My mood disorder started with me being an overachiever. I was caught up with consumerism, and I pushed myself too much. I had started a new job, which was overwhelming. I worked 16-18 hours a day, and then also worked when I came home. I was getting very little sleep. One day I just cracked – I couldn’t remember where I worked, or where or how to get to work. I found my doctor’s office because he was on a main road, and I drove by and thought I recognized the building. I was over fifty years of age, and I thought my breakdown was a stroke, or a brain tumor – I didn’t know what it was.
My doctor diagnosed me on that first visit. He knew I was having a breakdown. He sent me home and told me I couldn’t go back to work until he gave me permission. When I got home, it continued to get worse – I went from almost no sleep to sleeping all the time. I lost the ability to read, communicate, carry on a conversation, drive. I couldn’t understand conversations because I couldn’t remember what had been said before that; it was very frightening. The doctor said it was because I was overstressed, but I was convinced it was an aneurysm, or seizures. It took six months to be able to speak three sentences clearly.
I didn’t go to a support group until two years later. By that time, my doctor had put me in touch with a really good psychiatrist. I did a program on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) for two hours a week for almost eight months. On my first visit to a support group, I was so paranoid that I had my son check out the schematics of the building so I would know where the building was, and where I would sit. At first, it was terrifying – I took extra medication and I managed to find my way in. I went early so that I could find a seat right by the exit doors, but when I got there, someone was sitting in my seat. So I sat in a fetal position in a different seat. I managed to get my name out, but that was about it. Other people in the group talked, and I thought, “Wow, there are people here who are more whacked than I am!” and I felt a little bit better about that. Two people who had been going to the group for a couple of years stopped me afterwards and said, “You know, you won’t believe us now, but you are going to recover, and you’re going to feel better.” I couldn’t see it – I had no hope, no vision. Other than having a good doctor, I didn’t really have any support. It was very difficult.
The support group was a place where I was accepted – I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. Other people had had similar experiences, and they told me how they handled it. There were people you could actually go out for coffee with and take walks with, and, even if you never said a word, there was this understanding. I developed coping skills, and I learned to laugh again. Other people who had travelled this journey shared their stories. Many times, I set myself up for failure and the people in the group would say, “You’ll get better when you get better. In the meantime, let’s just relax and do some good stuff that we know you can do.” That’s the advice I give to other people now – you can’t talk yourself out of the illness, but you can do good things for yourself like eating well, getting on a routine, trying to get out. I also got a dog, and that got me out every day.
The fact that I could help someone in my limited way was instrumental for my healing. I felt I could benefit and assist others – I’d always wanted to help people, but when I became ill, I couldn’t even look after myself. Helping gave me a sense of purpose, and that validated my existence.
One of the most important things I realized was that I could either feel sorry for myself, or fight back. I’ve always said to people, “If you want to get well, what are you willing to do to get there?” The answer is, you do whatever it takes, and you keep at it, and if something doesn’t work, you try something else. You never give up. It felt good to help people. If I was helping people, then I was getting out into the world and not isolating myself.
Death is never an alternative or solution – sometimes it just takes longer to find the answers. That’s where you need people from support groups, because they give you the encouragement to get past that moment. Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep on going,” and Martin Luther King said, “Your journey begins with a first step.” I had to take the first step, and I had to go through hell. I wouldn’t take any of this away, because now I have much greater compassion for others.
I think we have to learn to dream again. Dream of what it would be like if we were well. Those dreams were what sustained me. I began to think, “When I’m well, I’ll be able to do this.” The next part of it was, “What do I have to do to get well?” I say, “Surround yourself with good people.”