It is often hard to pinpoint the exact moment when mental illness begins in one’s life. A question we are taught to ask patients is: What was going on in your life when you were first diagnosed? I find that the answers I receive in response to that question vary — some people remember a stressful incident, such as the death of a loved one or divorce, while others have a vague memory of their past and it all seems blurry. Suffice it to say, there is no one size fits all scenario.
When I look back on my childhood, I can remember a few incidents where I struggled with my mental health. What’s difficult to differentiate is how much of that was ‘normal’ childhood experience (kids being kids) and how much of it was clinically abnormal. It didn’t help that my own insecurities and anxieties seemed to be on overdrive from the moment I entered the world, given that I was adopted. Truthfully, I think this may have clouded everyone’s judgment. As a result, most of my behavior was chalked up to the fact that I was adopted versus the fact that I had a mental illness.
From the beginning, with way I processed learning that I was adopted to overhearing the negative comments made to my parents from some family members who said things like, “blood is thicker than water” — cast a belief within me very early on that I simply wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t truly wanted. It all fed my insecurities, which then played themselves out on the school grounds and I was a prime target for kids to pick on. Despite my insecurities around adoption and being picked on in elementary school, there were no other traumas in my childhood. All was well until I became a teenager and developed an eating disorder around the same time my parents were getting divorced. It was then that the fracture in my emotional foundation deepened.
In my life, stress was a big problem. I had been an overachiever and I put tremendous internal pressure on myself to be the best. Yet, subconsciously, I had developed a way of operating in the world that kept faulty core beliefs of unworthiness alive within me. I never learned to manage stress, and I kept pushing myself — top athlete and student in high school, Dean’s list, and athletic and academic scholarships in university. That served me well, until it didn’t.
Anxiety & Depression strikes
My first depression hit me like a freight train — almost like a switch. It seemed one day, I was me, and the next day, ‘I’ was no longer there. The person I had been had disappeared behind the clouds. As the weeks wore on, I slipped further and further into the depths of its clutches. The only problem was that I didn’t realize I was depressed and didn’t have words to express what I was experiencing.
I was physically, mentally and emotionally paralyzed. At this time, no one was talking about mental illness in the media, and the word ‘depression’ had never been mentioned in our household. Accordingly, I had no frame of reference to identify what I was going through. It was an isolating experience that left me feeling like I didn’t belong in my body…and my body didn’t belong to me.
My university friends noticed that something was ‘off’ with me. Out of concern for me, one of my friends, Lisa, spoke to an adviser at the university student health clinic. She wanted to know what she could do to help, as she recognized my state was serious. I had stopped going to our track practices and was barely functioning. She was advised to make an appointment for me. I had sunk very deep, and was contemplating suicide. The thoughts were there, but I did not yet have a specific plan.
Lisa was also terrified that I would either be upset with her for talking about me to someone else or that I wouldn’t go to the appointment. Maybe on a soul level, I knew that I needed help. Even though I didn’t understand or comprehend what was going on, there was an indifferent willingness to show up for the appointment. So, I went. And it was the slow start to the unraveling of my mental anguish and the beginning of my journey on the road to mental wellness. I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety and prescribed Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant.
The diagnosis of depression and anxiety was a relief and a curse bundled up into the same package. I felt relief that there might be a solution, but I felt stigmatized and shamed by the mental illness labels. Even though I had been given a diagnosis, it didn’t immediately lift the cloud that was hanging over me or shift the tides of self-doubt in which I was so deeply immersed.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I might refer to what happened as an ‘existential’ crisis or ‘adrenal fatigue’— but I had never heard of either of those terms in 1987, let alone ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’! What I have learned since studying naturopathic medicine is that when we are under stress, our adrenal glands produce cortisol to help us deal with the stressors we are facing. When our ancestors had to run from saber-toothed tigers, this was a useful and potentially life-saving response.
More importantly, it typically did not occur daily. But today, it is as though we constantly have one foot on the accelerator; eventually, we are bound to run out of gas or burn out, with anxiety and depression as the result.
Antidepressants are designed to alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety by supporting neurotransmitters. However, they do little to address the root cause of one’s symptoms, which may stem from hormones produced by the endocrine system.
At that time in my life, I was striving for excellence in all areas: academics, sports, work and relationships. It was as if I had run out of gas because I had not learned any stress management skills. It also felt like an existential crisis because I was feeling indecisive about my career path, and I felt that if I didn’t make the right decision, my life would be forever ruined.
Ascent into Madness
It had been three months since I started taking the antidepressant Imipramine. During the first several weeks, I experienced little to no change, but then, gradually, glimpses of my old self started to appear. By early March of 1988, I noticed a considerable increase in energy, and I was sleeping less and less. By the end of the week, I had had little to no sleep for three nights. I was euphoric, fun to be with, energetic, magnetic. I had racing thoughts, rapid speech. I was full of ideas, loved life, started re-engaging with friends, went out dancing — and had no insight or self-awareness to see that my behaviour had become increasingly erratic.
This all culminated in me spiralling out of control in a delusional state of psychosis. 911 was called. When the paramedics arrived, I resisted them with all my strength and power. Therefore, it took two police officers, two ambulance attendants, my mom and my friend to wrestle me into a straitjacket.
A new diagnosis
At the hospital, I was put in a rubber room. I exploded deeper into rage and madness and was injected with Haloperidol, a powerful antipsychotic medication, to calm me down. Eventually, I was moved to the psychiatric ward. When I was discharged, I was sent home with a prescription for lithium carbonate. I was still processing and accepting the fact that I had depression and anxiety and that my eating issues were far from resolved, and now I had a new diagnosis to digest: bipolar disorder type 1.
Instead of accepting the diagnosis, I stuffed it into a deep, dark place that I dared not to look. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had been given that label. Every day, I wore the mask that everything was okay on the outside, but meanwhile I was dying bit-by-bit on the inside. I was also wearing the ‘never let them see you sweat’ mask and continued to overachieve in the world. Old habits fit like gloves. This was one I knew well.
After hitting rock bottom and surviving a suicide attempt, I began to think about healing. How do I recover? How do I learn to love myself? Is there another way to feel, other than depressed and anxious or in fear of mania? Slowly, very slowly, a crack of light began to shine through my broken heart. I figured that perhaps God wanted me here and it wasn’t my time. I was still here after all, so what was I going to do with it?
For the last 25 years, I have made accepting myself and my diagnosis my number one priority. It has become my primary objective and goal in life to find natural ways to manage the mental illnesses that I have had to overcome: bulimia, anxiety, depression (suicide) and bipolar disorder type 1.
The road to wellness
I believe that eventually, life has a way of getting you to turn into this moment. Through my journey to mental wellness, I have delved deeply into my own soul to understand the turmoil I have faced. I have learned that even the darkest parts of ourselves — the parts that we don’t like, love or accept — are a call for love. These aspects of ourselves only seem dark because we haven’t shone the light of love on them. Every day, we are invited by life to accept it just as it is in this moment.
Something is trying to break out, break free or be born in someone who is struggling. In our suffering, we often feel alone. With mental illness, we always seem to be running away from it, trying to fix it, trying to get rid of it, and in these efforts, we end up ignoring the present moment — the gift before us. Remember that life is here. It is in the breath, in this feeling of sadness, this feeling of joy — it is all-inclusive. Whatever shape it takes is all there is now. To be open to life, we need to see it as sacred. That means letting go of our expectations about how we thought this moment was supposed to look.
Today, I am privileged to help many patients who struggle with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and bipolar disorders. In my book, Beyond the Label: 10 Steps to Improve your Mental Health with Naturopathic Medicine and online course “Moving Beyond”, I explain how there are four aspects to us as individuals: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual — and that to achieve optimal health the following areas need to be addressed:
- Stress management
- Your behaviors and reactions in the world
- Exposure to environmental toxins
- Love and compassion for yourself and others
The book and course are blueprints for the steps you can take to find balance in these ten areas. I encourage you to move beyond the label (or labels) you have been given, and ask you to travel back to the center of your being, to the heart of your humanity. I want you to remember that you are more than the labels you have been assigned. Labels can serve a purpose initially, helping you to understand that there is an explanation for what you are experiencing. However, in the end, you are more than the label and can move beyond it. My hope is that you move through the stigma and shame of mental illness and find peace in mental wellness.
I want that for you…and for all of us.
The ultimate lessons are about how to:
- Learn to love yourself
- Find your inner voice
- Quiet the disempowering voices of others
- Follow your path
- Live as your heart desires according to rules you define for yourself
Maybe you experience anxiety, are depressed, or struggle with your weight or an eating disorder. Maybe you have bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or another mental health label. Or maybe you are just sick and tired of being tired and sick. Rest assured — you will find help within these resources. My hope is that ultimately you will live a balanced life and embrace all that it can offer. If you have been recently diagnosed, or are struggling in any way, please accept my helping hand. Have faith that you can get well. I believe you can, and I wish you all the joy there is to be found on the healing journey. Let love for yourself and others always be your guide.
Trust me. I know. I’ve walked in these shoes. Your healing journey can start today.