Imagine falling into a deep, dark hole you cannot climb out of; every breath draws you in deeper, every attempt at climbing out brings you further down. Feeling the weight of the dirt bringing you down as you try to just survive.
This is what mental illness can feel like.
Growing up with her parents and brother, Amy O’Toole thought life was going great. Until it wasn’t.
Her brother suffered from mental illness and had been institutionalized twice during his teenage years.
“It was almost like manic depressive, but with outbursts of rage that would come on very suddenly and he used to take it out on me.”
There were days when her brother would lock her in her room or choke her for extended periods of time, physically abusing her.
In her teens, O’Toole and her family lived in Alaska. They moved around a lot because her father was in the military.
She was sent to Kings Edgehill school so she could be kept safe, but in her grad year, her father was working on a masters in England and she was living with her mother and brother in Nova Scotia and attending Kings Edgehill as a day student.
“That’s when my brother was really out of control. It was the worst year for abuse for me and my mother.”
That same year, her parents divorced and her brother moved to Vancouver with her mother.
When O’Toole was 21, her brother, at the age of 20, committed suicide.
“He was my only sibling, he was my best friend. He was brilliant and a very talented musician. He was awesome when he was good, but things could turn ugly very quickly.”
After his passing, O’Toole thought only about the good things about her brother and blocked out the bad memories.
“I grieved the good parts of my brother and didn’t think about the bad. Then I started having flashbacks and memories of what he did because I had tried to block it out.”
Over the years, O’Toole has been able to hold down a job, but has dealt with severe anxiety.
A few years back, she went through a breakup and that was her first experience with the Pictou County Health Authority.
“I had a panic attack at work and was sent to the hospital and then to mental health,” she recalls.
“It took a year before I could get in to see someone and things got better within that year. I went to counselling a few times and was basically let go from the system.”
Life continued for O’Toole. She got married and became pregnant with her daughter.
That’s when she started experiencing physical pain that worsened after the pregnancy.
“I went to a doctor in Amherst and he told me it was all in my head. He didn’t suggest counselling or medication, he just told me not to stress so much.”
The pain continued with balance issues, confusion and hot and cold sensations.
“I thought I was going crazy because he said it was all in my head. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
O’Toole then decided to visit her doctor here who sent her for testing and she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and endometriosis.
“The rheumatologist told me that a lot of doctors believe fibromyalgia is caused by past trauma and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.”
That’s when O’Toole’s life began to change.
She was put on anti-depressants and medication for nerve pain, but the depression wasn’t getting any better.
“They (mental health doctors) just kept upping my dose. I was taking a lot of medication. Before this happened to me, I would have looked at those people who were always sick and I would have judged them, but I’m more sympathetic now.”
This past winter, things escalated for O’Toole to the point where she ended up in the emergency room.
“I was having suicidal thoughts. I had to leave my job because I was having panic attacks, anxiety and stress. And then my doctor left so I had a new doctor.”
She was finding it difficult to keep up with housework, cooking and looking after her daughter. She would become frightened when her daughter would get angry and experienced flashbacks of her brother. She was scared.
“I would be crying all day and having these thoughts about bad things happening to the people I love and I couldn’t stop them. It got to the point where I would fantasize about driving off of a road. I felt I couldn’t go another day, like I was in a hole and couldn’t climb out of it … it took all of my energy just to be awake.”
That’s when O’Toole ended up in the emergency room.
“They took me right in. I was a mess.”
The doctor gave her something to calm her and referred her to mental health, however, it was a weekend so the mental health crisis team was not on call and there was no one to talk to until Monday.
So O’Toole went home with her highly potent anti-psychotic medication and the suicidal thoughts began to disappear.
When she saw the crisis team she felt better because of the medication so she was sent home and scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist.
“I had an appointment within one to two weeks. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).”
The psychiatrist O’Toole sees is a locum psychiatrist who is here only two weeks out of the month, on average.
“When she’s not in Pictou County, I can’t reach her. My only option is to go to the emergency room.”
O’Toole says her psychiatrist was not pleased with the prescribed drug from the ER doctor because of the high dose and level of anti-psychotic medication prescribed.
“They don’t like to prescribe that medication unless it’s absolutely necessary. She (the psychiatrist) wanted to lower my dose, but when she did the suicidal thoughts came back. They don’t like to prescribe this drug because it can cause excessive weight gain, diabetes and high cholesterol.”
The weight gain is something O’Toole experienced and was not pleased with.
Now she is going through a process of weaning off the anti-psychotics as well as the anti-depressants.
“They don’t tell you about the side effects if you come off of these drugs when they put you on them,” she says. “The nausea, vomiting, anxiety, uncontrollable crying and mood swings … I had to get off of these meds because I wasn’t me.”
O’Toole feels like there is a light at the end of the tunnel now.
“It’s frustrating, I can’t work and I feel like I should be. I feel like a burden to my family. And there are all of these other people who are going through the same thing and nobody wants to talk about it. When I read other people’s stories, it makes me feel better. I want to share my story so someone else can feel like they are not alone.”