Together We Climb

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Matthew: Loses His Grip

For Matthew, the panic attack is a harsh reminder of the severity of his illness. And the reality, that despite his best efforts to hide it behind a mask of normalcy the mask can, and does at times, slip off. That day, in the gym he could neither suppress nor hide the panic. Or avoid thoughts about how people see him and the worry he had caused.

Matthew’s wife and daughter followed the ambulance to the hospital. There, their sense of concern for Matthew takes root. Friends and colleagues reached out and lent him support. Upon release from the hospital, Matthew was emotionally and physically drained. He met with a psychiatrist, received a diagnosis, talked about meds and established next steps.

IMG_9192Matthew took several months away from school to figure things out. Recognition of triggers was key to Matthew’s recovery. Determining what situations—such as driving, shopping or interactions with students’ parents—set him off. Realizing he does not deal well with unpredictable outcomes. Teaching at a school an hour away from home did not work for Matthew. Hence, the change to a school closer to home.

Initially, Matthew found it difficult to accept and understand there was something wrong with him. He tried short-term solutions—physiotherapy, yoga, chiro, dieting, and exercising. Blamed others. Over time, his wife helped him put things in perspective. To understand and see that he was a good person. Kindness and compassion were inside of him.

Over time, Matthew has discovered what works for him in certain situations.

For instance, Mac, his service dog, is a source of great support for Matthew. When out together, they are “Batman and Robin”, trusted sidekicks. Matthew’s current mission is to educate others about the relevance of service dogs. In his words, “I’m ok with wearing my mental illness mask now, it is easier hiding behind one, but nobody ever really gets to know the true superhero until the mask is removed.”

Unmasking Anxiety

Chris Nihmey is an occasional teacher with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, member of OECTA, brother, son, friend and colleague. He is also a survivor of three debilitating disorders who has healed substantially. He is currently a Canadian Ambassador and 2017-18 Face of Mental Illness with CAMIMH (Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health). Below are Chris’ reflections on anxiety.

Never Let Go

By Chris Nihmey

Beep beep beep boom boom boom. There it is again. What day is it? Oh, God. Please be Saturday, please be Saturday, please be … it’s today. TODAY!

That ceiling looks higher than it ever was. Here I go, what’s wrong with my stomach, what’s wrong with my mind, what’s wrong with me? I have to begin this climb. Man, isn’t a shower is supposed to soothe you, quiet my mind. Why isn’t it? It feels like a rainstorm. Is shampoo still in my hair? What the hell time is it? God!

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Scrape, scrape, that razor blade sure is sharp. Imagine …. What time is it? Man, I have to get dressed! Have I put on weight? Where did this come from? Scrape, scrape. Am I ready for this? 27 kids. 27! Can I do this? I can do this, dammit! But can I, really? I can. Can I? Scrape, scrape, scrape … oh, NO! Son of a … ahhh! I’m useless! Not again. Where’s the Kleenex box? Oh, man, one dab won’t do here. The neck, my neck, my bloody neck, ohh crap, this isn’t good. This is NOT good. What time is it? I haven’t even eaten yet! I’m standing here naked, I feel so weak, I have to lie down. On my towel? Naked. There’s that stupid ceiling again. Why is it so damn low? I have to get off this towel. Is it hot in here? It’s really hot in here. Get up, get up, push … oh no, now I’m sweating all over and bleeding. Bleeding and sweating. I can’t put a shirt over this. I can’t stand the feel. Even towel on skin irks me. My hair is a mess. Gel won’t fix this one. What time is it? How many kids? Where’s my towel? What the hell am I doing!?

That morning, extreme panic had landed … fear raised its ugly head.

These thoughts, these feelings. This is called anxiety. In my case, it was diagnosed as Generalized Anxiety, a severe disorder that ruled my every move for years. At home, with others, at work, wherever it decided to take me over. Nothing like a soaked t-shirt under your dress shirt, facing a classroom of 30 kids you just met. The life of a sub. Every day, thousands of people experience these same feelings, some even worse. Most survive, some don’t make it out alive. That morning, it didn’t stop there. No, not at all. That morning, I would not make it into the new school for my first day of my 2005 contract, or my second … or ever. That morning left me lying on the floor, staring in disarray at a broken alarm clock, with a smashed remote control thrown at the stupid TV that kept talking, talking, talking, blah, blah, blah! The world was in motion, yet I was frozen, with a bleeding neck, sweaty forehead, sweaty body, screwed up mind, and two holes in my living room door – a broken chair and a couch literally thrown across the room. Anxiety. It got me again that morning, eventually throwing me into a six-week extensive therapy course at the Civic Hospital, Ottawa.

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Weakness? Less than? After everything, over the last decade, I prefer to use the word “Champion”. Back then, it was “failure” or “loser”. The memories of that morning meddle with my mind every time I reminisce the build-up, the walk through, the faintness, the horrors, the morning, the blood, the sweat, the tears … they poured in that morning, my dad arriving to witness his 31-year-old son lying on the floor in desperation, staring at the ceiling. It was just not right. I was not right. I was the problem. Big capital “I”.  My thoughts in a tailspin, emotions running wild, anger to despair, to agony, to depressed, to … I give up. I threw in the towel, literally. I thought it would be the last blow up of its kind, until, only a short time later, when I would end up with the police and a gurney at my apartment door on the 11th. Oh, my poor neighbours. To hell with them. Anxiety controlled me in every way. But now …

I am finally controlling IT …

It didn’t take long. It came on strong. It lasted all along. I was not in the wrong. But I did need to do one thing if I was going to survive the consistent intensity. Accept. First I had to accept that there was a problem. Without acceptance, steps are taken in vain, stumbles and falls will continue. If you are going to take real momentum-building steps forward, you have to accept that there’s a problem. At the time, I was lost, I was confused, my dignity, my integrity squashed. What could I do? What did I do?

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How do you deal with anxiety when it seems it is unmanageable? It affects the sufferer tremendously, but it also affects the loved ones who are doing everything they can to reach out, to understand, to lend a hand that is often ignored. Are we violent? No. Only on ourselves. Victims of illness. Anxiety brings forth uncontrollable emotions of fear, anger, guilt, and resentment, thoughts that the sufferer can’t grasp or comprehend. It is never their fault, as no one in their right mind would ever choose to act this way. I know I didn’t. I told my mom to f*&k off in my worst! That wasn’t me. My poor mom. I miss her so dearly, and although these words and actions raged, she understood and appreciated the severity of the illness. We need that appreciation. So, how do we cope, as a sufferer, as a supporter?

In my quest to conquer anxiety (if that is ever a possibility), I reached for a plethora of ideas, concepts, strategies, alongside medication and therapy. As with any difficult illness, support, doctor, and medication are essential, but I found that my biggest steps of healing began when I grabbed the reins of my own life. That’s when true transformation happened. The trifecta of doctor, medication, and support are an ultimate MUST. You need a base, you need balance, you need concrete stability. Without these, you are, as Jesus said, building a house on sand. With these in play, you can begin building a solid mansion. The difference is that drastic. These three essential elements will allow a sufferer to begin to succeed. Without them, honestly, I wouldn’t have made it. Support came from above, and support came from below. These are prerequisites to staying alive. Just ask the millions worldwide who call our city streets their home, and the millions who never made it. Well, we can no longer ask them, but we can surely commiserate with their loved ones. No one makes it on their own …

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We have a choice here, no, a responsibility to take action, as sufferers, and as supporters. This cannot be accomplished alone. Once the trifecta was in play, I was able to plan, to strategize, to goal set. I saw hope, where at one time, there was none. At that point, the biggest obstacle became “ME”. Did that make it easier? No, often harder, but it made my goals achievable: possible. Once healing is possible, anything can happen. In my mind, when I realized that success was a possibility, it gave me the drive I needed to take one step forward, and continue the trek. I never knew where I was going, but as long as I was moving forward, I knew I was succeeding somewhat. I would trip constantly, fall mercilessly, time and time again, but at least I was falling forward. I was finally moving. With the wheels in motion, it’s truly amazing how blessings begin to pop up. I began to exercise, eat well, and get a full night’s sleep. Suddenly, bad habits began to break, negative thoughts started to dissipate, and strategies came into play: slow breathing, countdowns to take action, prayer and affirmations, both mind and spirit, living in the moment, positive journal writing, self-help reading, and volunteering with those who suffered equally or more. All of these built the confidence that gave me the energy I needed. A rising began. I would not just step forward, I would also step upward. When I began to write my own personal story in 2007, purpose and meaning began. Life, after decades of disappointments and failures, finally brightened. I emerged a new person, a new being, one ready to not only help myself but also others in their journeys. Anxiety, which at one time ruled me, now became merely a thorn in my side, which pushed me beyond what I never thought I could achieve. Rather than a hindrance, anxiety became a reminder to keep going, to reach for the satisfaction of succeeding. I felt alive, thoughts I had never experienced before. We can NEVER lose hope. With hope, when we least expect it, life becomes liveable. From there, the up and down winding road suddenly feels like it is straight. It is still narrow, but finally, you can see where you are going and how to get there. That is hope. You can finally see tomorrow and it is clear as daylight.

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So your child, or your husband, or your wife, or your mom, or your dad, or your friend lost it right in front of you? And it’s happening often? Or it’s a first. Where do you turn? You don’t. You never turn. You never let your loved one go no matter the cost. Sickness is not their fault. It never is. The most sound advice I can ever give to a loved one is this: never let go. Try to understand no matter how confusing it seems. Try to appreciate. Support from afar if you have to, but never hang up the phone or slam the door for the last time. We all get frustrated, trust me. I failed to mention that my mom threw that same four-letter word back at me! But she was hugging me five minutes later as we laughed about it. We all get angry, and forgiveness can be the hardest thing in the world when you are berated time and time again. I get it, but my family got it right. They never gave up on me. We were able to replace the broken knick-knacks, but I am irreplaceable. If it means a fourth or fifth trip to the hospital, do it! My family searched within themselves and within me and believed in something grander. A miracle? You might say that. It happened. It does happen. You’ll want to give up, you’ll want to leave, you’ll want to throw garbage at your loved one! At times, you’ll want to punch them right in the face and kick them out for good because of their extremely poor “potty” mouth. But you won’t. You will not because if my loved ones did, I would be a mere statistic today, and for every tragic statistic, there are loved ones left behind trying to put irregular pieces back together, pieces that will never connect. If this is not motivation enough to never let go, then I’ve written this post in vain. Work with your loved one(s) and, together, see the miracle happen before your own eyes. Encourage the many strategies I’ve listed above, and stay patient, stick to God and prayer, and remain hopeful. If you don’t believe in anything grander, then just have faith in those around you. Trust and believe that you will never be alone. Accept their love, their support, their compassion, their empathy. It may take months, even years for healing, but keep encouraging. If my family had given up on me in my worst, I’d have never made it.

Never let go. Life is too darn precious. Never let love go.

Just The Facts

At times, it is normal for a person to feel anxious, nervous or worried. Such feelings serve to motivate us. Help ward off danger. In contrast, an anxiety disorder unexpectedly or unhelpfully disrupts and affects a person’s life, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Characterized by excessive and sustained worry (for six months or more) about everyday problems, it amplifies minor concerns. And contributes to physical symptoms such as muscle tension or sleep problems.

For more information, please consult Canadian Mental Health Associations’ Anxiety Disorders.

By The Numbers

According to the Government of Canada:

  • In 2013, an estimated 3 million Canadians (11.6%) aged 18 years or older reported that they had a mood and/or anxiety disorder.
  • Anxiety is the most common mental health issue
  • While the majority consulted a health professional about their disorder(s) in the previous 12 months, almost a quarter (23%) did not.
  • Most people with mood and/or anxiety disorder(s) are currently taking, or have taken, prescription medication(s) (93%), but few (20%) have received psychological counseling to help manage their disorder.

Where To Start

Check out Chris’ resource Conquering Anxiety.  Sufferers and supporters…we are in this together.

The Bottom Line

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Battling anxiety is like mountain climbing. A person with anxiety disorder must climb a mountain of self-doubt and anxiousness every day. Most days, the summit of the mountain is attainable. Other days, the upward climb slows when the terrain becomes rugged, dark clouds appear. On those days each step becomes increasingly precarious. With a single misstep leading to a downward slide of despair.  Some days, getting out of bed is a summit too far.

Climbing mountains of anxiety teaches one that on the summit there is no place to rest. Off in the distance, there are always more mountains to climb. Further, every step of a climb represents a conscious choice to go on or turn back. An ascent is as much a mental struggle as a physical one. Replacing intrusive and self-deprecating thoughts with positive, self-affirming ones.

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Climbers of the mountain of anxiety, like their mountaineer counterparts, use special gear to aid their ascents. Both types of climbers, know carabiners to be mission critical items. These load-bearing, loop-like metal links fasten people to people,  gear, ropes, and rocks. They form life-saving connections that aid ascents and break falls. And on the mountain of anxiety, the best carabiner to have is the support of family, friends, and colleagues. When the climb becomes difficult link up with them.

The most rewarding things in life—success, happiness, love and so on—are found at higher elevations, outside the comfort zone. Getting there, requires, as Chris says above, that a climber “never let go”. And in the times when maintaining your grip is not possible, use a carabiner to form a lifeline.

Climbers build life-sustaining links by being honest with others and themselves about their needs. Embracing the power of together. Coming forward in sharing. Leaning into support. And being grateful for the support provided.

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It is important for those of us who support climbers to understand the strength-giving power of being understanding, patient, empathetic and accepting. And feeling the strength-gaining power of foregoing selfishness. Not looking away. Accepting someone else’s anxiety disorder as our problem and responsibility, too.

In these ways, a carabiner connection is life-saving and giving for climber and supporter alike. We are all stronger when we climb together.

Resources

Anxiety Disorders Association of Ontario

Toll-free information line: 1-877-308-3843

Mood Disorders Association of Ontario

Self-Help Resource Centre

During the 2017-18 year, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education, is supporting Collaborative Learning Community (CLC) projects. One CLC project receiving funds is “Hey, Are You Doing Alright? Taking Off Masks, Ending Stigmas, Moving On.” It gives voice to the struggles and hidden impact of mental illnesses on teaching and learning. Project team members are Julie Godard,  Tanya Mirault,  Julie Nihmey, and Chris Nihmey, Canadian Ambassador for Mental Illness and Mental Health. Together, we, by removing our masks and sharing our experiences, can heal ourselves and others and in the process diminish the stigmas attached to mental illness. This post is the sixth in a series of project posts. Thanks in advance for reading it and supporting the project through your tweets, shares, and comments about our work. Please use the hashtag: #HeyAreYouAlright

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