by Jessica Myshrall, Storyteller for RU Student Life
[Trigger warning: the following blog contains discussions of depression and suicide]
I know that is not the most ideal or politically correct term to use in reference to mental illness but those words describe exactly how it felt for me: like plunging into deep waters with no way up. It was very sudden and as soon as I was submersed into the dark depths of my own mind, the warm comfort of dry land became a distant memory.
Those were the days when I stayed in bed, missed classes, and cancelled plans. Those were the days that my very existence felt painful. Retreating from the world did not make the bad feelings go away and the weight I carried on my shoulders continued to get heavier. I hated myself for not being strong enough to get it together and began to think that I was unworthy of the happiness that everyone else seemed to have. Fortunately, a friend recognized what was happening and encouraged me to make an appointment at the university counselling centre. That was where I stopped drowning and started learning how to fight the invisible undertow that had taken me hostage. It took awhile to reach the surface again, but when I did, it was as though I had never fallen in in the first place.
That’s how it continues to be four years later — some days I feel on top of the world, other days I slip into the fog — not really aware of the fact that I’m in it until I can no longer see the path I was on. It has never lasted long enough for me to fall back off of the deep end, not since that first time, but that is only because I now have the tools to manage it. The fight is still difficult, even after all this time, but knowing where to turn for help makes it easier.
Mental illness is still a difficult topic to navigate, even for the progressive flock of 20-something millennials living during the height of the awareness movement. Writing about my own experience still feels conflicting, but I do because it is important to talk about these things. My parents didn’t really talk about mental illness with me, at least not in detail. I don’t think they knew how to. My step-grandfather’s botched suicide attempt, which happened when I was a child, was explained to me as an accident that occurred when he was polishing his gun. I think it was when I was older, when my friend died by suicide, that my Dad directly approached the topic. He explained that life could and would get very difficult at times. “It is important for you to remember,” he told me, “that hard times won’t last forever. You will get through them and down the road, when you’re happy again, you’ll be glad you didn’t give up.”
The integral point he was trying to make here was to keep going — to keep pushing through until I could once again see the light at the end of the tunnel. To reach out for help when I needed it most, for something or someone to pull me out of the rip current dragging me to the bottom. To remember that there’s still good around the corner, even if I couldn’t see it then.
I still think about that conversation when I’m caught in the fog. Every word is true. That’s why it’s so important to talk about mental illness, and to acknowledge that it exists, especially for those who, like me, didn’t know what was happening to them. I don’t know if I would have fought to get back to the surface had he not talked to me. As terrible as it is when I’m on the downswing, I remember all the times that I looked back at the what I would have missed had I not kept going — the adventures I wouldn’t have had, the memories I wouldn’t have made, the people I wouldn’t have met. Swimming against that current weakens my arms and legs and withers me away to a shadow of my former self, but the knowledge that there is warm dry land that I can reach if I hold onto my life lines gives me the strength I need for that final push towards land.
I have mixed feelings about the politics of mental illness. I was lucky enough to have access to a comprehensive set of resources that I needed in order to get better. It is easier for me to discuss my experiences because I am a member of a progressive community that, for the most part, does not deem individuals afflicted by illness as incapable, but instead actively searches for ways to give them the support they need. I am part of a community that appreciates that people are complex beings, and not the sum of their mental health. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way and not everyone has the same level of access that I do. I won’t have that access either once I graduate from university, and that concerns me. Mental Health awareness is extremely important, but the largest indicator of stigma, at least in Canada, is that mental health care is not included in our comprehensive medical coverage. Only “medically necessary” treatments, with some exceptions, like abortion, are covered. If people are dying or are at least impaired by mental illness, then I would say that access to treatment is “medically necessary”, wouldn’t you? Mental Health Awareness Month is not like a Movember campaign. Men who are encouraged to have their prostates examined have the access to do so. People afflicted by mental illness may be encouraged to talk about it, but may not have the power to do anything about it. In fact, many people experience multiple barriers when trying to access support. Fighting the stigma needs to go beyond tweeting about mental health awareness and funding from major companies. If we are to truly let the people we have entrusted our country to know that this is a priority and not a fad, then we need to get on their level to demand change.
We’re talking about whole and healthy minds and bodies this year, join the conversation with #TakeCareRU and find out how to access resources at Ryerson for your health: www.studentlife.ryerson.ca/takecareru