I have been working on this post since the Christmas holidays and I was planning on sharing it sooner, but once I realized that Bell Let's Talk Day was coming up on January 30, I decided to hold off. I wanted to finally share my struggle with mental health.

I've seen a lot of people recently, more than usual, due to travel, Christmas holidays, family gatherings, funerals, and other events. The topic inevitably comes around to my long beard and hair, with some people not recognizing me and actually introducing themselves to me, or others asking me if I am becoming a priest (for you non-Coptic Orthodox Christians, our priests grow beards). I've heard both positive and negative feedback, with some really loving it or hating it, and most somewhere in between. I'm not letting it get to me either way.

I've been called Forrest Gump, Chuck from Cast Away, Einstein, Abouna (a priest), and a terrorist, among other things. Some people have asked me why I've grown it. I've joked about being in hibernation for the winter, or making my brother-in-law priest jealous, since his beard doesn't connect.

I've never grown my beard this long, but I've had a goatee for the last 20+ years. The last time I've grown my hair this long, I was probably in university, or maybe even high school. I've been keeping it short for over 25 years, and shaving it for the last 15 years, never letting it go longer than 2 weeks, while it's still stubbly. Last week, I used a comb and gel for the first time in 25 years!

The truth is that this all started over 5 months ago when I was in deep depression. I didn't care how I looked, and even though I'm now on an upswing, I still don't really care. Let me tell you how I came to this dark place.

As most of you know, especially from my posts, I suffer from migraines. I have a migraine attack every single day. A lot of people think migraines and headaches are interchangeable, but they are not. I want you to understand that a migraine is NOT just a bad headache.

A migraine is a neurological disorder that can affect every system of the body. The unbearable headaches that migraine is known for is only one symptom of the illness.

Some of MY symptoms include:
* Intense headaches
* Sensitivity to light, sound and smell (and sometimes touch)
* Dizziness
* Nausea without vomiting (this only started for me when my migraines transitioned from episodic to chronic in August 2014)
* Mood changes
* Irritability
* Fatigue
* Memory loss
* Brain fog
* Difficulty focusing and concentrating
* Aphasia (forgetting words)
* Anxiety
* Depression

Sometimes I experience aura (seeing spots or flashing lights) prior to my migraine.

There are many factors which can trigger MY migraines, including:
* Bright lights (including fluorescent lights, computer screens, and vehicle headlights)
* Loud noises
* Strong smells (certain foods, coffee, perfumes, candles, ...)
* Weather (pressure changes, humidity)
* Skipping meals
* Lack of sleep
* Alcohol (especially red wine)
* Strenuous exercise
* Stress

I have been suffering from migraines since the age of 10, so over 36 years now. At the very beginning, I would maybe get a couple of attacks a month, and I would be able to get rid of them with OTC medication, and by sleeping them off. I remember missing some classes in high school because I needed to sleep off my pain in the first aid room.

My migraines have been getting progressively worse over the years, moving from episodic (15/month), to daily chronic (non-stop 24/7 pain) since August 2014.

Four and a half years ago, on August 5th, 2014, I woke up in pain from a migraine, which I was used to. But this time, it was different. It didn't go away. There was no break. It got so bad to the point where I missed work for 10 consecutive days, and I even went to the ER for some pain relief for the first time in my life. I have been in constant, chronic pain since then, 24/7/365. The pain fluctuates from bearable to horrible on a daily basis.

Unable to work, I eventually got on long-term disability, which was and continues to be a stressful process. I can't sit in front of a computer screen for too long, or sit under fluorescent lights in an office, and I am unable to focus or concentrate for long periods of time, which makes it impossible to work.

Prior to August 2014, for about 10 years, I used to always wake up with a migraine. Ice and/or sleep and/or OTC medication would provide enough relief for me to get out of bed. I would have hours and days of relief at a time. In July 2014, the frequency and depth was increasing to the point where I was taking Excedrin Migraine almost on a daily basis. I also suffered from rebound, or medication overuse headaches on the days that I didn't take it. I have NOT been pain-free since.

Since August 2014, ice and/or sleep might reduce the pain, but it will not eliminate it. The migraine pain is ALWAYS there, ranging from a low of 3-4/10 (rarely), averaging 6-7/10, and it will hit 8-9/10 at least once a day, at which point I will have to retreat into a dark, quiet room, get an ice pack, and shelter myself from all sound, light and smells. My mornings are my worst as I wake up with a migraine daily, and I have a really hard time getting out of bed. I even sometimes wake up in the middle of the night from the pain. I usually suffer another migraine attack during the day or in the evening. I have acute migraine medication, which I used to overuse at one point because of the frequency of my pain, but it's not meant to be used that way. Now I take it 2-3 times a week, and it sometimes provides some relief, but not always.

I'm learning to live with migraines, and it's an evolving process. I have had to learn to manage my expectations of what I can and cannot do. I've learned to stop trying to put on a brave face for everyone else, and to be honest with how I feel. I'm always wearing a hat and a hoodie, and I always wear sunglasses outdoors and when driving. I always carry my indoor sunglasses to protect my light-sensitive eyes, as well as my migraine prescription meds for acute pain, and I recently started carrying essential oils to help me cope when I'm out of the house.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to deal with the physical suffering and mental stress caused from constant and debilitating migraine attacks.

Living with non-stop chronic pain has led to anxiety and depression that I never felt before all of this started 5 years ago. I spend so much time by myself, at home, in bed, that it gets very depressing. I feel no motivation to get out of bed since I don't work. I try to use seeing my family when they get home from school & work as motivation, but a lot of the time, I'm still in pain, or my mood and irritability prevent me from enjoying my time around them.

Obviously the chronic pain is the biggest part of why I feel anxious and depressed, but the hardest part of this is how it affects my family:
* Not being able to participate in husband and father duties like I used to
* Not being able to support my family financially (although my disability insurance does cover 70% of my salary)
* Not being able to help out around the house or with chores
* Not being able to go to church with my family

I'm not able to be a proper husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend.

I've lost a lot of friends along the way because I cancel a lot of plans, often at the last minute. I can't commit to anything because I don't know how I will feel on any given day. It's gotten to the point that some people have stopped inviting me because of the many times I've said no or had to cancel. But I've slowly learned that's it's ok. I've been able to figure out who my true friends are. They accept me for who I am, and they don't give up on me. They go out of their way to see me or accommodate my schedule.

I often feel useless, unable to truly be me. I feel like a shell of my former self. I don't even know who I am anymore. It's been very hard to separate myself from my migraines. When I do get a chance to socialize, which is rare, people will almost always ask me about my migraines. It's as if that's all who I am anymore.

My moods go through phases. My lows are low, and my highs are not as low. I thank God that I've never hit rock-bottom where I've been suicidal, and I hope to God that I never get there. I'm either in my PJs, or in shorts or sweats and a t-shirt on most days, even when I go out. Dressing up for me these days is putting on a pair of jeans. It's not that I've given up. I just don't care what I look like, and I don't care what people think of how I look. During my lowest point in September 2018, I would not get out of bed till 5-6 PM, and I would only come down in time for dinner. I would barely leave the house, and I really didn't want to see anybody. This is what led to my beard and hair growth. It took me a few months to get out of that funk, and I'm on my way up. I'm trying my best not to get that low again.

Some days, I don't have much of a choice to get out of bed or out of the house, especially for driving the kids around, and I have to force myself and push through the pain. Those days lead to a crash either later that day or the next day, which can take me a few days to recover from. The difference between now and 5 years ago, is that I used to push myself every day, load up on OTC drugs, and not give myself time to recover, as if I was in denial of my migraines, or I was trying to suppress them. It was a very unhealthy approach, and it finally caught up to me.

But even now that I put myself and my health first, I still haven't figured out how to beat this thing. I have opened myself up to many alternative treatments that I never would have considered 5 years ago, on top of the more traditional treatments that I continue to use. Unfortunately, there has been no success in reducing my pain, let alone removing it, so far.

I've taken a lot of workshops on dealing with chronic pain, anxiety and depression, using different tools such as cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation and mindfulness. I'm on anti-depressants. I've seen psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. I have a lot of tools that I've learned at my disposal, but my biggest issue has been getting motivated to use them!

I go through phases of how much work I put into dealing with my migraines and my depression because it is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting trying to find a solution to a problem that may never get solved. I’m simply doing the best I can with what I’ve been dealt.

Why am I telling my story? It's not for pity or sympathy. I know that there are many people who are worse off than myself, whether it be an illness, family situation or financial difficulty, and I’m grateful for what health and support I do have. But it also does mininize MY pain and MY reality.

Migraine is often met with skepticism, stigma and discrimination. I know I dealt with this at several of my jobs. Please help make the fight easier by removing the guilt and shame that we migraineurs constantly feel.

I am telling my story for empathy and understanding, to help raise awareness about how severe migraines can be, and about how mental health, including depression, can be a huge comorbidity (the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient) with migraines.

Migraine is linked to both depression and anxiety. In fact, people with migraine are about five times more likely to develop depression than someone without migraine, according to Dawn Buse, Ph.D., the Director of Behavioral Medicine at the Montefiore Headache Center and an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“It’s also very logical when you’re living with a chronic disease like migraine, which is affecting your life in such a big way, that you’re going to feel sad, and down, and frustrated about how it’s affecting your life,” she says.

It seems that mental health is a hot topic these days, as it's gaining more traction than it has in the past. But this is not a fad. It's reality.

The crisis is real. Right now, of the more than 6.7 million Canadians living with a mental illness—including children and young adults—too many experience long wait times for treatment, turn to emergency rooms or shelters, or worse, end up in the criminal justice system.

What’s more, far too many Canadians suffer in silence because of fear, stigma, or the mistaken belief that mental illness isn’t treatable.

It’s a fact: One in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lifetime. One of the biggest hurdles for anyone suffering from mental illness is overcoming the stigma. It is the number one reason why two-thirds of those living with a mental illness do not seek help.

Now you know of at least one person suffering from depression, but I can guarantee you that I'm not the only one. There are signs & red flags that you can look for in others, and even in yourself:

* Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
* Fatigue
* Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
* Pessimism and hopelessness
* Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much
* Irritability
* Restlessness
* Loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex
* Overeating, or appetite loss
* Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps thst won't go away
* Digestive problems that don't get better, even with treatment
* Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings
* Suicidal thoughts or attempts

I was ashamed of my illness, at first of my migraines, and then of my depression. I came to realize that I have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide. I didn't ask for any of this, and I've come to accept that this is my new reality. This is one of the most complex and challenging battles life has thrown me.

There are several things that I cannot do like I used to, and there are some things that I can only do in moderation. I've come to not have high expectations for any new treatments or drugs. "Expect the worst, and hope for the best." That's the motto that I've learned to live by.

I don't know if this is my cross to bear, and if it is, I have to learn to accept it. If God wants to heal me, I will wait for His time to do so, if at all. Not knowing if this is temporary or permanent has been one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with.

If and when I shave my beard, that also won't mean that I won't be anxious or depressed any longer. Maybe I'll be tired of all the comments. Maybe I'll be tired of all the hair. Maybe I'll just want a change. Whether or not I physically show it, I may still be depressed. I'm sure that the majority of you had no idea that I suffered from anxiety and depression. Some of you who know me & my situation better might have an idea, and I've shared my issues with some people.

Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. And that goes for both migraines and depression.

If you've gotten this far, thanks so much for listening, and please be more empathetic and understanding of migraines and depression. Mental health affects us all. Help end the stigma around mental illness.

Also, please keep me in your prayers ?❤️

#BellLetsTalk #ItsNotJustAHeadache #ChronicMigraine #MentalHealth #CAMH #Depression #DepressionBeard #YouAreNotAlone

Here are some migraine and mental health resources if you're interested in reading more:

This is another man's story about his depression beard:

10 Ways Migraine is Not "Just a Headache"

Migraine and Depression

The Link Between Migraine, Depression, and Anxiety

Links for mental health:

Bell Let's Talk

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health:

Mental Health 101:

The Crisis is Real:

Here are some mental illness & addiction facts and statistics for Canada (more stats in the link:

* In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem.
* By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have—or have had—a mental illness.

Who is affected?
* 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence.
* Mental and physical health are linked. People with a long-term medical condition such as chronic pain are much more likely to also experience mood disorders. Conversely, people with a mood disorder are at much higher risk of developing a long-term medical condition.

Morbidity and mortality
* Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada.
* The disease burden of mental illness and addiction in Ontario is 1.5 times higher than all cancers put together and more than 7 times that of all infectious diseases. This includes years lived with less than full function and years lost to early death.

* About 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide—an average of almost 11 suicides a day. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds.
* More than half of suicides involve people aged 45 or older.
* In 2016, suicide accounted for 19% of deaths among youth aged 10 to 14, 29% among youth aged 15 to 19, and 23% among young adults aged 20-24.

* 64% of Ontario workers would be concerned about how work would be affected if a colleague had a mental illness.
* 39% of Ontario workers indicate that they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
* 40% of respondents to a 2016 survey agreed they have experienced feelings of anxiety or depression but never sought medical help for it.

Access to services
* While mental illness accounts for about 10% of the burden of disease in Ontario, it receives just 7% of health care dollars. Relative to this burden, mental health care in Ontario is underfunded by about $1.5 billion.
* Only about half of Canadians experiencing a major depressive episode receive ‘‘potentially adequate care.’’
* Of Canadians aged 15 or older who report having a mental health care need in the past year, one third state that their needs were not fully met.

Costs to society
* The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is estimated at $51 billion per year. This includes health care costs, lost productivity, and reductions in health-related quality of life.
* In any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems.
* The cost of a disability leave for a mental illness is about double the cost of a leave due to a physical illness.
* A growing body of international evidence demonstrates that promotion, prevention, and early intervention initiatives show positive returns on investment.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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