Ever since I was a child, I knew I related to the world differently than those around me. I was always the kid on the outside fringes, being bullied and yearning for acceptance from the common crowd. A problem child, as my parents would remark. I remember being full of anger and defiant. I felt as though I had little control over my mood. Self-regulation was something that escaped me.
While in school, I went through the process of a psycho-educational assessment with the goal of providing support. The result gave me a designation of “behavioural” - a catch-all term for students experiencing a range of challenges including mood instability, opposition to authority, anger and so forth. I was provided with withdrawal support until high school, when I lost that vital support.
As my challenges continued to evolve, so did the confusion of how best to approach them. I became increasingly isolated from my peers, as a form of defense. Physical signs of severe anxiety developed, both in the form of panic attacks and a constant tremor. I was focused on the genesis of my trauma, going back into my childhood. I saw this as the answer. My parents wanted me to focus on my studies, while seeking support outside of the school system.
Adding to my ever-increasing anxiety was the process of coming out as bisexual. I had begun engaging in self-harm practices as a way to cope. As well, I was introduced to the club circuit and drug use. To me, it was the perfect combo of someone battling serious social anxiety to gain the acceptance of others.
I used multiple forms of escapism as a way to cope with everyday life, unsettling events and further trauma. I lacked the skills to effectively regulate my mood or to connect authentically with others. This lasted for years, as I grew increasingly attached to the man who would become my husband. I saw his presence in my life was a force that would normalize my existence. All I wanted was to be “normal”.
I would develop a dependency upon my ex-husband that would prove to be unhealthy. There was love in our shared reality, but I would continue to be defiant. I would tell myself I was hanging on to a sense of individuality, but really I was avoiding pursuing concrete help for what was proving to be a debilitating mental illness.
My reluctance to admit the truth of what was going on with me was further compounded with my testing HIV-positive, a few short months after our wedding. This caused me to detach further from my partner and instead seek comfort in substance abuse. My mood swings had become more extreme and I had abandoned the notion of addressing my mental illness.
For years, I had participated in a number of philanthropic initiatives involving HIV/AIDS. Yet no matter how educated I thought I was, I was not at all prepared for testing positive and understanding all of what that meant.
A traumatic event occurred during this time would cause me to further isolate. I eventually left my ex-husband. I saw my departure from my marriage as a way of protecting my ex-husband. While the end of our marriage was something that would protect our enduring friendship, I could have gone about it differently.
While I was on the right course regarding my HIV primary care, I still had to tackle the unraveling of my mind. I was convinced that given my history of substance abuse, that the key to finding wellness was solely rooted in 12-step communities. I completely immersed myself in service, working the steps and staying accountable to a sponsor. For a time, it did work; for almost three years, in fact, until it did not work.
"Firstly, I had to accept all of my various diagnoses and their subsequent treatment. I had to accept being HIV+. I had to accept being bipolar. I had to accept living with severe anxiety and PTSD. This does not mean that I have to define my identity around my various challenges, but it is more of an exercise in being gentle with myself."
For the time I was abstinent from drugs and alcohol, I was continuing to experience some concerning mood instability. I was having suicidal ideations. I was not able to sleep during the night, sometimes for days at a time. I was increasingly erratic, even angry. I would also describe these periods as a state of euphoria. My spending would take an uptick, usually on things I did not need.
This would be followed by weeks of feeling depressed. I was inactive, would not participate in activities that I enjoyed and my appetite shrunk. I felt hopeless. I could not understand after making such a bold decision to stay sober, why was I feeling this way?
Unless sobriety wasn’t the answer for me. At least, not completely.
I eventually had what some would call a breakdown. I had turned once again to substance abuse as a way of regulating my mood. This led me to seeking out more targeted help. This led me to the HIV psychiatry clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital here in Toronto.
I’ve mentioned in a previous post how this clinic gave me a safe space to discover my own identity, while grasping the depth of my various mental illnesses. This clinic has saved my life and given me new perspective on not only the pervasiveness of my challenges, but also how to lay a strong foundation from which to deal with life itself.
My road map to wellness involved walking through a lot of pain and misunderstanding. That being said, it has also emboldened my resolve to move through life with optimism. There are several core principles that ground me.
Firstly, I had to accept all of my various diagnoses and their subsequent treatment. I had to accept being HIV-positive. I had to accept being bipolar. I had to accept living with severe anxiety and PTSD. This does not mean that I have to define my identity around my various challenges, but it is more of an exercise in being gentle with myself. Part of this acceptance meant being open about my experiences to counter stigma, while creating a safe space for me to be my whole self.
Connected to feeling safe in the spaces I occupy, was the growing need to form a rigorous interdependence. This meant I had to know when to ask for help. Before I was properly diagnosed and treated for my mental illnesses, I rarely reached out when in crisis. Even now, I am not perfect at it. That being said, I don’t need to be. I have grown increasingly confident in connecting with my support system, before a crisis would occur.
Being interdependent also means knowing when not to ask for assistance. It means standing strong, or even vulnerable, on my own. I love my alone time. As quirky as I am, I am quite introverted. I have come to embrace this part of my personality. I must also balance this with the everyday impact of living with severe anxiety. Therapy has allowed to understand the nuances of it all. I now know when to pull myself out of a situation that is unsettling. I also know when I need to recharge by diving into my solitude. I can pull myself out, when it feels comfortable to do so.
These core principles also help to define my standards for success. Before my time at Mount Sinai, I wasn’t sure just how successful I would be in life. Success was always tied to academics or upward movement in my career. The work I did on myself revealed that I had to diversify those standards. Now, they are founded on creating stability in my life. Tied very closely to that is telling myself that I am enough as I am. From this concerted practice, I have seen much success in all areas of my life. It may seem like a minimalist approach, but it works for me.
My challenges have been growth opportunities. I have gratitude in my heart for all that I have been taught. I have an abundance of hope for my future, because I feel that I am more in control of my fate.