Remember the Chocolate

As a mental health educator/advocate, inspirational speaker and writer, I often speak to groups including youth, teachers, service providers etc. At the beginning of every presentation I give them chocolate – I mean, what better way to get their attention? But there is a message that goes along with this. They knew they were coming to the talk; they knew I was going to be the speaker, but what they didn’t know was that they were going to get chocolate. This is an example to show that one never knows what’s around the corner so when in times of doubt, when they are struggling and trying to hold on, remember the chocolate.

I also tell them, “I didn’t always feel this way!”

I first wanted to die when I was four years old. I don’t know if at that tender age I truly understood the full concept of death, but I did know I wanted the pain to stop. My four-year-old world was a world of abject poverty, neglect, physical, psychological and sexual abuse. This was my norm.

I was a walking nervous wreck, believing that I was worthless, useless, dumb, ugly and bad. I was always on guard for the next attack, be it loud or violent, or those quiet ones that came in the night. I learned to sleep with one eye open. When awake, wherever I was, I always looked for escape routes and hiding places, be it back alleys, deer trails through a blackberry bush, or behind a mound. I tried to blend into the background and not be noticed. Being noticed meant attention and attention usually meant trouble. I started drinking when I was 12 years old to try to help deal with what was going on in my world. I was just trying to survive.

I became terrified of my world at home and the outside world of “The Others.” I had been told time and time again “Home was the safe place, it’s the outside world that was dangerous.” I realize now this was my parent’s way of making sure I didn’t tell anyone what was going on at home. It worked, and it would be decades before I would speak of it.

Fast forward thirty-five years later and my past was catching up with me. It kept leaking into the seams of my life and as hard as I tried, I could no longer bury or run from my past. I had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and my world came tumbling down around me. No matter how much I tried, I could no longer work and had to close both my day-care centres. We lost our house, our credit, and my husband’s income was fifty dollars more than what we would get on social assistance. My son, who was sixteen at the time, was battling with his own mental health challenges. We were renting a small house that should have been condemned. We had no car, no phone, needed the food bank, etc. It was a very challenging and bleak time.

I began seeing a psychiatrist and in time he correctly diagnosed me with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. When the diagnosis was made, I let out a huge sigh of relief and thought, Thank God I’m not crazy. Then panicked and thought, Holy shit I must be crazy, as the visions of Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve came to mind. I soon learned that although Hollywood’s versions made for good entertainment, they are not reality.

As scared as I was about all of this, the proverbial penny had dropped and there was no going back. I needed to be authentic with myself if I was to move on, yet this was a very scary place to be. I was exhausted, terrified and had no idea what the future held, and at times wondered, if I did, indeed, have a future. All I knew was that I couldn’t continue on like I was, it was just too painful.

I learned that DID is not a bad thing. While it was interfering with the quality of my present life, creating chaos, affecting my relationships, my family, friends and so on, its original purpose was to help me survive and it did just that.

DID usually occurs before the age of seven and is a survival response in young children to help them survive overwhelming circumstances such as abuse, disorganized attachment to caregivers, children living in a civil war or refuge camps, or children who have, at a very young age, undergone multiple medical procedures.

I often felt shame because I didn’t stop the abuse from happening to me; I didn’t prevent it. I didn’t stop it from happening to my siblings, or my Mom. I carried a huge bag of shame for decades and then felt shame for dissociating because it was interfering with my life, and believed there was something wrong with me. Luckily, my psychiatrist believed differently.

What I didn’t know was that I could not stop dissociating as a child even if I’d wanted to. It was a natural response to the trauma. The brain and nervous centre had already made a deal, that if bad things happened to me that were overwhelming me and there was no escape from, they were taking over and I would dissociate. That is the genius of dissociating.

This is a great survival tool. While dissociation likely saved my life, I paid a price. I fractured and created ‘alters’ (fractured ego states) in order to cope and deal with the overwhelming circumstances I experienced as a child. I could only experience pieces of life. While all my emotions and aspects of my personality were held by my fractured ego states, it was through these fractured ego states that I experienced life. It was not until I was diagnosed that I realized not everyone was like this.

But by then I had spent most of my life being numb. For the first time, I began working at staying in the moment without dissociating, feeling not only the physical but emotional pain of my past. It scared the crap out of me. Without the use of my habitual defence mechanism of dissociation, raw emotions and sensations were being exposed, felt and looked at for the very first time. I think of it as how as addict might feel during recovery. Could I indeed live in the moment and feel life past and present without dissociating? I had never done this before, and the unknown was terrifying. I also knew that the only one who could do this work was me.

This was no easy feat. It took an enormous amount of energy, and the work was unbelievably painful. There were times I wondered if I could do the needed work to get better, and days where I wondered how I was going to get through, let alone get better. Many times it would look like I made progress, then I would slide back down again, then back up I’d climb, then back down again. Sometimes I needed hospitalizations to keep me in a safe and contained space while I processed my past. Slowly but surely, things got better and better.

I am proof of what can happen with the correct diagnosis and support.

But it has not always been an easy journey. Especially in the early days when I was told by some of the public and professionals alike that, “This condition does not exist”, or that I’m “making it all up to get attention.”

In 2005, I took an Outward Bound Canada Women of Courage course. These programs are for women who have experienced trauma or abuse at some point in their lives. The course I was on was an 8-day canoeing course in Algonquin Park. It was amazing and I came back a stronger and more confident person, determined to get better and take my healing journey to the next level.

I started looking around to see who would want to hear my story, and who would be helped by my story. Believe me, it was hard sell but I believed I had something of value to say and I kept looking for an in Finally, one of my emails got a positive answer and one of my first speaking engagements was to a women’s psychology class at the local college.

After that presentation there weren’t any more bites, so, being the person I am, in 2007 I thought Why not go at the top? At that time CBC radio had a program called Out Front. I figured I had nothing to lose, I sent them a pitch and told them that I wanted to help educate the public and professionals alike, and that I wanted others to know they are not alone. No one was more surprised than me when they replied back that they wanted to do the piece. It aired in September 2008.

In 2018, a friend nominated me for the Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Award which I was awarded. I gave my acceptance speech to a room of 1800 people. Thirty-six hours after that night, I was on my way to realize my lifelong dream of going to Ireland and spent ten amazing weeks there. In September 2019, I joined Outward Bound Canada and other amazing folks on the Tour Du Mont Blanc trek as a fundraiser for Outward Bound Canada charitable programs. Like seriously, never in my life did I ever think I would write that line, let alone actually be there!

My life has gone from surviving to thriving. Life is now more about adventures then about survival. I am more connected to myself, my family and loved ones and the world in general. It is wonderful. Sure, I still have tough times and struggle, and when I do, I pull in my supports, take care of myself, and do the work that is needed. And I also know that I never know what “chocolate moment” is around the corner, be it seeing the beauty in every day, dew drop on a spider web, a hummingbird flying above me, a walk on the beach or another adventure. So, I continue to do my work so that I can be ready for that time. And like chocolate, it’s always sweet.