CW: mental illness, suicide
In the Spring of 2010, after spending the previous years relocating from Ottawa to the UK to Vancouver, I settled in my birth town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had struggled a great deal with major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder in my late teens and early twenties, and was looking for a clean slate. I wanted to distance myself from the trauma of the past few years—two overdoses, three diagnoses, four different therapists, and five different medications.
I went off my mood stabilizer and antidepressants abruptly before my move to Halifax, thinking, youthfully, that this could be a fresh start for me. I was ready to put the Bad Stuff to bed. I thought a change of scenery and a change of attitude would do exactly that.
The discontinuation symptoms I experienced after I stopped taking my medications were initially subtle, but I began to show signs of major depression with psychotic features. It crept into my life silently and deliberately. There were worrying signs—paranoia and distrust, sleepless nights spent scratching my skin in fear of bugs that weren’t there, and a fervent belief in things that simply didn’t exist. I knew, in a way, that my thoughts weren’t “normal,” but a large part of me accepted them as truth.
While my peers were dating, going out, and completing master’s programs, I was slipping from reality. I curled up inside myself—that felt like the only place to go. I distanced myself from family and friends because I assumed my experiences would be too strange and scary for them. I carried a heaviness with me that I didn’t want to unload on anyone else.
This was certainly the most challenging period of my life. I felt profoundly alone and increasingly detached from the outside world. It was like I had suddenly found myself in a dark hole surrounded by my greatest fears. Climbing out took time, and intense care, and I’m still facing the impacts to this day.
Strangely enough, not all of these impacts are bad. Of course, this isn’t a “make lemonade out of lemons” situation. I wasn’t cured, and the healing hasn’t been linear. But I have grown, and I have been able to put my life into a clearer perspective.
Here are a few ways my experience with psychosis changed my outlook and approach to life.
It Taught Me Compassion
Our culture has, in recent years, become more accepting of illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Access to mental healthcare is clearly still an issue, but it appears we’ve come to a place where those who suffer can begin to express how they feel. And while this shows progress, we have yet to begin to end the stigma around less common, less “palatable” mental illnesses, like those featuring psychosis. Many of us do not have proximity to people who have experienced psychosis, and this makes it uncomfortable to discuss.
We tend to shy away from these types of mentally ill people because their conditions are harder to understand. There is a misconception that folks who experience hallucinations and delusions are dangerous. Statistically speaking, mental illness does not make someone more violent. In fact, those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
But because illnesses featuring psychosis are less common, less understood, and often portrayed negatively in the media, it’s far too easy to sweep them under the rug, to see them as problems without solutions, and to keep them at what is perceived to be a safe distance.
As someone who has been through major depression with psychotic features, I now have a clearer sense of how alienating and frightening it feels to be on the other side of it, and I feel an overwhelming amount of empathy for anyone who has experienced it.
We do humanity a huge injustice by believing people with psychosis have a brokenness that is beyond repair. We otherize them to justify their neglect, and this often intersects with issues of class and race—poverty plays a definitive role in one’s ability to access treatment for mental illness.
It Helped Me Redefine “Wellness” on My Own Terms
Before 2010, I was taught to believe that my health was entirely in my own hands, a clear representation of my personal choices. I believed that, to be well, I had to make every decision perfectly, that I had to prescribe to a very narrow and limited version of health.
This included trying to be as thin and conventionally fit as possible. I believed that foods were either “good” or “bad,” and that exercise was something I needed to do to compensate for what I ate. It was a hard way to live, and it certainly did not contribute to me achieving wellness.
After going through a major mental health crisis, I was able to acknowledge to myself and others that my mental illness is just as dire and life-altering as a physical illness. I’ve come away with a different perspective on health. I know now that health and wellness are very complex, and that no matter how hard I try, I may never be deemed healthy in the eyes of our oppressive culture.
That doesn’t make me any less worthy of care and love.
I’ve also learned that I have privileges and disadvantages when it comes to my health, and that, as a white person, I do not encounter the same medical biases as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.
Additionally, food and body movement are something to be celebrated and enjoyed, but not everyone has access to the same access to nutritionally dense foods or healthcare.
Essentially, there are many reasons why someone may not be able to achieve physical and mental health and wellness on society’s terms, and we should work towards a world that promotes healthy behaviors for everyone, not just a select few. We should also be keenly aware of the social determinants of health (including community, income, gender, and genetics) and the role they play in our overall wellness.
It Made Me More Fearful
Of course, the impacts of the years I spent struggling with major depression with psychotic features are not all positive, and I know sugarcoating my experience does a disservice to myself and others going through similar struggles.
The truth is, I am scared for my future. This is a fear I have to live with and work on daily. After experiencing several bouts of psychosis, I am now more likely to have them in the future, and I take this into consideration in a lot of aspects of my life. It affects the way I travel, the way I interact socially, and what medications I take. It contributes to a general sense of uneasiness around the rare but real possibility of me not having access to my medication at any given time, which could throw me back into a state of hallucinations and delusions.
Additionally, from 2011 to 2014, I struggled with an addiction to the sedating medications I was prescribed to help with the psychotic features present in my illness. This adds an additional layer of stress—I know I am predisposed to becoming dependent on certain medications, but at the same time, I also know being medicated is my best option against future major depressive episodes. Finding the right combination of treatment has been a lengthy and arduous process.
Psychosis was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through, so it is natural for that fear to linger. But accepting fear as a healthy emotion has helped me cope, it has helped me come to terms with my current reality and the uncertainty of the future. Committing to therapy and practicing mindfulness (i.e. living in and appreciating the moment for what it is), has been a vital part of my healing journey.
It Helped Me Prepare for a Global Crisis
2010 was the scariest year of my life, and on a personal level, 2020 did not compare. I indeed felt terrified in March of 2020, after having a respiratory infection for two months, not knowing what was going on with my body while entering this new phase of confusion and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
But I have been fortunate to live where I do, in Atlantic Canada, where we have, for a variety of reasons, comparatively low case numbers and deaths. One contributing factor was strict lockdowns and health measures. While these were difficult for everyone, I found the isolation easier to manage than what I experienced in the early 2010s.
In an article written by Jenna Birch for Health.com, neuroscientist and associate professor Jud Brewer talks about how isolation can lead to loneliness, which is “strongly associated with high blood pressure, sleep disturbances, immune stress responses, and declining cognition.” These are all things I went through at the peak of my psychosis journey.
When your mind is not working properly, when it is telling you lies, when it feels like you are at odds with your brain, nothing feels safe, nobody feels like a refuge. There is a lot of distrust. The way I was isolated during that time, when I felt truly and utterly alone, ultimately helped me appreciate my family and community a decade later during the ongoing pandemic.
This is not to say it has been easy, but it has certainly been easier than going it alone.
Shifting My Narrative
Coming out of a traumatic time period, there is often an expectation that you will learn and grow from it, which has indeed been my experience. This is not the experience of all people, and it’s important to acknowledge that I haven’t had a psychotic episode in seven years, and this plays a huge role in my perspective. Not everyone has this luxury. For some, it is an everyday struggle, and we need to be more present for these people, to fight for their rights to access safe housing and healthcare. They need to be treated in the fullness of their own humanity.
I have a lot of anxiety about the future, but I also have a lot of hope. I think without hope, our modern struggles become insurmountable. Because of my unique circumstances, I feel fortunate and guilty at the same time—it’s an interesting blend of emotions like I’m stuck between two worlds: the status quo, and the frightening but eye-opening world of my depressive hallucinations and delusions.
What I do know is this: I can only take it day by day. The future is not guaranteed to me. But I can enjoy what I love—my family, my friends, the ocean, and creating things that help other people. All of this is available to me now, and I’m ready to hold onto it as tightly as possible. I’m ready to reframe and rebuild.