According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, by age forty, approximately fifty percent of the population will have experienced mental illness or injury. My husband, Jeremy, and I both made the cut. Both of our health issues stem from our work. While serving in Afghanistan in 2004, Jeremy contracted a parasite. In 2005, he was left with a permanent ileostomy and subsequently developed anxiety and depression. I have an occupational stress injury attributed to workplace harassment for which I received Worker’s Safety and Insurance Board benefits.
We are the parents of four beautiful children ages 15, 11, and twins, 9. Jeremy is a Colonel in the Canadian Forces and I am a vice-principal in an Ottawa secondary school. Jeremy and I once believed that any obstacle was surmountable with hard work and a positive attitude. We now have different beliefs about resilience and perseverance.
We wrote our story together to share how we progressed through our injuries and empowered one another. We also wanted to share a message about the importance of seeking treatment and asking for help.
When I met Jeremy he was a young lieutenant in the Canadian Forces. His kind eyes and sweet smile captured my heart immediately. Confident and extroverted, he set high expectations for himself and others.
The morning he left for Afghanistan is a dismal memory; the Defence Minister stoically discussed expected casualty rates. A reporter peppered me with questions. “We just got married two weeks ago,” was all I mustered as I watched Jeremy disappear into a crowd of soldiers boarding a bus. My head was full of worries that day: roadside bombs, rocket attacks, vehicle accidents, but never a thought of Jeremy returning home physically and mentally ill.
The first symptoms of physical illness emerged on Christmas Day 2003, two months shy of his return home. He called, breathless, “Totally out of commission. I don’t know what’s going on with my gut – I’m going through hell,” and intermittently, this would be the state of affairs for the next year.
By September 2005, Jeremy was on an operating table having a life-saving surgery to remove his colon. I envisioned this surgery as a first step towards peace and recovery, but the surgery led to immense grief. My 195 pound, 6’1 soldier, who did not believe in ‘things like depression” was angry, unkind to care providers, hissing at visitors, and staring blankly at family members. When I sought reassurance, his surgeon fumbled for the words to explain his state: “It is bad.” The recovery was slow and painful. There was a nasty withdrawal from pain medicine. There were many shuffles backwards. Even the eventual release from the hospital went poorly; he was rerouted back to emergency and diagnosed with a blockage of the small intestine not even an hour after his release.
I was ill-equipped for supporting Jeremy the way he needed to be supported; I had no training in mental health or personal experience with mental illness.
I would say all the things you are not supposed to say. “Try to relax,” “Try to eat really healthy and try to be really positive.” Essentially, I would speak to Jeremy as if his despair was something he could will himself out of if he just ‘kept trying’.
Jeremy was hopeful. He believed his condition was reversible: “This is not permanent. I’m going to get a reversal. I’ll be able to do everything I did before.” As quick as the hopeful sentiments would come, the path under us would erode. As he inched towards a reconnection opportunity, he learned that he was developing pre-cancerous cells and required a permanent ostomy.
Over the next five years, I often saw Jeremy standing in front of the mirror in the washroom inspecting his renovation. “Does it bother you, this thing?” he would ask me, pointing to his ileostomy. I would always tell him the truth, “Never. It saddens me that you’ve had to go through this, but I am grateful that we have you.”
Robin was an incredible support.
I went on to require four additional surgeries from complications; I continue to navigate the dietary restrictions and limitations of my injury, but these paled in comparison to the mental health impacts that came with the vulnerability of coming close to death, and the grief of losing my colon.
To heal and help others, Robin and I provided support to other soldiers with service-injuries like mine. Our first group was called, “Soldiering through IBDs (inflammatory bowel disease)” and we met a few families and soldiers who were on the same journey as I and who were eager to be united with people who understood. We began running in races together; we had matching shirts with slogans like, “No colon, still roll’n”. She is hard on herself, but Robin was the cog that held it all together.
The most important thing that Robin did was that she held me capable as her partner, a father, and a soldier, and by holding onto high expectations, she showed me that I could still achieve all the same things that I had been able to do before being sick. I was just doing those things with a different body and new mindset.
These past few years, I have been given the opportunity to support Robin. Robin is a quiet overachiever. Moving from a teacher role to department head to curriculum coach to vice principal in a five-year timeframe, she was highly respected by colleagues and supervisors. Known as an innovator, and for being tech savvy, she would pour hours into her work to make life better for students and staff.
Everyone was astonished by her ability to multitask. After giving birth to our second child, Robin completed a Master’s of Education degree in two years. She did so while pregnant with twins, parenting two other children and working full time. Being her partner has been magical; she gives incredible energy and love to our children and family and insists on a high professional commitment. Robin’s professional and personal world changed when Robin became the victim of workplace harassment.
After I was harassed, I was bombarded with trauma symptoms. I relived the harassment over and over, and could think about little else. I struggled to be in the room where I was abused. I experienced cognitive dissonance. The workplace that I had amassed so many positive experiences in felt negative. I avoided any place where I may see my abusers, and this caused me to become alienated from a lot of my peers. It was a challenge to manage the symptoms from the initial harm while simultaneously navigating the stigma that arose after it happened. The harassment was overt; many people knew about it. People made assumptions about my health and my capabilities. Others weighed in more directly. I was advised by some people not to report it: “Don’t die on that hill; let it go.” Despite good intentions, some people linked my victimization with a professional setback. A mentor hugged me and said, “You can still recover your career – just start a cool initiative.” Another said, “They’ll forget in five years.” At first, I tried to be optimistic. I imagined an outcome where I would receive an apology, my dignity would be restored, and everything would be normal again. It took a long time, but eventually I accepted that while I was powerless to change the situation, I could take steps to make myself more resilient to it.
I surrounded myself with people who believed in me and who helped me heal. Jeremy, my family, and my closest friends rooted for me and stood by my side.
I received a lot of support from healthcare providers. I was diagnosed with OSTSRD (Other-specified traumatic-stress related disorder), as well as anxiety and depression. I started medication shortly after I was first harassed, and I took it for more than two years. The medication made me tired and I gained over seventy pounds, but it dulled the grief I felt about the abuse and the impact it would have on my career.
My family doctor was phenomenal. I saw a wonderful trauma therapist who helped me to be comfortable in my own skin again. After the WSIB investigated and concluded that I was harassed and subsequently injured, they connected me with an outstanding psychologist who helped me find a positive path forward. This past year I have made many gains. I completed a year of cognitive behaviour therapy. I routinely set achievable, but challenging goals for myself. I have stopped taking the medication. I have also lost thirty pounds, and have adopted a healthier lifestyle. I insist on a better work-life balance. I even have an “I don’t list” (e.g. I don’t work all weekend; I don’t miss my children’s important milestones for work). Lastly, I have forgiven the people who caused the harm.
I could not have achieved this without Jeremy. Together, we started a group called Workplace Harassment Survivors and Thrivers, an online Facebook group to support others in the mental healing journey from harassment. The group has one rule: we do not relive the intimate details of the harassment behaviour – we move forward. All of our energy and power goes into achieving daily successes.
For sure, our future is different than what we imagined. When we walked down the aisle together, we were prepared for a smoother ride. Today, we both live with disabilities, but we are fully present in the ‘yes, me’ stage instead of the “why me?” phase. We look for opportunities to do our best. I strive to be the best father, husband, and son possible so that I can model this for our children and show them that there is no shame or stigma in mental health injury and illness. I also speak openly to other soldiers about mental health and workplace injury. I do not hide the fact that I have a physical disability either.
Stigma does not stop us. With family, friends and colleagues, I live my journey out loud with my head held high. I am transparent about my mental health injury, and unafraid to share that it is caused from harassment. At home, we talk to our children about visiting mental health professionals. Our children take part in conversations about mental health upkeep, and we treat mental health issues with the same seriousness as we treat physical health concerns.
Together, we are Unsinkable!