The early days of my recovery were spent sharing my story. I felt then, and I still feel today, that only by sharing our stories can we overcome the shame and stigma we associate with mental illness. In many ways, this is particularly true for men, who are steadfast in their silence yet three times as likely to die by suicide because of this silence. I believe that hearing the voice of other men can break through this silence and help to save lives. I believe that it is essential for us to share, to educate, to help.
In 2016, I shared my story with a U.K. men’s mental health site called MenTellHealth (I’ve searched for it and believe that it’s now closed. If it isn’t, please let me know and I’ll add the link to the site). I’d like to share that piece once again today. Please keep in mind that when I wrote this, my diagnosis of living with Bipolar II Disorder was still a few years away.
John for MenTellHealth
I experience depressive episodes and have done since my teenage years. For at least as long, and perhaps longer, I also experience episodes of social anxiety. Finally, I also suffer from severe obstructive sleep apnea. I admit these facts to you freely.
I admit these facts to you freely because I now have names for the various illnesses that have plagued me for some thirty-five years. But before the naming of them, there was silence and shame.
There was shame at my inability to provide for my family. There was shame in my inability grow my career. There was shame at my inability to set aside the periods of bleakness and just get on with life. There was shame at feeling so distraught yet having no apparent reason for it. That these things were untrue was irrelevant. The shame existed and it eroded away at my self-esteem making me believe I was more and more unworthy.
But there was no naming, no understanding of what I was suffering through. And since I kept quiet, there would be no naming, no understanding.
I grew up in a family where you went to see a doctor only when you had to. And even then it was done with the greatest reluctance. So, one Christmas, I sat at the dining table, tears running down my face, rather than tell anyone that my throat was so sore that I could barely breathe. Eventually, my silence at the table was noticed and I was taken to the local emergency room. I had a severe infection that had caused my adenoids to swell alarmingly.
Now, if a swollen throat and accompanying severe pain did not get me voluntarily to a doctor, you can imagine how I reacted to something that had no discernible cause. I sucked it up. I grinned and I bore it. I muddled through as best I could. I didn’t go to a doctor because there was no illness to talk to a doctor about. There was no cough, no fever, or no broken limb.
There was only a melancholy, a deep despair. I was increasingly bleak, increasingly numb, and increasingly incapable of social interaction. I forgot how to smile, how to laugh, how to have fun. I could sit by myself and feel tears run down my face, but feel no emotion. Oh, I could and did fake it, but there was a disconnect between me and the world.
Over time, I gradually distanced myself from everyone I knew, both friends and family. I withdrew more and more from the world around me, increasingly being enveloped in the despair that was my private hell. It became too much, too painful, and I attempted to take my own life.
No one knew of the pain I was experiencing. No one knew just how numb and lost I had become. No one knew, because I had removed myself from them. And I had kept quiet. My shame made sure of that.
I remember awakening the next day and experiencing, for the first time in years, clarity of thought. All of the noise of negativity that had been present had been silenced, even if only for a moment. I now know that the oxygen mask I had been wearing allowed me to sleep deeply for the first time in decades.
I also remember feeling confusion at seeing a security guard in my room. It did not occur to me, until later, that this was to protect me from myself. It did not occur to me because the Black that I had been my living hell had been lifted and I no longer sought my own death.
But the clarity of thought told me that I was not healed. There clearly was something wrong and I promised myself to find out what it was and, if it was at all possible, to prevent it from happening again.
I now experienced some good fortune. My parents agreed to allow me to live in their home. Once there, I saw my first Bell Let’s Talk commercial. I knew then that my causes of suffering had names.
Moreover, the example of the Bell Let’s Talk spokespeople who, through speaking out, had given my illnesses names, showed me that I could no longer remain silent. Years of silent suffering had done nothing to treat my illnesses. In fact, silence prevented treatment and, in doing that, created a situation like any other illness where non-treatment made things so much worse.
It wasn’t enough to arrive at diagnoses through watching television commercials. I sensed that I needed a doctor to confirm it and initiate treatment. There had to be a way to stop these things from returning. To do this, though, I would have to set aside my silence, and my shame, and open up to those who could help me.
So I did. I spoke to my new doctor, I spoke to the Canadian Mental Health Association, I spoke to Community Care Durham, I spoke to Durham Family Services. I spoke to whoever would listen and I found it to be liberating.
It also gave me the strength to open up to my son. He had seen the growing isolation, had lived with the irritability and my inability to truly laugh or smile. Then, when his mum fell into crisis shortly after myself, I had to be honest with him. I sat down with him and explained, using my actions, how his mum was doing the best thing for everyone. No parent should have to have that conversation with their child. To his credit, he listened, he asked questions, and he never judged. And he forgave.
At times, I found that I couldn’t always express myself verbally, so I turned to writing. I wrote in journals about my despair, about my research, about my steps to recovery. In order to keep my son comfortable about my recovery, I started a blog which was private between him and I. Then, on the suggestion of my counsellors, I made it publicly accessible.
All the while, I found that being more open was helping me heal.
That is the lesson in my story. Silence is deadly. Being open, though, opens the doors to healing. Please, begin your conversation before it is too late.
Let me repeat that last sentiment: “Please, begin your conversation before it is too late.” It’s a statement that can’t be said enough. Sharing can help save your life.
We know that mental illness distorts your thinking. We also know that these distortions are the result of illness, a symptom of it, and that symptom, that illness that can be treated. Please, speak to your doctor, a close confidant, a best friend, someone. Get the help that you are more than deserving of receiving.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, please seek help. Those thoughts are treatable in most cases. I urge you to speak to your family doctor immediately or call your local Canadian Mental Health Association branch. They can direct you to resources in your community. TalkSuicide can be reached by visiting talksuicide.ca, by calling 1-833-456-4566, or by texting 45645. You can also get immediate help by dialling 911 or visiting your local hospital emergency room.
Image by Waldemar Zielinski from Pixabay