‘My heart still pounds when I think about it’

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood shares her experience with depression and anxiety to let others know they're not alone

TINA COMEAU tina.comeau@saltwire.com



SaltWire Network



As it is for countless other people, there are days that it’s all too much for Pam Mood. Days when she’d just assume curl up in a ball and stay there. Nights when try as she might, she can’t stop the intrusiveness of anxiety from entering her body and soul. On the surface, you wouldn’t know this about Yarmouth’s mayor. She’s outgoing, talkative, funny and usually smiling. But it’s what’s below the surface that she and others deal with daily that can be as confusing as it is debilitating. Mood has struggled with anxiety and depression for much of her life. While you don’t see it, it’s not something she feels needs to be hidden. As part of CMHA Mental Health Week in early May, Mood was one of several speakers sharing her experience as part of a virtual speakers series called Empathy in Action, organized by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Nova Scotia division. Mood is a people person. Candid. Open when she talks. “It shouldn’t make sense that the very core of who I am is wreaking such havoc with my mental health,” she says. But it is. If she feels something she’s said has hurt or offended someone, it’s often a trigger. “I go into full anxiety. I’m not perfect by any stretch. (But) my pureness of intention – that I care so deeply to the core of who I am, about people and about making their lives better – if I did something that did the opposite, I was just no good,” she says. Long before her role as an elected official, Mood worked as a civilian member of the RCMP drug section for many years. She’s also a mother to three children. After her son was born, she developed postpartum depression – something moms know exists, but is difficult to comprehend. “I pushed through it without fully understanding it,” says Mood. “How could my mind be working like this if I was so enamoured with these children and my life was full of joy?” The depression didn’t go away. Her doctor prescribed medication. Eventually, she left her role with the RCMP. It didn’t feel right anymore, and neither did she. “I found myself daily curled up in a ball crying. The depression was so overwhelming … I couldn’t figure it out,” she says. “I’m like a happy, joyful, positive, optimistic person. This is crap. What on earth is going on with my life?” Still, she pursued a life-long dream to be a motivational and public speaker. She gave talks on topics such as drugs, bullying, and self-esteem – things that would help kids and their families. She loved every minute of it until something happened and then she didn’t love it as much. She had shared a story about bullying that had been directed towards one of her children. She didn’t mention names, only vague circumstances. That evening she got a call from a parent who threatened to call a lawyer because of something Mood had said. She didn’t understand from where this person’s anger was coming. She hadn’t identified anyone with names. She was only trying to create awareness. She had her first full-blown anxiety attack. It was overwhelming. “When I say debilitating, that is an understatement. It was Thanksgiving weekend. I literally had to tear myself out from under the blankets, pretend to enjoy turkey dinner with the kids,” she says. “That’s been 20 years, at least. My heart still pounds when I think about it.” She couldn’t block or stop the intrusive anxious thoughts that continued to follow. Her doctor explained the threat directed at her had released something inside. “He said that the tap was open and it would never turn off again and I’ve had to learn to live with anxiety for the last 20 years.” ATTACKS FROM OTHERS Mood knows she’s not alone. Many others live life with anxiety and depression – some more successfully than others. At times her anxiety has been so bad she couldn’t breathe. “I thought I was going to die,” she says. When people first encouraged her to run for mayor, she was humbled. “It was clear that my mental health was not an issue for them, not because it didn’t exist, but people couldn’t see it,” she says, noting her philosophy is life is meant to be lived. Now serving her third term as mayor, Mood wouldn’t trade her position as an elected official. She loves the people. She loves serving others. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get ugly. “That the mental health of an elected official takes a beating is an understatement,” she says. “And please understand that is not a complaint, that is simply a fact.” People not only attack her over council decisions, it gets extremely personal. “They attacked my clothing. They attacked my weight. My hairstyle. How I walked. Comments like, no wonder she wants to build up the downtown, she’s too ugly and fat to walk an extra block,” she says. There have even been death threats. Mood says the number one question she gets from people – aside from, ‘When are you going to fix the potholes?’ – is how do you keep moving forward with all of the attacks? She deals with it, knowing it comes with the position. But she worries about the impact it could have on others. “If young, vibrant, intelligent, forward-thinking women are looking at what’s happening to me, they’re never gonna put their name on the ballot (to run). I think that’s what broke me.” CREATING SAFE ENVIRONMENTS When it comes to mental illness and wellness, not only is it important for people to share their stories, says Karn Nichols, CMHA Nova Scotia Division executive director, but it is important to create an environment where people feel safe in doing so. Still, she also feels strongly that people should not be pressured to share. “We are all on a journey. It is important to know that mental health is on a continuum. For some of us, talking about our experience feels safe – for others, not so much,” she says. She notes people like Mood, who took part in CMHA’s Empathy in Action speakers series, are at a stage where they are ready to share and feel safe doing so. “What is wonderful about that is when the stories ‘connect’ with the listener, it facilitates really wonderful actions,” Nichols says. “It allows others who may be struggling to feel they are not alone. Sometimes it gives them the confidence to tell their own stories which, in turn, ripples out into the community and ultimately helps to reduce stigma.” That’s been particularly important during the COVID pandemic. People who perhaps saw mental health wellness or illness as something that didn’t impact them suddenly found that it did. People struggled with anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, and loss. It was eye-opening for many. “You can experience poor mental health and not live with an illness,” Nichols says, “and you can live with an illness and experience good mental health and bad mental health.” Unfortunately, there are still stigmas that prevent people from seeking help. Nichols points to schizophrenia and personality disorders as examples. “I am hopeful the more we can normalize these conversations, the more we can see that the illness is not the person,” she says, noting it can be as simple as not labelling people by their diagnosis – for example, saying a person lives with schizophrenia as opposed to they are schizophrenic. “We can sometimes be uncomfortable in knowing how to connect with those living with mental illness and that is normal,” Nichols says. “My advice is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Take the first step. Reach out. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” Mood herself doesn’t claim to be perfect. No one is. She says she has much support from people who understand she is just doing her job. “But the anxiety doesn’t know to ignore it," she says. Most importantly, she wants people to know they’re not alone in their struggles. She still takes medication her doctor has prescribed. It makes her sad when others don’t explore this as an option because it could be helpful. “If you’re a diabetic, you would. If you had a migraine, you’d take something. Why are we not taking medications for our mental health? Because isn’t that the most important thing that gets us through everything? If I’m not okay mentally, I’m not okay anywhere.” Each day Mood does her best to wake up with a smile. She also wakes up with depression, anxiety and PTSD. But she isn’t letting that define her. “Cancer isn’t who someone is. Diabetes isn’t who someone is. Depression isn’t who I am. Anxiety isn’t who I am,” she says. “I keep moving forward and I keep doing that because my mental health isn’t who I am … it’s what I have.”