Recovery, hope possible for suicide survivors
Harmony Brown, Special to cp24.com
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012 4:06PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:23AM EDT
Harmony Brown, a public speaker and suicide survivor, spoke to CP24.com readers about her experiences with mental illness. Read her story below and then review the chat with readers below.
I had been contemplating suicide for hours, desperate to escape my mental agony, when I heard my psychologist's voice in my head reminding me to go to the emergency room if I thought about hurting myself. The idea of going to the hospital freaked me out. What will people think? What if they keep me? What if they want me to take medication? What do I tell work? How will I pay my rent? What do I tell my roommate? What happens after I get out of the hospital? I imagined it would play out like this: I'd end up committed, drugged, unemployed and homeless.
It had only been two years since my brothers and I had lost our father to suicide. The thought of putting them through that pain again made me pause. In that moment, my fear of death overshadowed my fear of stigma. I called a friend and asked her to meet me in the emergency room at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. They admitted me to the Women's Inpatient Unit. During the first few days, I was assessed, diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and prescribed an anti-depressant.
After being misdiagnosed and prescribed the wrong medication following a suicide attempt when I was teenager, I was sceptical about how helpful treatment would be. I wanted more than a diagnosis and medication. I wanted to tell someone about everything I'd ever been through. I wanted to heal the pain that I believed was at the root of my mental health struggles. To my relief, this time the diagnosis and medication were correct and the treatment available included an unfamiliar concept: Recovery.
No one I knew had recovered from a mental illness. I didn't even know it was possible. My father's treatment primarily consisted of medication with side-effects that rivalled the reasons he was taking them in the first place. For more than 15 years, he tried to manage living with bipolar disorder. Hopeless, exhausted and consumed with anxiety and despair, he took his life six weeks before his 50th birthday.
I can recall having suicidal thoughts as young as nine years old. It was like a reflex -- whenever I felt emotionally overwhelmed, suicide presented itself as an answer.
Given the tumultuous events that occurred throughout my childhood, teen years and twenties, I'd thought about ending my life a countless number of times. It wasn't until after my father's death that I started to experience anxiety in addition to depression. The combination was more than I could handle. The simplest tasks were unachievable. At the time when I admitted myself to the hospital, I hadn't left the house or changed my clothes in days.
My stay at CAMH lasted a month and was followed by several months in an outpatient program. I continued to work with my psychologist and take medication. Gradually, the most essential element of recovery took root: Hope.
Perhaps there could be more to life than pretending I was fine when I wasn't. Maybe I could actually be fine – maybe even better than fine.
For the next two years, I participated in various mental health programs that helped me better understand my illness, its triggers, warning signs and what to do when I started to feel sad or anxious. Feeling good and equipped to take care of myself, I decided to spend time travelling in South East Asia.
Six months into my trip, while living in Cambodia, I received the news that my youngest brother, David, had taken his own life. He was only 23 at the time. Like me, David's mental health started to deteriorate following our father's suicide.
The shock and trauma amplified symptoms David had been silently struggling with for years prior. He started having episodes of psychosis. Often he heard voices telling him to hurt himself. The doctors who treated him had trouble diagnosing him. It seemed like he was on a different medication every few months. He was in and out of hospital and moved from one group home to another after each suicide attempt. His doctors felt there wasn't much hope he would live past 25. If they didn't have hope, how could they have given David any hope? (Unfortunately, many healthcare professionals have not yet embraced the recovery approach and subscribe to the idea that mental illness is a dismal life sentence.) At the time of his death, David was involuntarily committed and on suicide watch. Somehow he managed to leave the hospital and end his life.
When I got the call, my boyfriend and I packed up our life in Cambodia and returned to Canada. While the painful reality that my brother was gone settled in, we started to talk about finding work and a place to live. My boyfriend decided this was a good time to confess he no longer wanted to be in our relationship. That was my tipping point. I was now officially having an emotional crisis. But, unlike in the past, suicide didn't enter my mind. Instead, I applied every trick, tip, technique and tool I had acquired in the past two years. I was determined to hold onto my recovery and managed to do so with a lot of support.
What this says to me and I hope says to other people is that recovery is possible.
Nobody should spend years silently suffering and missing out on life like I did. Nobody should lose their loved ones to mental illness. This is why I started advocating for early intervention, suicide prevention and elimination of stigma through public speaking and my blog. With more funding, more research, more awareness and less stigma, recovery can happen more often.