Bringing Mental Health Back To Basics

Imagine living in a world where you’ve just come down with the flu, except, you have never heard of the flu or the symptoms, and you have never knowingly met someone who has experienced it. The only thing you know, above all else, is that something is wrong. The shivers, the pain, and the head fog are present, real, and all-consuming. Your body weighs a million pounds and you start to become unsure whether you’ll ever feel healthy again. This is what growing up with bipolar and generalized anxiety disorder looks like.

With a career trajectory aimed at working in the commercial art industry, being a mental health advocate was an unlikely vocation. It wasn’t until my brother died in May 2016 that I started putting my life into perspective, realizing that I wanted to find a way to help others in a way that I could not help him. As a result, I founded an organization called Twentytwenty Arts in May 2018 (which produces socially conscious art projects raising awareness for mental health, addiction, and homelessness), and started educating myself on lifestyle hacks (like exercise, meditation, nutrition, and mindset practices) to mitigate my mental health. Through hard work, resilience, and trial and error, I began to heal.It is my life’s mission to help others tap into their internal strength, disallowing a diagnosis or circumstance to define who they are.

KNOWLEDGE VERSUS EXPERIENCE

Growing up, I was never taught about mental health, depression, or anxiety, let alone bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness for that matter. My lack of mental health knowledge forced me to consider the symptoms that started arising in my teenage years as personality flaws. To me, they were personal failings. In retrospect, my symptoms were present in every friendship, relationship, and decision that I made. I always thought that these symptoms were me; I never once considered that they were happening to me, or that I could have any control over them.

As far back as 15 years old, I felt paralyzed by my emotions. Small irritations turned into major events, and my emotional reactions were never on par with the situation at hand. Whenever I found myself in an argument (many of which I had started), I would go silent for hours. I felt verbally paralyzed and unable to speak. While I felt my emotions very intensely, I had no way of communicating them. Despite the conflict, turmoil, and uneasiness, I always assumed that this behaviour was normal. What did I have to compare it to? This was me. This was how I had always been. It wasn’t until I started my undergraduate degree at OCAD University that I started to realize that this was more than just a personality flaw.

My first revelation was on an overcast autumn afternoon. By all appearances, everything in my life was perfect: I was in a university program that I loved, I lived with people I adored, and my days were coloured with new experiences. By every measure, life was good. But on my way to class one day, I started crying—more accurately, sobbing—uncontrollably in the middle of the street. What was going on? Why was I feeling this way? Everything in my life pointed to fulfillment and happiness, so why did I feel like the world was ending? Why did I feel like I couldn’t breathe? Why did I feel like I didn’t want to live anymore? And why did I only feel like this some of the time?

When I wasn’t falling into a depressive slump, my mania allowed me to feel grandiose, powerful, and deeply connected to my external environment. I felt unstoppable. I distinctly remember walking home from painting class on the first warm day of the season, feeling like there was no barrier between where my body ended and my environment began. The sun on my skin gave me an elated sense of euphoria I have difficulty explaining to this day. That day, I went home and re-organized my entire room. With an endless bounty of energy, I had several sleepless nights. The cycle of highs and lows was in full swing, and was only going to get worse.

A MOMENT OF CLARITY

After several extreme episodes of mania and depression, I decided to do some research and came across generalized anxiety and bipolar disorder. Every description of the symptoms felt like reading a play-by-play about my life and personality (of course, I would never suggest that anyone self-diagnose themselves, but a bit of preliminary research can be useful prior to meeting with a therapist). This revelation started an internal dialogue around where Megan began and the illness ended. A symptom of being manic is a disconnection with reality, inflating scenarios and circumstances to the point of delusion—I did that a lot. As a result, I stopped trusting myself, and never knew whether my emotional responses were justified or rational. Instead of turning in and looking to heal myself, I turned to mutually destructive friendships, partying, and recreational drugs.

Mental health and addiction are very closely related, and addiction is something I have struggled with my entire life. When I was young, I used food, friendships, and romantic relationships to soothe me. I did not like the way that my mental health made me feel, so I never gave it any room to breathe. As I got older, I started filling up that space with people, alcohol, and drugs. Nothing moved me farther away from being who I wanted to be than allowing myself to indulge in ‘feel good’ drugs. Not only did they exacerbate my emotional volatility, they disallowed me to instil routine, order, or practical mechanisms in my life that would have enabled me to come face-to-face with my emotions.

THE TURNING POINT

At twenty-five, having graduated from my undergraduate degree and Master of Arts in the UK, I was barely keeping my head above water. I had just moved back to Toronto and I was as volatile as ever. But despite the constant ups and downs, at very least I was slowly starting to differentiate between logic and emotion. I knew that even though I felt depressed, it didn’t mean that there needed to be a reasonable explanation for it. I was slowly starting to put the pieces together and then in May 2016, I received a phone call that would change the rest of my life: my big brother Jay had died.

The news broke me. I had always looked up to and tried to protect my big brother, and I felt like I had failed. Every day felt like a nightmare that I wasn’t able to wake up from. He was my first thought upon waking, and my last thought before going to sleep. Jason was a beautiful human being. He was creative, intelligent, and kind, but struggled with addiction his entire life. I felt guilty. What if I had been there? What if I had said something? I spent the next seven months struggling to keep the negative thoughts at bay, and at every turn they seemed to be winning. I kept reliving the week leading up to, the day of, and the week after his death over and over again in my head. I was making myself sick.

Seven months after his death, I realized that I had to make a choice. I was either going to allow his death to destroy me, or I was going to do my best to make him proud. I realized that I had spent so much time thinking about his death that I had completely forgotten about his life. I had been so consumed by my sadness that I had forgotten to remember the good times—the gratitude of having him in my life in the first place. It was this simple shift in perspective that changed the rest of my life and my relationship with my mental health.

I would never want to insinuate that mental health is solely about a perspective, because it isn’t, but we also get to choose what we focus our energy on. We are the masters of our own lives, and even despite our mental illnesses, we have agency. I always knew that meditation, positive mindset practices, exercise, and healthy eating were scientifically proven to aid in mitigating my mental health symptoms, and I was willing to give it everything I had. I woke up early to exercise and meditate, changed my diet, and spent my spare time working on a project raising awareness for mental health. I realized that life was short, and that in order to be a better member of my community, a better friend, and family member, I had to start taking my mental health seriously. I started to wake up every morning feeling like I had purpose. I started speaking kindly to myself.

I started treating myself like someone I loved, instead of someone I hated.

I started being grateful for every privilege I had previously neglected. I started experimenting with my life, seeing what did and did not work for me. I cut out coffee and realized it was a major anxiety trigger for me. I started a ketogenic diet and noticed a major improvement in my mental clarity. I started going for daily walks and it helped my mood and motivation. I started to open my mind, and became willing to do anything to mitigate my mental health symptoms and take control of my life.

CONTINUOUS EFFORT

Before my brother died, it was my habit to put happiness on the other side of a goal or destination: I will be happy when I get a new job, find my dream partner, buy my dream home. The problem with this mentality is that it reinforces our habit of pushing happiness over the horizon, so that when we finally arrive, we are still in the mentality of seeking. I am learning to be at peace with where I am, when I am where I am. I am learning to be present in my relationships with my loved ones. I am learning to be grateful for the little things: a roof over my head, clean running water, and my health. When I fall into an inevitable depressive slump, I sit with it, and give myself the patience and space I need, reminding myself that “this too shall pass.”

Despite several attempts at therapy and medication—where therapy was inaccessible and medication far too accessible—I presently use neither to support my mental health. I consider myself lucky. I have developed a formula that works for me, and it revolves around returning ‘back to basics’. I have spent the better part of the past four years reading, researching, and studying how nutrition, exercise, and meditation can support your mental health. It means eating whole, plant-based foods, moving for a minimum of two hours a day, meditating for at least one, and stepping away from technology to allow myself to be creative again. It’s not easy, because mitigating your mental health through lifestyle is about continuous effort.

Don’t start tomorrow; start right now. It isn’t going to feel comfortable, but do it anyway. Stay open, question your habits, and never be married to any single way of living. Healing yourself, whether it is through lifestyle changes or medication, is the bravest thing you can do for the people you love. You have to prioritize yourself in order to prioritize others. Thanks to a daily practice of self-care and personal development, I finally had the strength to stand up and use my skills to raise awareness for mental health, addiction, and homelessness.