My journey of self-exploration
Reprinted from "Young People: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 11 (2), pp. 13-16
Grade 12 is a pivotal year, as students have to make decisions about what to do after high school, whether it be pursuing post-secondary education, searching for a job or travelling the world. I was overwhelmed with all these questions—and the significant life decision of leaving my parents' home.
For as long as I can remember, I was physically and verbally abused by both my parents. My sister, seven years younger, hasn't suffered abuse—I've concluded that my lifelong disability and health issues were at the root of how my parents treated me. BC Children's Hospital has almost been a second home to me, beginning with corneal transplant operations for a congenital blindness, which only resulted in some vision in my right eye.
Being in an East-Indian family, my disability was perceived as a stigma; my parents were ashamed. My parents have told me over and over what a burden I was and that I'd never be able to survive on my own. I was to blame for everything in their lives, and was struck physically multiple times a day in earlier years. "Go kill yourself." "If we'd known you'd be disabled we'd have given you up."
My home life was highly controlled. My parents decided what, when, how much and whether I ate food, and constantly invaded my privacy. I had some childhood friends next door, but otherwise was isolated at home. I felt suffocated and trapped.
When I was eight, I began to self-harm—picking at my skin, cutting myself. My parents saw this as my bid to get attention and get them in trouble. No one knew about the dissociation and suicidal thoughts that had also started.
When I was 10, I opened up about the abuse to my grade five teacher. This led to involvement by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD)—and several months of very unpleasant encounters that actually made the abuse, and my mental health, worse. The situation backlashed on me: my parents convinced MCFD that they were blameless and I was the problem. I ended up lying to get MCFD off my case, telling them the abuse had stopped when in fact it hadn't.
In East-Indian culture, there's a very strong element of 'what happens in the home should stay within the home.' Also, after that experience with MCFD intervention at age 10, I had difficulty trusting counsellors. I was convinced I'd be deemed the root of the problem if I shared my home situation with anyone else. As a result, I suffered in silence for years.
With the transition from elementary to secondary school, things felt a bit more open and free. I had my own cell phone, though my dad tried to monitor all my social media and phone calls. Becoming vested in extracurricular activities at school gave me an excuse to stay out of the house.
Being involved is one of my coping mechanisms. I belonged to social justice clubs and moved up the executive of Eyes of Hope, which raised funds for global humanitarian issues. Helping others made me feel good about myself.
The situation at home was still unbearable. Though the physical abuse now only happened periodically, I was like a toy car and my parents had the remote control.
I started to sense, however, that one day I'd be able to escape the prison I was living in and start a life of my own.
Finally getting the support I needed
When I was 15, a new physical challenge started—a condition that took a year and a half to be diagnosed as pseudotumour cerebri (PTC). As the name suggests, I have symptoms which mimic those that brain tumours cause. But there are no tumours and no evident cause for the build-up of spinal fluid that causes daily chronic headaches and requires a hospital procedure (lumbar puncture) every few months to relieve the pressure.
During a hospitalization for the still-mysterious neurological condition, I expressed that I didn't want to live and ended up spending five weeks in the psychiatric unit at BC Children's. I was diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants.
My life was transformed, however, when I was hospitalized again at 16 and finally revealed the abuse to my health care providers. (The PTC was diagnosed this time around.) At that point, MCFD re-entered my life. Also, my neurologist connected me with two incredible psychologists—a PhD candidate on practicum and her supervisor. If it weren't for their care and continuous support—in the hospital and well beyond—I wouldn't be alive right now. They prevented me from reaching rock bottom, advocated to get me what I needed, supported me through the MCFD process and helped me find my voice.
An MCFD counsellor convened monthly meetings with my parents. They met with the counsellor, while I was able to continue working with my psychologist, who sent reports to the MCFD counsellor.
My breakaway to TRU
At the age of 17 I made the tough decision to leave home. In September 2013, I moved from my hometown of Vancouver to Kamloops, a small city in the interior of BC, to begin my post-secondary career at Thompson Rivers University (TRU).
Why TRU? The University of Victoria (UVic) was my first choice, but I'd been accepted to TRU and Langara College in Vancouver and only wait-listed for UVic. I knew my parents would find a way to force me back home if I stayed in Vancouver, so TRU it was.
Before my move, I spent several months creating a transition plan with help from my psychologist (the practicum student was now my primary psychologist), medical team, MCFD and my supports at school. This helped me identify the changes I was going to face and what I had to do to prepare for dealing with these changes. The psychologist taught me healthy coping mechanisms that later helped me in processing my transition.
We discussed finances: tuition and living expenses; finding a job (I had held summer jobs) and balancing it with school work. We discussed my transition from the child health care system to the adult health care system, and connecting with a therapist in Kamloops to help me cope with my mental health challenges.
With that decision to go to TRU came many losses and changes. I left behind my younger sister, my friends from school and my network of support. In grade 12, I had taken part in the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre Youth Ambassador Program, which gives youth and young adults an opportunity to promote mental health and well-being. There I developed wonderful new friends and supports with other youth ambassadors and professional staff.
This transition was definitely a roller-coaster ride—nothing went according to my plan. I learned very quickly that we don't realize how tough a situation can be until we're in the midst of it, and that new barriers often arise that we were unaware of or didn't account for.
After about three weeks, repressed memories of trauma started to surface and recur as nightmares. I had thought that by physically escaping my parents and home I would be able to escape the abuse and trauma I'd grown up with. However, I came to realize that it isn't something I can 'escape,' as it's very much a part of my identity and why I'm the person I've become.
I struggled to take care of myself, and my self-esteem plummeted. I ate very little. My parents hadn't taught me anything about feeding myself, and though I knew what I was supposed to be doing, it didn't feel right—and I realized I'd always had a struggle with food issues. Anxiety about finances was another factor. My parents had agreed, in an MCFD meeting, to pay for tuition, residence and some daily living expenses, but I lived under an ongoing threat that they'd stop sending me money. I didn't spend money on food.
It took me almost two months to seek counselling help at TRU student services, and then I had difficulty connecting. I told the counsellor about the repressed memories, but not about my eating struggles. I felt very alone, as when I was 10 and MCFD sided with my parents. It was hard to start with a new therapist, as I'd been so close to my psychologist in Vancouver.
It was just very hard to express what was going on. Even with regular contact with my friends and supports in Vancouver, often via Facetime and Skype, I said nothing. I didn't want to burden them. I discovered how ingrained that parental voice was, telling me what a burden I was.
I was so overwhelmed that I didn't want to connect with others. But I forced myself to join the residence council, which met weekly, and eventually made a connection with my roommate that continues today.
In spite of all that, I liked the school. With a maximum of 30 students in a class, I got to know all my profs, and I surprised myself academically.
After an academically successful year at TRU, I was able to transfer to UVic, where I've completed my second undergraduate year studying psychology. I’ve been working part-time and full-time in the summer, so am now financially independent. And I'm sharing an apartment with a roommate.
Still, one of the roughest transitions has been trying to connect with a therapist who is able to help me with the significant life changes and memories of trauma that have surfaced. In particular, I've told a psychiatrist and two counsellors accessed through UVic student health services that I want to work on my disordered eating. However, my plea for help and request for a referral have been ignored.
This lack of response has discouraged me greatly. Is it due to misconceptions around eating disorders?—I'm not overly skinny and my level of awareness and strength often surprises the therapists I've worked with. Or perhaps it's a lack of education on their part? Whatever the case, I'm now too intimidated to put in a self-referral at an eating disorders clinic, because I'm afraid of being judged and invalidated yet again. Still, I remain optimistic that there's a therapist out there for me.
Where 'home' is
Home is in Vancouver, where I'm fortunate to be connected to many incredible champions in the mental health community and have many wonderful friends who remind me of my strengths. In Kamloops I felt very far away from my supports, but it's easier to travel back from Victoria.
I've had a continuing connection with the Kelty Centre. I've now been an ambassador for all three of their programs and am currently a mentor. Being involved with the Kelty Centre has opened many doors for me: I took part in panel discussions at the annual Summer Institute conference at UBC in August 2014 and the Balancing Our Minds Youth Summit at Rogers Arena earlier this year.
If it weren't for all the caring people in my life, I wouldn't have been able to find the courage to leave my abusive and toxic home environment. It was the toughest decision I've ever made, but one of the most rewarding, as I have found myself.
When I'm in Vancouver, I do stay with my family—I'm very close to my younger sister. But I think about it less and less as "home." And things have changed with my parents—they seem to have acknowledged that I've left home and now talk to me like I'm an adult.
I truly believe we play a role in shaping the outcome of what happens with our lives. I knew the distress from my transition to university, new cities and living independently would be temporary, and I've coped with the changes and challenges on a day-to-day basis—have even been off antidepressants for the past two years.
I now have goals, dreams and a 'bucket list' I want to achieve, including travelling the world with friends, writing a book to inspire youth and becoming a motivational speaker to educate and empower others.
Keep smiling and continue inspiring.
About the author
Jasmine, 20, is a passionate mental health advocate with lived experience of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, who is pursuing her undergraduate Psychology degree at the University of Victoria. She helps educate others about mental wellness as a volunteer with the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre and through her blog (jasminerakhra.wordpress.com)