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When Being a Mental Health Advocate Made It Hard to Talk About My Bad Days

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For a few years, I have told the story of stopping a young man who almost ended his life at a subway station. It’s a story I hope shows people the power of safely talking to someone experiencing thoughts of suicide. But my retelling of that story has always been incomplete — editing the truth to be more comfortable for me to share and have a clearer message for me to communicate to whoever finds my writing.

The truth is — the day I stopped that man from ending his life was the same day I was planning to end my life in the same way. This might shock folks or leave them with questions. Namely, I had just come from sharing my story and the power of recovery with high school kids. I knew the resources, the doctors, and communities that could help me. How did it get so bad? I felt — and still feel — addicted to the idea of being “better.”

When I first stepped on stage at the University of Waterloo in 2010, I had no idea how much would change for me. That I would become a symbol of how possible recovery was. That I would be thrust into a world of mental health advocacy I was not prepared for. I portrayed myself as better and never looked back. I created a social media presence that made me seem solid in my recovery, and I let the media tell a similar story. I told a story that portrayed recovery as linear and glamourous. I quickly started to feel like a lair. That I was telling people recovery, happiness and a good life was possible even when I didn’t always believe it. I thought recovery only made sense as a linear path, and since my path wasn’t linear — something must be extra wrong with me.

Added to this was the pressure I felt working in advocacy every day. Too often, my story and my presence was used to raise money for an organization, while the organization was not willing to listen to my thoughts on how to change the mental health system for the better. As my speeches became more popular, I found myself sitting across tables from people who didn’t want to listen to me and seemed to be looking for any reason to discount me so they didn’t have to change. If I appeared too well — folks would say things like, “Oh, you are better now — why should we listen to you?” or “The person I care for with a mental illness will never be well — so we have to listen to my voice over yours.” If I appeared too unwell — folks would say things like, “Well, is it possible you are perceiving that incorrectly? You seem unwell.” I didn’t feel like there was a space for my perspective to be heard and appreciated while I also appeared to be unwell.

It seemed like people in the field didn’t think people with mental illness could have rational thoughts, when we totally can. All of this led to a perfect storm where I felt like I couldn’t reach out to get the help I needed, and my coping skills were failing me quickly. When I met that young man on the subway platform, helping him helped me realize it was important to get help again. More than that, I needed to approach my advocacy from a more real perspective. To let people know that the voices of those with mental illness are valid and matter regardless of what part of their journey they are on — and the rest of us need to listen and support the changes they want to make happen.

Today, I try to live an honest life. I talk about recovery as a lifelong journey with bumps in the road. I remind myself and my audiences that we have lived through so much, and we can get through whatever comes next. I have created a support group that wants to hear about my good and bad days — and will always lift up my voice. And this has made me a better, more approachable mental health advocate. Through my speeches and spoken word poetry, people have told me hearing that I still struggle sometimes gave them hope that they can kick butt while struggling, too. That, even if they never get rid of their mental illness, a supportive and happy life is possible for them.

I hope anyone reading this is inspired to share their good and bad days with their communities. That we continue to normalize nonlinear recovery so that people struggling out there know what’s happening to them is normal. To let them know that even if you still have bad days, your life is still worth living.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Originally published: December 29, 2016
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