A day in my life: Fighting the last taboo
Sari Alter, Special to cp24.com
Published Tuesday, February 7, 2012 11:53PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:23AM EDT
Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don't want to get out of bed.
It looks so dark outside in the winter and I feel so depressed. My mother bought me one of those bright lamps that helps fight Seasonal Affective Disorder. I try to use it every morning for a half an hour.
The only way I can survive is by having a routine or a schedule. I was programmed as a child – school all day, Hebrew school after school, dance classes, debating competitions and acting classes. It is the same now. Currently, I volunteer at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario doing peer support. I answer the phones and transfer calls, do reception work and listen to people's problems once a week. As well, I go to a support group for women at the organization.
I also see a general practitioner psychotherapist once a week. She practices cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a form of therapy that tries to change the negative thought into a positive one. She feels that I am a negative thinker. It is hard work transforming thoughts when one is stuck in a rut and so used to dealing with situations in one way.
Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary defines loneliness as "sad, lack of companionship." I have felt that way for a long time.
When I moved back to Toronto from Hartford, Connecticut, there was something missing in my life. I had a lot of friends in Hartford. Although I was staying at a "psychiatric ghetto," there was warmth and a bunch of people to have fun with. I even went out on a date the week before I left!
The reason I returned to "lonely Toronto" was because I didn't know where I was going in Hartford. I didn't know if I was going back to school or what type of work to do. It reminded me of the "deadly calm." I didn't realize what a difference Hartford made in my life when I came back.
One thing I've found, if you're totally out of the loop with no jobs or even psychiatric programs, it's very hard to make friends. I did make some acquaintances at a wedding and another one when I started working, but it didn't really matter. I was not a happy camper. I found the city too big and alienating. My friends from university were making at least 40K a year and I wasn't working at all. I felt embarassed and all I would tell people was that I was a writer and an artist.
I was always much more fragile than the average person, so when I did have contract jobs, I usually got sick at the end of them due to lack of schedule or emotional abuse from some of my co-workers. There were times I had gone psychotic and started saying very strange things. This also happened when I was at a neighbour's house. Everything on her table was a symbol. I remember she had a piece of cardboard from the Conservative government saying, "You're on the right track". I got scared because in my mailbox I was convinced I pulled out a piece of cardboard which said, "You're on the wrong track!"
Some of the friends I met on the job became confused and backed off because they didn't understand what was happening to me.
When I came out of the hospital a few years ago, my neighbour started laughing at me. I said, "Why are you laughing? I just got out of the hospital!"
"Hospitals are supposed to make you better, not sicker!"
But I was not always misunderstood and didn't always feel others contempt for my state of being. After I ended up in the hospital in London, Ontario, I began to go to a support group at the Mood Disorders Association. At the time, despite my fatigue from a common medication called Haldol, I managed to meet some interesting people who also volunteered at the Mood Disorders Association.
I started to write again and wrote for their newsletter. And though I couldn't do big paintings like I was used to, I started to paint cards. I called them miniatures. I took some free courses at a place called Workman Arts at a church on Dufferin Street but found the people too sick. I took improvisation and drawing classes there.
People really liked my cards. I was inspired by different artists. (For instance, Marc Rothko and Georgia O'Keefe.) When I was seeing a social worker at Jewish Family and Child Services, she mentioned that they had a card contest every year. I entered it and won! My painted card, done with gouache on watercolour paper was printed. As well, last year a card of mine was printed for the Mood Disorders Association to help them elicit donations.
The Mood Disorders Association has a big juried yearly event called Touched by Fire. I have tried to enter every year, but was never picked. However, a painting of mine that I did at the Avenue Road Art School called "Wildflowers" was seen on their website and chosen to be on the cover of Cross Currents magazine. I was so excited when this happened.
Even though I struggle with a daily routine and would do much better if I had a part-time job, I'm slowly getting better. I don't think there is a cure for mental illness but I believe you can recover.
I went to a wonderful program at the Mood Disorders Association called WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). There I learned about triggers and how to handle my illness without it handling me. It is a program that a woman called Mary Ellen Copeland started in the United States and is spreading like wildfire in Toronto. One in five people will have a mental health illness. However, life skills like going to the gym and eating properly make the illness more manageable.
For the last 20 years, I have been living in a closet. Some closets are more shameful than others. To be Jewish and suffering from a depression problem is considered a shundah. Every time when I went out anywhere – to a movie group, a National Jewish women’s meeting or even a knitting group, the first thing people asked me was, "What do you do?’ My work record was spotty or checkered because of my illness and I didn’t know what to say. Once I jokingly said, "I blow up trains." This was of course before 9/11.
I felt insecure and had low self-esteeem. I felt like I was just fitting between the cracks since on the outside I looked well-dressed but inside, I had a horrible secret I was hiding.
Going on Jdate (a dating site for Jewish singles) was also difficult and anxiety-provoking for me. I kept worrying that if someone discovered the "real me" – that I had a mental health problem, they wouldn’t date me. I found a dating service while surfing the web called No longer Lonely -- a free online community for adults with mental illness. The service was started by a mental health consumer. The site describes itself as "the ultimate icebreaker" and provides the following blurb as an explanation:
"Never have to worry again about disclosure of your condition. No need to hide those pill bottles. Never have to explain your erratic work experience. No more stigma-induced disappointments. Finding someone who can really understand your struggles and disappointments."
Three guys emailed me from the U.S. but I decided not to get involved with them because they all had too many problems. The irony of dating people who suffer from mental illness and being judgmental yourself!!
In Toronto, I’ve discovered that there are many people who suffer from a mental illness, hence the slogan "You Are Not Alone" that the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario uses.
I decided to really "out" myself three years ago when I joined a comedy troupe called Stand Up for Mental Health. The group was originally started in Vancouver by David Granirer. It was brought to Toronto by the innovative Michael Cole. Both are Jewish men who also suffer from mental illness.
The comedy group had a four-month training period and we all wrote our own jokes. I got to perform at a show at the Mood Disorders Associatioin of Ontario and then I became part of a graduate group and performed my shtick with the group in Toronto and other cities in southern Ontario. The stand-up routines contain anti-stigma humour and that helps me feel empowered.
My commitment and success with this helped me decide to go back to school. This past fall, I was accepted into the Adult Art Centre at Central Technical School.
I also got the courage to start selling my artwork online on the Touched By Fire website, sponsored by the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario. My psychiatrist says that now when people ask me what I do for a living to say that I am an artist.
I guess, reflecting about all of the things that have happened to me, everything happens for a reason. When God gives you lemons, you make lemonade.
As Hillel, the Jewish sage once said: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself who am I? If not now, when?"