Recognizing an Invisible Illness and Finding Help on the Farm

Joe and Mary Ann have been together for 17 years, they met when they were 18 and 16 respectively. Six years ago they joined Mary Ann’s brother Graham and her parents partnership and moved the cows to a new location after building a dairy barn. This is their recollection of what it has been like for them dealing with anxiety, depression and mood disorder.


I’ve always been this way. For as long as I can remember I’ve been easy to please but quick to anger. I’ve been aware of my talents but quick to deflate and take the blame. I can work hours on end without sleep some days but others I can’t seem to gather up enough energy to get off the couch.

In high school, a fiery temper is maybe a necessary evil when you’re as small as I was. Going off at the slightest little thing could just be considered typical teenage behavior. I never worried about it much.

In college I was surrounded by like-minded people and those years were fantastic. The stress was always fun, my physical health was good and the support structure of friends and family was plentiful and strong. I met Mary Ann in these years and although we lived far apart, our relationship was strong and provided another source of stability and comfort.

Shortly after college, our family suffered a big shock. My aunt passed away at the age of 38 after a lifetime battle with Crohn’s disease and Colitis, her mother (my step-grandmother) passed away during a brain tumor biopsy the very next day. As she had been preparing to go under the knife, my step-father (her son and the brother of my aunt) suffered a massive intestinal hemorrhage and was rushed to the ICU: the same ICU his mum was in after the unsuccessful biopsy.

This series of events was the trigger for my first ever “panic attack”. Around lunch time on the second day, our family was reeling with the loss of my aunt the day before, nervous about my grandmother’s upcoming biopsy and completely in the dark regarding my step-father’s condition as he was still being stabilized at the time. A phone call – one that seemed to take an eternity – confirmed that my grandmother had passed away during the biopsy. Unfortunately, there was no news regarding my step-father. The news hit everyone like a punch to the chest and the added uncertainty about my step-dad was making the whole thing worse. I remember realizing that I had not eaten in at least a day and decided I should make some sandwiches for everyone while we still had a chance to eat before heading to the hospital again. I opened the fridge, grabbed the jar of mayonnaise and suddenly lost my grip. The jar fell to the tiled floor and shattered a hundred different ways. I lost all my senses. I fell to the ground, I couldn’t breathe, I cried and gasped for air, I balled up on the floor and I couldn’t move. I remember losing part of my vision – almost like fainting but never going completely “out”. After that, I don’t remember much until being in the car, heading back to the hospital. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that my mind had real, measurable and observable physical effects on my body. At the time, I simply chalked it up to the crazy stressful time we were going through and carried on, never thinking much about it afterward. My step-dad recovered, we celebrated the lives of my aunt and grandmother and life went on.

In university, I was my usual self. I would work hard, have mostly great days and feel relatively normal. I lived with my uncle and aunt for 2 years, then with Mary Ann for 2 years. I don’t remember ever being in a funk during those years. I do remember smashing some tools after being robbed once. I remember lifting our couch in rage after our cat did something stupid. I remember lots of typical “Doré behavior” as my family likes to call it. Never really thought there was anything wrong at the time. Looking back on it now, it feels a little different.

Fast-forward a few years and Mary Ann and I have joined the family dairy business. With 4 years of dairy equipment installation and barn layout experience under my belt, we decide that I will be the general contractor for the construction of our new dairy barn. The project is a tough winter build that moves along very smoothly. With Mary Ann and me onsite 7 days a week and able to work nights while her family continues to manage the dairy herd at the home farm, we tackle prep-work and clean up in the evenings, we work alongside the various crews all day long and we do all our own welding from end to end. The cows move in to their new home on schedule and we begin the process of learning the ropes in the new barn.

I received a phone call from the township office one day which triggered my second mental/physical attack. As far as they were concerned, no plumbing fixtures of any kind should be in the barn unless they drain to an approved septic system. This was news to me – as far as we were told, everything in a dairy barn, except a toilet (which we never had) was to drain to the manure pit. When I explained that the cows were in and the barn had long been completed, I vaguely remember something along the lines of “well, let’s hope you don’t have to change much”. With the threat of tearing apart everything with a drain on the horizon, I quickly fell into a depression where I blamed only myself for not having this sorted out and letting it get beyond the point of no return. I tried to tell myself that it was no big deal and that everything would work out. Mary Ann and her family all did their best to ease my worries but my mind was stronger than any of that and I wasn’t able to get out of bed for two days. I shook, I didn’t eat, I slept for hours on end and when I did get up I couldn’t be bothered to do anything productive. This was the first time I realized that something wasn’t right. As we expected, everything worked out in the end and life went on. The attack was just another blip in the past.

A few years into being in the new barn, things were not going great. Cows were getting sick more than we’d hoped, our bedding system was breaking down more than we’d planned on and gutters were constantly plugged. We were spending hours and hours each day, trying to keep the barn operating, all the while struggling with sick cows. As things got tough, Mary Ann and Graham would always find the positive in the situation, put their heads down and keep working and tackling problems. In the meantime, I would get more aggravated, slam more doors, throw more stuff and generally break more inanimate objects than anyone ever should.

Within a few days, there were two events that led me to take the first steps to getting help. The first was my daughter, who was only two years old at the time, when she and I walked hand-in-hand to the house one evening and she simply said, “Papa, what’s wrong?” When I asked what she meant, since I wasn’t sick or upset about anything, she said “you seem sad”. A day or two later, we ended up with another sick cow at the barn and I couldn’t take it anymore. I slammed some doors, swore a blue streak and left the barn yelling at whoever was nearby. By the time I got to the house I realized that I needed help before I hurt someone.

Mary Ann and I tried to find phone numbers and couldn’t really figure out who to call. We decided that calling the doctor was probably a good first step. After all, if I had pneumonia we wouldn’t think twice about calling them.

We are incredibly fortunate to belong to a fantastic Family Health Team. I first met with our family doctor who did an initial assessment with me. He and the nurses supported my decision to call in and make the appointment. The doctor quickly diagnosed me with mood disorder, anxiety and depression and suggested daily Omega-3 to help suppress depression and improve cognitive function while he went through the referral process and found me a psychiatrist to confirm his diagnosis, which was expected to take several months. The Family Health Team offers complimentary counselling sessions with an in-house counsellor so I was able to access counselling within just a few weeks of my initial assessment. Those sessions helped me find ways to alleviate anxiety, concentrate and curb my mood swings.

Three months after my first visit with the family doctor, I had my first appointment with the psychiatrist. He was located 100km away in Toronto and our appointment took place via OTN, Ontario’s telemedicine network. Via teleconference, we were able to meet and he was able to confirm our family doctor’s diagnosis and prescribe a set of medications that he thought would be a good fit.

The first few weeks were tough. Medication was introduced slowly and as the dosage increased I began to notice significant changes. My mood became far more stable but I became so drowsy that I couldn’t function. I could almost fall asleep standing up, I couldn’t drive and I certainly couldn’t operate farm equipment in that state. I discontinued the medication that I believed at fault, continued with the other medication, confirmed the changes with the psychiatrist via email and the improvements were quick.

I’ve now been on the same medication for 18 months and I feel fantastic. The barn challenged us with more sick cows last winter and while always feeling like myself, I was able to focus, concentrate, work without losing my cool, be a better co-worker, be a better dad, and be a better husband. The medication is a tool that has worked for me and with regular follow-ups it continues to be a safe and effective way of maintaining a healthy mind.

I am eternally grateful for Mary Ann’s understanding and willingness to help me, for the friends and family that support us in all that we do and for the doctors who treated me with dignity and compassion for an invisible illness.

Mary Ann:

Everyone was frustrated and angry about the cows being sick, frustrated about losing money, frustrated that we were failing, but my husband seemed to take the full weight of our troubles onto his shoulders. If he was in a bad mood, nothing I could say would be able to cheer him up. He was never angry towards me or the rest of the family, but would just be so mad some days. I would worry when something else bad happened, fearing how he would react. I would put a lot of effort into trying to hide as many problems from him as I could. I was beginning to feel that I had to constantly be ‘up’ to balance him being so down. Many days, I wanted to rant and be angry too but I bottled it up not wanting to add to his worry. The morning I finally reached for my phone to look for help for Joe was when he went to take a breather and didn’t come back for an hour made me realize we couldn’t continue to live like this.

Making that first step to call the Doctors was huge for Joe; I noticed a huge difference in him after he came back from his first session with a counselor. Her saying to him “you have anxiety, and it will be okay” did wonders for him, having a professional opinion relieved worries that I was unable to soothe. I am so thankful for our Doctors office, to our families, and our friends for being so comforting and understanding. I also really appreciated the support of family and friends who would ask me how I am doing, knowing how stressful it can be in a supportive role.

Watching someone so close to me go through this is an eye opener. Joe was open to me about his feelings throughout, but I could not begin to understand what he experiencing; this was not a problem that we were able to solve on our own.

I am filled with such hope and love reading stories of people sharing their mental health struggles, letting those suffering in silence know that they are not alone. There is so much more information available now compared to just three years ago, initiatives like the study at the University of Guelph reaching out to the farming community, and #BellLetsTalk are working; keep sharing, someone who needs it is listening.

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