As a kid, I never grew up hoping to one day struggle with mental illness or become an addict. Who knew that these were the lessons I needed to learn to be in a position to help others with their mental health.
My challenges with mental illness began at the age of 14 with body dysmorphic disorder. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for the next 13 years without complete disgust. I had no idea how to talk about my pain so I just kept it all inside. What’s crazy is that I was the kid who was athlete of the year, captain of sports teams, and president of the school. I was always smiling, pretending I was fine.
What people failed to understand was that just because someone’s smiling
doesn’t mean that they’re happy.
Over the next few years I saw numerous Psychiatrists and I received more labels and pharmaceutical pills than I care to count. Unfortunately, I never fully opened up about my challenges, and my use of alcohol prevented the medication from being effective.
Later on while attending the University of Alberta I remember receiving a national scholarship as an outstanding community citizen. Meanwhile, I was silently battling a gambling and alcohol addiction. I just recall feeling surprised that nobody had any idea what was really going on.
I went through life like this for a long time. Maybe people noticed, but nobody really knew how to approach me. And if you’re in pain and nobody approaches you what’s the message you receive? Nobody cares. When I reflect on what I needed at that time I can recognize that I never wanted to be fixed. Nah, I wanted two things.
I wanted to be seen, and I wanted to be heard.
Eventually a professor at the University understood this. This man, Ian McNeil was his name, made a huge impact on my life in a single 10 minute conversation.
However, even though I felt someone was actually seeing me, my struggles continued. Life got hard. Life got really hard. While teaching at one of my field placements I collapsed in the hall in front of some of my students. That was embarrassing. One doctor gave me one month to live if I didn’t change what I was doing which came as no surprise.
Now, at that point if someone would have said hang on Al, you keep fighting. One day you are going to have a beautiful wife, four healthy kids, four dogs, and a home not a house… uh, I think not. It took a lot of work to get here and I still struggle, but it happened.
I got tired of the self-destructive behaviour, and I finally understood that if I wanted something different I had to do something different. So I did.
In the past and even today, I want to share three things that have helped me with my mental wellness.
1. Reach out for help
This is where it all begins. Initially, being vulnerable was really difficult for me, but suffering in silence wasn’t working. Asking for help definitely didn’t come naturally, especially as a man, but once I began talking about my challenges it felt good. It felt good to remove the mask, and finally be open and honest. What really surprised me is that once I got myself into support groups I found these other people that were just like me. That blew me away! Here they were telling pieces of my story and just like that I was no longer alone. As I reached out to difference resources I kept an open mind. Some worked for me, some didn’t. But I kept trying.
2. Do the work
We live in a world where tools are at our finger tips and help is everywhere. If we want it. I didn’t always want it. At one point I moved 11 times in 6 years. Then I realized oh, hang on, my problems aren’t out here. They’re in here. See you can’t run from yourself right! I had to do the work. So I stopped with the self-harming behaviours. I stopped the drinking. I gave up my circle of “friends” I gave myself permission to feel and I learned that feeling is actually what leads to healing.
This has been huge. I never knew how to play. No clue. Early in my recovery I got a job as an addictions counselor and I remember taking some youth to go tobogganing. None of the youth were going down the hill so I grabbed a sled and let it rip. Something came to life, and I wanted more of that feeling. For you play might look like yoga, rec hockey, or painting. Do something that makes you feel like a kid again and don’t take life too seriously.
When it comes to mental health, silence is not the answer. It has never been the answer. I know what it feels like to have lost my voice, and I know what it feels like to have found it.
Keep talking my friends.