Mental Illness: A Parent’s Journey (Stu Ducklow)

Stella_Ducklow

The following article was written by my brother about his daughter. Both have given permission for this to be re-posted on my blog. Stu said it was okay “as long as Stella gets all the credit” — that’s like my brother.

I have previously posted about Stella’s depression and struggle with mental illness (please see below).


Like most parents, we thought our first-born child was extraordinary, and we hovered over her as much as any helicopter parent.

She seemed to need more attention than most. When she nearly died of anaphylactic shock at age 4, we sought help from specialists ranging from a pediatric immunologist to Reiki practitioners. When eczema kept her from sleeping, we covered her with creams and dosed her with prescription meds.  When she was hospitalized for asthma, we gave away our four cats.

When she had trouble in Grade 1, we enrolled her in a private school where students were expected to learn to read via the ‘whole language’ process which spurned phonics and spelling. When she still couldn’t read, we took her to an after-school program that drilled her in the very same phonics and spelling that we were paying the other school to avoid. Stella was reading above grade level in a few months.

But we couldn’t come up with a solution for the all-day crying jags, cutting and constant dieting that began at about the age of 16. We turned to the provincial mental health system for help. We had a lot to learn. While mental health professionals are nearly always kind and well-meaning, the system they work for seems designed to serve administrators more than the patients.

For example, Stella was confined to her unit during one short stay because staff was thinking of moving her to another unit and they wanted her available at short notice. This meant that our daily one-hour drive around Halifax, the high point of her day, was forbidden. Fortunately a good-hearted nurse bent the rules when I promised to deliver her within ten minutes of a call to my cell phone.

Over the next ten years we got used to waiting up to 16 hours in emergency wards when Stella felt suicidal or overcome with anxiety or depression. In contrast, she was seen immediately for a fractured ankle, though broken bones aren’t nearly as harmful as suicidal thoughts.

She was admitted at least ten times for short stays of about a week. Though she saw many psychiatrists, they confined themselves to adjusting her meds. Requests for some form of psychotherapy were met with blank stares. She was given a regular outpatient worker who she met with for about a year but that person was hostile to us as parents and dismissive of Stella’s chances of recovery once she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. 

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My Arms Tell My Story (Stella Marcia Ducklow)

This article is written by my lovely niece Stella Ducklow on osted in MindVine and it speaks of the bodily geography of self harm. Stella is my older brother’s daughter from Halifax. I don’t get to see her much but I think that we usually “click” in spite of my middle-classness. You see Stella is edgy, a tattoo canvas, an artist and writer, a former student at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in photography, an advocate for the mentally ill, a roller derby player — not middle class at all. Initially, photography was a hobby and a way to get closer to her father who is also a photographer. It quickly became Stella’s medium for expressing her struggles with mental illness, for helping others through teaching photography and for raising awareness.Here is the piece she wrote for Ontario’s MindVine:

I recently had an awkward experience where my cafe manager caught a glimpse of my forearms and thought I had been in a recent accident. She held my wrist and glanced at the row of keloid scars and said ‘my dear, did you scratch yourself?’ I just  shrugged and  responded ‘no, those have always been there’ and went to fix the milk stand. I think we were both kind of embarrassed.

There isn’t really a social etiquette for this type of thing yet, it’s like goiters and nose jobs, the unwritten code is that although you can see it is not proper to address it.

It’s not a secret whatsoever that I’ve had a long battle with self harm. My arms tell that story. Too often I let the scars speak for me, because it’s easier to have people accept or reject me upon appearance than it is to actually risk talking about it. Because, like everyone else: I am afraid. I have cultivated a well honed persona that makes me appear outgoing, braised, and unaffected by stares of others. However, to this day I cannot utter the words ‘cutter’ ‘self harm’ or ‘stitches’ without having my stomach drop with shame.

To read more of this article click here and to read more of Stella click here.

Thanks Stella for writing. I admire you dear one. (Uncle Paddy)

My New Anxiety Mantra

Anxiety manifests physically before your brain can figure out what’s going on. You might feel it in your gut or in your breathing. But watch yourself to see what happens with you.

Today I was doing supervision with a fellow psychologist and she asks 3 questions of herself when she is anxious. I think that I will try it with myself and I recommend it to you as well.

First question: “What am I anxious about?” and give yourself some time to figure it out. It might surprise you that it is not what you first think it is. If you think a bit deeper, you might find a thread of anxiety that runs throughout your emotional life. And it might not be the current circumstance or tension you are dealing with.

Second, “Whose problem is it?” Most anxious people take on the upset feelings of others in their emotional world (e.g. mothers, teachers, neighbourhood children…) and think it is theirs to worry about. Again, think it through and get to the truth.

And #3: “Is there anything I can do about it right now?” If not, let it go. At least until you figure you need to pick it up again.

Now I have a weird disclosure to make. I use the “Reminders” app on my MacBook to tell me when I should start to worry about something! When I put a time clock beside the thing I am anxious about, my iPhone gives me a ding to remind me to be anxious. I laugh when I see that I have reminded myself to worry. Weird isn’t it? Reduces my anxiety though.

Waking Up Tired

John Blase, poet of “The Beautiful Due,” calls this poem “True Autumn” and it seems to my mind to be well understood as “generativity,” that stage in life beyond just being old (see Erik Erikson’s seventh stage of psychosocial development: generativity or stagnation). I have borrowed Blase’s first line, “Waking Up Tired” as the title, perhaps because I understand that so.

John, By the way, is becoming a best friend of mine, not that he knows me at all, but that I am knowing him. You will see his writing posted on my office door at Carey and I often read his poetry in lectures. His rich words resonate with my life and the work that I do, and I often find myself grateful to his sensitivity to all things human and spiritual. I was grateful that he happily allowed me to repost his words. Here they are:

He woke up tired of life. Not life in general but life specific, as in the way he was living it. Yes, that’s much closer to the truth: He woke up tired of his life. He’d reinvented himself about fifteen years ago, surprised everyone including God. It was a bloom for the better, he called it his late spring liberation.

But now he was in his Indian summer, true autumn would set in soon. He sensed this next season would not be one of putting on but falling away, like the leaves. Not a manufactured stripping a la flagellation, but natural, prompted only by the wind’s ways. The feeling was impossible to shake, that his absolute survival depended on this change. He simply could not continue on with the way things were. If he did he might uncle to despair, and that would be more than he could bear. That would be to admit a great defeat. That would be to give up on life, to trample underfoot the gift.