In the fall of 2007, I was just beginning my final year of high school. Emboldened with fast-growing prowess as a musician, and following a fantastic performing season the year before, I felt unstoppable. I had never had such passion for anything as I did for music. It was the best year of my life, and I had no idea that everything was about to fall apart.
The onset was rapid and the symptoms overwhelming. Music lost all meaning to me, and I could only watch myself be humiliated as I withdrew from my life, my friends, and my only passion. No one could see from the outside what I was going through, and my symptoms were disturbing and surreal. The nature of my illness made it nearly impossible to describe, and I feared trying—I didn’t want to leave people frightened. I spiraled into a deep depression, and pre-existing anxiety problems didn’t help matters.
I was terrified of what was happening to me, but most of all, I was alone. I drowned in my own isolation. No-one could hold my hand while I faced something scarier than I could have ever imagined—my mind as it cannibalized itself. It was almost two years of unrelenting torment before I received a diagnosis: Depersonalization Disorder, a rare dissociative condition. Finally, I felt like I was on solid ground.
As I began to commit myself to recovery, I discovered a sensitivity to the struggles faced by others with mental illness; I wasn’t the only one that felt isolated, lonely, and afraid. I decided to dedicate my future to the mental health field in the hopes of transforming the lives of others living with mental illness. I soon re-enrolled at the University of Alberta with a short-term goal of entering the psychology program, and the long-term goal of becoming a Psychologist. I’m still on that path today.
If you know me personally, maybe you’re surprised. That means that like the many others with mental illness, I’ve done my job as an actor. However, I never wanted the part in the first place, and I’ve been forced to play it from the beginning. I’ve decided it’s time to take an early retirement.
WHY I’M DOING THIS
It’s been stressful and exhausting to keep what is an ever-present part of my reality a secret from those I care about, and those I spend time with the most. Nobody should have to hide such an important part of their lives. Unfortunately, the reality of the society we live in today makes it hard to talk openly about our struggles with mental illness. I’m confident that will change one day. For now, I’ve decided to pursue a career in the mental health field, which thankfully makes opening up about this a little easier. For others, it’s a lot more difficult.
I also hate making up excuses. Anyone suffering from an illness has every right to keep it private. Although more often than not that privacy is forced upon them rather than something they freely decide on. I’ve excused myself for too many years about why I can’t do this or that, had to back out of this, wasn’t comfortable with that, and I have no regrets about it — I had every right. It doesn’t take very long until it wears on you though. I could easily continue to recycle the same excuses for the rest of my life, and sometimes I’ll continue to do just that; I don’t want to have to sit someone down and explain my life story if that’s the only way they’d understand. Yet maintaining this ongoing facade is a lot of work—a lot of work that I hope future generations don’t have to go through.
Each time I’ve opened up about my illness, it’s given me just a bit more breathing room to deal with the pain. Each time it has brought me closer to living freely and authentically, rather than perpetually reproducing this fiction of myself as an unafflicted human being. Not only do those that suffer from mental illness have to deal with their disorder, but they have to deal with the unnecessary shame, embarrassment, and feelings of worthlessness that society inflicts upon them.
Perhaps the most important reason that I’m writing this is that I know we can one day live in a world where everyone is open and supportive about each other’s mental health struggles, and people like myself wouldn’t have to “come out” or even hide in the first place. I want to do my part to foster that change. We’ve already taken significant steps towards that world, and for that I’m thankful. Twenty years ago, I probably wouldn’t have considered this safe. I’d faster be labeled “crazy” or told that it’s “all in my head,” than offered help. Thankfully, we’re all gradually coming to the conclusion that thinking of mental health problems as being “all in one’s head” is bullshit.
Lastly, if anyone had comforted me with the assurance that things would turn out ok, it would have provided me with tremendous strength, and maybe more importantly, hope. So let me say it explicitly: You will be okay, and things will get better, but you must be willing to seek help unyieldingly. You will face many setbacks, but never lose hope. With persistence comes happiness greater than you could have ever imagined.
GETTING (AND GIVING) SUPPORT
Learning to let myself be vulnerable has been instrumental to my recovery. The sooner you’re willing to open up to others for support, the sooner that support will take you farther than you could ever take yourself. Your health and well-being are too valuable to let your ego or fear of embarrassment get in the way of asking for help.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where support isn’t always guaranteed when you talk about your mental illness. For myself, results have gone from disastrous to incredibly therapeutic. I’ve lost jobs, I’ve lost friends, and I’ve seen others go through the same because of the mental illness stigma. I’ve also gained relationships and connections deeper and stronger than I could have ever imagined. In opening up to others, it’s too easy to let your setbacks discourage you. Despite the missteps, I’d take opening up over keeping things a secret every single time.
Friends can be among your most powerful allies in your recovery if you let them, and they often want to be. Something as simple as checking to see how you’re doing can be an easy task for them, but can make a world of difference for you. If you find that your closest friends aren’t willing to support you in your most vulnerable and weak states, then it may be time to seriously rethink your friendships. Life is too short to waste your time with those who will not support you.
However, we still live in times where mental illness can be a difficult topic for most. If your friends are uncomfortable when you bring up the topic, it could be the stigma or a lack of understanding more than anything else. Seldom will someone have the same insight into mental illness as one who has experienced it first-hand. Be patient. They likely don’t have the breadth of knowledge or awareness about mental health issues that you do.
If someone opens up to you about mental illness, it means something beautiful: they trust you with their vulnerability. Thank them for it, and don’t underestimate the power of these four simple words: “I care about you.” Listen to them non-judgmentally and with an open heart. You may not understand everything they’re going through, and that’s ok. The most important thing you can do is to try.
Don’t ever be caught in the trap of feeling like your struggles aren’t worth talking about with others. These types of conversations can lead to some of the biggest steps in your recovery journey. Not only do you open yourself up to support, but you create an opportunity to deepen your relationships with others. Unbeknownst to you, they may be suffering from struggles of their own, and you could be providing the opportunity to open up that person has been waiting for.
It’s been six years and I still haven’t completely recovered, and I may never. However, what I have now is much more important: a life full of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. I have been able to take the worst experience of my life and transform it into a positive one of even greater magnitude, and I feel like I am only just beginning. My greatest hope is that you may do the same.
Special thanks to Angi E., Jason M., Spencer Y., Brett Z., the U of A Res Life team, and my many friends and family for all the support that made this possible.
R. Bennett is an undergraduate psychology student in his final year of study. In his spare time, he teaches mindfulness meditation for stress reduction to students on campus. He’s passionate about using his own experiences with mental illness to help others find their own paths towards greater happiness and well-being.
Creative Commons photograph courtesy of st_gleam on Flickr