“The Mood Disorders Clinic where I have an appointment is nearly impossible to find. It is housed in one of a series of dilapidated buildings that look every one of their 135-plus years. They are currently being renovated, which means that the hospital, originally accessible only by a dirt road, is pretty well only accessible that way again. This narrow road (a stand-in while the real entrance is being rebuilt) winds through creepy old buildings, abandoned but for construction workers, overgrown with ivy and peppered with signs proclaiming dire warnings of danger due to overhead wires, but lacking a solid plan about how best to deal with that.
It is virtually impossible to figure out where to park. There are little parking lots here and there but nothing to indicate what services they are adjacent to. I finally pull into what I believe to be the staff lot. Getting out of my car I meet a nicely suited man getting out of his, and I ask him where patients are supposed to park. He scratches his head looks around, and admits that he really doesn’t know. “I only work here,” he offers with self-depreciating good humour. I return an affable smile, but inside I’m frosty. I didn’t ride in on a camel, after all. I can’t be the only crazy person ever to arrive by car. I want to ask where the Mood Disorders Clinic is but I have lost confidence in this gentleman so I move on.
A briskly walking woman with a lanyard around her neck looks like a plausible guide. She stops at once and gives me clear directions to my destination. “Who are you meeting with?” she asks me, squinting in the bright May sunshine. “I have an appointment,” I reply. “I’m a patient.” I should sing it out: I’ve been waiting more than six months for this appointment, but I mutter it breathlessly. Her face changes subtly. Her eyes linger on the lanyard of keys around my own neck — I forgot to take them off when I left work. Sheepishly, I slide them off and stuff them into my pocket. I am not one of us. I am one of them.
The Mood Disorders Clinic is up a flight of stairs and is strangely empty. A nurse in a small kiosk takes my OHIP card and tells me where I can get coffee. It sounds like a complicated journey and I decline. I sit down but I am too nervous to read. After 15 minutes the nurse directs me to another corridor to meet with a psychiatric nurse.
This nurse isn’t quite ready for me so she invites me to sit down in the corridor in a low vinyl chair which is belching out stuffing through a couple of rips. The hallway is strangely narrow and painted a colour so vile that it is difficult to imagine that was not the intent. A sign on the wall reminds me that violence is not acceptable.
My ex-husband is a surgeon. His waiting room, as I recall, is bright, clean and nicely furnished, featuring an aquarium I once maintained and several rather valuable prints I once took for framing. His patients are beneficiaries of the same OHIP that has paid my way here, but they are clearly a classier variety of patient than I am.
Soon the psychiatric nurse invites me in. She greets me pleasantly, takes a brief history and then we launch into the interminable questionnaire-type interview that is going to reveal the state of my mental health. The questions, by necessity, are very personal and we pretend that she does not hate asking them and that I do not hate answering them. On a couple of occasions her face betrays her boredom with this process. I know she has probably done it a billion times but I still fear that I am a boring psychiatric patient. She cocks an eyebrow judgmentally at one point, something which I counted on being verboten here. I hastily rein my account of myself. Boring and nasty would be too much.
An hour later she takes me to see my new psychiatrist, who turns out not to have arrived yet. He is probably off doing something terribly important, but I am peeved just the same. His secretary speaks only to my nurse. I smile at her and she looks at me, but her neutral expression never wavers. I work in a busy, friendly place: I am used to having my smile returned. Now it sticks onto my face like jam left over from breakfast.
While we wait, my nurse encourages me to join a CBT group. “What’s that?” I ask.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy. They meet from two to four on Tuesdays”.
“I work Monday to Fridays from eight-thirty until five,” I tell her. She frowns slightly, and tells me that many people find the group very helpful. She gives me a small card about it. I look like the sort of person who lies about their work hours.
I stuff the card in on top of my keys. A week later and two weeks after that I receive phone calls reminding me about the CBT group. I finally ask the woman on the telephone why they don’t hold groups in the evening as well as the day. I can’t be the only person who has both a mood disorder and a day job. She has no answer for me.
Finally the psychiatrist arrives and, after he meets with my nurse privately, we all sit down in his office. He is on one side of a vast uncluttered desk and I am on the other. He looks over my interview and asks a few questions. At one point he asks me about my brother who committed suicide a few years ago. Out in the real world I have learned that reference to a sibling’s suicide has a similar social impact to letting out a loud fart in a crowded elevator. People don’t mean to judge but they are, by and large, frankly horrified and they don’t know what to say.
Here in my psychiatrist’s office, however, we all deal with the excruciating intimacy of our subject matter by remaining so studiedly impassive that we might as well be exchanging recipes for pasta salad. I am a little tempted to profess an interest in cannibalism or a desire to smoke firecrackers, just to stir things up.
He seems like a nice man and he is doing his job and trying to help me, but he has a brand new diagnosis for me and it’s taken me 15 years to get used to the last one I was given. He recommends a medication I have never heard of, which I will, in time, start taking and which has improved my life significantly. He warns me that the medication can have side effects and that he will be monitoring me closely, and he gives me a requisition for a blood test. I have not yet got around to having that blood test and, despite two calls to the Mood Disorders Clinic, he has not yet got around to monitoring me closely, but I’m sure we will work that out in time.
There appears to be no counselling attached to this service. There is, of course, the CBT group, which I cannot attend, and private counselling in the community, which I cannot really afford. There are books in Chapters on CBT and how to use it, but I suspect that in counselling, as in many things, doing it alone is no substitute for the real thing.
I wend my way out of the mental health hospital and back to work. I have not been the easiest patient, but it has not been the easiest experience.
One in five Canadians has, or will have at some point, a mental illness. It is the mammoth in the room. On bus shelters I see posters of dedicated professionals and loving parents, all of whom apparently have mental illnesses and all of whom have overcome them with an obnoxious degree of success. Magazine articles declare that this or that celebrity has a mood disorder and, with the help of millions of dollars, is dealing with it in an inspirational way. Between the articles are advertisements for psychotropic medication. Depression seems always to be characterized by a pretty woman with a pinched expression and a cloud over her head, who becomes a joyful nurturing mother to her children with the aid of this or that antidepressant. Schizophrenics always seem to appear as men in these ads and are turning pots on a wheel or painting great pictures with expressions of concentrated fulfilment.
Once in a while a friend or acquaintance will mention, sotto voce, that they have been treated for a mental illness, usually depression, and, like an immigrant from the same disgraced motherland, I will whisper that I have, too.
“I’m going to write an article about it,” I tell a friend. She frowns skeptically. I am always going to write an article about something.
“Go for it,” she says. “Just don’t use your real name.” The irony of this washes over us both, but she is adamant.
“You know I don’t judge you,” she says, “but the world is the world. Some people will.”
Some people will. And I would like to use an alias — perhaps some elegant literary name. Lots of literary people seem to have had mental illnesses. Signing my name to this article will feel like signing off on my car loan — irrevocable, scary and a little exhilarating.
Having a mood disorder is something that is true about me. It is also true of me that I lose my keys and glasses almost every day, that I will forget your face in five minutes but I will never forget something important that you tell me, that I am woefully untidy and that I like to pile my bills in a secret stash behind the clock on my mantelpiece. It is also true of me that I am fiercely loyal, that I love and respect animals, that I am profoundly dedicated to the well-being of children, and that I always champion the underdog because I know what it feels like to be one.
I have a mental illness called Bipolar Disorder Type II. Sadly, this is the only thing I have in common with Catherine Zeta-Jones. I am better off than many if not most of my fellow mental patients. My illness is treatable and I have resources at my disposal. I have never been among those who cannot hide this truth about themselves.
My name is Amanda Rogers and I am one of four and a half million Canadians who have a mental illness. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them all, and, with your help, we will not be ashamed.”
-By Amanda Rogers.
Please drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to take part and be featured in “Sharing Stories”, if you have a story to tell or you just want to share your thoughts about your experiences with mental health. I am so proud of everyone who has contributed and who has joined me in this journey so far, and I do hope our army gets stronger. A bigger voice. A fight to speak louder. – M