Let’s Talk: Living With my Depression and Eating Disorder
Originally titled, The Silver-Linings Dream Job
Fun Fact: directly before attending the signing and release of my debut novel this past spring, I threw up all over the driveway of my parents’ house in my hometown Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
My eating disorder first presented itself at fifteen and then took over my life after high school graduation.
Their neighbors across the street may have seen, which was no doubt a great visual on a balmy May afternoon. My best friend just watched from the front seat of her little blue car, door open and looking hardly surprised.
I had landed my dream job. And it terrified me.
Being a published author is a career I’ve been (both consciously and subconsciously) grooming myself for since I was in the third grade. I’ve known what my dream job is since I was eight.
Throughout grade school, I dabbled in everything. Poetry, short stories, (poor) attempts at novels, plays, newspaper articles that I would tack up on our fridge door. I was also a determined artist.
This painted me as a bright, charismatic child. But as kids grow older, a big imagination can be the mark of an oddball. I experienced horrible bullying in my seventh year, and spent high school as a Chbosky-esque wallflower; seeing everything, saying nothing.
As I grew older, I began to struggle more with mental illness. I’d always been an anxious kid, and I started getting depressed in my adolescence. My eating disorder first presented itself at fifteen and then took over my life after high school graduation. I tried working full-time jobs to finance a horse training hobby that I wanted to turn into a career, but my passion for it faded as mental illness burrowed into my life. My social circle dwindled and I had only two close friends. I felt incredibly disconnected from everyone around me.
For my first two years of University, I was in and out of therapy as I struggled to commit to recovery.
In the winter of 2010, my physical health plummeted. A brief but bad relationship triggered severe weight loss and I found myself barely dodging hospitalization. I was put into an outpatient program, and started group and individual therapy. For the next year, I put a lot of time and effort into finding myself again, and was eventually weight-restored and inspired. I enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan for art, because they had no creative writing programs and I was sure a studio art major would be just as useful and fulfilling.
For my first two years of University, I was in and out of therapy as I struggled to commit to recovery. Drawing classes involving the figure or nudes were incredibly triggering, and my brain struggled to retain information from lectures. My energy and mood would nosedive in the studio. I’d shut myself away in the farthest corner with my easel and avoid my professors. I made absolutely no friends.
On most days, I skipped my classes to write in the commons. My brain was fixated on this character—a young girl with Anorexia—and though I hoped, I doubted hers would culminate in a concrete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. I only knew that the writing process was cathartic, and it felt better than sitting upstairs in the studios. I had never cared so little about art in my life.
In summer of 2013, I finished that story in a dorm room in Rome, Italy, where I was spending a month on a study-abroad course. The next weeks were spent polishing, and then submission material was sent away in July. I distinctly remember dumping that handful of manila envelopes inside a sun-hot mailbox, all carrying self-addressed stamped envelopes, reminding myself that nothing would likely come of this at all.
I dropped out of my studies and went back to therapy, but I was relapsing fast.
That winter depression hit hard. I completely lost my enthusiasm for art, and felt no real connection to anyone or anything at school. I dropped out of my studies and went back to therapy, but I was relapsing fast. I quit my part-time job at a vet clinic when my brain concocted a suicide plan that involved the drugs there. I finally consented to antidepressants, and made the incredibly hard admission that I wasn’t fit to live by myself. I’d been living in a tiny suite in a quiet neighborhood, but moved back home and started working full-time as a barista. The routine and company helped and I found my footing, but it was shaky.
During this time, I was receiving rejection letters in the mail. Though there was a tinge of disappointment each time, there was no real discouragement. I actually preferred the dull responses over anything else. It was proof that there was someone out there, and that I had tried.
When spring came, it was with the certainty that I wouldn’t survive another year with my life going like it was. But I had no idea what to do. I was a barista with no savings, a crippling mental illness, and student loans from a degree I hadn’t finished. I felt, for all intents and purposes, trapped.
It was time to throw myself into the dream I’d been denying from the very beginning… be a writer.
I always found solace in fiction, and that winter, the TV series Supernatural acted as my lifeline. I began nitpicking at the story and it opened my eyes to screenwriting and teleplay. Then I found a screenwriting program in Vancouver. I’d attempted every other avenue my life could possibly take me, and nothing had worked. It was time to throw myself into the dream I’d been denying from the very beginning… be a writer. If doing so dug me a little bit deeper into debt, well, then so be it.
It took me no time at all to gather submission material. I had never stopped writing, and had at least half a dozen stories in various phases of completion. I sent them poetry, chapters from two different novels, and pitched a movie. Within two weeks of discovering the writing program at Vancouver Film School, I was accepted.
There, I was finally surrounded by other writers—a sort of kindred spirit I hadn’t commonly encountered before. My wild imagination was suddenly validated, and it was incredibly bolstering. I took to screenwriting like a cat to sunlight.
That December, I was sitting in one of the writer’s rooms at VFS when I received an email from Coteau Books in Regina, Saskatchewan, offering me a publishing deal for my YA manuscript.
The book born from that manuscript, Small Displays of Chaos, was released in May of 2016.
I tell people that I didn’t “consider” writing until I was in my twenties. The truth is that I didn’t have the agency to call myself a writer until then, but throughout my life I never stopped writing.
Being at the start of my dream career is exciting, and scary-in-a-good-way, but mental illness doesn’t take a break.
When I first heard news about my publishing deal, I was ecstatic and nervous and so, so grateful. But I was never exactly surprised. It felt right.
Now, I’m officially a part of the Writer’s Union of Canada, and have a book with its own ISBN to my name. I planned for these things from the beginning, but what I didn’t plan for was to be juggling the hats of Writer and Mental Health Advocate while promoting my first book.
Being at the start of my dream career is exciting, and scary-in-a-good-way, but mental illness doesn’t take a break. Living with manic depression and disordered eating continues to be a daily challenge, despite where I’m at with my writing.
I’ve done a tremendous amount of work in recovery, but there is no “perfect” and I’m still very much a work-in-progress. When bad days/weeks/months happen, I rely on a small but sturdy support system – years in the making – to help me get back on my feet.
Having this support system hasn’t always been easy. There are still plenty of negative stigmas around mental illness, and a lot of the time, people around me just don’t know what to say.
I came across an excellent video of actor Wentworth Miller, addressing this issue and I think his approach is on point:
[Prompt: “The best way, through your experience, how to support other people who are depressed or going through anxiety.”]
Miller: “There are a lot of people who know someone in crisis, but they’re not sure what to say. Maybe they are worried about saying the wrong thing. My suggestion would be to start there. Approach that person and say, ‘I don’t know what to say and I’m worried about saying the wrong thing. But I see you, I feel like something is going on. I want you to know that I am here for you. If you need support, I can offer you that. You tell me what that looks like.”
No one should experience any part of this alone.
For a person in crisis with mental health, simply being seen and validated is a huge relief. A gentle and open approach is often perfectly suitable, and non-judgemental listening is helpful too.
Mental illnesses affect everyone differently. Supporting a loved one who is struggling can be incredibly draining: mentally, emotionally and physically. It’s important for families to seek out external support. This could mean seeing a therapist or counsellor, or maybe joining a support group for others supporting people with mental illness. No one should experience any part of this alone.
Along with that, diving into the wealth of resources out there about mental illnesses couldn’t hurt. Know Thine Enemy has always rung true for me, and while I don’t personally consider any mental illness “The Enemy”, it’s true that the more I knew about my own illnesses, the less scary they were and the easier to take on.
Mental illnesses can be scary to experience. But after the sleepless nights and tearful outbursts, therapy and recovery teach us silver linings and a life of healing that most other people don’t experience. Ending negative stigmas and talking about mental illness can mean that more mentally ill people find this healing path, instead of shrinking into the shadows of society.