on my stomach, pressing my forehead against the mat. I couldn’t feel my hands or legs and all I can remember thinking was this is it, my worst fear is coming true. I’m going to pass out at the gym. I’m going to pass out in public. Everyone will be staring at me. How embarrassing! Breathe dammit! Just breathe! My nurse brain pushed it’s way into the war that was being waged inside my head. It told me I was going to have a cardiac arrest and die. My trainer stood by helplessly as I tried to calm myself down. I remember telling him “I don’t feel good, I can’t get my heart rate down. I think I’m going to pass out.” He wanted to call someone for help but I refused. After a few minutes my heart finally started to settle and I was left feeling weak, shaken and embarrassed. I went home that night, picked up the phone, and in a shaky voice told the unit clerk I was going to be sick for the next few days. This is where it all began.

The next day I woke up feeling exhausted. There was a weight in my chest that didn’t seem to want to go away. My vision was off. I felt like the world was out of focus, like I was looking at it through a dirty window. My head hurt and I felt dizzy. My nurse brain was telling me that something was wrong. It ran through all of the possibilities. Maybe I was working too much? Maybe it’s the night shifts? Maybe I was losing weight too fast? Was I drinking enough water? Getting enough food? Do I need to start taking more vitamins? Is there something wrong with my heart? Do I have a brain tumor?! It never occurred to me that this could have been anxiety. I made my husband drive me to a Medicenter. I needed answers. The doctor checked my blood pressure and filled out a requisition for some blood work. He told me to take it easy, drink lots of fluids and follow up with my family doctor when possible. I left feeling frustrated. I still felt awful with no explanation as to why. All I wanted was to feel better so I could get back to work, to the gym, to my life.

The following week I still wasn’t feeling any better so I went to see my family doctor. I told her that I was continuing to experience shortness of breath, vertigo, vision changes and nausea. She told me that my blood work was normal. She suggested that I get some additional blood work done and an ECG to check my heart. She wrote me a prescription for inhalers thinking that maybe my asthma had flared up again. Off I went, still frustrated and without a reason as to why I felt so terrible. For the rest of the week I attempted to live my life as if everything was fine. I continued to go to my yoga classes. I tried going back to the gym for training sessions but would have to leave half way through when I started to experience vertigo and nausea. I tried to go back to work. My coworkers kept telling me how awful I looked. I was exhausted, pale, shaky and unable to focus on my work. I was experiencing such bad vertigo that I found myself holding onto the railings on the wall meant for patients who were unsteady on their feet. I left work early and took another three days of sick leave.

Throughout the next couple of weeks my anxiety began to get worse. The lump in my throat had grown to the point where I constantly felt like I couldn’t breathe. There weren’t enough inhalers in the world that could make me feel better. I couldn’t watch TV without experiencing vertigo and nausea. My eyes would not and could not focus. I started to experience double vision and light trails. I would panic while driving, afraid that I would pass out, crash and die. I began to live my life in a constant state of panic. I would have moments where I couldn’t feel my hands or legs and I felt somehow separated from the world, like I could just float away. I compulsively curled my toes in an attempt to ground myself until I developed blisters and wore holes in the soles of my shoes. I started pulling out my hair strand by strand in order to feel pain, to feel something other than the impeding doom that would suddenly wash over me. I felt that if I didn’t somehow keep myself in reality, I was going to die.

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I kept going back to see my doctor. I’d sit in her office panicked, shaky and nauseated, desperate for an answer. I spent entire afternoons online researching all of my symptoms and was now convinced I had a brain tumor or something else terribly wrong with me. I had also started to develop migraines. I was unsteady on my feet and had vision changes. It all seemed to fit. She arranged for me to have an MRI of my brain and a follow-up with a neurologist. During this time I attempted to work a few shifts, but I wasn’t coping well. I stopped sleeping. I developed nighttime panic attacks, waking up gasping for air while my heart raced. The sensation of falling asleep mimicked the sensation of dying. I couldn’t close my eyes and fall asleep, for  fear that I would not wake up. The sleeping medication I was so used to taking had stopped working. I was obsessed with the thought that I might vomit or pass out at work. I was constantly having my coworkers check my pulse, blood pressure and blood sugar. Eventually, by the first week of June, I decided I needed to be off work indefinitely or at least until I could figure out what was making me so sick. I went back to my doctor and she put me on sick leave for the next four weeks.

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Throughout the month of June my anxiety continued to spiral out of control. I was attempting to keep a grip on normal life. I tried to continue with exercise in any form. I went to my yoga classes but found myself having to get up and leave because of panic. I would go for walks but have to sit down when I felt dizzy. My personal trainer finally refused to see me until I found out what was going on. The MRI of my brain was normal. The ECG was normal. The blood tests were normal. So what on earth was wrong with me?! By this time my doctor visits were becoming a weekly occurrence. I was desperate for an answer. I told her about my nighttime panic attacks and racing heart beat. She prescribed me a different type of sleeping medication. She also arranged for me to have a 24 hour heart tracing to see if I was experiencing any arrythmias. Then came the million dollar question… “Do you think this is all in your head? Do you need to be on an antidepressant again?” I was furious. How can she not take me seriously?! Something very real is going on in my body. I’m not making this up. Do your job! I told her that if the heart monitor didn’t show anything conclusive, then I would consider it an option. I refused to believe that I was mentally ill, that I was weak.

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My mood started to become lower and lower with each passing day. I would spend entire days in bed or on the couch, fighting with my anxiety, wondering if things would ever get better. I was overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and found myself in tears nearly every day. I would sit in the shower for what seemed like forever, unable to find the energy to lift my arms and wash my hair. I would sit down in the tub and cry as the water fell over me. My relationship with my husband started to fall apart. He was worried about me and frustrated that he couldn’t do a thing to make me feel better. I began to push him away. I distanced myself from my friends and family and became withdrawn and isolated. I was so tired of fighting. I didn’t have the energy to live my life anymore.

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I remember the day I decided I was done. Once again, I opened that little door in the back of my mind and peered into the darkness. I was sitting on my bed alone, while my husband was at work, listening to Ed Sheeran’s Even My Dad Does Sometimes. The words “it’s alright to die, cause death’s the only thing you haven’t tried” filled me with the painful and devastating feeling of hopelessness. I truly believed those words. I told myself it’s alright to die. I’m exhausted. I can’t possibly live like this anymore. I am useless. I can’t work, I can’t drive, I can’t even wash my own hair. I have no friends. I’ll never be a good mother to my future children. Nobody understands what I’m going through. Nobody cares. By this time I had amassed a rather large collection of medication. I had several different types of antidepressants, sleeping pills, pills for nausea, pills for fertility and pills for reflux; not to mention several bottles of over-the-counter pain medication. I pulled all of them out of my bedside table and laid them out on the bed in front of me. I sat and cried for what seemed like hours, trying to decide which medications and in which combination, would put me to sleep forever. The words repeated back to me: “it’s alright to die.”

 

I can’t tell you what kept me from attempting to end my life that day. Maybe it was my nurse brain telling me to remember all of the failed suicide attempts I had come across in my career. Maybe in the end I was too afraid of death. All I know is when I heard the lyrics “just for today, hold on…” I decided to do just that. There had to be something left for me in this life. I told myself that my husband could never know how close to the edge I actually was. It would break his heart. I didn’t want to place that kind of fear and burden on him. I was going to fight this.

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Near the end of June I received a phone call from my doctor’s office. They found something on my heart tracing. The receptionist couldn’t tell me what exactly it was but she did tell me that my doctor had referred me to see a cardiologist and that she did not want me returning to work until after I went to see him. I was perfectly okay with that. I was still feeling terrible and didn’t think I would ever be able to work again. Could this have been the answer I was looking for? I phoned my manager and told her the news. She was very kind and compassionate telling me to take my time and get better, and that my job would be there when I was ready to return. I still felt incredibly guilty. I had left my unit high and dry during a time when they were extremely busy and short staffed. Here I was unable to work, unable to drive or be in public alone, and unable to maintain the level of fitness I had worked so hard to acquire. I felt guilty and useless as a human being.

One night I found myself in such a deep panic that I was convinced my heart was going to give out and I was going to die. I was at my mom’s house for dinner when it hit me. I began to experience the familiar and sinking feeling of impeding doom. My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to lie down and calm myself but I couldn’t. In the back of my mind I wondered if I truly did have some kind of life-threatening heart condition. I stumbled out of my mom’s bedroom shaking, begging my husband to take me to the emergency room. It was here that I was faced with the cold hard reality of mental illness stigma. First off, the triage nurse seemed annoyed with me. She took my blood pressure and told me to sit in the waiting room. I sat in that chair for what seemed like ages, nauseated, shaky and lightheaded. I clung to my husband like I was clinging to life itself. When I finally got in to see a physician he was incredibly rude. He asked “so what brings you here tonight?” I started with “well I’ve been sick for a couple months…” Before I could continue he cut me off and in a condescending tone of voice said  “well I don’t know what that means, sick for a couple months. Sick with what?” I was furious. I thought to myself what the f#*%!? Is this guy serious? Does he not want to listen to me?! All I could muster was an “excuse me but I’m trying to tell you.” He let me finish my story and then proceeded to tell me that this was just anxiety, and that I shouldn’t be coming the ER every time I had a panic attack. I had some blood work done and was sent home with a prescription for anti-nausea medication. I had never felt more ashamed in my entire life.

During the last week of June I learned that I would not be seeing a cardiologist until September. This was devastating. My husband and I were already under some considerable financial stress. We had a sizable amount of debt with no wiggle room. Even with his wage, we were barely getting by and my sick time was quickly running out. I would be forced to go on short term disability as of early August, which would not provide enough money to pay the mortgage. We had no choice… we were forced to make the difficult decision to sell our house or risk losing it the hard way. I was heartbroken. I convinced myself it was all my fault. If I hadn’t gotten sick none of this would have happened. I was losing my home, my safe place, everything I had worked so hard for.

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We quickly met with a realtor and after a week of preparation, our house sold on July 7th 2014, one day after entering the market. I was in shock. I was now being forced to face reality. The tears came and they didn’t stop. The guilt was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe that in just a few short weeks it would all be gone and I would be forced to live in the basement of my dad’s house with my husband and three dogs. We were also going to be living with my brother, sister in law and their twin boys. I felt like such a disappointment. I didn’t think it could get much worse than that. In two days time I would be turning 28 years old, and I felt like I had nothing to show for my life.

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The next day my husband and I had my family over for dinner for my birthday. I spent most of the day in bed, exhausted and sad. I could barely eat my dinner. I wasn’t interested in playing with my sweet adorable nephews. I just wanted to disappear. To make matters worse, I had agreed to get up at 4 am the next morning to drive with my sister to her new home on the coast. She was desperate for the company and I couldn’t say no, despite how terrible I was feeling. I told myself that maybe this was just what I needed, to get away for a while, to sit by the ocean and attempt to heal. I looked forward to spending some time with my sister, as I wouldn’t be seeing her very often from then on. After a grueling and nauseating 14 hour drive through the mountains and a sickening ferry ride we finally made it to the island. I was greeted by my brother-in-law with ice cream cupcakes and a birthday card. I tried desperately to enjoy myself, but all I really wanted to do was sink into bed and hide under the covers forever.

After a week in Victoria I arrived home to face the harsh reality that I now had to begin to pack up my house. The possession date was coming up and I couldn’t afford to sit around and wallow in sadness. Somehow I managed to muster enough energy and motivation to get everything done (with the help of my wonderful husband and family). By the end of July our entire life was packed up and moved. The day I handed over the keys is a day I’ll never forget. Although we had made a considerable amount of money on the sale of our house, I still felt like my life was over. I buried my head in my pillow and cried myself to sleep that night.

Throughout the summer I continued to slide further into depression. I spent most days on my own in the basement in my dad’s house while my husband was at work. I mindlessly watched TV and slept away the afternoons. I walked my dogs as often as I could. Getting out into nature was one of the few things that truly made me happy. I would sit on the deck in the summer sun with my coffee and stare off into space, completely detached from the world. I continued to take sleeping pills every night as sleep was my only escape from the crushing emotions associated with depression and anxiety, which had become my constant companions. No matter how much I slept I was still exhausted. I began to feel as if life wasn’t worth living again. I woke up every morning, turned on my iPhone and started to research the least painful ways to die. This was scary, and no way to live. At the end of August I finally broke down and made an appointment to see my doctor. I needed to go back on medication. I couldn’t take it anymore. She took one look at me and said “I just don’t know what to do about your mental health anymore.” I told her it was probably time for me to see a psychiatrist. She agreed, gave me a referral and a prescription for an antidepressant. There was still hope, in the form of a tiny white pill.

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In early September I went to see a psychiatrist for the first time. I chose to see somebody recommended to me by a friend. He was located in a private office downtown. I was shocked to get a phone call from the doctor himself. He arranged for me to come see him in a week’s time. For an entire week I worried. Was he going to take one look at me and lock me away in a psychiatric ward? Was he going to medicate the crap out of me so I could barely function? Would he actually take the time to listen to me? I had heard so many horror stories about psychiatrists.

The first visit went well. He was an older gentleman who seemed to have a lot of experience. He asked me about my childhood, my relationship with my family and my husband. We went through my dating and sexual history (weird by the way… you try telling your grandpa about your sex life!). I went through all of the experiences and emotions that had brought me to his doorstep. I told him that throughout the summer all I had wanted to do was die. He diagnosed me with dysthymia, major depressive disorder and anxiety (in many forms). He agreed to see me on a regular basis for psychotherapy and to adjust my medication as needed. I remember him telling me “I think I can help you, everything will be okay.”

At the end of September I finally had my appointment with a cardiologist. He told me that I was having frequent extra beats which were most likely caused by anxiety. I had an otherwise perfectly normal heart. He also diagnosed me with low blood pressure and recommended I eat more salt and drink Gatorade. My heart sank… I finally had to face the truth. The cold hard truth that I had a mental illness.

 

 

The following week I returned to my psychiatrist’s office and explained to him that the cardiologist hadn’t found anything wrong with my heart. He told me he wasn’t surprised. I realized in that moment that I wasn’t either. I had to accept the fact that I had a mental illness, a sickness of the mind. It was difficult for me to believe that anxiety and depression could cause such terrible physical symptoms. I felt guilty, as if somehow I had made it all up. He recommended that I return to work no matter how daunting the task seemed, as the longer I sat around at home the more depressed I was likely to become. He wrote me a letter stating I was to return to work in November and agreed to continue to see me on a weekly basis to help me through the transition.

I returned to work on November 4th, 2014 after four weeks of therapy and a few medication adjustments. I had begun to sleep better and my anxiety was quiet(er). I stopped rubbing holes in my shoes and pulling out my hair. I no longer had feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. I had even taken a leap of faith and dyed my hair blonde (I am a natural brunette)! I wanted to return to work a new person, a happy and (somewhat) healthy person. Despite all of this, I was still terrified. How were people going to treat me? Were they going to be asking a lot of questions? I heard a rumor while I was on disability that I was faking my illness to get a summer vacation, and that I wasn’t actually sick at all. I felt beat down by stigma and expected many awkward conversations. To my surprise I was greeted with hugs, ‘welcome back!’s and ‘you look great!’s. My coworkers seemed genuinely happy to see me and I was happy to see them. I had isolated myself so much that I had forgotten what having people around felt like. The odd person who didn’t know me very well asked me where I had been and I simply told them “I was sick.” I still felt ashamed and embarrassed and didn’t want to elaborate further. Only my closest friends knew the truth about what happened. It wasn’t until months later that I began to open up about my illness and what I had gone through that summer.

Mental illness is something that I live with every day. Sometimes it is quiet and other times it can be so loud and debilitating that I just don’t know if I can go on. I have had to learn to accept that this is something I am going to have to fight for the rest of my life. It is something that millions of people don’t talk about. I choose to be open about my struggles because I believe in the tremendous healing power that it holds. Without openness and the loving support of my family and friends, I might not be here today to share my story with you. If you or someone you care about is struggling with a mental illness, no matter how mild or severe, I encourage you to talk about it. Be open. Be honest. I guarantee it will change your life. I want each and every one of you to know that you are not alone.

There is more to this story, so stay tuned. The recipe continues…

Courtney 🙂

* For anybody who needs to reach out, I can be found on Facebook at The Depressed Cupcake or on Twitter @thecupcakegirl8

You can also visit my favorite website http://www.sicknotweak.com


 

I Smell Smoke – We’re In Trouble

The past five years of my life have been a bit of a blur, full of heartache and difficult times. Everything was great for a little while. By the end of 2011 I was happily married, living in my own home and attempting to start a family. My panic attacks had quieted down and I was left with the slow burning flame that was my chronic anxiety. While I was blissfully and ignorantly living my own life, my family was falling apart around me. I always knew that my brother was a troubled kid. When we were younger we hated each other. We would fight constantly. He would take my clothes and mutilate them, we would scream and call each other names, he even punched a hole in my bedroom door once (maybe twice). Underneath all of the fighting I think we resented each other. He resented me for being what he thought was “the good child” and I resented him for stealing away all of our parent’s attention. My sister was his twin so naturally they had a very close relationship. I always felt like I was the left out sibling. I never had a good relationship with either of them. I never felt relied upon or needed like I thought an older sibling should be.

From what I can remember, my brother was a very anxious child and his teenage years were tumultuous. I can remember him being bullied so badly at school that the police became involved. He hung out with the wrong people, dropped out of school and his behavior became erratic and risky. Like me, my brother suffers from anxiety and depression. In his case, he turned to drugs and alcohol to soothe the pain. I first started to really notice his drinking about a year and a half before my wedding. I knew that he always loved to party and have a good time. I knew that he drank too much and dabbled in drugs. What I didn’t know was that he was headed towards, if not already immersed in, full blown addiction. Every family event became tainted with his drinking. I had even contemplated excluding him from my wedding party because I was afraid he would be drunk and embarrass me. For the most part my parents decided to keep me in the dark about his destructive behavior (I didn’t live at home and didn’t have to witness it). In some ways it was blessing, but once I came to realize how bad it actually was, I was shocked. It was incredibly difficult to watch this kind, compassionate, intelligent and talented person fall apart right before my eyes.

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In early 2012 my brother attended rehab for the first time. It was a tremendous relief to know that he was somewhere safe. By this time he was drinking himself half into a coma nearly every day. He was physically sick, had been beaten up several times, had multiple ER visits and was a regular with the police. It was impossible for me to stop worrying about him. I developed severe anxiety and insomnia, to the point where I was having difficulty working. Each time an alcoholic came through the doors of the ICU, whether they had been found unconscious in a ditch or were in severe detox, my heart would break. I knew that one day, it would be him.

That spring, when my brother was released from rehab, he relapsed very quickly and there we were again, back on the merry-go-round. It was heartbreaking and exasperating at the same time. He seemed to be doing so well in rehab and I just didn’t understand why he couldn’t stop. I went to see my family doctor for my yearly check up. This was the first time in my life I had reached out to a physician (or anyone for that matter) for help with my anxiety and depression. She was very kind and understanding telling me not to worry. She said that these were very common problems. She wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication called Paxil (Paroxetine). I was also having difficulty getting pregnant so she wrote me up a requisition for some bloodwork to check my hormones. This is where my trouble with medications began.  Despite weeks of nausea and constipation, the Paxil did little to improve my mood and anxiety. By September I had gained 55lbs without changing my eating habits and I still exercised regularly with a personal trainer. I continued to have insomnia and high levels of generalized anxiety. I started having mild panic attacks, especially at the gym, terrified that I would vomit or pass out in public. I called to make an appointment with my doctor and ended up seeing someone different as she was unavailable. For anonymity purposes I will call her Dr. D.  This was the beginning of a love/hate relationship.

I don’t think that my family physician was capable of managing my mental illnesses properly. I ended up on a terrible medication roller coaster for years. Dr. D was wonderful in every other way. She was kind and compassionate towards me and took the time to listen to everything I had to say. I was going through a lot with my family and I had gotten to the point where my illness was making it difficult to function. I was willing to try anything to get some sort of normalcy back in my life.

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The second drug I was placed on was called Celexa (Citalopram). I loved this drug but hated it at the same time. My anxiety had almost completely vanished, yet I was left feeling exhausted and numb. I found myself practically falling asleep in my chair at work and my co-workers were beginning to worry about me. I felt like I was floating around in a cloud, unable to concentrate properly. My mood was consistently low and I became easily fatigued and emotional. Also during this time, the situation with my family had begun to get worse. My brother continued to slip further and further into addiction and near the end of September 2012 my parents separated. Luckily at this time, my brother was safe in rehab once again so we didn’t have to worry about him. His behavior wasn’t necessarily the cause of the separation, but only the straw that broke the camel’s back. From what I can remember, my parent’s relationship had never truly been good. They had always fought. It was heartbreaking watching them separate.

I’ve discovered that no matter how old you are, divorce is devastating. I became caught in the middle. There was a lot of finger pointing and emotional tension every time the family was together. It was very difficult to not take sides. My mom had always seemed like a strong and independent person so naturally I felt like my dad needed more support. He was devastated, angry and lonely. The first Thanksgiving after the separation was difficult for me. I was grieving the loss of my family as a functional unit. I remember sitting at the dinner table at my in-laws with tears in my eyes as my sister-in-law kindly continued to refill my wine glass. After having a terrifying drunken panic attack I later went home and vomited, whilst sobbing, vowing to never drink red wine again.

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The last few months of 2012 were difficult. I tried taking fertility drugs to get pregnant with no results. The change in hormones caused me to have terrible mood swings. I began to get angry and irritated at everything. I would just about lose it every time someone stood too close to me or chewed their food too loudly. It was so bad that one day I found myself screaming and throwing diaper rash cream at my husband in the middle of Shopper’s Drug Mart. We quickly decided that this was not working and asked for a referral to see a fertility specialist. I was becoming frustrated with my body and wanted nothing more than to have a child. I needed something happy in my life.

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In November my husband ended up laid-off from work and we began to slip further into debt as I struggled to make enough money to pay the bills. My brother left rehab but continued to drink and self-destruct. My family had become a hot mess of co-dependency, denial and blame. Dr D changed my medication from Celexa to Cipralex (escitalopram -a very similar drug) in the hopes that the side effects would ease off. I still felt a bit drowsy and tired but for the most part my anxiety was under control. Then came Christmas. At this time my brother had met a girl online from the U.S. who had decided to make the trip to meet him. The poor thing had no idea what she was getting herself into. She quickly became wrapped up in the terrible dysfunction that was my brother and our family. We attempted to be together as a family for the holiday, just for the sake of normalcy, but the tension was almost too much to bear. It broke my heart to think that we would never have a normal Christmas together ever again.

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In early 2013 my brother and his girlfriend discovered they were pregnant with twins. I was devastated. I was sad, angry and extremely jealous. I shouted at the universe. How is this fair?! He’s an addict who can’t even take care of himself. I wanted to be the first one to have a child. How is it fair that they can get pregnant but I can’t?! My childhood flooded before me. I suddenly felt like that left out and neglected kid again. All eyes were on someone else… again… as usual. I felt like a failure, unable to give my parents their first grandchild. I found it almost impossible to be happy for them.

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In May of 2013 my brother’s world came crashing down. His girlfriend had returned home to have their babies. Shortly after, he and his best friend were drunk one night and had a fight. They took it outside and his friend ran out into traffic and was struck by a young driver who did not see him. He died at the scene due to a massive head injury. I took a personal day off work to be with my family. My parents were at a loss as to what to do. We thought for sure he would go off the deep end and hurt himself. We were terrified that we were going to lose him. I will never forget the look of pain and emptiness on my brother’s face.  He did not recall most of the events of the night before and my sister faced him and told him the shocking truth; that his best friend was dead. He decided that the best thing to do would be to return to rehab where he would be safe. We hoped and prayed that they would be able to help him come to terms with what had happened so that he could begin to heal. Unfortunately he has suffered from the trauma of this event ever since.

By June 2013 I was having a very difficult time dealing with life. The medication I was taking made me feel awful and I felt myself spiraling down into depression. The stress of my family, financial problems and infertility had me so low I didn’t know what to do anymore. It started to wear down on my marriage. My sex drive had disappeared and I became emotionally distant and unavailable. My self-esteem was at an all time low. I was jealous of everybody around me. I felt like my life wasn’t worth anything and that I was destined to be poor, stressed out and miserable forever. The pain of hopelessness had started to settle over me. At this point, Dr. D suggested I see a mental health professional. She explained to me that recovery from anxiety and depression was more successful when medication was combined with therapy. She referred me to a psychiatrist who I didn’t end up going to see. I was afraid that they would medicate me to the point where I didn’t feel a thing and not actually help me sort out my issues. I decided to take a different route and see a psychologist. My mom recommended I see her therapist, as she had helped her tremendously through my brother’s addiction and her separation with my dad.

The first visit was terrifying. I was suffering from social anxiety more so than usual. I sat in the car with the familiar pain of fear in my stomach for a half hour before I worked up the courage to knock on her door. Even then, I stood on the doorstep shaking. I was in a new place, meeting a new person who I was expected to sit with (alone!) and share my most personal experiences, thoughts and secrets. Despite all of the fear and anxiety I was feeling on that day, I look back on it and see it as a turning point in my life. I told her about my struggles with anxiety and opened up about my depression. I dug deep into my childhood and admitted for the first time that I had been suicidal. I told her about my struggles with infertility and the resentment I felt towards my brother and his girlfriend. She knew what I was going through with my family as she had counseled my parents as well as my brother in the past. For the first time I was able to open up and talk freely without feeling judged or humiliated. In the months that followed I continued to see my therapist until I could no longer afford it. Unfortunately our health care system does not fund psychology sessions and the expense can add up quite quickly.

In August my beautiful twin nephews were born. They were like a ray of sunshine in the dark and depressing world we all lived in. We had hoped that my brother would change his ways once his children were born, that they would give him a reason to get his life together, a reason to live; unfortunately he continued to struggle. After he left rehab he made the trip to the U.S. for the birth. From the day they were born and beyond he continued to drink. It broke my heart to think of the life these babies were born into. It wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve it. I knew my brother had it in him to be a wonderful father.

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Words cannot describe how difficult it is to watch someone you love lose a battle with addiction. In a way, I was one of the lucky ones. I became a master at detachment. I didn’t have a close emotional bond with my brother and by the time his addiction had taken over, I didn’t even know who he was anymore. It was easy to separate myself from it because I wasn’t physically there to see the worst of it and I never had to take the brunt of his abuse. On the other hand, I worried about him constantly. Every time he had been admitted to the hospital, been arrested or gone missing after threatening suicide, my heart broke. I was the only person in my family who didn’t have a codependent relationship with him and who was able to offer the kind of tough love he so badly needed to survive. I love him and will always support him in sobriety but it is difficult for me to express it when I harbor so many feelings of hurt, anger and frustration. My hope is that one day, he will be at peace with himself and we can finally begin to build the relationship we never had. I love you Chris.

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I’m not sure this recipe can be salvaged… but life will go on…

Courtney 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cake Is Burning – My Anxiety Evolved 

When I left nursing school I was broken. My self-esteem and confidence were at an all time low. I always wanted to work in intensive care like my mother, but I knew that coming out of school I wasn’t ready for that kind of challenge. It seemed completely out of my reach. I managed to get hired onto a cardiovascular surgery ward but I still didn’t feel good enough to be there. The first couple of months on the job were awful. I felt like I didn’t know anything and was constantly asking other nurses for advice and reassurance. I was afraid that everyone was watching and judging my every move and I convinced myself that they didn’t like me and talked about me behind my back. I felt like C was there whispering in my ear. You’re stupid, useless and a terrible nurse. You didn’t deserve to graduate. Nobody likes you. You might as well just quit.

As time passed I began to feel more comfortable and the job became easier. The other nurses on the unit were always kind and supportive and I quickly made friends. They say that no matter where you go in life you will be faced with bullies. Although this had been true for most of my life, I never met a single mean and nasty person on this unit. I learned many specialized skills that would be beneficial to me moving forward into critical care. I even began to supervise students and take on some charge nurse duties. For the first time working in intensive care wasn’t such an impossible dream. The funny thing about becoming a nurse when you have such a high level of anxiety is that it forces you to be different. I was thrust into uncomfortable situations almost every day until one day I adapted and it became second nature. The scared little girl inside of me who couldn’t say a word had blossomed into a kind and compassionate person who was always there to help those in need. I was still relatively quiet and introverted but I had finally begun to live my life like I had always wanted.

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In December of 2008 I decided I was ready to take a leap of faith and apply for a position in intensive care. The job included critical care training followed by guaranteed full time for a year. I remember asking my manager for a reference. He seemed upset that I had applied to work elsewhere. He told me I wouldn’t like intensive care and that there were a lot of “sharks” working there who would want to eat me alive. I managed to stop my anxious and negative thoughts in their tracks. No, he is just trying to convince you to stay because you’re awesome. Go for it!

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My mom seemed fairly excited for me. After all, her baby was following in her footsteps! By this time she had been working in critical care management for a number of years. She was very helpful in preparing me for my interview. I was terrified. I remember going to the second floor of the hospital and getting lost trying to find the manager’s office. Another nurse stopped me in the hallway, probably recognizing the distressed look on my face. “Are you C’s daughter? I used to work with her. I heard you might be coming to work with us. Good luck!” She pointed me in the direction I needed to go. After my interview was finished the manager told me that the course for January was full but that a spot should be available in March. Until then I was to hold tight and they would be in touch. A week later she called me back to tell me that someone had dropped out of the course in January and the spot was mine if I wanted it. I gave my final notice to my manager and that was it. I was finally going to be a critical care nurse. Part of me was extremely anxious and scared but another part of me felt like I was sticking it to C, showing myself that I hadn’t in fact let her squash my dreams and that I was going to rise up to the challenge and show everyone that I was a strong and capable nurse.

Shortly before starting my critical care training I was asked to come in for an 8h shift to shadow one of the nurses and get to know the unit. Our patient that day was a 30 year old male with very bad strep pneumonia. My first reaction when I sat down in the room was shock. I had never seen so many lines, tubes and equipment attached to one human being. He had a breathing tube attached to a ventilator and multiple IV infusions. He had an arterial line in his wrist and wires and cables attached to a monitor on which there were multiple waves and numbers. There were chest tubes and a feeding tube. We assisted in a procedure where a surgeon placed a breathing tube in the throat (a tracheostomy) for long term breathing support.  I left that day feeling completely overwhelmed and terrified. I didn’t ever want to go back. I started to doubt my decision to try this very specialized and stressful area of nursing.

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During the critical care course my anxiety monster returned and it was bigger and scarier than ever. I wasn’t the shy, quiet social phobic that I had always been. That type of anxiety I knew well and could deal with for the most part. This was something entirely different. I felt like I was under a lot of pressure because the instructors were all very close friends of my mom. One of them had known me since I was a little girl. I wanted to do well. I wanted so badly to show them that I was as smart and capable as my mom. I studied more than I probably needed to and got little sleep. My time on the unit was extremely stressful. I felt sick and panicked every time I had to go to work, afraid of what I might be faced with that day.

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I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture on arterial blood gas interpretation when it hit me. My eyesight went “funny.” It wasn’t blurry and the room wasn’t spinning but I just couldn’t focus properly. I started to feel my throat tighten and my breathing rate increase. Then the panic set in. My heart rate started to race and I became cold and sweaty. It felt like the universe was closing in and I was about to faint in the middle of a lecture in front of everyone. I pinched myself several times in an attempt to keep myself from passing out. My body and my head felt heavy and I could feel the color leaving my face. I excused myself and wobbled to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet feeling like I was going to throw up trying desperately to calm my heart which felt like it was beating out of my chest. After about 10 minutes it was gone. I ran my hands under hot water to calm the chill that had settled over my body. What the HELL was that?! I chocked it up to a lack of sleep and the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a few hours. Maybe my blood sugar was low or maybe I was dehydrated. I grabbed a bottle of water and returned to class.

A few days later it happened again. I was at home watching TV when I felt the panic set in. My vision had still been a bit off ever since my first episode at school. It felt almost like I was walking around with my eyes crossed. I couldn’t focus on the TV and I started to feel my heart rate go up. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet and I felt the color leaving my face again. I started to feel shaky, cold and nauseated. I went and got in the shower in an attempt to calm myself down and get warm. When I came out my boyfriend was there. I just laid on the bed and started to cry. I had never been more scared. I couldn’t help thinking that something was seriously wrong with me.

A week later my vision still hadn’t improved. I had one more attack before I decided to go and see my family doctor. She wasn’t available so I ended up seeing somebody else in the clinic. She took my blood pressure, checked my eyes and wrote me up for some blood work. She then told me not to worry and that I was probably just pregnant. Just pregnant??! I was mortified. How could she not take me seriously? I decided to get my blood work and pregnancy test done and hope that maybe she was right, at least it would explain why I felt so awful. All tests were negative and life went on.

As the months went by I finished my training and finally began working on my own. I felt less and less panicked every time I came to work. I was surrounded by wonderful and supportive co-workers who were always there for me when I was unsure of something or needed help. There was one nurse who wasn’t very nice to me because I was quiet and a bit shy. She didn’t think I had what it took to work in the ICU. Luckily most of this took place behind my back and I always had a friend to stand up for me. Even though I was gaining confidence I still had the anxiety monster on my shoulder. For the most part I was able to keep it hidden. I sometimes felt tired or lightheaded and nauseated and had to take a moment and hide in the bathroom. My vision still wasn’t quite right but I learned to live with it. I still felt anxious meeting my patients for the first time or speaking with their families. I was also getting used to working closely with doctors (this was difficult for me as I came from a place where it was considered insubordination to talk to a cardiac surgeon). Some of my assignments were difficult and stressful. When I started losing weight (intentionally) and became quite skinny, people started to tell me that I probably didn’t feel good because I had lost too much weight too fast. They would tell me I looked pale and exhausted. I shrugged this off. I would tell myself maybe I have lost too much weight, maybe it’s the night shifts, maybe I need to drink more water, maybe I need to sleep better. I refused to admit to myself that I had a problem with anxiety and that I was on a fast track to burnout. I was looking for any other reason. I didn’t ever want to be perceived as weak, so I went on suffering.

The panic attacks became fewer and farther between. By the end of 2010 I was feeling better. I was thin, felt beautiful and confident. I was enjoying my job. My boyfriend and I had bought our first home and we were now engaged. I was preparing to take a trip across the ocean to Italy. Life was great!

Until it wasn’t…

The recipe continues… 🙂

Courtney

 

Into the Oven – Nursing School

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I still can’t, to this day, tell you how I managed to get through nursing school with my sanity intact. It was one of the most challenging times in my life. I’ve mulled over how to write about such a large and significant part of my life for almost two weeks now. I’ve decided to break it down into nursing years. Although the program I enrolled in was 18 months (straight I might add, right through summer), it was still separated into first, second and third year courses.

Year One

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I started nursing school in the summer of 2006. I couldn’t remember a single day in my life where I had been more nervous. I arrived at the college an hour early. On the drive downtown my mind was swimming with anxious thoughts. I was plagued with every “what if” scenario I could think of.  What if I get stuck in traffic and am late and everyone stares at me when I walk into the room? What if my classmates don’t like me? What if I’m unable to speak and make friends? What if I fail? It took everything in me to not turn around and speed home to my safe place. I was going to do this. I plugged my Bob Marley CD into the player and listened to “Three Little Birds” on repeat until I arrived. Don’t worry, about a thing, cause every little thing, is gonna be alright...

I sat in the lounge area tapping my feet and biting my nails in anticipation of my first class. I walked by the room several times to make sure I didn’t forget where it was and get lost. I spent 1o minutes in the bathroom fighting off waves of nausea. Finally the clock was nearing the hour and I knew I was out of time. I had to go to the classroom and attempt to act like I was a normal human being. I wanted so badly to make a good impression for once in my life.

I walked in and noticed the tables were arranged in a semi-circle. The class was small, only about 10-12 students. While my heart beat a mile a minute, I sat down at the last table beside one of the girls. We introduced ourselves to each other only to find out that we shared the same name. This was exactly the kind of ice-breaker I needed. Who knew that this girl would quickly become my best friend, my shoulder to cry on, my support through some of the toughest times in school when I just wanted to give up.We laughed together, cried together, partied together, and supported each other through the struggles of nursing school and life.

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I was introduced to a learning style that would become a thorn in my side for 18 months. I’m sure anybody who has been through this can attest to it’s evil. It was called context based learning. It was the worst thing imaginable for a person suffering from social phobia. Basically you are given a topic of which you know nothing, are asked to research it and then present it to people who also know nothing, all while the tutor sits back and pretends they are not in the room. This type of learning is why I still feel that nursing school was useless. My first presentation to the class was awful. I didn’t sleep the night before. I felt panicked, nauseated and shaky. It was like living in a nightmare. Fortunately I soon discovered that I wasn’t alone. I noticed that several others, including my new friend seemed just as nervous as I was. Through shaking hands and cracked voice, I delivered my first presentation. After it was over I remember thinking, okay I made it through the first one, I can do this.

Then came the formidable OSCE. This was a practical skills exam all students needed to pass in order to continue in the program. In the first OSCE we were asked to demonstrate the proper technique for hand washing. Hand washing. This was a skill that was very basic and easy,  yet I was terrified. All I wanted to do was run away. I was afraid of judgement and failure. The instructor could tell I was in a state of panic and could not stop shaking. Luckily she was nice enough to guide me through and give me a passing grade. These exams never became easier.

For our first clinical rotation we were placed into nursing homes in and around the city. During this time I was faced with my first nursing school bully. Her name was ‘K’ and she was our instructor. K was an older lady with a limp who wore the most awful handmade sweaters every day. She was single, had no kids and gushed to no end about her prized Shitzus. She was just plain nasty. For however many weeks the course lasted, she made my life a living hell. She had your typical “prey on the weak” personality. She belittled me at every chance she could get. I was terrified to begin with. This was my first physical contact with patients. I had never given a sponge bath, cleaned up poop, used a lift or even changed a bed before. I was stuck like glue to the other Courtney. Afraid to be alone, afraid of making a mistake. I didn’t know how to properly socialize with anybody and I certainly couldn’t handle the confused, wandering dementia patient or the old lady that called me names and wouldn’t let me put her pants on.

K began to pick up on my anxiety. One day she pulled me aside for an “emergency meeting.” At first this meeting seemed pretty benign. She asked me how I was feeling and how I thought I was progressing. Immediately I lied, telling her I felt comfortable and that I was learning a lot. She then started to lay into me about my anxiety. She told me that I seemed apprehensive and afraid (probably a truth I didn’t want to hear). She told me that I would never make it through nursing school with this kind of anxiety weighing me down. She recommended I see a psychiatrist and take medication. She told me that the other students were doing a great job while I was falling behind. All I could remember feeling was complete and utter embarrassment and defeat. I left this meeting with tears in my eyes. How could I face the other students, the patients and staff of the nursing home? All I wanted to do was hide in a dark hole and cry. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. The other girls started to notice the pain on my face. I told them what had happened and they immediately started to try to make me feel better. They reassured me that she was just a miserable old cow and that I was doing great. At the end of the course, during my evaluation, K gave me a grade of B+. To further drive the knife into my chest she told me that she had thought about giving me an A- but just couldn’t because of my anxiety. She also told me that I was the only student that did not receive an A and that I may still want to consider getting some help for my problems. I whispered something to myself (that I won’t repeat) as I left the room and decided the best thing for me to do would be to move on.

Year Two

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During year two I started to build some confidence. I muddled my way through tutorials and nursing labs, giving my presentations with a bit more ease. I started to develop some wonderful friendships. My other half and I (we soon became known as Courtney²) became inseparable. We worked on papers together, studied together, and hung out every chance we could get.

During year two clinical rotations Courtney and I were separated. One half of our 50-some student group was placed into community health and the other half into acute care (medicine or surgery). I ended up on a busy general surgery ward at a local hospital. During this rotation I discovered an “eat your young” mentality amongst nurses. For the most part the RNs just didn’t like students. Many of them had forgotten what it was like to be a student; naive, afraid and inexperienced. The nurses on this unit had no interest in helping us and treated us as if we were a burden. They were rude and gossiped about us behind our backs when they thought we couldn’t hear them. Luckily we had a very good instructor who stood up for us and tried to make our experience as drama-free and worthwhile as possible. As I got further into the rotation I began to feel more confident, but the anxiety was still there. I hated walking into a patient’s room for the first time, afraid that I would say the wrong thing and make myself look stupid to someone who was counting on me to take care of them. Sometimes I look back and think of nursing school as exposure therapy. I was placed into uncomfortable situations on a daily basis and forced to adapt simply because I had to. This was my career. I worked hard and paid a lot of money to be where I was. I wasn’t going to fail, I couldn’t.

Year two also consisted of community health and maternity nursing. I’m not sure why but children and babies made me exceptionally nervous. I sat in on child vaccinations and went along with a nurse to carry out home visits to new mothers. Being alone in a car with a stranger while driving to another stranger’s house to assess a fragile newborn baby was enough to give me a stroke. We also had to go into daycares and teach little kids about hand washing and bike safety. I was even required to make a home visit (by myself!) to a woman who belonged to a new mom’s group. I remember getting lost trying to find her house, not having her phone number, knocking on the wrong door of the duplex and sitting uncomfortably in her living room while I asked her a series of very personal questions. As I write this I still can’t remember how I made it through all of these awkward moments. The point is, I did. I even took a job working at the nursing home as a health care aide, just to prove that I could.

Year Three

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The last “year” of classes proved to be the most challenging. The first bit seemed easy enough. I had made it through more tutorials, a medicine rotation and even a mental health rotation (why they didn’t keep me there was a mystery). Then came preceptorship. This was the final clinical rotation before graduation. It was 9 weeks paired up with an RN on a medical or surgical floor at one of the hospitals in the city. This was a time when we were expected to develop our roles as independent nurses.

This was the second time I was faced with a bully in nursing school, and my career nearly ended before it began. Her name was ‘C’. My mom always taught me never to use the word hate. She said it was a very strong and meaningful word that I was never to use unless I absolutely meant it… well I hated C. She made me feel small, inadequate and like I wanted to walk away from nursing. I ended up on a very busy GI surgery ward. My original preceptor was supposed to be someone else. He ended up going on a leave of absence and last minute they assigned me to C. To begin with I was terrified. Walking onto that ward for the first time made my anxiety go through the roof. I was in a new environment, it was my first 12 hour shift and the first time I ever had to work at night. In the beginning C seemed nice. She showed me around, we took report and I followed her and shadowed her for the night. As the days went on C began to get more and more irritated with me. I was anxious sure, but not enough to keep me from doing the work that was required of me. Due to the condensed nature of our nursing program, I hadn’t had a chance to practice many of the skills we were taught. C had absolutely no interest in helping me put in my first nasogastric tube, foley catheter or intervenous. If I didn’t remember exactly what supplies I needed she would yell at me exclaiming “don’t they teach you any of this in school??” She called me stupid in front of a patient and his wife. She grabbed IV catheters out of my hand when I was attempting to start an IV because my angle was wrong. She took me into the back room one day after she discovered I wrote 04oo instead of 1600 in my charting and completely tore a strip off me. She yelled exclaiming “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you, why can’t you get the 24h time right?!” She would give me her entire 5 patient assignment and sit on her butt in front of the computer all day (she would tell me that I was expected to be independent and take on her entire workload). I would leave the unit after almost every shift in tears and I was always terrified to return.

A few weeks had passed and I was nearing my midterm evaluation. I decided it was time to write an email to my tutor. I told her how C had been treating me and asked what she thought I should do. A few days had passed and she showed up to the unit to have a brief meeting with the both of us. My tutor asked C for feedback on my progress to which she began to pick me apart. I outlined my concerns about how C was treating me. My tutor asked me if I wanted to be assigned to a different nurse. I decided to be the better person and continue to battle on. What a mistake that was! C left the meeting with steam coming out of her ears. She pulled me aside and hissed “you’ve obviously talked about me to your instructor, I’m going to make you wish you had been assigned to someone else.” At midterm evaluation C attempted to give me a C- for a grade. My tutor was suspicious of this and decided to come to the unit for a few hours during my next shift to observe me. She told me I was doing great and didn’t deserve the grade I was given.

As time went on C continued to bully me. I was so anxious every day that I was almost unable to function properly. I was becoming forgetful and started to make small mistakes. The other nurses on the unit began to notice how badly I was suffering. They tried to support me as best they could. They told me that C was just a bitter person who had always treated students this way. It was shocking to me that they allowed her to preceptor me in the first place. There were many times when I would go home completely beside myself and convinced that I was doomed to fail and didn’t deserve to be a nurse. Without the love and support from my family, friends and boyfriend, I would have most certainly quit.

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With two weeks left of the course C left me to take an instructor position at the college. She was to be teaching psychiatric nurses during their surgical rotation. It was like a breath of fresh air. I was finally able to emerge from the pressure cooker. One day I came across C’s name on Facebook. I don’t know why, but something compelled me to click the “add friend” icon. A few days later she accepted and I was opened up to another world of hurt. I searched through her news feed and found several rude and degrading comments about me. I also came across comments about her other students calling them stupid and blaming them for her incessant need to drink (comments like these are a big no-no in the nursing world). At this point I was livid. I printed everything I could find and showed it to my tutor. She was mortified. She took a copy to submit to her superiors at the college and recommended that I file a formal complaint to our professional association.

Meanwhile C had written a final evaluation for me full of bad grammar and spelling mistakes citing multiple errors I had apparently made (without dates, times or witnesses). She attempted to give me a failing grade. My tutor wasn’t having any of it. On my final evaluation she asked what grade I thought I deserved. Honestly, at this point, I thought I deserved to fail. In the end I gave myself the humble grade of B+.

Then the hate mail started. C sent me multiple emails stating that I was a horrible person and that I was putting her career in jeopardy (apparently the college had let her go). I printed these as well and gave them to my tutor. She decided to pull me out of clinical a week early because she didn’t want me returning to that toxic environment. I couldn’t thank her enough. On my last shift I brought the unit a gift and a card thanking them for their support (with no mention of C). One of the other nurses told me she was sorry about what C had done to me and that if I needed a reference I could use her name.

I continued to get more hate mail from C making snide comments about me gifting the unit and not her and that she would never give me a reference or help me get a job in any way. I decided not to respond and submitted all of my evidence to our professional association (who by the way dismissed everything because she never actually used my name, she had only referred to me as her student). Despite my tutor telling me otherwise, I still left preceptorship feeling broken and inadequate. I kept telling myself I didn’t deserve to graduate. Many of the other students had enjoyed their last clinical rotation, and I felt like I had just been through a war.

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Although nursing school was extremely challenging and made me question everything that I thought I was and wanted to be, I still feel as if it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I fought my way through anxiety, bullying and self-doubt to emerge a stronger and more compassionate person. I was able to harness my anxiety and bust through the brick wall my mind had put in place for so many years. For any young person who is suffering as I had in my teenage years who feels as if they will never go to university, never be somebody, I want to tell you that you’re wrong. It is very hard work, but worth it in the end. Surround yourself with kind and supportive people to help you survive the tough times and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Today I still struggle with my illnesses and demons, but I am able to better cope with it and have made a life for myself worth living.

Even if your cake falls flat… Don’t give up.

The recipe continues… 🙂

Courtney

 

 

The Cake Can’t Rise Without Flour – I Met a Boy

For someone with an anxiety disorder, dating can be a fickle thing. On one hand, I loved having someone take an interest in me, someone who saw something in me other than “the quiet girl.” The attention made me feel good about myself. It made me feel as if I wasn’t invisible. On the other hand, my anxiety caused me to have trouble pursuing romance and made breaking up all the more heart-wrenching. When I was 15 and going through depression, I felt like I was worthless. I felt like nobody would ever want me, I was ugly, I was too shy. Some of the other kids around me had already started “dating.” I was insanely jealous and kept dousing the flames of my self-hatred in gasoline and perpetuating the belief in my mind that I would be alone forever. I had crushes like any normal teenager did but I was too scared to do anything about it. I had one very close male friend throughout highschool who I had mercilessly placed in “the friend zone.” Without even realizing it, I probably broke his heart a hundred times.

I didn’t start dating until I was 16 years old. I met a boy in band class (if I had a nickle for every time someone said “this one time at band camp…”). While were away at a music festival, he started following me around with his camera trying to catch some candid photos of me smiling or laughing.

I had never dated before so naturally, this was terrifying. Shortly after, he asked me out on a date and I said yes, reluctantly. I had so many fears in the beginning. What if he doesn’t like who I am? What if my anxiety gets in the way and I ruin everything? What if? What if… It didn’t take much time for these fears to melt away. We had a great summer. We drove around the back roads in his truck, cuddled up and watched movies, he brought me gifts and flowers and wrote me love letters. It was the first time in all of highschool that I felt happy and accepted.

They say you never forget your first love. I think in some cute, teenage, puppy-dog way he really did love me. Unfortunately in the end, I broke his heart. That September his family moved away to another city and I was devastated. We tried the long distance relationship thing for a while but as a 17 year old, I just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. I can remember my mom telling me “if it’s not meant to be then it’s not meant to be.” Meanwhile, I had met someone else at work. Now this was probably the first “bad girl” thing I ever did. I decided I wanted to have a relationship with this new guy but I was too afraid to break up with my boyfriend face to face or over the phone, so I did it over email. I shattered his heart into a million pieces in the most insensitive way. To this day, I still regret it.

The second boyfriend was everything the first one wasn’t. He was a bad boy. This relationship was hormone-fueled and ended up being nothing more than an extended make-out session. He ended up going away for Christmas, cheating on me, then breaking up with me over the phone like it was nothing. I was heartbroken. I threw the phone at the wall and sobbed for hours. I had gotten what I deserved. I had one very short rebound relationship and a few dates after that, but I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I decided my focus would be graduating from highschool and leaving all of it behind me.

On a cold drunken night in January of 2005, I met the man who would become my husband. I was 18 years old, naive, and way too drunk for my own good. I was out on a pubcrawl with my girlfriends and we had made it to the last stop. It was our favorite country-western bar that we frequented almost every weekend. By this time I was on top of the world. I was full of my happy, social juice and ready to take on anything or anyone. Due to the alcohol, my memories of that night are a bit hazy. I remember a cute, muscular guy with a buzz-cut following me around. He teased me about my job but wouldn’t tell me what he did for a living. He told me his parents lived in my hometown and that he worked away. He followed me onto the dance floor and we shook our butts at each other to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like its Hot” (I still cheekily refer to this as “our song”). At the end of the night he asked me for my number. I dug around in my purse for some paper and ended up stupidly writing my phone number on the back of a tow-slip (which contained my driver’s license number, full address and birthdate). Lucky for me he wasn’t some psycho out to stalk me or steal my identity! The next morning I woke up in our hotel room (with my friends, I wasn’t that kind of girl!) to the girls giggling and asking me “so who is G.I Joe?” I could only remember bits of him behind the giant headache and nausea I was experiencing.

The following Monday I received a phone call. The display read Canadian Forces. Canadian Forces? I don’t know anybody in the military… do I? I was very hesitant to answer. I was still suffering from social anxiety and phone calls were very difficult. If I didn’t know who was calling, I didn’t answer. I took a chance on this one, but only because I was curious. On the other end came a kind and soothing voice: “Hi, is this Courtney? It’s P, we met the other night at Cowboys.” We sparked up a conversation. He told me he was in the army, and that he came home on the weekends to his parent’s house. We ended our conversation with an agreement to go out on a date when he came home the following weekend.

Our first date was a hilarious disaster. It was as if the universe was trying to tell me something, but I persevered. I started my evening off with some shopping. I just had to find a new outfit to wear. I went into a store and when I came out I realized I had locked my keys in the car, as well as my cell phone. Crap! Luckily I still had my wallet! I trudged through the snow all the way to Home Depot to use a payphone to call my dad and ask him to pick me up. I also phoned P’s house to tell him I was going to be late (he didn’t have a car at the time) and that my dad and I were going to get my spare keys, pick him up, and go to my car where we could be on our way. When my dad picked me up, he decided he was hungry. He wanted to go to Harvey’s in Home Depot before we left. For some reason it took forever and I was growing more and more anxious by the minute. When he finally came back to the truck he realized that his order was wrong and he had to go back. I was beginning to think the night was over.

We eventually made it home, I changed, and away we went. We picked up P and drove all the way back to the city when I realized I was so anxious I had forgotten to grab my spare keys before we left. Crap again!! We drove all the way home and picked up my keys. On the way back to the city my dad’s truck broke down. There we were, stuck on the side of the highway in the dead of winter. Triple crap!!! I was seriously embarrassed at this point and thought I had completely blown it. P on the other hand, thought it was hilarious. This was when I knew this boy was a keeper. We called my mom, who was sick at home with the flu, to come rescue us. Needless to say she was less than impressed. She showed up red-faced with messy hair looking completely miserable. We drove her home back to bed and were finally on our way. By this time it was almost 10:00pm. We decided to catch a late movie followed by something to eat at Boston Pizza – one of the few places still open at midnight.

In the weeks, months, and years that followed ‘P’ became everything to me, the love of my life. There were, as in any relationship, ups and downs. In the spring after we met he left the military, partially because he sustained an injury and partially because they wanted to send him away and he didn’t want to leave me behind. I was too young and hadn’t started my career yet. I wasn’t looking to commit to something as big as moving away to the opposite end of the country, thousands of miles away from my family. He knew that it would have been the end of us.

We had almost broken up once. My best friend at the time became jealous that I was spending too much time with him and not enough with her. She started to spread rumors that he was abusing me. These rumors poisoned the minds of my family, friends and co-workers. They tried desperately to get me to break it off. They treated me like I was a battered woman. Truth was, he never laid a hand on me and showed me nothing but love and kindness. At one point I couldn’t take it anymore, nobody would believe me. I called him and through tears choked out the words “I can’t do this.” He hung up the phone and ran all the way across town to talk to me and comfort me. Eventually these rumors were disproven and our friendship ended after I confronted her and she denied everything.

In September 2010, P and I got engaged. He asked me in our home, in the living room, surrounded by our dogs. He knew that anxious me would not want a major public spectacle. He pulled out a ring box while I was sitting watching TV. I looked over and said “what’s that?” My heart leaped out of my chest. “Oh, I found it at work, I thought you could use it to put a couple of your rings in.” I didn’t know what to think or feel. Disappointment? Relief? Then I look over again and see him holding a ring. “Just kidding” he said, with a big grin on his face.

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Our wedding took place on a beautiful fall day in September 2011. We had the ceremony outdoors in a garden gazebo surrounded by our most cherished family and friends. I was extremely anxious throughout most of the morning. I hadn’t slept the night before. I woke up and dragged my exhausted butt to the salon to get my hair done then back to my parent’s house to get ready. Without the help of my wonderful mother and bridesmaids in keeping me calm, I probably would have run screaming as soon as we got to the ceremony. I wanted more than anything to marry my best friend, but wished desperately that we had eloped so I could avoid that ‘all eyes on me’ feeling. As soon as I laid eyes on my future husband, all of my fears melted away. I only saw him. I didn’t care that I was crying and blubbering, that my makeup might run, that I might trip and fall, or that I might panic and throw up all over my guests. I was happy.

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My husband and I have been through some tough times together. He has stuck by me through my bouts of depression and has lovingly supported me through anxious times. He sees me for who I truly am and accepts me and all of my faults. He is always that person I can cling to in awkward social situations and who will do the talking when I can’t. He is always there to comfort me without judgement when I am depressed and can’t get out of bed in the morning. Without his love and support I may not even be here today to write about my experiences and share them with the world. Without him I might not have become the person I am today. I love you ‘P’, always.

The recipe continues…. 🙂

Courtney

Add the Vanilla – Life Got Sweeter

When highschool was over I felt like I could breathe again. It was as if a thousand pounds had been lifted off my back and I could finally take those first few steps into a new life. By this time I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always loved science and biology. The human body was this disgusting yet magical thing that I wanted to know more about. I grew up with a critical care nurse for a mother. I can remember talk of “poo-namis” and flesh eating disease at the dinner table and mom recounting her hilarious and charming stories about nursing. I thought: I‘m smart and caring. I can do this… Right? Despite my new outlook on life, the anxious and  negative thoughts still seemed to creep their way to the surface. My inner voice began to put me down. You’re too shy. You could barely make it through highschool. How are you going to survive university? How are you going to care for and be responsible for another human being? Especially when they are in their most vulnerable state? I was filled with anxiety and self-doubt as always. I decided that the only thing I could do was give myself some time and try to grow up a little bit first. Besides, I’d never get into nursing school with my terrible grade in math…

I spent the next two years attempting to find myself. I worked at my job and tried desperately to improve my math grade (tried and failed miserably!). I had a few older friends I met through work who were itching to get me drunk the minute I turned 18. These were some of the best times I can remember. First there were the guy friends. They became like big brothers to me. I remember frequenting dive bars, late drunken nights passed out at Denny’s in my plate of fries, driving around downtown shouting at random people on the street, and just plain hanging out and having fun.  Then there was my best girlfriend at the time. I couldn’t believe that someone that cool wanted to take me under her wing and be my friend. Although our friendship didn’t exactly end well, I have to give her credit for helping me come out of my shell and gain some confidence. I probably wouldn’t be who I am today and I certainly wouldn’t have met my husband. She was like a big sister and saw all of the good (and the potential) in me. She taught me how to wear makeup and talk to boys. We would get all dressed up, hop on a bus and drink and dance the night away at nightclubs. I was on top of the world. Alcohol became a magical cure for my social phobia. At first I would feel extremely self-conscious. I’d be thinking: I look fat, I’m wearing too much makeup, showing too much boob. Everyone is going to be staring at me. This isn’t me, I don’t go around drinking and letting guys smack and pinch my ass. I can’t do this, I feel sick, I want to go home. After a few drinks I would be flirting, dancing on a speaker with my friends, and living it up. My anxiety, fear and panic seemed a distant memory. As easy as it would have been, I was lucky enough to avoid becoming an alcoholic. I found I needed to be in control of myself for fear that I would embarrass myself or do something I would later regret.

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After the heartbreak of my first rejection from nursing school, I started to explore other options. I considered taking a science degree and trying to get into medical school. Then I heard about a fast-tracked nursing diploma program that was easier to get into and only required a handful of prerequisite courses. Perfect! It seemed like a great way to ease into post-secondary, one course at a time. Besides, when I really thought about it, being a physician would come with way too much responsibility. My anxious self would never survive.

The first class I enrolled in was Psychology 101. Walking into that classroom full of people I didn’t know was terrifying. I instantly felt as if I was back in highschool, as if all eyes were on me. Everybody seemed so smart and confident. My anxiety began to swirl. I’m not good enough to be here. I’m not as smart and educated as these people. I hope the prof doesn’t single me out. What if there is a group project? I want to quit. I can’t do this. I’m too dumb. I’m too scared. Despite all of these fears I managed to take a few shaky steps into the room, sit down, pull out my notebook, textbook and pens, and just listen. After all, I knew I wasn’t destined to work in fast food my entire life.

I quickly learned how different college was from highschool. Students were there to learn. They didn’t show up every day to join their clique, gossip, and chase the opposite sex. Nobody cared if you were shy, nerdy, had a boyfriend or wore the latest trend. For the most part people kept to themselves. Many of the courses I had to take weren’t particularly interactive. There were no group projects, presentations or speeches. You went to class, listened to the lecture, studied, wrote a few exams, and boom! You were done. I didn’t have to worry about small talk and making friends. I thought hey, this isn’t so bad. I can do this. I sailed through courses in psychology, physiology, anatomy and microbiology. It wasn’t until sociology class where I was met with my first (and ironic) “social” challenge. It was the infamous group project. I immediately started to worry. In college the teacher doesn’t choose groups for you, they pretty much leave it up to you and walked away. I sat there looking around me petrified that I would be left out, paralyzed with fear. I can’t recall what the project was, the topic, or how it was presented. I do, however, remember hearing those sweet words “would you like to join our group?” I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in highschool anymore, that I was surrounded by adults, and that nobody around me saw me as that scared little girl anymore. Each person I met was a new beginning. Despite all my fears and anxiety, I managed to pass that sociology class with a big fat A.

 

The recipe continues… 🙂

Courtney