Packing properly for your mental health journey
Reprinted from "Young People: Self-Injury" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (2), p. 11
When I was four, I had my first panic attack. I didn’t know it was a panic attack at the time. I remember sweating a lot, my vision blurring and sounds fading away; everything slowed down and then sped up. I remember wishing that other people would notice and do something to help.
Around 11, I cried myself to sleep for the first time. By the age of 14, I cried myself to sleep almost every night. I just thought it was something all kids did. By the time I was 16, I felt lost at sea and had difficulty finding reasons to live. It was then that I self-harmed for the first time—and it wasn’t the last.
Let’s backtrack a bit. My parents separated when I was a toddler, but they had an on-again, off-again relationship until they finally divorced when I was 10. During those years, there were a lot of fights. They would scream and cry and throw things at each other.
After they separated, my brother and I moved around a lot—between my mom’s many basement suites and my grandparents’ house (where my dad lived). We wanted to stay with our caretakers—in our family, our grandparents—but my mom was granted 60% parenting time. My brother and I were less than thrilled.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my mother. But as children, we wanted stability. Unfortunately, neither one of our parents could provide that.
My mother worked two jobs, she didn’t have a supportive family and she suffered from depression for much of my youth; only now can I understand that she was trying to be the best mother she could be. My dad wasn’t around very much. When he was, he played the role of “fun dad.” But as I got older, I started to feel angry when he didn’t show up to my hockey games or take us out for breakfast as he promised. When it came to my dad, I felt mostly disappointment.
Over time, my relationship with both my parents has improved. Luckily, I have a loving extended family who welcomed me into their home when life with my parents became too distressing. My aunt, my uncle and my grandparents held me when I needed to cry and laughed with me when my tears dried.
Understanding life as you grow is a complex process. As human beings, we need to share our experiences with each other—in our schools and in our communities—in order to help young people navigate difficult life transitions. I share these details about my childhood so you can understand how family dynamics played a role in my mental health. At the time, I didn’t have the tools to deal with the emotional challenges I faced. Having had to find my own way, I have resolved to talk about the importance of mental health with other young people; this article is a way to start that conversation.
Despite my parents’ difficult divorce, I didn’t experience real emotional challenges until Grade 7. From the outside, I was a happy-go-lucky girl. I had the best of friends and we would climb trees and adventure through made-up fantasy lands. I loved every minute of my time spent with friends.
Then, I would go home. Instantly, I would be hit with a wave of exhaustion, a wave that made me want to isolate myself, lock myself in my room. A wave that made me cry for hours on end.
No one in my school or my family had prepared me for this. Nothing added up. Why was I always so sad? Why did little things make me angry? Why wasn’t anything I did good enough?
I now understand that this was the start of my depression. Kids aren’t supposed to have those kinds of thoughts constantly on a daily basis. I want readers—especially youth readers—who recognize themselves in this story to know that these may be symptoms of mental illness and to seek help. I don’t want what happened to me next to happen to anyone else.
By Grade 10, I needed to cry at night in order to function the next day. I no longer felt like myself; I didn’t even know who “myself” was anymore. I started feeling uncontrollable anger, and my actions became unpredictable—even to me. At home, I would slam doors and yell at family members. At the hockey rink, my aggression grew and I began picking fights during games. I started drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
This inner battle carried on for another year. I suffered—the kind of pain you experience when everything inside of you feels like it’s dying, as though someone is stabbing your very soul, again and again and again. I felt heavy and slow. I lost sight of what was going on around me, why I was still alive. I stopped playing sports. I wasn’t participating in class. I barely ate any food, and I rarely spoke more than a few words to my family. I was utterly exhausted. Looking back, I can recognize my depression at its worst. I wish I could have labelled it at the time. Being able to name it might have helped.
One morning in Grade 11, after a particularly exhausting, restless night, I realized that I was beyond frustration, beyond anger. I was utterly broken. I needed to let my unbearable pain out. I grabbed the sharpest object beside me and started clawing at my wrist, sobbing, just so I no longer had to feel the pain inside my soul. It felt good to feel physical pain instead of emotional pain. It felt good to have control. At least, it did at the time—but only at the time. Within minutes I became fearful and I felt more defeated than ever.
The next few days are a blur. I remember feeling ashamed, worried that someone would notice the cuts on my wrist and ask me what was wrong. My friends and family saw I was not myself. Everyone was telling me to talk to the school counsellor, so I did.
When I walked into the counsellor’s office, she just let me cry. Then she told me something that saved my life: “You are not alone, Amrita. You will get through this and we will help you every step of the way.”
She immediately referred me to Children’s Hospital, where I was diagnosed with severe depression and generalized anxiety. I started antidepressants and began seeing a psychiatrist regularly. I can’t say things were easy. Suddenly everyone was concerned for my well-being and I was overwhelmed.
Committing to continuing therapy was a challenge—and it still is. I tried several therapists, and during that time my urges to self-harm grew stronger and my scars grew deeper. But finally finding the right therapist—having the right non-judgemental shoulder to lean on—has been one of the biggest keys to my recovery.
The Dialectal Behaviour Therapy Centre of Vancouver (the DBT Centre) has also been helpful. It taught me a range of coping strategies to manage anxiety and stress, including mindfulness techniques, skills for strengthening my interpersonal relationships and tips for regulating my emotions. Through practice, I have learned how to recognize when my behaviours aren’t justified, and I have the skills to change those behaviours. Because of this, I have been self-harm–free for more than one year.
I am forever grateful to my school counsellor. Since that day in her office, I have never felt alone. And I have made it my mission to encourage others in the same way she encouraged me. If you are in pain, there is always someone who will listen; you just have to find them. We are here for you.
I’m now in my third year of a university psychology program, with the hopes of one day being there for someone when they need it, just like my high school counsellor was there for me. Many wonderful people have given me guidance, support and shelter along the way. I still have bad days, and I still have urges to self-harm, but I have found alternative, healthier ways to cope with those urges. My mental health journey hasn’t been easy, and I know it hasn’t ended. But I’m better prepared for the trip, with a backpack full of tools to use whenever I need to care for myself in a compassionate, healthy way.
I encourage anyone who is struggling with an urge to self-harm to keep seeking support until you find it. If you don’t have family, friends or a school counsellor to talk to, the DBT Centre of Vancouver is a great place to start. Things may get tough, but there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel.
For more information on the DBT Centre of Vancouver and its dialectical behaviour therapy programs and other services for mental health issues, see www.dbtvancouver.com
About the author
Amrita is from Richmond, BC. She is nineteen years old and currently in her third year of a psychology undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia. She hopes that by sharing her story she can help encourage others to speak up about mental health