Looking back on my life with the ever-expanding knowledge of mental health that I have been amassing, I now realize that I have suffered from depression and anxiety for most of my life. As a teenager I was accused of being lazy, angst-ridden, self-absorbed. While I agree that most people go through these phases during their teen years, some people’s are more than just a pity party over changing hormones. Through my teens I had various adults, specifically teachers and guidance councillors, tell me that it was important that I seek professional help. Without the support of my family however, this was a task I deemed impossible. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was also of the opinion that ‘if you think you are depressed, you aren’t, because people with real mental illness aren’t aware that there is anything wrong with them’.
My downward spiral started around the 8th grade. I began stealing money from my mother (I thought she was being greedy by not buying me everything that I wanted, it turns out we were destitute), and slowly it morphed into being afraid to leave our apartment. I was sleeping all day, not brushing my hair all week, hiding in the dark because the sunlight hurt my skin. My mother worked long hours, so it was easy to hide that I wasn’t going to school; they had an automated voice message that called at the same time every day, so I was always there to delete it before she got home from work. I remember thinking that she had so much to worry about already, my feelings would only add to the mountain of things she couldn’t control in our lives.
By the end of grade 12, which I did not finish, I could teach a master’s class on manipulation. I could and can convince anyone of nearly anything, and I used that to my advantage so much that I began believing my own legends. I had several faces that I wore depending on the occasion, but the lines were starting to blur, and I began losing control of the personalities I had worked so hard to create. After reaching the end of the grade 12 year I moved to a new city, craving the adult experience, thinking that maybe this would clear some of the fog that lay in thick blankets over my mind. My glorious plans of a life-changing experience imploded almost immediately. I moved into a bad neighborhood with a terrifying landlord, and worked a job that didn’t cover my rent even though I worked almost every day.
I began living with my best friend at the time, whom I was openly in love with. We had such great plans before I had moved, but once I had arrived it became clear (to everyone but me) that he was not interested in being a good roommate, friend, or boyfriend. He was keen to sleep on my couch, use my credit card, and complain about my lack of housekeeping skills, while never properly holding a job the entire time we lived together. At night I would take several Ativan to ‘clock out’ and relax; years later through therapy I came to the realization that after I was catatonic from too many pills, he would sexually assault me.
When I finally gathered the courage to ask him to leave I had hit my first rock-bottom. I was completely dependent on Ativan, and I had to start seeing various doctors to get refills because I was taking too many. I had always dealt with a violent temper, but my outbursts were getting more outrageous and harder to control. I didn’t want to control myself anymore. I had my first serious boyfriend during and after these few terrible months, but between work and family emergencies, I didn’t see enough of him for him to see that anything was wrong with me. When he returned from his grandfather’s funeral I realized that I was pregnant, and this is where things started to look up for me. My boyfriend joined the military and swore to take care of the baby and me, starting with finding a safe place to live.
We moved to a different city and I got a job at a coffee shop. Being pregnant made me feel good, useful, and I felt like a new chapter was beginning in my life. I kicked the Ativan habit while I was pregnant, but being sober lead to crippling night terrors, extreme anxiety, and harmful thoughts that I couldn’t control. I had no idea how to look for help, and was terrified of confiding in anyone that I loved, for fear of rejection. The last thing I wanted was to be scoffed at, especially since my boyfriend was sure that I was ‘cured’ of my negative attitude. I hid my anxieties and forced myself to get out of bed every day, knowing that each day the walk to work became more terrifying then the last.
Fast-forward past a few years, a few postings, and two children. I had fallen into a routine that promoted monotony, and enabled me to keep my feelings to myself. I had become used to combating my fears daily, and it felt as though I had myself under control. I went back to school, and actually did very well in all of my classes. I finished my high-school equivalent, and immediately began taking university level courses. My marriage was happy, my children were perfect, and from the outside looking in I couldn’t have been in a better place. You can put a damper on the flames of depression- but you cannot extinguish them. At night I was sleepless, irrational fears of my children waking and climbing out the window, of someone breaking in and trying to hurt us; these thoughts never went away, and in fact were heightened and accentuated after my second daughter was born. I was afraid of everyone, terrified to leave the house, and even more terrified of leaving my kids for any amount of time. Lack of sleep and energy resulted in a messy house, dirty laundry, and suppers that were never cooked on time.
My husband went on a major deployment and I learned that I have an auto-pilot setting. I do my best when he is away, because I have no one to pick up the slack for me. I also encountered a new problem – I found out that my oldest daughter is gifted, and as a result, was exhibiting signs of childhood depression which surfaced once her dad had left. Now I was dealing with two forms of depression – both of which I knew very little about. I read books on gifted children, took her to courses with other children whose parents were deployed, and begged her to eat at every meal time. She would explode into fits of anger, hitting and kicking and screaming, unable to adequately express what she was thinking and feeling. I was helpless, and spent a lot of my ‘free’ time crying over why I couldn’t help her. We had settled into what resembled a routine around the fifth month, but it wasn’t as healthy or beneficial as it should have been.
A few weeks before my husband came home I contracted the flu. Being a mother of two with no time to sit at the doctor’s office, I dealt with it how most people do – tons of Kleenex, warm tea, and trying to will myself into feeling better. When he got home my health got consistently worse, and I consistently ignored it. I slept and moaned and had a continuous fever, and when my husband couldn’t take my arguing anymore, he took me to the hospital. When we got there I couldn’t walk and had no blood pressure. My fever was 108 degrees, and my skin was starting to blister from the heat. The emergency room staff struggled to find what was wrong with me, and blood tests take more time than they thought I had. Their closest guess was that I was in septic shock, probably from an abrasion inside of my sinuses.
The last thing I can remember that isn’t a second hand story is a male nurse coming to the foot of my bed and telling me that they were taking me to a trauma room to insert a central venous line because the doctor thought I was going to die. When I woke up I had an apparatus stuck to my neck, several IV sites, oxygen over my face, and the strong urge to go back to sleep. Over the course of the days that followed I learned from various sources that shortly after being rushed into the trauma room my heart had stopped, and in getting it to start pumping again I suffered a myocardial infarction. My organs had shut down, and haemodialysis as well as a gastrointestinal tube were all necessary to help my body learn to function again.
I was too weak to walk, and couldn’t breathe without oxygen over my face. I was given heavy duty sleeping pills as well as pain medication, but I was scaring the other patients in my room with my screams while sleeping. I had never been away from my kids for that long, especially for such a terrifying reason, and the worries that I felt were not helping my health improve. After a few weeks I had convinced the doctor to let me have a pass to leave the hospital during the day and come back at night. The first day I was allowed out, I never went back. I lay in bed with my kids and portable oxygen, afraid that if I went to sleep I would never wake up. Various family members, friends, and neighbours did their best to help my family during my first month at home, cooking food, helping clean, taking the kids out for a few hours at a time. I was scared, but I know my husband was immeasurably grateful for the help.
Four months had passed since I had died, and I had completely lost control of myself. The facade that I had worked so hard to fine-tune over the years was gone, torn down by an infection. I walked myself to a clinic, afraid to go to my family doctor – he didn’t seem like the type to agree with mental illness. I needed the anonymity. He had me do a quiz in which I was forced to be brutally honest. There were answers on that paper that I had never divulged to anyone, let alone a complete stranger. I felt like I was lying, but I didn’t know to whom. He referred me to the emergency mental health services unit, where I answered more questions, felt more vulnerable. I could feel the pulse of judgement, even if it was judgement that was projected from my mind, and it made me sweaty and dizzy. I was having upwards of a panic attack a day, and I had promised myself that when I went to meet my therapist I would be as open as honest as I could, however, that didn’t last long.
We all have personas that we present to others based on what we think they want to hear from us, and going to therapy is no different. I was very open about some things, but I could never admit to things being as bad as they were. I was afraid that my kids would be taken, afraid that if I opened up too far I wouldn’t be able to bring myself back from it. Everyone sees pieces of me, and I was happy with no one ever having the full picture.
I started taking various medications and reporting back with how they were working. I begged for Xanax and other benzodiazepines because I craved the feeling of ‘clocking out’, but no one ever fell for it. What I did get were drugs for anxiety, post traumatic stress, major depressive disorder, anti-obsessive’s, mood stabilizers, pain killers, and heavy duty sleeping pills. I am a living pharmacy. I was scared to tell my husband that I had been prescribed medication; he was of the opinion that depression was cured by putting a smile on your face and getting more fresh air. I didn’t blame him for his opinion, it was what he was taught, and changing your opinions towards mental illness is not easy. It’s a topic that even the doctors who study it don’t understand, how can you expect someone who can’t relate to your feelings to understand?
When I finally told him I felt like a child telling my mother I had cheated at school. I was shaking, and started crying as soon as I opened my mouth. Luckily for me, my husband’s love for me outweighed his reservations about being medicated. He promised to study up on what I had, and support me in any way I needed.
A few days before Christmas 2013 I decided that on the only snowy day we had had, I would take a drive to the next city to do some shopping. Approximately 30 minutes into my drive I hit a patch of ice and lost control of my truck. To my left was rock face; to my right was the ocean. I hit the gas and steered towards the rock face, my thought process being, if I am going to die in this way, I want it to be over quickly. Fortunately for me, I didn’t speed up enough to do serious damage to myself (the pain killers and muscle relaxants playing a role in keeping my body from stiffening up), but I did completely write-off my truck.
I sat in the snow and cried, listening to the sirens coming up the mountain. This was my new rock-bottom, and it was terrifying. I had legitimately considered allowing myself to die in the few seconds before the accident, but after I was pried out (by a nice man driving behind me) I had realised how selfish I was in those moments. I have two children, a husband, and a group of people that I love dearly, how could I be so willing to leave that behind? My moment of clarity was followed by a renewed sense of anguish, and also a new resolve to not keep myself in this destructive cycle.
I have finished my treatment with my therapist, as I am no longer considered an immediate threat to myself or to others; the medication that I am on levels me out, and I am less prone to violent bursts of anger and rage, and panic attacks are almost non-existent. I am pregnant with my third child, which is a major feat for me, as not long ago I almost wasn’t alive to care for the children I had. My husband and I are actively working on our marriage, and he has become a safe haven of support and acceptance, actively taking an interest in my feelings and emotional states.
He is developing tools to deal with me during my spirals, and is learning to enjoy the times that mental health does not define our lives. It took a long time for him to accept that I was telling the truth when I said that it didn’t have anything to do with him or the kids, and that I can feel happy or at the very least, indifferent, while still dealing with depression. It’s not a state of mind; it’s an aggressive cancer of the mind and soul that I cannot wish away. I cannot turn it off and on, and I don’t use it to make people feel bad for me.
My new mission in life is to educate others, to wash away the stigma, and most importantly of all, to show others that they have an ally in me. For some people, all it takes to get help is knowing that there are others like you. Maybe your family doesn’t support you, maybe your friends don’t agree, but no matter what you have a network, a community, of others just like you who are fighting their demons at the same time as you. I am never alone, nor is anyone else. There should be no judgement in this extended family, everyone heals their own way, and we all deserve acceptance, love, and a shoulder to lean on.
I started blogging to vent my own feelings, but it has morphed into various opinions and experiences based on my own uphill struggle with mental illness. If I can reach even one person who is fighting a silent struggle and help them reach out and get the support that they need, I will be happy with my progress. I am willing to stand up to the ignorant people who stigmatise and stereotype us so that others don’t have to. After decades of struggle and anger, I want to turn my emotions into progress, in the hopes that when my children are adults, they aren’t judged by others, or standing in judgement of anyone who they should be standing beside. We can all heal together.
Cheantelle Jackson, a mother of three living on Vancouver Island. Two-time university graduate, lover of old books, CFL football, and those tiny cans of Coke that trick you into thinking they’re OK. High-heel collector, tattoo enthusiast, military wife, depression fighter.