This photo of me was taken on October 15, 2016.
Look at my face. How do I look? Happy? Sad? Fine? Upset?
This photo was taken on one of the worst days of my life. Would you know it by looking?
A few short hours before this snapshot, I was sobbing.
In the midst of the fourth severe depressive episode of my life, I – against my own better judgment – ended up at home by myself, surrounded by nothing but a silence that was too loud and the echoing of my own unhealthy thoughts.
Already two weeks into treating this “flare up” with a meds adjustment, getting back into psychotherapy, and practicing mindfulness & meditation, I dug deep into my arsenal of self care tools and tried to shift my focus.
Breathe in through the nose, hold for 4 seconds, slowly out through the mouth. Focus on your breathing. Chase away the negative thoughts. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay. Shhhh, calm down. Back to the breath. In through the nose. You’re all right. It will get better. You’ve been here before; it will pass this time, too. Out through the mouth.
There is no fight more exhausting, more terrifying, than the one you have with your own mind. The criminal we call depression robs your brain of its ability to function normally; to fire the correct synapses, release the correct amounts of chemicals. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine. To be held hostage by your own mind, unable to see a clear path back to the light and the truth… it can only be described as, simply, agony.
That morning, I planned to get some more sleep, then have some lunch, then force myself out to run some errands.
Fighting with my thoughts, tossing and turning in bed trying to fall asleep, I was waging a war in my head. The energy it takes to exert control over the depressive thoughts playing over and over is all-consuming. I must have fought for a good twenty or thirty minutes, a valiant effort in the wrestling ring of my brain. Eventually, the fight ends. One side wins, and the other loses. That morning, the fighter in me lost. The thief of mental illness, of depression, won.
What happened next is something I have shared with only three people. As someone who has spent years openly sharing my personal struggles and experiences with mental illness on a very public platform, this is rare. Since my first post on the topic in January 2013, I have written a lot about it, both as an advocate to foster support and increase awareness, as well as from a personal standpoint. I’ve been featured in more than a few newspaper articles, I’ve been interviewed on CBC radio, I’ve been published in Moods Magazine.
So it’s embarrassing to admit that I have been ashamed of what happened next, and that is why I have not spoken of it since. But I know, I know, that there should be no shame in it. So today, on the 7th annual Bell Let’s Talk day, I choose to share.
In one terrifying moment, as I lay there, having given in to the despair spreading through me like wildfire, I thought, for the first time in my life, I wonder what it would be like to die? And then, How would I do it?
As I sit here now, and type those words, my heart is beating faster. I remember how I felt in that moment. How the shock of the seriousness of the thought propelled me out of my bed like a rocket. How terrified I felt, scared of my own self. How I paced up and down the hall, trying to out-run the tsunami of darkness that threatened me. Back and forth across the carpet, trying to escape myself, trying to shed the despair like a second skin, shaking, crying with so much primal fear that I recall sounding like a wounded animal.
My dog, who first stared up at me blankly, confused, and then ran from me, as I began to hyperventilate. The fear and isolation I felt knocked me off my feet, and I remember finding myself on the floor, doubled over as if in physical pain.
I don’t know how long I lay there, sobs wracking my body with a force all their own.
Finally, with a determination I knew was still buried deep inside me, strength from the real me managed to slice through like the narrow ray of sunshine that bleeds through the blinds and finds a home on the floor, and I reached for my phone.
With just a couple texted words, my very good friend knew I was in need, and her mother, who lives just around the corner from me, was dispatched to come to my aid.
When she entered, I fell into her arms. For the next hour, she held me and soothed me as I wept.
She is the woman next to me in the photo you see above, which was taken later that same day at Bluffer’s Park in Toronto’s east end. She and her husband, who I also consider a friend – no, family – fed me tea and convinced me to join them for a walk in the beautiful sun of a warm autumn afternoon.
The two of them, along with their daughter – my friend – didn’t leave my side until I was, exhausted from my day and the Ativan still in my system, ready for bed that evening.
Gratefully, about a week later, the day did come when the tide turned. The new meds kicked in, the mindfulness and meditation started paying off, and I began keeping a gratitude journal. I woke up one morning and thought I think I feel a bit better. A bit better than I have in weeks, actually. Is it over? Did I make it through?
Now, it should be said that I don’t believe that I would have taken any harmful action against myself that day, though more than 800,000 others do every year. But simply having the thought of it, seemingly without any control, shook me to my core. How much pain people can be in, how ill they can be, for death to become the better option… well, I can understand.
It has been said that suicide is to life what jumping was to those trapped in the twin towers during 9/11. None of those people wanted to jump to their death, but it seemed a better option than burning alive. That is what depression and mental illness can be – burning alive.
So today we reach out to all those who have been, and who are, trapped in the fire of brain health disorders. This day was created to eliminate stigma and discrimination; to raise awareness and funds for mental health.
We can help this cause with Bell Let’s Talk not only by texting, making mobile & long distance phone calls, Tweeting, and sharing on Facebook, but also by sharing our own stories.
That has, perhaps, the most powerful impact of all.
“Don’t be ashamed of your story. It will inspire others.”
Postscript: To those who supported, called, visited, texted, fed, and checked-in on me during those difficult few weeks last Fall, the words thank you are not enough. I have encountered, throughout my 4+ years of volunteering and advocating, so many others who lack the incredible support system I am so blessed to have. Your support, understanding, willingness to learn and to listen means more to me than you’ll ever know.