A photograph of a woman wearing a red dress holding out her hand to support someone.

My Friend Allison Talks About Mental Health

First published on January 8, 2021, on TenMillionBaskets.com.

The first month of any new year is a difficult one. Add the challenges of continuing to navigate lockdown and isolation measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic to the usual post-holiday blues, colder and darker winter days, and the daily stresses of life, health, work and family, and January 2021 may prove to be our most mentally challenging month yet.

Since 2010, Bell has been promoting discussions about mental health and contributing funding to mental health research, care, and support with Bell Let’s Talk Day. The initiative has had a tremendous impact on normalizing conversations about mental health.

More than ever, mental health and open conversations about de-stigmatizing mental illness and valuing and promoting good mental health and well-being are mainstays. A key driver of this change is the growing understanding of how we are all impacted by mental health. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) points to research that shows that in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem. The research shows that by age 40, 1 in 2 Canadians have, or have had, a mental illness. Young people aged 15 to 25 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other group. And while men have higher rates of addiction, women experience higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders.

Mental health is a public health problem with personal manifestations. Scientific, psychological, and psychiatric knowledge about the causes and effects of mental illness grows, as does our understanding of how to protect and care for our mental well-being. And with more and more people being open about their struggles with mental health, our awareness of mental health and the need to protect it as part of our overall physical health grows.

Knowing what we know now about good mental health and wellbeing, what does it feel like to live with a mental illness? I turned to my friend Allison to help me answer this question.

Before I share my conversation with Allison, I want to point out that this is not her real name. I changed the names, dates, and descriptions of some places and events to protect my friend's privacy.

Readers should also be aware that my conversation with Allison contains descriptions of depression, anxiety, and attempts at suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Line at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital. If you need emotional support, the Canadian Mental Health Association offers a variety of resources. Click here to find more information about the support available near you.

Allison's Story

Allison and I met at a workshop some time ago, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We cannot meet in person for coffee like we used to before the pandemic lockdowns, so she and I improvise. Nowadays, we get together for coffee meetings over video calls; she is in the safety of her house, and I am in the protection of mine.

When I asked Allison if she would allow me to interview her for the TenMillionBaskets.com story-sharing blog, she did not hesitate to say yes, but she had one caveat: I didn’t use her real name. I had offered her that option when I asked her to share her story, but I am curious why she chose anonymity. Today, as I logged onto the video call, I scribbled that thought as a new question at the top of my list.

Allison signs in promptly. She smiles as she sits there with her coffee mug in hand. It’s the one I got her for Christmas last year; it is blue with the word love written repeatedly in various fonts.

Me: Hi Allison!

Allison: Hey Patlee! How are you doing?

Me: I’m doing ok. It’s been a hectic week, but I’ve been looking forward to talking with you, so that’s helped a lot. How are you doing?

Allison: You know, it’s been kind of the same thing for me. I think with the holidays just ending and the kids going back to school and me being back at work, the stress is kind of building again. But yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this chat as well.

Me: I guess we should get started then. You got your coffee, I see; ready to go?

Allison raises her coffee mug.

Me: First, let me say thanks again for agreeing to do this interview with me for TenMillionBaskets.com. You and I have talked about how important it is to see and hear real stories about people who live with all forms of mental illness and mental health concerns. We’ve talked about how learning from and about others can help to destigmatize and normalize mental health struggles. But at the same time, I know it's not easy to step forward and talk about those struggles openly.

Allison nods her head.

Me: So, I am wondering, Allison, why did you not want me to use your real name in this piece? Is it because you fear being stigmatized?

Allison: I think I have been as open and as honest with people about my mental illness as my situation allows. Of course, I choose how much and with whom I share things based on how safe I feel and how much value I think that information could lend to the conversation and the relationship. I don’t think I fear being stigmatized. That was probably the reality a few years ago when I was first diagnosed, but I don’t think that’s the situation for me right now. I think more and more people are becoming open to the reality that lots of people are dealing with mental health issues and are still functional, active, and engaged members of society. And I think people like me being open about where they are at in dealing with mental illness has helped to achieve that.

I did not want to publish my identity with this piece because of my family. I have a husband and three young children. My husband's family lives here in Winnipeg. He understands and is very supportive of my mental health journey, but my children are 13, 11, and 7 years old, so they only have a small grasp of what goes on with mental illness. When you asked me to do this interview and after I looked at some of the things you’ve written for TenMillionBaskets.com, I wanted to be open about my struggles in a different way, one that has not been equally shared with all members of my family.

I don’t want my kids or my in-laws to hear about these things from someone else before I am ready to talk with them in the way I see fit, you know. I think in time, when I am ready and when I think they are ready, I would probably sit down and talk with them about it, but now is not the time for that. So, I thought the best insurance against them seeing or hearing about this and not understanding where I am at and what I really mean and how I really feel, is to take that option you offered of doing the interview anonymously.

Me: So, does this mean that you have not been fully open with your family about your mental health challenges?

Allison: No, I wouldn’t put it that way. Like I said before, I choose how much and with whom I share things, and you know what, the bottom line is that not everyone is going to understand in the way that I need them to understand. My kids, for example, are not in the right state of mind to take all of this in – and why would they? One is becoming a teenager, one just started elementary school, and one is a middle child that’s got all kinds of middle child issues. And that’s fine, these are the things they should be dealing with. There is no room there for them to understand my situation in a meaningful way. They are familiar with the idea that Mommy has good days, and she has bad days, and that self-care and mental wellness for all of us are very important, but I leave the details out for now.

It’s the same thing with some other family members too. Everyone gets only the kind of information that I think they need at this point in time. It is exhausting to tell everyone everything, and to be honest, some people, even though they are relatives, just don't get it. I mean, I have to feel safe enough and trust them enough to give them the full story.

Me: I think I understand what you are saying. It is sort of a need-to-know, but the ‘need’ criteria vary from person to person.

Allison: Exactly.

Me: For the people that you are more comfortable with sharing the full story with, does talking about your mental health help?

Allison: Absolutely. You know, I share everything with my therapist. That is the only person, outside of you in this interview that I am totally open with. There is something about knowing that you aren’t stepping on somebody else’s toes, you know. The distance that comes with just talking openly with someone who you know won’t hold you to any particular standard or judgment. For me, that is really important.

In my therapy sessions, I get to talk openly about an issue that bothers me – you know, sometimes it's something that Frank did, or it's something that the kids did, and after letting it out, without filtering it, I end up with some new insight into what contributed to me feeling that way. Most of the time, it’s my perception of how others are acting towards me that would trigger a negative mood – it's usually some kind of black-and-white, generalized, or catastrophizing thinking. When I talk about it with my therapist, I learn how to deal with it so that I don’t project that blame and hurt onto the people I live with, even though initially I might have felt that it was their fault; you know what I mean?

Me: Yeah, I think so. It’s as if you want to shield them from some of the volatility that you are feeling, especially when, deep down, you recognize that it really isn’t their fault that you feel the way that you do.

Allison: Yes. That’s it. I can give you an example. Frank and I have been married a while now and he’s not perfect, but he’s a good husband. He is also a good son to his mother, who is aged and ailing. And he’s a good brother to his younger brother and sister, who live here in the city.

Frank’s life is about taking care of all of us, not just me and our kids; he also takes care of his mother, and many times, he’s taking care of his sister and brother as well – that’s what he’s been doing since his father died when he was in high school.

There are many times when I feel neglected as the wife, you know. It is easy to get into a low mood when I feel like I could use a little bit more of his one-on-one care and affection, not just for him to be a provider and doer.

But Frank runs a business, he is always on the go. He is always worried about the next crisis and the next period of struggle, especially now with all the pandemic lockdowns. And I know he’s worried about me and how I am feeling. But sometimes I just want to yell at him to stop trying to be the man that’s running around fixing things for everyone and just focus on me, you know, be my husband and just my husband for a change.

I feel like if I say that to him the way that it bubbles up in my head, it would devastate him. So, I journal about it, and I talk it through with my therapist until I find a more constructive way to filter that into a normal conversation with him. That way, it doesn’t come out as an accusation that he is not doing enough; it becomes more of a “hey, let's stop and take a break for a moment.”

Me: Wow, that is interesting, Allison. It must take a lot of self-control to manage your emotions in that way; to do that filtering.

Allison: Well, this is what understanding and living with major depression and multiple anxiety disorders is all about, at least for me anyway. You know, in the beginning, back in 2013, when I was first diagnosed and even before then, when I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was clinical depression, this kind of patience was beyond me. It was after months, no years, of clinical intervention, cognitive behavioural therapy, and meditation practice that I learned to manage myself in order to manage my mental illness.

Me: Tell me about how you came to be diagnosed in 2013.

Allison: Wow, that’s a long story. So, Frank and I met in 2004 in Calgary, and then we got married in 2006. I was very happy with the life that we had in Calgary – I loved my job, I loved Frank, I loved where we lived, and I loved the kind of life that we had together. Then we started a family, and very soon afterwards, everything changed.

We had Alex in 2007, and shortly after that, we moved to Winnipeg to be closer to his mother. She had a stroke that same year and couldn’t manage the business on her own anymore, and we needed support with childcare so I could go back to work after my maternity leave ended. The company I worked for in Calgary has an office in Winnipeg, and I was able to get a transfer so that made things a lot easier. Frank left his job, and we packed up and came to Winnipeg. He started helping his mother run the business, and not too long after, I went back to work.

Things were okay, but they weren’t quite the same. I missed the way that we lived in Calgary, you know. And even though we were just moving two provinces over, I tell you, it felt to me like I might as well have moved to a different country where people spoke a different language. I felt like a fish out of water.

Then we had Gemma in 2009. Things were good initially. I wasn’t planning on being on maternity for more than a few months since we would have Frank’s mom to help out, but then she had another stroke, and this one left her incapacitated. She was unable to walk on her own, feed herself, change herself and so on for a long time. Initially, we tried to take care of her ourselves because Frank didn’t want to put her in a personal care home; the wait time was horrendous anyway.

So, we moved her to our house, and we occasionally had someone come in for home care. I extended my mat leave to look after Gemma, and Frank tried to get his brother and sister to help out. Things didn’t go too well with that. They didn’t really help; it was all me and Frank.

In fact, most of the time, it was just me because Frank was busy making sure that the business stayed afloat. We had to draw on our own savings to get enough care hours for his mother. She owed all kinds of money and had taken a second mortgage on her house to keep the business going. By the middle of 2010, when I was due to go back to work, I was frazzled. I was looking after three babies – my two kids, plus Frank’s mom.

So, you know the stress is building on the home front, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was tired, and I started to not sleep very well, I kept having panic attacks, I had this fear of taking the children out of the house, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen to them. I just kept telling myself that I would soon be back at work and I could get away from the house and, you know, just get back to some kind of normal routine.

I went back to work, and I put the kids into daycare. It was a home daycare, and I had my doubts, but I needed to go back to work. I worked in marketing. It is a high-stress job on its own, but I loved what I did, and I was looking forward to going back to it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much things had changed in the year that I was away. There was a major shift in the technology, the processes, and the kind of products and services we worked with, so I felt like I was an intern having to learn the ropes all over again. Then to make matters worse, the person who was hired to backfill for me when I went on maternity leave stayed on in the office, and I kind of felt guilty about it, like I had pushed her out of a job that she knew more about doing than I did.

So, I had this steep learning curve at work, and I hated going home. At work, I was worried about messing things up, and I felt like I was just taking up people’s time with constantly having to ask them to explain things to me. And at home, it was just this draining, repetitive cycle of looking after my mother-in-law, looking after the kids, looking after my husband. After a while, I felt stuck, and I felt like they were the reason for it. So, I began to feel angry, you know. I was just irritable all the time.

Then things started to improve in 2011. Frank’s mother regained most of her mobility and some speech, but she still wasn’t well enough to look after the kids, so they stayed in daycare. And then, by the end of 2011, things fell apart again when I found out I was pregnant with Jamie.

That was a rough pregnancy. The other two were relatively easy. A little morning sickness and some physical discomfort, but really nothing to complain about. But this last one was hard. I was sick nearly every day right until the end; my blood pressure was high, I was in so much pain and discomfort in my entire body that there were days that I just could not get out of bed, and I had terrible headaches all the time.

So now it's Frank that’s left to look after me and the kids and my mother-in-law, and I see that he’s all stressed out and there’s nothing I can do about it other than stress about it too. I couldn’t go to work, I had to take an extended medical leave because I was in and out of hospital and confined to bed rest for most of the pregnancy.  

Jamie was born healthy in 2012, but I struggled a lot. I couldn’t breastfeed; Jamie was our first baby to be exclusively raised on formula. Frank and his mom did most of the feeding. I just felt helpless around the baby, as if I did not know what to do, and I was tired, just so tired all the time. I would sleep a lot and still wake up tired. I would look in the mirror and not recognize myself – I felt different, and I looked different, you know, like I was broken.

So, I tried to pull myself together, and I made up my mind to go back to work. I had been away for almost four months before I had Jamie, and I didn’t want to be away for any longer than I had to with my maternity leave this time around, so I went back to work three months after having Jamie. Frank didn’t like it, and he complained about it, but I didn’t budge. I told him I had to go back to work to keep my job.

But that became pressure in itself, you know. When I went back to work in 2013, things were again seeming to move too fast. I felt like my pregnancy had caused my brain to stop working. So now, not only was I struggling once again to quickly figure out and catch up on new technologies and new communication tools that had come on stream, I was forgetting, literally forgetting, some very basic things that I know I knew, but I just couldn’t summon that information when I needed it, and it was affecting my work.

So here I am, more than ten years into my career in marketing, and I had fallen behind so badly that I was being reprimanded at work. Then at home, there are all these things that are going on, and the mental load is horrendous. Jamie is about to turn one, there’s a birthday party to plan, Alex is supposed to start Kindergarten in the fall so there are things to do to get registration done, and for some reason, Gemma had completely stopped eating solid foods.

My mother-in-law is improving, but she’s still fragile. You know, she’s improved enough to tell me that I am not doing something right, but she’s not well enough for me to tell her to do it herself if she doesn’t like the way I’m doing it. 

I just felt like I was trapped in this hellhole of a life, and I wanted out of it.

In April, things came crashing down. My boss tried to sit me down to talk about something I had messed up - again, and I just lost it on him. I started yelling at him, like literally having a meltdown. I told him off, and then I got into my car and started driving in the opposite direction to my house. I had no idea where I was going, I just wanted to go somewhere and just die. Eventually, I ended up on one of those highway sections that didn’t have a barrier between the traffic lanes. I hit the gas and drove my car into the vehicle that was coming in my direction. That driver swerved out of the way, and I ended up running off the road, and my car flipped into the ditch. I woke up in the hospital two days later. I had a concussion, fractured my collarbone, and tore up my right wrist, but I didn’t die, and I was very disappointed about that.

Me: Why were you disappointed?

Allison: I was disappointed that I survived. I needed to be out of this life, and here I was with a failed suicide attempt. That was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. I just wanted out. So, l tried again in the hospital. I tried to hang myself in the bathroom the day after I woke up. That’s when the medical staff realized that I had purposely driven my car into the oncoming traffic and that it really wasn’t an accident.

It was after that bathroom incident that things started going a different way. I was given a lot of sedatives, and then I was seen by several psychiatric clinicians, and I think I answered the same questions about 50 times. Eventually, I was transferred to the psychiatric ward of the hospital, and I stayed there for seven weeks before they felt that it was safe for me to be out on my own. That’s how I came to be diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

Me: Thank you for sharing that with me, Allison. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak about your diagnosis and all the things that led to it in this way before. I am grateful that you are here to talk with me about it.

Allison: You know, I’ve never pieced together a timeline of what was happening to me like this before. And it’s really interesting for me to look back at things, using all those five things you asked me to think about, place, time, my body, my relationships, and major events. When I thought about everything, I realized that I was truly happy when it was just me and my husband and we had our life in Calgary. My nosedive began when we became parents, and our lives changed in this unexpected way, the move to Winnipeg, my mother-in-law’s illness, the job changes, which I really didn’t go into thinking about as a job change because I was with the same company. These were all some pretty big things that just one of them by itself is enough to floor anyone.

I was trying to power through all of that, and in hindsight, I was feeling myself falling apart, but I didn’t know what to do about it or how to ask for help. I just kept telling myself that things will get better and that it's just this temporary phase and that, you know, just wait, you will soon feel better. But things only got worse, and that’s no one’s fault. When you don’t know about mental illness and you don’t prioritize mental health and well-being, these are the kinds of things that just don’t register on your radar.

Me: What is life like for you now? You mentioned that you’ve learned to filter and manage your emotions. How else has knowing that you are living with mental illness changed your day-to-day life?

Allison: Well, first and most important, I am now aware of what it means to be in good mental health, and I know what it means to struggle with your own mental health concerns and that of loved ones. I mean, things have improved dramatically since I was diagnosed. You know, diagnosis leads to treatment, treatment leads to support, and support just makes you want to pay it forward, to help others become aware that it is ok to feel like you don’t have everything under control all the time, you know.

I do not recall hearing very much about the need for mental health awareness or self-care or even discussions about depression before this happened to me. And then, after my crisis, I started sharing a little bit at a time with a few persons I knew who never mentioned mental health concerns to me before, yet their reaction almost always was, ‘Oh yeah, I went through a similar thing’ or ‘I have a family member or close friend who went through the same thing’; and you know, I’m just amazed. All along, I was thinking I was the only one going through this because no one I knew was talking about what they were going through.

Me: That sense of stigma and shame coming through…

Allison: Yes, a lot of shame and guilt, and definitely a lot of stigma because, you know, back then, and even now sometimes, there’s a lot of negative judgement that comes with mental illness. You know, people don’t want to share what they are going through because they are worried about how they will be perceived. But at the same time, sharing is so important because it helps someone who is struggling feel hopeful enough to seek help or even to keep the struggle going for another day instead of ending it in that moment. So, I think the biggest change for me is that I talk about mental health a lot more, and I have come to realize how important it is to talk about it in different ways with different people.

A correlation to that is I can now recognize mental health struggles in the people who are closest to me, and I feel like I am emulating healthier ways of dealing with the struggles, and they are adapting those methods. I may not be able to offer solutions because I am not a mental health professional, but I can tell that they are kind of dealing with something. All I can do is offer to listen, but you would be amazed at how much that changes things. Take Frank, for example, he’s had to do a lot of adapting to help keep me feeling safe and stable, and I can see when things become a bit much for him.

Frank is not like me, he’s not the kind of person who will spend money to sit down with a professional and dig through how he feels, but I think from my point of empathy I can spot when he needs to take a moment to just slow down. So luckily, I can get him to talk things out every once in a while. Sometimes it's not even with me; he has one other friend that he’s really close to who knows most of what’s happened to us - to me - since we moved to Winnipeg, and he and Frank get together now and then, and he shares what he feels like sharing in his own way.

I think he’s learning that from me, you know, that it’s okay to say out loud that you are feeling overwhelmed. It’s going to rub off on our kids. In fact, it’s already happening; they know they can say to either of us that school is just too much for them today or that they don’t feel up to doing something that is expected of them.

And then I think another thing that has changed is that I learned that I have to stand up for myself and my needs. You know, you hear the word ‘self-care’ being thrown around a lot, and marketing campaigns make self-care look like some fancy thing that happens when you spend money on spas, gym memberships, and whatever app or product they want to promote. In working through my diagnosis and coming to understand some of my triggers, I feel that self-care is about, first and foremost, having a safe space and having people around you who understand the value of that safe space.

When I was in the hospital, Frank became very involved in my care plan. They wouldn’t discharge me until they were satisfied that we, meaning he, had a plan to help keep me safe. So that meant really changing the conditions in our home that caused me to feel so unstable, to begin with.

Initially, I felt bad for him, and I thought that that was a big thing, too big of a thing to ask. But Frank rose to it. He had his mom move in with his sister until we could get a spot for her in a care home, and he told his sister and his brother in very clear terms that they needed to step up because our situation just didn’t allow for us to do everything for his mother anymore. He prepared the house for me to come back home. He took care of all the kindergarten registration stuff for Alex and made the doctor appointments for Gemma. He got his brother to help out more with the business, and he hired part-time staff to fill in so he could spend more time at home. I mean, it's such a huge mental load taken off me, which was one of the things I really needed.

So, the thing that I try to remind myself of every day is that I do not have to take on these things that are just too much for me to handle all by myself. You know, relationships – healthy ones, are about showing love and care under any circumstance. My first step for self-care is insisting that my space be safe for me and really holding others accountable for allowing me that basic right. And you know what, I am learning that if you just set the tone, it happens. I didn’t have to dig my heels in and demand that Frank make changes. He saw for himself that things needed to be different in order for me to feel safe, and he stepped up to the task, and he’s been doing it ever since. We are back to working in a partnership.

But you know, it's not always perfect, and sometimes he forgets that I still need his help, especially when I have a few good days in a row and then find myself in a low mood or when there’s some crisis at the store, or if his mother’s health deteriorates. So, this is why I said that managing my depression and anxiety is about managing myself; and you know what, sometimes it involves managing Frank as well. You know, just being able to stay ahead of things and being able to recognize when it’s getting to be too much for him, and he needs to slow down and take a moment or even talk to someone so that he can get some perspective and recognize that his stress affects me as well.

And then, I think the final change that I think is worth noting about living with my illness is that I don’t take things for granted anymore. You know, this is the reason why I wanted to share this story with you for your website. The things you write about on TenMillionBaskets.com resonate with me because every once in a while, I try to take stock of everything that led to that breaking point and really reflect on it and acknowledge the whole of the story, not just focus on the nosedive, you know.

When I looked at everything through those five lenses you mentioned, I was reminded that I’ve come a long way and that I went through a lifetime of issues in a very short period of time. But I still have a lot to look forward to, so I am still hopeful and happy, and I am learning to live with the changes that are happening and to let go of the things that I lost.

Me: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with me and allowing me to experiment with this different way of telling it. There is a lot that has been said here, Allison. I can see now why you would be hesitant to say all this plainly, knowing that your young kids and your husband may be affected by aspects of this story that they may not have heard before or might not understand if they were to read about these details on their own, without your input.

Allison: Yeah, this is exactly what I was getting at why I said I wanted to remain anonymous. I mean, how do you tell your children that you had a nervous breakdown because of them or that you had come to resent them because they stood in the way of your career? How do you tell your husband or your mother-in-law that they drained you so much emotionally that you had nothing left for yourself or even for your children? Frank and I have had some conversations about this, but I don’t think the kids would understand any of this at their age. And my mother-in-law, bless her heart, she’s kind, and I love her, but Frank and I don’t tell her very much because we don’t want her to worry.

Me: My last question for you Allison, what do you hope someone reading about your experience will take away from it?

Allison: I think I would like readers to take the message that mental health is about getting and giving support. I think there are three kinds of people out there. The first kind are people who struggle with mental health issues, and they know it - they’ve been diagnosed and are getting treatment; they are getting the help and support they need. The second kind is people who struggle with mental health issues that have not been diagnosed, so they are not getting any treatment or help or support. The third kind is people who are the source of help and support to those who, knowingly and unknowingly, struggle with mental health issues.

That third group of people, by the way, may have, or have had their own mental health struggles – the thing is, if they do, they’ve sought help and support, and so they know how important it is to give that support to others.

We all have to figure out which kind of person we are, so if you are in a position to offer help and support, you should try to do that. If you are the person who needs help and support, ask for it. You would be amazed at how many people are going through the same thing; they don’t talk about it because they fear that other people may not understand, but if someone reaches out to them, they will show empathy and care because they’ve been there in some way themselves.

Several months after I left the hospital, I finally got around to checking my work email. It was something I had been avoiding for a long time. I had four messages from my boss. He had emailed me the same evening after I exploded on him, saying that he was concerned and that he hoped everything was ok. He emailed me twice while I was in hospital, I guess the first one was after he heard about the accident, and then he sent the other one weeks later, after Frank told him that I was moved to the psych ward. And then his last email was a couple of months later. He was very open and understanding, saying that he and his wife have struggled with mental health issues for some time now and that he was there if Frank and I needed anything. That meant the world to me, but I wished he had said it to me sooner.

So, which of the three kinds of people are you? Getting help and being of help is important, either way.

I think the other thing I would hope someone would take from reading about my experience is to understand that it is hard to ask for help or to say that you are struggling. The world puts so many expectations on us as mothers and fathers, as spouses, as children, and as adults. We need to make it okay for people to say, ‘You know what, this is too much for me, and I feel like I need some help.’ It is hard to ask, but we need to make it okay for people to ask.

So, if you happen to be one of those persons someone comes to for help, do it without admonishing them. You know, don’t offer to pray for them or tell them that “they’re smart and they can figure it out,” and definitely don’t tell them your answer to their problem. Just listen. Listen purely and emphatically, without judgment.

Listening is not solving. You listen as much as you can and as well as you can, and if you are able to do so, direct them to mental health resources so that they can get the help that they need to figure things out – that might not happen on the first occasion of you listening. It might not happen on the second occasion either, but giving help and support is not a one-time, straight-shot thing. It is about building trust and creating a safe space for someone to share what makes them feel vulnerable and unable to carry on with life as it is.

Me: Those are some powerful takeaways. Thank you for spending this time with me to share your experience with mental illness, Allison. I really appreciate that you’ve trusted me with sharing this story.

Allison: I’m honoured that you’ve asked me to share it in this way, Patlee. These aren’t easy things to talk about, but we do need to talk about them because I think everyone struggles with or knows someone who struggles with their mental health in some way.

Me: Okay, Allison, I’m going to let you go now. Thank you so much. You didn’t get to drink your coffee.

Allison: I know – you didn’t drink yours either. I’ve been talking so much; that I forget all about mine.

Me: Me too. Mine’s gone cold, so I’m going to do a very classy thing now and reheat it in the microwave. Take care, Allison, we’ll talk soon.

Allison: Thanks, Patlee. You take care as well. See you soon.

The names, dates, and descriptions of some places and events have been changed to protect Allison’s privacy. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the Canada Suicide Prevention Line at 1-833-456-4566, text 45645, or click here to find helpful resources from the Canadian Mental Health Association.

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Thank you for sharing your experience, Christine! One of my favourite things about this story is how it sparks conversations that help us highlight the need for listening and sharing experiences about mental health struggles. The fact that we can share in different ways signals that we are resilient, aware, and hopeful that we can navigate our struggles more constructively.

I am so happy that you were able to get yourself to a place where you could get immediate help and support. Sadly, this isn’t always the case; many untold stories exist about that. I am very grateful that we exist in the same community and can advocate for our mental health as well as the health of our loved ones.

You are so right; we cannot undo the past, but we can be very proud of our journey and use what we learned to be as compassionate as we can be for ourselves and others.

Thank you so much for reading and sharing.

Patlee Creary

A big thanks to Allison for sharing her story and to Reyou for publishing this exchange in the Resources. Reading Allison’s story reminded me of a time in my life, when everything became overwhelming and things fell apart. My father-in-law was living with us because he had pinned my mother-in-law to the ground and then called the police on himself. Although she refused to press charges, the police did and instituted a restraining order. This was very hard on my husband who basically shut down and refused to talk about it. His sister had long wanted nothing to do with her father but my husband has always been close to him. I have always loved both my in-laws and immediately agreed to take him in. However, it brought up conflicted feelings.

I grew up in a house with a mother who was emotionally, and sometimes physically, abusive. Based on that modelling – and trauma -, I had my own anger and impulse-control issues. My rage was mostly directed at inanimate objects or myself but, on occasion, my children did witness this lack of control and I knew it was damaging. I lived in constant terror that I would become like my mother. The moments when I felt like I wanted to hit my children along with the moments when I acted inappropriately in front of them filled me with self-loathing. At the same time, I was constantly afraid that my husband would withdraw his love.

My father-in-law’s arrival only exacerbated my fears. When would he find out what a terrible person I was? At the same time, my husband became more distant and my fears of abandonment increased.

One evening, he and I were supposed to go for a walk while my father-in-law stayed with the children. Or so I thought. But our communication had become so poor that, looking back, I’m not sure if we had agreed to do this or I just thought we had. Instead of going to ask him when we were going, I just waited for him to get ready to go. When that didn’t happen, I felt utterly rejected. I remember drinking a glass of wine to try and calm down – never a good idea. When he finally came out on the steps where I was sitting, he said it was too late to go.

The proverbial straw. The last drop. That’s all it takes when you are already fragile.

When he went back in, I smashed the glass on the ground. At that moment I hated him. And I hated myself. Everything turned black.

I went back inside and we had ‘words.’ I could feel myself losing control. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. Then I started to cry and to scream. I ran for the door to the garage in my socks, got into the car and tore down the street. The last thing I remember was my father-in-law in the street, trying to stop me.

I drove to River Road and Bishop Grandin, got out of the car and ran onto the bridge. Looking over the side at the river I thought about how my husband didn’t love me and what a horrible mother I was. The small things crowded in with the big things: the lack of privacy now that my father-in-law was sleeping in the living room, the glass I had broken earlier.

I don’t know what kept me from jumping. Perhaps it was something as simple as the fact that the railing was so high. Or the thought of how much I would hurt my children by ending my life.

Instead, I got back into the car and drove to the St. Boniface hospital. Told them I wanted to kill myself. They had me see a psychiatrist. By that time, I had calmed down. When he asked me if I was still contemplating suicide, I said no. The doctor suggested I spend the night at Sara Riel’s respite house. It was in St. Boniface at that time.

I remember going there, still only in my socks, no shoes. I remember that I was the only one staying there that wasn’t on medication. A few weeks later I would be. My psychiatrist finally convinced me that I needed extra help over and above the talk therapy.

But that night I was alone. I don’t think I slept a lot but at least I was safe.

The next day, my husband and the children came to get me. To this day, I don’t remember how they got there. We only had one car. But I remember the look on my son’s face. The relief. It still haunts me.

Sometimes, when he struggles with his own mental health issues, I wonder how much harm I did to him, leaving him that night, when he was only two. I wonder if he remembers. For some reason I don’t worry as much about my daughter, who was four at the time. Maybe I should ask her as well. Or maybe not. I can’t undo the past. I can only try to forgive myself and be grateful for where my journey has taken me and all the healing I have done since then.

Christine Hanlon

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