I once had a secret so shameful, I swore I would never talk about it. Now, I can’t stop.
I spoke about it for the first time a year ago, to a high school sociology class. Today, I’ll tell it to third-year students at Dalhousie Medical School in Halifax, where I live. Next week, it will be Saint Mary’s University, and then I’ll start another high school circuit. It’s a secret these schools agreed their students need to hear. And even though revealing it again and again, sometimes in front of hundreds of people, is daunting, I do it for the person I inevitably meet at the end of these talks — the one who, having heard my story, will tell me her own.
In my final year of university, I tried to kill myself. When I say it now, it seems like a casual, almost spontaneous event — but it wasn’t. My problems began in high school, although I didn’t see them as problems at the time. I just thought I was dull and lazy. I assumed my frequent headaches and upset stomach were normal and that everyone else was feigning interest in life too. Behind the smiling facade of a good student lurked the dim and murky face of mental illness. I was depressed.
The start of university was a relief. Life was more engaging; classes were stimulating, the people diverse. For a while, I laughed freely and the world seemed brighter, but then the darkness returned and I found myself hiding behind a mask once again. No one could see the effort that it took to maintain the charade. My bones ached from willing myself to be outgoing, expending all of my energy to participate and be socially active, only to collapse once I was home. I hated the phone: My stomach sank when I heard it ring, out of fear it might be for me.
Different types of depression have different symptoms
|Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
Usually brought on by the weather and the time of year.
Occurs following the birth of a child or a miscarriage. About 13 percent of women will experience this type of depression.
Chronically low mood with moderate symptoms of depression.
|Depression with psychosis
Severe condition that involves losing touch with reality and experiencing hallucinations or delusions.
By third year, the mask was starting to crack and the only coping mechanism I had was avoidance. I broke up with my boyfriend so that he would stop calling me. I distanced myself from friends and began skipping classes. The extrication was gradual but complete. Soon it had been weeks since I had been to a class, months since I’d spoken with a friend, forever since I had told my family the truth.
I still had no idea, however, that I was depressed. I just felt broken inside, numb to every feeling except fear, as one question — “What is wrong with me?” —constantly raced through my mind. Soon I was failing classes and in a panic, desperate for a way out. There was lots of help available to me: family, friends and counsellors. I didn’t go to anyone. I was ashamed.
In the twisted logic of mental illness, suicide truly seemed like the best solution to my problem. So I told my doctor a story about suffering from insomnia. At the pharmacy, I filled the prescription for sleeping pills and then, scared they wouldn’t be enough, went to a different cashier to buy an over-the-counter sleep aid. I couldn’t see that I was sick. All I knew was that I didn’t want to burden my family with my failure, and deciding to kill myself brought a huge sense of relief.
By luck or fate, my sister came home early that day and found me on my bed next to the empty bottles of pills. I regained consciousness in the emergency room, as my stomach was being pumped full of charcoal. My note had been read and my secret revealed. Dreadfully embarrassed, I once again began insisting that I was okay. I claimed it was a rash act — something that everyone was quick to believe, because they desperately wanted to. I was discharged from the hospital that night with a suggestion to see a psychologist. I lied my way through a few appointments and then returned to school. My life once again appeared normal, but below the surface, my depression simmered.
Since my suicide attempt, I have travelled, fallen in love, married and had two wonderful children — all while still suffering silently from depression. My husband was the one person outside of my family who knew about the sleeping pills, but he thought it was all in the past.
I hit rock bottom again in the years after my kids were born. And again, I got to the brink of taking my own life — but this time, terrified of leaving my children motherless, I sought help. I went to the doctor and exposed my wounded soul. She diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and prescribed the medications that have saved my life. Only then did I tell my husband. But I still wasn’t ready to tell the world.
It has taken me 20 years to get to this point. After six years of furtive treatment, I came out of the mental health closet last year for good. It was a dark winter and I could feel my mood slipping again. Suddenly, I didn’t have the energy to keep pretending. With a blog post read by thousands of people, I took off the mask. I was contacted by friends, past acquaintances and scores of complete strangers who told me that my story was also theirs and that they no longer felt alone in their illness.
I’ve seen a few therapists over the years. One asked me to write a letter of forgiveness to myself for my suicide attempt. I refused. How could I forgive myself for such a wretched act? I was still too embarrassed, ashamed and unwilling to absolve myself of blame. Once I revealed my illness to the world, however, this crushing weight of regret began to ease.
I now take three different pills for my depression, and writing has become my therapy. I feel healthy, and I am consumed with a passion to reach out to people who may have their own struggles with mental illness, especially those in high school and university, at the age when I needed help the most. I want to break down the stigma that surrounds the subject of mental health. I don’t want anyone else to be too ashamed to ask for help, to die of embarrassment as I nearly did.
Percentage of Canadians who will experience major depression at sometime in their lives.
Total number of 12-to 19-year-olds at risk for developing depression.
Greater likelihood for women than for men of being diagnosed with major depression. – Sources: Canadian Mental Health Association; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Through my presentations and my writing, I’m now able to reflect on my past with a much less judgmental eye. I often think back to that therapist who wanted me to write the letter of forgiveness. Why am I now able to offer myself a pardon? What has changed? Perhaps living openly with my depression has allowed me to become truly healthy. I can recognize that I’m a strong and vital person, not in spite of my depression but because of it. And now that I can see the truth, I’m eager for everyone else to see it too.
If there is one message I want to get across to people, it’s that it’s okay to need help. That’s what I was desperate to hear, but didn’t, when I was at my lowest point. The same way you would see a doctor for a persistent cough, you should see a doctor for a persistently low mood. Depression is a medical condition. It may not always require medication, but it does require professional attention.
Stigma can be the largest barrier to getting help for a possible mental illness. In fact, two-thirds of people with a mental health problem won’t seek help, mainly for fear of being labelled by their peers. Research has shown that the best way to break down this stigma in young people is through positive interaction with someone who lives with mental illness. When they hear personal stories of hope and recovery, it changes their attitudes and behaviours. I’ve seen it in action.
Without fail, at the end of each of my talks, a group of people come up to thank me for sharing my story, and one person lingers behind. There is always that one who is waiting for everyone else to leave, waiting to get me alone, waiting to talk privately. At my first high school talk, that person was a young woman in grade 12. She was depressed, lonely and scared. She had been thinking about suicide and I was the first person she felt she could tell. With her permission, I brought her teacher into our conversation. By the end of the day, she had arrangements to be seen by a mental health nurse.
It is because of this girl, and others who have since revealed their secrets to me, that I am continually re-inspired to tell my story. In a few minutes, when I stand at the front of this auditorium, I will concentrate on speaking to today’s one person. That’s why I’m here.