Mental Illness is Not an Exclusive Club

by Donna Kirk on February 16, 2014

Two years ago I was invited to join the local Consumer Advisory Committee; individuals who have lived experience with mental illness or are caring for a person experiencing mental illness. I can put my hand up to both categories.

As a child, I was anxious about nearly everything. Afraid walking two blocks home from school. I kept looking back – was someone following me? Panicking in church – I had to sit at the end of the pew close to the isle. Every Sunday it was hard to resist the urge to run out but I endured, sweating and taking deep breaths, until the minister led his lemmings down the aisle. But as I walked home with my parents, I worried about next Sunday. All week I invented fantastic illnesses that came on suddenly and could wipe out the whole congregation if they were exposed to me.

I fainted once in a restaurant and for decades I worried about passing out before the food came. Once, I threw up at a friend’s house. My mother picked me up and I spent the next three days in bed with stomach flu. The reason didn’t matter. For years, I couldn’t go to anyone else’s house to play.

As I grew older, these seemingly unreasonable bouts of anxiety faded. I could handle outings, school and had many friends. I guess I began to understand myself. But I had a fear of being alone, especially at night.

My father had a heart attack on a business trip when I was twenty and still living at home. Mom stayed with him for six weeks until he was able to travel. Even though I was finished school and working, I could not stay alone and lived with an aunt until my parents returned.

It never occurred to me or my parents the anxiety I experienced was a form of mental illness. People who were mentally ill were ‘put away’ in asylums. We didn’t talk about them, we whispered.

Years later, my first child, Matthew was born with severe brain damage as a result of oxygen loss at birth. His initial and most obvious challenges were cerebral palsy and developmental delay. As he entered his teen years, complex behaviours surfaced and worsened. He’d be calm one minute then become fiercely agitated with body twirling, shouting and pulling his own hair. He became a danger to himself with self-injurious behaviours, then he tried to attack other people. A psychiatrist suggested Matthew was dually diagnosed; developmentally handicapped and mentally ill. I’d never heard of such a thing. Medications prescribed for his agitated depression helped intermittently. But until Matthew’s death from pneumonia in 2010 at age forty, nothing worked for any length of time.

Anxiety over my son, overseeing the care of my dying mother, and worry over my husband who had quadruple by-pass surgery when he was only fifty-nine, wore me down. I couldn’t sleep, or slept too much. I lost fifteen pounds. I was convinced I had cancer. My doctor prescribed medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, he called them. They’ll help with your anxiety and depression he said. I told him I’d never been depressed in my life. I just didn’t feel well right now. I refused to take the SSRI’s.

A year later, I was back in his office. My anxiety was so severe I couldn’t function. I was afraid of myself. I took the SSRI’s.

In six weeks, I felt dramatically better. I guess I was depressed. I guess I’d had a form of anxiety and depression all my life. My mother had it too. I remember her crying if my dad was late home from work, or if I took the car and didn’t bring it back when she thought I should. She was sure I lay dead in a ditch. I guess Matthew inherited his depression from her, and me.

I told my doctor about this ‘family secret’. He said years ago the asylums were full. Many of the patients had depression but there were no medications to treat them.

Ten years later, I still take my meds. The dose has been reduced to half. But I require the help the SSRI’s give me. I fight ‘silly’ fears every day. My daily four mile walk puts me in a good mood. Healthy eating makes me feel energized.

My colleagues on the Consumer Advisory Committee have put life in perspective. They’ve all suffered. They’re all fine people. We’re trying to eradicate the stigma of mental illness. It should be easier given that twenty percent of Canadians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime.

If you have a broken arm you have it fixed right away. Why is it so awkward to talk about getting your head fixed?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joyce Wayne February 17, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Donna, I suffered from anxiety and depression in my thirties. It was awful. For months I couldn’t leave the house, even walk down the street to put a letter in mailbox. SSRI’s gave me back my life. On certain days, the anxiety returns, but I’ve learned many techniques to help me cope.

You are very brave and strong to talk about your experiences. If we all opened up, the stigma would slowly disappear. Let’s work together to make that happen.


Donna Kirk February 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Thanks Joyce. Good friend, you are. xx


Karen Neill February 17, 2014 at 2:33 pm

It’s fascinating how secretive most of us are about mental illness. I’ve had two bouts of depression in my life, and used to be very quiet about them. Now, I’m comfortable speaking about them freely. You know what? I have NEVER had a negative comment about my mental illness. Not one. I have no idea what I was so worried about. I have a dear friend who is working part time right now due to an anxiety disorder. Just in the last month she’s decided to be more open with her work colleagues about why she’s off. So far, she’s not had a single negative comment. In fact, people have been mostly helpful and thoughtful. Again, she wonders what she was worryied about. I think that often there is a perceived stigma, one that has, in many cases, dissapeared. This may be limited right now to things like depression and anxiety, and not yet to illness such as schizophrenia. As a society though, we’re getting there! Let’s hope it continues, and that mental illness is soon to be seen as the physical illness it is!


Donna Kirk February 25, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Thank you Karen. I think the stats are that one on four (or five) suffer from depression at some point in their lives. I had one negative comment after my mother died. A woman told me that many people thought depression indicated weakness. I assumed this included her.


jennifer February 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm

thank you for sharing donna. sometimes you don’t know what’s going on till someone else can name it for you. i’m always surprised and pleased when my son’s friends talk among themselves about their own difficulties. i hope the younger ones are better armed with the openess they have and the greater knowledge and awareness there is out there. you’re helping all that.


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