I want to thank the individuals who have come to me in the past couple of weeks seeking support and advice for loved ones struggling with mental illness. You reaching out to me has made me realize that there is immense benefit in sharing experiences and being open and honest. You've made me realize how silly it is to be quieted by fear - fear of being judged. This post is for you...
I don't think it's a secret that I've had my fair share of run-ins with mental illness. Ongoing run-ins I'll say. If you know me personally I might have had a brief moment of courage and chatted with you about it. If you read some of posts, bios and photo captions I allude to the struggle openly at times.
I've called it the struggle for years - never actually saying the words. For the purpose of this first post I think I'll call it that - the struggle.
I've gone through life periods where I've become very open about my experiences and conversely times when I've shut down and shut-up completely. Admittedly, moving out west was one of those shut down and shut-up times. And you know what? It made things worse. I moved out west and thought I could start over - start fresh as someone without a mental illness. But moving out west only gave the disorder a change of scenery. And when I stopped talking about what I was going through I became a lone soldier. And it's really, really, really hard to wage a war in solitude.
Here's the thing - secrets make and keep you sick.
Although I haven't got to the point where I'm completely ok opening up about everything (I feel that day nearing), I feel a need to let others know that I've experienced mental illness first hand and that I'm here to listen, talk, help and provide support in whatever way I can whether that be through yoga, meditation, recreation therapy, outdoor therapy, writing or just sitting down and talking over a cup of coffee.
Put simply, I get what it feels like to struggle with mental health and I'm realizing that the only thing keeping me quiet is the fear of being judged.
I say that and realize it's ridiculous. If people are judging me for being open and honest about reality then they aren't people I need in my life. And if I let fear run the show I will never experience full recovery because I'll be living in an illusory world of secrets forever.
So, this is my first step in becoming fully and completely open. Saying the words, I struggle with mental illness.
And saying that is all I've got in me for right now.
But I needed to say that in order to talk about the presentation I had the honour of giving last week...
In December of 2016 I had a moment of sheer anger at the struggle, at the disorder. It was becoming relentless and foreshadowing of relapse. I got so damn angry at it for sneaking back into my life and at me for letting it sneak back in. I received a call for presentations from my national professional organization, the Canadian Therapeutic Recreation Association. CTRA was accepting presentation proposals for the upcoming national conference in Kelowna, BC. In what felt like a whirlwind of brainstorming, linking and typing I submitted a proposal based on ongoing research I had been doing on the connection between leisure identity and eating disorders. To my surprise it was accepted. And I went back and forth, back and forth about whether I wanted to actually go and present.
But the decision had been made and I knew it was something I had to follow through with. I needed to go to Kelowna in May and share my story, my theory of connection, and my evidence-based research with therapists from Canada, USA and Australia. I needed to go and use the first-hand knowledge I had, combined with the first-hand knowledge of other individuals facing mental illness for benefit. I wanted to offer first-hand insight in an attempt to help therapists provide increasingly effective intervention for clients diagnosed with mental health issues. And my BIG hope is that eventually the profession will be focused on preventative therapy as opposed to interventional therapy.
I believe that mental illness (no matter the mental illness) uses symptoms as a means to cope with distressing emotions and experiences, just as we use leisure to cope with distressing emotions and experiences. And I believe all this spawns from a differentiation between artificial happiness and authentic happiness (a 90 minute introductory presentation condensed into one sentence haha).
I had 26 pages of presentation writing and I looked at the pages maybe five times for the purpose of citing statistics. I just started talking, relaying my theory, answering questions and being me.
And it felt good. It felt so good.
It felt good to be totally open about my life. And to not only be accepted and embraced but to be viewed as an opportunity for advancement in professional practice.
I felt hopeful. Hopeful for my recovery and for the recovery of my peers. Hopeful for the implications and applications that first-hand insight might offer mental health care. Hopeful about continuing to give fight stigma.
I sit here now in Lac La Biche ready to take the next step. Ready to work towards becoming open and honest about my life - about who I am. I want to help those families who came to me expressing the need for support. I think I'm ready to use my voice. And maybe be a voice for those who aren't yet ready to use their voice. I've found some ways to cope with disordered thoughts, feelings and behaviours - yoga, meditation, pranayama, nature, paddling, hiking, camping, writing. I've found some peace and solace in identifying my vision of authentic happiness and developing my leisure identity as a means of moving towards that vision. And I want to put a focus on helping others identify with their leisure interests as a means to cope with stress, tension and disordered thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Secrets make and keep you sick.
Break the silence.
I won't say it's easy. But I know in my heart that it will be worth it.
I look to the future excited about what this openness can and will warrant. With the weight of the secret coming off of my shoulders I can support in a way that is honest, integral and hopefully warranting of forward movement.
The honest learnings and raw reflections of my practice and my life. Unedited.