Years change, generations change, what remains is the feeling of isolation when you are depressed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a baby boomer, generation Y, or Z; life transitions can be difficult and finding resources are key.
Knowing that you are not alone and finding out what resources are available to you is what Grace Cherian, 60, wanted to express in our interview. Grace struggled with her mental health for 12 years before she was properly diagnosed and treated. She stresses how important it is to get help early on and to learn to cope with the challenges.
When was the first time that you noticed that you were having a little bit of trouble managing your mental health?
I was 17. I arrived in Canada when I was 17 and I was in grade 12. That’s when I first noticed that it was a problem.
What kind of problems were you noticing?
I found out that I just couldn’t concentrate in my classes, I couldn’t concentrate on what the teacher was saying. I spoke to one of my instructors and I said I’m having problems concentrating and he said ‘Well listen, why don’t you take a week off school, take the pressure off yourself”. So that’s what I did, I stayed at home for a week.
So when you did kind of realize you were having problems, did you feel like there were any other resources you could use to talk about these issues?
You know, back then in 1972, nobody had any knowledge about these things. We just didn’t know anything about this, I didn’t know anything, my family didn’t know anything, so no, I didn’t feel like there were any resources available at that time at all.
So you started noticing these problems when you were 17 and then what kind of events led you to your attempted suicide?
I graduated from high school and then went on to University. In my second year of University I was grooming myself to become a doctor and I noticed the same thing, I would come away from classes and realize that I hadn’t registered anything. I remember saying to my roommate “I’m depressed.” but I didn’t really know the meaning of the word depressed until years later. Looking back I realized, my depression was a feeling of nothingness. Not, you know, feeling bad or sad or whatever but a sensation of nothingness inside me. So I dropped out, I went home and lived with my mom and my youngest brother.
What led you to dropping out?
I dropped out because I wasn’t retaining anything. I just thought I’ll just drop out now before I fail my classes. I’d rather drop out than fail and suffer the humiliation of failure. It was very, very difficult for me because I was always a very good student. I did extremely well; I graduated from high school with all kinds of honours. School was my forte and suddenly that was taken away from me. My whole identity as a person was destroyed. The following year I didn’t want to go back to the scene of my so-called failure, so I went to Erindale College.
Soon, I started feeling really depressed again, I started seeing my family doctor. I was referred to a psychiatrist and that’s when I was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Mississauga General. I just kept moving around from one psych ward to another psych ward and this went on for several years. All this time the doctors and nurses were just giving me medications but they didn’t really know what my problem was. I felt like a guinea pig because they were giving me all kinds of different medications without knowing what my illness or my diagnosis was.
It wasn’t until 12 years later when a doctor from North York Hospital accurately diagnosed my condition as bipolar disorder. It was then that I got the proper treatment that I needed. I was extremely angry because when somebody with a mental health issue goes untreated for any length of time, the illness is exacerbated over the period that that person doesn’t receive treatment. I felt that I’d been let down by the system. Had I received the right treatment and had I been diagnosed accurately when I was 19, my illness would not have become as serious as it had.
Would you tell us the events that led to your suicide attempt?
In the summer of 2000 I became extremely depressed. A group of us students from Wycliffe College had just come back from a trip to Israel and it was such a highlight being there. My classmates actually noticed that I was on a high when we returned from Israel. And then it was a downer facing reality and I became very depressed. I was so depressed that when the phone rang I wouldn’t answer the phone. It’s a vicious cycle. When you’re depressed, the last thing you ought to do is to isolate yourself from people, but that’s exactly what I did at the time not knowing any better.
I just reached that point where I felt I just couldn’t live like this another moment longer. Each moment felt like an eternity. The only way I saw that I could get out of this unbearable eternity was to kill myself. At the time, I was on medications because I was being treated for bipolar disorder. The medications weren’t doing me any good so they were just collecting in my bathroom cabinet. I retrieved all the medications that had accumulated in my cupboard, stood at my kitchen counter, and gulped down the medications between gulps of milk. Then I said to myself “This is the last day of my life” and I lay down on my bed.
What happened after you had taken the medications?
My mom apparently had kept calling me and because she couldn’t get a hold of me, she phoned my brother David and said “Please ask Dad to go to Grace’s apartment and find out what’s going on there”. My dad came to my apartment and found that the door was locked. So he knew that something had gone awry. My neighbour had a key to my apartment, so my dad knocked on her door and she gave the key to my dad. He found me lying unconscious on my bed and he called the ambulance.
My sister said that at one point they were 12 doctors flushing all the poisons out of my system. I was in hospital for about 3 weeks. My kidneys stopped working so I was on the dialysis machine and my lungs had stopped working so I had to be connected to a ventilator. I was in a comatose state and the doctors held no hope for me. They told my parents, “Your daughter will have to be sent for warehousing.”
However, my pastor found out what had happened to me, and about 10 or 12 of my friends gathered together on two separate occasions and they prayed up a storm that I would be healed. I’m very religious. I believe in Jesus and I believe it was the Lord who healed me completely with my brain and body completely intact. It was as if the Lord was telling me “Grace, it’s not your time to come Home. I still have work for you to do.” And as it turned out, I realized that the most important task that the Lord had for me was to look after my mother in her last years.
So after all of that when did you start to kind of notice a bit of a change in your ability to cope?
I joined an Art Studio. There I began to paint and work with clay. It was very cathartic to engage in these creative activities.I learned that it’s of paramount importance that I take my medications every night. Routine is also important. I take my medications at 9:00 p.m. and go to bed at 10:00 p.m. each night. It’s also vital to have a social network. I meet with regular coffee or lunch dates with friends. Attending church every Sunday also helps me tremendously. Each morning I pray with a friend over the phone from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m.
Let’s say you’re talking to yourself when you were going through this, when you are feeling this nothingness and suicide seems like the only option. What would that version of yourself tell other people who are going through that?
Well I would say it’s very hard to do but pick up that phone and call someone, especially a friend. Or call a distress line or distress centre. But call somebody and talk to somebody.
Don’t be alone?
Reach out to someone. The last thing you want to do is isolation. It just exacerbates the illness so that all the loneliness makes you desire for suicide much, much stronger.
Why do you think it’s so hard for so many people to reach out to someone, to want to share?
Because it takes energy, it takes effort. I had been so depressed that I was laying in bed until 6 o’clock in the evening. My neighbour would have gone to work, put in a full day at work; meanwhile I’d just be curled up like a ball. It takes energy, it takes effort. It is very difficult to even get out of bed, to pick up the phone and call someone.
Obviously there’s a huge stigma attached to mental health but why do you think its even greater for suicide?
Well because for one, the family begins to feel guilty they think that it’s their fault. They think that they should have seen it coming, maybe they did something, or they didn’t do something. Families often tend to blame themselves for something that is really beyond their control.
If I want to die I will make sure that nothing will stop me, regardless of what somebody or anybody in my family does. My desire for death is so strong that nothing will stop me. However, I put my family through hell all that time, it was my family who suffered and suffered terribly. So I made a promise to myself that I will never, never put my family through that ordeal again.
And I’m guessing it’s been easier to cope having not falling back into that?
As I’ve said, because of the tools that I developed over time, and having lived with my bipolar disorder for 42 years, I’ve learned a lot about myself along the way. What helps me, what doesn’t help me, and so I’m so much more equipped to deal with my bipolar disorder.
When people hear mental health and mental illness there’s often a negative connotation surrounding it. One of the things we’re trying to do is show that living with mental illness does not have to be negative. What are some positive things that your mental illness has brought into your life?
It has given me a tremendous amount of compassion, especially for my youngest brother. He was missing for three months and was homeless. He was living with my mother but he had mental health issues and my mother had mental health issues. It wasn’t very easy for both of them to live together, so he would often wander the streets.
I searched all over, I reported him missing, and 3 months later I came home from visiting a friend and found a card from an investigator. It read, “Grace, please call.” A couple from out of town were taking a walk at Queen’s Quay and they spotted a body in the lake. The Marines sent out their union and the lake was frozen solid. They had to use a chainsaw to hack the frozen body of my brother out. With losing my brother so tragically, the baby of the family died first at just 30 years of age, has given me a lot of compassion and strength.