#notmymentalillness

18 Aug

I started this hashtag on twitter for people to talk about all the ways in which they are so much more than just their mental illness. Watching the responses pour in has been amazing and heartbreaking and I just have so much love for everyone brave enough to tweet about such a stigmatized issue.

Here are a few of my faves:

Please join in the conversation if you want to! But also much love to you if you don’t feel comfortable enough to do so. We see you, and we know how hard it is <3

art by Viki Bristowe

art by Viki Bristowe

Airing My Dirty Laundry

18 Aug

TW for talk of suicide

Since writing (or being featured in) a number of pieces recently about mental health this week – namely, this one about the challenges I face as a parent living with mental illness, and this one in The Star about the Mystery Room posters in the TTC – I’ve had a number of commenters asking why I’m choosing to “air my dirty laundry.” Why, they wonder, do I want to share such personal information on the internet? Don’t I value my privacy? Or am I just hungry for attention?

What these commenters are really asking is: why do you talk about things as shameful and embarrassing as depression, anxiety and suicide?

What these commenters are really saying is: the things that you have written here has made me uncomfortable, although I can’t quite articulate why.

What these commenters are really wondering is: how can she be mentally ill and look so normal – what separates her from me?

The answer to that last question is: nothing. Nothing separates me from you. I am a person who gets up every morning and goes to work. I have a family, including a son and a husband. I have a lot of amazing friends. I have a social life. I am funny and smart and will talk your ear off about anything from Star Trek to Frida Kahlo to why Amy March is the worst character in the history of ever. I can bake a decent loaf of bread. I like drawing funny pictures of animals wearing flower crowns. I’m a bit of a clothes-horse and I own way too many sundresses, which I can only wear for, like, two months of the year. I do a weird little shimmy-dance whenever I get excited about things.

Of course mental illness affects how I live my life, but I am not my mental illness. Living with depression and anxiety certainly presents its own unique challenges, but those challenges don’t define who I am. I kept reading comments from people who wondered why I’d chosen to have a biological child, given the risk of passing on my messed up genes. And I get what they’re saying, because the last thing I want is for my kid to suffer, but also the implications of that question are pretty fucked up. I mean, they’re basically saying that a life with mental illness isn’t a life worth living. But it is; I promise you that it is. As much as I’ve had moments of vicious anguish and misery, I’ve also had too many wonderful experiences to count. I’ve felt so much joy that my weepy little heart could burst. Living with depression doesn’t mean that I never feel the good things. I do. Even if they’re not what I usually write about, I really do.

If I were given the chance to go back and, knowing everything that I know now, decide whether or not I should be born, I would choose to be alive every damn time. 

Talking about mental health makes people uncomfortable. I get that. Plumbing the depths of tangled mess that is the human psyche can seem pretty terrifying; suicide, to anyone who’s never experienced suicidal feelings, seems utterly incomprehensible. We’re programmed to fear and hate suicide, because it goes against everything that we’re supposed to want – to propagate, to survive, to go on even against the toughest odds. We might even feel the same revulsion about suicide as we feel about murder, which makes sense – it’s the same act, really, just turned inward. Which somehow makes it even worse. And then there’s all the guilt that the surviving family members feel – wondering what they could or should have done, trying to quiet the little voice that says, “this is all your fault, you just weren’t enough.”

So we don’t want to talk about it. Which would be fine, except that we really need to talk about it.

The actual symptoms of any mental illness are bad enough, but they’re made much worse by the additional stigma and shame that people feel. If no one talks about this stuff, then it’s so much easier to believe that you’re a total freak who’s going through something that no one else has ever experienced. Part of why I write about mental health is that people often see themselves in my thoughts and feelings – I often receive messages from readers who have experienced this sort of shock of recognition. These people are always so goddamned grateful to know that it’s not just them, that they’re not out there doing it all on their own. So many of us are out there living with the same shit too, and a burden shared is made lighter, and misery loves company, and all those other obnoxious old platitudes.

Talking about mental illness – especially personal stories of mental illness – also makes it easier for people to reach out and get help. It’s one thing to publish a list of crisis lines – which, by the way, I have no problem with and I think is a totally valid response to something like Robin Williams’ suicide; absolutely no shade on the millions of folks acknowledging what happened by sharing that list – and quite another to say, “I’ve been there, I know how it feels, I’ve felt that way too. Let’s talk about the best way to help you feel better.” For many people with mental illness, talking about it is the first step they take to recovering. But they’re not going to talk about it if no one else talks about it, you know?

So I guess that’s why it doesn’t feel like talking about my mental health is tantamount to airing my dirty laundry. Instead, to extend the metaphor, it feels like I’m just hanging my regular old laundry out to dry. And I’m hanging it somewhere visible, like a laundry line strung up between two buildings or something. And everything – absolutely everything – that I wear is on that line. My cute little sundresses are there, as well as my jeans, my shorts, and a variety of tops. But my underwear is also hung up there – even the big old comfy granny panties – and my bras and thongs are there too, waving like flags in the wind. Because we all wear underwear. Everyone knows that people wear underwear. Everyone knows that underwear needs to be washed and dried before you wear it again. So why should it be embarrassing to hang it outside?

Everyone knows that mental illness exists; everyone knows the devastating effect that it can have, both on the people suffering from it and their friends and families. This is not new information – it’s something that we’ve known forever and ever. But the hush-hush way we’ve developed of discussing it and dealing with it clearly aren’t working. So let’s finally start talking about it, because that’s the only chance that we have of beating it.

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TTC Posters pt. II

16 Aug

Tonight I spoke on the phone with Joe Burton, the president of Mystery Room Ltd., and I was honestly blown away by our conversation. He apologized right away for the posters on the TTC, and said that while he hadn’t thought about the reaction that people living with mental illness might have to the idea of a “psych ward” escape room, he now totally understood how hurtful it could be.

I feel like it’s so rare for people to genuinely examine why something they’ve done or said is problematic and then offer an apology for it. Like, so damn rare. So I just want to take a minute to recognize how rad Joe Burton is. He is a real, honest-to-goodness solid human being. Thank you, Joe.

Here is the email he sent to the reporter from The Toronto Star, which I found really touching:

Thanks [redacted] for bringing this story to my attention.

I just want to let everyone know, particularly the lady in question, that it was not our intention to offend anybody with the theme name “Psychiatric Ward”.
 
We were looking for themes/names for our rooms based on pop culture and Hollywood movies (e.g. “Psycho Ward”, 2007).
However, after reading her blog, we can truly understand how someone with mental illness can be really hurt by such a portrayal.
 
We have renamed the room to “Haunted Hospital” and we will take the following additional actions…
1.We will contact the lady who wrote the blog to explain and apologize.
2.We will contact the TTC and ask them to change the posters.
Sincerely,
Joe Burton (President)
Mystery Room Ltd.

Ahhhhhh, I think my little heart might burst. It’s so lovely to have these occasional reminders of how amazing people can be.

Happy weekend, y’all.

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An Open Letter To The TTC – Please Remove These Posters

11 Aug

Dear Toronto Transit Commission,

I am writing with regards to the following poster found in some of your subway cars advertising “Mystery Room,” which is apparently a sort of spooky role-playing game where you have to escape scary situations.

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As you can see, some of the frightening scenarios that you can participate in include “Satan’s Lair,” prison, something called The Mummy’s Curse and a psychiatric ward. All of them are problematic in one way or another, but one of them hits particularly close to home for me.

I am writing this because I am a person who has spent time on a psychiatric ward – in fact, I’ve been a patient at multiple mental hospitals. The first time was when I was sixteen – I saw a clinical psychologist to help figure out what medication would best manage my depression. The second time was when I was twenty one and suicidal – that time I was admitted and spent the night in the hospital. Last year I went to the CAMH emergency room because, again, I was depressed, overwhelmed and suicidal. I was accepted into the cognitive behavioural therapy program there and spent several months completing that as an outpatient this year.

I am not scary. I am not violent. I am not a monster.

I am not some trope that should be used to scare people in a haunted house. I am a for-real person, who struggles daily with an illness that colours nearly every aspect of my life. The same goes for every other person living with mental illness. We’re not the punch line to your “crazy” joke. We’re people coping with very real, sometimes deadly illnesses and that alone is a hard enough row to hoe without tossing mental health stigma on top of everything else.

And that stigma is exactly what these posters perpetuate – both stigma against the mentally ill and stigma against psychiatric hospitals. It plays right into the old belief that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent, even though we’re far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators of it. It also makes psychiatric hospitals look like frightening, terrible places, which is pretty discouraging to someone who needs treatment for mental health stuff. Dealing with this shit is scary enough without advertising campaigns like this.

To make matters even worse, here’s what Mystery Room has to say about the mental hospital scenario on their website:

Ward 15 is the place the mentally disturbed were contained. Dr. Johansson had a passion for experimenting on the unanesthetised living. The patients grew mad, losing the ability to speak as their throats ruptured from constant screaming. These people now haunt the ward, seeking and exacting their revenge on unsuspecting victims. As you enter the ward, one thing is certain: it is going to take all of your knowledge and skill to get out alive.

That is actually a thing that has happened. I seriously cannot stress that enough – that is actually a thing that has happened to psychiatric patients in this country. In the 1950s, the CIA performed “mind control” experiments on patients at a Montreal mental hospital. Similar experiments were done in the United States. To make light of this type of violence inflicted against the mentally ill is beyond awful, and to turn it into a form of entertainment makes me pretty much choke up with rage. There are victims of these experiments who are still alive, and you’re advertising a game that makes a joke out of the horrific things they’ve experienced.

Look, Robin Williams died today of apparent suicide; according to his publicist he was “battling severe depression” in the time leading up to his death. My chest hurts for him and his family, and it’s hard not to think about all the other people whose illnesses have or might turn equally deadly. People with mental illnesses are failed by our society on a daily basis, and every time we let something like this Secret Room program pass without saying anything, we are failing the mentally ill even harder.

I’m asking you to please take down these posters. They are not appropriate for public transit, and they do not reflect the values of this city. We, as citizens of Toronto, deserve better than this.

Sincerely,

Anne Thériault

Anyone wishing to lodge a complaint about these posters can do so here.

P.S. here is a list of suicide crisis lines – if you are thinking of hurting yourself, please call someone

On This Day In History

7 Aug

It’s my birthday, y’all. I’m 32 today.

I had a personal essay go up on Jezebel today (trigger warning for talk of suicide)

I also had a serious scholarly article about Anne Boleyn go up on The Toast.

It’s been a big day.

We drove for three hours to see my grandmother in St-Bruno, then drove three hours back to Kingston, where we’re staying with my mom for the week. I only got to chill with my Nana for about two hours, but it was one hundred percent worth it because I get to see her once or twice a year tops. My Nana is a really rad lady, in case you were wondering.

She hates having her picture taken, but here’s an awesome picture of my grandfather I found while I was there:

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Also this is how big the fucking hedge is in my grandmother’s backyard (Theo pictured for scale), so whenever I’m there I feel like I’m chilling in a fairytale forest, which is obviously something I’m into.

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I love that stupid hedge an unreasonable amount. I used to play hide and seek in there with my cousins when I was a kid. Also we turned part of it into a fort where we did secret things. And by secret things I mean played house.

We made it back to Kingston by early evening, and I paid my yearly tribute to Hiroshima. They hold a Peace Lantern ceremony here in one of the parks downtown, and the ritual of making lanterns, folding cranes and singing Pete Seeger songs has become an important part of my birthday. It’s kind of weird to feel so tied to this horrible event that happened decades before I was born, but I’m also weirdly thankful for the moments of sad remembrance on what is otherwise a happy day. The bombing of Hiroshima feels like a part of who I am, in a way that I can’t really properly articulate.

Anyway.

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Making lanterns with Theo

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The boy beside us, Yuto, made the lantern below. As you can see, there’s Pikachu and also an illustration of the bombing of Hiroshima. He was adorable and a great artist. I think that placing these two scenes side by side really makes a statement.

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Making paper cranes:

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My crane:

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The lantern procession:

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Getting ready to float them out on the water:

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Perfect.

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This birthday was one of the good ones.

“You Know I Love You A Lot Too Even If I Sometimes Get Impatient”

4 Aug

I am a person who needs constant reassurance that other people love and value me.

And when I say constant, I mean fucking constant.

Like, in a perfect world, every morning and evening all of my friends would fill out a survey detailing how they felt about me. In this document they would remind me of the fact that they loved me, and let me know what my areas of improvement were, so that I could fix any little issues before they blew up. Or if, for whatever reason, I couldn’t fix them, I would, at the very least, not feel blindsided by any big conflict that they might bloom into. I could plan ahead how I would react, the pithy things I would say and the brilliant retorts I would make. I wouldn’t melt into a sobbing, gibbering mess, the way I usually do.

The way I always do.

I found an old notebook of mine in my mother’s basement today. It was from the first grade and was supposed to be a sort of journal, a place where I would write little stories or comments to my teacher every Monday, and she would answer back. A lot of the stuff that I wrote is pretty funny, and probably fairly typical for a six year old.

Stuff like:

“On Sunday we went to Debbie and Dwight’s farm and I saw a lot of sheep. They separated the mothers and the fathers and the babies. And I saw BC, their cat.”

“I have a loose tooth. Next week I will go to the dentist.”

“Today I will go to Brownies. It’s where I go to learn how to jump rope and be nice.”

“Last night I went to bed at 8:20.”

Pretty average, I guess. Except for the fact that tacked on to the end of nearly every other “entry” is a note that says, “I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted a dog but she lived all by herself and didn’t have any money. One day she found a dog. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“Last night we went out for dinner. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I would like to switch seats please, Madame Renée. Have you corrected my recherche yet? Goodbye, Madame Renée. I love you, Madame Renée.”

“I don’t know what to write. I love you, Madame Renée.”

At first, reading back through all this stuff, I had a hard time figuring out what my angle was. Had I really been such a suck-up back then? That didn’t sound like me but hey, I guess a person can change a lot in twenty six years.

Then I realized why I kept writing “I love you” – because every single time I did so, she would write “I love you, too.” It was a way of checking in, a way of making sure that we were still cool. It was especially a way of making sure that I hadn’t angered or frustrated her past the point of no return, which was and is a thing that I’ve worried about doing to my friends and family for as long as I can remember.

Finally, there’s an entry towards the end of the notebook that says simply, “I love you, Renée,” and then is followed by a lower case alphabet in cursive writing.

My teacher’s reply is something that I would imagine a lot of people who know me even now would like to say to me:

“You know that I love you a lot too, even if I get impatient sometimes.”

I have a hard time understanding that I can still have conflict with people that I love. In my head, it seems so black and white: either you love me or you don’t. And if you’re angry at me, or frustrated with me, or hurt by something that I’ve done, then you don’t love me. And if you don’t love me, it’s almost certainly because of something I’ve done, some way in which I’ve fucked up. If you don’t love me, I probably deserve it.

And so I melt down into that sobbing, gibbering mess and feel like I can’t breathe and feel like the world is ending and feel like I am not worthy of anyone’s love. Like it’s somehow just a weird trick of fate that I have a husband and a son and lots and lots of friends. I feel as if when I have any kind of conflict with someone, it’s because they’re finally seeing the real me, the bad me, and now that the jig is up they’ll never love me again.

I do a lot of stupid little things to try to help shield people from seeing the true, terrible version of myself that I try so hard to keep hidden. I buy people a lot of little presents, as if these objects might work like some kind of charm to keep them from leaving me. I go out of my way to do thoughtful things, so that I might be seen as a thoughtful person. I avoid doing things for myself unless I think that I truly “deserve” it, so that people will believe that I’m a martyr instead of a monster. None of this is logical. None of this is sustainable. And, finally, none of this is actually useful in the long-term.

I need to learn how to manage conflict without resorting to, “you’re right, everything is my fault and it’s no wonder you hate me.” I need to start believing that people love me and want to be around me because I’m smart and funny and interesting, not because I buy them shit and solve all their problems. Most of all, though, I need to remember that my friends and family love me a lot, even if they sometimes get impatient with me. Because that is how relationships work – you have conflict, and you work through it, and then it’s even stronger than ever. No friendship will ever be conflict-free – and if it is, that probably means that something is seriously wrong.

So hey, six-year-old me, I’m sorry I still haven’t figured this shit out yet. But I want you to know that I see you, and I know how you feel, and I’m still trying. And I’m going to keep trying. So please hold on and don’t give up hope. I got this.

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CANADA: LAND OF MISANDRY? NOT ANYMORE

28 Jul

I think that we can all agree that the main problem with Canadian history is that men are just way too underrepresented. Take our money, for example. I mean, the queen is on all of our coins! What kind of misandry is this? Sure the five dollar bill boasts our old pal Wilfred Laurier, and the ten dollar bill shows everyone’s favourite confederation-loving racist Sir John A. Macdonald, and the fifty dollar bill has séance-holder and dog enthusiast William Lyon Mackenzie King and yeah, fine, the hundred dollar bill is devoted to Nova Scotia’s good ole boy Sir Robert Borden, but I mean, come on. Queen Elizabeth II graces all of our coins and our twenty dollar bill. Every time you open your wallet it’s just ladies ladies everywhere and nary a dick in sight*.

If you’re not seeing the feminist conspiracy that’s clearly at play here, then you must have taken the blue pill and I hope your happy living in your fantasy world where you think women aren’t angling for world domination. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be out here fighting the good fight for all those poor, ignored white men of history.

Thankfully, those of us with even just an ounce of good sense can count ourselves lucky to have Lord and Saviour of Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper on our side. I mean, here’s a guy whose political party is fighting for rights of oppressed white dudes everywhere. After his disappointing failure to ban abortion in our fair country – though fear not, beloved reader, he’s doing his best to make accessing abortions as difficult as possible! – he has now set his sights on a new and very worthy enterprise: getting all the ladies off of our money.

Obviously it would be silly to start by taking the queen off of our money. For one thing, she’ll be dead soon and then it’s kings ahoy for at least the next century. For another, if Harper did that he wouldn’t be invited to any more royal garden parties, and if there is one thing Stephen Harper loves, it’s garden parties. Full of white people. Who speak English. Preferably with a refined accent. He’s also a big fan of those little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

With that in mind, Harper began his de-ladyfying of the Canadian currency back in 2012 by removing the Famous Five and an image of the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award from the fifty dollar bill. The Famous Five, for you lucky few not in the know – how nice it must be to live in ignorance of Canada’s deplorably lady-infested past! – were Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Edwards, the five women foolish enough to ask if the word “persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act included female persons. Which of course was a trick question because we all know that there’s no such thing as a female person – just male persons and hysterical, irrational women.

Thérèse Casgrain, bless her unreasonable little female heart, came a bit later than the Famous Five and was one of those pesky suffragettes. You know, those women who thought that female-persons (OXYMORON) should be allowed to have a say in who was running the country. As if men weren’t capable of making that decision by themselves! She also went on to do many unfeminine things such as being made an Officer of the Order of Canada and becoming a senator. No wonder so many fatherless teenagers are getting pregnant and shooting innocent white people.

Pierre Trudeau, noted socialist and French-speaking person, created the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award in 1982 as a way of honouring Canadians who deserve recognition for doing things for free (which is the opposite of capitalism). Note that Trudeau and Casgrain are both from Québec – I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from that fact, but with mention that you can totally anagram “separatism” into “parasites m” (the M is for Murder All The Anglophones). I think it’s pretty clear to everyone here that this award was all some sort of front for the FLQ, who are probably bombing your staunch anglo mailbox as we speak.

Thankfully for all of us true, red-blooded (BUT WHITE-SKINNED, AMIRITE FOLKS?) Canadians, it has recently come to light that Stephen Harper put a stop to all those Thérèse Casgrain shenanigans back in 2010. In lieu of that stinky french commie award, he created a Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award to be awarded instead, with a picture of the prime minister’s banner on it. I MEAN IS THAT CANADIAN OR WHAT. BEAVERS AND MAPLE LEAFS FUCK YEAH. I’M GONNA GO DO A LINE OF TIMBITS TO CELEBRATE.

I would suggest that all of us loyal (white) Canadians should kneel by our bed and offer a prayer of thanks to Jesus (also white) that we live in this wonderful country that works so hard to erase the memory of any and all women who might ever have done anything of note.

Thank you, Stephen Harper. Thank you.

Amen.

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*Not all men have penises and not all women have vaginas, but as far as I know QEII has a very royal vagina and all of the men on Canadian money were happily be-penised.

 

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