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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Most recent articles are at the bottom
Claire’s Story - Part I
By Bruce Mercer
Anxiety has always been a part of Claire’s life. She cannot remember a time when she didn’t feel its presence. Part of a wonderful family, Claire loved her older sister, her mom and dad. She was a happy child and anxiety didn’t become an issue until kindergarten. The tummy aches started and she would frequently want to stay home. As the years went by, even with anxiety ever-present, Claire did well in school. She had good friends, loved sports and music, and received good grades-except in math.
Things changed in middle school. The anxiety became more acute. Public speaking of any kind was a nightmare. The certainty that everyone was watching, led her to avoid public events whenever possible. Her friends were good to her but were puzzled when Claire avoided social events. When playing volleyball, she was very confident and the anxiety abated. After the game was over, the only anxiety free-zone was her bedroom.
It would be math that pushed Claire to choose a strategy that helped with the anxiety. Faced with an intimidating math teacher, she voted with her feet. She skipped math class whenever she could. A private math tutor noticed a marked difference in her performance when working alone compared to her marks on a test done in the classroom. Her struggles in math got people’s attention. In grade ten, Claire was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and things began to change. Testing with the guidance counsellor showed her to be an above average student who needed accommodations to deal with anxiety. It worked. Claire graduated high school in 2017 with an 82% average in math.
In the fall of 2017, Claire moved to St. John’s to attend the Centre For Nursing Studies. Her plan was to study to be a licensed practical nurse. Many of her high school friends moved to St. John’s in various academic pursuits, and together they enjoyed an active social life - for three weeks. Then, the unthinkable happened. A close friend was driving home to their town and was killed in a tragic car accident. Claire was inconsolable and at the urging of mom and dad, she transferred her studies to a hometown college.
Although surrounded by family and loved ones, the trauma of losing her friend was far-reaching. She was convinced that there must have been something that she could have done to prevent the accident. Most of her friends were in St. John’s and she felt completely alone. Soon, she was in the midst of full blown depression. Placed on medication, Claire struggled through the day. She attended classes, and went home. Her hygiene suffered, her work-outs stopped and she isolated herself as much as possible. Highly anxious and depressed, Claire knew that she was in trouble. But she didn’t want to be a bother; she wanted to handle things herself.
December arrived and with it came the school break. With no classes to attend, Claire had a full day with no distractions. She had always loved Christmas, but Christmas of 2017 was a struggle. Her friends wanted to see her; she avoided them. Her family tried to include her in their celebrations but she longed to be alone. She was silent with no energy. Everyone was worried and knew that Claire was not okay. Christmas day was the hardest. The brightness of the holiday contrasted with the bleakness within. Destructive, persistent thoughts plagued Claire. On Boxing Day, 2017, she began to formulate a plan.
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Claire’s Story - Part II
By Bruce Mercer
On December 26, Claire started to formulate a plan. To ensure her secret was safe, she used her personal computer. She researched meticulously. Claire, then, composed good-bye notes to her family and friends. The next few days went by slowly; each day a grey misery. Her mother and father kept a close eye on her and tried to convince her that things would get better. At the end of December, Claire made plans to go out with friends. Plans that she had no intention of keeping. She cleaned her room and laid out an outfit. When opportunity presented itself, Claire carried out her plan.
Claire woke up in the Intensive Care Unit of the Health Science Centre in St. John’s on December 31, 2017. She was a very sick young woman.
Claire states that after being released from ICU, the hard part began. The search for medication to alleviate depression and anxiety started on a trial and error basis. It took time and the process worked. Therapy began at once at the Waterford hospital and in her hometown. Shaken to their very core, her family and friends surrounded her. Secrets were no longer secrets and Claire made steady progress. She resumed her classes. Teachers and staff at the college were amazing, they supported her in every way possible. In March, Claire and her family went with friends to Florida and her need for independence began to assert itself. By April, 2018, Claire felt that she was on her feet.
Ten months later, Claire sat with me looking out at the ocean and the hills. She is a beautiful young woman; articulate and seemingly, at ease. After hearing her story, I asked her, “Were you anxious about coming here today?” - “Yes, I was very anxious,” she said, and smiled, “but I came anyway.”
Her comment was so simple. It embodied her determination that is crystal clear. Anxiety, and its close relative, depression, will not win. To ensure this, Claire has learned (and continues to learn) powerful strategies which enable her, not just to cope, but to thrive. Work with your doctors to find the right medication. Take the medication as prescribed regularly and without fail. Be honest with your doctors. Hold nothing back even if it seems trivial. Find the therapist who can help you and work the strategies that you learn. At one point, Claire started a sentence with “I tell my anxiety….” When she finished, I asked her, “You talk to your anxiety?” “Yes, I do,” she said. “Talking to it reduces its power and its size. I let it know that I am in control.”
Medication is good. Therapy works. Daily action is required. There can be no self-isolation. Social contact is essential. Exercise and physical activity is vital. Talk! Articulate! Do not keep it inside and let its power build. Does Claire struggle with this? Yes. The struggle is daily and the rewards are incredible.
Claire speaks openly and with great candor. However, there is something I have not yet conveyed in this story. Claire’s love and appreciation for her mother and father are incandescent. It permeates every aspect of her dialogue. She seems to feel that the two, having once given her life, have now given it back to her again. I suspect that they would proudly say, “Claire, you’re taking it back yourself!”
Claire graduated in December of 2018 and now works as a licensed practical nurse. Thanks for talking to me, Claire.
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Mental Health & Addictions
by Bruce Mercer
I have shared three stories in the last four articles of people who have struggled with mental illness. A story of bouts of depression successfully managed; one of a man whose life was defined by his illness; and the story of Claire whose struggles took her to the brink and back. Now, I will tell you what I have learned from telling my story and hearing the story of others.
The first insight that has come my way is that as well as talking, we must be willing to hear. Oddly enough, after hearing Tessie tell Bobby’s story, and listening to Claire, my struggles seem diminished. The perspective is different. It takes up a smaller space in my head. I like that!
The second thing that became abundantly clear to me is the desire of the struggling person to handle problems on his/her own, before diagnosis and even after. Claire tells me that in the midst of full blown depression, she wanted to handle things herself. She did not want to talk. We will never know what Bobby kept to himself until his behaviour demonstrated the need for intervention. As for myself, I spoke to nobody; not family and not friends. When my wife gently told me that she thought I was depressed, there was not a long conversation. I was so exhausted that talking would have taken a superhuman effort.
But why didn’t I talk afterwards? When I was feeling well again? I can think of three people who I told. Apart from that, I remained silent. I am certainly not the only one. I do believe that the need for privacy (secrecy?) is symptomatic of depression, but there is another component. There are real risks. What will be the response of the people who hear? When Claire’s situation became dramatically evident, most people responded with love and support. Not everyone. There was judgment. Some thought she was attention seeking. In my case, did I remain silent because I feared judgment? You bet I did. As a teacher with aspirations of being a principal, did I share my experience? No. Would my written references be as glowing if the writer knew? Would an interview panel for the position of principal see me or my depression? I took no chances. Was I right? You decide. There are real benefits in speaking out but the risks are also real.
Through this experience, I have gained a glimpse into the families that surround a person with mental health issues. The toll on Tessie and Claire’s family cannot be fully described. The sadness is heartbreaking. There is financial loss. And the guilt! The guilt is everywhere. For the first time, I consider the cost of depression on my family. And, also, on the school that I ran. I remember being on autopilot. I was not fully present.
Kind of grim, isn’t it? Perhaps it is better to let the monster of mental illness linger on the sidelines of our life, where we only have to glimpse it, and not look it fully in the face. Claire is not choosing to do that. Neither is her family. Tessie is not choosing to do that. She loves Bobby and will do what she can for him as long as she can. I am no longer silent.
We must talk. We must listen. Actively listen. If we choose to talk and to listen, we may get to see a new view. A view where the power of an illness is diminished and suffering is replaced with a life of joy and purpose.
Article 6 of 6
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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