A personal journey in mental health
Reprinted from "Indigenous People" issue of Visions journal, 2016, 11 (4), p. 18
My story of recovering from depression doesn’t end with me crossing a 10k finish line in triumph, winning a literary award, or celebrating the success of my dream business—not yet, anyway.
When I was asked to share my mental health experiences, I agreed immediately; after all, I received the request at work, where I am very enthusiastic about my calling as a suicide interventionist and trainer and am an advocate of holistic wellness. What I didn’t anticipate was my realization that although I am very skilled at surviving chronic depression, I am not at all thriving: I have continued to neglect many important aspects of my life, and this affects the extent to which I can actually call myself ‘recovered.’
I struggle. My struggles started very early on, which is evident in the fact that I started playing sick or hiding from the school bus in kindergarten in order to avoid the general busy-ness of school and the noise of other kids. By my late twenties, I had grown tired of feeling like a failure. Although I had been placed in gifted programs since Grade 4, I felt like a fraud because my assignments were often incomplete. Sometimes I could follow through on tasks—but at other times I couldn’t seem to find the interest, energy or motivation. And I couldn’t predict when I would disappoint myself or others. To this day, I am able to get by as ‘eccentric,’ but behind the scenes are heart-to-heart talks with teachers, counsellors, supervisors and teammates, who have encouraged me to have a broader, more balanced view of my abilities and achievements. You may have noticed that I didn’t specify friends in my list of supports. I am surrounded by caring colleagues and community members, but I still struggle to have intimate friendships or to feel that I am not just the fourth best friend of the people I rely on for fun, comfort and companionship.
In addition to being diagnosed with depression, as a young adult I was assessed as having mild traits of Asperger’s disorder and strong characteristics of attention deficit disorder (ADD). I believe I have outgrown the behaviours that could be interpreted as autistic traits, but I am still strongly affected by ADD.
Here is where my story becomes one of success and gratitude. In my Aboriginal culture, it is understood that we all have a gift, which our experiences help us to discover. It’s up to us to recognize—and to value—everything the Creator has given us. An Elder once told me, “Of course we all have traits of ADD—we’re hunters and gatherers!” It’s true: even though I’m not a hunter, I am always alert and sensitive to noise and movement to the point where I discreetly cover my ears in some meetings and avoid crowds when I can. In order to cope with overstimulation, I tend to screen things out completely rather than automatically filtering the input around me the way most people do. My senses are sharp, but I am easily distracted by my own thoughts and less relevant things—like the ghost of a tag ripped out of a t-shirt or a crooked seam in, well, anything. My brain can work against me, but I have been brought up to focus on my strengths. My experience and frustration with the physical symptoms of depression and ADD mean that I can relate to the depressed and those who struggle.
Over time, I have found relief through many remedies, some prescribed and some natural. In addition to medication, I use a therapeutic light box on winter mornings to regulate my inner clock and help me maintain a regular sleep schedule, which my body doesn’t tend to generate on its own. I’ve long suspected that a more traditional (outdoor) lifestyle would be beneficial to me, and I’m building more physical activity into my days in order to enjoy those benefits.
When I fall into depression, especially during our dark, rainy winters, I sometimes struggle to get out of bed. Sometimes I am lonely, and I always dread that innocent-sounding question, “How are you?” But I am not unique in facing these struggles. The fact that I have experienced them provides a helpful perspective in my role as a mental health support worker. Community members know that I am not surprised by the depressed mindset, nor am I shocked by anyone who expresses suicidal ideation. My gift (sigh, thank you, Creator) is that I think life is a beautiful miracle, even when I feel like I have lost hope. At my lowest point, I have never been suicidal because I am surrounded by the things that are valued by my culture: the river (“Stó:lō” actually means “people of the river”), the mountains, the wildlife and their songs. I have been shown and I show others that we can nurture out spiritual selves with the tools provided right outside our doors. I use cedar boughs to physically brush off bad energy, whether it’s my own or negative energy I’ve picked up from others. My office has woven cedar baskets above the doors so that when I leave I can send thoughts of work there and not take them home with me. Sometimes we are our own best resource—but if we have a cedar tree to tell our problems to, then we aren’t really alone, are we?
Depression tries to tell me that I am alone at these times, but I know that depression lies.
I have a lifetime of bad habits and attitudes that I sometimes revert to if I am not careful. My thinking can be pessimistic, affecting my ability to support others; I become overwhelmed by the persistence of problems in my community—such as general racism and inadequate opportunities in education, employment and housing. I can find it very easy to pity myself and ruminate on stressors. When this happens, it is too easy and comfortable to isolate myself, overeat, and sleep or read the day away. Getting back into my daily routine is the best medicine, and I’ve become quicker at acknowledging this over time. I find comfort in a meaningful job: I have been with my local health agency for over four years, and it’s the longest I have been able to stay engaged and see long-term, rewarding results.
As with many things I enjoy, I can focus on work to a fault. My son, who also has ADD, is the same way when he has an interest. We have a tendency to overlook daily commitments set by school and work schedules, but we excel when we have a passion. At 13, he works each day to make the most of his brain, without medicating ADD. He is a great reminder of the importance of resisting impulses and practising discipline. When I was younger, I ruined many a novel by skipping to the last page. I still have to consciously resist doing this and avoid reading the plots of movies before I see them. It’s about consequences—and realizing that self-indulgence doesn’t equal gratification.
Raising my son is similar to a behavioural therapy strategy that I highly recommend, called activity scheduling.* During our first 10 years together as mother and son, I became aware that I could manage my depressive symptoms, thanks to the fact that the needs of a child are immediate and cannot easily be ignored. While I may be susceptible to depression, the demands of daily life as a parent—meals, childcare, schooling, employment—all act to counter my own unhealthy impulses. My son is a remedy for me in a way that other family members cannot be. Depression is not normal to him, like it was in my family when I was growing up. Instead, he reinforces and promotes life in our house each day by modeling to me what I have worked to instill in him. In this scenario, who is the chicken and who is the egg? It doesn’t matter—as long as the system works!
Activity scheduling prompts people to break the cycle of depression by taking simple steps they may not normally be inclined to take, mainly by increasing their activity levels. When I decided to have a child, I didn’t have a clear sense of how becoming a mother would change my daily life. I was able to focus intently on my son’s needs, but I also became isolated, falling into a routine that did not help my mental state. I neglected my health in many respects, and my sedentary lifestyle had an impact on my social circle and connections. I made sure to rebuild a wider social life, but like many people, I have not yet achieved balance. For an individual who experiences depression, the small steps really count. This is why activity scheduling is so important to me and why I promote it to others.
To hear more of Jenz’s story, order a copy of the Fraser Health video Aboriginal Journeys in Mental Health: Walking the Path Together. Contact the BC Partners and HeretoHelp at 1-800-661-2121 (toll-free in BC) or 604-669-7600.
To see a good example of activity scheduling that Jenz likes, see this one developed by the BBC in 2010 as part of their Headroom campaign. downloads.bbc.co.uk/headroom/cbt/activity_scheduling.pdf
Now that I have done what I have dreaded since I agreed to write this piece, I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my role as an active participant in my own mental health care. Focusing on myself has made me face the fact that I need to remember more often to live fully rather than just vicariously through others. I can see that if I plotted my routines on a medicine wheel, the wheel would definitely look like a flat tire because of my busy schedule and lack of physical activity and outdoor time. It also wouldn’t hurt my household if I nurtured my body and the bodies of my family members by learning how to cook a few more healthy meals. And my son has advised me that it’s time we raise a puppy to take on camping and hiking trips. Examining my progress was more difficult than I expected—but having struggled and found help more than once, I know that self-awareness is my friend.
Depression, though? Depression is never a friend, even if it seems comfortably familiar. Anyone who reaches out to me after they’ve fallen into the trap of isolation as a result of depression will hear this question: “What has helped you get through this in the past?” I hope that when people need help identifying how they have survived, they know that being able to ask for help is a strength.
Some of us understand more than you might think.