Seeking medical help takes courage. Actually getting it can take time and patience

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This First Person article is the experience of Adam Dykaar who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It was late at night, and I should have been sleeping — but instead I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Every second of the clock moving forward seemed like an eternity. I was shaking and sweating, alternating between cold spells and hot flashes. The bright lights of a normal June night in Toronto blazed outside my window, indifferent to my suffering. 

I got out of bed to throw up in the hope that it would make me feel better. I thought I was dying. But I was actually having a panic attack. 

It could have been any of a number of things that set me off: the economy, my bank balance, the news of a family member’s recent poor health diagnosis. I’ve dealt with mental illness since I was a child, and somehow what was scary as a kid is terrifying as an adult. As a child, anxiety and depression seemed to interrupt my life, but as an adult they threaten to destroy it.

A boy looking terrified during a ski jump.
Adam Dykaar on a skiing trip as a child. He was diagnosed with depression when he was 13. (Submitted by Adam Dykaar)

This time, it felt like my life was spiralling out of control even though I had only been experiencing these panic attack symptoms for six hours.

I considered going to the hospital that night, but I reminded myself that I’ve dealt with these attacks before. It isn’t real, I’m not going to die. Still, I knew I needed help so I made up my mind to tough it out and get an appointment with a doctor in the morning.

I’ve been down this road before so I know how it goes. The elation at finally “doing something” about the problem. The crushing defeat when the medication that you’ve been prescribed doesn’t work or has debilitating side effects. I hoped this time would be different, but the reality is our health-care system is broken and navigating that broken health-care system can sometimes feel insurmountable.

As the sun rose, I called my agent to cancel my acting gig that day, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be getting any more work from that agency. They don’t tend to reach out again if you flake on a meeting, no matter how valid the reason is. But I didn’t know what else to do. 

I made an appointment with my family doctor that week and got a referral to be placed on the waiting list for repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation — a new type of treatment to help with the depression I’ve had since I was a child. But I was told that there would be long wait times, so my doctor also prescribed a new medication. 

It wasn’t a great solution, but I felt the medication would help me until I could get the treatment I wanted. And I reasoned that if my anxiety or depression got too severe, I could always go to the emergency room as a last resort.

Four days later, I found myself standing right there, in the emergency room at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto in a line of people waiting to be seen. Another waiting list, but at least this time I could physically see and count how many people were ahead of me. I’d been having

waves of panic attacks for days — longer periods of time than ever before — and the medication wasn’t helping. 

When I finally got to the front of the line, the psychiatrist diagnosed my symptoms as a side effect of the medication that should have been helping me. 

I was told that I could stop taking the medication. That same psychiatrist also referred me to another service — a therapy specializing in panic disorders which meant, you guessed it, yet another waiting list. 

By this point, I had been to a family doctor, the emergency room, and been put on two waiting lists and I felt worse off than when I started.

Two different types of pills and empty pill bottles on a table.
Adam Dykaar’s medication to treat his depression. (Adam Dykaar)

I was left feeling extremely depressed, worried that I would never again feel even close to “normal.” I was on the waiting lists, but the wait times were multiple months long; the treatments, like the medications, weren’t guaranteed to succeed. I felt lost.

A week later, I moved back in with my parents to also be closer to my family doctor in my hometown of Waterloo, Ont. I started another medication, and today I continue to deal with the side effects of that while I wait for my turn with our overburdened mental health infrastructure. 

I’ve had panic attacks for a week straight as my brain tries to even out the effects of the new medication, complete with all the staple symptoms: sweating, a racing heart, feeling like I was going to die. 

All the doctors and health-care professionals I’ve dealt with during this time have been incredibly supportive and nice, but there are a lot of people suffering like I am and there simply aren’t enough spots to go around. My doctor told me I might want to see a psychiatrist, but a referral to a psychiatrist meant yet another waiting list — this time for two to three years, which didn’t make me feel better. So, I turned down that offer.

Luckily, I have friends and family who have checked in on me. I’ve never really been afraid of the stigma of mental illness as much as I am of the mental illness itself. It really did make me feel better to see people send me their best wishes, even if it didn’t make the wait-lists shorter or the medication more effective. I felt less alone and depressed when I knew that people were keeping me in their thoughts and prayers.

They give me the strength to not give up — either on the system that’s trying in its beleaguered way to help me or on myself. 

But when you’re dealing with feelings that are eating away at you, every external difficulty feels like a mountain. That’s how it was for me: the waitlists are disheartening, but they are mountains that I must overcome. I don’t really have any choice in the matter, and my life won’t resume until I do. I’ll never make anything of myself whether it be in finding a career, building and maintaining stable relationships, or achieving any level of ordinary happiness if I don’t proactively try to help myself, and so I must. I can’t give up.

I have to have hope, because without that I really would have nothing. 


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