by Bruce Mercer
Since I have challenged my readers to be open and honest regarding talk about mental health, it’s only fair that I start with me.
One evening in late October 1994 in Brampton, Ontario, I stood on the balcony outside my condo. It was a beautiful evening, my kids were in their bedrooms doing homework. After a year of talking and counselling, my wife and I had finally separated and were heading for divorce. Standing on the balcony, it seemed like it was the first time I had drawn a complete breath in years, I was tired to the bone. Looking down eighteen stories, a thought ran through my mind - how easy it would be to just lean over the railing and let gravity take care of everything. Instantly, I was flooded with guilt. How could I think such a thing when my children needed a strong father now, more than ever before? I knew I needed help.
The next day found me in my doctor’s office. He listened quietly to the details and nodded slowly. “It sounds like clinical depression, Bruce. It’s not surprising following separation and divorce. We’ll try a six-month course of Zoloft. If this medication is going to work, you should notice a difference in the next few days. If not, come back and we’ll talk again.” As he was leaving the room, he turned and said something that I have never forgotten, “Remember, Bruce, life is too short to be sad for too long.” The Zoloft worked. Within days, I was feeling better.
Flash forward to 2004. The intervening ten years had been very good, I was married to an amazing woman, my career had thrived and I was now the principal of a school. I loved it even though I was working ten-fourteen hour days, and my sleep was interrupted by my obsessive approach to work. In September, I got a call from my brother in Elliott Lake. Almost casually, he informed me that he would be seeing a specialist in Toronto, there was a possibility that it was cancer, but I was not to worry; everything would be fine. He was wrong. In March, 2005, we buried my brother. The trips to Elliot Lake, and being at his bedside as he drew his last breath, were amazing and terrible. I returned to work and tried to find comfort in the busy routines and drama of school.
It was my wife who noticed that I was not doing well. One evening she returned from work and found me sitting on the couch staring at nothing. She sat quietly and looked me in the eye, “I’m worried about you. I think you need to see a doctor.” “Why?” I asked. “I think you are depressed.” Just those words and so much fell into place.
The next day, my doctor nodded as I described my situation. He explained that this time the same medication would not work. The new meds would take longer to work and would need to be taken long term. He was right. The medication worked more slowly but it did work. Slowly, the grey lifted; colour returned to my life. After retirement, under doctor’s supervision, I stopped the medication for depression. So far, so good!
Will I need to return to medication for depression? I don’t know. I do know this, my doctor was right, “Life is too short to be sad for too long,” and I thank God for people who looked out for me, and saw what I couldn’t, when it needed to be seen.
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MENTAL HEALTH & ADDICTIONS
Bobby and Tessie’s Story
by Bruce Mercer
Tessie was born in a small town on the Burin Peninsula, second of fourteen children in 1946. At the age of sixteen, she married Caleb. Together they raised five wonderful children. Active in their church and community, they grew together to a retirement rich with family, friends and community.
Bobby, Tessie’s brother, was born in 1957, eighth in the family. A healthy, mild mannered boy who loved soccer and his friends. Bobby was especially close to his older brother David. One of the quietest children of the fourteen, Bobby went to school and church, and participated in family life. He graduated from grade eleven and prepared to do what young people did in rural Newfoundland - go to work.
In 1974, Bobbie and his girlfriend set out for Alberta to stay with his brother David. Within weeks of Bobby’s arrival in Alberta, David began calling his parents. Bobby was not doing well. He was acting strangely, convinced that there were people who wanted to harm him.
A month after leaving home, Bobby was back in Newfoundland. In the midst of full-blown paranoia, he was admitted to St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital. Shortly after, he was transferred to the Waterford. Thus, began a long journey of mental illness for Bobby and his family. The diagnosis was provisional; perhaps manic-depressive; perhaps schizophrenia. The treatments started. At times, Bobby was able to return to his family. Each time, however, his behavior deteriorated and became unmanageable. The family could not cope. The police were called and Bobby was returned to the Waterford hospital.
Over the years, Bobby would experience a number of places he called home. From the Waterford, he was housed in several residences, some were good; others marginal. One placement lasted for twelve years. Bobby was relatively content. There were activities and every Sunday, he went to mass. But the inevitable happened and Bobby was returned to the hospital. First, in the open ward, then as he deteriorated, he was placed in the contained ward from which he would leave only under supervision.
As the years progressed, the thirteen siblings each found their approach to Bobbie. Tessie became the primary family contact. It is she who deals with the physicians and caregivers. Tessie shops for Bobbie and brings gifts. Another sister calls Bobbie at 6:00 p.m. each evening. All brothers and sisters contribute cash for his upkeep. Some inquire regularly about Bobbie but cannot bring themselves to visit.
Bobbie enjoys the visits with Tessie and Caleb. At the beginning of the visit, he will ask, “How do I look? Do I look like I’m getting better?” Tessie will reassure him and ask how things are going. Bobbie will reply that things are going well but “the shock treatments, I really don’t like them.” The conversation will continue until Bobbie grows tired. Bobby walks Tessie to the door of the locked ward and kisses her good-bye.
Sometimes, Bobby will accompany Tessie and Caleb to a family gathering in St. John’s. Bobbie enjoys the time and loves seeing his brothers and sisters. But when sufficient time had elapsed, Bobby will quietly say, “It’s time to go home, now,” and back to the Waterford they go.
The sadness in Tessie is palpable. It contrasts deeply with the bright, cheerful person that we see every day. When asked how her parents coped, she replies. “My father was a quiet man, he said very little. I think my mother died of a broken-heart.”
Her mother’s last words before dying are forever etched in Tessie’s mind. “Don’t forget your brother.”
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Mental Health & Addictions Awareness
by Bruce Mercer
Last May, at our annual Telethon, the Discovery Health Care Foundation introduced our new fundraising focus - Mental Health & Addictions Awareness. Our telethon was very successful raising $77,000. Our fundraising efforts continued with the sales of our Mental Health and Addictions t-shirts, our golf tournament in August, community walks and our radiothon in the fall.
The highlight of our foundation year was the naming of the Dr. Hilda Tremblett Wellness Center in Bonavista in September. The project by Tip-a-Vista Wellness Foundation and Eastern Health is a ground breaking community approach to mental health and addictions. Currently housed in the basement of Bonavista Peninsula Health Care Centre, mental health and addictions services will be moved to the repurposed Bonavista Central High School. The plans for the Dr. Hilda Tremblett Wellness Center are impressive! As well as offices and meeting rooms, the centre will have a gymnasium and a kitchen. When we toured the building, discussions were underway regarding the stage. Will it stay? Will it be repurposed? I hope it stays and becomes part of a community approach to wellness that is open, honest and forward thinking.
During our foundation fundraising efforts and at our board meetings, discussions regarding mental health have been constant. We’ve heard from board members, community members, politicians, and frontline professionals. In every form of media, we hear the stories of people who are choosing to speak up and tell their story of mental health issues. Some stories are triumphant, victorious, & others are heartbreaking and almost too hard to hear. All of the stories are painful and difficult.
The talk regarding mental health over the past year has been intense; it has frankly, left me with more questions than answers. Why do we have such a focus on the need to talk about mental health? Is it because the issues of mental health have traditionally been cloaked in silence? Is it because our vision of a happy, successful individual could not possibly include a mental health issue? Is it because we, in our society and culture, have viewed people afflicted with mental health issues in less than a flattering light? Are we becoming aware that the cost of ignoring mental health is steadily mounting? Are we beginning to see that our mental health, like our physical health, must be monitored and cared for? Are we beginning to see that mental health issues are not just about other people but central to every one of us?
Lots of questions! Two questions keep rising above the others - Are we actually participants in the talk? When does it get personal for us? Can we actually discuss a mental health issue in the same frank manner in which we talk about physical matters? At a recent family gathering, we spent quite a bit of time talking about the best remedies for arthritis, the benefits of a knee replacement, and a host of other physical ailments, but not one mention of the importance of mental health! I believe that if the stigma of mental health is going to dissipate, open and frank discussion regarding mental health must occur. We must begin to share our struggles.
In my next four articles, I will share the stories of three people. All articles are about mental health issues. Let’s see what happens!
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