“When you start having anxiety or an episode of depression, it comes down to not just the one situation but that you’ve had the situation so many times.” – Alysha
When I think of how I want to describe Alysha there are two traits that immediately come to mind: her empathy and her advocacy. But Alysha isn’t loud. She’s contemplative, a critical thinker, and she shows passion by being ready to discuss why she believes in better access to and more affordable health care (in all respects) with an incredible wealth of research. In our single conversation she mentioned at least half a dozen stories about people in her life who have struggled with their mental health and how she tries to help – but she isn’t boastful; she just truly cares.
For Alysha, her earliest memories of her struggles with anxiety and depression occur around the time she was in the fourth grade, but when she talks to her brother, he reminds her of how her mental health was manifesting itself physically long before then. For example, in kindergarten, she was already missing school due to feeling sick. Alysha also remembers experiencing black-outs and out-of-body experiences whenever she had to get up in front of her friends due to overwhelming anxiety. “I know they’re not judging me, but you start to have that feeling and that paranoia,” she explains.
After years of doctors chalking up her symptoms to puberty and hormones, nausea followed her through to the ninth grade when she finally underwent surgery to biopsy pieces of her stomach and intestines. When they couldn’t find anything, they finally determined the problem wasn’t physical. She recalls the doctor saying, “‘I think you have an anxiety problem.’ No shit, I’ve only been telling you that my entire life.” She started taking medication and her stomach issues disappeared within two weeks. She also was able to receive a diagnosis of Panic Attack Disorder by writing down the symptoms she was experiencing during panic attacks and showing them to her doctor. Along with counselling around this time, Alysha practiced self-care before self-care was a thing, making sure to fuel her creativity by playing her guitar and taking singing lessons.
However, mental health has not been the only obstacle Alysha has had to face. Anxiety led to the development of severe TMJ (and four related surgeries!) and, about three years ago, she found herself in a car accident that’s left her with chronic pain ever since. Once again, Alysha had to be her own advocate. She knew something was wrong with her back but her doctors didn’t want to listen. The pain was so intense she couldn’t drive or even sit in a car. She remembers having to lie across the backseat to be able to go to her family’s cottage. Finally, she demanded to be sent to a pain clinic where, after two years of pain, a new doctor was able to confirm she wasn’t crazy – she was suffering from fibromyalgia, impingement syndrome, and post-concussion syndrome. Since then, Alysha continues to visit the pain clinic for weekly nerve-blocker injections and revels in the amazing way the brain works. Alysha mentions how much she hates needles (especially the huge, painful injections she receives) but overtime her brain has begun to associate it with relief, and the pain of the injections has lessened.
Finding answers to her mental health and chronic pain has not been the end of Alysha’s struggles. She passionately explains a situation that is all too real when it comes to care for both mental and physical health – affordability. Benefits and OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) only cover so much of her costs. For example, for the treatment she receives at her pain clinic she only receives some help from OHIP before she has to start paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket. She also receives massage therapy and chiropractic services but, while she’s grateful her work provides her with benefits, these services also quickly add up and her coverage is used before the end of the year. In an ordinary month, these are costs Alysha can afford. But what if something unexpected occurs? “Do I sacrifice physiotherapy for the next month so I can fix my car?” Alysha knows how lucky she is to not only have benefits and to work for a company that has been accommodating by allowing her flexibility to seek treatment, but if she were to become unable to afford care, she would no longer be able to work, and this would put more strain on our economic system.
On top of all that, she’s also had to deal with people who just don’t understand. From friends who have told her she’s too emotional and that she takes things too personally, to people accusing her of “doing it to herself,” and even being accused of just seeking attention. Yet, Alysha knows her truth and rises above it. She continues to post about her panic attacks and treatments on social media to bring awareness – and it’s worked. She’s been able to refer others to her pain clinic, her chiropractor, find treatments less invasive than surgery, and let people know that they’re not alone.
“If I can help one person, it’s all worth it.”
Despite all of the times she had to advocate for herself, she also is very clear she’s been lucky to have people in her life stand up for her. Her dad, her brother, her step-mother… people who either helped her in times of need or actually demanded care for her. And this doesn’t even include her “zoo” of animals that offers her another system of love and support. As Alysha talks about each animal she has (cats, dog, fish, rabbits… there are lots!) you can’t help but smile knowing how well they are loved and how much she is loved in return. “If I didn’t have them around, I wouldn’t be here, alive, today. They’ve saved my life 100%.”
Lastly, when we talked about self-care, Alysha says her bedroom is her sanctuary. She mentions she has likely spent more money than a lot of people would on a good bed and bedding because she needs to have that comfort when she’s struggling with her pain. However, she is also a reminder that self-care can be free. For her, self-care is coming home after work and allowing herself silence, it’s practicing breathing, and it’s knowing she needs routine. Alysha also mentions she’s developed OCD-like tendencies over the last couple of years and she believes it’s linked to her longing for the ability to take back some control. Clutter needs to be cleared or else it prevents her from sleeping. She also needs to be the person to first reach out physically. Being near people is comforting and she doesn’t mind being touched or hugged, but she needs to be in control of it.
“I find that’s the number one thing with mental health is you have to find your own way of coping with stress and what sets you off. And if you don’t have that support system it makes it that much harder to find your way through it.”
No matter what she’s had to face, Alysha radiates positivity, love, and hope. And it’s contagious.