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Episode 5 – Kendall McLean (Season 1)

Kendall McLean is an experienced mental health professional with an M.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies.

In this podcast, Kendall shares how she overcame increasingly severe bouts of panic disorder to complete her training. Now as Peer Support Coordinator at Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba, she shares the message, “With anxiety, you’re not alone and we can do something about it.”

John Bateman (JB): Hi Kendall, welcome to #OurAnxietyStories. I really appreciate you being part of this.  

Kendall McLean (KM): Of course. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It’s a really cool thing that you guys are doing today.  

JB: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Um, if you could, uh, if you could start by this, the simple yet seemingly complicated question of uh, what’s your anxiety story?  

KM: Okay, yeah, for sure. Okay. So, um, my anxiety story started, I would say probably about 10 years ago. The first time that I had experienced difficulties with anxiety was when I was doing my undergraduate degree in university and I had my first panic attack in the middle of an exam and I really had absolutely no idea what was going on. I’d never heard anybody talk about anything like that before. And it was so far outside of what I would have considered a normal experience up to that point. I remember sitting down and writing an exam, and about an hour into it, my heart was pounding out of my chest and I felt like the room was closing in around me. Just being like, what the heck is going on? I felt like something was seriously medically wrong.  

KM: I remember getting up, going to get a drink of water; I tried to kind of walk it off and then, that’s not really how panic attacks work, which I didn’t know at the time. So of course it didn’t quite go away. And then eventually by the end of the exam I did calm down and then went home and looked it up and figured, okay, this is what happened. It’s called in a panic attack. 

KM: And then I didn’t have any issues for quite some time after that until I started grad school. This was years and years later, about three months into grad school, it was Christmas time and it was really busy with papers being due. And it was also like, I had a fellowship but I was working and it was an overwhelming time. And I started having the panic attacks again. And this time I knew what was happening because it has happened years ago, but I didn’t realize that it could happen more than as a one-off.  

JB: Yeah. But it also would be great if it was.

KM: So, again I was really surprised that I kept having more and more of them. And this time they lasted about a month and it was a really scary, terrible time, but then it kind of went away.  and then I took a couple more years and I didn’t have any really experiences with panic or anxiety. And then I like to say ‘the big one’ hit because this wasn’t like a one-off or a one-month. I started having like really consistent panic attacks.  

KM: So, multiple in a day, kind of consistent and constant. And it went for months and months. And my panic was becoming really, really severe. I wasn’t able to go to work or go to school anymore. I was having trouble leaving my house and something happened to me called depersonalization.  

JB: Right? Yes. I’ve, I’ve experienced that.  

KM: Yeah. Really, really scary. So for me, my depersonalization was actually also quite severe. It wasn’t like just in the moment of the panic, it was something that had become also consistent in my life. So not only was I living with panic disorder, but also with depersonalization.

JB: That would be scary. I mean, having experienced that sort of thing just a little bit, that would be a very difficult thing to deal with consistently.  

KM: Yeah. It was terrifying. It was absolutely a terrifying time in my life because there weren’t necessarily visible triggers. For me it ended up that me and myself were the triggers.

JB: Could you, if you’re comfortable, explain what a panic attack felt like to you? I think it’s important to share are symptoms of panic attacks because they’re all slightly different but somewhat the same. And what were, would you say, the symptoms of depersonalization?  

KM: For me it felt like there’s a couple of different ways that I can describe what depersonalization feels like. One of the ways that I describe it is I think people, lot of people can relate to this. If you fall asleep during the day and have sort of like an inappropriately long nap and you wake up and you’re kind of in this panic because you missed the school bus and like, nevermind, you’re 35 what ways did your head even go there? Right. You just kind of wake up, disoriented and you don’t really know what’s going on even though you’re just on your couch. So that’s one of the ways I can kind of describe it another way is like you just feel like you’re not quite there or in your body. Yeah. Even though you know that you aren’t, people describe it as an out-of-body type experience.  

JB: It’s very much, yeah. But you’re very conscious of it, which is terrifying. It’s the other thing I used to describe it as like, it’s similar to that feeling of hearing your voice on an answering machine.  

KM: Yeah.  

JB: Mine was similar: I would feel what you describe, and then I’d also feel like my hands were detached from my body, and I felt like I was wearing a mask. I felt like I was more an observer in this kind of shell. It was really weird experience.  

KM: Yeah. For sure.  

JB: It’s like you feel like you’re not in control or this, it’s this different kind of thing that’s controlling, which is really disconcerting.

KM: Yeah, for sure. And I think that’s one of the things that really made me feel like there was nothing that I would ever be able to do to get better. Like it was definitely something happening to me. Yeah. And not something that I could be doing anything about, which I know now isn’t necessarily true.  

JB: Yeah. Well what’s important is it’s not permanent. And these episodes come and go on their own timetable, just the same as panic attacks. It says you’re an M.A. and a public education coordinator at the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba (ADAM). Tell me a little bit about what you do there.  

KM: I am in charge of public education at ADAM. We’re a peer support organization. It’s my job to make sure that people in our communities around Manitoba and specifically Winnipeg (that’s where our offices are) know that anxiety is common, that it’s treatable. How to recognize if they’re having issues, and what they can do about that. A good chunk of what I do is tell my story and make sure that people know that anxiety looks like any kind of average person. It happens to anybody. I give presentations, we have information sessions, and we have displays – all kinds of cool stuff to make sure that Manitobans know that there are resources out there to help them. With anxiety, you’re not alone and we can do something about it.  

JB: That’s obviously an incredible service. You create a community of people who are likeminded and it helps them deal with their condition.  

KM: Absolutely. We just know how powerful it is when people are a part of the community, when they know they don’t need to isolate – we can empower ourselves knowing that there are people who understand us.

JB: And do you think, so I guess the question would be, um, within the, within the scope of your job, um, does that help you?  

KM: Absolutely. The path to me being an employee of ADAM was first being a participant in the programs.  

JB: Is that right?  

KM: I went there for help, and I benefited so much from being around other people who understood, from seeing and meeting and spending time with other people who are also wanting to get better and working towards that. And we were there, in it together with facilitators who had been through it, who were reaching back to help, pull us through, and also give us the tools to empower ourselves. So going through the programs and then, because I’d gotten so much out of it and I was so passionate about the community of this organization and the power of peer support, I wanted to volunteer. So I started volunteering and eventually, a couple of years later, now I work there.  

JB: Yeah. And did you have to do courses to get qualified to work there?  

KM: Well I had been studying. I’d been doing my Master’s Degree and you know, ADAM doesn’t normally take students to come do practicums. I was really interested in community building and peace-building within communities. I chose to focus on why peer support is so powerful for people. How the benefit of being in and amongst the community, being able to share your experience, how that contributes to empowerment and recovery. 

JB: Yeah. What helps me with my life is definitely my job, which has nothing to do with anxiety or helping other people per se. I manage a wood shop and that’s what I do, but it’s something I’ve stumbled upon recently and it really serves all those, it actually serves a lot of CBT principals, so for me, it works. It’s great when you can find an occupation that not only you’re helping somebody but you in your situation, you’re helping a lot of other people and you’re helping yourself too.

KB: Yeah. It’s amazing. Every day I’m grateful to be able to do the work that I do. Not a lot of us get to have jobs that we actually know we’re making a positive contribution to the community around us, and even to our own selves. Working in peer support for sure has this incredible aspect of both giving back and also making sure that you’re always on top of your own mental health and using your own experience to benefit others also to constantly remind yourself that like you’re resilient and you’ve been through it and you can do it again.  

JB: Well you’ve given doubly today because you’ve been a part of this and we really appreciate that you’ve been a part of it. It’s been wonderful talking to you and thanks for sharing. It’s really important that everybody knows that everybody around them deals with this kind of thing and they’re not alone. And you certainly are somebody that I’m sure is helping a lot of people.  

KM: Oh, thank you so much. I’m sorry you guys, this was a great, great thing for you to put on. Yeah. 

JB: Thanks very much, Kendall. Take care. Have a good one. Okay, you too. Bye.