The first couple of experiences I had with CAMH were not ones I care to experience again.
I had gone to my family doctor for help, and after several weeks, and medications to see if I improved, she decided to refer me to CAMH for an assessment. This would be my first visit to CAMH and I was relieved I was going to get an appointment there. It was like I was going to the mothership of mental health. If anyone could help me CAMH could. I did have to wait about two months for an appointment but I didn’t mind because I figured it was going to be so worth it because I would go for my appointment, meet a CAMH professional, they would assess me, and I would be onto bigger and better things from there. But it didn’t quite go the way I had imagined it.
I went to the appointment, and I saw the CAMH professional who then “assessed” me, and an hour later I left with a list of books to check out that the professional thought might help, a list of some therapists in Toronto I could contact (none covered by OHIP), and a disappointed spirit. That was it? Shouldn’t there be more? Had I missed something? That couldn’t be it, could it? Shouldn’t I have been welcomed into the CAMH family with open arms? Shouldn’t they have done more? Had I been wrong? Was this all that they did?
I started to doubt that maybe CAMH wasn’t what I thought it was. Well, that’s disappointing. Now what?
So for the next two years, I lived, and functioned, and worked, and whatnot, but slowly I started to decline again. The emotions that overwhelmed me to the point of tears, the crushing depression that put in bed for days, and the feeling that living is looking less and less like a good idea. So again I reached out to my doctor for help. She again prescribed some meds, and after several appointments with no improvement she again said she was going to send me to CAMH for assessment.
This time I was not as relieved. Would I be brushed aside again with a couple of lists and suggestions and then left to walk out and fend for myself? Would this time be different?
I am sorry to say that it wasn’t. Again I waited weeks for the appointment, and again I was assessed, again given a new lists of therapists (still not covered by OHIP), and now this new sense of defeat that made me feel like crying as I left the building.
What was happening? Why was that it? How could that be it? While in the waiting room, I saw a number of people emerge from the offices, and greet the waiting patients with familiarity. As if they’d known them for weeks or months.
So they did see patients more than once? How? How did they get that? Did they know someone? Or was it me? Was I not sick enough? Was I not in a desperate enough state to warrant my own familiar greeting? Was I okay enough to be sent on my way? Maybe I needed to be really bad off. Maybe these people got special referrals. I wondered how in the labyrinth of hallways and offices there wasn’t one person there who thought I was worthy to be familiar too.
I stood outside the building after that second appointment and stared at it. There was something about this place that made me feel like they could help me? But so far, after two appointments, I was still standing on the outside alone. How could I get in? Was there a password? How could I crack the code to become a familiar? Who did I have to know? What did I have to do? There must be a way. There must be. Because twice now I had witnessed people being called by first names and patients who were obviously regulars. And twice now I had just been “assessed”, listed and sent on my way.
I felt so desperate, and rejected, and alone. I was in a bad way. I needed help and I felt like I was running out of options, and the will to carry on. And I was starting to think that whatever it took to get into the CAMH family, I didn’t have it.
I couldn’t figure it out. And so again I made way back to reality and life, and tried to keep things functioning. But it didn’t last. I declined again. Much more rapidly this time. A string of months filled with extreme stress, crippling anxiety, and deep grief finally pushed me over the edge. I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was done. I was tired of this cycle that whipped my emotions around, and left me feeling worthless, and hopeless. I needed help, now, or it would all be over. I knew it, and I felt it.
Because I had nowhere else to go, I saw my doctor again. And I prayed she had answers and that this time would be different. But no, the same things happened, new meds, weekly monitoring, and yet another referral to CAMH. I was so tempted to tell her to forget the referral because I obviously wasn’t worthy of whatever CAMH had locked behind their doors. I couldn’t handle another assessment, or new lists of therapists I couldn’t afford, but especially I couldn’t handle the rejection. Not again.
And then one night, last summer, during the period of weekly monitoring, I reached a breaking point. This was it. I was done. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt raw, vulnerable and ready to snap. And when I snapped that would be it. I would be gone. I was moments away and for whatever reason I instead went online and looked up the nearest hospital. Because without it, it would be over.
And despite the fact that I live nowhere near it, Google gave me CAMH on College as the first option on the page. I sighed. I hadn’t cracked CAMH’s code so that was a no-go, until the words “24 hr emergency” caught my eye. Say what? CAMH has an emergency department? Really? Was this new? I don’t know what inside me pushed me out the door and in the direction of College St. but I sprung for a cab and went, ending up on College St not long after midnight, staring at the emergency entrance at the side of the building. I felt a sense of terror creep over me. What if they rejected me? What if they sent me back out into the night? What if I was left alone and rejected by them again? But instead I took a deep breath and walked through the door. What have I got to lose at this point? I hoped that if anything, maybe they’ll at least keep me safe and alive for tonight. That’s all I needed. Somewhere to keep safe. Just for tonight. They could do that for me right?
I imagined walking in and again being assessed but this time I wasn’t doing that. This time I was just asking, keep safe for tonight please? Because I’m scared. I’m scared I will do something bad that I won’t be able to take back. I’m scared that this is it for me. And I’m desperate. Can you help me?
As I walked in the door at around 1am, I tearfully told the woman that. I told her that I needed help. Was there someone I could talk to? And that folks, was the code breaker for me.
I sat in their waiting room, alone, crying, hoping that at least tonight I’d be safe and make it through to see tomorrow. And when I spoke to the doctor on call that night she gave me a lifeline. Not only did she say she didn’t want me to go home, she suggested I stay for a few days, maybe even a week. She gave me a choice to stay and I took it. And it saved my life. I ended up staying six weeks.
The support team in my unit, from the nurses to the nutritionist to the physician to the creative director to the psychiatrist to the social worker, they were all behind me. At first they left me as I was, wrapped in blankets, keeping to myself, and periodically checking in on me to see if I was okay. But then, they helped me stand, and they told me it would be okay. And even though I didn’t quite believe them, I stood. And then they got me moving forward. One by one, day by day, I met my team. I met my village. They all supported me, and listened, and encouraged me. They guided me to finally face forward so I could move forward.
I not only got a diagnosis that finally fit while I was admitted but I also got several referrals, and after care, that lasted well beyond my stay on the unit. I learned skills, got situated with medicine that worked for me, and what’s more is, I met some truly amazing, wonderful people, some of which I am still in contact with.
So even though my first (and second) impressions with CAMH hadn’t been so great. Maybe that wasn’t their fault. Maybe it was the timing of things, maybe it was because in my earlier assessments at CAMH I hadn’t asked for help then. Who knows? But I can’t blame them. I can’t say that I didn’t get help because of them because I hadn’t taken the initiative for myself either. I hadn’t spoken up and told them what I needed. I hadn’t pushed for more. I didn’t let on that I was desperate. I waited for them to figure it out. I expected that their assessment of one hour would reveal all of my pain and desperation. I expected that they would guess how broken I was and how much I needed help. And when they didn’t read my mind, I felt rejected and alone. For that I extend a heartfelt apology to CAMH. For underestimating them and assuming that because they understood mental illness they would be able to just know right away that I needed help. That was unfair of me because it’s a two-way street. And they can’t know what I don’t tell them.
I would like to suggest to them however that maybe there be more than one assessment done, like a follow up, and maybe whoever does the assessment can ask the assessee what kind of help they are looking for? So that maybe they can speak up and maybe they can be told about some of the wonderful programs CAMH has. Or even directed to some of the other great programs the city has to offer, like CMHA, Mood Disorders of Ontario, Toronto General Eating Disorder Program, to name a few.
I sometimes wish I could go back and ask for what I needed then, when I had my first and second assessment. I wish that I had spoken up because maybe that would have made the difference. But regardless of how long it took, and what finally brought me to the emergency room doors, with the nice doctor, and the bed that kept me alive that night, I will forever be grateful that CAMH was there when I needed them. No passwords. No codes. No referrals. No lists.
They took me in, and brought me back. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it also takes a village to help a child too (or an adult, since I am far removed from being a child lol). And at CAMH I had my own village.
For the following I will not mention any names for privacy sake.
To all the nurses who took care of me every day I was admitted I thank them for asking me every day how was I doing? And for sitting with me when I felt my world closing in and they talked to me and soothed me. When I felt anxious and scared they stayed with me. Day or night. They were there.
To the social worker, who helped me handle my insurance with my work and who spent countless hours researching and listing several things we had discussed about treatment as well as school and more. The effort she put in and the time she gave me made me feel like I was the only one on the ward she had to take care of and I know I wasn’t. She remembered things I had only mentioned despite looking after at least a dozen other patients. And her efforts getting me referred are what got me where I am today. So I thank her deeply for everything she did.
To the physician, nutritionist and creative director that rounded out the team, I thank all of them for listening to me, addressing my concerns, supporting me, helping me, teaching me and giving me the tools and tips and even some fun (with the creative director) that I still use today.
To the facilitator who ran the After Care Program when I got discharged I truly cannot say enough about her. She is an inspiration, an absolute master at what she does, and a wonderful listener. She has knowledge that absolutely astounds me. There wasn’t a moment with her that I didn’t feel heard, understood, and validated by, even with other people in the room. She has shown a kindness and understanding that is obviously part of her core, and I hope one day to work with her again. She is a CAMH treasure. And she will always be someone I think of fondly and I credit with helping me to move forward.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my psychiatrist. The first day I was admitted was a holiday and when they told me I couldn’t talk to her until the next day, and word on the ward was she was new, I felt a panic grip me because no one could tell me if she was nice, or understanding, or was she one of those psychiatrists who just prescribes drugs and moves on with her day, or was she my worst fear, mean. Would she hear me? Would she invalidate me? I had no idea what to expect of her. I prayed I would like her and that she would like me, but especially I prayed that she wouldn’t be mean. And the next day when I did finally meet her I knew it would be okay.
Not only was she kind and understanding but it felt like right off the bat she saw that I was really struggling and that I needed help. And even better, she could help me get to a better place.
Not one time did she dismiss something I said, no matter how much I thought it sounded crazy, no matter how much I thought she would think I was an awful, weird, abnormal person who had these weird thoughts and emotions she had never heard of before. She never once told me I was weird or abnormal.
In fact, she often reassured me that what I was feeling was okay, and that there was nothing wrong with how I felt, and most importantly that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me, as in I wasn’t damaged goods. I was a worthy person who needed help. She was the first person I truly believed that I was worthy. And that whatever emotion I was feeling was okay because that’s how emotions are. They don’t always make sense, and sometimes they can be completely irrational. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to tell someone about what I was feeling. Because when I spoke to her, I felt like she was actually hearing me, and taking my thoughts and feelings into consideration.
She has told me by now so many times that I’m not crazy that I’m actually starting to believe her. I thank her for every day making me feel like I was the most important person in the world, no matter how many other patients she had to see, and working with me on how did I want to proceed with treatment or meds. She talked to me not down to me and it made me feel like I wasn’t just some nutcase she needed to dope up and send on my way. She made me feel like a person. A person who has suffered trauma, and a person who has had years of disordered, dysregulated thinking and emotions.
She still sometimes has to remind me that I need time and patience to get through it. She is also the saviour that finally diagnosed by BPD and suddenly brought my world into a clearer picture, where a lot of stuff started to make sense.
I think of her as kind of the leader in my CAMH Village, and I feel safe because of that.
So to CAMH, and all in my village, I thank you profusely from the bottom of my heart, for saving my life, and for helping me save my own life.
For anyone who struggles with a disorder, diagnosed or not, or anyone just struggling, wondering why your days feel dark, not feeling like anyone cares, not caring or wanting to get out of bed, wondering why the tears won’t stop, or why they started in the first place, CAMH may not be where you’ll find yourself again, but it is a great place to start, and is an amazing resource worth exploring. There are some amazing people they’re just waiting to help. And you want to know the secret?
All you have to do is ask.