- Mental Health
- Substance Use
- Healthy Living
I must have heard that phrase at least a thousand times from my parents. Actually, it was usually ‘šta ti je?!,’ which means ‘what’s with you?’ in Serbian. I always understood why they were asking me that. Despite the fog of depression and anxiety I spent my teenage years in I knew my behavior wasn’t normal. I knew it wasn’t right to cry or rage at the drop of a hat, it wasn’t normal behavior to spend an entire sunny Saturday sleeping, only getting up to binge and purge before passing out into blissful sleep again.
But what I didn’t understand was what I was supposed to do with that question. Believe it or not, when my parents asked me what was wrong I didn’t see it as them trying to figure out what was going on with me. I saw it as a great big finger being pointed at my self-perceived strangeness, my inability to regulate my emotions and the dark thoughts that swam around in my brain on a daily basis. I saw it as them planting a neon sign over my head that would flash the word DISAPPOINTMENT over and over to everyone in the vicinity, because that’s what I saw myself as. To me, my depression was laziness and my anxiety was craziness. So there I was, crazy and lazy and unable to accept that the two people that loved me more than anything on this planet actually wanted to know what was going on in my head.
And maybe part of it was the fact that I, myself, didn’t know what was going on in there. So I found new ways to cope. I tried different coping tools on like hats. For six years I was bulimic, stuffing my feelings down with food and bringing up my inadequacies with my purging, flushing them away for the time being until they bubbled to the surface again. Then came university and partying. Substance use promised blissful forgetfulness, even if it did trigger massive panic attacks later on. Throughout all this I had severe rage problems, screaming until my throat bled and my eyes turned red with burst blood vessels. Mad was an understatement. When I became furious enough I would turn to hurting myself- cutting, burning, hitting, holding my breath until I almost passed out… all these happened behind my closed bedroom door and my determination that these feelings were all my fault made me tight-lipped and unable to talk about them.
Some people say they had an ‘aha’ moment where they realized they needed help. My ‘aha’ moment that started me on a path to recovery happened at the Kelty. I had started getting serious about pursuing a career in mental health and thanks to a wonderful friend I was able to start volunteering there. My first day as a volunteer, I sat down with Julie, one of our FORCE Parents in Residence, and we struck up a conversation. It speaks to Julie’s natural empathy and warmth that within hours of meeting her I was able to share things that I wouldn’t have told my friends for all the money in the world. And the best part was, once our conversation was over, I didn’t feel judged or scared the way I had when I’d admitted tiny tidbits of my problems to family or friends. I felt… better.
And slowly, surely, I began opening up to more and more people. I told my best friends about my struggles with anxiety and depression and the dark turns it had taken me down and they gave me nothing but support in return. I confessed to my boyfriend the hours I would spend looking up symptoms in an attempt to stave off my health anxiety and he helped me stay strong and stay away from self-diagnosing, he would spend hours distracting me from turning to Dr. Google. I told my mom about my worries about my future and actually let her comfort me, she held me while I cried my heart out. I confessed to my dad that sometimes I was so scared of dying that it made me want to kill myself, and he shared with me his own experiences of anxiety that stemmed from his PTSD and wartime experiences and that helped me understand my feelings better. My older sister who I’ve been incredibly close to my whole life knew about some of the scarier parts of my psyche but I began reaching out to her in moments of crisis. She’s helped me more than she’ll probably ever know and more than she’d ever admit, she’s humble like that.
And I began to realize that with each of these confessions I wasn’t disappointing anybody. Nobody was looking down on me or whispering about me behind my back. I was so fortunate in that everyone that I talked to unflinchingly and without hesitation gave me their support and their love. Instead of feeling like I was being badgered with ‘šta ti je,’ I was now hearing :How can I help?”
Being the Kelty’s new Youth in Residence position is something that is unbelievably exciting to me because I am so passionate about helping people open up the way that those close to me helped me. I’ll never cease to be amazed with how insightful and open about mental health everyone at the Kelty Centre is, and I am so grateful to be working in such a positive environment.
At the demolition of the old Willow Chest Centre that would make way for a new mental health and addiction treatment centre in VGH, Joe Segal, whose philanthropy has made the new $82-million dollar centre a possibility, put his finger on one of the most common problems faced by people experiencing mental health challenges:
“When you hear about people with heart and stroke problems you hear about something that is visible. Because when people walk around with heart problems they walk a little slowly, with cancer they walk around in pain.
When you walk around with mental illness, you walk around alone.”
I walked around alone for so long that I began to think there was no other way to be. I thought the world I’d built in my head was mine to stay in and suffer and in some twisted way I was trying to punish myself for my mental health issues. I used to think I didn’t deserve the counselling that I’ve received and continue to receive. I didn’t think that I had a right to talk about my problems and the mental headspace they put me in. I thought I was being “strong” by “sucking it up” and pretending everything was fine. Sometimes things aren’t fine, and that’s okay. But ignoring your issues usually winds up in some very self-destructive coping mechanisms and I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have made it through to the other side of my mental health challenges.
I no longer use substances, self-harm, rage or binge and purge to deal with my bad days. I talk and I share with others how I’m feeling. I spoil myself with positive self-talk and take time out of my day just for me, to do a relaxation or meditation exercise or hit the gym or anything that makes me feel good. I’ve learned how to be better to, and more forgiving of, myself. And I hope to be able to share that with someone who may be facing their own crisis of silence. Living alone in your own head is no way to be, I’m living proof of that.