Learning to live with mental illness

Nothing bad could happen once the birds started singing.

Alone in the middle of the night, 13-year-old Arlene Arch clung to this thought, desperately hoping for morning. Darkness made her mind race with irrational fears that something terrible would happen once she fell asleep.

“I’d stay up until I heard the birds,” recalled Arch, who is now an administrative assistant for Brock’s Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre.

As Brock marks Mental Health Week with a series of activities May 7 to 13, Arch is speaking out about what it’s like achieving success and happiness while living with a mental illness.  

“I spent my childhood pretty much not sleeping — ever,” she said. She never wanted to sleep alone, often sneaking into her older sister’s bed. On nights when her sister refused a bunkmate, Arch would pace back and forth, alternating between barricading her bedroom door and checking her parent’s breathing to see if they were still alive.

“When I was really young I would fall asleep on my bedroom floor next to the closed door so that I could see the crack of light. As long as I could see my parents’ feet or feel their presence, I was fine,” she said.

Arch’s anxieties were not limited to night. The sound of police sirens any time of day sent her into hiding and negative news reports instilled deep fear. “In the late ’70s there was a story about killer bees coming. That immobilized me,” she said.

Her family wasn’t worried about her; they considered it normal for a child to be apprehensive and afraid of the dark.

“My parents just thought I was a nervous child,” she said. “They didn’t recognize my behaviour as a sign of mental illness. It wasn’t something that was talked about.”

Circumstances in her late 20s led to one of the deepest ruts Arch has ever experienced.

“A lot of bad things happened,” she said. “I had to stop taking additional qualification courses, my employment contract ended and I struggled to pay rent. It was enough to start an onset of panic and anxiety.”

She developed a fear of vomiting (emetophobia) and became agoraphobic because she was afraid to have a panic attack in a public place.

“I walked around with a bag in my purse for at least three years,” she said. “I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t grocery shop. I couldn’t eat.”

Standing 5-foot-5, Arch deteriorated to 92 pounds.  

In her early 30s, she was diagnosed with four illnesses. In addition to agoraphobia and emetophobia, she has general anxiety disorder and a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called Pure O. She doesn’t experience the compulsions commonly associated with OCD, but her mind never stops.

“I worry from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep,” she said. “At my darkest moments, there are absolutely terrifying images that come at me every second — so quick that I can’t catch up with the first one before the second one comes.”

After her diagnosis, professionals told Arch that she wouldn’t lead a normal life, stressing an inability to work. She refused to accept this and strived for better, devoting hours researching her illnesses and spending hundreds of dollars on psychologists, cognitive therapy and talk therapy.

“There was no way I was going to sit at home and wither away if there was something I could do about it,” she said.

For more than two decades, Arch led a successful career in journalism and publishing. She is also an active member of the Niagara community and served as a Thorold city councillor from 2010-14.

Arch has been working at Brock since May 2015, achieving full-time permanent status nine months ago in the Student Wellness and Accessibility Centre.

“It’s both ironic and wonderful that I ended up in this department because it’s helped me deal with my own well-being,” she said. “Work is a wonderful distraction. It’s also a necessity. Coming in is something I have to do to survive.”

A regular workday, and mornings in particular, can be exhausting for Arch. She spends most of her time doing intake for students in need of accommodation or counselling, all while her mind continues to race. If she experiences difficult symptoms, she practises coping exercises, like deep breathing and refocuses her attention using her five senses.

“I focus on five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell and one thing I can taste. It takes my mind off of the thoughts that are terrifying me in that moment,” she said.

There are days when she wishes she would call in sick or come in late, but she pushes through, often practising meditation and exercise to get herself moving.

“There’s a moment when I first wake up and I think, ‘is this going to be the day that I don’t make it through?’ At the end of the day, I pray — I thank God — that I did,” she said.

Arch has shared her experience with co-workers and self-identified her mental illnesses with Brock’s Health Management office. She encourages fellow Brock University employees who are struggling with a mental illness to talk with their supervisors and Health Management, and seek accommodation should they require it.

She stresses that Brock is a safe environment for people to disclose their disability and illnesses.

“I’ve had nothing but positive support from HR, the departments I’ve worked with, my co-workers and especially my union,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed or scared that I will lose my job because of my mental illnesses.”  

Employees can self-identify to Trevor Hall, Acting Health Management Consultant, or Kathryn Walker, Manager of Health Management and Wellness.

All medical information is kept confidential within Health Management,” said Walker. “If accommodation is required, an individual plan based on medical limitations and capabilities will be created in collaboration with the individual, their supervisor, the health management consultant and, if applicable, the union.”

More information about Brock’s accommodation process can be found on the Human Resources SharePoint site. Employees can also access services offered by Brock’s Employee and Family Assistance Provider, Morneau Shepell and consult their Green Shield benefits booklet.

Health Management has planned several workshops this week in recognition of Mental Health Week, including a fundraiser and barbecue for the Canadian Mental Health Association, and workshops on mindfulness, yoga, smoothies and essential oils.

“It’s wonderful to see that Brock is doing something for Mental Health Week,” said Arch. “I’m proud to be part of an organization that recognizes the week and plans events that bring attention to mental health.”

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