A brave portrayal of how an over-achiever ended up in a psych ward and went on to create positive wellness within herself and others.
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 recount 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 discern is how much of that was ‘normal’ childhood experience (kids being kids) and how much of it was actually 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 fact 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 the way I processed first 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 strong belief within me very early on that I simply wasn’t good enough — I wasn’t truly wanted. It all fed my feelings of inadequacy, which then played out on the school grounds and I became 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 about 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 just kept pushing myself — top athlete and student in high school, Dean’s list, and athletic and academic scholarships in university. It all served me well… until it didn’t.
Anxiety & Depression Strikes
My first depression hit me like a freight train — almost like a switch had been flipped. 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 friends at university 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 the seriousness of my state. I had stopped going to our track practices and was barely functioning. She was advised to make an appointment for me. By this point, 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.
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, stress was a useful and potentially life-saving response.
More importantly, it typically did not occur on a daily basis. 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. There is no magic pill, despite what the modern-day Big Pharma commercials try to tell us. There is much more to the story.
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 behavior had become increasingly erratic.
This all culminated in me spiraling 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.
Upon graduating from university, I began my career in corporate finance. Within four years, I had been promoted three times; however, the last promotion was a struggle for me. Unbeknownst to me, the branch manager had ‘fixed’ the commercial portfolios so that the one I managed had all the problem accounts while the other portfolio manager handled all the A+ accounts. Accordingly, I was spending countless hours at work and felt like I was drowning in my work. My self-confidence steadily dwindled — I was in over my head and too proud to admit it, let alone ask for help. The seeds of self-doubt grew into uncontrollable weeds that I could no longer pluck from my consciousness.
On June 9, 1994 I attempted suicide.
So what exactly happened that night? As with any episode it was multi-factorial. Ultimately, I think it was the combination of the various stressors in my life that resulted in me attempting to take my life (moving, new job, intense portfolio, financial stress, lack of socialization, poor diet, no exercise, poor self-esteem, etc.). What I remember most are the thoughts that plagued me. The self-critical thoughts that repeatedly told me that I was worthless, I was no good, that no one cared about me, that I might as well kill myself, etc. If my voice of reason piped up with a rebuttal, such as that is not true, you have worth— the voice of doubt would quickly put me in my place with a cutting rebuttal.
This mental tug-of-war was exhausting.
I had such a hard time turning off those thoughts that after many months of being terrorized by them, I decided the only way to stop them was to end my life.
My life didn’t end, but I ended up in a coma with kidney failure on dialysis. I was told that I would need a kidney transplant if they did not recover. I can tell you that I was certainly not impressed when I realized that not only had I been unsuccessful in my suicide attempt, but also, I now might be ‘handicapped’ for the rest of my life. At this rock bottom point, I was given a book by Marianne Williamson to read called A Return to Love. I read a passage on surrender and 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 if it wasn’t my time, I had to ask myself what I was going to do with it.
When I returned to work, I couldn’t deny that my career at the time was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. However, I was unsure what else I wanted to do. I continued to climb the corporate ladder and ended up reporting to the CEO of HSBC Asset Management Canada. But, there was always this tiny whisper from my heart nudging me to make a change. It took me many years to muster up the courage to leave my ‘job security’ at HSBC. The search to change led me to a public lecture on mental health.
At the lecture, I listened to Dr. Abram Hoffer (a nutritionally oriented psychiatrist) talk about using vitamins and minerals to help people regain their mental health. I left the event invigorated and filled with optimism that there was another way to help manage my mental health conditions without the use of pharmaceutical medication.
The Turning Point
I am where I am today because of Dr. Hoffer, as well as the work of my other health care professionals. My initial understanding and awareness that nutrients play a role in mental health was due to Dr. Hoffer. Prior to becoming his patient, only my naturopathic doctor had tried to teach me that what I was eating would affect my mood and how I felt. Dr. Hoffer prescribed essential nutrients that my body required in order to make the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter serotonin. I was suffering with anxiety and depression when I started his protocol in October 1999 and within a few weeks, I felt them lift.
After 15 years, I wondered if I was finally free from the roller-coaster ride of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder type 1 and bulimia.
When I felt better, I was able to take stock of my life. I hadn’t been able to do this before because I was so stuck in the stigma and cloud of the mental labels I had been given that I couldn’t see beyond them. When the clouds lifted, I began to experience joy, happiness, a sense of calmness, peace and comfort. I was then able to look at my life, my values and my direction. It was after listening to Cheryl Richardson, a life coach and author, being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, that my life changed with one question. During the episode, she encouraged the viewers to contemplate the following:
“If money didn’t matter, what would you be doing with your life?”
I repeatedly sat with that question. And what consistently came up for me was to become a naturopathic doctor and help people regain the mental wellbeing I had. That of course was followed by, Are you crazy?! You can’t quit your job! You can’t leave your secure position.
Thankfully, I was able to take a deep breath and not be swayed by self-doubt, fears and insecurities. This was a change that my heart had desired since I encountered my first depression in university.
The only difference was that I was learning to listen to the voice of my heart or intuition, versus the voice of fear from my mind.
In February 2000, I resigned from my position at HSBC and went back to school (first high school, then university) to get the science prerequisites that I would need to get into naturopathic medical school. I was 33 years of age and beginning again.
When I first went to see Dr. Hoffer, he was in his eighties, and I knew that he wasn’t going to be able to help people forever. Today, statistics report that one in four people around the world will be affected my mental illness at some point in their lives. That is far too many, as far as I am concerned. 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 present 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 in all of its messiness. That means letting go of our expectations about how we thought it was supposed to look like.
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 instead 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 (and yourself)
- 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.
*Don’t miss the 2 powerhouse (yet simple) recipes from my book, The Essential Diet: Eating for Mental Health, that I included in this issue: Grilled Salmon with Balsamic Onion Glaze and Steamed Kale
You may also enjoy reading A Return to Health: Balancing Chronic Illness with CBD by Melissa Gibson