It Is In Herself She Will Find The Strength She Needs: Christine’s Story

Christine (L) with her daughter Chelsey, grandson Colton, and son Christopher

This is a unique story about an inspirational woman, Christine, whose story aids to illustrate how incredibly complex mental illnesses truly are.  Christine’s story outlines the immense strength needed to endure the most unimaginable circumstances and her unbelievable journey to recovery, specifically with the incredible support of the Canadian Mental Health Association Oxford (CMHA).

Christine’s earliest recollection of the onset of her mental health struggles was at the age of 14, when she had her first panic attack.  Her father, who battled anxiety himself, knew what was happening and took her to the local emergency department.  Over the next couple weeks Christine was in and out of the local emergency department for different anxiety related problems.  One of these visits Christine was convinced she was having a heart attack, another visit she was convinced she had a ruptured appendix, and so on.   One night Christine and her dad had returned from the emergency department, Christine had no sooner said goodnight to her dad that she had a violent intrusive image of stabbing her parents in their sleep.  “The image of stabbing my parents was beyond horrifying and caused me to immediately throw up.  It was terrifying and confusing, I loved my parents more than anything and I didn’t want to hurt them.   These images began playing on a never ending loop in my mind; I was in a constant state of fear and plagued with severe panic attacks.”

Christine’s mental health issues were extremely unique in nature, requiring extra attention by her family to ensure the safety of those around her.  In Christine’s mind, when one is sleeping at night, one is in their most vulnerable state, thus this was the time she experienced the majority of her disturbing images of hurting others.  “My boyfriend at the time lived with me at my parents’ home and I insisted on making him tie me to my bed every night … It was the only way I felt safe, ensuring I would not be able to harm my parents throughout the night.”

Christine was treated by a psychiatrist and diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety.  The Doctor prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.  Within a couple of months, Christine was feeling better than ever, she did not realize she was experiencing a hypomanic episode related to a Mood Disorder called Bipolar II Disorder, which would go undiagnosed until Christine was 22.   “One of the symptoms of this illness is engaging in behaviours that one would not normally engage in.  Personally I would become very energetic, have little need for sleep, become reckless and sexually promiscuous.  I thought I was doing great but everyone else saw the path of destruction”

Christine had her daughter at 17 years of age and she was truly her world.  “I adored her…I wanted nothing more than to be a mother.”  However, shortly after giving birth to her daughter Christine developed Post-partum Depression and the violent intrusive images returned.  “I refused to give up breastfeeding because I wanted what was best for my child.  Yet I was experiencing these terrifying images playing on a constant loop in my mind.  How does that make sense?!  It totally plays with your mind.  I can’t even describe the shame and guilt I felt.” Christine began taking anti-depressants and within a couple of months she experienced another Hypomanic Episode.  “I started going out to different bars and drinking up to 5 nights a week.  I loved the bar scene; the drinking and the male attention were so addictive.  It was rare for me to not leave the bar with a guy at the end of the night.  I was living life with no idea I was actually sick.”  This lasted about a year and a half, until one day, while playing with her daughter, Christine realized that she was missing out on her growing up.  She decided to leave the party scene behind and focus on her daughter.

Shortly after leaving the party scene, Christine met a guy through a mutual friend and they started dating.  A few months into the relationship, Christine developed Depression and Anxiety again, along with the violent intrusive images of harming her daughter.  “I didn’t feel safe staying in the home with my daughter, so I ended up staying with a friend and her grandparents for almost 2 months.  They were amazing people, they just took me in no questions asked and made me feel like a part of their family!  I would visit my daughter daily, making sure there was always someone with me.”  About a year after dating this guy, they got engaged and about 6 months later they had a son.  Unfortunately, the relationship was strained because of Christine’s struggles and they decided to part ways.  “For a while it was difficult to co-parent, however, now we have a very healthy relationship and I’m grateful for that.”

Shortly after the birth of her son, Christine developed Post-partum Depression and Anxiety again.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the images also returned – now revolving around her son.  “It was the same situation that I had with my daughter all over again.”  Christine was once again put on antidepressants and within a couple months was experiencing another hypomanic episode.  “Once again I was behaving recklessly.  I would hang around with inappropriate people and take off on random trips to the US for a day or two at a time.  I was also engaging in inappropriate sexual relations.”  During this time Christine obtained an appointment with a Psychiatrist specializing in Bipolar Disorder.  During the first appointment, after an assessment, the Psychiatrist diagnosed Christine with Bipolar II Disorder.  “He took the time to explain everything and finally my whole life made sense!  He explained that giving a person with Bipolar II an anti-depressant would send them into a hypomanic episode and that is what had been happening to me over the past 8 years.  I was prescribed Lithium, a mood stabilizer, and I thought finally my life would get better!”

A few months later Christine ended up admitted to the Mental Health ward at Woodstock Hospital.  She was thought to have Bipolar Disorder with psychotic tendencies, thus she was placed on a high dose anti-psychotics and discharged a few days later.  “I was sleeping 18 – 21 hours a day and when I was awake I was a walking zombie, I couldn’t even function.  I would get up and eat in the middle of the night with no recollection of doing so, I would wake up with food in my mouth and crumbs and wrappers all over my bed.  I begged the psychiatrist to take me off the medication but he wanted me to stay on it for 6 months.  It was horrible and I gained about 80 pounds in that 6 months.”

Amazingly, during this time Christine met her now fiancé.  “The story behind him is so funny.  We were just supposed to be friends.  I told him everything that was wrong with me.  I told him to not fall in love with me.  But he did anyways.”  Christine and her fiancé ended up getting their own place with her kids, but about 3 months later, the frightening thoughts came back again.  “When I had these thoughts, I did everything I could to get my kids to safety.  There is one thing I want to make clear, I never wanted to actually hurt anyone, these images were horrifying and terrifying and immediately after an image I would have debilitating panic attacks and I would always remove myself or the person who was the target of the images to ensure their safety.  I lived in a constant state of terror and I was afraid of my own mind.”

When the thoughts and images became too overwhelming, Christine decided to call the Canadian Mental Health Association Oxford’s crisis line for the first time.  “I was scared.  I felt that the person speaking on the other end would think I was crazy and would not understand that I do not want to hurt anyone.”  Fortunately, the individual speaking to Christine, a crisis worker from CMHA Oxford, was exceptionally understanding and supportive and together they both decided that the best place for Christine was the hospital.  The crisis worker met Christine at the hospital and stayed with her through the admitting process, which sometimes can take hours.

Christmas was fast approaching while Christine was in the hospital and she was desperate to be home with her children.  So in order to spend Christmas with her children, she lied to the physicians, stating that she was feeling better and requested to be discharged from the hospital.  “This was the worst decision ever!  While I was watching my children open their presents I was plagued with these terrible images of harming them, I was in a constant state of panic, I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep, it was the worst it had ever been.  I made the most difficult and heart wrenching decision to send my children to live with my parents temporarily while I worked on getting better.”

Within a couple months Christine was back in the hospital.  She had again called the CMHA Oxford’s crisis line and a worker met her at the hospital and stayed with her until she was admitted.  This hospital admission would not be like her previous ones that lasted 3 – 5 days.  This time Christine stayed in Woodstock Hospital for 3 weeks, at which time she was transferred to Regional Mental Health Care, London for more intensive treatment.  Before going to Regional Mental Health Care, London, Christine’s fiancé managed to get her home for a weekend.  “It was a nightmare, with only my fiancé at home my images transferred onto him.  I made him buy special locks to lock up the knives, the cutlery, the glasses, the plates and bowls, basically anything that I could possible use to hurt him.  I can only imagine how frustrated he was but he never showed it.  He was my rock!”

While in Regional Mental Health Care, London, Christine met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which confused Christine because she didn’t have any of the telltale symptoms of OCD.  The psychiatrist explained that she had another form of OCD that was not well known by the majority of practicing physicians and that there was no treatment for it.  “I remember he said to me that I would have to ‘cope’ with it for the rest of my life; I was devastated and completely defeated.”  This form of OCD manifests as repeated, intrusive, unwanted obsessive images or thoughts of causing or being responsible for harm to others, or themselves.  The mood stabilizers prescribed to Christine had stabilized her Bipolar II Disorder. However, her violent obsessive images were out of control.  Everything seemed so hopeless.  Eventually, Christine did not want to leave the hospital in London because she felt that it was her safe place.  Despite being told by her physicians that she needed to go home because she had greatly improved from the time she was initially admitted into the hospital, she refused to do so.  “I would have panic attacks at the very thought of leaving the hospital.  I mean I could not even visit a friend’s place that was 20 blocks away for the weekend without having debilitating panic attacks.  My panic attacks were completely irrational; I knew this but there was no way to stop them.  I felt completely useless and like I was a disappointment to everyone.”

When Christine was discharged from the hospital in London, she felt she was no better off than when she was admitted but they insisted she had made enough progress to go home.   Shortly after Christine returned home, she met with her CMHA Oxford Case Manager for the first time and continued to see her consistently.  Christine decided that she did not want to live this way anymore so she started doing research on the diagnosis of OCD.  However, due to the lack of information available on her illness, she was unable to find adequate amount of research.  However, she did find one research article about the rare form of OCD she was battling and there was a medication listed that treated anxiety disorders, such as OCD.  She visited 3 different psychiatrists and her family doctor over a 2-year period, hoping to successfully discuss treatment plans for her illness, however none of the physicians were not willing to help, despite her CMHA case worker accompanying her to her meetings to help reason with the physicians.  Nonetheless, Christine was determined and she refused to believe that this was the way she was supposed to spend the rest of her life!

During this time, Christine became housebound, too terrified to leave her home for fear of hurting someone or herself.  “The obsessive images and panic attacks ruled my life!  They dictated what I could watch, I couldn’t watch any TV shows or movies that had even a second of violence, they decided what I could and could not do, I was a prisoner in my own mind and it was a horrifying place!  I had to make sure all the knives and sharp objects were locked up, so I couldn’t access them.”  A friend of Christine’s ended up moving in with her and her fiancé.  “Between the two of them they literally had to babysit me.   I was scared to death of being left alone for even 5 minutes and would be plagued with devastating panic attacks. I had to actually have one of them come into the bathroom with me when I had to shower.  My fiancé had to drive me to visit my kids at my parents’ home, anywhere from 3 days to 7 days a week for a couple of hours, because I couldn’t drive without having panic attacks.  So on top of working a full time job he was driving me around and doing the majority of the household things, such as getting groceries.  I just couldn’t leave the house most of the time, except to see my kids.”

In 2009, Christine had her last hospitalization where her psychiatrist wrote a prescription for the medication she had been asking doctors for, for 2 years.  “Within days, it was all gone!  The images, the panic, the constant battle within my own mind.  However the guilt, embarrassment and shame didn’t go away quite so easily.  It took a long time for me to be able to face my kids without thinking that I was a failure as a mother and I didn’t deserve them.  It was around this time that I decided I was fed up with just existing, I wanted to live!  I wanted to fight for a life where I could be a good mother to my children and function as a human being.”

One day Christine decided to get into her car and drive to the Tim Hortons that was 2 blocks away from her home.  “I made it a block and started to panic, I had to turn around and go home.  I felt defeated and like I was a total failure!”    Christine saw her CMHA Case Manager the next day and told her about what had happened the day before.  “She put what happened in a new perspective for me, she said that I went from doing nothing to leaving the house, getting in my car and driving a block from my home, how was that a failure?  I went from feeling like a failure to feeling like I had accomplished something.”  With this unconditional support and motivation Christine began to take small steps which began to increase her self-esteem and willpower to work on herself and her journey to recovery, day by day.  “My CMHA Case Manager was truly phenomenal!  It was with her support and the support of my fiancé that I pushed myself to get better.  It was not a quick process and I faced many challenges but it was so worth it!”

As Christine increasingly began to engage in activities that reflected a normal daily routine, such as driving, shopping, taking over all the household duties and even babysitting her 1 ½ year old niece 5 days a week she decided that she was in a healthy enough place to resume the care of her children.  “I didn’t want to take them away from my parents completely but I wanted to raise them, put them to bed every night, have family dinners and do all the things that healthy moms do.”

Unfortunately, Christine found out that it was not going to be an easy task to get her children back.  It ended up as a 2 ½ year battle.  Christine represented herself the majority of the time. “I researched and made sure that I knew exactly what was expected of me, filed the paperwork and cooperated with the childrens’ lawyer.”  It was decided that Christine would need a Psychiatric Assessment done, which she would have to pay for.  Christine wrote to almost 200 different psychiatrists in the London area but got no responses.  “I was at a point where I didn’t know what to do, without this assessment I had no hope.”  Just before Christine’s next court date, a psychiatrist got back to her; he had been on vacation and had just gotten her letter.  A couple weeks later Christine met with this psychiatrist and he completed the assessment.  After the assessment was done, the psychiatrist talked with Christine about how he felt she was being treated unjustly by the court system and her own family.  He contacted a lawyer that he knew, who decided to take Christine’s case on pro-bono.  When Christine received the final copy of the Psychiatric Assessment there was a letter attached that said the psychiatrist had elected to do the assessment pro-bono.  “These 2 men changed my life!  They restored my faith in humanity and I am so grateful to them!”

In the final months of the court case, with the help of her lawyer, Christine began to gain ground and after several Offers to Settle and counter Offers to Settle later, Christine was awarded joint custody of her son.  Unfortunately Christine’s daughter, who was 16 at the time, decided she would stay with Christine’s parents.  “It was devastating that after all that time and hard work she wanted to stay there, but I refused to let that interfere with our relationship, it didn’t change the fact that I loved her.”

Today, Christine wants to share her story not because she desires sympathy from others but rather because she wants people to understand that despite how detrimental her illness became, she is still standing strong today.  “I don’t care about the attention.  I want people to know this is a real problem.  I know that there are others who suffer from this form of OCD.  I know how embarrassing and humiliating it is to have others perceive me as a bad mother.  But I want those who also suffer with this form of OCD to hear my story and know that this is a real problem and to have faith that things can and will get better.  I just want to help others by authentically opening up about my story.  Hopefully this story will give others hope and courage to keep pushing through.  There is a light at the end of the tunnel, you may just have to go around some bends and up and down some hills, but it’s there and it’s all worth it when you get there.”

Christine’s journey to recovery has entailed a combination of counselling, medications, and consulting with her CMHA Oxford Case Manager.  Christine has been on the same medication regimen since her discharge from the hospital in 2009 and has been free from any violent intrusive obsessive images.  “I still experience the odd panic attack but I know how to control them now so they don’t get out of hand.  I never imagined that I would live like I am, the most I hoped for was to be a functioning person but I have long surpassed that! I know now that I was sick for a long time but now I have been successfully treated and I have been in recovery for the last 8 years, with no recurrences.   For many years I was angry, ‘why was this happening to me?’  I did not ask for any of this to happen; it wasn’t something that I chose for myself.  I learned that I had to let go of that anger in order to get healthy, which was a difficult process.  I came to realize that everything that happened, everything I went through,  shaped me to be who I am today, and that I am proud of!”

Today, Christine is a volunteer driver with CMHA Oxford, an impact speaker with a United Way and just recently became a Peer Support Leader at CMHA Oxford.  “Some days it is so surreal, I’ve come full circle and it’s amazing!  It is such an honour to work for the organization that supported me and helped me change my life.  I look at things a lot differently now and I don’t take anything for granted.  Even driving to the store and grocery shopping is huge for me!  I just can’t believe where I am today and I live every day to the fullest!  There is hope for anyone suffering from mental illness, hang in there, it will get better!”