First of all, let me say that I do not view the label of mental illness as a negative thing, nor do I view it as an excuse to stop working on the challenges I face. I do not feel a sense of stigma around it either. Mental illness is not a defect, or a reason to disregard a person; it is not a reason to stop growing as a person. It is a way to understand and appreciate a person more thoroughly.
I’ve been a high-achieving, highly functional person all of my life, who has also struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for most of it.
I’ve achieved some great hallmarks – an excellent track record for grant writing, several scholarships, a Governor General’s Academic Award. If I had to impress a national jury tomorrow, I probably could; in fact, even if I didn’t want to, I probably would despite myself, and this is my prison. When I am around others, it can be perfectly impossible for my dark side to show; yet when alone, I often collapse into anxiety, despair, isolation and hopelessness; and it gets worse every time I return to this place.
No one has ever gotten concerned for me, or believed that I might need help, because I have always been able to pull it together when I needed to. In fact, this simply perpetuates people having higher and higher expectations of me that are completely disproportionate to the success of my personal life—the fact that I often feel like I don’t have one, and the fact that I contemplate suicide or can’t leave my house on a regular basis.
My life has been a series of extreme ups and downs, stops and restarts, continuous new beginnings that all end up in the same hopeless place of crisis and isolation. I start big, unrealistic and unsustainable projects with enough gusto and professionalism to impress anyone who doesn’t know my history. I stop eating or sleeping properly, and become obsessed about a project, thinking my life is finally turning around and the sun is coming out. That if I just work hard enough this one last time, everything will be ok. Eventually, the pattern has been that the project flops because I lack the connections and resources to carry it out in a sustainable way. Others sense my intensity, and the unsustainable-ness, and stay away from the whole thing; and pretty soon, I’ve exhausted all my connections, and it’s time to leave and start all over again somewhere else.
People closest to me have often told me that I am choosing to see it as a flop instead of an achievement; that no one is avoiding me because I start unrealistic projects, and everyone loves me. I am unique and talented, intelligent and capable. I just have to learn not to listen to the negative thoughts that are telling me that something is fundamentally wrong with my life and keep on keeping on like everyone else on the planet.
Without diagnosis, I could spend the rest of my life moving from one community to the next, starting again with some grandiose plan. I am an expert at new beginnings, but can’t seem to lay the ground for long-lasting stability. Every time my world crumbles, I become more hopeless, wondering what is wrong with me, and why I can’t seem to get it together.
At 32, I saw no point in continuing. I had received a national award – the largest scholarship in Canada – to return to school, and to do so as a leader in my school and community. With the long, agonizing, drawn out end of my marriage, unstable living arrangements, a career change and a recent “flop” in my community, the workload of the second term, and the pressure to be a leader; everything came to a head. I began to be unable to leave my room; I missed classes, started to fall behind in my studies, experienced hours of uncontrollable sobbing, and finally got in my car, drove far out of town and swallowed two bottles of pills with a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of wine.
I woke up in the early morning. My car and my clothes were covered in vomit, alcohol and feces. Almost without thinking, and because I really could not think of anywhere else to go, I immediately drove myself to the hospital. I was hospitalized involuntarily in the psych ward for one week. There were people screaming uncontrollably in the hallways at night, but I felt a strange sense of relief. I had really and truly wanted to die, but the fact that I hadn’t meant that I had finally qualified myself for the help I have been needing for most of my life. I wasn’t being accused of just wanting attention, or being weak; the unstable part of me that has been ignored and denied could finally be taken seriously.
Three weeks after leaving the hospital, I find myself starting this blog. I am still staying with my two close friends, and receiving social assistance. I still have thoughts of wanting to kill myself, and I have been through several uncontrollable crying spells. The fact that I am with friends means that I survive them because I am no longer alone in my suffering. It feels as if I am on life support; I am hooked up to machines that are keeping my heart beating. My life is a mess of massive life decisions and logistical challenges. I am taking it one day at a time, moving slowly, doing things that are relaxing and fun, and writing a lot. I live in a very small town that is full of burnt bridges. I can’t hide any more here, and it is unbearable to go out in public most days.
If I’m going to live, I’ll have to shift my experience from humiliation to empowered knowledge, increased self-care and regular connection with other human beings on this kind of journey.
What is my identity in the world now, and where will I go from here? Do I need to leave this place and start one more time anew, or would that be considered running from my troubles and ultimately unhealthy?