Talking with Ameera Ladak

Ameera Ladak most likely just set a record for the shortest time between coming out on social media and appearing here. The Canadian college student emailed last week with a link to her new blog, and we were off.

“I was too stuck on getting help being a sign of weakness, that I tried to get through my depression alone, without therapeutic or pharmacologic support,” her first post says. “Have you ever tried to cure a cold without tea and Tylenol? It sucks ass, and what I was doing was no different. On top of that, I had the nerve to blame myself when I couldn’t cure my ‘cold’ without ‘tea and Tylenol.'”

She took a break from writing, including a breakdown of the kinds of people who mean well but don’t quite get there _ The Quick Fix, The Analyzer, The Disappearing Act _ for a phone call.

First, an easy question. Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

Who said that’s an easy question? Yeah, I’m a university student, second year, I take business, and what else can I tell you about me? There’s a lot of words people use to describe me, but I use different ones. They say I’m intelligent, smart, funny, outgoing, and I strive to be those things for sure, but I definitely have a lot more that goes on. It’s almost like two sides of me, and I select which side I show. I’m very aware of how people view me.

How would you describe your other side?

I think very sensitive, in a way. I take things very seriously. I like to think about things, be very careful and guarded with what I do and say, not too adventurous. I like to be comfortable, in my comfort zone. I like having a home base where I feel comfortable, safe. It’s really important to me.

You said you’re very guarded with what you say. How did you come to be talking to me?

When I was first depressed, I hid it from everyone. My parents. My friends, who I spoke to every day, all the time. And I just got really good at hiding who I was. I was in the hospital for a week and nobody knew, except my roommates and friends and family. Really, no one knew about it. As I started my recovery, I realized that if I have a hard time recovering, it’s because I have no one to go to because I don’t let people in. Maybe it was time to let people in, maybe they’d accept this part of me, that it’s not always sunshine and rainbows, but honest. It’s me. They may love it or hate it, but that’s how it is. I didn’t know quite how to say, “Hey, guess what, I have depression.” So I said, “I’m gonna write. For me. If they choose to read it, take interest in who I am, that’s their choice.” And I reached 1,000 hits in 48 hours. People were receptive. I like talking about my journey and what I go through. Just because it’s more serious doesn’t mean it’s boring, that I’m not that funny and outgoing person I usually show.

1,000 hits in 48 hours. How were the responses?

Amazing. I wrote maybe one or two posts. I just made a Facebook status: “I feel great because I started a blog.” No link. I just mentioned it. A typical Facebook status. People started messaging, “Hey, send me the link.” I chose to share it with one of my friends. I was sort of getting cold feet, but I just went for it. I sent it to a couple of people. And they loved it. “This is amazing, brilliant, keep going.” One of my friends said,” This is exactly what I feel.” Then it was seen on Facebook by others. Two people would share, then seven, then each one would get, like, 40 likes. I would hear from people I haven’t talked to in years. As I wrote more posts, I really started to address the things I never knew I could, and the reception just got better and better. Everyone was just like, “You know, I can’t believe I never knew.” What I tell them is, I’m a really good actor. When you do it for so long, you don’t actually know how to show what’s going on. When someone asks, “How are you?” the automatic response is, “Good.”  It’s not really a question. What I do with the blog is take that step back: “This is what’s really going on.” I just write and publish without reading it, thinking about it.

When did this start?

The blog? I started it Wednesday night. So about 48 hours. A little less, actually.

What started it?

I don’t know if you know what #BellLetsTalk day is. A few days ago, you know, tons of people were tweeting, and that’s when I first started to dip into letting people know. I talked with my sister about how great it was that people were talking, but what were they talking about? Talking about talking about mental illness. But are they really talking about it? That’s when I was like, “There are so many people who think they know about mental illness but don’t know at all. It’s not their fault, it’s just that no one talks about it in an open way. You find blogs, memes, about things like cancer, but not a whole lot about depression and suicide.” I was going on and on and my sister was like, “You should start a blog or something.” I was like, “No, who would read it?”

I had a really long day, and I was really frustrated because every time I tried to talk about my mental illness, nobody could get it. No one had explained it to them. My experience would have been easier if someone had known what’s going on. I started to write. Randomly, I set up a blog and started to write. One post turned to two, and I started feeling better. I was waiting to watch a movie with my roommate, and I just got started. I got suggestions from people on what to write about, and it really just snowballed from there.

How is this going to work, going forward? Are you going to pour it all out at once and be done, or keep it up?

No, it’s not where I pour out all my emotions. Yeah, I might not filter what I say, I may not have a concrete idea of what I’ll say, but usually I have a plan of what I’m writing and why. Some messages I got say, “I have a friend going through this, and what you wrote opened my eyes.” It started out as something for me, and now it’s for people who know people who have mental illness and people who have mental illness but don’t know how to express what they’re going through. It’s hard to say “I feel this” and “I need this.” This is how you get through it. It’s so hard to talk when you’re in that space. Now I have my voice. This is what I was thinking that whole time and never said. People are receptive to it. It will help people who can’t express what they need. And the way I see it is, I may not be able to change the world as a whole, but I can help be a part of changing someone else’s world, and that’s enough for me.

How would you tell your story?

I first started getting depressed when probably I was in junior high, probably grade 7, on and off throughout junior high. I wasn’t quite suicidal. I was very upset a lot, a lot of that anger and angst. Part of it was being a teen, and part was something a little more to it that I couldn’t really identify. I struggled through it, graduated, transferred to high school and put all of my energy into school. I did all I could to get good grades. I got into university and had a great first year. That’s when I started to have … my conversion disorder started to show up. I had a lot of seizures, because my brain was not processing emotion right. There were unprocessed psychological issues in my brain that were not being processed properly, and that emotion was released through something physical. So I’d have pain or a sort of seizure. After my first year, the summer after that, the past summer, I started to feel really, really sad. I had never felt that sad before. It was so raw and almost like it made it difficult to believe sometimes, because it was so much at one time. I didn’t know how to process it. But you know, I like to say, “You know, I can deal with this on my own.”

I tried to do it. When I couldn’t, I talked to my doctor and was put on anti-depressants, and I started seeing a counselor. I didn’t tell anybody. It was completely me. Nobody knew. A total secret. And then my anti-depressants weren’t working, obviously, because I was getting worse. So I made plans to kill myself one night. I had it all planned out. What I was going to do was, I would go out with my friends and have a good night, a couple beers, then get really intoxicated. Then, when I was so intoxicated, I was gonna take a bunch of sleeping pills and every prescription I could find. Whatever I could find. My biggest fear was not being successful. I knew that if my life was that bad before, it would get worse after.

It’s funny to use the word “success,” because the idea of dying is not succeeding in that sense. But at the time, it was. My goal. What ended up happening was, when I got drunk, my parents picked me up. I told them that I wanted to die. They were shocked, they didn’t really know what to do. My mom had never seen me drunk before. There was a weird feeling in the air. My memory is so vague, I can’t fill in all the details, but I did say I needed to go to the hospital. I was put into one of those rooms from the movies where all was white, just a stretcher, absolutely nothing. I had two security guards outside my door, a big metal door with a teeny metal window. I spent the entire night there until 10 the next morning, when the doctors came. They looked at me and said, “Let’s switch your meds.” At that point I was like, “I don’t know if it’s just the meds, but OK.” I was out of the hospital that day, maybe 5 p.m., with a new prescription for anti-depressants. I started taking them, and again, things got worse. My parents were really concerned all the time, they wouldn’t let me leave the room alone, I was not allowed to take pills on my own: “Hey Mom, Dad, can I have one of my pills?” It drove me insane. I was so used to my independence. I didn’t leave the house, I didn’t do anything until the end of summer, and I went back to Vancouver. I wanted to go back to school and say, “I’m good, I can do this, let’s go.” I came back.

I can’t describe how good it was to be here. Then school started, great, classes were good, then every night I would still get that way. And I’d be so depressed and so down and hating my life and feeling so alone. I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, not trying hard enough, in every way possible, not enough. One night I went to a friend’s house, explaining to her how I felt bad because I was putting so much on my roommates. I could see I was really bothering one of them. So I started to feel really bad. And it sort of triggered a spiral of “Die, don’t be here, you don’t deserve to exist, everyone would be better without you.” Once that started, it wouldn’t stop. I just crawled in a ball on the couch. All I said was, “Call an ambulance.” And I hate ambulances. If I hear one, I freeze up. I’m terrified of them and hospitals. But I was taken to the hospital, and I was kept in a hallway overnight. My roommate stayed with me. To prove how good an actor I was, we took a Snapchat, and I still have it today, and we both look so happy, smiling so wide. We were sitting on the hospital bed waiting for me to be admitted to the psych ward.

Anyway, they started doing their usual psychiatrist-analyzing me and decided to put me in a unit, West 1. I went to West 1, and I had three other roommates and felt, “I don’t belong here.” People would ask me my life story. I was comfortable, I went to university, I didn’t have drug problems, I had a loving family, a nice home. And people just couldn’t understand. The other people, they had been to hell and back, lived on the streets, abandoned, abused. I was like, “This isn’t me.” But I said, “OK, I’m gonna go with this, completely commit myself to this process.” So I really tried to make the most of the experience. I used the workout facilities every day, tried to get privileges like wearing my own clothes. I had gone from going to university, spending evenings with friends and going to class to going to the hospital with a 10 o’clock bedtime, 8 o’clock wake-up to line up and get pills and take showers without locks on the doors. Very surreal.

I was horrified because I was talking to others and they’d say, “Oh I’ve been here three weeks, a month.” Every time I talked to the doctors, I said, “The longer I’m in here, the more worried I am about school. If I don’t want to live, why do I care so much about school? Maybe I do want to live, but not in the state I’m in. So, OK, I want to live. Let’s make the living part work. The surviving part work.” That’s what I did. I was out of there in six days. It was one of the shortest stays they’d ever had there. I went to every workshop they offered. I wasn’t one of those people in bed all day. They provided a safe, caring environment to do those things. It was a very interesting experience, and I don’t want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was one of the  best and worst experiences of my life.

Since then, it’s been a very slow recovery. People expect that when you get out of the hospital you’ve completely bounced back. That’s not really the case when it comes to depression and suicide. You’re not at the point where you want to take your life all the time, but you have a ton of work to do. I’d have good days, bad days. The bad days frustrated me because I would frustrate the people around me: “What happened?” “You know, I had a bad day.” It was learning to tell myself it was OK to have a bad day. I was lucky to have gone through that and be here today. If I get to that place again, I know what to do. I can do it if I need to.

As much as I hate having depression, it’s what allowed me to get close to a lot of people and connect me to people, and that’s what I want. I want to write about it, speak about it, tell people, “Your story is not completely different. It’s your story, but you’re not the only one who feels this way.” It’s just a matter of finding them and making it OK to talk about it, that raw, honest stuff. I had filtered myself around my friends so they wouldn’t think I was someone they didn’t want to hang out with. Filtered what I said to my family, my doctors, so they wouldn’t think I belong in the hospital again. When I did that, I couldn’t connect to people. It was filtered, too pretty. And when I don’t do that, just let it all out, just say it, it hits people way more. It strikes that nerve.

I think even right now, when I’m trying to be as candid as possible, I’m still filtering a bit. You have to be proper in what you say, how you act. But when it comes to mental illness, that honesty has to come out more. By only showing a small part of the truth, it’s defeating. It’s just a tiny part of truth. To me, it’s important to show the whole truth. I went so long saying what others wanted to hear that I never said what I wanted to say. It distanced me from people. This kind of raw truth, I think, is important. People with depression can feel so bad about what they want to say. People say, “What are you so depressed about, you have all this going for you!” It makes me feel more ashamed about it. It’s like saying, “Why are you diabetic?” I wanted to make people know it wasn’t my fault.

I’m at a point now where I can take it and say, “That’s not the truth at all.” But there are people who, hearing that, would be absolutely devastated. That’s why I want to get that out there. It’s really important that this kind of conversation start. Let’s talk about the real, raw truth about it. Take it apart, show its ugliness. When I was in the hospital, I was asked to do a really weird exercise. I did it because I wanted to get privileges to check my phone. I made a list of 10 reasons why I’m lucky I have depression. When the psychologist told me, I laughed: “You’re kidding. I’m not glad I’m depressed, it sucks.” She said, “I know, but it doesn’t have to all suck.” OK, well …  I connect to people more. I don’t have a perfect life, I have those battle wounds. Whatever, it makes me more real and human. It makes me more approachable, I would think. I was not at a point where I could enjoy or reap the benefits of my depression, but you have to make the most of the hand you’re dealt. The cliche, “make lemonade out of lemons.” That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m at the place where I can do that now. Educate people. That’s the hardest part, educate. They just didn’t know. It’s so hard when it’s such an isolating illness. It’s not their fault, it’s just part of society.

What do you think of the anti-stigma and other such efforts out there?

I think some these groups are absolutely brilliant. To Write Love on Her Arms or the Trevor Project or Love is Louder are so good and so meaningful. But I think sometimes they kind of become almost like a fashion statement. You look cool if you have a TWLOHA T-shirt, and people can sometimes lose the actual meaning. And part of it is, you’re trying to use that slogan. Good, you’re getting people talking and that’s something, right? I think it’s one thing to say, “I’m gonna do this because I support people who struggle with mental illness.” One thing I discussed with people on my blog is people who say, “I’m here for you, text me anytime.” They’re not, because the second you do, they get scared. They don’t get exposed to that raw honestly. Those projects say, “I want to help,” but they’re not always exposing the dark stuff no one wants to hear. It’s like you try put a Band-Aid on an open wound because it looks ugly. But you can’t know how deep the wound goes until you take the Band-Aid off and see for yourself.

It’s amazing that I can go and ask, “Hey, you know TWLOHA?” or you see tons of texts for #BellLetsTalk. It makes me happy because people aren’t afraid to admit mental illness is something to be addressed. OK, now what do we do about it? Not just on a national, global basis, but personal. Educate kids: “Hey, this is what to do when your friend is depressed.” There’s tons of websites, numbers to call. It’s something like, if you think your friend is going through something, try to talk to them. Actually trying how to … How do I, give me a second here. Getting people who say they support it, getting them to actually support it and not just say it.

How do you make that happen?

I don’t know that yet. If I did, I’d be out there doing that right now. The most I can do right now is tell people what I’m going through. If you want to be there for someone, be there for them. This is not like saying, “I’ll meet you for a coffee” and not showing up. What someone says or does can save a life. The smallest things can make the biggest differences. If someone says, “That’s a really great shirt” or the smallest compliment, that can make me feel not worthless for a split second. And there will be times where someone says something not very nice and not mean it but brings me down for hours. I’m for honesty, but I think sometimes people don’t realize the full impact of their words.

I think the hardest part, for my friends, is they don’t know how to support me because they can’t fix it. Well, if I could fix it, I’d be fixed by now.  You don’t have to run away because you feel incompetent to fix it. You can’t fix it. It’s your job to support and be there for them. Depression’s a funny illness. It’s not just the person who has it, but the responsibility of people who love and care about the person. People say, “It’s all in your head, it’s all on your own, only you can make you happy again.” And that’s true. I believe that at the end of the day, you can’t rely on other people for all your happiness. But telling me to be happy is not going to make me happy. It’s something that takes time, and more than one person.

If someone has a difficult illness, a broken foot, you know, they need their doctor, the person who does the X-ray, the person who opens the door for them. It takes all kinds of people to make it work. But with mental illness, you can’t see it, so it’s hard to know all the pieces of the puzzle required to help it. That’s why I think if we open the dialogue more, if we really get out there and not be afraid to be so raw and open … One thing I heard is, people don’t understand what someone with mental illness goes through. To hear that feedback: “OK, I have a better idea of what it is,” is really important to me.

There’s still a lot of professional nervousness about being raw and open. And because of that, how do you start a real national conversation?

It’s gonna take a lot. It’s gonna take professionals, people with mental illness, people who don’t. I think what drives me is that censorship: “You don’t want to really let anybody know, it’s really not anybody’s business.” I get that. This is the first time I’ve ever opened up and said, “Hey, I’m an open book.” When I first had my depression, after my parents, nobody else knew. They didn’t want the community to know. That’s understandable. It’s not something we talk about. A cultural thing, a societal thing. That’s just how it was. Part of the reason people want you to censor it is, you can sound very blunt or almost weird, not socially acceptable, when you talk about it. But I don’t care. I don’t. That sounds kind of obnoxious and pretentious. But if someone takes the heat for it, I’d rather it be me than someone struggling to open up. I have that close support group.

So, back to your question: How do we get that national conversation going? I haven’t really thought about this until today, with my latest post. I think it starts at school. I think we need to have teachers, students be able to open up about it. Kids get bullied for having mental illness. To me, that’s disgusting. To be bullied for something entirely out of your control disgusts me. If people were taught from a young age to be more tolerant … You always hear little kids talking about how a family member passed away: “My uncle had a heart attack. My aunt had cancer.” Where’s the kid who says, “My uncle killed himself because he had depression?”

It’s not talked about because it’s taboo, and it’s exhausting trying to break it down. And it’s an illness that affects one in five Canadians. So in a standard family, one of you has mental illness. It’s astounding, the occurrence of it. And people need to see it more, on TV more, and they need to see … And when I say on TV, I don’t mean that dramatized, soap opera way, I mean a real way, a raw way, honest. The only way to get the idea going is to base it on truth. You can’t sugar-coat it. It just has to be real. We’re getting better at it with new laws against bullying. If you think 10 years ago, we didn’t have half of these initiatives. We’re doing a good job as a society starting it out. But we’re still kind of new at this. Let’s make mental illness something we don’t ignore anymore.

I’m just happy there are people out there asking those questions.

When you talk about the need for openness, do you mean going as far as the S-word?

Let’s say it, because why not? We use words with any other illness. It’s not the S-word, it’s suicide. People are taking their own lives. It’s what happens. It’s very, very blunt to put it that way, and some might say vulgar, but it’s not. That feeling that I couldn’t tell people that I missed school because I wanted to commit suicide was way harder than saying I had mono or strep throat. If you think about it, suicidal thinking occurs quite often as well. But why be embarrassed about something that had nothing to do with us? It’s not something we deserve to be ashamed about it. It’s real. When it’s someone sitting by you in class, it becomes real. And it needs to become real for people who don’t actively see it on a daily basis. Yeah. Suicide is not a taboo.

What was least helpful as you recovered, and most helpful?

I hated the way people looked at me as though anything that came out of my mouth was a lie. If I admitted that I felt depressed and wanted to commit suicide, they would look at me like I wasn’t being honest. They would ask if I wanted attention or something. That one stung quite a lot. I never wanted to get attention. If I did, I would not have kept it quiet for so long. And if I said, “OK, I’m not feeling that way anymore,” it was, “Are they just saying that because they have to?” Nothing I said was right.

And then there’s the fear of liability. They were keeping me in that room not because they were keeping me alive but because someone had tried to kill themself on their watch. Also, you don’t always know what pill is gonna work the best, but I think therapy has to be very tailored to the person. CBT doesn’t work for some people. If personal therapy works, great, but it might not work for others. Recognize that all types of therapy have their place. Also, I didn’t like being told to breathe. I was told, “OK, just take a deep breath, in and out, everything’s gonna be OK.” Another one was being told, “Exercise, you’ll feel amazing.” I work out four times a week now, but back then I was like, “I can’t get myself out of bed in the morning, you really want me to tell you I’ll go for a run now? That’s not gonna happen.” Like people weren’t using common sense. Some of those suggestions aren’t really viable.

Was there anything that surprised you as being really helpful?

I think the physical presence of other people just worked wonders. Someone to come and just give me a hug and hold me and make it OK for a minute. The other thing I really enjoyed was the really little things. My roommates and I used to write messages on the mirror: “You look beautiful today,” or “You don’t need this mirror, you look fine without it.” It kind of starts your day off right. Stuff like that worked wonders. Also, one fun thing. Every day, I do one fun thing to be excited about.

For example?

Well, I love Legos, so I buy a lot of Legos. Maybe I’ll come home and build a Lego car or something like that. I also find it calming if I had a horrible day and feel like crap, I take one of the sets apart and put it together. I can feel I accomplished something, taking a million pieces _ well, not a million _ apart and putting it back together. It’s kind of metaphorical to what I’m doing with my own life.

You mentioned how nervous your parents had been. How is it going with them now?

Good. They’re amazing. They’re so supportive now. They understand I have good days, bad days. They know I don’t like to have long conversations about it. We have an agreement, if I don’t like something, I’ll make it known. They don’t expect me to text them all the time because I’m 19 years old, and they shouldn’t expect that. Even though we’re in different cities, the flight’s only an hour. The option is available to me.

One thing I meant to ask earlier: How did your school handle it, if it knew? I know stories of other people being kicked out of school.

They didn’t. I had to go out there and say, “This is what happened to me.” I got one of my roommates to write emails to my professors saying, “Ameera’s in the hospital for mental health issues.” I think the nicest response she got back was, “I’m sorry, we can’t discuss other students with you.” When I got back to school and emailed my professors, they said to talk to the undergraduate office to make accommodations. So I set up a  meeting. This was probably two weeks after I got out of the hospital. That’s a long time, I was already so behind, no idea what was going on. I went to my meeting and explained that I was in the hospital. Their first question was, “Do you have proof?” Yes. I pulled out my doctors’ notes. They said couldn’t do anything until they verified it. I asked them to email when they verified it, but I never heard from them. A week later, I contacted them. They said, “Well, it’s been weeks since you got out, why come in now? What do you suggest we do about this now? What kind of accommodations were you looking for?” I was like, “Maybe notes?” They said, “Well, you probably got notes from friends, and your professors probably put slides online.” So yeah, that was kind of that. So I was like, “OK. They’re not gonna kick me out.” I was told, one of my doctors said, “Don’t tell the school. They don’t need to know. Don’t tell them.” It wasn’t horrible. I didn’t get kicked out, ostracized. It was just a very cold response.

You mentioned being 19. What do you want to do with your life, and do you ever worry whether this will trail you somehow?

I just read an article that said 50 percent of Canadians didn’t feel comfortable having a doctor or lawyer or financial adviser who had mental illness. They felt they couldn’t do the job properly. They asked the same question about diabetes or asthma, and only a fraction weren’t comfortable. It was kind of alarming for me. I don’t want it to hinder me in the future. It’s already hindered me enough. I’m majoring in business. I want to go into supply chain management, hopefully in consumer packaged goods or the auto industry. And either I’ll work in a company or start my own firm. I’m quite specific where I want to go, what I want to do. I kind of have it all planned out, but probably it will change completely. I’ve always been very business-savvy, money-driven, type A. People say, “You’ll be successful, with a nice car, a nice house.” Yeah, that’s really important to me, but I also want to do public speaking, help people, kind of softening up a bit in that sense. I’m changing my thinking about that a lot. I see myself transitioning to be more balanced in that sense.

You mentioned softening up a bit. Did you once have a very different outlook on mental illness or on the people who have it?

Not at all. I always felt people with mental illness are incredibly strong and intelligent people. Before I was depressed, a person brought up suicide and said that people who commit suicide or attempt suicide are incredibly selfish. That bothered me a lot, because I didn’t think they were selfish at all. In fact, in my case, it was a selfless choice. I truly believed people would be better off with me gone. My suicide attempt was as much for other people as it was to end my own pain.

Who else are you?

I’m gonna start with my cop-out answer, which is the most honest answer, and then I’ll give you a more detailed answer. I’m 19, so I don’t know who I am. I have a long ways to go before I actually know. But to give a more concrete answer, since that was a bit fluffy, I’m just a person who loves to engage with other people. I like to do nice things for people, surprise them, be that person who’s like, “Oh my god, why are you so nice?” I like being the jokester, making fun, laughing and smiling. In my friends’ view, I’m kind of the little kid, always wants to play around, do something silly, but at the same time I’m one of the most mature ones as well. They come to me for advice, they know I’m there at the end of the day. Without trying to toot my own horn, I want to be responsible and loyal and a person people call reliable. I’m just trying to be not the best at something but the best version of me. I want to be the best at being me. So I hope that kind of answers your question.

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