From psychotic depression to recovery
Reprinted from "Self-Management" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, 1(18), pp. 22-23
Part 1: Enslaved by Mental Illness
The year is 1988. I was just your average university student struggling through as I was determined to get my BA degree. Being in my last year, I had high hopes for the future and nothing was going to get in the way. Or so I thought.
Life was about to change drastically. I began to find it almost impossible to face another day. The inner pain was getting worse. I felt so inadequate, unworthy and unwanted. It was all so overwhelming. I barely attended classes, I was doing lousy on my exams, and I didn't even bother doing my oral presentations. I was totally unable to express how I felt; all I could do was cry and withdraw. I felt so alone. That aloneness was the most painful - that gap between me and the rest of the world. The fear of being alone like this forever was agonizing. I was trapped. It was all so hopeless.
Exhaustion overtook me, as it took every ounce of strength I had just to do the simplest things like taking a shower or brushing my teeth. Nobody knew the torment that was going on inside of me; outwardly I appeared perfectly normal. I didn't care anymore and I certainly didn't feel like living. I became more and more withdrawn. If I wasn't crying, I was tossing and turning trying to sleep. I was on edge and everything irritated me. There was so much turmoil inside that I thought I would go crazy. My mind was dying and I wanted to die with it. Despite the turmoil I was experiencing I did graduate and received my BA degree in Psychology.
After a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts, I was hospitalized a number of times. The turmoil continued. The suicidal thoughts didn't end. The depression and anxiety just kept getting worse and worse. I then went into a psychotic depression. Psychosis basically means disconnecting from reality. I suffered from hallucinations, which is seeing or hearing things that aren't really there, and I suffered from delusions which is believing in things that are not true. I lived in a haze of medications and nothing was helping. I was obsessed with taking my life. As a last resort they gave me shock treatment.
I was not ready to face the outside world. I was terrified. I had lost my entire identity. There was no me; I didn't exist, but I must have existed to suffer so. This confused, disoriented state of depression mixed with psychosis went on and on.
I was quite heavily medicated, but the psychotic states did finally come to an end. Actually, the craziness of psychosis was easier to handle than the hell of depression because I wasn't connected to reality. Reality hurt.
Reality continued to hurt for seven years as the depression lingered on. There were periods of relief every so often. It wasn't non-stop torment anymore.
Part 2: Freedom Through Self-Management
Gradually, I started to think and feel in a more rational way. Maybe life did have some possibilities; maybe there was hope after all. I felt ready to get going in life and to fight to get over any obstacles that got in my way. It started feeling like the war was coming to an end. Life was worth living after all.
How did I ever get to the state of thinking that life was worth living and stop being so obsessed with wanting to end my life? It's hard for me to say what really helped. One thing I do know and that is that time was the most important healer. I know: that's what people always say, "Oh, you'll be fine, just give it time". But that is so true; it was vital that I was allowed time. Then there were the countless talks, the encouraging words, people reaching out to me, being firmly challenged, a lot of hard work on my behalf. Most important was that people didn't give up and they continued to believe in me even though I didn't.
Therapy, support groups, psychiatric outpatient programs, clubhouse activity and medication also played an important role in my recovery. During the crises having respite in a residential facility known as CRESST helped me to feel safe and taken care of. Having supported subsidized housing was what kept me connected and what took away to worry about having a decent roof over my head. Taking part in an employment training program was a major turning point for me in that I was able to learn new skills, utilize skills I already had, and take the risks needed to enter back into the workforce.
Another major turning point for me was going into private, one-to-one counseling. I was willing to put forth the effort no matter how much it cost. Throughout my seven years with the public mental health system I made very minimal progress. I remember being told that I would be mentally ill forever, that I would never be able to work and that I would be on medication for life. Not so the case! Throughout my two years of intensive counseling, I progressed in leaps and bounds. I learned that I had a purpose, that I had needs like everyone else and had the right to meet those needs, that I could be in control of my life despite having a mental illness, that I was responsible for my behavior. I also I learned to empower myself instead of giving my power away. I worked hard at recovering and my efforts paid off. One cannot put a monetary value on that. I had a counsellor who would not give up on me and continued to believe in me.
Later, I went on to pursue my Reality Therapy Certification, because I wanted to give to others what was given to me. Two more major leaps occurred in my life. First, I switched from supported subsidized housing to regular subsidized housing through BC Housing, in which one's rent is based on 30% of their income. Second, since 2001, I have been working part-time and am off of Disability Benefits. I still struggle with psychiatric symptoms but nothing like before. Now I know what to do to nip things in the bud.
How do I maintain my recovery? For me, it's all about self-management and balance. Self-management for me is about being aware of what I need to stay mentally healthy, such as knowing when to say 'no', putting aside one day a week as a 'me' day to spend as I wish, knowing when to ask for help, challenging my mind by learning something new each year, not taking life so seriously, having two cats and doing things I love such as traveling. Balance for me is about eating healthily , exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, decreasing stress, having positive and supportive people in my life, consciously choosing positive thinking, meeting my needs every day, laughing, and carpe diem (Latin for 'seize the day').
The mind really is so fragile and complex. No one is exempt from a broken mind. It can happen to anyone. Often this is an illness that affects normal and healthy people. But there can be healing and recovery. It is just so refreshing to remember where I was and to think where I am today.
About the author
Debbie Sesula is president of the White Rock/South Surrey Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association and is Program Coordinator of BRIDGES, a program of the BC Schizophrenia Society