This time of year gives us a chance to connect with one another, and with ourselves.
One of the things I’ve learned on the journey that brought me here this evening is that knowing ourselves – and being ourselves – is critically important to health and wellness. To full enjoyment of life.
When I was 13, I was a long way from any of these things. I was struggling with a sense I can only describe as “wrongness” – I never felt quite right, never felt that I belonged. And as a result, I was desperately unhappy.
There was very little support for mental illness in the small town where I lived, but the true culprit of my silence was stigma. The idea of seeking help can be terrifying in the face of stigma, especially for teenagers who want to be accepted. I existed in a liminal space between desperately seeking validation while simultaneously being unable to face myself. I would call it a state of masochistic denial.
With no help, things got progressively worse throughout high school. I’d been in a gifted program, but as my health deteriorated, so did my grades. I felt increasingly hopeless and desperate. I was unable to imagine a future I belonged in. I genuinely believed I would never make it past the age of 17 and attempted suicide twice before I graduated high school.
My teachers encouraged me to apply to university and I got into York. I went because it felt expected of me. I had very little concept of my future. I cracked under the pressure and within a few short months I began having debilitating panic attacks. I could barely leave my dorm room without hyperventilating, and I couldn’t help but look back at the buildings as I walked away, wondering how I could get up to the roof and jump.
This went on for years. I was in and out of school, trying on different identities – game developer, graphic designer, and eventually, illustrator. I spent a long time ignoring my symptoms. When it was good I couldn’t imagine why I had been so depressed, and when it was bad I couldn’t see an end to my suffering. It wasn’t until I had a session with a psychiatrist 3 years ago that I was diagnosed as being bi-polar, and realized that I’d been struggling with this condition all my life.
It was around this time when a series of major events came to a head. I ended a long term relationship with an abusive partner, and suffered severe trauma. I was kicked out of my apartment and I was completely broke. I would have been left homeless without the help of a good friend. Luckily my application to the Ontario College of Art and Design had been accepted, and the prospect of following through gave me a sense of purpose. All these things, the good and the bad, wore down on me, one source stress after another. I coped with my trauma by drinking heavily, and threw myself into partying and drug use to distract myself from reality. After a long and steady decline I began using crystal meth.
Many of you would probably say that you could notice an addict. That a person using a drug like meth would be obvious. I held down a full time job for 3 months, using crystal meth every day. I would go home on lunch breaks to use. I considered myself such a responsible addict – I’d make sure that I got at least 3 hours of sleep every two nights and would force myself to keep eating so that even after a week long binge I was presentable and could keep going to school.
I was trapped. I only felt normal when I was using, when I wasn’t I was suicidal. I knew I couldn’t sustain this life, but even so I felt willing to sacrifice everything to keep using. I needed meth like I needed to breath. I fought with myself, believing each time that I would be able to control myself. I knew I needed to break out of the cycle, but I didn’t know how. So I told my counselor at OCAD what was really going on. That was a huge step. I can still remember the feeling of my throat closing at the thought of admitting what felt like a moral failing. I also remember the unbelievable wave of relief.
That counselor introduced me to LOFT.
I’d already been to plenty of programs – like AA and at places like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, but they had both left me feeling more alienated than ever. Although I was initially wary, I quickly realized that LOFT was different. I joined the Campus Recovery Group, where I met other students who were struggling. The LOFT group took a therapeutic approach that I hadn’t experienced elsewhere. The environment let people take on as much responsibility as they were comfortable with, allowing them to formulate goals on their own terms. The groups focuses on coping skills – an approach that was so much more effective than anything I’d tried before.
It was through that experience –plus a truly excellent and compassionate LOFT worker – that I began taking concrete steps to improve my life. I needed to stop pretending. To be up front with myself – and with others. I learned that the only way to get well – and to grow as a human being – was to ask for help.
LOFT gave me the tools I needed to make myself well. LOFT changed my life.
In one of my darkest moments post the point of quitting crystal, I relapsed, only 2 short months since my quit date. I was so filled with self loathing over my lack of control that I had a mental break, I recall standing on the corner of Spadina and Dundas, I was incoherent and shaking and unable to stop myself from repeated punching myself in the head. When I got home I hacked at my arm with a knife until the emotional intensity that drove me dispersed, and I no longer felt anything at all.
I knew that I needed to go to the hospital, so I called my LOFT worker. She met with me almost immediately. Not only did she take me to the hospital, she waited with me in the emerge for hours so I didn’t feel so alone. Because my hospitalization required that I miss about a week of work I was fired from my job, and my worker was there for me in those moments as well, she advocated for me to receive an emergency grant from my school to help me cover the costs of living.
No judgement over my relapse. I was never forced to recover “the right way.” My worker genuinely cared about meeting me where I needed her most.
It is now one year later. I look forward and see a future before me. Sometimes I can scarcely believe the contrast from then to now, in retrospect what seemed like a whirlwind of chaos becomes a carefully plotted journey. The cause and effect becomes obvious.
I face the future with a quiet confidence. I want to tell stories via both text and illustration to help young people realize they are not alone.
In fact, I’ve already started – LOFT invited me to become a peer mentor, and I’m working with young people, helping them believe in themselves and their future.
It was hard for me to ask for help for myself. But I’m fearless when it comes to asking for help for LOFT and the innovative, vitally important, and life-saving work they do.
By being here tonight, you are connecting with each other. And – through my story – with other young people like me. You are helping to make this work possible.
Thank you LOFT – and thank all of you! – for making it possible for me to stand in front of you today. The future is bright.
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