A few years ago, I was extremely depressed and anxious. I wasn’t eating, I was having trouble getting out of bed, everything felt foggy and I felt hopeless and full of despair. I started looking for resources to help and discovered the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO) support groups. They were volunteer-led by peers with mental illness themselves. While I can’t attribute my entire recovery to the support groups, they played a crucial role in helping me survive that depressive episode. I met people who understood me and that was so validating and comforting.
Since then, I have enjoyed following the activities of the MDAO and seeing how they help people in the community. They have some very interesting programs, such as the Laughing Like Crazy stand-up comedy program and their W.R.A.P educational program. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the executive director, Ann-Marie. I was inspired by our conversation to figure out a way that I can make a difference and help them achieve their mission, even in a small way. I decided to ask the MDAO if I could speak to their volunteers and tell their story on my blog. I was introduced to an Italian man named Marcello and we had a lovely hour-long phone conversation about his experiences with the organization and mental illness in general.
Today, I’m here to tell you a little bit about his story.
Marcello is 56 years old and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19 years old. He was living in Rome, Italy at the time. He was experiencing depression that was concerning. It was hard to get out of bed. His parents tried to find resources and solutions. Marcello saw psychologists and psychiatrists and began to take lithium. He had a lot of difficulty in accepting his bipolar disorder, in part because there was a lot of stigma in Rome. Mental illness was not something you could talk about. Marcello worked for an airline for many years but at times, he had trouble working due to his illness. He often didn’t understand what he was going through and spent a lot of time hoping each depressive episode was the last. It was never the case. “When I was well, I spent a lot of time waiting for the next one. The episodes would often last two to three months.”
Despite his bipolar disorder, Marcello was still able to build a career, travelling all over the world until he came to Canada in 2005. He also was able to build a family with three kids. In 2006, he had a manic episode. Marcello went to the hospital for a few hours and got an increase in dosage of medication. In the following weeks, he met a psychiatrist that he has been seeing now for 9 years. Currently, he takes quite a cocktail of medication, about 4 or 5 different types and doesn’t have any side effects. “I don’t experience depression for long periods of time anymore. It doesn’t stop me from living. It is extremely difficult to find the right meds because everyone reacts differently. So I am very lucky.”
In our conversation, Marcello stated his belief that bipolar disorder is both caused by environmental and genetic factors. “We get triggered and we react excessively because it is in our behaviour. The recovery process should be about self-determination and ownership. We need to develop coping skills for triggers and work on our environment and the people we surround ourselves with.”
Naturally, our conversation flowed to his experiences with the MDAO. “My first time at MDAO was at a support group. I was going through a tough time because my daughter was showing symptoms of mental illness. She was cutting herself and ended up in the hospital. I wanted to do something and though it might help me to volunteer.”
Marcello has been volunteering for a short time with MDAO, since December 2016. He is training to provide one-on-one peer support. He is a co-facilitator of a drop-in group for people with bipolar disorder, and also has volunteered for the WARM line, a phone line that people can call where volunteers provide information about services and a listening ear. The people on the phone are in need of someone to speak to and he provides his lived experience to help them in getting through a difficult time. Marcello emphasized that the WARM line is not a distress line. If the situation is critical, they try to persuade person on the phone to call the distress centres or 911 in an emergency.
“The MDAO helps with self-recovery. It allows us to share our stories and learn how to protect ourselves. We can change our path and change our emotions. I’ve learned what hurts me and causes pain or anxiety. So now I am learning how to stop these triggers or delay their effects.”
Marcello emphasized his appreciation for the WARM line, which in particular has allowed him to listen to other people and open up for them a different perspective. “There is a moment in the call – when the person says thank you, you helped me a lot. It is extremely rewarding to know you are helpful, that you succeeded in transforming lives . You see the value of your life and experiences and existences. They are useful and important.”
At this point in our conversation, it appeared as if Marcello was starting to cry. His voice was warbling and he was sniffling a bit. It was heartbreaking but powerful. I was so proud of him for continuing to talk and share. As a final question, I asked him his personal thoughts about MDAO and the resources there. “The atmosphere at MDAO is beautiful – you feel protected by each other and like no one is going to hurt you. It is a special club for people that need peace.”
Have you ever volunteered for a mental health organization? Or do you have a personal mental illness story? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. If you live in Toronto, I recently created an interactive Google map and list of mental health resources that are available. Check it out!