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Mental Illness: Don’t Be Ashamed

3 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Today’s post is written in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, which runs through May.

Several years ago, as I sat nursing my newborn baby, I watched a talk show in which Tom Cruise said something to the effect of post-partum depression not being a real condition. All these moms needed, he said, was to follow good exercise and nutrition plans, and they wouldn’t have a problem. He was convinced, he said, because he had done research.

The timing of this talk show, with its rantings by someone who by definition will never know what post-partum depression is like, could not have been worse. I was in the thick of post-partum depression myself at the time, and although my particular brand of it never included a desire to hurt my child, fantasies of my own death were a very real part of my life.

I did not seek help for my condition, and in fact I would never have been treated for it had my family doctor not noticed that something was amiss during a visit for something completely unrelated. I had a whole set of issues with that particular doctor, but I fully credit him for saving my life. That’s how close I was to the edge of the cliff.

The fact that I suffered from post-partum depression at all was no surprise to me. If anything, I had been surprised when it hadn’t struck after the birth of my first son.

Even as a teenager, I was prone to bouts of depression. My parents were not really aware of it, and on the few occasions when someone actually noticed that I was not OK, it was always put down to adolescent hormones.

“You’ll grow out of it,” people told me.

Except I didn’t. My depression continued into adulthood, coming in waves that sometimes threatened to drown me completely. It would hit completely without warning, hang around for weeks or months or even years, and then disappear just as suddenly.

During my teens I blamed hormones. For two decades after that, I blamed myself. I blamed the fact that some unwise choices I made during my college years led to trauma that had a lasting effect.

I didn’t seek help. Of course I didn’t. My depression and everything that went with it was my own fault, right? I didn’t deserve to be helped.

When it came down to it, the mental health issues that I have experienced throughout most of my life – be it post-partum depression, good old garden-variety depression, anxiety, and everything else – have been a source of shame to me.

And that, my friends, is a big problem in our society. Too many lives are destroyed and lost because people suffering from mental illnesses feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Feelings of unworthiness and self-blame act as barriers to the pursuit of inner peace and happiness.

Tom Cruise sitting on his high horse effectively blaming mothers for a debilitating and often life-threatening condition did not help the cause of the mental health community one little bit.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I finally made the very difficult decision to seek professional help. The road since then has not been smooth. With the guidance of my therapist, I am reliving past traumas and undergoing oft-uncomfortable introspection in search of the roots of the conditions that plague me. But I at least know that I am heading somewhere other than a dead end.

My quest for mental health is by far the hardest thing for me to write about.  Because in spite of the steps that I have taken to get help, I have not quite managed to shake the decades-old conviction that this is something for me to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

If I stay silent, though, I remain a part of the problem of the stigma associated with mental illness.

In starting to speak out, however tentatively, I hope to become a part of the solution.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/militaryhealth/3485865665/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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Autism: Seeing The World From A Different Angle

26 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 26 – Health tagline: Give yourself, your blog, your condition, or some aspect of your health a tagline. Make sure it’s catchy!

Seeing The World From A Different Angle

A couple of years ago, George had a block of Occupational Therapy appointments. He needed help with some sensory issues he was having, and he had virtually no fine motor skills. My husband and I were always present at the sessions, mostly to observe and learn techniques we could use at home. We didn’t actually do anything during the sessions. We just let George and the therapist do their thing.

One of the tools in the therapist’s toolbox was a board full of evenly spaced holes that went with a bag full of coloured pegs. George would be asked to fill the pegboard with pegs. He could choose whatever colours he wanted: the point of the exercise was to strengthen his hands. It was not a task George enjoyed, because he struggled with it so much. He didn’t bother to select colours – he would just take pegs out of the bag at random and try mightily to get them into the board.

One day, he deviated from this way of doing things. He emptied the bag and separated the pegs into piles according to what colour they were. And then, for the first time, we saw him systematically select his pegs and make a pattern on the board. My husband was seated beside George, and I was on the opposite side of the table. The therapist was behind George, helping him correct his grip on the pegs when needed.

As George filled the board, the pattern became clear. It was oddly soothing to watch him make his little design, knowing with each turn which peg he would use next. I felt comforted by the predictability my son had created.

All of a sudden my sense of calm was jarred when George picked up a yellow peg and put it where I’d been expecting a blue peg. This wasn’t right! What about the pattern? I looked at my husband, who seemed surprised at this unexpected turn of events. However, he didn’t look quite as horrified as I felt. I’m not sure why I had placed so much stock in this pattern, since that wasn’t an objective of the exercise, but I really felt disturbed.

A few pegs later, the pattern was history, and George appeared to be placing the pegs randomly. My husband got up to stretch his legs, and he walked around to the side of the table. He stopped dead and as he stared at the board, a look of astonishment spread across his face. Not wanting to disrupt George, he whispered in my ear.

“You have to look at this from over there.”

I stood up and went to where he had been standing, and immediately, I saw what had amazed my husband so much.

Changing my perspective of the board by a mere ninety degrees made me see that George had not abandoned his pattern at all. He had simply been shooting for a pattern completely different to the one I had expected. What he was creating was complex and utterly unique. It was one of those things that needed creative thinking and planning. At that moment George reminded me of those chess players who can plan the next twenty moves and know that they are going to skewer their opponent at the end of it.

The pattern was quite, quite beautiful. And it was something that needed George’s own unique brand of thought.

Individuals with autism do not look at the world the same way we do. And that is a good thing.

Because if it weren’t for autistic thought, I would not have gotten to see that beautiful pattern that day.

The tagline I chose is not one that I created myself. I borrowed it from the T-shirt I wore when I ran last year’s autism run. The T-shirt was designed by my friend, whose name is also George, from the Geneva Centre for Autism. I could not think of any tagline that so perfectly encapsulates that day at the O.T.’s office.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

The T-Word: A Scary Word For Autism Parents

13 Apr

This morning heralded the beginning of a new phase in my life as a special needs parent. We met for the first time with George’s transition planning team to sign the paperwork that kicks off the process of transitioning him to full-time school.

Any parent of a child with autism will tell you the same thing: that the word “transition” is one of the scariest words in the English language.

“Transition” means that the routines that pretty much hold the world together for a child with autism are about to be turned upside down and inside out.

“Transition” means that there are likely to be meltdowns, that for a period of time my child’s anxiety will be mirrored in his eyes in a way that will make me want to weep, and that the entire family will be without sleep as George makes the adjustment to his new reality.

Despite the fact that this is a process that makes me fraught with anxiety, it is a positive thing. When he started IBI therapy two and a half years ago, George did not have a lot of skills. He had virtually no vocabulary, no self-help skills, he couldn’t follow directions, he couldn’t interact, his emotional regulation skills were nowhere, and he had all kinds of fears that made his life very difficult. There was always a spark in him, though; a light in his eyes that made people sit up and take notice.

After two years of full-time therapy, the progress in this child was off the charts. It would be a stretch to describe him as fully verbal, but he was making requests using full sentences, he was starting to interact in a limited way, he was no longer afraid of the dark, he was starting to verbally express emotion, he was able to follow instructions with multiple steps, and in a giant cognitive leap, he had started to display his quirky sense of humour (deliberately being funny for the purpose of making other people laugh is huge. HUGE!)

And so, six months ago, the decision was made to cut his therapy in half and graduate him to the next program up. Instead of traditional IBI therapy, which is intensive one-on-one programming, he is now in a School Stream program, which is conducted in groups of five. It is a simulated classroom environment, designed to help children with autism learn the kinds of skills needed in school. There is  teacher who leads school-type activities, and each child has his or her individual support person to help with prompting and reinforcing.  The children in this program attend School Stream for half of the day, and actual school for the other half.

It has proven to be a very effective program for George. It has helped improve his social communication and interaction skills – areas that remain difficult for him, that traditional IBI therapy is not designed to address.

And now, effective from September of this year, George is being deemed fit for full-time school. This is a testament to the progress he has made, both in IBI and in School Stream. His teacher at school, who has had him half-days for the last six months, is excited to take him on full-time, and he will be with her for at least two years. At our last meeting with her, she had glowing things to say about George. He still struggles intensely with social communication, and he is not nearly verbal enough to hold his own in a conversation, but academically he is flying. He has developed the skills to function, and function reasonably well, in a classroom setting, even if it is a modified classroom designed for children like George.

That George is ready for this transition is a positive thing indeed. It is something that makes me so proud of him. He has had to work so incredibly hard to get to this point.

But still.

The process of transition is not going to be easy, which is why the planning starts six months before the transition takes place, and does not end until six months after the transition has happened. This morning’s meeting with the transition planning team was the first of what will be many. From what we’ve been able to tell, there will be good supports in place for George and for us over the next year, in order to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

I cannot help being anxious about it, though. George’s departure from the therapy centre will mean the removal of a layer of support that we have had for the last three years, and although George might be ready for it, I don’t know if I am.

I might just have a harder time with this transition than George will…

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/misskprimary/1038145678)