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My Personal Story with Mental Health
Red, harnesses, loud bangs, heights. These are my triggers, but they also are my saviours.
We have Churchill to thank for his reminder that "attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." So when I say my triggers are my saviours, you can be assured that's backed by a shift in attitude — a shift that was a decade in the making. The difference it took was a single moment in 2014 of red, harnesses, loud bangs and heights.
I remember that day as if it was yesterday. I could tell you where I was sitting, what I was wearing, what I ate for lunch, even the smell in the air on that cool September day, the first day of fall. I loved to sit against the windows in my office, taking in the daily progress the construction workers accomplished. My day was just wrapping up as I had an important event to attend that evening — my final night mentoring the women who were vying to become Miss Oktoberfest 2014 and take over my crown as Miss Oktoberfest for Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest. It was in that moment of waiting for my computer to shut down, my eyes drifting to look out the windows at the construction workers, that my life literally came crashing down in front of me.
He was 18, a recent high school graduate and working his first construction job to earn some money to pay for his big dreams at a big university. He was an athlete, a scholar, a cherished friend, brother and son, and had his whole life ahead of him. He had an infectious smile that went from ear to ear, and that smile hid his mental illness so well that no one knew he would step off the 23rd floor of the building I was working in and land right before my eyes on that first day of fall. I learned all of this during a counselling session where I sat down with the boy's mother and father. I met them and gave them my number as I fell into their arms during his visitation, saying how sorry I was that I couldn't call 911 faster or move my cement-filled legs fast enough to get to him, even though nothing would have helped. That session was the beginning of my healing, the beginning of the difference I was going to make in my attitude.
I had been a wreck in the months prior to that session, but it took the final words from the boy's mother to make that difference I needed. She said: "I am going to be an advocate for mental health and break the silence of stigma. I am going to break the silence so I can say that I at least saved one other mother the pain of losing their child. I just want to know I saved one." It was in that moment I knew she needed to hear that I was saved; her son's death saved me.
Seeing someone take their life due to mental illness broke and haunted me. It tore my mind, heart and stomach into a million pieces. It broke down the strength I had to hide the fact that I was dealing with mental illness myself for more than a decade. I spent my whole life trying to fit in and to be the best woman I could be in my community. Having a mental illness was not something I could have and I felt it definitely wasn't something that the shiny, diamond-filled crown I wore as Miss Oktoberfest 2013 could ever represent. I denied the fact I needed help, that I needed medication and that I needed counselling. I denied all of this because those things were an ugly, dirty, broken crown I wore that I didn't want anyone to see, and I denied it all because of the stigma surrounding mental health. But after I was broken, the only thing I could choose to do was pick up those million pieces, change my attitude and save myself so I could save others.
It's been almost five years since that day, and when I look back on who I was then and the decade of suffering before that, I almost can't tell who I was. I know that it took being a witness to what I saw to save me. Since 2014, I have spoken on more than two dozen occasions as an ambassador for children's mental health and the need for the stigma against mental illness, for all ages, to end. I share my story with anyone I can of suffering with depression so bad I never knew why I was crying, anxiety so crippling I couldn't function, an eating disorder so far gone I ended up in the hospital, and panic attacks so extreme I would nearly faint. I used my shiny, perfect crown as Miss Oktoberfest well after my reign to open doors so I could share how that ugly, dirty, broken crown made me who I was and who I am. I became Miss Oktoberfest, a university and college graduate, chair of various volunteer committees and an advocate for others with mental illnesses, all while struggling with mental illness. I accomplished so much by realizing that I am the one who can define mental illness; it does not define me.
As I live with mental illness, I will forever have my good and bad days, and the days that the colour red, harnesses, loud bangs and heights will set me off. But the journey into who I am today is invaluable. It's invaluable because I am able to show everyone, especially those who are still clouded by stigma, what a person with mental illness can accomplish and how much your attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
So, please shift your attitude. Make a big difference, end the stigma and let's talk.