The past year of my life has been quite a rollercoaster, with as many ups as there were downs. Of course, the past year has been filled with challenges and obstacles because of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the stresses and challenges associated with the pandemic, losses in my life and some medical issues have made this past year quite challenging for me. However, I often feel like I invalidate my own mental health needs by saying, “Others have it way harder than me right now, so I shouldn’t be complaining.”
Reading or watching the news makes it clear that so many people across Canada and worldwide are experiencing considerable loss and are being challenged by the pandemic. I fully acknowledge that, but with the support of my therapist, I have also come to realize that I also need to take care of my own health needs. So, I feel that it is perfectly okay to put yourself and your wellbeing first and say the year has been hard for me as it has also been for many others around the world.
I graduated from college with a Diploma in Educational Support. Shortly after that, I started applying for jobs at several school boards. I realized that it is challenging to get an Educational Assistant (E.A.) job right after graduation throughout this process. My confidence decreased as I kept getting interviews but not getting hired. I found myself thinking, “Should I just give up?” and “Am I not meant to be an E.A.?” So, I started looking around for other jobs and, eventually, I was hired at a small tutoring company. This gave me experience and knowledge working with children at various grade levels. It was comforting for me to see them finally understand their work and boost their self-confidence. In a way, it was not just the students learning from me, but I was also learning from them. This gave me the courage to try again and re-apply to school boards.
A local school board asked to interview me, and I felt mixed emotions. I was once again nervous and lacked confidence, especially after my previous rejections – including one from the same board. On the other hand, I felt better knowing that I had more job experience, and at least I was aware of the types of questions the interviewers might ask. My biggest fear was that the previous interviewer would be interviewing me again and once again not want to hire me. I remember walking into the room with sweaty palms from the nerves, although these lessened as the interview began. A few weeks later, I was terrified to open the e-mail from the school board. Once I opened it and saw the congratulations in the first sentence, I honestly did a dorky happy dance. I was so excited and eager to start the training with my renewed confidence!
Suddenly, the big coronavirus shutdown happened. It had only been a few days since I completed my training and I was getting ready for my first day as a supply E.A. The Ontario Government shut down nearly all activities to keep the province safe from the coronavirus pandemic. I completely understand the necessity of the lockdown and that extreme precautions needed to be taken against a virus that so many people knew little about at the time. That being said, it was a major setback for me. All that confidence and excitement I had went right back down to zero. Schools moved online, and they would obviously not need supply staff. The tutoring company I worked at also had to close due to the coronavirus. I was at my lowest point; unsure where to go with getting out of bed being a daily struggle.
Fortunately, I was able to work as a caretaker for two young children with multiple physical and learning disabilities. I used my E.A. training to provide in-home support for them. Though I appreciated the opportunity to make some income during the pandemic, I still felt off and not at my happiest. I still felt lost and not like myself. I was beginning to feel as if I did not know who I was anymore.
The calendar turned to May, and I suddenly began feeling strong abdominal pains. 9 out of 10 times I ate something, I felt sick afterwards. I became increasingly scared to eat because I was worried about how I would feel after. My doctor put me on medications to see if I just had an infection, but nothing changed. Next, he put me on a “plain diet.” No dairy, spicy food, sweet food – basically, anything that tastes good I could not have. I ate pasta with no sauce and mashed potatoes without milk or butter. We began slowly incorporating some items back into my diet to see how my stomach reacts. It was a trial-and-error system on my stomach. This was when my doctor told me to get a blood test.
The results revealed I had gluten intolerance. This was not wholly new to me since my Great Aunt and one of my cousins also have gluten intolerance. However, it was a big adjustment for myself but also for my family. We needed to get a second toaster to avoid cross-contamination, wash down counters much more frequently, and buy gluten-free food and ingredients to ensure all meals are gluten-free. Also, going to restaurants is more of an adventure since I have to make sure they have gluten-free options.
This new reality took a mental toll on me since I constantly felt like a burden to everyone. They needed to adjust meals and check through every single ingredient to make sure there is no gluten. After all, I cannot have products that contain wheat, barley, rye, oats, and some soy products. That is a lot of food, and fortunately, there are alternatives (like gluten-free bread). It has been almost a year since my diagnosis, and I have gotten used to the gluten-free diet. I have still felt challenges, such as feeling like a burden, knowing it is harder to find places to eat.
July came around, and my best friend suddenly told me that she was moving to Ottawa with her boyfriend, who got a job there. As a good friend, I was excited for her to embark on that adventure and happy her boyfriend found a good job. Plus, their living arrangements in Ottawa make it more realistic for them financially. It was and continues to be really tough for me. She’s the one person who stuck by me during my difficult times and daily struggles: she’s my rock and ride-or-die. Hearing she was moving tore my heart into pieces. She is now 3.5 – 4 hours away, so I can’t just go to her house when we need some “girl time.”
Thankfully, technology makes it easier to talk – daily texts, regular calls, and video chats. Still, the pandemic makes it challenging for us to arrange a weekend to see each other in person. I hold on to hope that, once the pandemic subsides, we can see each other again. I guess a silver lining is that I still have other friends who live nearby to see and enhance those friendships. Still, it is not the same as seeing my best friend.
The rest of the summer was mostly pretty good. I spent some quality bonding time with my family, and we even rented a cottage for a week. After the past few months, I thought there was no way I would have fun and enjoy myself. Part of me wondered if I even deserved to go on vacation and have fun. When we arrived, the cottage looked even better than the pictures; the views were spectacular. The beach was very nice, and I spent so much time there, and there was so much to see and do.
By the end of the week, I felt like I had the time of my life. The beach and the cottage were so peaceful and relaxing. I felt happy and mesmerized by the area. It was my happy place. Everything I was going through before coming here left my mind, and I felt so free and on top of the world. The vacation was exactly what I needed.
In September, I was finally able to start working as an Educational Assistant! Getting that first supply call, I could barely contain my excitement. As soon as I accepted the call, I jumped out of my bed and ran to the shower to get ready for work. I remember running downstairs to eat breakfast, pack my lunch, and looking up the school I was called to so I could figure out the fastest route there. My childhood dreams had finally come true, my hard work had paid off, and I was about to start my first day at work. I even arrived half an hour early! Any first-day nerves I had quickly disappeared. My confidence skyrocketed after the teacher found out it was my first day. She was impressed with how I knew exactly what I was doing and bonded with the students – she thought I had been on the supply staff for a year or two. That felt so great to hear!
Then, October hit. I was happy, in a positive mindset over the past two months, and then the news I never wanted to hear finally hit. My family cat was really sick, and her chances of improving were very low. My heart sunk. Since I was a little girl, she has been with me and was the only pet I ever knew and had. Friends came and went from my life, but she always stuck around. She was my best friend. During all my hard moments the past year, she was who I would go to when I needed to get my mind off things. Petting her and just hearing her loud purrs boost my happiness levels, even if for a little while. She kept me company when I was sick; she was there with me when my best friend moved to Ottawa. I was not ready to say goodbye and let her go. Then again, when is anyone prepared to say goodbye to their pet?
Watching my parents leave the driveway with her in the car, the tears hit. I knew I would never see her again, and that hurt so bad. It hurt even more than the undiagnosed gluten pains. Fortunately, I had my brothers there so we could hug and comfort each other. I broke down on a call with that same best friend from Ottawa. The following days and weeks were the hardest. I was stuck at home without her there, sitting on couches where she would always curl up next to me on. Her absence stung. I barely slept, spent many nights crying at her pictures and missing her. I returned to work but didn’t truly feel like being there; the joy was zapped out of me and I was ignoring calls from friends with whom I no longer felt like talking.
I needed her back, and I did get her back, even if it was in a different form. A memory shelf was created in my room, that held a cat sculpture in her memory, which brought me some peace. It was like she was back there with me. I even have her ashes in that cat sculpture. When I finally got to pick her up, I thought I would feel sad all over again—quite the opposite. I was ecstatic and felt a sense of relief I had not felt in a long time – I could breathe and relax. She was with me, and she is back home. Closure.
As 2020 came to a close, things slowly started looking up for me. At my doctor’s advice, I began seeing a therapist to help channel my anxiety and recover from the year I had. She has changed me because she challenges me and helps me improve my self-esteem and confidence. She encourages me to think critically about my negative thinking and encouraging me to think more positively. Between her, my family, and the tight group of girlfriends in my corner, I know I can get better mentally, and I cannot wait to meet the woman I will become.
I know I am not the shy, negative, and low confidence person I was back in December when I first met her. That girl was afraid to admit she needed help and was seeing a therapist. Now, I am the girl you are seeing writing a blog and ready to open up about what her year has been like and eager to share my story and is not embarrassed to admit she sees a therapist.
I have grown as a human and have learned it is okay to put yourself first when your health and wellbeing depend on it. I look forward to growing as an individual and learning more things about myself, my life, and where it takes me. But most of all, I look forward to bringing you along the journey with me. I have had a rough go of it over the past year, but I am still fighting and persevering. So many of us have had challenging years. I see this opportunity to get my feelings out in a therapeutic manner, learn from and with so many like-minded people, and I hope you are excited to read my posts as I am to write them. Let’s take this rollercoaster journey to health and wellness together – with hopefully more ups along the way than downs.
Cailley is an Educational Assistant and is passionate about her work with children with special needs. She is interested in yoga and meditation, working with children, animals, and community volunteerism. Cailley has begun to realize the importance of exploring herself to better understand her mental well-being.
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