After four years of rigid silence, I recently felt compelled to expose my deepest, darkest secret. It's the one thing about me that causes most people to respond with - at the very least - extreme awkwardness: mental illness.
Who am I? I have been happily married for more than a decade. I am close to my family and friends. My dream job on Bay Street suits my ultra-Type-A personality perfectly.
I knew very little about mental illness until it entered my life four years ago. My prior knowledge was limited to my experiences as a volunteer working with people living on the street. I have been attacked by a knife-wielding Vietnam veteran reliving the horrors of his captivity. I have knelt on a filthy floor cradling a dying homeless man, 30 years my senior, swallowing my tears as he called me "Mommy." He survived that suicide attempt.
I have also seen the other side in the crowds of people that form when there is a "personal injury situation" on the subway system. Some in the inconvenienced crowd inevitably believe the "jumper" was selfishly trying to disrupt the lives of as many people as possible while they took their own.
My clinical depression has plunged me down to the point where suicide wasn't an option or a release, but rather the simple tidying away of a body housing a mind already dead.
My family knows other dreadful things about my illness that I can't remember and they can't bear to share. There have been times so terrible that I can't even find the words to explain them to anyone.
Initially, I saw it all as a glitch in an otherwise great life - awful, but a temporary problem that would soon be cured. Early on, I berated myself for not curing myself through willpower. I was wrong on both counts. Willpower is irrelevant, and this disease is going to be part of my life forever.
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An experienced social worker once drew an analogy between two people - one suffering from cancer, the other from a severe mental illness. I protested against this comparison, believing cancer to be far more serious. She carried on regardless, noting that both illnesses can dominate and destroy the lives of patients and their families. Both can be fatal.
She also pointed out that a person suffering from cancer is (quite fairly) seen as brave, strong and deserving of immense sympathy. Numerous worthy fundraisers for all types of cancer raise money for research initiatives and to improve the lives of cancer sufferers, including building specialized facilities.
By contrast, mental illness is barely understood or acknowledged unless you or a loved one is affected. The mentally ill are often forced to hide their condition lest they be seen as pariahs.
Physical facilities for the mentally ill are woefully inadequate. Some emergency rooms have to hold desperate patients for days because there are simply too few beds for them in the psychiatric ward. I have a caring family to watch over me 24/7, so I wait for that bed from home.
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Unlike other diseases, you cannot directly diagnose the mentally ill through physical examinations, imaging techniques, blood tests or biopsies. It is understandable that many people would question the existence of an illness that cannot be "seen." These people are simply uninformed. If you are one of them, please reevaluate your views. Consider yourself lucky that mental illness has not affected your life.
Of course, mental illness is not the only dreadful disease out there. But I am no longer the same person I was before it entered my life. I now live from day to day, with wonderful moments and awful ones and endless medical appointments.
I live for the day when I can once again be a productive member of society, able to fully enjoy my time with my family, to travel, work and volunteer. I hope that mental illness will soon take its place among the illnesses that are widely understood, accepted and investigated.
Necessary efforts are starting to be undertaken publicly - for example, by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, some news agencies and now the Toronto Transit Commission, which is currently making long-term commitments to install safety barriers that prevent suicide, among other benefits.
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People with mental illness should no longer suffer untreated because they cannot or dare not admit that they need help. If you think you need help, get it. Now. And if one day you see someone you think may need help, offer it. They may say no, but you may save their life.
It is essential that the public recognize that mental illness is legitimate and treatable. The stigma of mental illness must be eliminated. I'm not alone. Others are suffering - young, old, rich, poor, struggling and successful. It strikes without logic and without mercy, at almost any age. The wall of fear and silence must crumble. Behind that wall, hundreds of thousands of Canadians wait silently.
L. Hill lives in Toronto.
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