TRIGGER WARNING – This article contains information of the mental state of someone suffering abuse and engaging in self-harming behaviour which may be triggering to survivors.
Hi. My name is Mandy and this is my story of fighting addiction, trauma, and mental health. I am sharing my story for not only my own healing, but because I know the value that a story of vulnerability and hope holds for others who are seeking their own.
Growing up I was never taught what mental health was, what emotional regulation looked like, and never saw my parents cry until I was much older. All that I know now about mental and emotional health has been self-taught through my academics, personal struggles, and personal relationships.
When I was six, my parents separated. I remember the day so distinctly; my father left by his own choice. I now understand why he left, but at the age of six you blame yourself, even unconsciously. My father moved out to live on his trapline (yes, my father lives on a trapline) and would only come into town once or twice a year. That was it. Not having a father around can really damage yourself as a woman. Not having a father figure, or that fatherly-love, can cause you to search for things to fill its void.
I started drinking at the age of thirteen. It wasn’t even out of peer pressure. I just remember alcohol being available and no one there to stop me. I remember exactly how I felt — light, free and extremely happy. I drank nearly every weekend from the age of thirteen to fifteen. I would hide it from my mom as best as any teenager could, cover the truth by saying I was staying at certain friends’ houses when in reality I was intoxicated in a field or a run-down house with strangers and God only knows who. At fifteen, I was sexually assaulted. That night changed everything. I stopped drinking instantly because the night I was assaulted I was intoxicated, and the shame and guilt filled inside me. In my mind, drinking was what caused me to be assaulted. And I never wanted that to happen again.
Although I was not drinking anymore, my mental and emotional health began to deteriorate, and fast. I started to isolate myself and became distant from the people I cared most about. I engaged in reckless behaviour and wouldn’t let anyone hug or touch me. I shut down completely. Even though I wasn’t using alcohol to fill the void I was feeling, I started to turn towards other unhealthy habits, like sex and dating.
At the age of seventeen, I had a miscarriage. However, no one, that I knew of, ever talked about miscarriages, so I didn’t know how to approach that conversation. I did everything I could to ignore my reality and tried my best to avoid the grief and pain I was going through. Eventually, I moved out on my own at the age of eighteen. Freshly graduated from high school and finally on my own, I felt unstoppable. But it was not enough to fill the emptiness I was feeling inside of me. I turned to relationships or casually dated, and I never wanted to be alone.
At the age of twenty I moved, again. This time to a different province and into a much larger city. I started schooling in social work and working for a non-profit organization. I honestly felt on top of the world, like I had found a long-lost love. The only problem was that I hadn’t dealt with any of the trauma from my past, and working with individuals who were just as traumatized and unhealthy was triggering every day that I worked. To cope, I started drinking again and going on dates almost every single night. I also became obsessed with working out to the point of pure exhaustion, not even recognizing who I was in the mirror anymore.
So, here I was at the age of twenty-one, feeling like a hero because I was working with vulnerable individuals and thinking I was the only one who could save them. I was drinking a bottle of wine every night, going on a new date every night, and perhaps even hooking up with them to fill my loneliness. I would sleep for maybe five hours because I “needed” to get up early to go to the gym in the morning. I was an absolute wreck. But, hey, at least I was a functioning addict, right? I mean, I wasn’t homeless, I had a job, I was hard-working, and I never allowed it to influence my professional relationships. So it was okay. I was okay, right?
I moved back home at twenty-two to finish more schooling. Three or four months into being home, everything caught up to me. I was back in the very environment which had caused my trauma and pain, and I had nowhere to run. I had to face my problems. I stopped drinking, started going to AA meetings, and I honestly thought that once I stopped drinking and dating that everything would be better. But that isn’t how mental health works.
After a stint of being sober, I relapsed one evening. I was in and out of a very unhealthy and abusive relationship, and we were going through one of our rough patches. At that same time, two of my grandparents had passed away within a few weeks of each other. I was going through grief, even though I couldn’t recognize it. I was intoxicated and at two in the morning, I remember walking down to the bridge close to my house with the intention of ending my life. All I remember while standing at the edge of that bridge was how I couldn’t handle the pain in my heart anymore and didn’t want to be alive.
To this day, I don’t know how I made it home that night. The next morning, I woke up in my bed, I went to work but by lunchtime, I broke down to a co-worker and immediately left to see a counselor. With the counselor, I signed a suicide contract which explains that I will not intend to end my life and will return to speak with the counselor at a set date and time. It also asks questions such as: what or who is worth living for, who is important to me, and the contact information for who I can call when I have suicidal ideations. That suicide contract scared me so bad. It woke me up and allowed me to recognize the state of my mental health and the impact of my past trauma. That day changed everything for me.
It was only last year that I started to open up about my childhood, trauma and mental health struggles. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counsellor that I discovered my issues were not to do with alcohol, but with the past trauma I had endured that subsequently lead my drinking and engage in unhealthy relationships. Once I started to identify my emotions and talk about the pain, my relationship with alcohol, people, and myself changed.
I began my own self-care practices, like exercising a healthy amount without becoming obsessed, falling in love with painting and photography again, and recognizing emotions when I am feeling them. Self-care is hard work and it does take time, but every day that I don’t go backwards, is another day that I step forwards.
Today, I am open about my trauma and mental health struggles. Does that mean that I am cured? Absolutely not! But have I changed how I love myself and identified when I need more self-care days than others? Absolutely. My words of encouragement for anyone who is struggling with addiction, trauma or mental health is just begin the conversation. The conversation can be with yourself, writing in a journal every day. It can be through a support group, with a loved one, a family member, or a close friend. It can be as straightforward as “I need help, I am not okay”, or in words less direct. My encouragement to you, if you are fighting a battle alone, is to surrender and say, “I don’t want to fight this alone.” To me, becoming a hero or role model is never worth it. It forced me to become someone I didn’t recognize. Mental and emotional health attacks you from the inside out if not dealt with in a healthy way. So, my words of encouragement for you is to stop fighting yourself because you are not alone, you are loved, and there is someone ready to listen, always. You have value and worth, but you don’t need to fight your battles alone.
Tips for anyone struggling with their own trauma/mental health
- Start the conversation
Starting the conversation of your trauma or struggles can be as little as writing in a journal day, writing on a piece of paper and burying it in the ground with the intention of you only knowing about it. Or, it can be sharing your struggle with a family member, a friend, or a co-worker. The conversation doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, but the important piece is to just start the conversation. Vulnerability is what begins the healing process and the healing process starts with YOU!
You don’t have to be a bodybuilder, a gymnast or even lift weights. Do whatever you are comfortable with, but do something active! It can be as simple as walking around the block, swimming two laps at the pool, or going to a yoga class. Exercise taps into your physical health, can release toxins from your body and clear your head.
- Find something you are passionate about and do it just for yourself
Enjoy photograph? Painting? Collecting antiques? Whatever you are passionate about, use it as a healing tool! Even on your worst days, knowing you have something to look forward makes those hard days not seem so challenging, even if it is the smallest thing. The best thing about having a passion is that it is just yours and that is so special, and important, throughout the healing process.
- Be kind to yourself
You will have hard days, you will have challenging days. You will have days were you will get ready and feel invincible, but you will also have days where showering and facing the day can be too painful – and it is okay to not be okay. Please be kind to yourself no matter what kind of day you are having. Be kind with your thoughts, be kind with your body, and be kind to your heart. Take a break when you need to, say no to family and friends, and know your limits on your rough days. You are doing great even when you aren’t doing anything at all and you are worth more than you give yourself credit.
References – Resource Support
Crisis Centre for Northern BC: (250) 563-1214 or 1-800-562-1214
University of Northern British Columbia Wellness Centre/Counselling Services: (250) 960-6369
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233