My Little Brother (poem)

The following is a poem I wrote several weeks ago when grief for my brother hit me once again.

You were a little over three years younger than me,
And you played the part of the little brother well.
Hitting, yelling, biting, and name calling were normal,
And you enjoyed it, as far as I could tell.
 
I hoped as we got older our relationship would change;
That we would become closer and hang out with each other.
Our relationship was starting to head that direction,
When you were ripped away from me, my dear little brother
 
It has now been almost three years since we got the call
that made our family incomplete forever.
Your strength didn’t save you from the seaweed
And now our bond will forever be severed.
 
The regrets and lack of good memories
threatened to overwhelm me and could not be erased.
Listening to everyone else’s memories of you
It was a soothing balm and a slap in the face.

My memories consisted of your antics
of being the annoying little brother.
The one who knew how to push my buttons
and left me with a desire to smother.
 
If I had known you would be gone at nineteen,
I wouldn’t have skipped out on so many games.
I would have experienced things with you
instead of hearing about them, now giving me shame.
 
I was selfish and didn’t want to watch you play.
Now I wish I had invested in your life.
Maybe I wouldn’t have this empty yearning
and childhood memories of our strife.
 
The only comfort I have is knowing you’re with God
and that I told you I love you before you were ripped away.
It’s getting harder and harder to remember you
and all I want is for your memory to stay.
 
We can order pizza for just the two of us.
We can climb trees again and pretend they are our homes.
We can be like little children again.
Together we can go wherever we want to roam.

Mental health advocacy through experience

Mental health advocacy – what does it mean to you?

For me, it means being willing to share my experiences with my own mental health struggles. To not shy away from people who have a mental illness. To be there for people who have mental health struggles or for loved ones of those people.

Through the last couple of months, I have had a few experiences that have brought this advocacy to the forefront.

Schizophrenia referral

The first one occurred about two months ago. A former co-worker messaged me on Facebook telling me that her sister’s 17-year-old granddaughter was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and the family was devastated and feeling alone. She then asked if I had any tips on where they could go to get information and how they could help her. I directed her to the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and tried to let her know that there is hope.

Boy’s mother hospitalized for depression

I volunteer with a kids program my church runs for children who live in low-income housing. A couple of weeks ago, one of the boys in my class mentioned that his mom was in the hospital for what he called “emotional problems” and that she was sad all the time. To me, it sounded like depression and I was glad that he felt comfortable talking about it with me.

Sharing my story

The third and scariest experience happened a couple of weeks ago. A little over a month ago, I was asked if I would share my mental health story to the ladies fellowship group in my parents’ church, the one I grew up in. I shared my story on Tuesday, March 14 in front of people who have “known” me almost my whole life. It terrified me, but not as much as it would have a couple of years ago. It went well and several ladies came up to me afterward and told me a little of their own struggles.

It is all in an effort to stick to my commitment of being a mental health advocate. Who knows? It might even be a stepping stool for other speaking engagements or other advocacy events.

“Would you be willing to share your story in church?”

“Isn’t this what you wanted?”

“Maybe, but why does it have to be me?”

“Someone has to start it and you’re the one who talks about how you wish churches would talk about it.”

“But it’s terrifying!”

“Well, of course. Did you think it would be easy?”

“Well…no. But my social anxiety doesn’t ambush me when I’m just talking about an idea.”

“Which is exactly why you should do it. You wanted to tell your story. You wanted mental health to be talked about in churches. Well, now you have the chance.”

“But I hate speaking in front of people! And speaking about something so vulnerable – in front of so many people who know me – is enough to make me want to shut the world out.”

“You can’t let your anxiety control you. Either you need to practice what you preach, or let go of your grand ideas of being a mental health advocate.”

“I know. I’ll let my anxiety get a stronghold if I don’t face it head on – if I try to hide.”

“Would you share your story?”

Earlier this week, I was asked a terrifying question that made the barely burning embers of my social anxiety ignite into a roaring forest fire.

“Would you be willing to share your story in church sometime?”

Do I want to? Yes…no…maybe. It’s complicated.

Desire for churches to talk

I desire for churches to speak about mental health issues. I want Christians to know that just because they struggle with their mental health it doesn’t mean they are any less Christian. I don’t want the only response people struggling hear is that they need to pray more, read their Bible more, and trust God more.

Mental health has become a passion of mine since before I even got help. It was probably during the stretch where I had my darkest valleys that I became the most passionate about mental health. I didn’t want people to feel the absolute despair that I felt. I didn’t want people to spend their days wondering when their despair was going to override their fear of pain; when they were finally going to have the “courage” to just end it.

Just because someone steps foot in a church building, calls themselves a Christian, and does all the “right” things, does not make them exempt from having issues with their mental health.
For this reason, I desperately want churches to talk about mental health. It is not just an issue for non-Christians. If I have to share my story to get the conversation going, maybe it’s worth dealing with the anxiety and vulnerability.

Fear, social anxiety, and vulnerability

I hate being vulnerable. From a young age, I tried to keep my vulnerability close to my chest. I didn’t want anyone to see it. I may wear my heart on my sleeves and have thin skin, but I would put on a sweater to try to cover it up. So you couldn’t see them.

I would only let you see my “good” emotions. I became known as someone who smiled and laughed a lot because that’s what I allowed people to see. I wouldn’t let them see the deeper parts of me. So sharing how depressed and anxious I was, was never an option. It would never happen.

Skip to today. I now share my emotions and the darker parts of me with a few people and share parts of me via this blog. When it’s with a broader group, outside of those few people, it is in writing. You can’t see the emotions on my face and I can’t see how you’re responding to what I’m writing.

Sharing my story in front of a decently sized group of people, not knowing how they will respond, absolutely terrifies me.

I still don’t like to be vulnerable. I still want to run when tears threaten. Public speaking is still something that makes my anxiety explode.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ll put my mouth where my words are and speak out loud instead of just in writing.

Excitement Masked by Anxiousness

For most people, winning a free guitar, getting free tickets to a concert, and getting to go up on stage to receive said guitar, would be a dream come true or at least a very exciting moment. For me, it was neither. I was terrified. It was probably one of the worst days of my life, or at least it felt that way at the time.

The Phone Call

On the morning of April 22, 2010, I was lying in my bed waiting for my mom to come open my door to let me know that it was time to get up. It wasn’t unusual. I often stayed in bed, even though I was awake, until my mom came to “wake” me up.

This morning, however, she came early. I was still half asleep, although mostly awake.

“You have a phone call.”

That may or may not have been her exact words, but nevertheless she told me someone was on the phone for me. I didn’t have a cell phone at that time, so they couldn’t phone my cell. I also rarely got phone calls, so I was very confused.

I anxiously made my way up the stairs to answer the phone. You see, I hated talking on the phone. I also had no idea who was on the other end. My heart was pounding and my thoughts were racing. Who could it be? What did they want?

“Hello?” I groggily answered.

“Hello, Angela. I’m Kyle Rudge from Ignite107. Did you just get up?”

“Yeah.”

“You are the winner of a free Newsboys guitar.”

My stomach dropped. Not because I was excited, but because as I said earlier I was terrified.

He went on to ask me if I had tickets to the concert that evening and I said no. He proceeded to give me his number so I could contact him once we got to the MTS Centre and he could give me and my mom tickets to the concert.

I shakily wrote down his number and hung up.

That wasn’t the conversation exactly, but you get the idea. I had completely forgotten I had entered that contest and at that moment, I badly regretted it.

Trying to Survive

After hanging up the phone, and probably during the phone call itself, I felt sick to my stomach. I told my mom what the call was about and then proceeded to try to get ready for school.

At that time, I usually didn’t eat a huge breakfast and because my stomach was in knots, I knew there was no point in trying to eat much. I grabbed a banana and attempted to eat it. I gagged a few times, but was able to get it down. Shortly after, though, I could feel it coming back up and threw up into the kitchen sink. I didn’t try to eat anything else.

I was in grade 12 when this all went down and I only had one class that semester which was first thing in the morning. So I went to class and I told my friend who sat beside me in class about winning a Newsboys guitar. She was excited for me and I pretended to be excited. What I really wanted to do was go home, lock myself in my room, and pretend the world didn’t exist.

I was able to get through class, but I felt sick the whole time.

At home, I could hardly eat lunch because my stomach was still in knots. My mom made soup and I got down maybe half a bowl.

In the afternoon, I got my grad dress hemmed, but my thoughts never strayed much further than my fear for that evening.

The Concert

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When the evening finally came, my mom and I drove to Winnipeg to the concert. The closer we got to the arena, the sicker I felt. Dread had wrapped itself around me.

My mom parked the car; I got out shakily and immediately proceeded to throw up whatever was left in my stomach. It subsided long enough for me to step up to a garbage can and empty my already empty stomach.

Once we got inside the arena, I used my mom’s cell phone to call the radio DJ to get our tickets. He commented on how I sounded; something about how tired I sounded or something like that. I wasn’t tired, I was petrified.

Several minutes later, he found us and gave us our tickets and gave us the rundown on how the evening would go; when to come down, where I should meet him, etc.
We found our seats, all the time wishing I could just be done with it already.

There were two opening bands and after the first one was done, I made my way to the section I was instructed to go to. The radio DJ met me there and we walked down to the side of the stage and introduced me to another radio DJ from a partner station that they did the contest with.

They conversed with me which helped put me a little at ease. I was still terrified, but not nearly as much, knowing these people were friendly.

When the time came, I followed the radio hosts on stage. The one who had phoned me and met me at the arena, gave a little speech and joked about how “excited” I was. I even laughed a little or at least smiled, albeit nervously.

They handed me the guitar and people clapped and cheered.

Once we got off stage, the radio host told me that he was going to get the guitar signed by the Newsboys and would hold onto it until the end of the concert so I didn’t have to carry it to my seat.
So it wasn’t over yet.

After the concert, I met him again and he gave me the guitar and my mom being my mom, had to take pictures of him, me, and the guitar.

Once we finally got the guitar to our car, I could finally relax. My mom couldn’t because she had to deal with traffic. I simply turned on the radio to game 5 of the NHL playoffs in which my favourite team, the Ottawa Senators, were playing the Pittsburgh Penguins. I was able to turn in just in time to hear it go to overtime and as it went to three overtime periods, I was able to get home to watch my team score the winning goal. I could finally relax and focus on something that I enjoyed.

Looking Back

If you had asked me why I was so petrified that day, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I still can’t tell you exactly what made me so anxious, but I have a better idea.

About 19 months after that day, I had my first appointment with a mental health worker. After talking with her and answering her questions, she told me that I had a mild case of social anxiety.

As I researched social anxiety after that appointment, it was like a lightning bolt striking me. I saw myself in almost every symptom and occasion where people experienced social anxiety.
I started looking back at moments in my life, realizing that social anxiety has plagued me most of my life.

The day I won that Newsboys guitar was one of them – probably when my symptoms were the worst.

I was probably excited about that day but I didn’t feel it at the time.

My mental health worker explained it the best. At lot of people would get excited and have a little bit of anxiety with it, but the excitement would overshadow the anxiety. However, when I would get a little bit excited, my anxiety would explode and mask the excitement.

My social anxiety is not gone. I still have my moments. But they are not as severe and it doesn’t control me as often.

So if I were to go back and experience that day now, it would probably look a lot different. I would probably be able to enjoy it more and might have actually felt my excitement.

My Story Part 5 – Learning to Live in Recovery

My dog, who passed away last year, swimming in our pond at sunset

My dog, who passed away last year, swimming in our pond at sunset.

I only saw my mental health worker for about seven months but it was huge in helping me learn to cope. Putting the tools and information I had learned into use, I started being able to do things I would have been way too anxious to do before. I would feel less and less nauseous when I was anxious.

When I do feel anxious, I can ask myself what exactly I’m anxious about, taking away some of the anxiety’s power. One specific occasion I remember doing this was when I was going to go to Mexico with a group from Bible college on what they called Mission Exposure. A day or two before we were going to leave, I was feeling anxious. I had never been on a plane before. I only had a basic understanding of the language. I was going to a place I’d never been, meeting people I didn’t know. Everything was going to be so new and yet, when I actually asked myself what I was feeling anxious about, the thing that I discovered that was causing my worst anxiety was the fear that I was going to be separated from my group. Once I realized that, some of the air fell out of the anxiety because I knew I could trust my group, especially the leader not to leave me behind or to come looking for me if I got separated.

Me and my second youngest brother when he graduated high school.

Me and my second youngest brother when he graduated high school.

I’m not saying I have completely gotten rid of my depression and anxiety because I haven’t. If I’m not careful, I can easily fall into a depression like when my brother passed away a couple of years ago. I felt very alone and had many regrets. It frightens me to think of how different that time would have been before I had gotten help.

My anxiety is still rooted in me. I still dread making and answering phone calls. My stomach still feels nauseous when I start something new or have to meet new people. I procrastinate or avoid doing things that make me anxious.

However, I’m learning to live in recovery. I have learned and am still learning to just do things instead of stewing about what could go wrong and how people will judge me. I’m learning how to express my emotions in healthy ways and not bottling them up all the time.

I’m learning to decipher when I need to push myself forward and when I need to pull back and let myself rest. When I’m overwhelmed, I’m learning to question if it’s just my anxiety or if I need a break.

I still have my downs, but they’re not nearly as low and they don’t last as long. I now know there are people out there who will help. There are also people out there who have gone through similar things to me and that I’m not alone.

Life is never as bleak as my depression and anxiety led me to believe.

My Story Part 4 – Getting Help

After my suicidal summer, I went back to Bible college and I incorrectly thought things were going to get better. My feelings and thoughts disappeared temporarily but it didn’t last long.

During the first couple of weeks back at college, I struggled with whether or not I should tell my parents about my depression. I eventually decided to tell them and sent them an email where I explained a little about what I was feeling and sent them to my blog at that time where I wrote posts during those dark times.

Shortly after that my mom came to the dorm and picked me up. We went to a quiet park and talked. She also asked me at that time if I wanted her to talk to her mental health worker about what I could do. At that time I said no. This was during the time of reprieve and I thought talking to people and being surrounded by friends would be enough.

Not even a month later, I got very depressed again. I felt like I had no friends, like no one cared. I would hide in my dorm room and put a blanket around my bed, creating a sort of cave, so no one could see me crying. I wanted to die. I wanted to get rid of my pain.

I considered driving off of what I called “Death Curve” because of how steep the drop off was even though the curve itself wasn’t sharp or anything. I would think about how no one would come to my funeral. Would people even care?

It was at that point when I decided something more needed to be done and I filled out a form to apply for a mental health worker.

Just taking the step to get help didn’t make things better instantly, though. My depressed thoughts didn’t go away.

However, during one of my really low points, I received a phone call telling me that I had been accepted for a mental health worker and she would be calling me in a few days to make an appointment.

That phone call gave me hope. That phone call instantly brought me out of my low point. The only way I can explain why is that it gave me hope. I had hope that things could get better when I felt hopeless.

I went into that first appointment, anxious and afraid that I wouldn’t allow myself to be open and honest. My fears were unfounded, though. My mental health worker made me feel comfortable from the start and I felt no judgment from her. She made me feel safe and I could tell her things that I didn’t tell anyone.

During our first appointment, she told me that from what I said and my answers to her questions that I probably had social anxiety. After that appointment, I read about social anxiety and I related to it so much. It felt like a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one who struggled with certain things and that there were things I could do to improve.

In subsequent appointments, she would give me readings about social anxiety and we would talk about my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

My depression was getting less and less frequent because I would recognize my thoughts and wouldn’t always follow them down the rabbit hole. I remember one instance where I was starting to get depressed and I fought to get myself out of it because I knew I would have to talk about it. I ended up telling her about it anyway.

Near the end of that school year, I saw a psychiatrist with her in the room and they discussed my anxiety and would ask me questions. Secretly I was hoping he would give me pills so I wouldn’t feel as anxious about many things and that I wouldn’t get nauseous whenever I felt anxious.

It was nearing the summer and I was scared that what happened during my suicidal summer would happen again. He didn’t prescribe me pills but instead, he mentioned learning about things to help me cope and they recommended me to a program where they do anxiety workshops.

I went to an anxiety workshop and it was eye-opening to be in a room full of people who also struggled with anxiety and with family members of those people. People would ask questions or say things that I had dealt with for a long time that I didn’t even realize was anxiety or that other people dealt with them.

Seeing my mental health worker was a life saver. I don’t know how bad my depression and anxiety would have gotten if I had not reached out and got the help I desperately needed.

My Story Part 3 – Suicidal Summer

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I was afraid to make a decision of what to do after high school, so when my dad encouraged me to go to Bible college, I took it. However, it made my anxiety go into overdrive, even when I found out that someone I knew was going there that year as well. Because of my anxiety, I threw up on that first day when I moved into the dorm and woke up every morning for a couple of weeks feeling like I could do it again. Several times I wanted to quit and drop out because of my anxiety. I even texted my dad asking him if I could quit.

Slowly my anxiety started to dissipate but would still pop up every once in a while. I made friends and started breaking out of the shell I had placed around myself while in school. My depression wasn’t as frequent but still liked to rear its ugly head every once in a while.

Near the end of that first year, I told my best friend about my depression and I thought things were looking up.

That’s when everything seemed to crash and spiral into what I now call my suicidal summer.

I went home to my parents for the summer and didn’t have a job planned. Away from friends I actually connected with and not having a lot to occupy my mind and time, I felt more alone than ever.

I would fall into depression and it would be harder and harder to get out each time I fell into a depression. I started writing cryptic Facebook and Twitter posts as my way of calling out but no one ever understood them.

227713_1981179698494_6358158_nI would break into random crying spells when I was alone. I started researching ways to kill myself and considering which way would be the easiest and least painful. One day I was emptying the dishwasher and was putting away a sharp knife and considered plunging it through my heart. Another time, I was using cleaning products to clean the inside of my parents’ car and thought about drinking the products to poison myself.

The only thing that stopped me from killing myself was my fear of failing and the pain.

The only good thing that came out of the summer was that it gave me a passion to help people struggling with mental health issues. I didn’t want people to feel like how I felt.

And that summer scared me enough that I knew I needed help. I needed to not keep silent any longer.