End The Stigma: Siobhan's Story
Editor’s note: Trigger warnings for discussion of cutting, medication, and suicide.
I don’t remember exactly when or how my journey with mental illness started; it feels like I’ve been battling it my entire life. I once read in Letters from a Bipolar Mother:
“Bipolar robs you of that which is you. It can take from you the very core of your being and replace it with something that is completely opposite of who and what you truly are. Because my bipolar went untreated for so long, I spent many years looking in the mirror and seeing a person I did not recognize or understand. Not only did bipolar rob me of my sanity, but it robbed me of my ability to see beyond the space it dictated me to look. I no longer could tell reality from fantasy, and I walked in a world no longer my own.”
That quote captures how I felt throughout my battle and it reminds me of what world I fear today.
I was 12 or 13 years old the first time I cut my wrists. I can’t tell you the exact reason, but I know I was hurting and reaching out for someone to help me. My parents answered the best way they knew how: they put me in therapy with a child psychologist recommended by my family physician. She gave me worksheet after worksheet to complete focusing on appropriate responses to the situations around me, but I could ace every test in the book. On paper, I “improved” just enough each week that in a few short months she told my parents I was well enough to leave therapy.
At 16, I was feeling depressed again so I asked my family doctor to prescribe me an anti-depressant. Meant to improve my mood, this medication (Prozac) made me feel suicidal for the first time in my life, a feeling that led to extreme anxiety. To counteract that side effect, my doctor prescribed me clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, to take as needed. I went through high school taking these medications on and off as I saw fit, always toeing the line to do well enough in school so no one would know I was struggling with mental illness.
Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I can now easily identify my past behavior and poor decisions as the first signs of what was going to be a truly bumpy ride. When I left my small, suburban Nova Scotia home for university, I was convinced it was that environment and the people there, including my family, causing all my problems. I was headed to the big city of Montreal, ready to conquer the world, and nothing at all was going to stop me. Finally, I would be free of this anxiety and depression. I didn’t believe it could be caused by something inside me, and instead blamed it on my circumstances.
Of course, I know now this wasn’t the case. A change of scenery did nothing to quell my depression, and I began what can only be described as a dangerous journey into high risk behaviors that had the potential to ruin my life. Despite trying five other medications for depression and a few more for anxiety, I eventually reached a breaking point.
I first realized that something was seriously wrong in April of my third year. I was out with friends who were complaining about exams and I argued with them saying, “We’re lucky to have education! We’re lucky to even have clean drinking water! Exams are nothing; we should celebrate life!” One of my best friends turned to me at this point and said, “You know you won’t always feel like this, right?” This was a profound moment for me he may not even remember.
The next day, I saw my psychiatrist and she said, “Siobhan, I think you are having a hypomanic episode. I think you have bipolar.” My doctor immediately took me off the anti-depressants that could have swung me into this mania. Unfortunately, I was going home to Nova Scotia for the summer, where I had no psychiatrist. All I had was a note saying I had bipolar 2 rapid cycling and must be monitored. To say the mental health system in Nova Scotia is lacking is an understatement. I went months without being seen by public or private health care providers.
This lack of consistent support and understanding of my mental illness in Nova Scotia set the stage for a tailspin. One day that summer, I was out with friends and had been partying, so my parents picked me up and drove me home. That night, after fighting with them, I attempted suicide. I took all the drugs I could find in the house and got in the bathtub, planning to slit my wrists. Later my parents found me, razor blade in hand, passed out in the tub. They saved my life by calling 911 and getting me safely to the hospital.
The next day I awoke in the hospital with my wrists attached to the arms of the bed. After my psychiatric evaluation, the doctor agreed to let me go under my parents’ care. I told him, “If I want to kill myself, they can’t stop me.” They released me anyway. I think this experience was the turning point in my relationship with my parents. They realized I had a serious illness and they needed to support me and I realized I could no longer push them away or lie to them if I wanted to get better.
That September I went back to school. I was put on the right mood-stabilizing medication but it wasn’t an instant fix. I was still having suicidal thoughts and my boyfriend at the time, along with my roommates, had to watch me constantly. They ultimately had to contact my parents so they could come to Montreal for a mini intervention. After this, I stopped drinking for 30 days and began seeing a psychologist along with my psychiatrist. My world changed and, as my medication began to work, I felt like I had found myself.
I started picking up the pieces of my bi-polar episode then but, as I mentioned, not everyone understood. I could work to heal some of my relationships, and many of the people who helped me literally survive during that difficult time are my best friends to this day. Not only have my relationships been compromised, but to quote Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: “money spent while manic doesn't fit into the Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss. So, after mania, when most depressed, you're given excellent reason to be even more so.” This illness has been a hard journey and, four years later, I still fight it and the destruction it has left every day.
For me, finding the right medication in the right dosage combined with talk therapy was the answer. Despite being healthy, I still have a laundry list of fears that I think about often. If I am too happy or too sad, am I having a breakdown? Has my medication stopped working? Will I lose myself again? As I get older, I add more concerns onto the list. When will this medication stop working? Am I a capable partner for my husband, Matt? Should I be a mother if I have this illness? Will I pass this along to my children? These thoughts inevitably creep in and I have to remind myself not to live in ‘what ifs’ but just continue doing my best.
I can’t say I wish I didn’t have bipolar. This illness has shaped who I am today and I love who I am (most of the time). I’m working a steady, full-time job with a promising career ahead. I have a happy home life with Matt, who knows all about my illness, and our puppy, Anchor, on whom I can always count to lift my mood. I’ve never been closer with my family—I talk to my mom on the phone every day. I live thousands of miles away from my previous support system, but I’ve been diligently building a new support group in Calgary. And, most importantly, I’ve been open and honest with everyone in my support system by living my truth each day so they know how best to be there for me.
I have seen the stigma around mental health but I have also seen the love people around you are willing to give when they hear your story and know you need help – just like anybody in this life does.
- Siobhan Doherty
Siobhan Doherty is a staff member with UCalgary Development and Alumni Engagement. She is bravely sharing her story to help end the stigma around mental health in the UCalgary community and beyond. Thank you to Siobhan for helping reduce mental health stigma! Please note this is a personal story and does not reflect the views or opinions of the University of Calgary.
Interested in sharing your mental health story? Visit outrunthestigma.ca/shareyourstory to learn more about how you can share your experiences, and email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.