submitted by Paula Roumeliotis, Victoria BC
I attended the CMHA b4stage 4 conference in Victoria in November 2016 and it was so encouraging to hear about the focus being on the importance of accessible and early treatment and supports for people living with mental health and substance use issues. You see, I’ve been living with a mental illness for over 35 years and if these options had been available to me when I first started struggling as a teenager, my life could have been completely different.
Now don’t get me wrong - I am grateful for my recovery today and I have realized that living with a mental illness does not limit me and that I am not my diagnosis. I am living a fulfilling life that I never dreamed possible but it was a long time coming.
I began having symptoms of anxiety and depression as a young girl and it wasn’t until I went to emergency in my early twenties suffering with a panic attack (I didn’t know what was happening to me then) that it was even recognized. At the time I was studying nursing and I was just about to graduate as an RN. I had my whole life ahead of me. I was given a tranquilizer and told I had suffered a panic attack and was referred to a psychiatrist.
This was the beginning of many years of trying different medications, different doctors and psychiatrists, hospitalizations and treatments. I suffered with crippling depression and anxiety and mood swings. I felt hopeless, worthless, depressed, anxious and desperate. I often contemplated ending my life just to stop the pain. I abused drugs and alcohol to try to feel better and cope with my disabling symptoms.
Each time I was treated when I was in crisis and once I was “stabilized” I was left to flounder around on my own with no mention of supports outside of psychiatry and medications and with no hope of recovery. I was also given a limiting view of how I would live my life and what I would be able to accomplish.
I did a lot of reading and research about mental illness to try to find ways to cope and live well but this is extremely hard to do in isolation. I wasn’t aware of any community supports. I was unable to work for over 20 years due to my illness. I ended on up disability after being told that I would never be able to work, or if I did it would be very minimally. Due to the stigma and attitudes that I experienced as well as self stigma, I keep my mental health struggles to myself and felt incredibly isolated, I had extremely low self esteem and I felt like a complete failure.
To top it all off, I was misdiagnosed with multiple different illnesses until 2005 (for 25 years). At that time I started working with my current psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar 2 disorder. After a couple of years of trying different combinations of meds and working with a supportive psychiatrist and case manager I began to embark upon my recovery journey. But I was still lacking the community support and involvement that I so desperately needed.
When I found BCSS Victoria, a local recovery focused community health organization, I found a community of people who believed in the concept of recovery and support. I found the hope that I had desperately been lacking. Being involved with a vibrant, hope filled community has immeasurably improved my own recovery journey. Within a year of attending BCSS Victoria and taking part in peer support, the WRAP program and attending a weekly peer led recovery group, I began to work part-time time in the office and I eventually become the admin coordinator. I am currently working as a peer supporter and I give public presentations to middle and high schools, college and university students and to other organizations. I also took a course to become a certified WRAP facilitator. These have all been goals of mine that I have worked towards and reached with the support of the people in my life. I also attended the CMHA Living Life to the Full program which was an excellent program that gave me tools to help me to manage my illness.
I am living a fulfilling and satisfying life. I have reached a point that I will tell anyone about my lived experience if it will support, educate and give people hope. I feel strongly that sharing our stories is the only way to break down the stigma that many people experience and which crippled me for so many years.
If mental illness and substance use were treated b4stage4 I could have reached this point in my life so much sooner and avoided many years of struggle and isolation. And yet, I can see that all of the years I struggled are not wasted if they can be used to spare someone else the pain and isolation that I suffered.
I have a new found hope that things will change when it comes to treating people who struggle with mental health and substance issues sooner rather than later, when they are in crisis. Accessibility to treatment and early intervention are key to successfully treating people with these challenges so that they can recover and live to their fullest potential.
submitted by Paula Roumeliotis, Victoria BC