Who am I and why would you want to read my blog? I’m no one extraordinary – a single mother of two young adult sons; a middle aged woman with a successful career; a voracious reader and so-so housekeeper. I’m also someone who kept her mental illness and addiction a secret for many years. In my life, I have been an unwilling passenger on the roller coaster of depression: the low lows, the trip to the doctor’s office, the medication, the belief that I was ‘well’ and no longer needed anti-depressants (stopping sometimes with and often without my doctor’s knowledge), and the inevitable downward spiral.
At my worst, I lost interest in everything that brought me joy. I became panicked at even the thought of having to meet with people at work or socially, would bolt from wherever I was and eventually take to my bed. I told everyone that my Crohn’s disease was in flare-up; which was so much easier than admitting to myself or others that I was dealing with a mental illness.
In the Fall of 2007 I heard Margaret Trudeau speak about her mental health struggles. Her story resonated with me, and after so many year of denial, I realized depression wasn’t a temporary state for me. I made changes in my home and work life. When my energy was low I reached out to my friends for support. I walked regularly, monitored my sleep patterns – neither too much nor too little – and tried to maintain a healthy balance of work and play. Then I took another step: I started to tell people that I lived with a mental illness.
I spoke about my challenges, and my recovery. Instead of the negative response that I had feared, I received words of encouragement, and many, many stories of family, friends, and people I knew who also lived with a mental illness. The conversations were heartbreaking, inspiring, and freeing. Sometimes people would say to me that I didn’t look like a depressed person; I told them I was a happy person, with a depressive disorder. I had several years of relative stability and perhaps even got a little cocky about my ability to manage my illness. Then, as happens in life, I hit my literal bump in the road.
In 2013 I found myself dealing with debilitating anxiety as a number of struggles took their toll on my mental and physical health. Perhaps the hardest of all to handle was helplessly watching my older son’s heartbreaking battle with his own mental health issues. Instead of using the coping strategies that I knew worked for me, I started to self-medicate with alcohol as a way to numb the pain and stop my racing thoughts. My new definition of work-life balance was doing both equally poorly and I was back on the roller coaster: alcohol dulled the anxiety, but it always returned tenfold the next day. In my moments of clarity, I would recognize the pattern, resolve to stop drinking. Then, the hamster on the wheel in my head would become too much, and only alcohol could put him to sleep for a few short hours.
I was deeply ashamed and while I continued to be open about my depression, my alcohol abuse was a brand new secret to keep. Sometimes blessings arrive in ugly brown paper wrapping: a car accident and arrest for DUI. There is nothing like being handcuffed in the back of a police car to provide complete clarity about how out of control your life has become. My salvation was two-fold: I did not hurt myself or anyone else and my hidden drinking was no longer ignorable. I was able to attend a day treatment program that focused on life skills and coping strategies. Almost a year later, I still attend their aftercare program where I note that many of the participants also have concurrent disorders.
Who am I? I am one of the ‘one in five’. I am passionate about the removal of stigma and helping others, but believe me when I say it is not all altruistic. Secrets make us sick and each time I tell my story, I remind myself that whenever I deny my illness, I open the door for depression and his close fiend alcoholism to silently creep back in and start to control my life. I hope that my story and blog will contribute to opening the dialogue towards removing stigma and shame that surrounds mental illness and addiction. I am grateful to Health Minds Canada for giving me this opportunity and would welcome any comments or feedback.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.