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'Like a shadow that just creeps up on you'

Sue Batson Feuer cannot handle these social exchanges on her own - just getting out the door is a triumph of willpower

Globe and Mail Update

A party invitation leads to panic: What if she dies on the ride over? What if she says the wrong thing? A play date for her nine-year-old son is paralyzing: How will she get through the chit-chat at the door?

For school plays, a friend must join her. For parent-teacher meetings, the principal, who has become a friend and knows about her illness, sits in to help guide the conversation. Sue Batson Feuer cannot handle these social exchanges on her own - just getting out the door is a triumph of willpower.

"The anxiety is always there," says the 38-year-old artist from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., who has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. "I have to wrestle that to the ground before I leave the house."

It started when she was 22, a newlywed - a life change that she now believes temporarily buried the trouble signs. One day, she stopped going out. She slept too much and gave up her friendships. She pretended to be happy baking or decorating the house when, in truth, she was too anxious take a walk and too depressed to care.

As for her art, she barely lifted her paintbrush, except to a wall in her house.

"It's like a shadow that just creeps up on you," she says, "and sometimes you don't realize how bad it is until other people start to point it out to you."

It was hard on her husband - they separated twice, but are currently reconciled.

Even when you can name it - recognize it as a chemical imbalance that sends you plummeting into dull sadness, or brings on panic attacks that feel like heart attacks - you still have to find a way to control it.

For more than a decade, Ms. Batson Feuer drifted from one doctor to another who wrote ever-changing prescriptions. One medication caused a bizarre allergic reaction that painfully shredded the skin on her lips; another made it physically impossible to cry. More than one psychiatrist diagnosed her, prescribed a new pill and saw her to the door within 10 minutes of their first meeting.

Several years ago, a nurse at her son's doctor's office listened to her frustration with the "roller-coaster ride" of treatment and arranged an appointment with an internist. "He sat down and talked to me like a human being for 45 minutes," she says. Her care, including regular checkups with a psychiatrist, has become a co-ordinated effort, to monitor all aspects of her health. A better drug has levelled out her emotions, without stripping away her identity.

Now, she pushes herself to family gatherings, to play dates and appointments by puttering through a routine at least an hour before, laying out her clothes, tidying the house. Her painting, which stops when she is depressed, is steady. And she talks about her illness openly - with her son, with other parents, with friends. Trying to hide, she says, only gives her one more thing to feel anxious about.

"I have no shame in saying that I take medication to cope with everyday life," she says. "[But] I am not just a walking prescription. I'm not just 300 milligrams of whatever."

Erin Anderssen is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail. This is one of a series of profiles of individuals across Canada who are dealing with mental-health issues.

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Return to Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis

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In Breakdown, The Globe and Mail documents the enormous, unaddressed cost of mental illness to Canadian individuals, families and society. The series closes with a search for solutions.


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