My big furry SSRI

Meet Bear. He’s cute, I guess

Two years ago, I got my first dog. Before that day, I went through all the typical doggo-loving phases: Getting to know my friend’s dogs and agreeing to dogsit every once and a while, which quickly became begging to dogsit, learning every detail about every breed, checking out the dogs on Kijiji far too often, and expressing an “awwwww” at every dog I passed.  

I eventually clued in to the fact that—as a 28-year-old adult who is married with a grown-up job—I could actually have my own dog, if I wanted one. One week later, this 20-lb monster of a doggo, Gerrard Kyle Lowry Drake Mueldoon (aka Bear), joined our family. I imagined us spending every minute together, becoming the best of friends and passing long afternoons lazing around in the park. There would be lots of walks, cuddles, and secrets shared. Despite not being able to speak the same language, we would always be able to understand one another. Our love would transcend language, obvi.

And yet—despite these ridiculously high expectations for this dog and our relationship—I completely underestimated the role Bear would come to play in my life.

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When we got Bear, I wasn’t doing a good job of treating my agoraphobia. I had been taking an SSRI for about six months, and while it was keeping my anxiety relatively low, I wasn’t exposing myself to new situations. I had committed to starting cognitive behavioural therapy that year, but I still hadn’t bothered to do it. All I wanted to do was enjoy the feeling of not having to think about my anxiety for once.

That said, I knew I needed to start CBT and exposure therapy, because despite feeling better anxiety-wise, I hated the way medication made me feel. Although this was only the second SSRI I had ever tried—and it had only been six months—I didn’t see myself staying on medication much longer. I hated the side effects, especially how exhausted it made me; I was sleeping 9–12 hours every night. It also made me feel less like me: I am a person of extremes, and I always have many ideas and lots of excitement over them. But SSRIs end up dulling these key features of who I am. I needed to get off them.

It wasn’t intentional, but becoming a dog owner was a catalyst for my transition off medication. I no longer had any choice but to get out of the house and experience new situations, places, and people. In the early days, my husband and I took that dog everywhere. We would walk him around the block or take him to a close-by coffee shop or dog park. Eventually we would take him on longer walks, or we would drive him to a new neighbourhood for an adventure. We took him to regular vet appointments, along for the seven-hour drive to my hometown, or to visit friends. He would even join us for patio beers in the summer.  

Out and about: Bear, my husband, and me at the pride parade last summer

This gradual and consistent exposure to new situations that were increasingly farther away from our home—and my comfort zone—was accidental CBT. Situations that would normally cause me anxiety or that I had been avoiding were now unavoidable. They became a part of my daily routine. And it was exactly what I needed: I went from spending a lot of time being isolated in my apartment to wandering around the city with Bear, exploring new places and meeting new people.

Being forced to engage with others also helped treat another component of my mental health: the depression that would inevitably accompany long periods of isolation. When you’re anxious and depressed, the last thing you want to do is talk to people, especially complete strangers. Before Bear, I couldn’t even be bothered to leave the house amidst a deep depression. After Bear, I really didn’t have a choice. He needed to be walked every day, and this involved constantly stopping for complete strangers who wanted to meet him.

Because who wouldn’t want to meet this doggo?

When I was out with Bear—even amidst the darkest of moods—each encounter would improve my state of mind, bit by bit. I’d see someone’s face light up when they set eyes on him, and the questions would start: “OMG he’s so big!/How old is he?/What kind of breed is he?/How much does he weigh?!” I’d semi-enthusiastically reply with the answers I’d given nearly one thousand times before: “Yes, he’s a monster/Six months/Saint Bernard Mix/Almost as much as I do.” But like any proud parent, once I got talking about my baby it was hard to stop. I’d start talking about his funny habits, how much my husband adores him, the way he plays with our kitten. The more I’d talk, the further from my solitude and sadness I felt.

And sometimes, I would be pulled into someone else’s sadness. I would routinely chat with a woman down the street about anxiety, depression, and addiction—sometimes for hours at a time while our dogs played in her yard. There was a man who told me about how he had kept his dog while he was homeless, but was now struggling with the decision to part with his pup because of the chaos in his life. Another woman in a wheelchair stopped to show me pictures of her dog while petting mine, telling me how her dog helps combat her depression. And I’ll never the broken heart of my neighbour after her two goldens—fixtures in our neighbourhood—passed away. 

Not only would those conversations pull me from the depths of my own depression, but they forced me into the present and allowed me to connect with the person in front of me. I felt a bit less alone. I stopped wondering whether anyone would notice if I disappeared. I remembered that a world exists beyond my problems, and that everyone has darkness in their lives—darkness that is made a bit more light by the kindness of a stranger (and the love of a good dog).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started CBT and fully transitioned off my meds within the first eight months of getting Bear. It’s also not a coincidence that my world opened up to new people, new places, and new experiences after he entered my life. Bear helped me build the confidence to exist in the world again, and he was by my side every step of the way.

Here’s to two years on my big furry SSRI.     

<3

Check your privilege—then use it to make shit happen

Lately, I’m trying to lean into the role of being an advocate for mental health. My primary motivation for starting this blog is because I think it’s important for people dealing with mental illness to speak out about their experiences. This not only helps others to understand or feel less alone, but we are the people who are best positioned to advocate for the changes we need to see in the world.

Last week, I committed to doing that on a new, more visible level. I decided to participate in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s One Brave Night for Mental Health challenge. The challenge is twofold: raise money for CAMH and commit to doing a challenge, which could be staying up all night or hosting an event. For my challenge, I’m choosing to take on something that is an actual challenge for me, but something I have wanted to do for a long time: speak to my colleagues about my experiences managing an anxiety disorder in the workplace.

Launching this campaign, not unlike launching this blog, put me in a state of high anxiety last week. I’m not sure how confident I come across when I write or speak about these issues, but inside, I am constantly doubting myself. I wonder if all of my friends are secretly thinking, OMG SHUT UP no one cares about your anxiety. I wonder if doing this can actually make the difference I think it can, or whether it’s going to cause future damage, particularly to my career. I wonder if there are other things I should be devoting my time and energy to.

The first five times I’ve thought about speaking in front of my colleagues about my anxiety, I’ve felt so anxious that it’s made me physically sick. My body has responded as if I were about to do it. I’m terrified. What if no one comes because I suck? What if everyone comes and I suck? What if some people think of me differently afterwards—or worse, treat me differently? Is this worth the risk?

All that said, I’m unequivocally taking on this challenge. For one, those doubts and fears are largely just my anxiety talking. But also, I strongly believe that the impact of speaking out is greater than the accompanying anxiety, self-doubt, and potential risk. It educates people who have limited experience with mental illness, which fosters understanding and changes attitudes, beliefs, and actions. It supports people with mental health conditions who are reminded that they aren’t alone and their struggles are real, which can empower people to seek treatment, advocate for themselves, and keep going during tough times.     

And I feel a responsibility to speak out, because I’m in a position to be able to do so. I have a lot of privilege in this world: I’m white, I’m well-educated, and I live in a high-income household in which both my partner and I have secure, permanent jobs. That last part really matters: I can afford, literally, to be open about my mental health issues with little fear of losing my job—and even if I did, my family and I would be okay.  

That’s not to say there aren’t risks, or that this work doesn’t have an impact on me—it does, and in these early days, it’s uncomfortable to feel so vulnerable all of the time. But when you have privilege, you have a responsibility to acknowledge that privilege, and then think about how you can use it to help advantage someone other than yourself. This is where social change begins.

If you want to check out (or support!) my One Brave Night campaign, click here. I’ll be raising money until Friday, April 6.    

redefining strong

While today may be the only day of the year that some people talk, think, and learn about mental health, for myself—and many people like me—these activities are ingrained in my daily life. I’m not actually sure if I could imagine an alternative reality in which mental health issues were not a constant presence in my life.

I’m always taking in new information on mental health issues, be it through self-help books, blogs, social media, podcasts, and presentations. And likely due to the very personal nature of these issues, this information is typically framed in the context of the author’s own experiences.

Lately I’ve noticed that these stories often share a common, somewhat linear narrative: The author struggles, receives a diagnosis, seeks treatment, faces a few setbacks, but ultimately perseveres. They are usually living “symptom-free” at the time of sharing their stories, writing from a position of strength, hindsight, and wisdom.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that these are the stories about mental health that we are often told, and that these are the people who often tell them. Most obviously, people love a good redemption narrative, and people want to take advice from others who have been successful in overcoming the challenges that they themselves are currently facing. It’s also easier to write from a position of strength—it’s easier to craft a narrative when you know that all the loose ends will eventually become tied.

That said, another explanation comes to mind: People with mental health disorders often don’t give themselves permission to do things until they are “better”.

I relate so strongly to that statement. I constantly define my current state as “mentally unwell” or “not normal”, and then make judgements on what I can or cannot do in my current state—and what I will do once I’m better. I’m not even sure I know exactly what better means, but I have made myself dozens of promises that hinge on me being just that. Once you get better, you can take that class. Once you’re anxiety-free, you can book that trip. Once you’re normal, you can start that writing project.  

I can’t even count the number of times I have snatched an idea out of Mentally Unwell Mercedes’ hands and said, “You don’t deserve this. This is for Mentally Well Mercedes”.  

It’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion, but fuck that shit.

And so, here I am, handing over that writing project I was saving for another version of myself for two reasons: Because I am capable of creating the content I want to see and because I believe that doing so could make the world a better place in a small way. Because even though I struggle with severe anxiety every day, I can still write about my experiences from a position of strength. And by doing so, I believe that people with or without mental health conditions will begin to understand that we are strong—no matter where we are on that so-called pathway to recovery and no matter where we end up