The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow following her interview with Zoë Barnhardt
The first thing I did when I met 23-year-old Zoë in a Victoria coffee shop was wonder how anyone with a smile that big and eyes that warm and welcoming could have struggled with mental health challenges.
Zoë was connected to Unsinkable by Heather Vale, a clinical counsellor I interviewed for another part of this project. All Heather said to me at the time was, “I hope this young woman I’m thinking of will share her story with you because she is amazing.”
After an hour and half in person and another hour on the phone, I can say with full confidence that Heather was right: Zoë is amazing. Here is our conversation:
Can you begin by talking about your role at the Foundry?
I found out about the Foundry years ago from my counsellor. It’s been 5 years and I still go there. It’s a really good place because all of the doctors there and all of the resources there have mental health training.
After a few years, I joined an anxiety management group. It’s a 6-week program called “Creating Calm” and I’ve done it 3 times now. I’m doing it now for a 4th time but it’s in a mentoring role with younger kids.
What does this group look like as a participant?
A lot of it starts with understanding your anxiety. Anxiety is freaking out and nothing makes you freak out more than not understanding what’s going on. So the facilitators break it down basically into why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, why your body is logically doing this, and then taking it from there to figuring out ways individually for every person in the group to create our own tool box for how to manage our anxiety.
So it’s a way of equipping yourself with your own strengths, identifying what those are and how you can apply them to anxiety?
Exactly. There is no one size fits all with anything to do with mental health. What calms one person down might not work for another person at all. The group really helped us all find things that we can do – whether it be a behaviour, or a coping technique, or thought patterns – to bring us back down to a regulated place.
Can you talk about your journey with your mental health?
I was always a perky and happy and outgoing kid. As I entered my teens, and this caught me and my family really off guard, it was kind of like a switch went off around 15 and I was just miserable. And I mean miserable in ways that I had never been miserable before. I could not get out of bed. It was not that I was moping; it was that I was sadder than I have ever been in my life. I could not get out of bed and it would be weeks.
I remember my mom coming into my room when I was 15 and going, “I think you have depression. I think we should go to your doctor.”
And I was shocked. Even after 2 weeks in bed crying all the time, it did not even occur to me that I could be depressed. And I was lucky to have parents who recognized that and who knew the steps to go through. I got sorted out with a therapist, I went on medication, I saw a psychiatrist, I did all the right things.
And for a while that really, really helped. But looking back I can see how progress is not linear; it really is 2 steps forward 1 step back. But I didn’t really know that at the time going through it or if I did I didn’t care. It was frustrating. It seemed like every time I got my medications on a balance that worked for me and I was in a good place and starting to feel okay, everything would come crashing down and I would have to start all over. And I was constantly increasing my medications and trying new ones and working through things in therapy and it was – it IS – so much work.
That can be really frustrating, that looking forward and there not ever being a goal or a finish line.
Was that a built in message in the work and the treatment – however naïve or well-intentioned – that one day this would end? Like if you could just get the right combination of treatments, that you would be ‘cured’ so to speak?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it was what I was expecting and it was definitely the hope… and at the time I thought you just do the therapy and take the medication and then in a year you’d be ‘done’. And for some people that is the case, but… I am predisposed to being nervous and being sad… It’s one of those things that I’ve always loved that I look like my mom and I have my grandma’s nose. Part of that is that while I get my grandma’s adorable nose, I get my anxiety from my grandfather. You know, that’s part of me and it’s always going to be there.
You have enough lived experience by now to know that there will be good days, or at least better days.
Exactly. And the bad days now aren’t like the bad days used to be. I have the skills now and I’ve put in the work. It doesn’t mean I won’t have bad days, I will, but in general I’m much more on kilter than I was before.
What do you think that high school age kids need to know about mental health?
I think for youth who have someone in their life that they need to support is to be there. Be with them. And just listen. A lot of times there is really not much anyone can say that will help, but getting it out there can help and really just listening. And, if you can, keep your friend busy with things they like to do if they’re up to it.
Something I always worry about with kids who are trying to support someone who is struggling, whether someone their own age or maybe in their family, is yes, that person is struggling but you still need to watch yourself and have your own self-care… it’s so important to set boundaries and take care of yourself.
One of my boundaries is when people are talking about hurting themselves, or they have hurt themselves, or they want to. For me, that is too much responsibility, and I think for everyone it should be too much responsibility. Call 911. As soon as there is the possibility of someone hurting their selves you dial 911. You don’t dick around, you just call 911. And they’ll get over it.
If nothing else you’ve risked an awkward situation and on the flip side you’ve helped save a life.
Yeah. I have had people mad at me, but that’s okay. And it seems like a massive deal at the time, but that’s worth it.
And [having boundaries] doesn’t mean you’re a bad friend. My biggest advice to people supporting others: be there and help, listen. Some people need you to go on like everything is fine – they don’t want to show too much, and others need you to buy some ice cream and watch movies with them all day. But it’s important to understand that their mental health is not your responsibility and it’s not good for anyone for you to feel responsible for talking someone down.
Can you talk about what medication has done for you?
Some people can’t make insulin. Some people make too much anxiety. If you can make it easier for yourself, why wouldn’t you? I’m always surprised more people in BC don’t know about Plan G. If you have a BC Care Card and you make under a certain amount then you qualify for coverage for psychiatric medication. Basically this means most youth and students qualify for it.
There are people who have had horrible experience with medication, but that does not mean that you’re going to be one of them. I guess I really would encourage everyone to make use of all the resources that are available to you, including medication if appropriate.
[M]edication is not going to make you who you were before all this started; it gets you to a point where you can put in the work. It brings you up from that lowest low where there is no movement to a point where you can do what you need to do. It’s regulating, it’s bringing things a little bit more even. I guess technically I’m different on my medication, but so what?
We all rely on lots of things… there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the resources available to you because you’re worth it.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about from your experiences?
I know high school for a lot of people is a time where it is everything. It was everything for me. And it seemed like it would never end. Like oh my god it just kept going! It sucked. I hated high school and that was where a lot of the apathy and a lot of the What do I have to look forward to? came because it seemed endless.
But then you graduate and everything is different. It doesn’t always mean everything is better suddenly, but it is different… Things do change and it’s kind crazy once you’re out of high school how quickly things change.
I still have bad days. I still get nervous and anxious. The other day I had a good cry to Adele on the way home from work, but I think back to when I was at a point when I did want to harm myself and I didn’t want to exist anymore and I think, What if I did stop existing at that point? I would have missed out on so much. And it’s not because my life is so incredibly exciting but, and this goes for everybody, there is always a point where things start to get better. It is worth it.
And it’s in the little things. Like I can eat a sandwich and think how glad I am to be there eating an egg sandwich. To take myself out of this world would have robbed me of all the moments to come. Even if every moment of your life has been shitty recently, does not mean every moment of your life will always be shitty. It is SO worth it to put in the work to get to that point where you can just be. It will happen.
I have a tattoo on my right side that I got when I graduated high school. It’s from Bukowski, and it says, “It has been a beautiful fight. Still is.”
For me a lot of that was accepting this might always be part of my present, but I know that if I hadn’t gone through that, I would not be the person I am today. When we go through crappy things we do get stronger. I’ve grown up a lot. And it’s a fight, it may always be a fight, but it’s a beautiful fight.
And you’re winning because you’re here, right?
Right. “Wild Swans” by Mary Oliver has always been my anxiety anthem. It starts, “You do not have to be good.” And the poem continues:
“You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…
…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
You will find your place. It might take time, but you will find your place.
It’s not always immediate, but it seems to be universal, like a physics equation. When you open up, someone will step into that space for you.
Exactly. If you’re honest about yourself and who you are and open in that way, it does fall into place. And the people who are good for you will find you.
What would your advice be to a young person who might be sitting in a room listening to people talk, or hearing a story on the news, and they’re not talking because they’re saying to themselves “my problems are bullshit” compared to this?
I would just want to let people know that a lot of the time there isn’t a reason. It can be biochemical and there doesn’t need to be a ‘reason’. It also doesn’t mean your reason doesn’t have value compared to someone else’s. Some people smoke a pack a day their whole life and get lung cancer and die. Someone can never smoke and get lung cancer and die. One is not more dead than the other… that being said, I’ve never met anyone else who has had it worse than me who has held my sadness, my anxiety, against me.
Thank you so much, Zoë.