Ashley Smith – a tragedy waiting to happen

Like most Canadians, I was shocked and saddened by the video footage released this week showing how Ashley Smith was duct taped to an airplane seat and forcibly injected with pharmaceutical tranquilizers to control her behavior.  Ashley Smith’s story illustrates the caverns and pitfalls[1] in Canada’s mental health system and in particular how it relates to youth.

Ashley had trouble in school. Starting when she was 10 years old, she became increasingly difficult to manage. She engaged in inappropriate behavior and had been suspended many times. Ashley committed several offenses during her teen years including assault, insulting people on public transit and making harassing telephone calls. She was funneled through an alternative measures program and placed on probation. Her adoptive parents also took her to a psychiatrist to rule out mental health issues.[2] She then underwent a battery of assessments and the results indicated personality disorders but not depression. She was also diagnosed with ‘oppositional defiance’ disorder. Eventually, Smith would breach her probation and end up incarcerated.

Smith’s story is one of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The expectations at the New Brunswick Youth Centre required that Ashley conform to expected norms. The system was predicated on the ability of inmates to improve their status and rise through the hierarchy.[3] Ashley did not function well in these settings. Ashley’s behavior became increasingly challenging for institutional staff to handle. As she escalated, so did the consequences for her behavior with her eventually being sentenced to secure custody. When she would be discharged, she would do something else and end up back in.

When you watch the video of her on the airplane, you can clearly see she is shackled to the seat. She does not appear to be struggling at all. Then, for some unknown reason, her hands are duct-taped. The video of her receiving the forced injections is even more disturbing. She is faced with guards and staff in gas masks who don’t treat her with basic human dignity.

One really has to wonder why everyone seemed to be so afraid of this young woman. Clearly the only way they could deal with her was to treat her as sub-human. Why were they all so afraid of her that she needed 2 spit hoods? It seemed like they were trying to ‘break’ her in order to get her to comply. The feminist in me is peaked as I wonder why a system would be so overwhelmed by one young woman with oppositional defiance disorder? Perhaps people working with her felt the need to for her to behave properly, like a ‘lady’ instead of an out of control hooligan.

What I also find interesting is that Ashley was adopted. I am really beginning to wonder if anything good comes from adoption. Sure, it works out for the parents who want a baby but what about that child or the birth mother? Children need to see themselves reflected in those around them. I get that there are situations where adoption is the only answer for children but I think it is an imperfect answer. Certainly open adoption is more preferable than the old system of secrecy and denial. I do wonder what affect adoption had on Ashley.

Regardless of the circumstances of Ashley’s adoption, what happened to her in the system is unconscionable and unforgivable. As a society, we must start to put resources into people instead of profits. Our politicians need to step up and do the right thing and create a mental health strategy for our country. Even though Ashley did not have a diagnosed mental health issue she still needed therapy. Clearly something happened to this young woman, some kind of trauma, to cause her behavior to escalate. There had to be some place in our world where Ashley would have fit. One thing we know for sure – the prison system was not the place.

[1] To call them ‘cracks’ would be erroneous.

[3]  page 13

What I’m Listening To

I love listening to podcasts. So every now and then I will post what I am listening to right now.

Mental illness is one of the most misunderstood illnesses.[1] There is so much stigma around mental illness we need mainstream programming that addresses it. I have been listening to a 5-part series on mental illness called ‘Taking Crazy Back.’ Tod Maffin, who has been open about his struggles with mental health and addictions, has put together this series. I encourage you to give it a listen.

[1] I think obesity is also extremely misunderstood.

Dispatches from the Swamp – the ‘mish-mash’ edition

  • I heard a great podcast the other day called ‘Taking Crazy Back.’ It is by Tod Maffin who has done stints on CBC radio. I highly recommend it! We need to bring awareness to the fact that mental illness is just that an illness. It is not a moral failing.
  • I have decided to try and reduce my dose of pain medication over the next couple of weeks. My ulcerative colitis is in a good place right now so it is a good time. I have not had much breakthrough pain for the most part since I was off work in the summer. Reducing my pain medication may help with my fatigue issues, which will make everything so much better. I think this will go well, as I have weaned off before without any issue.
  • One more traffic rant! Today when I was driving in some asshole in a pickup truck just blew through a stop sign at one of the 3-way stops. What a jerk!

The Perils of Living with an Anxiety Disorder

As everyone knows my world has been stressful on many fronts for quite some time. To compound things, I also have an anxiety disorder. The symptoms of anxiety are very debilitating. I have trouble breathing, my heart races, I feel shaky and my bowel starts to quiver. Some other symptoms I get include not being able to swallow and intrusive thoughts about scary or stressful situations. Some anxiety attacks take me by surprise. Others, there is definitely a connection to something going on or thoughts I am having.

The attacks that take me by surprise are the most frustrating. There are times I will be sitting and relaxing and all of a sudden I can’t breathe. I start trying to breathe deeply but I really can’t get my breath. I feel my heart race and then my jaw starts to ache because I am gritting my teeth and jaw. These attacks are the most frustrating because there is literally nothing I can do about them. Sometimes I can get it under control.

Another kind of anxiety attack happens when I am thinking about stressful things or issues. In these cases if I am not too far gone, I can get control of it by stopping the thoughts. I find that listening to music in these situations. It allows me to focus my thoughts on something else and to sing along to the music, which gives me a stress outlet. Music has always been very important to me. There is something about the sounds and the timbre of some voices that really speaks to me. Even as a child, my favourite times were when we listened to music. My mother would play Jim Croce, the Lettermen and Three Dog Night. As a teenager I moved on to Queen, Supertramp and Fleetwood Mac.

The other kind of anxiety attacks I get are in direct response to something that happens. Today, I read an email and something in it set me off. I probably over-reacted but that is the problem with anxiety. Before I know it I can’t breathe, I’m shaking and I start to cry. This makes me crazy because it happens at the most inopportune moments.

I have always had issues with anxiety. However, a full-blown disorder is something new. I developed this as a result of my colitis. The combination of being sick, living in chronic pain and the unpredictability of my ulcerative colitis along with my underlying issues conspired to give me a generalized anxiety disorder. I am grateful that it does not debilitate me completely. Although, given a choice there are times I would not leave the house for long periods of time. In some cases, anxiety can prevent people from meeting their potential.

In taking a cue from Airdrie from Talking to Air, I think it is critically important that we talk openly about how mental illness affects our lives. We must remove the stigma if we are to deal more effectively with mental illness.

So, my faithful readers, what do you think? Do you personally deal with anxiety? Do you know someone who does? Do you need help with your anxiety?

What to blog about…

Blogging daily requires a great deal of thought and engagement with the world. You have to always be thinking about what you might want to blog about plus figuring out what your position is on any given topic. When life takes over it is easy to forget to do this! I have been stupid busy so I have not been really paying much attention to politics and other things today. Then, miraculously, after 5 minutes of listening to Dan (master of upspeak[1]) Matheson on CTV news, I suddenly had 2 topics, which I exploit use as blog topics.

The first one is about the Arizona shootings. The funeral was held today for 9-year old Christina-Taylor Greene was held today. I am sure everyone knows she was born on September 11, 2001 or ‘nine-eleven.’ For some reason, someone decided it was important to bring the ‘nine-eleven’ flag to her funeral service today. Why? I don’t get the connection. I am sure other people were born on that day – is that flag going to be flown every time one of them passes away? I get that she died in a violent manner but really it had nothing to do with that infamous day. Had it been some sort of terrorist act, and then maybe there is a connection – tenuous at best. Instead she was a victim of a deranged individual who was able to purchase a Glock 19 allowing him up to 30 rounds in one clip! Why would someone ever need such a weapon?[2]

In my opinion, the flag was flown simply to ramp up the political rhetoric already flying. Instead of looking at the root causes of this incident they play to the emotional discourse surrounding nine-eleven. Clearly right-wing political rhetoric from Sarah Palin and her ilk they only succeeded in ramping up an already volatile situation. I think it is seriously time to for Americans to reconsider their right to bear arms.

The other thing that got my blood boiling was a story about a BC woman, in her 80s, who was inappropriately searched at the Calgary International Airport. She was a cancer survivor and had a saline-filled breast prosthetic. This was picked up by one of the new body scanners after a pin in her leg set off a medical detector. She was asked if she was carrying any liquids to which she answered no. According to her, the airport security officer accused her of lying. They then subjected her to an ‘enhanced’ pat down that further humiliated her. What I really don’t understand about all of this is the lack of common sense. Seriously, what threat does an old woman with a great prosthetic pose? If we really want to improve airport security common sense is a great place to start.

It is not the specifics of this case that I want to address, it is her demand for an apology. I have never really understood why someone wants an apology when it is not freely offered. If an apology has to be solicited what does it really mean. Is the person really sorry or are they only saying that to please someone else or to reduce the consequences they may face for their actions. Unless an apology is freely and sincerely given I do not want any part of it as it is completely meaningless. I am far more interested in action. I would much rather see that a person or in this case a governmental institution understands that they were in the wrong and pledges to change. Sadly I don’t see this happening any time soon.

[1] Personally, upspeak makes me mental!!!

[2] Interestingly, I heard an interview on As it Happens with the owner of a gun store in Tuscon. There had been a 2-300% increase of interest in Glocks since the shooting. Apparently, all one needs to buy such a gun in Arizona is a 4-minute background check of federal databases. Unless someone has been convicted of a felony. However, had they run a Google search they might have found some of his disturbing writings.

Anxious? Who me?

Anyone who knows me well will know that I battle with anxiety. I always have. I had trauma in my early years and then a chaotic childhood. Apparently this contributes a great deal to anxiety disorders. Over the years, I did much counselling and much healing but it was never enough to eradicate the anxiety and hyper-vigilance in my life. I have always been incredibily observant and I rarely ‘miss a beat.’ In fact, it is quite annoying to lots of people. I meticulously plan everything out and I rarely deviate from routines. I have knots in my shoulders and neck and I have even developed tendonitis as a result. I have always been able to manage my stress and anxiety with a small supply of ativan – not anymore.

Since my really bad bout with colitis, I have not been the same. My anxiety has escalated to the point where I am having muscle spasms, knots in my shoulders that can’t be removed and my jaw has been so sore because I keep it tensed. And then there is the fatigue – it has been so hard to work everyday with this level of stress and anxiety. Apparently chronic and serious illness also contributes to the development of an anxiety disorder.

Finally I went to my doctor a couple of weeks ago and she diagnosed a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She started me on medication. One medication for a short time to get me through until the other one kicks in. I am now on 3 meds for anxiety. The good news is I am steadily feeling better. They symptoms of stress and anxiety are slowly melting away and I have actually ‘missed a few beats.’ What has really surprised me is the actual physical manifestations of mental illness.

Now, some of you may wonder why I would blog about this. I believe there is no shame in mental illness. I will blog openly about it as I have about my colitis. The more of us who come out and say we have these illnesses the less power there is in the stigma. I really don’t care who knows and I will talk openly about it to whoever wants to hear. Maybe someone else will get treatment as a result.