What are you ashamed of?
What words do you struggle to say aloud? What thoughts make you cringe? What truth about yourself would devastate you if it were made public?
I was raised by a mother who, because of her traumatic past, dished out guilt and shame like she was an ice cream shop owner during a weeklong power outage in the middle of an August heat wave. I’ve had no shortage of shame in my life. I wrestle with it constantly and I suspect I will be fighting that particular battle for years to come.
Before you suggest it, yes, I have watched the Brene Brown Ted Talk, read her books, listened to her lecture series. I understand the concept of vulnerability and whole heartedness. Great in theory, difficult to put into practice.
My last Chronicle dealt, metaphorically, with anxiety and mental illness. I will talk about that later but first I want to put you on a plane that’s falling out of the sky.
I’ve told the story of my terrifying plane ride, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, more times than I can count because it’s exciting and full of all kinds of perfect story elements. The truth is less fun. I was on a 747 that, due to pilot error, dropped a long way down and everyone was screaming and we all thought we were going to die. As happy as I was to not crash and die, that flight ruined my love of flying. For someone who loves to travel, that’s torture.
After that near-death experience, every flight I took was a war with my brain. I figured if I just toughed it out long enough, my brain would eventually remember that air travel is statistically safe and I would no longer suffer silent terror from take-off to landing. My brain did not get that memo. My brain hated every flight. It made my heart pound, my palms sweat, and filled me with anxiety with every tiny noise and bump. Bad turbulence was sheer hell.
I knew that some people took medication to help with their fear of flying but I wasn’t one of “those” people. Heck, I used to laugh during turbulence. Take-offs and landings had been my favourite part of the ride. I wasn’t weak, nuh uh. I’d had a bad experience, sure, but I would keep getting back on that damn horse and learn to love flying again if it killed me!
Then, in 2007, staring down the barrel of a lengthy flight to the Cook Islands, where Fred and I would meet our new employer, I finally broke down and went to see my doctor. “Um, I, uh, had this this really terrible flight in 1993 and ever since I get really scared when I fly, and, um, I feel stupid but, um, my flight to the Cook Islands is going to be super long and I want to be able to sleep and relax. Is there maybe some kind of medication I can take? Just for this one flight?”
My doctor stared at me for a moment, then he smiled and grabbed his prescription pad. “1993? Why did you wait so long?” He scribbled out a prescription for the generic equivalent of Ativan and gave me instructions to use it. He even explained that I could use it to help with jet lag and to get onto the local time when I arrived.
The flight from Los Angeles to Rarotonga was a dream! No sweaty palms, no pounding heart! I slept for hours and arrived in Rarotonga rested and relieved. Why did I wait so long to get help? I wondered. Fourteen years of terror for what? For the pride of feeling… “tough”? Pffft, screw that, I want to enjoy air travel.
My new chill pills have accompanied me on every flight since then. And here’s the best part: I don’t need them anymore. Yep, after years of actually feeling relaxed in the air again, my brain has learned to re-associate airplanes with fun and happiness—and it took far less than fourteen years to get to that place. The pills tricked my brain and it worked.
So why did I wait so long?
The short answer is: shame.
Society did an excellent job of making me believe that taking medication for anything related to the brain was a weakness. Medication for any other physical ailment was fine—I have been on Synthroid for my underactive thyroid glands since I was thirteen years old and I’ve never thought twice about it—but the brain, the mind, that was something else. Start down that road and the next thing you know you’ll be in Riverview in a padded room. Since childhood, I had been taught that any form of mental illness, even trauma-related anxiety, was something to be ashamed of, and I bought into that belief at the cost of my own well-being.
It’s almost as if we don’t see the brain as a part of our body. Funny, considering the entire point of our bodies is to carry our amazing brains around.
Of course, there is physical shame too and lots of it. Shame around sex and everyday bodily functions. I was in my twenties before I could say, “I have my period” to my boyfriend. I had a long list of euphemisms or I would simply say, “It’s that time”, while cringing and wanting to climb in a hole. And ask my boyfriend, or anyone else, to buy tampons for me? Are you kidding? I could barely buy them myself and was mortified if the cashier put them in a bag that didn’t completely hide my disgusting feminine products! And just when I got over that shame, it was time for menopause and all kinds of new shame. Whee!
Beyond the body, we get into financial shame, romantic shame, intellectual shame, cultural shame, and so on and so on. If there is a way society can make us feel bad about ourselves, it will. And while Brene Brown may be right about living whole-heartedly, those moments when we make ourselves vulnerable and it backfires, and we are hurt more deeply or our shame is weaponized, make the transition seem impossible and, frankly, undesirable.
I write these Chronicles for a number of reasons, one of which is to make myself vulnerable in the way I feel comfortable doing so—in writing—and to share some of my struggles so that maybe other folks out there will not feel so alone.
With that in mind, let me talk about the “bees” and my shame around them.
I have been coping with varying degrees of depression for a while now. 2015 was a major low after the deaths of my dad and my sister, our move away from Nelson and my robust network of friends and fellow writers, and the ensuing financial uncertainty of relocating. I thought about therapy or counselling, but it was too pricey and our insurance didn’t cover it. A friend offered his services but I was too embarrassed. I muddled through it with a combination of exercise, artistic endeavours, and employment at a job I enjoyed. Because I obviously learned nothing from my fear of flying, I did not seek help from a doctor or ask about medication.
I suffered silently for the next five years.
Then it got worse.
I thought I handled the pandemic pretty well, early in 2020. I mean, didn’t I leap in almost immediately, and start volunteering and helping my community? Fred turned out to have plenty of work and I kept busy in the garden and baking and other…stuff. It’s true I stopped writing and was waking up every night at 3am in a panic and couldn’t sleep at all without melatonin or some other OTC assistance, and I cried at the drop of a hat and often felt sick to my stomach and stressed over every small detail and frequently questioned the point of existing at all, but I was doing okay, wasn’t I?
I was not. Unbeknownst to me, along with my ongoing depression, I was now experiencing increasing levels of anxiety.
I’m going to skip ahead to the breaking point. Because there was a breaking point and it was awful. In early February, I had what amounts to a nervous breakdown. The next day, Fred went with me to my doctor. We three had a long discussion and, at the end, (along with instructions to REST, REST, REST and let my brain heal), decided that anti-anxiety meds were needed in the short term, and anti-depression meds for a slightly longer period. It felt weird, and if I hadn’t been in such a low place, I would have been humiliated. I also emailed a counselor and made my first appointment.
Friends, it was the plane thing all over again. It was years of “toughing it out” on my own, then getting the right medication for my suffering brain, and then wondering why the hell I had waited so long to do it! Oh wait, I know why, because of crap like this:
It’s been 28 years since that fateful flight from Tokyo and the harmful attitudes about the human brain and mental health persist. Even after the amazing results I had with the anti-anxiety meds to overcome the trauma of that experience, I am still ashamed to need medication for my brain.
But the medication works. It is working now. And I am going to tell you some of my experience and what I’ve learned as part of my microscopic effort to push back against the stigmas and the bad information out there.
There are different medications and dosages for depression. I am taking Citalopram, which is an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). SSRIs increase levels of serotonin in the brain—serotonin is the hormone that makes us feel happy, stabilizes our mood, and helps with a feeling of well-being.
SSRIs don’t work right away. They can take 1-4 weeks to really get into the system and make a noticeable difference. Conversely, the side effects, if any, will be worse at first and gradually wane. The first 2-3 weeks I was tired, fuzzy-headed, and had constant low-level nausea but now I have no side effects.
You also should not stop SSRIs right away as there’s a very real chance of relapse or of the original symptoms worsening. Usually, you stay on the medication for 3-6 months and then, if you’re feeling better, gradually wean off. I am pleased to say that I am feeling better and when this prescription runs its course I will start weaning off. Hooray!
Interestingly, Citalopram is also the medication doctors prescribe for some symptoms of menopause.
For my anxiety, I was given the exact same medication that I use for flying. The anti-anxiety meds were more of an instant assistance. For the first two weeks I took one every day, sometimes two a day if I was feeling extra anxious. (Remember, the anti-depressants take a while to kick in so the anti-anxiety meds had to handle the whole problem). These pills made me REALLY sleepy, which was fine because I was trying to rest. Unlike SSRIs the goal is to quickly wean off this medication, which I have done. I have a small supply that I keep for emergencies but otherwise I am done with those…hooray!
It has been about 6 weeks since I started the medication. I am not 100% back to myself but I am almost there. What the medication did that helped so much is that it brought me back to a neutral state. There are lots of things we can do on our own to control or prevent depression and anxiety—exercise, getting a full night’s sleep, eating well, socializing, being creative, getting out in nature, etc—but when we are overwhelmed even the simplest of tasks becomes impossible. For the first two weeks after my meltdown, I basically slept, watched Disney movies, and coloured in an adult colouring book and that was absolutely all I could do. The few work meetings I had scheduled for that time (via Zoom thank goodness) were exhausting, stressful, and required taking anti-anxiety meds beforehand.
Along with the medication, the things that helped me were:
My husband. I literally do not know how I would have made it through without him. He was my nurse, my cook, my house cleaner, my cheering squad, my confidant, and my best friend.
My closest friends, some of whom had been through the same thing, all of whom have been unbelievably kind and supportive.
My counselor, who was compassion incarnate and helped lift the veil of my emotions to get at the truth.
My doctor, who, like my doctor in Nelson, helped me see that it’s okay to accept help from the world of modern medicine, even for your brain.
My manager, who didn’t hesitate to give me the time I needed to heal and was considerate beyond measure.
My cats, for obvious reasons.
And, of course, recognizing the causes of my anxiety and taking steps to address or remove them.
Everyone’s brain is different, everyone’s situation is different, but if I can get one message out to anyone who is struggling it is simply this: Do not be ashamed to get whatever help you need.
To the folks sharing crappy memes and uneducated opinions, please stop. You are harming, not helping.
How are things for me now? I am writing again after a year-long dry spell! I have been working outside in the sun! I feel hopeful for my future! I have highs and lows, but more middles, which is awesome! I sleep through the night 90% of the time with no chemical assistance for the first time in close to a decade! I still wrestle with the shame of my brain problem but mostly I’m just happy that I finally have tools to fix it.
And I’m dreaming of flying again.