Trigger and language warning: This piece overtly discusses concepts such as suicide, mental illness, depression, anxiety, triggers and a number of other potentially triggering concepts. It also occasionally uses coarse language. Please read cautiously.
We live in a fast-paced, results-driven world. Many of us are aware of this, yet we pass it off as something that just is, and not as a symptom of a gaping societal flaw. We wear our stress like badges of honour.
“When I was your age, I was working three jobs, 70 hours a week,” an older man told me, smiling, while I was chatting with him at a bus stop. My Dad said the same thing to me. Growing up, I hardly saw him, in between his multiple jobs and professional obligations. Years later, after my Mom passed away, he sank into a deep depression—repeatedly telling me that he has nothing to show for his work, as he has been repeatedly let go from jobs for years.
“You have us,” I say to him. Us. His three children. But for a man who spent so much time trying to win bread for his family, the death of my Mom, combined with a lack of work, broke him. Now he’s doing much better, but there were times when I was seriously worried that he felt hopeless enough to do something rash.
Simultaneously, and paradoxically, stress—especially the outward expression of it—is seen as a strength and a weakness by many people, companies and organizations. As children, we’re taught that sticks and stones hurt, but that words can’t hurt us. The truth is, words do hurt.
As adults, we’re taught to put on ‘professional’ faces, to ‘suck it up’ when company comes over, and to practice outward self-confidence while our inner selves are burning up from anguish or stress. We’re told to wear our badges of honour and just accept the fact that many of our current societies, in many ways, lack the capacity for empathy.
In this article, I frankly and overtly discuss my most recent experience with mental illness. I do so anonymously, as a symbol of how our societies view our mental health. One statistic cites that about 800,000 people die by suicide every year.
I also thought that publishing this piece, just days after World Mental Health Day, might impress upon my readers the significance of year-long mental health activism. We need more than a single day in order to influence lasting progress.
We are not anonymous
People who die by suicide are brought up as simple statistics. Completely anonymous. But we’re all anything but anonymous. Everyone has an identity, hopes, aspirations, goals, friends and a family. We’re all so unique that even one suicide per year is too many. Just like that, someone’s entire existence and perception—every single part of their unique and beautiful self—is blown out like a candle.
I hope that at some point, we’ll reach a stage in our society at which people no longer need to hide in fear of repercussions. I hope that one day, our mental health will be as important as our physical health, instead of being stigmatized, dismissed or ridiculed.
I was fortunate because I had a support network of people who cared about me. My wife, my family doctor and my psychotherapist never gave up on me. We need to recognize these crises before they become crises. A proactive society is a strong one—especially when it comes to something that currently affects one in five Canadians. Not everyone is so lucky.
We also need leaders to step up and draw a line in the sand: one at which we can enter a new era of public health, where no one feels ashamed or stigmatized due to whatever physical or mental illness they face.
To me, this is the meaning of #WorldMentalHealthDay—building a society in which we can be supported through the physical and mental challenges we face.
Lastly, I want to tell you that if you’re struggling, you are not alone. Things do get better. Trust me, and have faith that you are strong enough—because you are!
It began with intake
It began with intake. Triage. Basic stuff—is your address on file still accurate? Next of kin is Emily? Relationship? Wife. Does your insurance cover you for private or semi-private accommodation, if you are held overnight?
My bones were rattling to their core at this point, shaking to the point of splintering within me. I-I’m not sure what it covers. OK, we’ll put you down for ward, then. Please take a seat in those dark blue chairs and we’ll call you.
There’s always this one annoying step between intake and treatment, during which a triage nurse sees you, reads your vitals and asks you to describe (in, ideally, 30 words or less) why and how you came to the Emergency Department.
All I remember was feeling numb all over, like I was laminated inside and out, unable to get a refreshing breath of air, unable to stop nervously swaying back and forth. Since then, a large chunk of my Emergency trip has blurred together into this blob that still occupies a space in my brain. Yet, every time I try to remember it in full, all I see is TV static.
After a basic workup, the triage nurse said a crisis counsellor would see me. I felt like I had just run a marathon, but I hadn’t. I had, however, done something probably just as tiring. My heart was pal-pal-pal-pal-pal-palpitating at about 150 beats per minute, like it was singing along to Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.”
Six days earlier, my doctor had started me on an anti-depressant, Zoloft, to treat my overwhelming combination of hopelessness, restlessness and fear. But as I sat in the Emergency Department, it sure as hell wasn’t anti-depressing me.
December through to February were the worst months, until I was admitted. I went from sleeping for one hour a night to getting absolutely nothing.
While I sat in the hospital, I hadn’t slept a wink for five-going-on-six days. At this point, I began hallucinating. It started out as seeing little flies buzzing around me. I was swinging at empty air to kill a non-existent bug. Then, at night, I would see people walking to and from the washroom while my wife and three cats slept soundly in bed. I’d open my mouth to talk to them, before realizing my mind was only tricking me.
The sun had thorns
After the second night, I started going to bed on the couch because I thought the change of environment might help. It didn’t. I remember a few of those long nights, when I would go to bed at 10 p.m. and remain conscious of everything the entire night, until I simply gave up on trying to sleep because the sun had risen.
This wasn’t a kind sun—the one that greets you when you awaken from a restful sleep. This sun had thorns, stabbing into my eyes. The warmth didn’t feel inviting—it felt hostile, like a complete hellscape was seeping through the window and slamming into my soul with the force of an earthquake.
Compounding my horrendous insomnia, for months, was an irrational level of fear and hypochondria. The fear mentally crippled me beyond belief. For years, I have been a hypochondriac, but in the months leading up to my stay in the hospital, my hypochondria had combined forces with paranoia, fear, fatigue and utter hopelessness to become an all-powerful, ice-breathing demon.
During this period, Zoloft also increased my anxiety and my existentially based depression to the point at which I thought I was out of options. It’s true when professionals say that not every medication will click with every person. This one felt like a poison seeping into my brain.
For months, I had been calling in sick for work, taking leaves of absence and completely withdrawing from any semblance of a social life, and I only ever said negative things to the people I still spoke to. There was always an excuse my wife had to make for me. After a while, the “he has a headache” shtick just wasn’t cutting it. Excuses became more elaborate, until—finally—people started to notice that something was off.
I felt like a burden on everyone and everything. Yet, I also felt that opening up about my struggles with mental illness would damage everything—relationships with family and friends, career prospects and finances. It’s weird that I was concerned about those things, given my situation. But it was probably just the final glimmer of hope I had left. I’m beginning to think that it was that lonely glimmer that actually helped saved me.
Maybe, in another reality, I would have ended it right there on February 6. But in this life, on my fifth day without sleep, I called for a cab. The driver took me to the hospital. I tipped him a ridiculous amount—something like $36 for a four-kilometre drive. My thinking faculties were fried at that point.
It was a downward spiral that I fully believe would not have stopped if I hadn’t decided, in that very moment, to seek immediate crisis support.
I don’t consider calling a cab to be a conscious choice of mine—I consider it complete luck. My perception at that point, as Mark Henick describes in his amazing, eye-opening TEDx Talk, was collapsing in on itself.
It was doing exactly what Henick says is characteristic of someone who is at risk of the final and avoidable symptom of mental illness—suicide. It was a downward spiral that I fully believe would not have stopped if I hadn’t decided, in that very moment, to seek immediate crisis support.
Some people aren’t lucky enough to have brief moments of mental lucidity during this type of crisis. Henick’s talk, in which he describes these feelings of suffocation so accurately, moved me to tears.
As a two-time survivor of attempts, Henick describes the feeling you get as your perception caving in on itself—collapsing until you can’t see past your own mind. This is a horrendous way to live. At this point, your mind is completely skewed towards being in a constant survival mode—yet, paradoxically, it is your mind actually causing you the anguish.
You often cannot be reasoned with while in this state. Up becomes down, down becomes rock bottom. Rock bottom keeps tunnelling deeper into the Earth until it hits a molten core—burning, unforgiving, hostile to all life.
In recent years, numerous health care professionals and public health promoters have begun shifting their language to reflect this terrifying reality of severe, end-stage mental illness. People, I hope, are abandoning the idea that suicide is as a selfish act. If anything, when you’re in this twisted, false mindset, it seems (keyword: seems … your mind tricks you into thinking it might be a good idea) like one of the most selfless things you can do.
In this respect, we as a global society have a lot to learn about the way people feel. Support networks should always be available, because someone’s life always depends on it.
Susan (or was it Beverley? It was one of those two names, I know it), asked if I currently felt a desire to hurt myself or other people. “No,” I replied. I didn’t want to end my life, yet I was still on the edge of existence and dreaming. It was a crossroads or a paradox: I was afraid of death, yet I strongly believed I had no options left.
There were two choices I had: dragging my bleeding knuckles forward, or simply giving up. When I came to Emergency, I didn’t know how much more my body or mind could take. Part of me felt like I was already dead inside. A shell of my former self—an expression I had frequently used while flying into relentless tailwinds of panic.
“Have you ever done anything impulsive, like spending all of your money on things like gambling or alcohol?” asked Susan/Beverley.
“No, I mean, I buy a few too many lottery tickets, but I wouldn’t say it’s a problem,” I said, fractured nerves spiking and protruding from my shoulders and chest.
I looked around the room and saw various signs, all in capital letters. To this day, I can’t precisely remember what they said, only that they were in all caps. One of them said naloxone something-or-other, another was for some kind of crisis cleanup kit.
Cleanup. Crisis. Those words still stick with me today. It’s ex post facto damage control: cleaning up an area to give it the illusion of normalcy. Yet, minutes (maybe seconds) before, somebody had done something that was worthy of a dedicated cleanup kit.