Shelley Shocked: This Broken Brain is Beautiful

I’ve just always been told that I’m sick. That I needed to be healed. And I’ve taken it to heart that I’ve been wrong, damaged, and broken my entire life. I believed that I didn’t want to be different.

I noticed I wasn’t normal very early. About age 5 to 6 I realized no one else felt the way I did, other kids were so carefree and happy. I felt weighed down by everything. Like sadness was all around me, crushing me. Depressing me. I only noticed all things sad. I noticed sad people. I noticed war, human conflict, starving children… I didn’t want to be different. I knew I was, but there was no celebration. It was frowned upon to be who I was naturally: very sensitive. “Stop your crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” “There’s nothing to cry about, you have everything you could ever want.” I learned to hide in closets when I felt too emotional. I was found once at school by my principal and sent to a psychiatrist who told my parents that I needed to be toughened up. “Send her to school. Even with a temp of 105.”

I was an extremely observant people-watcher and learned quickly how to ‘act’ appropriately in every situation because people were uncomfortable with my tears. At 6 years old, I became fixated on making sure others were happy because I knew what it felt like not to be. I had access to the feelings of sadness and despair my whole life – my whole beautiful, loving, family-oriented, safe life. I wondered if I would be happy. I wondered if I could be a good parent.

I wore this mask well until my early 20s.

“Happiness is a choice.” No. It isn’t. The easiest way I can explain how I’ve always felt is if we look at emotions as what they are: chemicals and electrical impulses. We learn how to feel when we are babies with feedback from our parents and environment. When our parents smiled at us and laughed, we felt a surge of dopamine and we learned to call this feeling ‘happiness’. I think people with mental illness that isn’t caused by a situation simply have a broken brain that either doesn’t make the ‘good’ chemicals or doesn’t recognize them.

In my teens, I started slipping. I’d get angry. I had to work harder to cover the sadness. I was friends with everyone but felt alone. Boys didn’t like me. I was told that if I wanted boys to like me I had to act less smart. Again, the way I was wasn’t good enough and I needed to hide who I was for others to feel more comfortable. So I worked harder to be perfect. I flew OVER the radar so no one would suspect I was struggling. I was a straight A, award-winning, people-pleasing teacher’s pet. Ugh.

Everyone expected me to do big things. But inside, I was wondering how the heck I would get through the next day. School was easy. Doing a project was easy. Not falling apart was what was hard. Whatever I tried, I was good at. I just couldn’t figure out how to be good at living. I couldn’t be in the moment.

I often feel extreme guilt for not feeling what I’m supposed to be feeling in a situation. I felt like I was being robbed of precious moments.

I’ve been hospitalized several times. I was once hospitalized at Homewood in Guelph in an 8-week program when a doctor pegged me within 5 minutes. “You’re a people pleaser. A ‘good girl’”. He challenged me to break the rules while I was there. I didn’t know it then, but he wanted me to realize that I could survive when things go wrong, or when someone didn’t like me. That I don’t need to exhaust myself just to make the picture look good for everyone else. I started taking chances, making poor decisions, getting a little wild and crazy for me. I even got into a relationship with someone I knew was a risky choice and I ended up having to charge him with criminal harassment. I, stable, smart Shelley, let an abusive person into my life. But I still always saw the good in people. And I like that about me.

My former husband and I separated while I was in a psych ward. I was not in a position to fight. I had spent so much time assigning reasons for my sadness. Like: I’m feeling kind of down, it must be my job – so I’d quit. I’m feeling very uninspired – so I’d break up with a really great guy. Brené Brown says if you walk through the world looking for reasons, you will find them. But they weren’t real for me. I hadn’t accepted the fact that my brain was broken so I didn’t get to FEEL what I should have felt. Why did I spend so many years trying to assign reasons for my sadness? Because I wanted to believe that the agony I felt was because of something real. It wasn’t. It was just depression.

I’m asked often: What it’s like being in a mental hospital? It’s where I get better, but it’s also scary. I’ve often heard people say that high functioning sick people shouldn’t be where the “window lickers” are. The sociopaths. The angry addicts who stare into your eyes while they pee their pants because the one bathroom door is locked. The schizophrenic girl pacing around mumbling to herself not to kill everyone. The man who bursts into your unlocked room at 2 a.m. looking for snuggle time. My heart completely breaks for all of them. For all of US. I am one of them. But it isn’t always these heartbreakingly ill patients whose behaviour is upsetting. They’re all very sick, and I’ve seen with my own eyes the transformation they undergo when they get the treatment they need. It’s literally miraculous. Some became my close friends.

Sometimes it’s the doctors who are scary. The ones who tell you you’re just an attention seeking ‘downer’ or you’re ‘just a woman’, you should be happy to ‘blow’ your man whenever he wants it. I’m glad I didn’t turn treatment away permanently after these horrid experiences with a few professionals. But many do.

I’ve had people threaten to stop being my friend if I accepted electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment. I’ve been judged and shunned and shame has filled my world.

Death has always been an option. I’ll be driving and forcibly resist the urge to smash my car into a bridge. I’ve wished for death to find me so I wouldn’t have to decide to die. I’d even wish for something catastrophic to happen so I could be ill and tired and find healing – guilt free. Then people would help, bring me meals and send their love. I wouldn’t have to hurt my loved ones. It was never that I didn’t want to live. But I couldn’t live in the place my head was. I was looking for relief. Death was relief from not feeling, from emptiness. From looking at my life, my darling Derek and my son and not getting to feel everything I should feel. I didn’t WANT my life to end, but I wanted my life as it was to end.

I’ve been through so many medication trials, suffered some serious side effects, received dozens of rounds of ECT and went through 6 weeks of daily rTMS (Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) treatments 7 times in the last few years. The side effects could be seen as catastrophic but I don’t see them that way anymore. I don’t have many memories of my son growing up, and my memory is spotty at best. I lose entire days, entire meetings. My family understands and takes pictures. Would I do it all again? Yes. Because it means I’m still here to make more memories and to watch my son grow.

Despite my broken brain, I’ve managed to create a really good life. And I somehow created a son who I haven’t ruined. Three years ago, my then 12-year-old son, Zach, spent 29 days running, walking and biking from Barrie to Ottawa to raise funds and awareness for youth mental health. I thought my illness would break him but it didn’t. To date, Zach has raised over $140,000 for the new Child & Youth Mental Health Unit at our local hospital inspired by me. He has created so many conversations about the importance of mental health. He was once quoted saying “If things had been different when my mom was little, maybe her life would have been different.”

I don’t want to be cliché and say that I wouldn’t want things to have changed. What would I want? To have felt accepted. To have felt celebrated. To have felt real. To have felt.

Depression, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported, is now the leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. Think about that for a moment. Depression – not heart disease, not cancer, not stroke – causes more disability than any other health condition on earth. We need to celebrate the survivors of mental illness, the warriors – with cupcakes and casseroles and acceptance. This IS a life and death illness.

It’s taken me over twenty years to find my treatment and my community… and the gift in my broken brain. The true love, connection and acceptance I receive from my friends and family are my gifts. My doctor and the team at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) are there whenever I need them. I have my people who celebrate my last treatments with cupcakes. And I love me. I’m kind, overly sensitive, and empathetic to the point of exhaustion. I’m still a good girl. Sometimes a doormat. I heard a Tony Robbins quote that goes, “Don’t cross oceans for people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for you”, which I thought was good advice. But then someone else countered by saying, “No. Do it. Do cross oceans for people. Love all people. No conditions attached. No wondering whether or not they are worthy. Cross oceans, climb mountains. Love and life isn’t about what you gain; it’s about what you give.” And I changed my mind. Don’t be afraid to change yours.

So, whatever life throws at you, find your own path of healing from whatever ails you and walk to the beat of YOUR drum.