Much needed change

Reading an article today on suicide, bullying and media and there was a comment that struck me. The comment was referencing Amanda Todd’s suicide and said simply, in part “she called for help and no one answered” (ref: http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/12/31/year-in-ideas-high-profile-suicides-such-as-amanda-todds-show-there-are-no-simple-answers/   )

This resounds with me so strongly and is something that I have been musing on for some months now. It triggered a thought for me as it relates to Willie’s choice to end his life.  In one of his journal entries he states that he is running out of time and patience. This captures so perfectly and painfully the reality of our mental health system that it both torments me and infuriates me.

Willie saw first-hand the realities that even if you are deemed as in need of “immediate” care and assistance, you still wait. I hid from him his family doctors initial reaction of brushing off my visit when I presented Willie’s written cry for help stating very clearly that he was suicidal. I hid that from Willie because, beyond all else, I wanted him to believe that the collective “we” would do anything we could to help him. There was no way I was going to make his first attempt at getting help begin with being blown off by a doctor who felt he was “bluffing”. He had no idea of the rage inside of me when I came home from that visit and lied to him, telling him that the doctor said to call the Child Youth Mental Health Services – never telling him that as well as throwing the name of that agency at me, the doctor had also spent 20 minutes lecturing me on my parenting and life choices that had now resulted in Willie’s “teenage behaviour”. He saw the way the system moved and worked while spending a week in the pediatric ward of our hospital waiting for a transfer to the Adolescent Psychiatric Unit (APU) in Surrey Memorial. During that week he witnessed the frustration of us, his Mom and Dad, as we asked time and again when a Doctor would see him only to be told by the nurses that they didn’t know…maybe today, maybe tomorrow. He saw me storm out of the room for answers from the nurses when he told me that a Doctor had finally seen him and prescribed him Prozac…This Doctor who I had never met or received a phone call or any communication from. That I found out about his visit and treatment plan (medication essentially) via Willie. 2 days of me leaving messages for a Doctor to call me and explain what was going on, was he going to be kept, transferred, sent home?? Finally finding out that he was to be transferred when a nurse broke the rules and let me look at the notes the Doctor put in Willie’s file.  He saw my frustration grow and continue throughout his care in the APU and after his release when we tried to navigate the myriad of miscommunication surrounding his “follow-up care” (and I use that term as loosely as the mental health system administers itself).

I now feel the anger when I see the similarities throughout all of these stories of pain and sadness and desperate grasping for help when most needed. What is the common theme? That the help was non-existent, ineffective or so hard to access that it seems insurmountable to achieve.

How are we supposed to tell our children and teens with any conviction that we WILL help them when the evidence supports that we CAN’T get what they need with the system the way it is. Whether it is counselling, schooling support, psychiatric assessment and care, hospitalization or follow up care after release it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. I question whether the resources are there but just impossible to access or whether the resources simply are missing all together.

I don’t know if Willie would be alive today if his care had been different – no one can judge that. What I do know is that he did not get what he needed and what he should have received in terms of care. I do know that what we were promised and told would be available to us after his release from the hospital never materialized. I do know that for Willie, the system failed and that for many others it has too. I do know that has to change.

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Anger

I have been told and have read in every bereavement reference tidbit that anger is a normal part of the grieving process. I have been asked by counsellors, friends and everyone in between if I’m angry. My answer all the way along these past 15 months has been “no”…and that was true. Up until just recently that is.

A few months ago I noticed that I was reacting far outside of my norm with regards to one person in particular; that I was venting and ranting and over-reacting to certain situations. That I would bring up past arguments and indiscretions by this person and flame at him in a big way. Dragging up old hurts and transgressions and swirling them about until I yelled and screamed at him and tried to hurt him. It always ended the same way…with me in tears and him holding me while I cried and sobbed and the anger directed at him turning to me asking why was Willie dead. After a few months of this, at the end of yet another evening of tears and yelling, I asked him what was wrong with me? Why was I doing this when I had no idea why I was? He said something very simple and very hard to hear.

The simple fact that he suggested was that I was angry at so much…at Willie, at the doctors, at the “system”, the universe, anything and everything…and between not wanting to even acknowledge that anger and not knowing how to direct it…I directed it squarely at him. Someone concrete and safe. Someone who would take it and just simply nod and agree and then hold me when I broke down.

Since that time I have grown to understand that yes, there is anger inside of my thoughts. That in fact, I find myself almost consumed some days with anger. Going through the medical reports and doctors files infuriate me. I find myself torn up with the frustration about the details of his “care” and all of the possibilities of “what-if”. Like one of those “choose-your-own-ending” books that I read when I was little – when my ending wasn’t what I wanted I would turn back the pages and make a different choice; repeating until I got the ending I wanted. But with real life I can’t do that. I can go back in my mind and ask myself what would happen if I made a different choice, if I acted differently or went in a different direction because the reality is that it won’t make any difference to where I am now.

Mental illness isn’t black and white. The treatment options and “what-if’s” are rampant and seemingly never-ending. Unlike many physical illnesses where you can look back at records and pinpoint that the patient is dead because Dr.ABC failed to administer XYZ treatment plan you can’t do that with something like depression or a suspected pre-psychosis even. We’ll never know if Willie would still be here now if his care had been different or if he had been medicated differently or his treatment started when he was younger. Maybe he would be, maybe he wouldn’t be. Maybe he would’ve been fine for 5 years, had another break then killed himself. Or he might have lived a full life, overcoming or managing his mental illness and living with it – however that would look. We’ll never know.

So the anger is sitting firmly with me now. Some days it flames externally and I lash out with the frustration and the despair. Mostly thought it turns inwards and the toxicity and the pain feels insurmountable. Trying to find a healthy way, through the filters of depression and grief, to process the anger is the daily challenge.

Friends with Grief

Grief is an odd monster. It has been 15 months since Willie died and I didn’t realize how much I was holding on to that one year mark…that hope that at that magical date I would be able to start moving forward and that it would all be somehow easier to live with. By the end of February it was apparent that it wasn’t going to just happen like that. That was the point I think when I started to really lose hope that life would ever be able to be “ok” again. So I hit a point that I never thought I’d see and it scared me enough to go to my doctor and reach out. I’ve already covered that experience in my blog so I’m not going to re-iterate that but suffice to say that it was then that I decided I needed to do something. That simply waiting was clearly not working and I was, in fact, getting worse instead of better in dealing with grief.

Because here’s the part that I didn’t realize and have only just now, with professional help, come to understand. First, my little disclaimer though…this is how the journey of grief relates to ME. Just me and me alone in this writing. I can’t speak for anyone else so my “truths” are mine, they may apply to others but I am only relaying how I know it is for me.

The now clear fact is that while I have been beating myself up over the “why” I’m not all better when I’ve been so destroyed by grief this last 15 months is that I wasn’t grieving for the first year-ish. I was existing. I was going from day to day, numbly and vacant. After the initial few months – which I have almost zero recall of by the way – I developed the art of placing the mask of functionality on and going about my days. Some days that mask didn’t hold and for a few months around Christmas it was a daily struggle that slid further from “ok” every day but generally, it held.

Grieving is an active process. Just merely existing in sorrow and loss is not grieving. I can’t learn to live with loss and sadness if I don’t feel the feelings. Now, granted, I would be the first to argue with you that I have been doing nothing BUT feeling these past 15 months but the reality is that I wasn’t actually doing that at all. I had sunk into such a depression that I didn’t “feel” anything anymore. The sadness and the loss were constant but as if viewed remotely.

When I began therapy I was livid when the Psychiatrist said that I had to let myself crack and yes, maybe I would end up as a ball of screaming on the floor but that I couldn’t process the feelings and really grieve if I kept myself “under control” all of time. I used the term “breaking down” and he corrected me every time I said that with “opening up”. Letting the feelings come to surface and be dissipated is the only way to move through them. Holding it all inside, tight and wrapped under binds just holds them there. I have expressed my fear many times in therapy this past 6 weeks – my fear that if I do let go and release the pent up and harnessed emotions that I won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak. They assure me that isn’t the case and in fact, they are there to help.

So that brings me to where I am now. Trying to accept that some days I am going to need time and space to be with the feelings that are there and that are demanding to be felt. Days that work is going to have to take a back seat to grieving. This is something that I have struggled with and I continue to. Because to me, admitting that I am having a bad day that I need to cocoon into is akin to stating that I “can’t” do something and that is not acceptable to my strong, independent Type A self. It goes against everything inside of me. I still wish that I could just push the pain down and slide on the mask and be “ok” but I’ve come to understand now – that’s not possible. I can only do that so long and eventually, it is going to crack and fall and there’s going to be a mess, one way or the other. It may as well be a calculated and directed mess that’s managed and monitored.

Better that I rule the monster that is grief than the other way around. It’s not like it’s going away … time to try to make friends and get to know each other…grief and I are going to be together a long time, if not forever.

“Firsts” and now forever

It’s the second Mother’s Day since Willie’s death and it’s not any easier.

This brings to the front of my mind that the reality is that the “first year” is over. All of the firsts are experienced and endured. His first birthday since he died, the first for all of the holidays – experienced without all of my children being there. A year of buckling down and getting through those dates, very much with the belief in the back of my mind that after riding out the first year, it will get easier to get through.

So here I am on Mother’s Day and it hurts every bit as much as last year. This year though there is a depth of the pain that is worse though. The week long dread of this day once it was realized it was coming was hell but pales with how the actual day has been. Today reinforcing that Mother’s Day will always be a reminder of loss and of my family being incomplete.

With that comes a clarity that the year of first is done but now there is the rest of my life to get through without him. I had been so focused on just getting through the initial first year that it’s now a shock that I have to accept that it won’t ever be any easier. Just as every day holds that loss, the holidays and “special” days simply bring a tighter spotlight on the empty hole left when Willie died.

I chose this year to not celebrate Mother’s Day in any way that most people consider traditional. As my boys are not close to me geographically, that factors into it but it’s more than just that.  I spoke with my youngest son and we Skyped. Texted with my 2 oldest and connected that way. Simple “Happy Mother’s Days” were done. We had done a lunch out together last week when I was there but beyond that, no recognition of today. There just doesn’t seem to be the drive to celebrate this day. I know that many will argue that I still have 3 children and I acknowledge that. However, to connect with them and acknowledge today in a quiet, simple way is all I need and want.  We, as a family (myself and the 2 oldest) made a decision this past Christmas to not “celebrate” it either. It was the best thing we could have done and I am so thankful that I have kids who are not only so brilliant to realize it but that they have the awareness to know what they want and to state it! Trying to carry on and have the “special” days celebrated the same way they used to be is impossible. Our family has changed forever and fundamentally and our way of recognizing and honouring certain dates needs to change as well. So we are.

For today, it’s not simply that it hurts too much to hear “Happy Mother’s Day” …while it does, it also is about honouring that life will never be the same so, for me, the way I honour these dates will never be the same either. It’s not a “head in the sand” type of reaction but more a way of re-assessing how to move through the dates in life that will always bring the reminders of what has been lost.

Mental Health day?

This has been on my mind a lot the last couple of months and it’s time to let it out of my head and drop it on the “paper” :)

As much as we as a society have made strides forward in mental health advocacy and understanding there is still a significant stigma attached to admitting that you are less than “ok”. Being in the midst of living through the grieving process of losing my son last year I am the first to admit that there are many days when I’m not ok. Let’s be brutally honest… more not ok days than ok ones really. But I get up and I go to work and I am a shining example of OK for the day. Then I go home and I crash. Not the healthiest way to process and deal with grief and I am beginning to see a real frustration building with me over this.

Why the resentment? Simple really… because if I had broken my leg or had a bout of pneumonia and needed to take time for my care and healing then it would be open and discussed and work time management would be resolved. Days off or weeks off would be arranged, colleagues would help with taking up the slack (even begrudgingly, they would do it) and my body would have its needs met for time to heal.

But instead…this wound, this illness, is quite literally, in my head and not visible. Not only is it not visible – it is hidden, purposely – hidden so as to not have to face the implications of being viewed as less able or less competent. Hidden so as to ensure that my job security is intact and that there won’t be an undercurrent of my performance and stability being questioned. So grief and depression are pushed away as best as they can be each day until they just simply can’t be anymore and then the issue becomes how do you put it out there that you need a day off, a week off…to close your office door and not speak to anyone until the moments pass. And the resentment builds that for as much as we, as a society, are fighting to remove the stigmas, they are still fully and completely present.

This isn’t solely a rant about this issue though but also a post to bring action. Check out this link : https://www.notmyselftoday.ca/about and read and talk and get it out in the open. Dialogue can help and dialogue is needed. I’ll be doing my part. I’ll be meeting with my direct colleague and no longer hiding. As a simple man with a great vision once said “be the change you want to see”. Talk is great but action is where it’s at.

Have yourself a wonderful day, and if it’s anything else, tell it like it is.

Life lessons in the moment

You know those rare moments when you say something and you immediately think in your head, “wow!”… I had a moment like that this weekend. I was out with my youngest son on Saturday, he was roller-blading and I was jogging along. He was a bit timid about going down the steep hills that kept coming up and I was helping him along with a hand to steady him and give him support – more emotional than physical really. He could do it, his technical skill was just fine; but his confidence was shaky. I don’t push and I let him hold my hand when he asked. I noticed though at one point that his gaze was firmly set on a spot almost right in front of his skates every time he was on approach to a decline.
Without a seconds hesitation I said to him “Look ahead where you want to go sweetie, not down at where you are”. It was that second that I knew that those were the words that I needed to not only hear but to understand and live with.  I went on to explain to him that his body couldn’t react and balance for upcoming turns and adjustments in the path if it didn’t see them coming. So he had to look ahead so his eyes could tell his brain what to tell his body was needed to get him through where he was … so that he could get to where he wanted to go.
It was such a struggle for him to take his eyes off the path right in front of him and to lift his head and stare ahead…to trust that if he looked where he wanted to go that his body would take care of itself. It comes down to trust quite simply and that is not easy to embrace, no matter what the subject or your age.  He finally did lift his head high and stare resolutely forward… and he succeeded, like I knew he could. He let go of my hand, bent his knees and set his gaze firmly on what lay ahead… he wobbled a bit, recovered, steadied himself and soared down that hill…and taught me a lesson in the process. That you can’t get where you want to go unless you look forward.