Roberts: My journey with mental illness

Sharon Roberts

My journey with mental illness – Sharon’s Story

by Sharon Roberts

First, my parent’s story

My Mum and Dad got married in their early 20’s.  I was born a few months later and no one else could have been happier with his first born than my dad.  He was exuberant.  They purchased their first home and bought a car within the first 2 years of their marriage.  This was pretty significant coming from his background, one of poverty.  He was a mechanic working for the then largest automotive company in Guyana.  He was bright and a quick learner, a cousin describes him as a progressive thinker for his time.  Mum had dropped out of nursing school to take care of her family and was very happy with her life.

Within 5 years she had  had 3 children.  1 girl and 2 boys.  The third boy came along 7 yrs  after me.  I wanted a sister real bad, so that was a disappointment.  Things were pretty bad between my parents by then.  They were fighting a lot.  Mom said the reason her lip got busted was because she accidentally stepped into my father’s fist when they were having a big blow up.  I was young at the time, but I have images of the blood in my mind.

Backing up a bit 7 months after my 1st brother was born another woman gave birth to my sister.  When my mother found out she was distraught. In a nutshell, they separated and got back together about 3 times before they finally split up.

Dad became addicted to alcohol and fell into a state of depression,  lost his job and his family.

My Story

When I was 7 my mum left the country to settle  in Ottawa. I stayed with an aunt, 2 brothers went with her mother and the other with another aunt.  We were shuffled around between aunts and grandmothers for a few years.  By the time I was 13 we had lived in 12 different places.

Dad showed up to visit us many times, often in a state of drunken stupor.  Once with our first bicycle and often with books.  We all still love to read.  Many times he was turned away-probably because he was drunk.  I was never told why, but it broke my heart every time.

We were allowed to spend a couple of summer holidays with him, but we stayed  at his sister’s house because he didn’t have proper accommodations.  Those were happy times.

My brothers and I travelled to Canada with one of my aunts when I was 13 years old. It was that age when I had finally gotten some good friends and my first boyfriend.  Nevertheless I was excited to be with my mom, who had visited us twice over the 6 years.

When I left Guyana, I was in my 2nd year of High School but I was put into grade 8 when I came to Canada.  It was quite the adjustment.  Speaking of adjustments, My youngest brother was 6 months old when my mom  left to make a better life for us.  I can still remember the sound of his cry to this day.  Quite the adjustment.

I think I did pretty good as a big sister in my new country helping my single mother who held down 2 jobs to take care of us.  To this day she still thanks me.

At the time I was friendly, outspoken, bold and had a real zest for life.  In HS, for at least grades 9 and 10 I participated in many school activities- intramurals and the girls soccer team and I Won miss Talent for the school pageant  one year.

So, the summer after Grade 11, I returned to Guyana with my mom to attend my grandfather’s funeral.  After the funeral she came back to Canada.   I  however, stayed with family until the end of the summer break. I had a really good time.  Had 2 boyfriends.  (laugh)

After returning; as the fall turned into winter, I too began to change. It started with my mood.  A deep sadness engulfed me.  Pretty much everyday after school I would go home, do my chores, retreat to my room where my pink teddy bear became my best friend.  My weight changed also.  It went up.  My mom, not knowing what to do would buy me my favorites foods,  to try to cheer me up.  Nothing worked.  I had lost interest in life as it were. My brothers say, it was like walking around on egg shell around the house.

Out of desperation she sent me to a boarding school in Oshawa hoping that it would help.  She didn’t know about depression and couldn’t help me.  She had 3 other children to take care of.

 I managed to hold it together.  Graduated from high school, spent one year in Indonesia teaching English and completed university in 5 years.  Got a degree in Food and Nutrition.  Got married, completed an internship and became a registered dietitian.

Two sons later and having worked 5 years in my field in Moose Factory, now living in Elliot Lake, Everything came crashing down.  I’m not sure exactly when it all began, but I remember feeling like I was all alone in the world.  Even when I was with people I had this deep sense of no-one in the world cared for me and I didn’t have the strength to continue to care about anything or fully care for anyone.  Everything was moving too fast and I couldn’t keep up.

The signs were all there, but I didn’t know what it was. I remember one day driving home, and I had this strong compulsion to get out of the car.  We were a good distance from home, but I had to get out of there, so I told my husband to pull over and let me out on the highway.  It was a struggle to do anything, including getting dressed to go to work each day.  I cried my way through pretty much everything.  Finally one day at work after seeing 2 clients, I couldn’t just wipe away the tears and face the “music”  I fell to the floor sobbing uncontrollably and curled up into a ball.

  I was then able to put a name to it.  My mom’s reaction was ‘ how could you be depressed’.  You have a good job, 2 beautiful kids and a good husband, which I definitely did.

I was medicated.  It seemed to have made things worse.  Too high a dose and an intense feeling of isolation.  My husband was out of the country at the time.  After being hospitalized for a few days with no change, one of my brothers came and brought my kids and myself back to Ottawa because our supports where here.

I like to refer to this period of my life as the Post-breakdown and to compare it to being a boxer.

Soon after I returned to Ottawa I was hospitalized.  In comes April.  April was the receptionist who was working on the floor in the hospital where I was taken. Being the curious person that I am; I noticed that there were some patients for whom the hospital was like a revolving door, their 2nd  and for some their 1st home and I wanted to know why.  So I asked April.  She told me that in her opinion “the ones who keep coming back have lost their fight and those who don’t come back or don’t come back as often still had some fight left in them”.

So, I decided in my mind that I would become a boxer and fight for my life.

My training began when I attended my first day program.  The psychiatrist, who diagnosed me (with dysthymia) had signed me up.  I went in “cold” of course, not knowing what to expect.  I was wide up, didn’t have my hands up or anything.  We, the participants, had varying diagnoses, but similar symptoms.  This actually felt good. I immediately learned two things:

  1.  There were others like myself-other boxers and I was not alone.
  2. There was something I could do about it- the depression

I had to decide if I had fight or not and I did.  It might have been faint but I had some.  In boxing they call that “heart”.  Heart matters more that skills because you can learn the skills, but to be a good boxer you must have heart.

April said that in order to stay out of the hospital, you had to have “fight” and I was determined to stay out of hospital that meant that I had to not only get better, but stay well.  I didn’t know how difficult that would be.

Many months was spent in bed, not well enough to cope with even the simplest tasks, such as taking a shower, brushing my teeth  or even focusing my mind to write my own name.  The sadness and fatigue were insurmountable and I wanted my life to be over, that seemed like the only way out.  At times I wanted to make it out, I needed to make it out, if not for myself- then for my 2 sons and husband and the rest of the weary ones, family and friends who were there for me.

Depression can be described in many ways.  I think of it as, my body shuts down, my mind cannot find the power to focus on anything outside of myself and I have to defend myself against the world and all that’s in it.  I can either respond by lashing out, or going into myself.  Generally I isolate.  I get into the bed and hide.

Along with medication, reading many self-help books, support from my family and one friend in particular, I was able to get some semblance of my life together.

 I managed to work as a dietitian in 3 different places, two one-year contracts and another part-time, but it was too difficult so I had to quit.  I kept comparing myself to others and would always come up short.  That’s called self-sabotage.

At one point I became well enough to attend school and got a diploma as a social services worker.  That landed me a job working in a group home which lasted for about 2 years.  But then it was back to the hospital.

It’s quite the roller coaster with this thing. There a periods of time when you feel as though you’re taking 1 or 10 steps forward and then  1 or 10 backward.

However, putting in the work to get better can pay dividends over the years.   I’ve been working in a day care centre for 4 years, as a substitute, and doing recovery programs with PSO and MDO.  I do feel like a winner in the ring.

I was asked to share a few specific things that might be helpful for you in addition to my story.

Triggers:

  • When things aren’t going the way I hoped
  • When people leave or if I have to go somewhere
  • When I’m tired
  • The weather
  • Certain people and places

Symptoms

  • Saddness
  • Mood fluctuation
  • Crying for no particular reason
  • Worse symptom-when my mum would be around when I was very ill, I felt like my body was on fire and she was this evil being and I was hysterical.
  • Sensitive to noise
  • Shut down
  • Anger- smash plates
  • Take off
  • My body shakes
  • Difficulty focusing-start many things and don’t finish any
  • Sleep, first 1 night
  • Stay in bed for days
  • Go catatonic-someone can talk with me and I don’t respond
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Mind-set-Distorted thinking-focusing on what we don’t have, what we wish we had.  Difficulty focusing on the here and now/the present.  Because of a deep emotional wound, a loss of something that you can’t even put your finger on

What I felt when you was ill:

  • Helpless, worthless
  • Hopeless
  • Scared-people, going out, shopping
  • Guilt and shame
  • Really alone
  • Wanted to die-would imagine myself in a coffin because I felt like that was the only place I could get  some peace

What has helped you get well:

  • The first thing is acceptance, by the individual and by the family
  • Not hiding it
  • Programs:ROH, QC, Serenity Renewal and Accudestress, EMDR- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, Church, reading a whole lot of self-help books, exercise, medication, supplements, exercise, celebrating my achievements-brushing my teeth or answering the phone, ALANON, one-on-one counselling
  • Volunteering
  • Family and peer and friends support
  • Journaling
  • Coloring
  • Songs-Don’t you worry about a thing, Don’t stop believing,  classical music
  • Spending time with other family members and friends

What helps you to stay well

  • Most recently-Support groups-PSO and MDO-WRAP
  • Sleep when I’m getting tired and not feeling guilty about it
  • Prayer/church
  • Getting out of the house
  • Being honest and open about how I feel
  • Not over-reacting
  • Paying attention to how others feel
  • Taking the focus off of myself
  • Not beating up on myself and not blaming others
  • A few sayings-This too shall pass, Joe-You’ll get over it

Advice to the family members about how to treat their relative when they are relapsing and not doing as well:

  • Give them their space
  • Treat them like you would if they were well
  • Ask them what you can do to help-don’t assume
  • Shut up, Don’t fix, Don’t judge and Just listen
  • Educate yourself
  • Don’t take what we say and do personally
  • Take care of yourself
  • When I’m pushing you away is the time I need you the most
  • Be there to help
  • Don’t put a time-line on the individual’s recovery
  • Don’t say ‘I know and this is how I deal with this situation’
  • Compliment them on how well they’re doing, even if it’s taking a shower
  • Don’t smother
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