Earla Dunbar – I Have My Life Back (2012) - frist published in Recovery Network Toronto

My psychiatrist tells me that I am like two different people; one, from when I started therapy with him in 1998, two, to the person I am today.  Most people do not believe that I suffered so much and how far I have come.

I used to feel less than everybody else.  I felt I was stupid, boring, nothing to talk about. In my mind everyone else knew stuff and I did not.  Why would anyone want to be with a person like me, why would they waste their time?  I thought everyone was watching me and judging me negatively.  How did I get here? How did I leave my house after virtually being housebound for six years?  It was at the age of forty-four that I finally got help.

As a baby, when my mother took me for a walk she would cover my head with a blanket since she thought I was the ugliest baby she had ever seen.  As a child I was a fun, loving, giggly girl who loved being in plays and being the centre of attention.  I started to feel different when I was about five and when I left my home I made sure someone from the family was with me. This was the start of my social phobia. Going to church was hard for me to do but I loved it and school.  I started feeling sick and had tummy aches.  I was the baby in this household; a tiny two bedroom house with my Aunt and Uncle (my second parents) and their five sons.  My Father, Mother, sister and I lived in the basement, which was not finished except for a kitchen.  A curtain divided the living room from our one bedroom.  We had one bathroom for all us. I felt so safe here.

My Father, oh my, he was like my God. We went everywhere together and I never wanted him to leave my side. He made me happy and I felt so loved by him. New Year’s day when I was nine, my sister woke me up and said “Daddy’s dead”.  I went to look at him and knew he was gone.  What is this, not my Daddy.  Oh please God let me die and Daddy live.  I prayed and prayed for such a long time. My pain was unbearable but so was everyone else’s.  I didn’t want anyone to feel the pain I felt so if Daddy was alive and I died it would be much better.   I prayed to God to bring Daddy back.  I didn’t want to live with this pain.  My world fell apart.  On the day of my father’s funeral, my uncle started to sexually abuse me and I wanted him to go away and he did but not until after my mother came home from hospital.

After my Father’s death my Mother became suicidal and was hospitalized for six weeks.  This was the beginning of my never-ending stream of depression and anxiety.  I would not go to school; I hid in my dark closest where I was safe, or I’d sit in my rocking chair, rocking and banging my head, rocking and banging my head.  I refused to cooperate with the psychiatrist so my mother took me to a mental health institute up north and it terrified me and I was told if I did not smarten up this is where the psychiatrist would send me.  From that day forward I, play-act, being the happy one.

My mother remarried when I was fourteen and we moved to a different part of the city.  Everything was new to me; the area, the school and the students.  My anxiety got worse and I started doing drugs and alcohol.  My step-father started drinking more and more and became physically and verbally abusive to my Mother and myself.  Most nights we had to hide outside until my Mother thought he had passed out from the drinking.  We had to hide outside because he said he was going to kill us.  The first panic attack happened when my step-father tried to strangle me for the first time.  I shook uncontrollably and hyperventilated.  Panic attacks turned into panic disorder later on in my life.  At this time I tried committing suicide many times and later in life but thankfully I was never successful.

Time went on and  my social phobia, agoraphobia, panic attacks and depression got worse.  Before getting help I was physically sick every day for those six years. I was panicky all the time, suicidal, depressed, and sometimes slept for eighteen hours a day with no energy.  I was losing myself as a person,  feeling like I was walking through a tunnel, not being part of what was going on around me, floating around my body more and more.   I have no idea how I stayed alive with so much pain and panic.

Eventually I got help, after I told my doctor a bit of what was going on and she put me on a waiting list at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, CAMH.  Remember  I was that happy girl, a great actress, and I did not want to be locked up like my Mother said would happen when I was little.  When I had my hand on my door to leave for my first appointment with CAMH, I knew I had two choices; stay home and die, or open up that door and get the help I needed.  I am so glad I opened up that door.

Much of my help came through the cognitive behaviour therapy work that I did each and every day until it just became part of the way I thought which involved doing thought records.  Doing the thought records, over hundreds,  helped me become more aware of my anxieties and understand them.   It took time, effort, energy and it was long and very emotional.  I started with leaving my house every day.  My anxiety was overwhelming and when I was outside all I could think about was “what if I see someone?”, “what do I say?”, “I have nothing to say, I am stupid.”  “They will also see that I am shaking and red in the face and what an embarrassment this will be.” All I wanted to do was run back inside the house but I knew I had to listen to my psychiatrist when he said I needed to leave the house everyday.

As an example of leaving the house these are the steps I took;

Make the decision to leave the house and leave the house as soon as I could so I did not have much time to think about it.  If I had too much time to think about leaving the house my anxiety and panic would become too great and I would not be able to leave.

Then I would get dressed and walk out the door.  While outside I dealt with my negative thoughts and the physical symptoms that accompanied them.  This could be so immense but I knew I had to stay in the situation to realize I could do this.  At home I felt safe and no one could hurt me there but when outside I felt people could hurt me.   I had to challenge myself.  When I got home I was totally exhausted but realized yes I did leave the house.

Then I would write down what I thought would happen and what really did happen.  I had to do this many many times before the anxiety lessened and the distance I travelled became longer away from home.   It was a matter of doing what made me anxious over and over until there was very little anxiety but also replacing my thoughts with more realistic thoughts.  The longer I avoided what made me anxious the more I gave it power. No one wants to do something they are terrified of but it is necessary to challenge them.  I learnt that I control my thoughts and the worry.  I had the control.  It made me realize that I can do more than I thought I ever could and that I enjoy challenging myself.   Also, realized that people are not always judging me and noticing me.  Most people are in their own heads to notice others. I was my worst critic and realized I was not the centre of attention for other people.  All the worry I did was a waste of time and energy.  When I was able to look around at people I could see I was not of importance to them.  I learnt that I cannot control what people think of me.  It does not matter what people think of me as long as I am being true to myself. 


Also, I learned that everyone has anxiety in different degrees.  This is part of being human.  I am not ashamed of my anxieties and depression, and I am not weak or stupid.  Talking to people about my anxieties and depression has never brought me any negative reactions only surprise.  Except for my Mother when I told her she took me out of her will and did not talk to me until some of her friends saw me doing interviews on TV and they said to her ‘you must be so proud of Earla’, then she finally came around!  I am  understanding that the abuse when I was young makes what happened to me with the anxiety and depression the cause.

My psychiatrist whom – I learned to trust and he to trust me – helped me to understand that I could control my anxiety and do the things that made me feel anxious.  At first doing the exposures – because of my low self esteem – I could not do them but he told me if I could not do them for myself do them for him.  So that is how I started and later I did them for my psychologist I was seeing for group therapy, and later still I did them for my husband.  Then one day I did it for me – wow that was a good day.  But I needed all this support to keep going, to be told I was doing good work and that I was strong.

One day it was like a  light bulb went on, and all of a sudden I realized that my anxiety was getting less and less.  Each exposure I did gave me more confidence to do others that were stronger and the confidence kept growing. My desire to conquer all my anxieties gave me such excitement that I kept doing them.  It felt like I had been locked up in a cage all of my life but now I  wanted to be with people, enjoy life, not hide in a cage.

Along with the thought records I had also kept a journal for many years. Writing the thought records gave me another way to learn.  I could think about what was going on but writing  was a confirmation and a way for me to understand. When any negative thoughts came back I could read through my journal and remind myself how far I had come.  During this time I had set-backs some real bad ones.  Sometimes doing an exposure was so exhausting and emotional I had to take breaks and sleep was the way I got through these times.  It could take weeks for me to recover – but recover I did and I got myself out of bed and began to live again.  The set-backs were very difficult because I had come so far and then it was like being slapped down and not able to get up, but my determination to fight and get my life back was what kept me going forward.

Bit by bit, my self-esteem grew.  The negative thoughts I had about myself were gone and I became a very social person, liking people, wanting to be with people.  I feel so free now.

Anxiety can feel like having a gun to your head waiting for the shot.  But to this day I still have to be aware and continue to work on them.  But I have learned to find this challenging and to use this to get stronger and more confident. I was also on medication for the depression and anxiety and after 13 years I have tapered off one of them, and am in the process of tapering off the other.   I believed I would have to stay on medication my whole life but I am in such a good space right now so I tried tapering off with support from my psychiatrist – it’s working and am feeling great.

In 2001 was doing so much better I founded the Social  Phobia Support Group of Toronto and we met in High Park with three members for awhile.  Today we meet at CAMH and are one of the largest social phobic support groups in North America along with my peer facilitator and my best friend, Paul.  Yes, now I do have friends.

I am a mental health advocate, doing lots of interviews for the media and  talks at conferences.  In 2008, I was honoured to be recipient of the Transforming Lives Awards from CAMH.  I have done media campaigns for CAMH many times.  Last year I was blown away by the fact that Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada announced the Earla Dunbar Consumer Award which took place in Vancouver  and I was so pleased to present  the award.

But being more social, being our there, being confident and finding self esteem, also cost me my marriage.  I remember asking my psychiatrist when problems began in the marriage if I could go back to what I used to be; he replied that he didn’t think so. My husband was my biggest fan and biggest supporter.  But I was different and my marriage was different and I knew I needed to leave and to keep growing.  I’d always thought that doing all the CBT work was the hardest thing I ever did but leaving my husband was.  When I did leave I was suicidal again and my depression was immense for a few years but, again, with support I was able to be in this special place I am in right now.  I am happy and love my life.

At the moment I am taking courses at Peer Recovery Education for Employment & Resilience, PREFER.  Being in a classroom was a huge fear but I am conquering this and love the learning and meeting new people.   The learning has opened up more inside of me and I know there is much more I want to learn.  Learning has brought me much joy and, again, freedom.

I control the anxiety – not the anxiety controlling me.  “Face the fear and face the fight” – that is what I do now.   I do things now without the anxiety; leaving my home, making and receiving phone calls, shopping, eating in front of people, walking past people , asking for what I need, voicing my opinion, going to parties and not drinking or doing drugs, talking to strangers, and the list could go on.

If this is what life feels like then I really like it and I want to keep on growing and learning.  My life has become much fuller and I am very happy, smile and laugh a lot.  Dance around in my apartment to the music and sometimes when I am outside with my friend.  People are responding to me in such a positive way and I am having some wonderful conversations.  My social life is growing and I am making more friends.  A side effect from the medication was a very low libido  but my sex drive has come back.  Other things that are happening is I can taste food more and my sense of smell has come back. I sure am closer to the Earla I really am.  I have my life back.

Many thanks to the following people in helping with my journey to recovery:

Dr. Martin Katzman: My psychiatrist, he believed in me and kept telling me I could get well and have a full life.

Naomi Mitchell: My social worker, helped me realize that my marriage was over and helped me to find the strength to leave my marriage.

Paul Rennie:  My best friend, showed me how to be a friend and how to make a friend.

Kevin Healey:  Who facilitated my WRAP group, has helped me a lot including giving me guidance in writing this recovery story.

copyright © Earla Dunbar, Feb 2012.