We’ve come a long way, but the journey isn’t over yet. I feel that way about how we, as a society, handle mental illness and mental health and about how I handle my own mental illness and mental health.
I was volunteering for CMHA at a Kids Health Fair yesterday and spoke with the mother of a child with mental illness. She told me that her son had been diagnosed at the age of three and that he is now fifteen. I was so happy for him that he had been diagnosed at such a young age, but also sad for myself because when I was three years old, children were not diagnosed with mental illness. The medical profession simply did not diagnose anybody under 18 with mental illness, as though 18 was some magical age at which mental illness suddenly appeared in people!
I had dark thoughts of death, feelings of rage and of hating the world that I didn’t know what to do with. I had had those thoughts and feelings for as long as I could remember, but I rarely expressed them, letting them out only when I could contain them no longer, then withdrawing to my room to cry until I was exhausted and finally fell asleep. I had a severe panic attack when I was five and thought I was going to die. When I was 14 I was so angry at my parents, who were away, that I tried to kill myself so that they would find my rotting corpse when they returned home. I made two more attempts in later years.
Because I had grown up with these feelings, I thought that they were “normal”, that everybody felt the way I did, but that they were better at hiding it. At other times, I believed the lies that depression told me: that other people did not feel the way I did, or have the dark angry thoughts that I had. That I was a bad person, that I deserved the pain that I was feeling. And I thought it would never end, that I would have to live with that pain for as long as I lived. And sometimes I thought that there was something wrong with me and wished there was a magic pill that would fix me and make me feel better.
If only I had expressed those thoughts. If only I had told someone how I felt so much of the time. But I was too ashamed. I believed that whatever was going on with me was my fault and that I would be blamed for it somehow. So I suffered in silence, for decades. Not all the time, but more than enough to mess up my life. I didn’t plan for the future because I didn’t want to HAVE a future. My depression told me that I was worthless and that I didn’t matter and I believed it so when things got tough I didn’t bother trying to do better because what was the point? I was worthless and would probably fail anyway.
I grew up, went to university, tgot pregnant, quit school, got married, raised a wonderful son and found a job I could do with my 1/4 of a degree. I continued to suffer; in fact it got worse until eventually in my late 20’s, early 30’s I couldn’t stand it anymore and told a doctor in a clinic that I was feeling awful, that I had no energy, was apathetic, didn’t want to do anything, had trouble sleeping ... he tried to prescribe something to help me sleep and I told him, “No, you don’t understand, I want to die!” He arranged for a psychiatric consult - I had to wait 6 weeks for my appointment. Somehow, I managed to hang on until I finally got to talk to someone who I thought might be able to help me. The psychiatrist asked me many questions at that first meeting and told me that I had “moderate to severe chronic clinical depression”. I was so relieved! I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t a bad person, I had an illness, I was sick - and there were pills that might help. Not magic pills, but actual prescription medication. A weight had been lifted. For the first time I had a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I could get some relief from all the pain, the anger, the self-doubt and self-loathing.
That was 20 years ago, give or take a few years. Twenty years of individual and group therapy, medication changes, a lot of tears and some grief over lost decades of my life that I can’t get back, but which made me the person that I am today. And you know what? i kind of like that person. Living with depression has made me more compassionate, more patient, more willing to listen than I think I would have been if I hadn’t been ill. I have (mostly) learned to live with my illness and now I want to make it easier for other people to get help. Because there IS help. Mental illness IS treatable and people DO recover.
I still have depression, but now I know how to reduce its impact on my life. I know the signs that it is coming back: isolation, apathy and irritability, to name a few. And I know what to do about it: socialize, particularly with people who also have mental illness; get outside; get active; find reasons to laugh; help others who are struggling by volunteering; making sure I get enough sleep and that I eat healthy food; challenge those thoughts that tell me I’m no good, that the world is no good and that there is no hope.
It has been a long journey, but it is far from over and that’s okay. I have had so much help and support along the way, from family and friends and from the mental health community. Now I want to give back. I want to make it easier for people to seek help, I want our society to give treatment for mental illness the same priority as for physical illness. I was silent for so long. Now I’m ready to GET LOUD