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Glashan Symposium on Student Wellbeing and Mental Health

Glashan Symposium on Student Wellbeing and Mental Health poster

On April 20th, 2018, Glashan Public School hosted a symposium on mental health. I was invited by principal Jim Taylor to be one of the guest speakers at the event. It was a little daunting for a couple of reasons.

First, I'm actually a former Glashan student and, since my time at the school was not the happiest, stepping back inside was going to be weird. I literally hadn't been inside the school since I left it on my final day of grade 8. As it turns out, it was a "good" weird, but weird all the same.

Second, I was going to be talking a lot about my mom's struggle with mental illness. And since my mom died quite young, it was going to be emotional. On top of it, this is intertwined with my own memories if being a young teen while I went to Glashan.

It was, I'm very pleased to say, a very positive experience. All of the staff as well as the students helped me feel very welcome. I led two sessions of grade 8 students in a discussion about all of this. Probably about 30 minutes each, maybe a bit longer, plus a Q&A after. A number of kids approached me after each session to chat a bit more, too, which I take as a very good sign.

And if anyone wants to get a sense of what it all looked like, Glashan's Instagram page has a number of photos from the event. They're right here.

To prepare for each session, I made quite a few notes. I'm including them below (because, why not?) but the interesting thing is that I wound up not referring to them during the actual sessions. I felt comfortable enough and prepared enough not to need them. That doesn't always happen and I wasn't sure it was going to happen this time, but it did and I think (well, hope) that it means that it was a more natural conversation then a dry presentation.

Anyway! Here are my notes. A little stream of consciousness, but remember that these were here to help guide me if I needed them.

Starting with the Ending

I’m going to do something weird and start with the ending. So! My mom was diagnosed with mental illness when I was quite young. Maybe when I was around 8, but it may have even been earlier than that.

So, the bad news and the sad news was that my mom died quite young. 48, when I was 20 years old. It wasn’t her fault and it wasn’tfair. Life’s like that sometimes, but it can be very hard to place.I’ll get into the specifics in just a sec.

My mom was never able to recover or lead a normal life. I don’t really want to say “beat” or “defeat.” It’s not that simple. But she could never find the right mix of medication to help her lead the life that she wanted to lead.And as she got older, she got physically sicker, too. It was a double-whammy; she was struggling with schizophrenia and everything else and then her physical health declined, too. Partially because she was getting older and partially because it was hard for her to look after herself.

This can be an issue with mental illness; it’s hard, very hard, to exercise and eat right when getting out of bed is almost impossible. That made everything worse. She didn’t have a lot of “reserves.”

This is important: she didn’t make a mistake and get mental illness. She didn’t make a bad decision and get mental illness. It just happened.

But, at the same time, it wasn’t like it was always bad. The danger in talking about situations like this is that it tends to make them seem worse then in some ways they were. Compressed.

My mom wasn’t sick every single day. She’d have good days and bad days. Good weeks and bad weeks. And sometimes even good months and bad months. We did have fun together. And there were good times mixed in with the bad.

Beginning

I was born in Arnprior.

I’m an only child.

My mom and dad split up when I was around five years old.

My dad moved to Ottawa shortly after that for work. His health wasn’t great, either, but it was all on the physical side. A lot of surgeries and a lot of pain. And he was ex-military, so he and I had very different personalities.

My mom and I moved to Ottawa when I was eight.

I went to Mutchmor and then Glashan and eventually Glebe high school.

Through it all we were pretty poor. A lot of poverty. There was never much money and it meant everything was a constant compromise. My mom went to food banks. Declared bankruptcy. We were on welfare. It was pretty tough.

And slowly, over time, I was becoming aware, probably around the time I was eight or nine, that my mom wasn't like other moms; but I didn't really understand why. She was my mom. And I think, looking back, she probably tried to hide some of what she was going through, too. Until she couldn’t anymore.

My Growing Awareness

Only later did I realize that what she was going through had names. Mental illness. Schizophrenia. Anxiety disorder. Nervous breakdown.

These descriptions are not well-defined. And, to make it even harder, science is still figuring it out. So, “schizophrenia.” What does that mean? Practically, it means that my mom couldn’t deal with things very well. She’d hear voices. Her sense of time (hours, days, weeks) would be very distorted (she’d say something happened yesterday that happened last month). Her thinking could be very confused. It was very hard to know if what she was saying was true or just what she thought was true.

What about “anxiety disorder?” Well, sometimes she’d get very, very worried and have a very difficult time calming down. She would imagine the worst (often involving me), focus on it, and be unable to imagine anything positive. This could go on for days.

What about a “nervous breakdown?” Well, generally it means that someone just can’t cope anymore. But what does that mean practically? In my mom’s case, everything became so overwhelming she’d be almost paralyzed. In these cases, she’d check herself into the hospital and get help. I can’t imagine the courage that must have taken. And how scary that must have been. She wouldn’t have known how long she’d be there. She wouldn’t know what would happen while she was there or when she got out.

And, to make it worse, she was also on medication and that would have an effect on her, too. Sometimes she’d be very, very dopey. Sleepy, but more than that. Other times the medication would work great and she’d be herself. It was just very unpredictable.

And, of course, it meant that my childhood and teenage years were pretty different from a “normal” one (whatever that might mean).

And there wasn’t much support. My grandparents and aunts and uncles didn’t understand and didn’t help much. My dad was there, to a point, but he didn’t understand, either. We’re not close, but to his credit he did help, especially when my mom was hospitalized. I could stay with him for a few weeks and that gave me some stability. There also wasn’t much government support (aside from welfare) and there wasn’t much in the way of education.

I also felt ashamed. It was hard to be poor. Hard to be embarrassed about my mom and my home. I rarely invited anyone over. And it was hard to fit in. It was hard to afford nice clothes, good school supplies, and all of that stuff.

It also meant I was pretty shy. Shy, quiet, poor, fat. So there was bullying and whatnot, too.

And sometimes it was hard to go to school. It felt kinda surreal compared to what was going on at home. Managing as a student was really hard sometimes. You need to have homework done and you need to be in school and all of that stuff. I’m not saying that school isn’t important, but there were times I’d get home from school and my mom hadn’t gotten out of bed all day. Or there were a few times on a school night that she passed out and I was picking her up off the floor. And then, of course, there were the times she couldn’t function at all and wound up being hospitalized. Or times where she just couldn’t function but wasn’t hospitalized. That meant she couldn’t be a mom. And there were times where she wasn’t even herself. Like a stranger had taken over.

Compared to that, things like homework didn’t seem that important.

Confusion and Stress

In my case, there was also a lot of confusion. No one really ever told me anything. And I didn’t know what questions to ask or even who to talk to.

There weren’t any supports at the time. Or at least none that I was aware of. It’s hard to know what to ask for when you don’t have the right information. Or who to talk to. Or who to ask. And remember this was pre-internet. I didn’t know who to turn to and there wasn’t anyone I could really ask.

No one really explained it to me; my mom tried, but it was very hard to understand what she was going through. It was pretty scary and it left me feeling very insecure and shy. This also meant that I didn’t talk to anyone about it, so no one knew what was going on.

Other parents didn’t know because I didn’t tell my friends. Teachers didn’t know, mainly because there weren’t any teachers I felt really comfortable about talking to. And I didn’t talk with guidance councillors because I never really trusted them.

And I was scared; what if I talked to a parent or teacher about this stuff and then they called social services? What if I was taken away from my mom? I loved my mom and I didn’t want to be separated from her.

Epilogue

But...the weird thing about this is that in some ways it got easier as time went on. What do I mean?

Well, at first I didn’t know what was going on and I was scared. A lot. And unhappy. A lot. And stressed. A lot. There was tension all the time, mainly because my mom’s struggle with mental illness meant that, emotionally, she was really up and down.

But slowly, I got better at taking care of myself.

The big thing that helped me was escaping. Just being able to read books or comics and kinda lose myself in them for awhile. Hang out with friends, playing games or watching movies or whatever. And exercise helped, too. I started doing a lot of biking.

Basically, getting away from it sometimes and learning to give myself a break.

I don’t mean running away. And I don’t mean pretending that everything was okay (though I did some of that). What I mean is just finding some joy, some happiness, and taking a break from the crap that was going on around me. I realized that I had every right to be happy.
Also, my mom did start talking about it, on her good days, sometimes. She was seeing a psychiatrist and was more open about what was happening with her. And she had a lot of hope.

And I got more experienced. The first time she was hospitalized was very scary. But it got less scary as it happened a few more times. I started to have a better sense of what to expect.

I realized, and this was hard, that I couldn’t fix this for her. I could support her as best I could. I could love her and be there for her as best I could be, but I couldn’t fix it.

And I started to understand that the mental illness is just that: an illness. It wasn’t my mom’s fault.

And, you know, my mom was a pretty amazing person. She was very kind, very loving, and very courageous. She liked to read. She taught me a lot about life, about being thoughtful and compassionate. I didn’t doubt, through it all, that she loved me. And she was a teacher. Despite all the ups and downs, I consider myself very lucky to have met her.

And you know, I started to realize that mental illness isn’t that scary. Yes, there are scary moments. Sure. And yes, it can be weird. And yes, it can be really frustrating.

Again, mental illness is an illness, just like any other illness. Science and research are getting better and better all the time. If someone was in my mom’s situation now, there’s now a whole range of options that weren’t there for her. So there’s a lot of hope.

A really good example is here, right now. When I was at Glashan, an event like this would not have happened. It just wouldn't have.

A lot of things are changing for the better. How we, as a society, approach mental illness. How science treats it.

It’s really amazing. We have a long way to go. There is still stigma and resource issues and all of the rest. But there's a lot of hope. And a lot to fight for.

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