She held me around the shoulders and squeezed me, applying pressure across my upper body. I could tell she had seen a panic attack before. I took breaths along with her count and she asked me my name every so often, to keep me focused. My breathing slowed, my thoughts too. I started calming down. We started making a plan and deciding whether anxiety meds and a night off would cut it or if this was a bigger problem. Five years ago, I would not have had the strength and self-awareness to determine what kind of help I needed let alone reach out for it. Now, I knew I had been in this place for a long time and the hole was only growing deeper and deeper. This time I determined I needed to go to the hospital and see my doctor.
I’m writing this in the interest of being transparent, candid and honest about the darker side of mental illness, the side opposite to recovery and hope, the steps backwards. My confident facade isn’t always the truth. Sometimes it’s a mask. I pretend I don’t have a mental illness; I put people at ease so that they don’t have to worry about me, and I ignore it. But ignoring it is like ignoring an ever-expanding hole in your roof as the rain pours down. Before you even realize it, the ocean inside your house is too deep and you can barely keep your head above water.
To many, I seemingly have it all together; I help manage Submit The Stigma, a charity geared toward mental health awareness in the Jiu Jitsu community. I work in mental health, I advocate for it, I give talks and workshops. I am a resource and a support to so many people. I also struggle.
My Bipolar cycle is such that my depression usually hits during the winter. This year was especially difficult. That panic attack was a reminder to listen to my body, to my mind and to the cues they were giving me. I drove to Oshawa to go to the hospital. I knew seeing the psychiatrist who follows me would save me hours in the ER. I’m grateful to have this option and the option to talk to someone who knows me as more than a list of symptoms in a file.
I explained to my doctor how I had been feeling; this increasing sense of dread, of hopelessness and being overwhelmed. Suicidal thoughts had come creeping back in. My anxiety had reached an all time high. We talked and she adjusted my medication and prescribed me three weeks off of work to rest. The past several months have been growing more and more difficult. I had finally hit a wall and had what I suppose you would qualify as a breakdown. It took an episode like this to really listen up and realize I needed to take care of myself.
Despite having been diagnosed 10 years ago and despite knowing the pain and discomfort I live with daily, a part of me still does not validate my illness. I tell myself I’m exaggerating, I don’t deserve support and I should be able to do better. Having a medical professional prescribe me three weeks of rest validated that I do live with an illness, a painful and difficult one. It gave me the permission I did not give myself to struggle and to take the time I need.
I am now starting my final week off and I am feeling much better. The meds have adjusted, I have actively focused on skills and tools I can use to cope, to manage symptoms and to get back on track. Our mental illness is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. The doctor offered me support and a framework for handling the situations but it is up to me to do the work. And recovery is hard work.
The truth is, recovery is never linear. There are ups and downs, steps backwards and forwards. The key is to never stop trying, to reach out when needed and to lean on those we trust.
For months I let this setback drag me down. I convinced myself I didn’t deserve help. I didn’t deserve for my life to be better and I deserved all this pain. I felt worthless and useless and sunk deeper and deeper into the depression. When it started affecting important aspects of my life even more evidently, I decided to take action. The simple act of making a choice and advocating for myself helped me rebuild confidence and hope. That simple fact did as much as the medication did, and in conjunction, they helped me find myself again.
That feeling: the bipolar depression, the anxiety, the panic attacks, the suicidal thoughts. It all sometimes makes me wonder: “Who am I to help people? How can someone with these limitations truly be helpful?” But the thing is, they aren’t limitations. If anything, they make me more apt for supporting those who struggle. I’ve had to actively do the work on that piece. That self-confidence piece, the piece where I believe in my abilities, where I see the value in what I have to offer and the work that I do.
I’ve learned over the years through all these ups and downs that struggle is inevitable and it is what makes us human. It is not a flaw in character or a shortcoming. And the way we overcome these obstacles is what truly says something about us.
This episode at first left me feeling defeated and unsure of myself but I see now that having been through it, I am perfectly placed to provide support to those struggling through similar things. The foundation of all the coaching work I do is the following: validation, empathy and rebuilding a sense of self. Truly making each client feel that their feelings are valid and it is ok to feel the way they feel, and to rebuild a sense of agency in their own lives. I’ve had to do this many times and this personal experience combined with my training and education is a powerful tool.
The beauty in the breakdown is that it shows us we are human, we are imperfect but we have an infinite propensity for resilience and overcoming. This is what I’ve had to do the past two weeks and will continue to do for the rest of my life. Hopefully my experience will connect with some of you and you will see that you’re not alone. That it is ok to stumble and it is even ok not to get back up right away. But eventually we have to reach out a hand to someone we trust and help ourselves back up. And there is only beauty and strength in that.