Let’s Talk. January 27, 2016 marked the sixth annual Bell Let’s Talk Day, a campaign to bring awareness to mental illness and drive action in mental health care, research, and workplace leadership across Canada. Ending the stigma around mental illness is one of the goals of Bell Let’s Talk Day and as the campaign notes on their website, “talking is the best way to start breaking down the barriers associated with mental illness.”
Like cancer, mental illness touches us all in some way directly or through a family member, friend, or colleague. Yet mental illness carries with it shame, fear, and myths. Stories of lived experiences are the best way to help eradicate this stigma and create space for understanding and support.
Today, I share with you my personal story of living with mental illness. While I have shared it with family and a few colleagues over the years, I have generally been ‘quiet’ about the matter out of fear of the stigma surrounding such an illness. Will I be viewed as weak, unstable, or incapable of fulfilling my duties? I have also felt that my story – despite at times being enormously challenging and dark – perhaps pales in comparison to some of the illnesses that others have suffered.
Out of the darkness. Despite my reluctance, I hope that coming forward will help others understand what mental illness is and is not. For those who fear, blame, or shame individuals with mental illness, I wish to help educate and engage. I also wish to convey, by example, the simple fact that mental illness can touch anyone and at any time in his/her life. The causes are many and the healing journey varies for all those who suffer. For those who have mental illness, my wish is to give you hope and reassurance that there is help and you are not alone, and that you can achieve your best and live a life worth living.
What follows is a brief account of my journey with mental illness and a few salient events to help you appreciate my story. Other relevant details have been omitted, such as my adoption from an orphanage as an infant, my first airplane flight as a child, family dynamics, and the graphic details of the car accident described below. All of these details of course are relevant for me, and were woven together many years later as they helped to shed some light on the cause.
The accident. When I was seven years old, our family was heading to Quebec for the Christmas holidays. Travelling in the dark hours of an early morning on Highway 401, we experienced an unexpected snowstorm with whiteout conditions. Black ice was not our friend and we ended up facing the wrong way – only to be hit head-on by a transport trailer. The impact was significant, including a hit from the truck’s trailer on the side of our car where I was sleeping at the time. While the rest of the family faired okay, I was not so fortunate.
That experience, along with the events that followed in the minutes, hours, and days afterwards, including the separation from my mother while I was in hospital, were embedded deep in my memory and subconscious, only to resurface occasionally during my childhood in certain circumstances.
The trigger. When I was fifteen, my mother passed away of cancer after a three-year battle with the disease. It devastated our family – she was the pillar who held us all together. By sixteen, I had left home and was on my own. Needless to say, these were dramatic events. They triggered the most debilitating conditions during my high school years, which didn’t subside for many years to follow.
The unexplained physical symptoms, the panic attacks triggered in certain circumstances or places, and the fear of the unknown all left me perplexed and exhausted. For example, I could not attend classes held on the second floor of my high school and I experienced panic attacks in elevators.
The journey of healing. It took many years to fully diagnose and identify the root causes of my symptoms and illness. Post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia (fear of crowded spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). For me, these are only labels – they serve as a reference point for others who were trying to help me. I am fortunate that I have been able to piece together the life events that contributed to these mental illnesses – the cause and effect.
Over the years, I have pursued help and many treatments methods, including psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, medication, hypnotherapy, meditation, rapid-eye movement therapy, relaxation exercises, visualization, virtual reality, coaching, and exposure therapy. Each have contributed and helped me function better. My conditions have dramatically improved over the years.
The ‘ultimate’ experience, as I once described it, which would expose me to my deepest fears – both heights and closed spaces – was being able to board an airplane and fly to a destination. Confinement at its best. But it also meant freedom. I did so for the first time in my early 40s. It was a white-knuckle experience, but overall, a positive life event. It gave me hope and courage.
Acceptance. While my journey with mental illness has been long and I have made remarkable progress; I have stopped looking to be ‘cured.’ What has helped me the most with coping and healing is the acceptance of myself as I am. Rightly or wrongly, I see it as a chronic condition that I must manage using the many tools I’ve learned over the years.
Despite these disabilities and barriers, I have been able to live a fulfilling and productive life. I achieved more than what I could have ever imagined when I was at the peak of my illness and darkness. And, my journey of healing continues.
A call to action. So today, I reach out to my many colleagues in the health care sector and here at The Scarborough Hospital, as well as to my friends and neighbours, and encourage you to take your first steps to talk about mental health to create greater awareness. Help end the stigma.
As importantly, I reach out to those who face mental illness and are too afraid to seek help or to share their stories with others. It is time our society recognizes that mental illness is no different than a physical illness. You need help, you need compassion, you need acceptance and hopefully, the rest will fall into place so you can pursue your full potential.