There But For The Grace of God Go I

This song, “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry & KD Lang  is appropriate for what I am about to say.

I can’t imagine one person who has heard about Robin Williams’ death who hasn’t been shocked and devastated. I am one of them. I have taken it hard.

As most of you know, I live with bi-polar illness. I was diagnosed when I was 20 years old. I ‘came out’ when I was 50 years old. It was too freakin’ scary to do it before then. It was terrifying even then. After all, I had a private psychotherapy practice, worked as a mental health worker in a group home and gave educational talks in corporations about mental health in the workplace sponsored by the Canadian Mental Health Association. How could I “come out of the closet” and expect my career to survive. How could “I” expect to survive?

I had just come out of a hospital after another clinical depression. The phones were ringing. People were wanting to come to my new workshops. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie any more. I couldn’t go back to pretending all was well with me when I had spent the last month in a psych ward.

Instead I wrote “Madness, Masks and Miracles” – (See link below)  a play about the dark night of the soul that everyone on earth experiences at least once in their life. I wrote about the masks we wear to disguise the pain…(who would ever have known of the unspeakable burden that Robin Williams was carrying?) Many of us have learned to have a public facade that can fool the masses. And finally, my play was about the Miracles, that allow us to take off our masks and be who we really are.

I am one of the lucky ones. I count my blessings. I have had numerous suicide attempts. I can’t describe to you or anyone what I have come to call, “the torture chamber of the mind”. Thank God, for the past 8 years I have been well. Really well.

I’ve had my moments of unrest, sadness, overwhelm. I have never even come close to having suicidal thoughts. I don’t believe I ever will again. The last attempt led me to a near death experience and I woke up in a state of grace and I have never looked back.

I am inspired right now to tell this story. A story I have NEVER told in public. The people close to me know it. I have always been too ashamed to tell it. Me – the one who ‘came out of the closet’ all those years ago standing on stage at the Vancouver Conference Centre in front of 400 doctors and mental health workers at the International World Assembly for Mental Health – a convention that happened to be in Vancouver when we just started staging the play. They heard of us. They asked us to perform it for them. It was the worst experience I have ever encountered. It was also the best experience as it allowed me to speak my truth – in spite of the terror of being criticized, ostracized, marginalized and hospitalized – one more time.

Then just 8 years ago – which also feels like light years ago – I ‘woke up’ in what I described earlier as a state of grace. But the story that preceded it was not pretty. Few people know about it. Today, I came to the computer to do something else. Instead my fingers are flying off the keyboard telling this story – one I was always too ashamed to tell.

Bi-Polar Illness and every other mental illness has many shapes and sizes. It is not a cookie cutter disease as some people may think. Oh, look, she’s really depressed. Oh look, she’s wildly out of control. There are so many layers. Oh so many! And the sufferer of these illnesses and their family, friends and caregivers suffer right along with them.

When I was a young girl, and up until recently, NO-ONE spoke about their mental illness especially in public. The stigma and shame was so unbearably powerful, no-one dared. Hey, I didn’t dare until I was 50! Today, and for several years now, public figures are talking freely about their diagnosis, their pain and suffering. It’s talked about more in the media now than ever – at least here in North America. Still, there is a long way to go. And it is people who do speak out that make it safe for others to do the same.

I have been speaking out for a long time now. It doesn’t mean I am comfortable about it. The fear of being judged is always there. Even a couple of weeks ago, I posted something on Facebook that referred to my mental health challenges. I got absolutely no response. A few days earlier I wrote a funny story about getting married and I got upwards of 80 likes and comments. Yet there were no comments when I mentioned my illness. I felt judged and ashamed and removed it from Facebook.

And here I am again coming out even more. Admitting my suicide attempts. Am I crazy to do this? Apparently I am crazy. Or am I not crazy? Am I wise or am I just a person who knows only too well, the dangers of secrets, denial, self-loathing and hiding in shame? Whatever I may be, all I know is that my fingers are flying off the keyboard and I know I am not manic. I am being propelled by an inner voice, an energy that says…. “ there is nothing to hide, Junie. You didn’t do anything wrong”. Funny how often I still think that.

In 2009 I was raced by ambulance to the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria with hardly a pulse. I swallowed over 100 prescribed pills. I did not intend to come back. I needed to get out of what I have called, ‘the torture chamber of my mind’ a relentless diatribe in my brain, obsessive, cruel, heart-crushing thoughts of guilt and suicidal idiation – and a body riddled with anxiety and a foreboding that never went away. Month after month after month, after month and  I couldn’t bear it any longer.

So I swallowed 100 pills. It was terrifying. I did not want to die. I love life – as strange as that may seem. I just wanted out of this body, this mind, this pain that wouldn’t go away … something that no-one could see because I have honed the disguise so well. I could even go to work. I could even hear and respond to people in a way that no-one would have guessed I was suffering. But I new and I knew I could not hide it any longer. So I wrote letters to the people I loved gulping down tears and then emptied out dozens of vials filled with prescription drugs and I swallowed them all. I was  sobbing so loud I was sure neighbours could hear me but I couldn’t stop.  I apologized to God and to every family member, to the friends who loved me, to the clients who depended on me, to my pets – to the world. And I did it anyway. Once again – as in earlier attempts, I called no-one. I didn’t call an emergency line. I was just wanted out because I didn’t believe anyone could help me. I had lost every ounce of hope that I would ever be able to be well again.

A neighbour who knew I was depressed and had my keys to feed my budgies when I went away, checked in on me. I was told she found me on the floor in the kitchen where I had swallowed the pills. She called the ambulance, I was raced to the hospital but I was already in a coma which lingered for 3 days and nights. Then miraculously, on the fourth day I just opened my eyes and started talking. I felt better than I could ever remember.  The doctors were stunned. Not only were they convinced I would not survive – they were certain if I did, I would have irreparable brain and organ damage. I had neither. Physically, I was well. Mentally, I was what I can only call “in a state of grace” They removed all the tubes and wires from my body and transferred me to Eric Martin Pavillion.- the psychiatric hospital in the city. To me it was an ashram.

No, I did not think I was Jesus, going from person to person blessing everyone. I was simply seeing the dozens of men and women in that big room, all beautiful souls, suffering, lost and in turmoil – just like I had been before I ‘woke up’. I had nothing but compassion for them as well as the for the staff. I could see their frustration and their own suffering and how they were trying so hard to do their best. During this time of observation, I felt grounded, centred and at peace in a way I never had before.

Two days after coming out of coma, I asked a friend of mine to bring me my computer. I knew it was time to write my book. How was that possible? For the past six months or longer I could not even string a sentence together. Even writing an email caused unbearable anxiety. And for me, usually it is writing that does save my life. Writing brings me to the other side of my suffering where the light gets in. And I’ve been teaching this for about 20 years! Before my suicide attempt that was virtually impossible. There were no words. There was no light.

Now, something inside of me said, you must have your computer. It was brought to me and within 9 months, my book, “Re-Write Your Life, A Transformational Guide to Writing and Healing the Stories of Your Life was completed and published. (See link below)

From not being able to write, my words were flowing out of me with passion  and I was loving every moment of it.  Why passion? Because I knew, only too well, from both sides of the couch that it is only in re-writing our painful stories that we find peace. That hanging onto the past – in shame and blame and resentments, grief, sorrow and unforgiveness, will never lead to happiness. It only keeps us stuck. Paralyzed. Grandiose. Depressed, needing to be right – at any cost. It keeps us anywhere but in our hearts.

I knew beyond any doubt – having almost died – that life is precious…oh so precious. And it is not a dress rehearsal. It’s real. The years go by. We grow older. And we will die one day and, my God, if I could help even one person find a way to live life in peace and in joy and to let go of the past and celebrate their life journey instead – nothing was going to stop me. I was going to write and publish that book. I knew this was the most important work I had done up until that time. I had re-written many of my stories already. Now, from this blessed state, I wrote with an inner conviction of truth that would free not only me others who were drawn to its message.

I still live by it. Yet even now, in this very moment, as I sit in front of this computer, the conviction of speaking my truth out loud is still there, but so is the fear of being judged. I’m not sure if that will ever go away. But how could I even think of that stopping me? I am alive. Robin Williams is not. Nor are countless millions of others across our planet who have ended their lives and possibly as many still who are on the brink as I write this. How could I not speak up? How can we not? Together, as one human family, speak up and out – hold each others hands – stop judging and find our way back to our tender hearts.

Robin Williams, a brilliant, beautiful, courageous man who brought joy and laughter into the lives of countless people is dead. Dead by suicide.

I happened to be at movie on Monday ironically held at Eric Martin – the mental hospital I was hospitalized in – where they play brilliant movies and the like. Monday night I was there to watch the documentary, “Of Two Minds” which was riveting. A stunning depiction of several people living with bi-polar illness. It was sad, funny in parts, and oh so very, very real. But my friend, who I was saving a seat for, sat down and told me the news about Robin Williams. I had to leave the theatre and go to the bathroom because I started to cry. Once I was in the bathroom, in a lone cubical, I allowed myself to sob. . In the most sad and ironic way, it is in his death that I am given the courage to come out once again –to come out of the closet about my own attempted suicides. I am hoping in doing so, I will be able to let go of some of the guilt and shame that I did that. I am doing my best to reach into my heart and offer myself compassion for the states of terror and hopelessness that drove me to want to end my life. To reassure myself that I didn’t do anything to purposely cause pain and suffering to others. If I or anyone else who is at that critical place could make a rational choice to do it differently, to find a magical cure to be well again and not hurt themselves or the people who love them and they love too – oh, if only. If only.

Since the last attempt I have been living in deep gratitude and deep humility. There isn’t a day that goes by that I do not remember to thank God. Why me? Why was my life spared and not his? Not countless others? I don’t know. I only know I am here. And I am here to make a difference in whatever ways I can. And one of the ways, I sense, is in writing this and sharing it out loud with you. And tomorrow and the day after that, it will hopefully be with words and deeds of kindness for whoever shows up on my path.

And that’s what we can all do. We can’t all be writers or social activists on the front lines. But we can offer gifts of kindness – first to ourselves – nurture ourselves into healthy minds and bodies and spread the kindness to every living being we meet.

I work part-time at the BC Schizophrenia Society, Victoria as a peer supporter and a trained facilitator of a brilliant program called W.R.A.P. that stands for Wellness Recovery Action Plan. It is clinically proven to help people get well and stay well. There are many other amazing programs offered there – support groups for every kind of diagnosis and for the families of same.

Thousands of people go through these programs and are getting well. We provide services that bring hope, compassion, friendship and we give tools to everyone who reaches out. All of us who work there have a lived experience. We all have our challenges, it’s true. We also know the power of helping another who may be in worse shape than ourselves. And we never know where this one act of kindness can lead. Perhaps enough, in some cases, to motivate a person to find their inner strength and eventually pass the torch to someone in their own family or community and on it goes.  All our services are free for those who require them.

We have  the most amazing boss, Hazel Meredith, the Executive Director.   She works tirelessly to make certain that our services continue.  For quite awhile now, as funds are continually being cut, it not always a given.

I am reaching out to you, if you are reading this…I don’t know what to say – other than if you are in Victoria and are moved to volunteer your time and gifts or feel inspired to donate to our non-profit organization – then I invite you to act on your inspiration. Or do it in your own community. Let us all lend a helping hand to one another.

I will leave you with this song from the Young Bloods recorded in 1967.

Listen and watch here.

Below are some links for services and programs that I just wrote about including Madness Masks and Miracles & Re-Write Your Life.

May each of you be well. May you find love and peace and joy wherever you go. Reach in and reach out. There will ALWAYS be someone to reach back.

 I  Welcome Your Comments

BC Schizophrenia Society, Victoria Branch   Any size donation would be so welcomed and appreciated.

Re-Write Your Life – A Transformational Guide to Writing and Healing the Stories of Our Lives – Book

Re-Write Your Life – Workshop

Madness, Masks and Miracles – the play I wrote to dispel myths and stigmas about mental illness

The Academy for Creative and Healing Arts for People With Mental Health Challenges – my initiative to have a centre where creative expression changes mental illness to mental health

WRAP – Wellness Recovery Action Plan

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