Dancing with DARKNESS

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Monday May 9, 2011

St. Catharines Standard

May 9, 2011

Driving into work one morning, the perfectness of her life ended.

Yet again.

What happened was bizarre. So extraordinary, so odd, that most people might devour it with a juicy sort of titillating gossip at her expense.

Yet, at 52, her passion for offering hope by telling her story, gives her as much strength as it gives others.

She wants to put it out into the public realm because she knows there are others out there having similar experiences who think they're alone in the world.

And they're afraid to talk about it. Like she was. (As in past tense.)

So, what happened to her was this: driving from her home in Grimsby to work in Hamilton one morning, her car radio started talking to her.

Just like that.

It instructed her to get to her office as quickly as possible, and make off with certain files else they fall into the wrong hands.

Once she had them, she had to get back into her car as quickly as possible.

And that's what she did. Or, at least tried to do.

She got as far as the front door, files in hand. By then, alarm bells were blaring, security guards screaming. She was apprehended in the parking lot.

In the end, she was not charged. But she lost her job and went on long-term disability.

What followed, was two years of darkness.


She gained weight. Ballooned to 250 pounds. Never left her house. Barely rose off the sofa. No one knew what to do. Other people looked after her young children.

She says simply, "I was defeated." Deborah Wilson has bipolar disorder. It's a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behaviour.

A person's mood can alternate between mania and depression -- highs and lows. Once known as manic-depression, it's caused by abnormalities in brain biochemistry.

It's not a character flaw or personal weakness.

In fact, on that morning drive, Deborah was on medication. It was under control. Life was good.

But for reasons that she can't explain, she had a break in the worst possible way.

And she wants people to understand it. To take mental illness seriously. To have compassion, not fear. Conversation, not silence. Ultimately, hers is a story of hope. And that's why she's telling it.

In fact, Deborah's story, in her own words, appears in the new coffee table book, Dancing in the Rain, a project of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. She's one of 25 people from across the province who share their stories of hope, healing and recovery.

The stories are candid. Sincere. They tell about the struggles and triumphs of people living with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

On this day, Deborah sits in the favourite room of her house. A room with more windows than walls, that looks out onto her garden. She speaks with the frankness of someone who isn't afraid to talk about what other people are afraid to talk about.

She is funny. ( "I tell people there's no difference between me and you ... except I got caught," she says, laughing).

To understand how it all happened, she begins her story in elementary school. Grade 3. She cried all the time. At her desk. In class photos, her eyes are dark, sunken and red. Her face, drawn and pale. She chewed her fingernails so much, they bled.

A psychiatrist labelled her overly emotional.

To everyone else, she was a problem child.

Compounding all this, was dyslexia. She read several grade levels below her friends. Teachers disciplined her for not doing her homework. At home she was yelled at for poor grades.

"I thought I was stupid," she says.

Then there were confusing moments when she'd feel like the smartest girl at school. Times when she had energy. Confidence. In high school, she became the captain of teams. The editor of the yearbook.

"All of a sudden, it would flip and I couldn't face anyone," she says.

She couldn't handle the responsibilities and dropped out.

"After that, you learn to keep your hand down and not volunteer," she says.

Two months into a bachelor of arts program at the University of Toronto, she had her first breakdown.

She was alone in the dorm kitchen, in front of the stove, boiling water to poach an egg for breakfast.

Somehow, she spilled the hot water down the her front.

It's hard to explain what happened. "All of a sudden, I was in a different place, at a different time," she says.

"I was in danger. Something was after me."

Maybe she grabbed the pot to throw it. She's not sure.

She took a streetcar to school, was stopped in the hallway -- and had her first appointment with a psychiatrist.

The diagnosis of manic depression terrified her. She thought if she told anyone about her hallucination, she'd be thrown into a mental hospital.

She rejected the diagnosis, but the psychiatrist's words, "You can't control this" looped obsessively in her brain.

So, she attempted to control everything else in her life. The food she put into her mouth. Her emotions.

She became anorexic. And when she dropped to 98 pounds and lost control, she tried bulimia.

Her emotions were flat. She kept them inside. She abused alcohol to help her control them more.

She got help for her eating disorder. And in the years that followed, she had success, all the while living with the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. At the newly opened Eaton Centre, she helped run the promotional fashion shows. She had energy, wheeling racks of clothing from store to store and working on show commentaries. She managed an upscale clothing store at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre.

And she was good at faking happiness.

A woman once explained it like this: she could be wearing filthy, dirty clothes. "But as long as I'm wearing my overcoat, my scarf and lipstick, and I put on a pretty face, smiling, no one knows."

Deborah wore the disguise well. Clean clothes. Brushed teeth. Combed hair. It became methodical. Yet, so exhausting, her facade could only last so long.

Her two children, a son and daughter, are in their 20s. Deborah laments missing many moments in their lives. School concerts. Plays.

They were the kids who didn't have pizza with their classmates because Deborah forgot to send in money. Or didn't go on a school trip because Deborah lost the permission form.

"There were some points when I didn't know if I was going to make it through the day, let alone remember the pizza money," she says.

Those two years of darkness became a turning point.

Broken, she forfeited control. "It was easier to lay numb," she says.

She had to be told to have a shower. To talk to her kids.

Her saving grace was, eventually, finding a psychiatrist who understood her. There was trust. Safety. And finally, Deborah unloaded everything without fear of being put in the hospital.

These days, she helps others. She is a past president of the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. And every month, Deborah leads the Mood Disorders Support Group of Niagara.

She has matured with the illness.

Of great help was reading The Depression Workbook by Mary Ellen Copeland. She learned about herself and then developed a WRAP -- a Wellness Recovery Action Plan.

She recognizes her early warning signs. And has specific, written steps to follow when she feels like she's sliding. She has signed a contract with her family, friends and psychiatrist.

And she's determined to make a difference by telling her story.

Way back, someone did the same for her. And she's never forgotten.

"One person shared their story with me one day and made all the difference in my world," she says.

"Someone else had done the same things I had done.

"All of a sudden, I didn't feel so different, so crazy.

"It touched me so deeply. "It made sense."

* * *

For more information on the Mood Disorders Support Group of the Niagara Region, visit www.NiagaraMoodDisorders.comor call 905-687-6897 for a recorded message of upcoming meetings. Monthly meetings are held at the St. Catharines library, 54 Church St., the fourth Thursday of each month (except July, August and December), from 7-9 p.m. The next meeting will be May 26 and Deborah Wilson will be talking about signs and symptoms.

* * *

To reach Deborah Wilson personally, e-mail her at bipolarwilson@gmail.com


- - -

Signs of illness

Bipolar disorder (or manic-depression) is a treatable illness marked by extreme changes in mood, thought, energy and behaviour.

Symptoms of mania

Heightened mood, exaggerated optimism and self-confidence

Decreased need for sleep without fatigue

Inflated sense of self-importance

Excessive irritability, aggressive behaviour

Increased physical, mental activity

Racing speech, flight of ideas, impulsiveness

Poor judgment, easily distracted, difficulty concentrating

Reckless behaviour without concern for consequences, such as spending sprees, rash business decisions, erratic driving, sexual indiscretions

In severe cases, auditory hallucinations (hearing voices) or delusions (strong convictions about things that aren't true).


Depression is a treatable illness involving an imbalance of brain chemicals. You can't make yourself well by trying to snap out of it.


Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells

Significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns

Irritability, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety

Pessimism, indifference

Loss of energy, persistent tiredness

Feelings of guilt, worthlessness

Inability to concentrate, indecisiveness

Inability to take pleasure in former interests, social withdrawal

Unexplained aches and pains

Recurring thoughts of death and suicide.

WHAT: Dancing in the Rain, a coffee table book by the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. It features the personal stories of hope, healing and recovery of people living with a mood disorder, in their own words.

WHERE: This book is available only by donation, for a one-time gift of $100, or monthly gift of $15. Tax receipts will be provided for the donation portion.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit mooddisorders.on.ca www.mooddisorders.ca