Living With An Attitude of Gratitude

Anita Manley, Mental Health Advocate, Public Speaker

This is a story of how I became one of the FACES of Mental Illness in Canada.

I enjoyed a happy and healthy childhood and was loved unconditionally by my adoptive parents, Teresa and Bill. In high school, I excelled in sports (swimming, water polo, soccer, tennis and skiing, to name a few) and I was an honour student. Mental illness did not rear its ugly head until I was at the University of Western Ontario, living in residence and striving to get enough sleep as I shared a small room with a roommate for the first time in my life. I struggled to keep my head above water but ended up receiving failing grades and was asked to take a year off. So, in the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, I travelled to Paris, where I studied in French and worked as a “jeune fille au pair”.

While in Paris, I decided to fly to Montreal for the weekend to visit my boyfriend for his birthday. I was back to work on Tuesday morning in Paris, and that trip proved to be completely devastating to my mental health. I learned years later that change of time zones can have a profound negative effect on people with bipolar disorder. Soon, while in Paris, I became more and more depressed. I had to return home to my parents in Burlington, ON at Christmas since I was so ill. By early January, I’d attempted suicide and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. I spent my 21st birthday on a psychiatric unit, scared, alone, much younger than anyone else and feeling like a complete failure. I didn’t have a job, wasn’t studying, and had broken up with my then boyfriend. But I still had so much to live for, I just wanted all the pain I was feeling to go away. Now, this was the 80s, so strangely enough, I wasn’t diagnosed, or medicated at the hospital – just group therapy, which I found to be almost useless for my condition at the time. One thing I did learn though, is not to see things as failures “per se” but instead, view them as setbacks. I found this to be most helpful in life and have passed this lesson onto my daughters. Soon, I was discharged to the care of my parents. I improved by the spring of 1986, when my mood naturally elevated, by summer I was working and by fall I moved to Ottawa to complete my studies in Communications at Carleton University.

For a long period of time, my life was fairly “normal”, though I did have very strong emotions. My mood dipped during the winter months, but I managed to complete my degree just one year behind my peers and I held a part-time job to pay for rent and other expenses. I also met a young man, Greg Manley, who was studying architecture. After graduation, I worked for the government, and in December of 1989, Greg and I married, then moved to Calgary, AB.

I gave birth to two healthy, beautiful daughters (Nicola, 1992 and Julia, 1995) while living and working out west.

Sadly, 1995 was a very stressful year for me. In January, I lost my dad to cancer. We were very close, so this loss seared my soul. Then, I reconnected with my birth mother around the same time that I was about to give birth to Julia. We also bought our first home and I decided to stay home with the children. Also, I found I was secretly, very unhappy in my marriage. I sensed I was living alone in the marriage. But how could I even contemplate divorce? I was raised Roman Catholic, married in a Catholic church, and I didn’t even have my confidante, my father, to talk to about my feelings of doubt. My head was spinning trying to decide what to do. Then in 1997, just past my daughter Julia’s second birthday, I became depressed. My family doctor thought it was postpartum depression, so she gave my a prescription for an anti-depressant. I took one pill and became immediately mercurial. Speeding thoughts, elated, pressured speech, full of fantastical ideas… and I could not sleep. I went on like this for weeks until my sister-in-law, a nurse, asked me to go back to see my doctor. At this point, my family physician sent me to a psychiatrist. I was frightened and embarrassed by my bizarre behaviour, however as most people who experience mania will tell you — I felt on top of the world. I perceived myself as beautiful, sexually attractive and intelligent. Overflowing with self-confidence, if you will. After a couple of months more of not being able to sleep, I was admitted to the Foothills Hospital, on the psychiatric unit and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was medicated, received lots of talk therapy, and after 2.5 weeks, came to the conclusion that divorce was the best option for me, with shared custody of the children. This all took time as first I had to fully recover from my illness. So, once recovered, we sold the house and moved into separate residences with shared custody of the girls. We decided as a family to move east to be closer to relatives, so in December of 1998, we moved back to Ottawa into separate residences.

For a couple of years, all was good: I was working full time, parenting part-time and taking my medication religiously.

Then, around 2000, I started having delusions: they were not persistent in the early years, but they were confusing and scary nonetheless.

I believed that everyone I encountered (including my children, my family, all my friends and strangers) had these transceivers in their ears, and they would deliver messages to me from people I knew but could not see. It is very difficult to explain– I would not hear “voices”, rather, I would hear the words my friends were saying to me, but I thought the words were coming from someone else. I was angry and frustrated that I could not have a direct conversation with these people I could not see. These were troubling times for sure and it became VERY hard on my daughters as the years went on.

By 2008, my life was in complete turmoil. Due to severe and persistent mental illness, I had lost my ability to work, my ability to parent (both daughters were living with their dad full time), and eventually my ability to pay my bills. I was about to be evicted from my apartment when my psychiatrist enforced an order against me, for psychiatric evaluation—and this would be carried out by the police. So, as I was lying in bed one night in September, there was a knock at my door. I looked through the peephole and saw the police standing there. I thought they had the wrong apartment, since I was a law-abiding citizen. As soon as I opened the door a 6-ft-4 young male officer tackled me, handcuffed me: and that was the last time I saw all of my possessions, including my cat, Raja. I was driven away in the back seat of a police car, not unlike a criminal, for psychiatric evaluation at the hospital. Once there, I refused all treatment: since I wholeheartedly believed the delusions I was having to be true.

After a couple of days of being in hospital, they said there was nothing they could do for me and I was released to the street. Soon, I was living in a women’s emergency shelter and I would remain there for about a year and a half, with an additional year of sleeping in my car. During this period, I had no friends, no contact with my daughters or my family and the only support I had was from people who were paid to care for me. I refused psychiatric care and did not take my medication, since I believed I was healthy. I was right, and everyone else, even those I loved so dearly, were wrong. I didn’t realize that it was because of my illness that I was losing everything important to me. I was angry, so incredibly angry, at these people who I could not see, but who I knew as my “angel family”, and who I blamed for all of this mess.

How did I spend my days? I went to the library daily, read lots of books, watched videos using free internet, wrote in my journal (which was like my best friend), and started listing all the things I was grateful for to raise my spirits. I found that it was only in losing everything, that I was able to be grateful for the smallest of things… which really improved my days.

In fact: being grateful is one of the greatest life lessons that I still practice today.

Eventually, I was causing problems (due to the delusions I was having) with the other residents at the shelter. I was not violent or anything, just disagreeable. Fortunately, I was taken to hospital for psychiatric evaluation (this time in an ambulance) and was kept there for 3 long weeks until I was transferred for more in-depth care at The Royal. My psychiatrist asked me if I ever wanted to see my children again. I was aghast, of course! I certainly wanted to see my children again. “Well then,” she stated, “you will have to take the medication we prescribe, go to all the groups we recommend… and pay heed to our advice.”

This was a powerful and life-changing moment for me! From that instant on, I started willingly to take my medication, challenge all of the delusions I was having (which were growing weak as the medication began to take effect) and participate in every group possible. Also, I discovered the Women’s Resource Centre, where I used the computers to reconnect with family and friends. I remained at The Royal for 7 months… and I am so indebted to them for saving my life.

In July of 2011, my amazingly supportive, then teen-aged daughter Julia, came to visit me at The Royal. It was my first time seeing her in years and we were both fighting back the tears. She has been supporting me with frequent visits ever since then, and is still always in my corner cheering me on. At Thanksgiving, I went home on a weekend pass to visit my mom and brother in Toronto. It was wonderful to reconnect with them, as well. In January, 2012, I moved into my very own apartment and slept in my very own bed for the first time since September 2008.

Can I tell you how much I loved my bed– and my apartment? I was elated, albeit a little apprehensive about moving into my new place — but it was the best move ever. I live in a great neighbourhood, close to shops and buses and I have an amazing view. The apartment is small, but manageable.

Living in a big apartment building has its advantages; I began to make new friends, and reconnected with a handful of old friends (most of my old friends wanted nothing to do with me as they could not cope with my delusions, which often led to arguments and heated discussions). I am very open with everyone in my life about having a mental illness, which is now diagnosed as schizo-affective bipolar disorder. Only during times of increased stress do I experience the same delusions.

In 2015, I was privileged to meet a wonderful man, Ron Greene. We were married in July, 2018 and my family, including my birth mother and her husband, attended our wedding of almost 70 guests. Our family expanded again in October 2018 when my daughter Nicola married Roy on Vancouver Island. Ron and I were delighted to attended her wedding and that was the first time I had seen her in more than 10 years. I was overjoyed. We have been in more regular contact since then, with a budding relationship in progress.

I have been giving back to The Royal as a volunteer since March 2012. I facilitate groups for women in the Women’s Mental Health Program, including a group I co-created called “Journaling as a Wellness Tool”. I speak from a place of experience, inspiring hope in these women through sharing my story.

Ann-Marie O’Brien, Lead of Women’s Mental Health at The Royal, nominated me to be a FACES of Mental Illness in 2019. I was fortunate enough to be named one of five FACES for 2019/20. It has been a wonderful opportunity to meet other inspiring Canadians and to hear their stories of overcoming mental illness and/or addiction to living fulfilling lives of purpose. It has also provided me with a platform to share my story with thousands of Canadians to help decrease the stigma of mental illness.

After all I have lived through, I have found that I am forever grateful for the lessons learned, which have made me the person I am today.

I am kinder, more grateful, show empathy towards others and always cheer for the underdog. I realize that I am incredibly resilient and I have become more comfortable showing my vulnerability while sharing my story with many audiences.

I’m always inspired by these quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” and “A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”

Always live with an attitude of gratitude!

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