Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Positive Steps.

I recently read a statistic that 25% of people are directly, and 100% are indirectly, affected by mental illness. After Colin's post tugged at my lil' heart-strings this morning, I thought I would also share my story.

I tried my first medication for a "mood disorder" when I was seven years old, and days away from starting the third grade. The chemicals in my brain were not working in my favor. I was a sad kid. I had great parents, and did okay in school, and nothing made me happy. Not birthday parties, not cartoons, not even Wacky Wafers. I distinctly recall feeling like everyone else in the world lived their lives like they were in DeBarge's Rhythm of The Night video, and I was stuck behind some invisible fence and couldn't join the fiesta. I would listen to my dad's BeeGees records, Stayin' Alive on repeat, and used to think, "yeah, we'll see about that". At ten years old, I was already positive that I did not want to make it to my eighteenth birthday.

I went on and off of medication through the rest of elementary and junior high. Different kinds of medications. Different combinations of medications. The hurt didn't go away, but sometimes it manifested itself in different ways. Stupid ways. I couldn't get up in the morning. I would burn myself to a crisp in the sun, hoping for skin cancer. I would hit and cut myself. My hair was messy and I wore plaid and stripes together, because I couldn't stand to look in the mirror. It didn't get better when I got into high school. I thought the change of pace would be good, but I just felt inadequate and shy and unhappy every day. I didn't get much of an education throughout those years. I just got more and more scared of myself.

In twelfth grade, I graduated high school. Early. Despite everything that was going on in my head at the time, I finished my classes and got enough credits. In my eyes, I was still a complete failure.
I wanted to leave high school early so that I could be alone. Away from everyone. I thought it would make it easier to disappear in the future. I thought that if I at least graduated from high school, it wouldn't be as hard on my parents when I was gone. At least they would be proud of me for something. Then one day, enough was enough. I was exhausted and couldn't go on any longer. I checked myself into hospital, got new meds, and started a heavy counselling regime. I wanted to snap out of it. I was ready to feel better.

I ran away to France at the age of seventeen, and felt wonderful for a while. I took myself off of medication while I was there, my language skills were not strong enough to go get prescription refills anyway. I turned eighteen by myself on the fourth floor patio of the villa where I was staying. I wrapped myself in a blanket and drank a bottle of wine, smoked a pack of Pink Elephant cigarettes, and dangled my feet over the edge. Part of me was really disheartened. This should've been a monumental occasion, but I felt I shouldn't have made it to this point. I had made a promise to myself. I thought about ending it all that night, but instead I went inside and set a new deadline for myself: I did not want to see my thirtieth birthday. Despite my morbid coming-of-age, I convinced myself I would never have to worry again... I wasn't taking pills. I was still alive... For now. I was "cured".

After I returned to Canada, I moved around a lot. I moved back to Calgary, then Victoria, then Vancouver, and, after a bad breakup, back to Calgary. I was in a bad relationship on the west coast with someone who was also depressed, and I wasn't feeling so great when I got back to town, so I started back on medication. Two weeks later, I was told that my ex-partner had been on a self-prescribed drug holiday, and had thrown himself off the Lion's Gate Bridge in Vancouver. It was a real wake-up call for me. His mom still secretly checks this blog on a regular basis, and it breaks my heart.

I stopped meds again about six years ago by choice, and have been off ever since. At the current moment, I feel like the skills that I have obtained from years of counselling sessions have given me the ability to want to wake up in the morning, and eat a couple of meals a day, and laugh when something is funny. Like all human beings, I am still a work in progress. I still have my "off days", but I know what I need to do when I feel myself slipping. I take a lot of baths. Speaking to an understanding friend helps a lot. Quiet walks by myself help me organize my thoughts. Sometimes, all I need to feel better is a bag of Tropical Skittles. However, if one day the Skittles cease to work, you can bet I'll be back at the doctor, begging him to drug me up. No need to be bashful. My life is at stake here.

I was worried when, five years ago, I started working with mentally ill youth. I thought that it would, somehow, trigger some of those feelings I'd worked so hard to control. It didn't take long, however, to learn that this was certainly not the case. As I hand a kid a pack of tablets for the first time, I always give them the same speech: "If you had hypertension, you'd take a pill without question. If you were diabetic, you'd take your insulin with no problem..." Mostly, I want to alleviate some of the shame that comes with the diagnosis. There should be no shame involved. It's a medical diagnosis like any other. Working with these kids gave me a purpose I didn't know I had. I am no longer standing here today as Sarah, the saddest girl in the world. I am just regular Sarah. I love music and candy and animals and writing. It can get better, with effort. I'm proof.

It is of note that I work in a fantastic environment where we are encouraged to speak of our own experiences with depression, manic depression, borderline personality disorder, and other mental illnesses. I can't tell you how many times in a week I'm able to nod and let one of the kids know I've been there... Trust me, I've been there.
The only way to overcome society's deep-rooted stigma of mental illness is to talk openly and honestly about it... Open a few minds. If not you, it could be your mother or brother or best friend or neighbour. Mental illness does not discriminate, and nobody should feel alone or hopeless. I'll be thirty years old this year, and I'm not worried about making it to sixty-five. No deadline. No problem. I've got this.

When one person gets up the courage to admit to struggles with emotional disorders, it allows others to feel like it is also okay to share their story. This is how we make progress. Way to be brave, Colin.

~sarah p.


cc said...

Thank you for sharing too Sarah. I haven't tried skittles yet, but it's now on my list.

davidrpharmboy said...

I must admit Sarah, that was a very touching and powerful face you displayed about depression. I try to educate myself (as a pharmaceutical rep) on the impact depression has with patients. Your story tells me the human spirit is very powerful and I hope you continue telling others that they too can live life to the fullest.