Reprinted from "Recovery" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 9 (1), pp. 15-17
I have done my time in hell. But after a lifetime of living with mental illness, I know that hope and recovery always shine like starlight—even in the blackest pit of despair. Years ago I was sick and broken, standing in the rubble of my own ground zero.
I could never have imagined that one day I would be dancing in sunbeams, short-listed for a 2012 Victoria Leadership Award for my work in challenging the stigma about mental illness. I turned the tides around. So can you.
At 33, I was diagnosed with a chronic anxiety condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), with secondary depression. As serious as any psychosis, OCD completely took over my life. I was tormented by terrible thoughts about my worst fears: getting some incurable illness, being broke and penniless, setting my apartment on fire or leaving it open to burglars. The obsessive thoughts were so alarming, I was desperate to get rid of them. Mental and physical rituals gave me momentary relief: I checked my stove, my body, my bank account and my front door lock continuously until I was exhausted. At my sickest, the rituals took up every waking minute and I felt like I was losing my mind.
My lucky break was getting sick during the early ’80s, when mental health services were well funded. I entered a full-time cognitive-behavioural therapy program at Shaughnessy Hospital in Vancouver, which used “exposure” and “response prevention” approaches. Instead of trying to shut down the thoughts and anxiety, I learned how to tolerate them without doing the rituals. For example, if I wasn’t sure if the door was locked, I forced myself to walk away without checking. At first the anxiety was crushing, but it eventually dissipated.
This simple procedure worked miraculously: by not doing the rituals, I taught myself that no matter how anxious and worried I was, it still did not make the thoughts true. And every time I walked away and nothing happened, I knew the thoughts were false and harmless. As the rituals slowly diminished, I gained control of the OCD. That early intense therapeutic intervention is the main reason I’m doing so well today; I learned the tools that I use every day of my life.
With mental illness, the best defence is a good offence. After I finished my treatment in Vancouver, I moved back to Victoria and returned to university. I used my new skills to manage my OCD, and at UVic I got support from a doctor and peer counselling.
My symptoms abated, and here’s why: at school, I actually did something well. I felt successful, good about myself. As I felt better, my depression lessened. Since my depression ignites the OCD, my OCD symptoms diminished. And distracting myself with challenging work requiring mental focus kept my mind off the OCD treadmill. I graduated in the top 7%, earning a Bachelor of Science and three scholarships.
I’ve always been a rogue, a maverick—refusing to believe that I am ‘less than’ because I have a mental illness, and knowing that I have the same right as anyone to the good things in life. Years ago I decided that my mental health conditions, though they may have posed challenges, would never impose limits on me or my life. That mental “will” came from knowing that I was better than my illness and that I had skills and strengths despite my mental health challenges. I engaged in activities that helped me feel valuable—self-esteem building courses, volunteer work, making friends, art and writing. As I felt stronger, I knew with more certainty that OCD and depression did not define who I was.
My recovery is always up and down, good days, bad days. In the winter of 2004/2005, my mood was very low. I felt worthless, with no motivation to do anything. But a free creative writing course being offered at a local newspaper sparked my excitement, so I pushed myself to sign up. That course turned into volunteer writing for the newspaper, a paid job at a magazine and a career in journalism and social media.
Tapping my creative side has facilitated and fuelled my recovery from mental illness. Writing gave me a voice and power when I felt I had neither. Since anger, pain and frustration inflame my anxiety, being able to express those feelings on paper—at a safe distance—gives me tremendous inner peace. Writing is my anti-anxiety drug.
When I engage my mind on creative outlets , I forget about my OCD and tap into the part of me that is healthy, productive and positive. This can apply to anyone, with any interest. It helps to get away from the illness sometimes and do whatever makes you feel good—perhaps walking, swimming, cooking. I think recovery is all about focusing on what you can do rather than on what you can’t do.
Using my lived experience to help others turned my pain into something positive and hopeful. In 2011 and 2012, I was a peer support worker with a local non-profit, being a supportive friend to clients with mental illness, and I gave community presentations about my recovery. I loved mentoring young people with psychoses in a 10-session workshop that I co-facilitated, Your Recovery Journey. In all these roles, my message was hopeful: recovery is possible.
With the youth, I encouraged them to focus on their strengths, what they did well, and how to take care of themselves to avoid relapse. The self-stigma about mental illness can limit people. So I helped the young people to see themselves in a new, positive light. This gave them more confidence and hope about their future. One young man said that I helped him see that recovery was possible, and he felt stronger about taking on new challenges. He now has a full-time job plus an exciting new business enterprise.
My illness peaked in 1983 when I was defenceless: stressed out and worn down from a bad relationship. Building my resilience back up was a big part of my recovery. For every person, that process will be different. But, basically, it’s simply doing what makes us feel good, valuable and important. For me, it was school and work, but for someone else it could be building friendships, getting fit or helping their neighbour next door. Taking caring of our health, getting support, eating well, being with people who treat us well—all of these things build our resilience and help us recover from mental illness. Medication is also a very effective tool in my wellness.
Nowadays, I am enjoying my own starry “Everest,” having climbed back up from the abyss. Who knows when I will scale the top, but I am miles above rock bottom. Years ago, OCD thoughts and rituals desecrated my life and my sanity 24/7. Now they affect a mere 20 minutes of my day at most. I have a good life, stable housing, work and friends. My goal is to teach Mental Health First Aid through the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Mental illness will never have the final say in my life; I will. To those of you who are discouraged: I offer you hope for the future!
About the authorDoreen raised a beautiful son, Stephen; was nominated for a 2006 Courage to Come Back Award; earned second place in creative non-fiction with the Victoria Writers’ Society contest in 2009; and attended the 2012 Together Against Stigma conference in Ottawa. She is a professional writer, photographer and social media manager