I’ll be honest with you – I’ve started and then stopped writing this post a few times. I debated whether I should write it at all. I wanted to get the words right, but natural, inner snark that tends to pour through when I’m writing keeps trying to come out. But it’s hard to be snarky. It’s a difficult subject. I hope I’ve done my best here. I’m not writing as a cry for help. I’m not writing as a plea for attention. I’m simply writing with the hope that my personal experiences can encourage others to seek help, even if they’re not sure if they need it. I think the phrase, “Let’s Talk” is quite apropos when dealing with mental illness.
My grandfather was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 32. It had a ripple effect on my entire family for as long as I can remember. He dealt with it the best he could – BC Mental Health saw him regularly and my mother was as supportive as she could be. I had read something somewhere that said that schizophrenia tended to skip a generation - and when you’re a hypochondriac like me and any headache is a potential brain tumour, this sort of information digs deep into your psyche. But, 34 years on, it would appear that I’ve been spared that disorder. That’s not why I’m writing this post, though.
I think most of my friends would describe me as a happy (maybe), friendly (hopefully) sort. As a result, it would likely surprise them to hear that I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression since high school.
Now the anxiety bit isn’t news, exactly – I’ve talked openly about it in the past. It’s mainly a social anxiety – I shut down when I confront new people. It tends to manifest as a crippling shyness. I can’t hold a conversation with someone I’ve known for more than a month. Which can make it difficult to make new friends – but as a result, the friends I do keep in my (relatively) closed circle are the best of the best. They had the patience to hang around, in some cases, or poke and prod until I have no excuse but to start talking, in others. There is no hyperbole when I say my friends are all wonderful people and I love each and every one of them.
The depression, however, is… trickier. It’s insidious. It’ll dig in and I won’t quite be sure where it’s coming from, yet it never fully goes away either. It’ll come in waves – some days I’m perfectly fine. Some days, it’s only present in terms of small, nagging, self-doubt – like needles poking my cerebral cortex. Some days it manifests in full-on, blind rage at nothing in particular – like my mind is staging some act of revolt (these days are the ones that scare me the most, if I’m being perfectly honest). Other days, it’s just hard to get out of bed in the morning (and not in an ‘I only got 4 hours of sleep’ sort of way, either). One thing I can always count on, though – once I start feeling bad, it can quickly snowball. You see, I have a decent life – I have a loving family, great friends, a decent job – so my brain essentially starts thinking, “What is this bullshit? You have no right to be depressed. Get off your ass and go, damnit! Think of the poor people who are unemployed, or who just lost their loved ones… THOSE are the people who have a right to be sad. Not you.” Which, of course, is illogical. I *know* it’s illogical. Sometimes we can’t help the way we feel any more than we can control the weather. But the point is, my brain doesn’t care – it lays this big guilt-trip on me, which then feeds into a healthy dose of self-loathing, which makes me even more anxious, which makes me more depressed, which…
You see what I mean? Insidious.
The façade I put on – and sometimes it really *is* a façade, despite the fact that spending time with my friends is something I love doing – probably does a great job of convincing my friends that everything is fine, when it’s often not.
The low point for me was a few years ago. 2011, to be precise. I was experiencing some *severe* anxiety that year. It was manifesting in all sorts of nasty physical symptoms. I became convinced I was dying. It affected my work, my family life... Anyway, I was in my car driving along 49th Avenue on my way to work. A big dump truck was coming the opposite direction and I found myself thinking… if I just let the car edge into the oncoming lane, that’d be it. It’d be over. Simple. It was the most selfish, terrifying thought I’ve ever had. Of course, nothing came of it – the dump truck passed and I drove on, yet I found myself locked on that idea. Every car that came in the opposite direction became another opportunity to right this perceived wrong. Eventually, I pulled over, started hyperventilating, then broke down and wept for about 10 minutes. Then I looked at myself in the mirror, steeled my reserve and continued on my way to work. The strangest thing about that whole incident was the fact that what stuck with me more was the guilt about being five minutes late for work (No, I didn’t get in trouble). I think prior to this post going live, I’ve told maybe three people that story.
The moral of this story is that it’s never easy to tell if people are struggling. Sometimes they’ll do anything in their power to make it look like everything’s all right. In short, I could be the poster-boy for Bell’s whole campaign (if I was better-looking and more charismatic, at least).
Despite everything, I continued to compartmentalize and kept everything in until last year. It was at PAX, of all places, where I attended a panel by the Take This project (http://www.takethis.org). I’ll tell you - it takes a lot of bravery to sit in front of a room full of 500 people and basically bare your soul (remember – this is at a video game conference, so while the panelists are talking about the lowest points in their lives, people are playing Halo next door) but that’s what these individuals all did. It may seem clichéd to say, but it changed my life. My wife and I returned to the hotel after that panel and I broke down – I talked for almost two hours (again, this is during the middle of PAX, mind you, which is usually my happiest weekend of the year). She listened, held me, supported me. And afterwards… I felt a little better. It wasn’t magic. I wasn’t instantly ‘fixed’. I still have good days and bad days. But my point is this - you don’t *need* to suffer alone. Every little bit helps. Find a good friend who you trust – they’ll listen. They may not be able to *do* anything other than saying, “Jeez, that sucks, dude…” - but that’s often not the point. It’s the listening that matters.
I’m not a Bell customer. I’m not a stockholder in their company. I have no vested interest in them at all, but I respect the idea behind ‘Bell Let’s Talk Day’. Because we should be able to talk about this. There has long been an unfair, negative stigma toward mental illness.
Smash the stigma. Let’s start talking.