You may have been wondering why you didn’t receive my blog post on Friday. I do have a reason. I have been busy storytelling and speaking. A few night ago a community group invited me to share my entire (or most of it) mental health journey with them. It turned out to be an extraordinary evening for me. Below you will find my presentation in its entirety. Please be aware that:
- I have no medical training and I am not giving medical advice
- Some readers may find a portion of the content dealing with child sexual abuse disturbing. I do not go into detail.
Have you ever looked at someone else and thought :
- They are so lucky.
- They grew up with supportive parents who encouraged them to follow their dreams.
- Their children whizzed through high school and got full scholarships for university
- Their partner helps out at home.
- They have a job that pays $100,000 a year.
They couldn’t possibly understand what it means to walk in my shoes.
- Perhaps you grew up with an alcoholic parent who got violent when he or she was drinking.
- Perhaps you were told every day that you would never amount to anything.
- Perhaps you wanted to go to college, but you were forced to quit school and work at a dead end job for minimum wage.
- Perhaps you have gone to bed hungry so your children could have the hot lunch at school.
- Perhaps you are anxious, stressed, worried and overwhelmed by life.
- Perhaps you consider yourself a failure.
Take it from me. Looks can be deceiving. I am here to tell you, that normal (whatever that means), everyday people from all walks of life who wear a big smile on the outside, can be living in a state of mental turmoil. They could be wondering if they can drag themselves through one more day.
I was one of those people for many years. On the outside, I appeared to have it all together — a loving husband, beautiful children, a good job, a nice house.
…But it was all an illusion…
No one had any idea what was going on behind my phony smile. I am going to tell you a few embarrassing things about me that reinforce that I am just an ordinary person — just like you or someone you love.
First, have you ever had head lice?
I have and I was only in Grade Primary. I was very generous and shared them with my dad and a neighbour. All it took to get rid of them was a fine-toothed comb and a special shampoo.
…And the lice never came back…
Second, have you ever had scabies commonly referred to as the itch? I have, and I remember it well. I was in Grade 5 at the time. Fortunately, I had tonsillitis at the same time so nobody knew about my case of scabies. An ointment prescribed by Doctor Sterling Robbins got rid of the itch.
…And scabies never came back…
And last of all, have you ever suffered from mental illness so severely you had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility? I have. Unfortunately, no shampoo or ointment could get rid of it. It was far more complicated than head lice or scabies.
…And no matter what I did, it kept coming back…
More than twenty years ago, I was a patient in the Nicholl’s Building which housed the Psychiatric Department of the Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC), and over the next several years I would take refuge there many times.
I was far more comfortable with being admitted than those close to me. Mom once told me, “Melda, all I could think of was what in the world you would do when you realized where you were.”
Even my family physician who had walked the long, dreary road with me said in hushed tones, “Melda, we have to get you out of here,” as if I were being held without my consent.
What did I think at this point? I felt relieved that my daily obligations had been lifted from my shoulders. In all honesty, I felt as if I had checked into a five-star hotel. I could not see what all the hoopla was about. To me, the only difference seemed to be that there was no chocolate on my pillow at bedtime.
Now, please allow me to back up and tell you my journey
I was born in beautiful Nova Scotia in 1957. My Dad, Eugene, was a hardworking, successful fisherman, and my Mom, Sarah, was a devoted wife, mother, and homemaker. I was second youngest in a family of four and had the distinct privilege of being the only daughter which is synonymous to spoiled. Who? Me?
From a very early age, my passion was learning, especially reading. Books transported me from West Head to faraway places like the Swiss Alps with Heidi, to Avonlea with Ann of Green Gables and to River Heights, Chicago, the scene of Nancy Drew’s mysteries.
I excelled academically throughout high school, but I will never forget the emptiness I felt in my soul as I stood on the stage on my high school graduation night giving the Valedictorian address and accepting numerous awards. I now believe I was struggling with mental illness — but did not know it.
After graduation, I followed my cousin, who was also my best friend, to the Nova Scotia Teachers’ College, because I didn’t know what else to do. Three years later, I accepted my first teaching position in Bracebridge, Ontario. Even better, I married my sweetheart, Glenn, the following year. Our son Jeremy was born in 1981 and our daughter Allison in 1984.
On the surface, it sounds cushy, but under the forced smiles, all was not well. After the birth of my children, some very dark memories from my childhood emerged — memories of childhood sexual abuse. I didn’t want to tell anybody about it, but it haunted me day and night. I tried to suppress the memories, but they wouldn’t stay buried.
I believe these incidents broke my brain – literally. The brain of a child doesn’t know how to process these types of incidents. It is beyond comprehension, but somethings tells us it is wrong.
…Things only grew worse…
- I became very weepy, edgy and short-tempered.
- I felt extreme fatigue, even after sleeping for 12-14 hours.
- My mouth was raw with painful canker sores.
- I was hypersensitive to smell and noise.
- I felt hate and rage toward the people I loved the most.
- I had uncontrollable outbursts of crying.
- I felt totally inadequate.
- I was in a state of constant disorganization.
- I had overwhelming feelings of hopelessness.
- I could not concentrate on anything.
What was happening? Why was I feeling like this? Clearly, it sounded like depression.
I was aware of a family link to depression. My mother suffered for most of her adult life but refused treatment until she was in her sixties. Eventually, life crumbled around her, and she was admitted to hospital where she received psychotherapy and was prescribed medication. The diagnosis was bipolar disorder, which at that time, was called manic-depressive illness. Her mind latched onto the word “manic.” She heard maniac, crazy, lunatic. Unfortunately, Mom was non-compliant and would only take her medication sporadically. Once she began to feel better, she believed she could make it on her own. That would result in another total collapse and hospitalization. Mom was ashamed of her mental illness. She felt inferior to others. She was worried about what other people thought.She would rather have had Leprosy, Ebola, Parkinson’s, Arthritis — anything but mental illness.
…I believe that in our heart of hearts,
each of us cares what other people think
about us to some extent…
I flatly refused to believe I could be depressed because I did not want to admit I was like my mother. I am willing to concede that things may have turned out much differently if I had sought treatment for depression in the beginning. It will always remain one of the “what-if-mysteries” of my life.
I now believe my depression was caused by a combination of three factors.
- A set of circumstances.
- A case of genetics.
- A refusal to stop pushing myself beyond my limits.
By September 1992, I had to admit that depression was interfering with my life, my family, and my career to the point I could no longer cope. I had sought help from my family doctor and I had tried all that had been available to me at the time. Each intervention led down a dead end road.
I simply could not carry on. My doctor suggested I take a leave of absence until I felt I could cope again. I returned to teaching three months later. My week went something like this —
- Monday: Yahoo, I’m back.
- Tuesday: Uh-oh, I feel a bit drained.
- Wednesday: Hey, by noon, the week will be half over.
- Thursday: Dear God, how will I make it to Friday?
- Friday: Phew, it’s the weekend.
With a superhuman effort on my part, a very understanding husband, a supportive principal and many absences, I made it to the end of the school year.
I limped through summer and began another school year in September. I stumbled along, trying my hardest to hide the wretched way I was felt. I made it to mid-January when I almost crawled out of my classroom on my hands and knees.
…On that darkest of days, I knew I would not
be returning to my beloved classroom the next
day nor for a very long time — if ever…
A few days later I voluntarily admitted myself to the PRHC. I had hit rock bottom. I remained in the hospital for a while where I met with a psychologist for testing and individual talk therapy, a psychiatrist who listened and prescribed medication and I participated in group therapy sessions with a social worker. And then went home — one very sad cookie. I continued with both individual and group therapy.
Abject hopelessness does not begin to describe how I felt. I spent the next few months feeling as if I were sitting on the bottom of the ocean with metres of dark, icy water above me. The sliver of light at the surface was miles beyond my reach.
I tried an assortment of anti-depressant medication, but the overwhelming sadness remained. In June of that year, my family physician suggested yet another medication. Unfortunately, anti-depressants do not work like antibiotics. For example, if you take Amoxicillin to relieve a sore throat, the results are pretty rapid. You may notice an improvement the next day. With anti-depressants, however, it seems to take a few weeks for the drugs to reach therapeutic levels in the brain and another couple of weeks to begin feeling better — if it works at all. I noticed a difference in just a week. I woke up in the morning feeling rested for the first time in at least a year. I felt motivated to take a brisk walk in the sunshine. Given my past track record, though, I remained cautiously optimistic and didn’t breathe a word to anyone. After all, nothing else had worked for any length of time, so why should this be any different?
Little did I know what a landmark day that would be. Symptom after symptom of depression melted away. Colour returned to my world. Once again the sky was a rich blue, and the grass a fluorescent green. Even my eyes seemed to open wider. My emotional state steadily improved thanks to the successful drug therapy and indefinite talk therapy with a psychiatrist.
…Little did I know what a landmark day it was…
In September, I returned to teaching in the fall feeling unstoppable. I was a walking example of Helen Reddy’s I AM WOMAN, I AM INVINCIBLE but a part of me was scared to death that it was temporary. There are no words in the English language to express how great the whole school year went. It was the highlight of my entire career. I enjoyed boundless energy, creativity, and stamina. I lost much of the weight I had gained. On the down side, however, I just could not sleep without medication, which should have indicated to my doctor and to me that all was not well.
Friends and family had serious reservations about my new found wellness. They believed that I seemed too well, too positive and too energetic about everything. Perhaps they were right. Was my wellness a low-level manic euphoria. I insisted I was simply feeling the way mentally healthy people feel all the time. Sadly, the euphoria was not permanent. As the summer drew to an end, I realized that I was approaching the new school year with a frightening sense of dread and impending doom.
It took every drop of energy I had to complete my back-to-school preparations. I worked hard to conceal my inner turmoil and mental confusion. To those who asked how I was doing I lied, “I’m fine, thank you.” I quickly turned the attention away from me by asking, “But, how are YOU feeling?” Before even two weeks had passed, I had to concede that I was unable to continue. I left my classroom feeling worthless and defeated. The black dogs of depression were no longer just nipping at my heels — they had bitten off my feet.
More hospitalizations ensued. Each new medication proved ineffective. Out of pure desperation, I requested a consultation at the Mood Disorder Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). After repeating my story for what seemed like the millionth time, the psychiatrist made a list of possible treatments. At the very bottom of the list was ECT, electro-convulsive shock therapy. I had reached the point where I was convinced I could not possibly feel any worse and continue to live, so I requested ECT. I had no idea to what to expect, so I went into the first treatment with some apprehension. I fully understood that the improvements would not occur immediately. It would take several treatments. Treatments 1, 2 and 3 came and went with no perceivable changes.
I grew a teensy bit hopeful when after the 4th treatment I could feel the storm clouds receding. I continued to feel great and made plans to return to school in January. In case you haven’t noticed, I was determined to return to teaching. My optimism was to be short-lived. Darkness descended on my world. In just a few days, I had to admit my depression had returned with a crippling vengeance. Once again it was time to grasp at the straws of medication.
Later that year, my husband, Glenn, with my full support, decided the time was right for him to leave his job of about 25 years at GE Canada to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a funeral director. He went off to Humber College in Toronto where he lived during the week, but Glenn spent every weekend at home with us. As you can imagine, It was a very stressful year.
By Christmas time gloominess and hopelessness had once again descended upon me. Since the first ECT series had helped for a few months, I decided to have a second series. I was in such an agonizing frame of mind that I went under the anesthetic sobbing and awoke from the treatment with tears streaming down my face. I felt I had reached the end of my rope. I spent a great deal of time pondering ways to end my life. Only the devastating effect my death would have on my children held me back.
The second ECT series was a complete failure. All I could rely on was another change of medication. Somehow I hung on by my fingernails. It was time to combine anti-depressant drugs. This propped me up enough to manage the mere basics of life. It was a far cry from being mentally healthy.
Glenn graduated from Humber College in May. We sold our home in Peterborough and moved to Marmora, about 60 km east of Peterborough, to work for the McConnell family who owned three funeral homes. Depression, however, was still a constant factor in my life. I resented the way it destroyed my ability to enjoy my life, my husband, my children and my friends. I was afraid to make any concrete plans because I could not predict what emotional state I would be in when the day arrived.
I was feeling bitter that my teaching career had been stolen from me. I loved my students and could develop wonderful rapport with them. I was kind, understanding and generous toward them. I encouraged them to do their best. Every day, I reminded them they had unlimited opportunities ahead of them. Just because a student could not memorize math facts or spell chrysanthemum, these things had no bearing on what he or she could achieve in life.
I will always regret that my children have had to live with this. They were eight and eleven when I became seriously ill, but it had been a lifetime struggle. I was there in body, but that was all. It made life difficult for them, and I felt I was unable to be the mother I would have liked. I stressed over and over that it was not their fault. There was nothing they could do to cause it or to make it go away.
You’re buying what?
In 2004, Glenn and I took a giant step. We left the safety of McConnell Funeral Home and purchased a funeral home in beautiful Bobcaygeon in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country. It turned out to be the best move of our lives. We threw ourselves into our new venture. I believed the struggles of my past gave me more compassion for families dealing with loss. We felt that what we were doing was important and we could make a difference.
After ten years of an all-consuming career, a gentleman walked into the funeral home and asked to buy our funeral home. We said, “Let’s talk.” Six months later, everything was finalized and we retired.
I am thrilled that I have made it to this point. All these years later with the love and support of friends, family, medications and counselling, I am enjoying life. My sleep is refreshing and I have energy to spare. Once again, I feel valuable and capable. I must admit to you, though, that some nights I’m afraid to go to sleep just in case I awoke feeling lethargic, anxious and overwhelmed.
I would not want to mislead anyone. I still have bad days, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I have developed a few coping mechanisms that work well for me which I will share with you.
Go Out for Coffee Rule: For me, and many others who deal with depression, getting out of bed can feel like climbing Mount Everest. I have discovered that having coffee at a local coffee shop is motivation enough to get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, comb my hair and throw on some clothes. This method has worked for more than fifteen years. I am a creature of habit. Every day, I have a couple of cups of coffee and an order of marbled rye toast. I sit and gab with a girlfriend for an hour. Then I am ready to go home and face the day.
The Three Day Rule: When life gets overwhelming, I find it usually lasts two or three days. I try to retreat for a few days and focus on my needs. More often than not, three is the magic number.
Television Commercials Rule: When I hit a rough patch, I feel the gravity of the entire universe is pinning me to my chair. I only feel able to watch TV. Sitting there, in a gray world, I look around and realize the sink is full of dishes, and there is “stuff” everywhere that needs to be put away. There is no point in making a list. I can’t motivate myself to tackle everything, so I do my housework during the TV commercials. It is amazing how much I can accomplish in two and three-minute spurts.
How do you like these rules? Do you think they could work for you?
Yes, I am guilty of overstepping the boundaries that serve to protect me. In doing so, I jeopardize my mental well-being. I must remind myself daily not to become too involved in the lives of others. A part of me wants to fix everyone’s problems, but the psychological cost is too great. I acknowledge that I have no power over the behaviour and decisions of others. The only person I can control or change is me, a lesson that I have found hard to accept.
My experience with depression has filled my heart with great compassion for others dealing with mental illness. I just want to scoop them up in my arms, hold them tight and offer words of hope. If I can do it, perhaps you can do it too.
..Everyone is walking their own difficult path…
After all, it is estimated that every year one out of every five people will be affected by mental illness.
There have been unexpected surprises along the way.
A few years ago, long after the fact, I received an email from a former grade-four-student. She has a family member who has been dealing with depression for a number of years. What I read blew me away and I think you will have the same reaction as I share part of it with you.
“…Mrs. Clark, you had a love for music that you shared with our class, and I remember so clearly sitting on the carpet in that classroom, you playing your autoharp, and we would sing. All the time! We loved it! I can’t remember much about what you taught us academically that year because my memories are full of the many class trips you took us on to numerous nursing homes, different floors of the hospital, and even the psychiatric building at PRHC. We marched in behind you and your autoharp, all 27 of us nine-year-olds, and sang our little hearts out to encourage the residents. We may have stood a little closer to each other during those times, tentative in the surroundings, but you had prepared us well for what we would see and hear as we interacted with people struggling with mental health issues. You had shared your story with us. We knew you had struggled with depression and knew that you very recently had spent time living in the very same psychiatric ward we were singing in. I remember you telling us how encouraged some of the other residents would be to see you, doing so well and back living your everyday life. We learned from you that very normal; wonderful people can struggle with depression. We also learned to look at mental illness in the same way that we looked at physical illness, as a sickness of the brain. It may have been a simplistic understanding, but regardless, you instilled in us a sense of compassion and respect for those struggling…”
…More confirmation that we can never know
the ripple effects our words and deed can have…
I have saved the most meaningful outcome of my illness until last. My sweet daughter was a student in my grade four class the year I left teaching for good. It crushed her little nine-year-old heart. In fact, both of us sobbed together as we lay on the floor of our family room. I could not be her Grade 4 teacher, but little did we know that was not the end. You see, I got to be her teacher, but in a different time and place.
About ten years ago, she came to work with me in the office of the funeral home. I got to teach her the skills necessary to run a successful office. It wasn’t long until she could work circles around me. Her telephone manner was so warm and friendly that people actually came to the funeral home to meet the beautiful young lady behind the voice.
…She got to be in my class, not for one year, but for eight years. That wasn’t even the best part. The cherry on top? She got be in my class for eight whole years…
I hope you will reach out to someone one who is struggling. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to keep your opinions and unfounded solutions to yourself. Leave that part to the psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and counsellors. More than likely, your friend or family member is using every ounce strength just to put one foot ahead of the other.
Instead, you can use your energy to support the individual. It could be as simple as washing dishes, cleaning the toilet, scrubbing the kitchen floor, making a pot of tea, dropping off a meal or taking their children to the park for an hour.
We have come a long way in our understanding of mental illness.
Intellectually, we know it is a legitimate illness for which there are treatments but, still today, it is a constant battle to chip away at the humiliating prejudice that is so deeply ingrained in our thinking.
Celebrities have spoken out about their experiences.
- Olympian Clara Hughes, has been able to increase the public’s knowledge about mental illness.
- Margaret Trudeau, mother of our current Prime Minister, has spoken openly and written about her battle with bipolar disorder.
- General Romeo Dellaire, now a Senator, served during the genocide on Rwanda speaks about his PTSD.
If an Olympian, a Prime Minister’s mother and a General can talk about mental illness without feeling shame, then I can too.
…Mental illness is real, just as real as diabetes,
HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease…
Mental illness knows no borders. It can and does touch anybody, regardless of educational, social or economic status. Recovery has nothing to do with pulling up one’s bootstraps. It is impossible to pull up your bootstraps when you feel like you are wearing cement boots. Mental illness is real, just as real as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer and heart disease. We don’t beat up on those people. Nor should we burden the mentally ill with statements such as:
- I know that there are medications for depression, BUT medication is only a crutch. (If you add the word BUT, then you do not know.)
- I still think you would feel better if you forced yourself to get out of bed and walk the boardwalk.
- You have so many things to be thankful for.
- Make yourself a cup of chamomile tea.
- Sometimes you just have to suck it up.
- This too shall pass.
- I know how you feel.
- Do you have unconfessed sin in your life?
If it were a matter of choice, no one would choose to linger in the hell of depression.
Perhaps you are struggling in silence. What can I say to encourage you? Make a list of your symptoms for your doctor. It is easy to become nervous or feel rushed in the doctor’s office and to forget what you meant to say. You leave having given the doctor too little information for him or her to grasp the severity of your situation. If you find it difficult to communicate with your doctor, take along a trusted family member or friend for support.
“Most of all, do not give up.
Hang on by your fingernails.”
I remember that in the throes of my struggles with unsuccessful drug therapies and talk therapy, there were times I gave up. I felt I could not try anymore, but then a new day would offer a splinter of hope to try again. Somehow and some way, keep going.
Yes, mental illness can derail our lives, interrupt our education, destroy our marriage, alienate us from loved ones and steal our career aspirations, but it doesn’t have to end there. It can also make more room in our hearts for those who struggle.
I still suffer from depression and expect I always will, but I have made peace with it. Even so, I love my life, even with its warts, wrinkles, age spots and thunder thighs. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I believe, that with help, the same can happen for you, a loved one, or a friend.
If you have private questions or comments for me, please send them to my confidential email firstname.lastname@example.org