A Conversation About Mental Health

On January 31st 2018, Bell hosted its annual Let’s Talk day to raise awareness and funds to donate for mental health research and treatment across Canada. For those who haven’t followed up on the results, we as a nation have raised $6,919,199.75 this year for mental health initiatives. For the readers who are unfamiliar with this, Bell Canada had pledged to donate 5 cents for every text message and phone call made through a Bell service made before midnight on January 31st. They also donated 5 cents for every tweet using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, for every view of their Let’s Talk video, for every use of their Snapchat filter, and every use of their Facebook frame. This is an initiative that Bell takes part in every year since 2010, and since then, the company has raised over $80 million to donate towards mental health across Canada.

It’s incredibly sad that the Tamil community doesn’t generally understand or believe that mental health is a real issue that affects millions of people in the world. If someone breaks their arm, it’s easy to see that they are unwell, but this cannot be said for people who suffer from a mental illness. A comparison I like to use is with an egg. If you see that the eggshell is cracked, you can say confidently that it is broken. However, what if the yolk on the inside is cracked? We can’t see what it looks like on the inside, so we shouldn’t assume that it’s completely whole.

The language that you use is very important in taking steps towards ending the stigma and negative perspectives around mental health. If you know someone who has schizophrenia for example, it’s inappropriate to call them “crazy” or a “schizo”. They are someone who may be suffering from a chemical imbalance in their brain. No one chooses to be ill, whether it is mentally or physically. Your condition is something that you are usually born with, completely involuntarily. For example, research on the autism spectrum disorder suggests that the disorder can be developed from genetic and/or environmental factors. The South Asian community sometimes uses a word that loosely translates to “not normal” to describe someone who lives with autism. I’ve heard this word being used in various South Asian movies and between family members to describe someone who is mentally ill. But in the defense of the community, no one knew what the illness was, and thus there was no proper translation for it.

One thing that my parents have always encouraged me in is to gain an education in this country to learn as much as I can about anything and everything. They did not have the same access to education back home that we do here, so having educated children is a big deal for the older Tamil generation. It’s important to educate yourself outside of school, the world is always changing and it is our responsibility to keep up with it. Mental health is starting to become more and more acceptable to talk about. Education is your biggest tool and there are endless resources around you. Being able to learn and understand how to interact with someone who has a mental illness makes a huge difference, especially if friends and family make the necessary effort.

Kindness is another factor that can make a world of a difference. Sometimes we unintentionally say things that we don’t realize will hurt others. If someone is suffering from depression or anxiety, telling them that they’ll “get over it” is doing more harm than you realize. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a serious illness that has several risk factors including genetics, biochemistry (chemical differences in the brain), as well as environmental and personality factors. Telling someone that they are simply sad all the time and “need to cheer up” is not how depression is treated. It doesn’t really make sense that a chemical imbalance in the brain is treated by positive thinking, right? Depression is fortunately very treatable by medicine and therapy designed to alter distorted thinking. If a friend or family member opens up to you about what they are going through mentally, ask them how you can help instead of minimizing their struggle.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, about 20% of Canadians personally experience some form of mental illness regardless of their culture, education level, or income. The association has statistics that show that about 50% of the population will have experienced or continue to experience a mental illness by the age of 40. What’s truly tragic is that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young men and women. All of this means that you are indirectly affected by mental illness because you are bound to know someone who has or is currently struggling with a mental illness. I personally have been both directly and indirectly affected by it, from close friends experiencing major depression to family members experiencing Alzheimer’s and anxiety disorders. I even have friends and family members who know someone that felt they had no other option aside from taking their own life.

What is important is to be aware of the issues that plague our society today. We have come a long way from the past where mental illness did not have a name other than being “not normal”. Today we have names that we can put to the symptoms, whether it’s Alzheimer’s, major depressive disorder, or autism. What’s especially frightening is that about one fifth of Canadian youths are affected by a mental disorder, and are at risk of developing depression. Canada is the third highest country in death by suicide in the youth population. We need to reach out to our youth specifically to ensure that they understand that suicide is never an option. If young children and teenagers are too afraid or ashamed to speak with their parents about what they are going through, they need to be assured that there are other channels for them to access the necessary treatments and advice.

If these statistics still don’t convince the Tamil community that mental illness is a real and valid concern, then maybe a real experience will. A friend of mine confided their personal struggles to me recently, detailing how they felt that they wanted to end their life because they felt trapped, stressed, lonely, and worthless. This is someone in the Tamil community who I have known for a number of years, and thankfully this friend is still alive with me today. I am only one person who made a difference to this friend and their family who still have no idea that their child was experiencing these thoughts. I know that we as a community are able to stand up to show support for those living with mental illness. The Bell Let’s Talk initiative is one way to get started, another way is to donate to other initiatives that support the research and treatment of mental health. However, the best thing you can do is to extend your support and start talking about different mental illnesses to learn their complications and how they are treated.

Compassion is a human emotion that we have for a reason, so show some compassion for your brothers, sisters, and neighbors to help to break the stigma around mental illness. Sometimes we never know that a loved one is experiencing a mental illness until it’s too late to do anything. It’s important for us to make a change now while our loved ones are still alive and able to receive the treatment that can help them.

 

Advertisements

Ocean Breath

Ujjayi breathing: the act of taking long, smooth breaths as a means of both relaxation and energizing your mind, body, and soul. Also known as ‘ocean breath’.

There is something so meditative about the simple act of breathing. Think about back to when you used to run marathons for track and field day in elementary school. All I can remember is how the gym teacher would chant, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as we jogged lap after lap. At work I take the stairs up five flights from the lunch room to my desk and repeat the same words to myself when I feel like I’m losing my breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This control in your breathing actually strengthens your lungs and your heart, leading to a healthier body. Think of ujjayi breathing as a way to mimic the push and pull of the ocean tide. You pull in your breath and with a whoosh you let it back out, like the sound of the waves.

Yoga is an excellent place to learn to control your breathing. The classes that I attend are quiet spaces where I encounter people from many different walks of life. I usually sit right behind a group of surprisingly nimble elder women who are there to bring some life back into their ageing bones. There are middle aged men who attend the classes to heal their back pains, especially after hunching over a desk all day. There are also other people like me, young professionals who sometimes just need a moment of peace and quiet in an age where everything feels like its moving at light speed.

The word ‘yoga’ itself is a Sanskrit word for unifying the mind, body, and spirit. The practice brings an awareness to your body that improves alignment, flexibility, strength, and balance. It brings you a sense of being comfortable in your own skin, and it teaches you to be patient and, above all, forgiving. It is said that people who practice yoga also learn how to deal with the self as well as deal with others. You learn to listen to your body and gently push your limits with every breath that you take, which carries over into our daily lives as well. We, as a collective community of individuals, need to learn to be patient and understand how to push without going too far.

The yoga studio that I currently frequent is located in downtown Markham, in a unit that has windows that face the northern and eastern directions. The yoga room is a large, rectangular space with two walls of windows and one full wall of mirrors. We enter the room and instantly feel the heat from the heated ceiling panels opening our pores and soaking our bones with warmth. I place my mat down, lay out my towel, lie on my back, and wait for class to begin. The first thing the instructor tells us to do is to always give thanks for the opportunity to practice yoga, and to take a deep breath in through our nose, and out through the mouth with an audible sigh. This is the sound of all our troubles and worries dissolving into the air as we sharpen our focus into the present. We then utter a single Om (more correctly pronounced as Aum) in unison with the class, followed by a silence.

The symbolism of the mantra Aum runs deep in yoga practices. The sound of Aum is in harmony with the sound of the universe, by chanting it you are planting a tiny seed inside yourself that allows you to tune in to everything that exists around you. This is how you acknowledge your connection to all other living things in the universe, with a simple vibration of sound that passes through your lips. Aum is a powerful spiritual symbol in Hindu culture that refers to the duality between Atman (the true self, your soul) and Brahman (the ultimate truth and reality of the universe). It’s used during traditional ceremonies, during rites of passage, and for meditative and spiritual practices such as yoga. It is thought to be the elemental sound associated with the creation of the universe.

It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually.

The instructor leads us through several poses once we complete our initial chant. We do a variety of warrior poses, sun salutations, eagle poses, child’s poses, upward facing dogs and, of course, the ever-popular downward facing dog. When I first started this practice, I struggled to do a decent crow pose, which is where you start in a squat and then lean forwards until you are balancing your full body weight on your hands with your knees resting just above your elbows. I kept falling over and feeling like the palms of my hands were on fire. My warrior poses were shaky and I couldn’t balance on one leg for more than six seconds. It’s kind of intimidating to be in a room full of people who are better than you are. That being said, it’s increasingly rewarding when you are finally able to breathe deeply into a pose with the correct stance and posture. You feel your breath permeating your body and absorb into each of your organs, filling you to the brim.

At the end of our classes, we transition into our final Shavasana pose, which is where we lie down on our backs with our palms facing skywards and take deep, ocean breaths. I always feel that the end of the practice is the best part. I feel the sweat from the past hour roll down my skin and soak into the mat. I relax my shoulders and let my body melt into the ground, limb by limb. There comes a point where my ocean breaths have become shallow and more spaced out without my realizing it. I tune into my body and listen as my muscles tell me how tired they are and marvel at how much I strained myself. Everything else just comes to a stand-still. You tend to forget what you were stressed about at work that day, you forget the argument you had with your friend/parent/significant other. Your mind goes blank and you zone out, almost until you fall asleep.

Finally, the voice of the instructor calls us back to our bodies. I wiggle the awareness back into my fingers and toes and blink my eyes open into the darkened room. We slowly sit back up, backs straight and legs crossed. We take a moment of silence before the instructor thanks us all for sharing our energies with each other. We then take a final breath in through the nose and breathe out with a sigh through the mouth, and say Namaste in unison to formally end the practice. We roll up our mats, put our things away and head back out into our separate lives. The hour that I spend with these strangers means so much more to me than the hours I spend at work or at home with my family. It’s the quiet peacefulness that you absorb into your body and carry with you throughout the rest of your day.

Yoga is for the people who want to bring a sense of balance into their lives. The feeling that you get when you leave the hot room and step into the refreshing cool air beyond it is like no other. Being a part of the practice helps me feel like I’m more in touch with my spiritual side. My breaths have more meaning now and every step I take feels more firm and grounded.

This is what I learned from this practice: inhale the awareness into your body, and exhale the doubt and negativity. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

The Difference Between Shy and Introvert

When I was younger I used to dread the days where extended family would visit our home to catch up and chat with my parents. I would always ask if there was a child around my age with whom I could play with, or if I was allowed to scamper back to my room after saying hello when they arrived. My parents laughed off my behaviour, telling our guests that I was shy and didn’t like to meet new people.

Now that I’m older and have had the time to understand who I am, I realize that introversion is something that very much defines me. I like to be alone and watch shows all day, I like to stay in bed for hours and read a book while I sip on some tea. With that being said, I enjoy a good party and I love to get together with my friends. None of that means that I’m shy, it just means that I sometimes need to be alone more often than what people may believe is normal.

Shyness is to be afraid of being judged negatively by those around you. It’s akin to anxiety, to be uncomfortable when you’re meeting new people . To be an introvert means that you prefer to be in a quiet environment, especially if it’s a mentally stimulating one. Many people get these two traits mixed up with each other. I’m often perceived to be awkward or standoffish because of my introvert nature. I do like to meet people but sometimes I simply don’t feel like I have the energy to do so. The most important thing to me is my own mental health, so sometimes I’ll make up excuses for my absence at events. I could be invited to something as simple as a catch-up session over coffee, but when the time comes I’ll fabricate a doctors appointment to get out of the plans.

I think it’s important for us to start being truthful when we can’t make it to an event due to any kind of a personal mental strain or issue. I understand that some people don’t want to come outright and say, “oh not today, my anxiety disorder is weighing me down”. Not everyone is comfortable enough to be so honest about themselves, and that’s okay. What we should be doing is starting the conversation so that others can be more accepting of themselves. I’m still trying to be comfortable in my own skin. I’m trying to stop making excuses for why I sometimes don’t want to hang out and just honestly say that I’m feeling too exhausted to leave my room. It’s time that we understood each other and are okay with our individual needs.

So to all my friends who I’ve cancelled on because of a doctor’s appointment or a random last minute thing my parents needed me to do, I really am sorry. I was probably just needing some alone time that day.

My Story

I grew up hating myself. I always thought that I would be the quiet awkward kid for the rest of my life. I thought that I would be alone, and that no one would love me because I didn’t love myself. I’m ashamed of the destructive thoughts that used to fill my mind, they were not pleasant. I felt ugly, fat, dumb, and like I wasn’t good enough to reach the standards of the people around me. Sometimes I think back to my childhood and wonder why I felt these things. I wasn’t bullied, I had plenty of great friends, but I realize that what I was missing was confidence and reassurance that I was okay the way I was.

My parents aren’t the sentimental type. I get it, they didn’t grow up in a self-obsessed generation like ours, so they didn’t really teach me how to love myself. When I was a kid I never really gave too much thought to how I looked or what I was doing, it was more until I hit puberty and became a teenager that I became more self-conscious, just like every other kid at that age. It’s normal to doubt yourself and to wonder why you look a certain way or why you don’t look a certain way. Maybe for some it’s worse than others.

If you knew me in high school, then you’d know that I had a ton of acne on my face. It was disgusting, to say the least. I cringe every time I think back to those days. There is nothing anyone can say to me now that will make me feel better about my face from that part of my life, and I’ve come to terms with it. It made me feel incredibly self conscious about myself, and I started to find other things about myself that I didn’t like. I hated how my front teeth were slightly larger than normal, it made me stop smiling wide. I hated my big thighs, they rub against each other and made holes in the thigh areas of my favorite jeans. I hated my small eyes, I always got huge framed glasses to make them seem bigger. I hated my hair, it used to be puffy and flat. There were many, many things that I wished I could change about myself. Like any other girl my age I wanted to be skinnier, to be smarter, to be cool, interesting, funny, social. I wanted to be happy, and I wasn’t happy with the way that I was.

Sometimes I would stand in front of my mirror and just stare at myself. Years ago, all I saw were imperfections. All the curves that I wanted to flatten out, all the scars that I wanted to hide. It was at some point in my post secondary career that I finally committed to clearing the acne off my face, I refused to be discouraged by things that I can’t control. Someone taught me that my odd teeth are endearing. Someone showed me how to dress to my body type. Someone showed me how to use makeup to my advantage. Someone helped me realize I didn’t even need makeup to feel pretty. Someone tells me I’m beautiful every single day. These people in my life have taught me to love myself, all of my curves and imperfections included. When I look in the mirror now, I see a young woman who’s on the way to loving herself in all her glory. I adore my love handles, I love my smiles, my wild curly hair, my slender fingers. I love my body, the way my tattoo wraps me in a hug and my curves that make me feel fantastic in a dress.

It’s important for people to start being confident in themselves. By loving yourself, you gain control over your life. Sometimes I still feel like I’m a bore, a bland wallflower in the background. That’s something I’m working on, it’s not shameful to admit your insecurities. I think that I’m a creative, beautiful person. I think that I’m a smart and caring person. I think I’m pretty awesome, and I’m proud of myself for coming such a long way from an insecure teenager to a confident young woman. I’m so grateful for the people in my life who’ve gifted me with pieces of confidence that have built up my self-esteem, and I hope that I can do the same for my friends who need a little extra boost. Just keep doing you, and along the way you’ll love who you are.

My Grandmother, The Queen

I’m envious of the people who have the good fortune of being able to live with their grandparents and grow up with that influence in their lives. A great many of my friends have their grandparents living here with them or with their family members. Whenever I visit my best friend’s house, I always say hello to her grandparents and accept the tea or the warm meal that they sometimes offer for me. I always feel a pang of yearning when this happens. I’ve only met my own grandparents a handful of times. I’ve met both of my grandfathers twice in my life, and my grandmothers three times. None of my grandparents had ever immigrated over to Canada, the harsh weather that we sometimes have is what deterred them from considering a life here.

One day, after her father passed away, my mom actually told me about how her parents were supposed to come live with us in Canada. Back when I was just a small child, my parents wanted my sister and I to grow up with our grandparents’ influence. All of their papers and passports were ready for them to immigrate here. Unfortunately, they decided last minute to stay in Sri Lanka because they didn’t want to be overly dependent on us and were afraid to take the leap and fly across the world. My grandparents were used to being independent back home after my mom and her siblings left their nest. After years of caring for their children, they became accustomed to their simple way of life with just each other for company. My maternal grandparents were together for more than half a century, they were life-long companions.

When I think about the decision that they made to stay in Sri Lanka, I wonder how my life would have changed had they been a bigger part of my upbringing. My sister and I would have been raised knowing the constant presence of our grandparents, their love more evident as opposed to the yearly phone call on our birthdays that we had over the years. My mom would likely have been able to enter the workforce a lot sooner instead of being a stay-at-home mom for the first few years of my life. At that age, I loved having my mom welcoming me home from school, but in another world I would have had my grandparents welcoming me home too.

Out of my grandparents, only my maternal grandmother is still alive. My grandmother suffers from what’s commonly known as Alzheimer’s disease. This is a chronic condition that slowly deteriorates memory and other mental functions over time. Alzheimer’s is a common cause of Dementia, a mental condition that will eventually cause the loss of the brain’s functionality as the brain cells die instead of regenerate.

My grandmother stubbornly refuses to get the help that her condition requires unless my family forces it upon her. She lives by herself in Jaffna and sometimes a housekeeper or nearby friends and family would stop by to make sure she’s doing okay on her own. My mom and uncle went back to visit her a few months ago to check in and make sure she is being taken care of. She was taken to a specialist for patients with Alzheimer’s to stay updated on her condition. It’s difficult to find a caretaker who is experienced or knowledgeable enough about the condition to take care of her on a full time basis. The disease had manifested itself sometime after my grandfather passed away. My family believes that her age and loneliness is what caused the disease to appear and worsen over time.

I remember when we went to visit her a few summers ago, my sister and I would sit with her in the kitchen and she would cut up vegetables while telling us stories of how she migrated to Sri Lanka from Malaysia when she was a girl and her stories of raising my mom and her siblings. I remember her stories very well, she would recite them several times in one sitting because she didn’t remember that she already told us the story a few minutes previously. My sister and I would exchange a quick, sad glance and pretend we were hearing them for the first time with each telling, our reactions as genuine as we can make them the fifth time around. We didn’t want to make her sad or scared of her condition.

In my eyes, my grandmother is a noble woman. She has several back problems that causes her to walk hunched over, her body almost at a complete right angle because she can’t hold herself up straight without any support. My most vivid memory of her from our trip was when I saw her stand up straight for the first time, with the assistance of her cane. She held it in front of her with both hands and slowly stretched out her back until she was standing at her full height. If you stood beside her, you could hear each joint of her spine popping as she straightened out. I was stricken by how regal she looked, she carried herself like a queen. I still see her as one, the queen of my family. I wish I could see her again, because I know that I won’t have many more chances to before she leaves this world to join my grandfather in the next life.

We left her house very early one morning, just before the sun came up so that we could catch our flight at the airport. She woke up early with us to see us off on our journey. She stood at the doorstep of her house crying as she watched us load all our luggage into the rental van. Finally, when we were all ready to go, she came up to us and pleaded with us to return. My sister and I could barely keep our tears in, we promised her we would return but we knew that it may or may not be likely. Despite her memory troubles, I think she knew deep down that she might not see us again. On some level she knows that she is sick, and when my grandfather passed away a few years ago, she was left to live on her own for the first time in decades. That mental strain is too much for someone who’s never been alone in her life. I wish I could bring my grandmother to Canada and show her all the luxuries that we have here, but her frail body can’t handle the strain and stress of travelling to a country that’s so far and so cold.

People don’t know what they have until it’s gone. In the few moments that I’ve had with my grandparents I’ve noticed how their smiles are always so pure with the joy of seeing the family that they don’t get to see often, but always with a hint of sadness when they realize we have to leave. I adore their eyes, so crinkled with love and dewed with happiness. Their faces aged and wizened by the years under the sun, each wrinkle being a part of a map that portrays the long life they’ve lived and the trials and tribulations they’ve faced. Grandparents are truly the guardian angels of mankind, I only wish I got to know mine.

Work & Mental Health

If you know me personally then you know that for a couple months last year I worked at a collection agency (who would have thought that peaceful ol’ me would go to THAT line of work right?). You may also know that I’m now working in a very different place than in collections. What I’ve come to realize is that there is a very stark difference between these two jobs and that the place you go to spend 40-something hours every week will have an effect on your mental health and stability.

Working at a collections agency was a crazy, yet interesting experience. I got to work alongside some great people who taught me a lot about stuff not even related to collections. I feel like the general public just assumes that collection agents are skeevy creeps who call you ten times a day. I’ll admit, yes we do call multiple times in a day (within the legal limit of course) but I can assure you that the employees are fantastic people. We often had potluck lunches at work, showed each other pictures of our kids/pets/vacations, you know, typical co-worker stuff. The job itself, however, was the single thing that I dreaded going in everyday. I really disliked talking to people who were miles and miles in debt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been verbally abused and harassed on the phone. We get called every swear word in the English language, the women get asked what color underwear they’re wearing, I know one of my female co-workers even had a debtor ask her for some explicit phone services. This kind of behavior was normal for us, especially for the women. We also got a lot of prank callers who would call in to yell profusely into the phone and then hang up on us. The most extreme is probably the bomb threats and threats of violent behavior that we’ve gotten from angry debtors who call in. As you can see, it wasn’t the most pleasant of jobs.

Things eventually got to the point where I dreaded logging into my phone to begin making calls. I counted down the minutes to each of my breaks, then to the end of the day to make the time pass by faster. I’d get the newspaper every morning to keep myself busy and distracted between each call. I sometimes even brought a book with me to work to ensure I had a way to de-stress and wind down between the really bad calls. I often went home in a bad mood and climbed straight into bed with a book or my laptop. I still remember my breaking point at that job, it was the day when the volume of calls that needed to be made was close to 600-something as the month was ending and I needed to reach my target. The stress and anxiety had really piled on that day as it was just one bad call after another for hours and hours. I actually had to stop working for a bit to stop crying when my anxiety escalated and had to bring myself down from an impending panic attack.

Flash forward a few months, a friend tells me about an exciting opportunity to work a contract job at a bank in IT support. It’s something totally different from my university degree and from past job experiences, but I jumped at the chance and immediately gave in my resume to be considered for the job. A couple more days of anxiously waiting and I had managed to secure an interview, and later on was offered the job at the bank. The minute I was hired, I gave in my resignation at the collections agency – there was no way I was staying there any longer than I had to. I couldn’t deal with the bad calls anymore, no matter how much my co-workers distracted me with their stories of what they were up to on the weekends.

Now, at my current job here in IT support, I find that I am happy to come in to work and excited at what new things I learn here. My co-workers are great people and I’ve created relationships that I know will last a long time. My mental health is a lot better, I no longer dread my work, and I’m happy to come in even on the craziest snow days (as much as I may complain about having to drive through the blizzards). I’m challenged in a healthy way here, and on average I make a lot less phone calls than I used to when I was in collections. It’s actually kind of funny, I really disliked talking on the phone and used to get major cold sweats when I needed to call someone, whether it was a friend or a pizza shop to place an order. My decision to even try working in collections was supposed to help me get over my fear of the phone, but it only made things worse. Now I’ve become a lot more confident and I don’t hate phone calls as much as I used to. I’ve even made some acquaintances over the phone with the technicians that I speak to on a daily basis.

In a nutshell, the moral of the story is that you need to find something that you enjoy doing so that you don’t go to work feeling like you want to shoot yourself. The work that you’re doing for 40 hours of the week is definitely going to have an impact on your emotional health, as will the people around you. I’m no longer going home grumpy, instead I’m going home excited for the next day. Despite my shifts being at odd hours, I still find myself relaxed and praying to all the Gods above that my contract here keeps getting extended. I feel like I really have a future in what I’m doing now, but I’m still young so who knows what the universe will throw at me in another few months!