It’s not easy to describe the depression and anxiety that I suffer from to those who haven’t experienced something similar. Imagine every time of sadness, disappointment, worry, and fear that you have felt. Imagine every cruel insult that has come your way and every nasty thought you have had about yourself. Now imagine that this is all you feel, think and hear. All day. All night. Add a loss of interest in anything you once found fun. Add a loss of energy, when taking a shower seems like a climb up Mt. Everest. Add anxiety that takes away your dreams because you believe you can’t do anything and you don’t deserve dreams anyway. Why go back to school – you’re stupid. Why ask a girl out – who could ever love a pathetic lump like you?
In short: it sucks.
Living with this, it is little wonder that my emotions went numb for several years, simply in order to cope. It is also not surprising that the first emotions that came back when I started doing things again – like going to church, getting my high school equivalency, and visiting family – were sadness, fear, worry, and thoughts of self-harm. I was cruel to myself because at the time my voice was largely that of my mental illness. I had to journey through it, hard as it was. I had to struggle, rather than just suffer.
And then one day I felt a little tiny bit of contentment. I didn’t even know what it was at first. But once I recognised it, it was unbelievable. I felt okay! It might not seem like much, but ‘okay’ makes it a lot easier to reach for more positive emotions. ‘Okay’ gives them room to exist. Yes, it is still very easy for me return to my negative thoughts and patterns, because they have the power of habit. Even so, today I feel okay (or better) most of the time – though I still struggle.
The community at St. Mary’s University in Calgary has helped me greatly with this struggle. Depression and anxiety led me to self-condemnation; St. Mary’s helped me to practice self-mercy. Of course, I had been learning skills from other sources, such as therapists, books and people with similar experiences, not to mention the support and encouragement of my family. The things I learned from the professors, staff and my fellow students served to reinforce those positive skills that I had already been working on. It was at St. Mary’s that I could finally let in what I had heard many times, maybe because I was finally ready to hear it. I also heard and experienced some things that were new and surprising. Truly, I learned more at St. Mary’s than just the curriculum.
At St. Mary’s I had so many touching moments, profound moments, and moments of compassion that it is difficult to choose which to share here. I could write about Dr. Henderson’s phrase: “Do the best you can under the circumstances”, which now helps me be kinder to myself. I could talk about Dr. Duggan’s discussions about mindfulness, being aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings in a given moment, and how that fleshed out and beautifully complemented what I had learned in therapy. I could talk about one of my darker days and how Dr. Hopkins took the time to just listen, and then told me to hold on even though it was difficult and it hurt. I could write about how I came to Dr. Hyland-Russell in the midst of an anxiety attack, and she told me in no uncertain terms, “You can do this.” I may not be able to tell myself that yet, but I can tell myself that she said I can. Or I could write about Dr. Williams’ enthusiasm for literature. I swear every poem and story she teaches is her favourite, and the ideas that grew out of discussions in her class taught me that it is okay to follow your passion. As I went to her class and read the texts, I eventually recognised that I was enjoying myself. That enjoyment was a powerful anti-depressant.
I received another very important gift from my friends and fellow students in my English 401 class. As we worked on our final projects, we had to write short biographies about each other. To this end, we brain-stormed as a group, describing the qualities of each individual. When the focus turned to me, my classmates thanked me for the help I gave them throughout the course and said that I was intelligent, humble, approachable and caring. I almost cried, because the person they described ran so counter to the horrible vision I have of myself. The man they described is the kind of person I would like to be, and amazingly, according to my colleagues, I already am. I have since been using this massive wake-up call to challenge the negative self-image so prevalent in my thoughts. I am endlessly grateful to my classmates for that gift.
The St. Mary’s community gave me so much. I can only hope that I gave plenty of myself back. To those struggling or suffering I say this: a mental illness does not define you. Its voice does not have to be your voice. Who you are and who you will become is formed by how you choose to handle your challenges. And be kind to yourself. A baby step forward is still a step forward.