“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.

My Story Part 2 – High School and My Brother’s Illness

Me dressed up for clash day during spirit week at school.

Me dressed up for clash day during spirit week at school.

By the time I reached high school, I had quit a lot of sports because I wasn’t good enough, feared getting cut, and was afraid of making a mistake. However, I had put my self-worth in my grades. Getting good grades made me feel worth something and that I could do something right. Whenever I got a bad mark, or what I considered a bad mark, I would feel worthless. If I couldn’t get high marks, I failed.

I had withdrawn within myself and whereas I used to consider everyone a friend, I couldn’t see a friend in anyone. I saw people as using me to get answers for school work, as someone to hang around with until someone better came along. As someone only the outcasts viewed as a friend.

I started talking to guys I didn’t know online because it felt good and I liked the attention. I knew I was never going to meet them so I thought there was no harm in it. So when a guy from halfway across the world asked me to be his girlfriend, I said yes because I liked talking to him and he made me feel good. It made me a little uncomfortable, but I was afraid he would stop talking to me if I said no and I liked his compliments too much. Nothing ever came of it, because we eventually stopped talking.

Back at school, the principal died when I was in grade nine. I also went to our church’s youth group and it was my social life. I did not have a social life apart from youth group. I never went out with friends because they never invited me. I would often enjoy youth group, however, when the structured portion of it was done and people were just hanging out afterwards, I felt invisible. People would go off and do their own thing and never include me. I probably could have joined in, but I was too afraid of what people would think of me to join in their games or conversations. I would often leave youth group depressed and would go cry in my room when I got home.

However, probably the hardest part of my high school years happened the summer after grade nine. My second oldest brother, who is only a year and a half older than me, came back from a sports camp early after being hazed and bullied. He had a panic attack and thought he was going to die. I was frightened because I didn’t know what was going on with him. He went to the hospital but they didn’t see anything wrong with him so sent him home.

Family members at a post-grad celebration for my second oldest brother.

Family members at a post-grad celebration for my second oldest brother.

The next day, my two younger brothers and I were the only ones home with him. I could tell he wasn’t right. He was quieter than normal and he would look at everyone with suspicion. Eventually, he got up and was going to try to go to church to get baptized. I contacted my dad and then ran outside to try to stop him. Thankfully, my mom has the wherewithal to hide the keys so he couldn’t drive away. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him – he started walking to the church. I couldn’t get him to stop and he was bigger than I was. My dad came home just in time to stop him. From there, my parents took him to a hospital in a nearby city that was better equipped to help him.

He was then inputted into the children’s psych ward of the hospital and subsequently into an adolescent mental health centre, where he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. During this time, we found out some details from what actually went on while he was at camp, some of which made me literally sick to my stomach. But, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone about it. My parents told us we weren’t allowed to talk about it with anyone. It was a very difficult and lonely time.

For the following years, everything was about his illness. I couldn’t listen to music because it bothered him. When I went to Bible/summer camp that summer, I broke down during a particularly emotional night. A lot of people were emotional that night, however, I was emotional for a completely different reason. The emotional toll of everything that had been happening in my life became too much and spilled out in tears. I never told anyone why I had been crying at that point but I remember the mom of a boy in my class who also went to my church put her arm around me.

Me and several other cast members from our high school Seussical.

Me and several other cast members from our high school Seussical.

Shortly before all this happened, I started feeling physically sick whenever I got anxious. I tried being a waitress but I only lasted a little over a day because I would feel like throwing up and ended up quitting/getting fired after going home early on the second day. I would feel anxious for so many things that would be no big deal for others – my jaw surgery, going on stage at a concert after winning a guitar, high school graduation, going anywhere by myself, etc.

When I left high school, people still saw me as mostly happy and I hadn’t told anyone about my depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. All the while, I would not believe a single compliment someone told me, would cry and get angry at a mark below 90%, would pray for God to kill me, wondering if anyone would miss me if I was gone.

My Story Part 1 – My Introduction to Mental Illness and the Death Years

Mom and us kids during the flood in 1996 almost a year before my youngest brother was born.

Mom and us kids during the flood in 1996 almost a year before my youngest brother was born.

I was introduced to mental illness at a young age. My mom was diagnosed with clinical depression after a particularly hard and stressful flood where we were apart from my dad for a couple of months with very little contact and my mom had to take care of five children ranging from a couple months old to eight years old. Looking back, my mom says she probably struggled with depression long before that, but that was when she sought help.

I grew up in the church, but mental illness was not talked about and my parents didn’t mention my mom’s struggles until she was finally hospitalized for it almost two years later where she finally got a diagnosis and was put on medication. So when I was seven, my mom left us for a couple of months to live in a mental health care center about an hour and a half drive from where we lived.

Later that same year, I saw my first dead body. My dad took my two older brothers and me to his aunt’s viewing, which is a more informal service the evening before the funeral with an open casket.

That was my first taste of death and it was only the start.

"Little Grandpa" surrounded by his grandchildren at 1992 Easter gathering

“Little Grandpa” surrounded by his grandchildren at 1992 Easter gathering

Shortly after that Little Grandpa (my dad’s dad) got sick, and had several strokes within a couple of years. He moved several times during those two years after his first stroke – to senior’s complexes, care centres, and hospitals.

It was during this time that I started struggling with my self-esteem. I felt worthless and felt unlovable. I also struggled a lot with worrying what people thought about me and hated dealing with people I didn’t know. I also suffered from migraines from staying out in the sun too long without a hat on. There were several times when I would write down on a piece of paper that I was worthless. I would show it to my friends. All they did was crumple the paper and throw it in the garbage saying I was not worthless.

I started crying myself to sleep and seeing sleights in almost every little thing people did. If someone was playing badminton with me and they stopped to go play with someone else, I viewed it as them not liking me. If I fell down and they laughed, it was like a slap in the face. At my 10th birthday party, I practically hid in my room and played with one other girl because I didn’t want to play hide-and-seek while the rest of the girls did.

Little Grandpa in his casket in 2002

Little Grandpa in his casket in 2002

The summer after I first remember struggling with my mental health, Little Grandpa died. I didn’t cry until I saw his lifeless body. I hardly allowed myself to grieve in front of people but waited until I was alone in my room with the door locked before I would allow the tears to fall.

A couple of months later, an uncle on that side died from cancer.

Another couple of months later, a boy the grade above me collapsed while in gym class and died.

My mental health issues continued getting worse and more frequent during these times and there were many times where I would cry out to God to kill me. I didn’t want to live my life anymore. Crying at night was a regular occurrence. Fighting with my brothers and their verbal, emotional, and physical abuse didn’t make things any better.

I had about a year and a half break between deaths before my mom left to go to the mental health care centre once again because of her depression. That led to one of the few times I let tears fall in front of people.

Within that same year, my dog who I had since I was one and a half died, and Big Grandpa (my mom’s dad) died. I was in grade seven at this time. A classmate asked me if I had cried and I almost cried right there and then because I felt guilty because up to that point I hadn’t cried for Big Grandpa.

My prayers, thoughts, and diary entries continued getting darker. However, everyone saw me as a happy girl who laughed and smiled easily, never realizing what was churning beneath the surface.