Recently, I’ve been sitting down with a lot of strangers to hear their “mental health” stories. It’s been really eye-opening because I’ve gotten to listen to first-hand perspectives that are drastically different than mine. It’s kind of like sitting in a support group except it’s just a one-on-one peer encounter. Why did I decide to do this? Sometimes, when living with a mental illness, you can feel quite isolated. My depression often consumes me to the point where it is all I can think about. I needed to get out of my head and hear about other people’s experiences. As a mental health advocate, I need to understand how it impacts people beyond the scope of my own illness. And I think it starts with talking to people. I could read about it online and I do – daily – but I think that nothing replaces the physical connection of a face-to-face conversation.
A few weeks ago, I met Hannah (not her real name) at a local coffee shop in downtown Toronto called Cafe M. Her story was very compelling and just so completely different from my own. While we both have experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety (she is diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder), our life circumstances are like night and day. Why do I make that distinction? Because it’s important to realize that mental illness affects so many people and does not discriminate based on anything – gender, age, race, income, sexuality or a number of other factors.
Growing up, Hannah was always a really anxious kid. She couldn’t go to school on many occasions and would often throw up in the morning. She used to have a lot of panic attacks constantly – all day, every day, almost every 2-3 hours. Her family is very religious. Her grandfather told her she was possessed. Thankfully a teacher helped Hannah out and took her to the hospital who helped clarify the symptoms.
Both of her parents were addicts, which made things difficult. Her Dad left when Hannah was ten years old, triggering her depression. It worsened for years, until the age of 15 years old. At that time, her boyfriend was the first person to point out that something was wrong and told her that she should get help.
Hannah’s family was not very accepting of mental health. They thought that she should just “get over it” or that mental illness happens because the person “deserves” it. Needless to say, they were not supportive of getting help. Hannah was under their insurance and her mother wouldn’t let her get the medications she was prescribed. The environment was so toxic that Hannah left when she was 16 years old. She was homeless for two years, staying with friends, boyfriends, sometimes in shelters. Her sister was still at home and Hannah worked while going to school full-time to ensure her sister was getting enough to eat.During this time, Hannah experienced her first sexual assault. She didn’t tell anyone because she thought it was what she deserved in life. She was also physically abused in her first relationship, which contributed to her mental health issues.
Hannah thought that the only way to get out of her situation was to go to school. She worked hard and got a scholarship and went to Queen’s to pursue an undergraduate in psychology. During her studies, Hannah was able to get treatment and see a doctor. They found a medication that worked for her depression and anxiety. “It was strange – I’d never felt okay so I didn’t know how to feel okay. I thought something was wrong with me because I never knew what it felt like to be free of depression and anxiety symptoms.”
At school, everyone she met had a lot of money and came from really nice families. For four years, Hannah pushed everything away. She made a bunch of friends that didn’t know anything about her. She pretended that she came from a great family and that she was the same as all of them. Her mental illnesses were never discussed.
In her last year, she developed a chronic illness and couldn’t take care of herself in the same ways that she had been. Hannah’s life fell apart. She lost a lot of friends because they saw a side of her that, according to Hannah, they didn’t like. Hannah felt like her life was ruined and that she had to pretend to be someone else and ignore her mental illness for anyone to care about her.
Luckily, she had recently started dating her boyfriend (now husband), who provided her with support. He was the first person that she had met that Hannah felt comfortable talking to. She told him everything about her illness and her past.
Somehow, Hannah managed to get through the year and graduated. She didn’t have any money and was having trouble finding a job, so she decided to go back to school and continue her studies. She went into child and youth work. Meanwhile, Hannah was in therapy and was able to finally express herself and be honest about her life and her trauma. She made a lot of progress.
Hannah wanted to work in sexual assault counselling, especially since she had been sexually assaulted again in university by a classmate at the end of a date, which had triggered her depression and anxiety. She said that the first sexual assault, from her first boyfriend, had really impacted her because she thought that was just the way relationships were. It was harder for her because it was someone she cared about and trusted, whereas she didn’t have a relationship with this classmate.
She worked for about 3 years at one organization that focused on supporting people who had been sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, the place where she worked wasn’t good at taking care of its employees. They were on call often 24 hours a day and there were so many people in need that she couldn’t help all of them. Hannah started having nightmares about what was happening to the women and not being able to help them. Eventually, it got so bad that Hannah walked in one day and quit. Unfortunately, she did this without getting to say goodbye to her clients. She still feels really guilty about this. She feels like she abandoned them like everyone else in their lives did and that feels she ruined their lives. Hannah heard from old co-workers that some of the clients didn’t come back to the organization after she left.
After leaving the organization, Hannah took some time off to figure out what she wanted to do with her life and worked on herself. She decided on a new direction and applied to study at the University of Toronto to complete a Master’s degree. At the time we spoke, she told me that her depression and anxiety were particularly bad. They often get worse in the winter. She also struggles financially with her husband and worries constantly about being on the streets again. She always needs to makes sure there is money for rent.
She feels very lucky though – she has a great support system. It is hard because Hannah moves around a lot – so a lot of her friends are very scattered and all over the place. It’s hard to reach out to someone when they aren’t physically there. There are not very many people in Toronto that she can trust. She is working on being able to trust new people with her story.
Hannah is married to her husband, Patrick, who she has been with for 6 years. He is really good at understanding that he can’t fix things. He allows her to decide what she needs and gives it to her. Whether that means letting her vent or be silent, or even if that means giving her space and leaving her alone for a bit. He does not focus on what he thinks is best. Patrick will also take care of the house and cook and make sure things get done if she doesn’t have the ability to do it.
I asked Hannah to describe her depression, to help paint a picture for those of you reading it who have never experienced it. Or to help provide a way for those of you WITH depression to express herself. Her response? “Depression is like feeling that I am totally empty. Every part of what makes me me is gone. I am just an empty shell of flesh. I don’t want to be a person, I don’t want to be here. I don’t feel like I am. I’m a walking zombie. My limbs feel like they are filled with lead. There is no point in anything.”
Hannah confessed to me that she had tried to commit suicide twice in the years before she met her husband. Patrick is what keeps her going. She said she wouldn’t want to commit suicide because she doesn’t want him to live with the fall-out and the emotional impact.
” I feels guilty being depressed because I am so lucky in so many ways. I have a husband who I love, a job, I’m going to school, I have enough money to eat, a place to live. but I still feel like shit.”
Although her depression and anxiety is currently quite severe, Hannah has been doing a lot to try to improve her mental health. She has been working on building a better relationship with her family. She is learning how to meditate and calm herself down and breathe. While Hannah used to be unable to go anywhere alone at night, she is doing a lot better now and feels more comfortable alone. I asked her what she does to take care of herself. Although she has a hard time saying no to people, she tries not to over-extend herself. Hannah also makes sure to ask for time for herself, for time alone, as she is introverted and being with people takes a lot of energy. She was also prescribed medical marijuana for her nightmares and Hannah says it changed her life. Patrick also helps her eat healthy and makes sure she eats even if she doesn’t feel like it. And going to school makes her feel like she has a purpose
Why did she want to share her story? Because she hid it from people for so long – she just wants to get it out there. A big part of her recovery has been talking about it. She wants to be a part of helping people somehow. Maybe one person will read this and it will make them feel better to know they are not alone.
Thank you so much for reading Hannah’s story! Do you want to share your own experiences with mental illness or mental health issues? Please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss the opportunity for either an interview or for you to write a guest blog. And please show Hannah your support by commenting your thoughts below.