Date: July 21, 2022
By: Angela A.
As I sit in front of my laptop to piece this blog post together, I am met by anxiety - a feeling that has become all too familiar. I am anxious, partly because I am not sure what direction this will end up in and partly because sharing this part of my life still makes me uneasy. When discerning what to write about, I felt a strong calling to choose a topic that has become increasingly prevalent, especially since the onset of the pandemic, and one that has hit my very own home: mental illness.
I was still living with my parents back in 2011 when I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pain, shortness of breath, tingling throughout my body, and numbness when pinching my fingers or face. I immediately panicked when I struggled to find a very faint pulse and was convinced that I was having a heart attack. When I attempted to cry out to my parents who were a couple of doors down the hall, I was not able to vocalize anything. Somehow, I was able to calm myself down enough to walk over to their room to explain what was happening. After talking to a Health Link nurse, we collectively decided to call EMS. The paramedics who arrived assessed me, assured me that I did not have a heart attack, and advised me to go the emergency department in the morning. After a series of blood tests, an electrocardiogram, a chest x-ray, and doctor appointments, I was told that what I had experienced was likely due to anxiety.
For a while, my anxiety remained relatively manageable with little to no medication or counselling. However, the years to follow would bring about several stressful and traumatic events - the deaths of two beloved family members, occurring just a few days over one year apart; being involved in my first motor vehicle accident on my wedding day; conflict between family members; accompanying loved ones through addictions; job loss; and countless medical appointments and searching for the right medication for infertility. In 2018, my husband and I decided to seek counselling and received our official diagnoses: generalized anxiety with some depression for me and high-functioning depression for my husband. After four sessions each of individual counselling, all parties agreed that it would be in our best interest to pursue couples counselling. Since we both felt stable after our positive experience with couples counselling, we chose not to return to individual counselling.
Then came the declaration of a global pandemic. Despite losing my job, adjusting to the new routine of my husband working from home, and not being able to see family or friends, we felt that were managing okay. But I began to notice that "anxiety" was becoming a recurring theme in my journaling. The weeks that turned into months and the months into years slowly exacerbated our mental illnesses to the point we knew it was necessary to seek professional help once again. Yet we procrastinated in doing so, largely because we were afraid of showing vulnerability once more after discouraging experiences the first time around. With much grace and prayer, we recently took the leap. Though battling mental illness has been a challenging journey, I remain hopeful and am relieved that we have both found compassionate psychologists who have been instrumental in our healing.
Throughout the past decade, I have learned valuable lessons that I continue to be reminded of:
1. Be gentle with yourself. Mental illness can be extremely debilitating, and there are days you feel like you are barely getting by. Be patient with yourself. Allow yourself a lot of grace. Healing is an ongoing process that requires time and hard work.
2. You are not alone. In the pastoral letter "Hope and Healing," the Bishops of California wrote:
"We need not look far to encounter our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental illness. Even those who do not have serious mental health problems can, to some extent, understand the experience of those who do: for not one of us is entirely free from periods of anxiety, emotional distress, troubling or intrusive thoughts, or strong temptations" (1).
While dealing with mental illness can often feel lonely, know that you are not alone. As I have begun to open up to more people, I have discovered that many of my family and friends have also been struggling with mental illness. I am thankful to those who have offered a listening ear and am honoured to have been entrusted to walk alongside them in their own journeys. As Catholics, we are blessed to have an abundance of saints who can intercede for us. I highly recommend No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company by Cameron Bellm for an introduction to six saints who battled mental illness.
3. Do not be afraid to seek professional help. While some people may be able to manage mental illness on their own, others may need the help of a professional. I am grateful for modern day medicine and mental health professionals, as both have been gifts to our household. It may take time to find the right medication or a counsellor who is a good fit, but help is available. At the end of this post, I have compiled a small list of "Mental Health Resources" available in Calgary.
4. Your mental illness is not your identity. Sadly, there seems to be a stigma attached to mental illness. It can be tempting to believe that your mental illness defines who you are. Your mental illness does not mean you are weak, unworthy, or unlovable. Bellm suggests that "If you struggle with mental health issues in any way, do not believe the lie that they make you less holy, less worthy of God's love. On the contrary, the cross you bear draws the suffering and compassionate heart of Christ ever closer to your heart" (2).
The second reading on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity deeply resonated with me:
"Brothers and sisters: Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:1-5).
It may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that my own suffering with mental illness has been a blessing. Christ has allowed me to continually unite my suffering with His. Instead of running from my cross, I am learning to embrace it. Mental illness is a heavy cross to bear, but never forget that He bore that cross for you first and that we have hope in Christ - a hope that does not disappoint.
1. California Catholic Conference (Bishops of California), "Hope and Healing: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of California on Caring for Those Who Suffer from Mental Illness Addressed to All Catholics and People of Goodwill," May 2018, cacatholic.org.
2. Bellm, Cameron. No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company. Brick House in the City, 2021.
Mental Health Resources
· Access Mental Health 403.943.1500 https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/services/Page11443.aspx
· Calgary Counselling Centre Counselling | 833.827.4229
· Calgary Institute of Counselling 403.910.6701 https://counsellinginstitute.ca
· Rapid Access Counselling | Catholic Family Service 403-233-2360 https://www.cfs-ab.org/what-we-do/mental-health-wellbeing/rapid-access-counselling/ firstname.lastname@example.org