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Series 1 Episode 15 – Emmy Vallée

Emmy Vallée has an LLB and an MBA and has worked for numerous Vancouver-based pharmaceutical and biotech companies. She is also on the Board of Directors of Anxiety Canada.

In this episode she shares her journey with post-natal anxiety, and how CBT helped her to learn: “When you have those recurrent thoughts in your head, just put them on trial. You need to look at the evidence. Are they guilty or not? And if you decided they’re not, move on.”

John Bateman (JB): Hi Emmy, welcome to the show! So, what’s your anxiety story? Where did it start for you and how has it affected your life?  

Emmy Vallée (EV): My anxiety started when I was doing my bar school. I finished law school and then went on to do the bar school. And it started right in the middle of it – this was a high-stress period, obviously. And I saw someone at the time who, it turns out, wasn’t qualified to help me. But it was difficult to know between therapists or psychologists and all of that: I wasn’t familiar with any of it. I didn’t look for credentials around anxiety because I didn’t know I had anxiety. So I saw her, she didn’t give me any kind of diagnosis or point me in that direction. And because anxiety runs out of gas, I eventually felt better and thought this is it. But it kind of lingered.

EV: Then I had my first child and with that came sleep deprivation. And when I had my second child I was sleeping even less. It just snowballed. Then I really hit rock bottom. At one point I walked myself to the ER in the middle of the night: I was afraid I would lose control over my actions and endanger my kids. So I decided it would be better if I wasn’t in their life, than my risking to be a danger for them. And luckily I chose the ER over other options I was contemplating at the time. And the doctor wanted to send me home with some sleeping pills and I said no, that if he did that I would not go home and he agreed to keep me in. I found out the next day that I had something called OCD. This surprised me because to me OCD is the person with compulsions, not obsessions. And that is what I had. I ended up staying for one month in the hospital to recover from that and ensure the medicines were helping. And I started psychotherapy with properly trained therapist, and CBT. That was almost eight years ago now.  

JB: Eight years! It’s a very familiar story to me, because I have two kids that are older now. And man, sleep deprivation, I don’t think it affected me that much but it really affected my wife through that time. Because moms are pulling this – duty? Like she was breastfeeding and she was, you know, you’re the sole person to keep this little person alive.  

EV: Yeah, absolutely. I say often people try to diminish what it is, being in sleep deprivation. It’s a form of torture used by the army, so it is terrible to not sleep. And when you have a mental illness, it can just send you completely over the top. So self care like that, as simple as making sure you sleep enough can really help significantly with any type of mental illness challenges.  

JB: Yeah. I find sleep is pretty much number one for me. Yeah. I guess what I’m curious about: you wrote the bar? And you have two kids. I’ve never written the bar. I’ve never experienced that kind of academic stress, by design: I just knew that wasn’t for me. How do those two events compare to you in terms of the stress and anxiety that they caused you? I mean, I know that the kids were the ultimate trigger, but how do they compare in terms of the stress levels both gave you?  

EV: I think with the bar, I could control everything. To some extent it was easier because I could decide that how much effort I would put in. And really after that, it’s though that I did was around February, March, and I only had one more exams as a way to work. I was back in Quebec, we had six exams and I only had one left and I just decided after that, you know, you don’t need 100%, you just need to pass and that be good enough. But with kids, it took me, I think by surprise. I mean, we’re all responsible as parents, but I was terrified I would damage them. Or that something would happen to me and they wouldn’t forgive me or it’d be, they would not know how much they were loved. And that occupied my thoughts.  

JB: Yeah.

EV: Seven days a week. It just wouldn’t stop.

JB: Exhausting.  

EV: Oh yeah. Beyond belief. And then I wasn’t functional. Anything would take hours do because I wanted to make sure the kids were safe. I spent hundreds of dollars on earthquake safety kits because it couldn’t ever be enough. When you’re feeding OCD, you just move on to the next thing. You think, Oh, I’ll just do this. I’ll just make sure I have my safety kit here, then I’ll be fine. But no, then you move on to something else. It’s never enough. Yeah. So that snowballs. I just couldn’t stop it on my own.  

JB: Yeah. So you serve on the anxiety on the Board of Anxiety Canada. And what moved you to join them?

EV: My CBT psychologist was part of Anxiety BC as it was called back then. She mentioned the organization to me. Through our sessions after multiple years, seeing her on almost a weekly basis, once she figured that I was doing better she just mentioned it and said you know, they’re always looking for board members. And I’m in the corporate world. That’s my full time job. So it made sense and I met with Judith and right away fell in love with her as a person and I’m 100% supportive of the mission of Anxiety Canada.

JB: For sure. I’m not on the board, but I was happy to become a champion and serve them in this way too because I believe in Anxiety Canada, and being open and open advocate about anxiety. When you were in the hospital, did you get to see your kids in that time?

EV: I did. And that was a condition for me when they said, we think you would be better off staying with us for a few days. Yeah. I was still nursing at the time, so I said, will I still be able to nurse my child? He was only eight months old at the time. Can I see them? And once they said yes to both those questions, I was like, okay, then deal. And you know, one was a little eight month old baby. And my daughter was just two and a half. 

EV: I was at the mood disorder unit at UBC, with people mostly with bipolar or depression. I think I was the only one with anxiety as the primary diagnosis. And I’ve heard that I was the last patient admitted there with anxiety as a primary disorder. They don’t take people with anxiety anymore, which is really, really sad. I don’t understand that. But it was the best place for me because I initially went to VGH and the psychiatry unit there is scary. They have a lot of people in psychosis on drugs. The beds are carved out off the floor. They have stainless steel toilets. It was so scary, and while that could be ok for an half hour meeting with the psychiatrist on call that day, I would not have been comfortable there for a longer period. 

JB: So what was it like when you got back to your home?  

EV: I was lucky. I have a very supportive family. I actually went back to Quebec, where my parents had rented a cottage for this summer and them and my sister basically split the time and there was always someone with me and the kids. At first because I needed someone, I just couldn’t do it on my own and then slowly I was more and more independent. But it was really nice to be out in nature, getting dirty, you know. With OCD I was so afraid that my kids would get sick. It just forced me to really put things in perspective. I stayed there maybe for two months and then came back here and my son started daycare so I had more time to myself. And eventually you started working again on a part time basis. Being on mat leave when all of this happened, removed such a huge pressure off of my shoulders cause I didn’t have to justify the absence to anyone. Yeah, I was lucky.

JB: Which is definitely one nice aspect about the Canadian health care system. We consider that our neighbours in the South don’t have that luxury at all. What was your upbringing like when you were a kid? 

EV: I grew up in a cul-de-sac where we were always on the street. Dirty, eating sand and rocks.

JB: No. And that’s important that people know: just because you had that kind of upbringing, that just shows what the symptoms of this disease can do. ‘Cause even in your most rational mind you know you experienced less than perfectly sanitary conditions and you’ve lived through it; but you still had those OCD impulses that were very contrary to what you were brought up with.  

EV: Yeah, absolutely. And as much as my mom has tried to identify what she did wrong there is nothing.

JB: Yeah. I find that traditionally with some psychologists and psychiatrists it’s about playing the blame game. But decoding something from the past will only get you so far. Ultimately we’re dealing with who we are now and how we establish good habits going forward. It sounds like you’ve really come to terms with that.  

EV: CBT is so clear. My legal background also helped: my psychologist said, Emmy, when you have those recurrent thoughts in your head, just put them on trial. You need to look at the evidence. Are they guilty or not? And if you decided they’re not, move on and it’s going to feel uncomfortable for a little while, but sit with that discomfort and power through and you’ll see over time you’ll feel better and better. So to me that was, look at the evidence. That was such a big moment for it changed  

JB: Emmy, it’s been so great having you talk openly about your experiences. Thanks a lot. Take care.