Portraits of mental health, illness, and recovery
Compiled by Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor
Speaking up about mental health is important—it also requires strength and bravery. The following testimonials are the words of fellow classmates, coworkers, friends, and family who experience mental illness. It’s time to talk, but most importantly, it’s also time to listen.
Finding a voice
Hi there! My name is Davie, and for the better part of seven years I’ve struggle with depression. Depression isn’t a simple concept. It’s a complicated animal that runs wild amongst the amazon that is your mind. Explaining depression isn’t easy. I’m not entirely convinced it can be explained. But it can be talked about.
Throughout my childhood, I was taught that I shouldn’t talk to other people about my feelings. My gender reinforced that I was supposed to be strong, or figure out how to fix the problem myself. My culture taught me that unacceptable to feel how I felt, and that letting other people know that I felt depressed would bring shame on my parents and my family. For years I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone, couldn’t express how I felt. For years I felt like I was alone. But Bell Let’s Talk Day changed everything for me.
All of the sudden, I wasn’t alone. It gave me the courage to speak out, and find the help that I needed. It changed my life. All it took was someone to talk to me, and someone to listen. So please, speak out. Let’s talk about mental illness. Let’s break down the walls that society has built.
Vaccination and mental illness are alike: Scientifically demonstrated, yet many refuse to acknowledge their importance. I believed the myth that depression was just feeling down all the time—like Eeyore. I also believed it would never happen to me. I never realized that my constant anger, extreme mood swings, and destructive urges were symptoms of depression until I found myself in the darkest depths I have ever visited. Since addiction is the only mental illness they cover in high school health classes, I certainly wasn’t prepared for the impact on my body and my psyche.
My depressive episodes manifest similarly to pressing—a medieval method of torture that involves stacking heavy stones on the chest of a victim until either their ribs crack or they suffocate. After it builds for a while, the burden weighs so heavily that it takes all of my “spoons” just to wake up and the “I Don’t Wannas” spread through my life like plague-ridden fleas.
In times of extreme stress, it’s like my executioner drops Stonehenge on me all at once, instead of small stones one by one. Even the physical effects don’t terrify me as much as the damage these episodes do mentally and emotionally: My inner nihilist comes out if I’m lucky.
(Un)fortunately, people I love and admire endure the same illness, and sharing our burdens has made it a little easier to move forward. As has recognizing the necessity of medication—something that terrified me despite knowing I would do the same for a physical illness, such as pneumonia. Above all, depression taught me that silence on either side of the divide is as deadly as polio or smallpox. Mental illness is unpreventable: All we can do is listen to those who suffer without shaming them or belittling their experiences.
I grew into my anxiety
I walk with a clunky leg brace and mask to help me breathe. People question what is wrong with me constantly; they wonder how my body is doing but nobody ever assumes that maybe my mind also needs some work.
I saw a psychologist when I was younger. Psychotherapy was mandated for all kids with profound life-altering diagnoses at BC Children’s hospital. After being assessed, she was shocked that I did not suffer from anxiety or depression. But as I grew older, I grew into my anxiety. For me, anxiety comes in the form of crippling perfectionism.
I recognize that my perfectionism is unrealistic. I know I won’t meet the goals I set for myself but am surprised and disappointed each and every time I don’t.
Perfectionism is not being able to sleep from the guilt of not working or studying or doing something seemingly more productive than resting. Perfectionism is not self-control. It is not admirable.
Having people so in tune with a deteriorating physical body is hard but having nobody notice what is happening in your mind is equally as difficult.
Mental illness isn’t who I am, but it is always with me
I was told years ago that I would not escape my mental illness, and that due to the severity of my condition, I would likely be on medication for the rest of my life.
This is a hard thing to hear when you’re on the cusp of adulthood, finally free to discover who you are, and who you can be. It felt a little like my legs had been cut out from under me. I always thought there would be an exit. I thought there might be a cure.
Some mental illness is acute, not chronic. In fact, I’d be willing to say that many, maybe even most instances of mental illness are not permanent, and I think that’s important for people to know. I don’t think you should assume if you’re diagnosed with depression or anxiety, that there is no getting through it.
I have always been mentally ill. I always will be mentally ill. There is something wrong with the way my brain works, and there is no escaping that. For a while, I thought this meant that there would be no recovery.
What I didn’t realize was that you can recover from mental illness, even if you are never cured. You can get better at recognizing relapses, at catching episodes before they spiral out of control. It is lifelong work, and it doesn’t necessarily get easier, but you become more practiced as time moves forward.
I am not my mental illness, but it is always with me. It will always touch different aspects of my life, whether I want it to or not. It limits me. But it will not end me.
Some days I wake up and it feels like the end of the world. Some days I wake up and feel fine. The annoying thing is I have absolutely no control over this. I can fall asleep knowing I’m safe and loved, then wake up the next morning feeling as if everyone I know has never cared about me.
My depression is a physical weight on me. My limbs feel heavier, I move slower, sometimes I even find it harder to breathe. It’s no wonder why I have a hard time living my life during an episode when getting out of bed can feel like an accomplishment big enough to warrant a tickertape parade.
It’s even worse when my anxiety joins the party. If depression is a weight, then anxiety is a shot of adrenaline straight to my heart. It’s like having a devil and angel on your shoulder, except one is saying you’re a piece of shit because of all the things that might happen, and the other says you’re a piece of shit no matter what happens. How do you deal with that? How do you live your life knowing that at any given moment one of two illness (or both, if you’re really lucky) will take over and completely change how you think and feel about everything? I wish I knew.
It sucks, feeling like your world revolves around such a bullshit part of you. I guess, for me, it’s the little victories; like finding the energy to make a cup of tea, or the courage to tell someone what’s actually going on. One day I hope to have more than little victories to show for my efforts, but for now they’re enough.