“With the advent of puberty, fed by hormones, the Beast within me grew. I experienced anxiety and panic attacks, some so severe that I had to be taken to the emergency room. I was always accused of taking drugs. I wasn’t, though I should have been. The Beast fed on every thought and emotion until it became so big, so powerful, that I could no longer see any light. Everything was darkness.”
[from an article by Michelle Moreno, entitled “Hiding ‘The Beast’ of Mental Illness,” posted on website themighty.com on March 14, 2017]
Winston Churchill called it his “Black Dog”—his bouts of depression, which could last months at a time.
That these were serious to the point of being life-threatening is evident from this entry in Lord Moran’s Diary:
August 14, 1944
The P.M. was in a speculative mood today.
“When I was young,” he ruminated, “for two or three years the light faded out of the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me. … I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible to get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
[“Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran,” Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1966, p. 179]
Notice that he said, “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through.” And that, “I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water.” He began talking to Moran about when he was young, and yet he used the present tense when describing his strategies to avoid the impulse to jump in front of a moving train or off the deck of a ship. Not “I didn’t like” (then), but “I don’t like” (now).
Even though Churchill was aware that these episodes of depression could tip him over the edge to suicide, he was able to maintain a hold on rationality, and stand a little back from the abyss. He seems to have been fortunate in that the degree and nature of his mental illness allowed him to use these strategies to avoid making that split-second bad decision. Not everyone is so fortunate.
While his depressions were evidently debilitating, they did not seem to have been totally incapacitating…as we know from his life and career. No doubt he would be classified as a ‘high-functioning’ depressive personality.
Still, as Lord Moran said, “He dreaded these bouts and instinctively kept away from anyone or anything that seemed to bring them on.” [Moran, p. 195]
Mental illness, like any other illness, can affect people to varying degrees. Are there triggers for it? Maybe that depends on the person.
There does not appear to have been a trigger for Virginia Woolf’s final episode of mental illness. Below is her suicide letter to her husband, written just before she filled her overcoat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse near her home on 28 March 1941.
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
It’s impossible to imagine, for a person not similarly afflicted, how people can decide that their death will benefit their loved ones. Nor can people imagine the level of mental torment that can drive a person to seek oblivion rather than suffer another day of it. But we do know that this is the case.
And that’s not all we know.
While we might not know the causes of mental illness, nor the triggers for a bad episode, we do know that this disease is life-threatening, and that people need help with it.
We’ve all heard of migraine sufferers being so prostrated with severe pain that they have battered their own heads against walls. That’s hard for anyone who’s never had a migraine headache to understand.
The medical profession cannot discover a cure for migraine headaches any more than they can discover a cure for mental illness. These are both diseases of the brain…episodic conditions for which no cause has been determined. The world of medicine attributes migraine headaches to the nerves and blood vessels of the brain, but the specifics of it are unknown.
Changes in vision often signal the onset of an episode of migraine headache, and the headache itself can last as long as 72 hours. I remember a temporary office worker in my workplace experiencing this preliminary visual disturbance. I’ve never seen anyone so frightened and distraught. She was a young, apparently fit and healthy woman in her early 30’s, literally trembling in terror at what was about to happen to her. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to drive her car at that stage, and asked for us to call an ambulance to get her directly to the hospital. Somebody left work to drive her there, but we were all a little bewildered.
Even with knowing something about migraine headaches, we had a hard time grasping the extent of the emergency.
I recently listened to an interview where a person with mental illness described the onset of an episode of depression. She said that visual changes were the first indicator that an attack was imminent. She described it as a kind of tunnel vision, followed by a numbness in her face.
Just like the migraine sufferer, she was in no doubt about what was coming.
However, the similarity ends there, because most of us have had headaches, and can understand that a migraine headache is a monumentally large and incapacitating headache.
On the other hand, most of us have not experienced an episode of mental illness, and the physical, mental and emotional anguish that accompanies it.
An episode might signal a loss of control by the victim, and sometimes unpredictable behavior in response to distortions of perception and understanding of their immediate environment. Maybe the person will basically shut down, and experience extreme lethargy and a sort of catatonia. Maybe they’ll have overwhelming anxiety, extreme fear and paranoia. No matter what physical symptoms manifest themselves, we won’t understand what’s happening to the person undergoing the crisis, what they will do as a result of it, or what we can do to help, and so we’re frightened. We’re frightened of the unpredictability and the uncertainty. We’re frightened of our ignorance.
Human society has historically treated mental illness as a defect reflecting badly on a person and his or her family. At one time, and in some cases maybe still today, families of these people have hidden them away, fearful that the condition might be hereditary, with the potential to adversely affect the family’s prospects for continuance and prosperity in life. Mental illness was all about damage control, and, in severe cases, it was standard procedure to put the mental-illness sufferer in a supervised and controlled environment—an institution.
People’s fears and lack of understanding have created a stigma which inhibits the healthcare support opportunities for mental illness even today. The stigma prevents people from explaining their need for help, and for seeking medical assistance. It also creates a barrier that medical people struggle to surmount when called upon.
When (and if) a person experiencing a severe episode of mental illness manages to present themselves at the Emergency Department of a hospital, the triage nurse will not see torn flesh or a broken limb. Unlike a heart or respiratory ailment, there will be no standard symptoms with a potentially identifiable cause. Furthermore, chances are that the mental illness sufferer will be so disordered in thought by that time that they will be unable to explain the problem they’re experiencing. This situation is often beyond the capabilities of a hospital to deal with adequately, but the condition can be every bit as life-threatening as any other serious illness.
The first step in removing the stigma–which must be removed in order for sufficient levels of healthcare support for mental illness to be accessible–is openness and communication.
And that brings us…finally…to Victoria.
Victoria was a lovely, 27-year-old music teacher who suffered mental illness for at least 10 years before she finally ended her own life. She was the daughter of my first cousin, who suffered along with her, trying time and again to get the help she needed throughout those years.
It was not Victoria’s first attempt at suicide that ended her life; but this last one was perhaps unexpected, even though the risk of it was ever-present.
Victoria had made the following Facebook post on December 7, 2017, just four days before she died…
I’ve never known struggle like waking up unsure if my brain will allow me to accomplish what I want to do every single day. Staying organized and scheduled helps, and learning coping strategies makes it somewhat manageable. But when it’s all said and done, for some of us, our illnesses are like our own personal puppet master – we can pull against the strings to fight but it ultimately has control. It always seems at Christmas time that puppet master gets even more controlling.
I’m making this point now for two reasons.
Firstly, to send a message to those of you who don’t have this issue. We’re nearing the most difficult and dangerous time of year for those with mental illness. The busy schedules, stressful Christmas deadlines, financial burden, and everything else during this supposedly “joyful” time, can cause relapses, heightened symptoms, and expose feeling of loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness. So I just want to send you a reminder to take just a little bit of time out of your busy December schedules to think of the people in your lives that may be suffering from the things I listed above. Whether it’s a phone call or a text, a quick visit, or a coffee date, I think if we all made a pledge to reach out to at least one person who struggles with the Christmas season, we could really make a difference. Some may need a friend to face the busy crowds to complete their shopping despite the anxiety holding them back. Someone that’s alone may just need some company to decorate their tree to turn a lonely experience into a positive one. It doesn’t take much, but we’re all so busy right now with so much on our minds, so I’m posting this little reminder and challenge for everyone who reads this. Sharing the joy you feel will just make your Christmas that much better anyway! You may be the extra strength that’s needed to fight that mental illness puppet master for one person to make their holiday season a happy one.
Secondly, I want to address those of you who are suffering, and dreading these next few weeks (because I know many of you are doing it in silence). My challenge to you is to recognize one positive thing at the end of each busy December day, no matter how crazy and stressful things get, no matter if gravity seems tripled or your chest feels crushed with anxiety. Find just one positive thing, because I promise you it is always there. Also, do one thing that you would consider “self care” every day – whether it’s quiet time alone with a book or a bath, a workout, a glass of wine, a beer, or a cup of tea in your favourite mug. If you’re as strange as I am, it may be watching Super Bowl highlights in bed right before you fall asleep so your day ends with a positive memory! It could even be as simple is as taking a few minutes to stop what you’re doing when you’re stressed and listen to your favourite song. Give every day your best effort, but recognize your limits and don’t beat yourself up for getting behind or missing deadlines. (There are 12 days of Christmas for any gifts not prepared for the 25th after all!) Most importantly, please reach out for help if you need it. If there’s anything I’ve learned this fall, it’s that almost everyone out there wants to help those of us who are suffering, but they sometimes don’t know how or are afraid to reach out. So please, please don’t be afraid to ask. Look forward to the fresh start in the new year, and take things one day, one hour, even one minute at a time right now. If things are really bad and you think they could get worse, make a list of people you can contact in times of crisis and write down the mental health crisis line (709-737-4668) and put it in a safe, accessible place. It may take a lot of effort, but this doesn’t have to be a bad month.
I’m writing this right now because I just had a friend reach out to me after a very difficult 24 hours and what he said helped me achieve the clarity and focus to gather these thoughts. I was on a downward spiral and one simple Facebook message may have just stopped that, so I had to share this in the hopes it could also help someone else. It may be a little selfish because I also may need to revisit this post every day this month to review my own advice in order to push through.
So let’s focus a little less on “things” this Christmas and a little more on helping each other and taking care of ourselves. Ironically, the Grinch may have actually said it best: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ❤️”
Facebook was the medium Victoria used to convey her experience of mental illness to friends, friends of friends, family, and others. She described what she did to cope, and the difficulties and frustrations she had with getting help from medical institutions.
To give you a sense of her life over the previous months, the following are selections from Victoria’s Facebook postings during the year.
From Victoria’s Facebook timeline, April 11, 2017: an up-beat post talking about her successes to that point in 2017…
“It’s legitimately the happiest I’ve felt in all of my 27 years, which is an even bigger victory considering at this point last year I was ready to give up on life altogether. I just completed my double New Years challenge of 100 days of no junk food and 100 happy days on Instagram. It’s the first time I can remember that I’ve had close to that many good days in a row and can proudly say that I’ve yet to “lose” a day to mental illness so far in 2017. As for the food, I survived 100 days without any cake, cookies, ice cream, candy, chocolate, dessert of any kind, baked goods, chips, breaded protein, French fries, pizza, and any deep fried or fast foods. My only “treat” was beer! I survived the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl with no nachos and wings, no chocolate on Valentine’s, over a week of eating on the run during the music festival, a birthday without cake, and had to watch everyone else eat pizza at our annual Kiwanis survival party! It was primarily an exercise in maintaining mental control, but the 20-pound weight loss was a much-welcomed bonus and I’ve reached higher fitness levels during this challenge than I ever have.
I learned so much about the benefits of focusing on the positive and will be taking this new mindset with me way past the 100-day mark. Having to find something happy and somewhat original to post every day helped reinforce everything I’ve learned on the road to recovery over the past few years and I encourage anyone who’s looking for some motivation to look up the hashtag and the challenge website. (100happydays.com) It makes me a little sad to scroll through Facebook and still read so much negativity and see so many people thriving off criticizing others. I often see similar posts from myself in my memories from 6-10 years ago when I was completely miserable and struggling to fix my problems with medication instead of getting to the root of the problem. I wish I could help those people see how much better life can be in every way when you train your brain to let go of negative thinking altogether and fight intrusions with logical thought and by planning coping strategies to equip yourself for tough or unexpected bad times.
I want to send out a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout and before this challenge because I definitely didn’t do it on my own. I especially want to thank the fantastic support system I have around me within my studio with all of the students and their parents. I just had to share my celebration cake tonight with Chandler, Jill, Victoria, Kelsey, Reilly, and Andrew because they are such an important part of this accomplishment and my motivation to get to this point. I’ve said before that beating mental illness wasn’t about ever crossing a finish line, but after these last 100 days, I sure feel like I’ve put this monster in remission.
I’m sharing so much personal information again because I truly want to help. So message me, message someone else you can trust, buy a book of positive quotes, sign up for your own challenge, do everything you think could work for you. But just know that things can get A LOT better – even from the deepest, darkest times imaginable – it just takes a lot of planning and work, and surrounding yourself with the right people (and pets!) Please ignore the skeptics. It’s easy for me now because I was one of them. I would have rolled my eyes at this post more than anyone else seven or eight years ago. If you can find a way to live a positive lifestyle despite what you’re feeling, things will change and eventually you’ll feel those bad thoughts a whole lot less. Onwards and always upwards, friends! 😄”
On June 29, 2017, Victoria posted this, along with a link to an article…
“I’ll share this article every year again and again because it’s one of the best I’ve read.
I’ve tried to find a balance between continuing to spread awareness through my own personal experiences, yet also constantly reminding myself that it’s not necessary to feel I have to justify my actions and strange lifestyle to the world. I barely understand myself how one day I can be in such a dark place that I’m physically unable to attend a friend’s wedding, yet four days later I can stand in front of hundreds of people and pull off a concert that includes 50 kids without breaking a sweat. It’s like a permanent roller coaster ride, except you’re blindfolded and it’s impossible to tell if next you’ll be headed upwards or suddenly into a downwards free fall. Eventually you learn to prepare for both. And that’s why relationships and a social life are so difficult to maintain.
I do know that the single best breakthrough I ever had was learning to embrace positivity after fighting it for years and years. There actually is something good (or at least beneficial) in every crazy day, it’s just a little more difficult to find in some. As I transition into my less structured summer schedule, I’m just happy I can’t comprehend this concept of “boredom” that so many people seem concerned with regularly!
I’m not going into a lot of detail tonight but I will say that the highs I’ve experienced within the past year are worth struggling through the lows a million times over. I’m strongly encouraging you to read this article in full if you are trying to understand your own anxiety, or that of a significant other, child, friend, co-worker, or if you simply enjoy seeing the world from other perspectives. Enough understanding eventually leads to acceptance. My own personal acceptance has been a whole lot of fun over the past year. I’ve decided I may just have to keep this brain yet!
No really, please take a few minutes to read this!! (Or save it for later – the best Facebook feature yet!) ⬇️⬇️
High-functioning anxiety feels like…
A snake slithering up my back, clamping its jaws shut where my shoulders meet my neck. Punch-in-the-gut stomach aches, like my body is confusing answering an email with being attacked by a lion.
High-functioning anxiety sounds like…
You’re not good enough. You’re a bad friend. You’re not good at your job. You’re wasting time. You’re a waste of time. Your boyfriend doesn’t love you. You’re so needy. What are you doing with yourself? Why would you say that? What if they hate it? Why can’t you have your shit together? You’re going to get anxious and because you’re going to get anxious, you’re going to mess everything up. You’re a fraud. Just good at faking it. You’re letting everybody down. No one here likes you.
All the while, it appears perfectly calm.
It’s always looking for the next outlet, something to channel the never-ending energy. Writing. Running. List-making. Mindless tasks (whatever keeps you busy). Doing jumping jacks in the kitchen. Dancing in the living room, pretending it’s for fun, when really it’s a choreographed routine of desperation, trying to tire out the thoughts stuck in your head.
It’s silent anxiety attacks, hidden by smiles.
It’s always being busy but also always avoiding, so important things don’t get done. It’s letting things pile up rather than admitting you’re overwhelmed or in need of help.
It’s that sharp pang of saying the wrong thing, the one that starts the cycles of thoughts. Because you said too much, and nobody cares, and it makes you never want to speak up again.
On July 2, 2017, an up-beat posting about receiving one of the “150 Faces of Clarenville” awards, along with her grandfather, the former mayor of the town…
“I am totally shocked but so honoured! While I wasn’t surprised to see my grandfather receive one of the “150 Faces of Clarenville” awards last night, I had no idea I was on the list as well. I love this place with all of my heart and can’t imagine a better place to grow up, run a business, and now buy my first home. I’m a Clarenville resident for life for sure! It’s an amazing feeling to share this award with Grandad – the hardest working person I know and my number one role model for life. I’m so appreciative to the committee and want to send out a huge thank you to everyone who has made this Canada 150 week so awesome in our town. A week to remember for sure!”
On July 3, 2017, a post in celebration of the anniversary of Bruno’s adoption from the SPCA, seven years ago…
“It’s a little late, but while everyone was celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday on July 1st, I had even more to celebrate – seven full years with the strangest, grumpiest, most entertaining dog who ever lived! He was clearly enthused about his “gotcha day” photo shoot…”
On August 10, 2017, a post about the New England Patriots sports room in her home [Victoria was a huge fan of the Patriots]…
“I thought about this room for years and then even when it became a reality this spring I still had to wait through the last couple of months of the offseason to fully enjoy it. But the wait is over and I finally get to watch my first game in my dream Patriots room RIGHT NOW! At this moment I’m probably the happiest human in the world and every bit of blood, sweat, and tears that it took to get to this point were 100% worth it. I still can’t believe this is my house!!
(Stay tuned for more updates – a bar is in the works!!)”
On August 19, 2017, a post about a very successful fishing trip with her grandad; she says…
“What a day!!”
On September 7, 2017…Victoria posted a remembrance of a friend she worked with at the SPCA…
My heart is broken over the loss of one of the best SPCA volunteers I worked with during my five years on the job. She was such an awesome person. Constantly thinking about her family and friends. The message below from Ashley is an important one. ❤️
Ashley Anne Balsom
September 7 ·
I know this is going to be a really tough week for a lot of people out home and those back at school. For anyone at MUN this is the number for the counselling centre 864-8500. As well this is the mental health crisis line 24-hour mental health crisis line: 737-4668 (local) or 1-888-737-4668 (province-wide). If you can’t access either of these resources you can also check out the 7cups of tea online portal where you can talk to someone anonymously about any struggles you may be dealing with. My thoughts are with you all
Below are some photos of the music studio she created in the basement of her home. These were posted to mark the first anniversary of her at-home music studio:
On September 15, 2017, a photo from a recent outing with her dogs, Bruno and Belle…
“I love my evening work schedule on days like this one and I think these guys do too! Summer isn’t over yet!! (No bear sightings today!)”
On October 19, 2017, an ominous portent of things to come, she tells us about a mental health crisis she experienced, and the local community health facility’s inability to meet her need…
“I never use Facebook for negativity but I feel I have to speak up about this situation. After weeks of fighting alone and considering seeking help at the hospital, I finally walked into G. B. Cross emergency unit yesterday afternoon. I told them I was going through a mental health crisis and needed a psychiatric assessment. I was not safe to drive, I was not safe to be released alone, and I had little memory of the previous seven hours in which I had driven to and from St. John’s, but less than two hours later I was shown to the door with an outpatient appointment for 24 hours later. I left feeling much more hopeless than I entered. I was just looking for help and was essentially told there was nothing they could do for me. I told them I was there because I didn’t feel safe and they sent me on my way without even a consultation from a mental health professional. By finally seeking help, I actually put myself in a more dangerous situation. Because I was well spoken, and had not harmed myself already, I was pretty much turned away.
Would things had been different if I was covered in blood from self harm? If I was shouting profanities and making a scene and threatening terrible actions to myself or others? I know for fact it would have been. I was respectfully asking for help and I was not taken seriously. I’m not trying to compare any situation here because I think all cases should be treated with equal importance but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that suicide rates are high among well respected working professionals. I think about my great uncle, I think about the much-loved RCMP officer who were lost.
I thought we had come so far since I was first assessed at a hospital almost ten years ago, but it turns out our system is as unorganized and inconsistent as ever. Everything in the media including advertisements from our own health care system is encouraging us to seek help BEFORE things get extreme, and as stupid as I felt walking through those doors yesterday, when I compared it to my previous situations, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had to reschedule an appointment with my own psychiatrist on Monday because I was too sick to drive to St. John’s and I knew I couldn’t continue suffering until her next available appointment on November 27th without making some kind of change.
I am not angry with anyone at G.B. Cross, and the nurse who assessed me was especially encouraging and understanding. I am so angry with our system. I could have been another unnecessary victim last night. We’ve made it to the point in which most people are able to talk about their mental health issues without fear of judgement in both social and workplace environments. Now we need more from our health care system.
If you leave a hospital feeling worse than when you entered that hospital, something is wrong. I am discouraged, I am frustrated, I am sad that I now feel as if I don’t have a safe place to go in a time of crisis in my own community. I sure hope that someone in this province is working to make this better. For now, if you’re feeling in danger or in immediate need of help, I recommend finding someone to take you directly to the Waterford Assessment Unit or calling an ambulance to do so. I don’t want anyone else to feel what I felt yesterday.”
There were 205 comments, 962 reactions with emoticons, and 1,452 shares for this posting. Victoria always had plenty of support, love and good wishes from all over. Here are three of the 205 comments posted in response to Victoria’s Facebook post:
A few years ago my daughter attempted suicide while I was out of the country. She was taken to the Waterford hospital and observed for a few hours. The doctor then asked her if she was going to try it again. She said no and they released her and sent her to a homeless shelter! That was 5 years ago and I still get angry when I think about it. Thankfully she is doing much better today.
This makes me so mad, we have no help for mental health. Been going through this with my son since he was 13 yrs old, back and forth to Corner Brook to St. John’s, and got nothing to show for it. Only a headstone I have to visit every day, 😢 23-year-old young man that cried and begged for help but was let down 😡and who suffers now? We the family because of the health system that we are supposed to have. Stay strong Victoria Best, and don’t give up.
My girlfriend was sent home on “suicide watch” when she lived alone and she did show up with her arms cut, and started her car with fumes going in… they don’t do sh*t for anyone here…bleeding or not…they don’t seem to care.. I’m so sorry you had to face this & I hope you find the strength to rise above it all. If you EVER need help there are 24hr lines, chats, text apps, family & friends… even strangers but NEVER let your voice go unheard … I am happy you are still here to tell your story.. and I wish you nothing but healing & positive for the future never let anyone make you feel like you do not matter, you do.. very much.. your life is important and I am so sorry this wasn’t seen by professionals 😞❤️ ..just know you are beautiful, you mean so much and that things WILL get better.. never let anyone make you feel small.
On October 21, 2017, two days after her posting about the frustration she experienced trying to get help from the community hospital…
I appreciate all the support from my last post, and was glad to see so many people share both my story and their own experiences. An awful lot has happened to me since then, including some bad choices made out of frustration and feelings of hopelessness, but I’m already back home and ready to fight for some change so I never have to experience another week like this and so hopefully no one else will be pushed to do what I did. Our health care system sure has a long way to go to create a better system for assessing mental health patients in times of crisis, but I was lucky enough to follow one bad experience with an amazing one at St. Clare’s Hospital these last two days. I was admitted yesterday as a psychiatric patient being treated for a medical emergency and I received the best care, and absolutely no judgement from a single person I encountered – the PCA who stayed with me, the lab techs, the med student who examined me, my doctor, the psychiatrist who was on call this morning, and every fantastic nurse. They were encouraging, supportive, and so willing to talk for hours to help me come to terms with what I went through. I’m home after such a horrible experience so quickly because of the work of all of these amazing people and I’m thankful to each one of them.
Please keep sharing your stories about your issues with mental health assessment in this province, even if you want to send them to me personally. I’m going to put them all together and hopefully we’ll have enough to really push for some change. I know something like this can’t be fixed overnight but something as simple as a mandatory 24-hour hold on patients with suicidal ideation in any emergency room sure would have made this a much better week for me, my family, and friends.
Each of us knows someone struggling with mental illness so we have to speak up so that future generations don’t have to go through these terrible experiences when they need help the most. I know now that we have the support of many of the health care workers, and that many share our frustrations. We have to keep fighting for progress one small step at a time!
On November 8, 2017, apparently back on track after that terrible episode in late October, she posted a tribute to her neighbour, who’d recently passed away…
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each others life.”
This week we are saying goodbye to a truly extraordinary person I have the pleasure of calling family – someone I referred to from an early age as my neighbour or Mr. Martin, but in recent years have more frequently used the terms “my ‘other’ grandfather” or simply “George.”
George is one of those great humans that didn’t just make the people around him better people, but hugely impacted his whole community, province, and I won’t even hesitate to say, made the world a better place. He is the epitome of strength, perseverance, volunteerism, dedication, and passion, and it would be difficult to find another person with such exuberance for life. That’s why I can’t bring myself to refer to him in the past tense – he has the kind of spirit that will live on through a lot of us who know him, and on the golf course, in the bowling alley, in his church, and in the many other places he loved for a very long time to come.
It wouldn’t be a tribute to George if it was entirely serious so I’ll have to end by saying that I just hope wherever he is right now it has an all you can eat daily buffet breakfast (with a special table just for Tim Horton’s honey crullers), and like Paul mentioned earlier this week, I hope it has a golf course so he can reach his goal of shooting his age!
I found this anonymous poem this week, and it does a great job of simply summing up all the nice comments I’ve heard from so many people about George’s life this week:
Life Well Lived
A life well lived is a precious gift, of hope and strength, and grace,
From someone who has made our world a brighter, better place.
It’s filled with moments, sweet and sad with smiles and sometimes tears,
With friendships formed and good times shared, and laughter through the years.
A life well lived is a legacy, of joy and pride and pleasure,
A living, lasting memory, our grateful hearts will treasure.
On November 19, 2017, she was watching her favourite football team, The New England Patriots, play against the Oakland Raiders and thinking about her award-winning music students…
“Escaping to Mexico for a few hours with my team, but my heart is in Halifax tonight. So proud of my Royal Conservatory Gold Medalists Eda and Ava who are attending the medal ceremony this evening, and wishing I could have been there too as planned!”
On November 24, 2017, she marked the first anniversary of buying her first house…
“One roller coaster of a year in the books already! I can’t imagine living anywhere else at this point. If it’s possible for a house to be the love of your life, then I know this is the one. It’s been my favourite place to celebrate the good times, but also the most comforting place to be when things get difficult. Here’s to the next year of music-making, sports-watching, and ocean-view breakfasts in my favourite place!”
[The posting below was embedded in the previous one, and takes us back to the previous year, just after the sale on her new house closed…]
November 24, 2016…
“This moment alone was worth every sacrifice of the past couple years a million times over. Almost seven years of basement apartment living comes to an end today for me and the dogs – I AM OFFICIALLY A HOMEOWNER!!”
On November 30, 2017, she was sorting out her passport application for a planned trip…
“Looking for someone travelling from Clarenville to St. John’s today that can bring in a form to my mom to resolve an issue with my passport application. Only three weeks until I’m on a plane so would really appreciate the help!”
Sadly, she never made that trip, because less than two weeks later she had a relapse of her disease, and chose not to suffer any longer.
These postings are just a little snippet of her life over the few months before her death. It doesn’t paint the whole picture, because the family members closest to her are not shown (with the exception of the photos of her grandfather). But her family was always ‘in her corner’; and, as I personally know, especially her mother, who fought along with her against the illness.
Victoria had a happy, satisfying life, with love and support all around her. She was beautiful, intelligent and talented, with a job she enjoyed teaching music…
She was an outdoors girl who enjoyed hiking with her dogs, Bruno and Belle, and fishing with her grandfather…
She loved her music students and her lovely home. She loved her community, her neighbours, friends, and family—and they all loved her.
Paradoxically, what this serves to do is to provide the answer to the question, “Why.”
Why would she end her own life? Because, even with all the joy she had in the life she loved, she had a mental illness, and in her case it was, tragically, terminal. There was an intruder in her brain: a monstrous puppet-master, a beast. It drove her to do the unthinkable.
Poet and writer Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of 30, after struggling for most of her life against depression. She had two young children at the time of her death, and was alone in the house with them, having been separated from her husband for the previous six months. Sylvia put her head in the gas oven in her kitchen so that she might die of the fumes, but prior to doing that, she took great care to ensure that none of the fumes would escape the kitchen and affect her sleeping children.
She had sealed around the doors separating her from her children by using tape, towels and cloths. The timing of her suicide (4:30 a.m.), and the instructions in her final note also signalled her care that her children should be found fairly soon afterwards (a home-help person was due to arrive that morning). Her doctor said, “No one who saw the care with which the kitchen was prepared could have interpreted her action as anything but an irrational compulsion.”
Maybe the act itself was an irrational compulsion, since the impulse to live is more understandable than the impulse to die, but there was nothing irrational about the careful preparations made for the subsequent care of her children.
I don’t know why people persist in trying to explain—to rationalize—mental illness, as if ‘changing your mind’ will cure you of it. If there is some imbalance in the person’s body chemistry that results in distorted thinking, paranoia, extreme anxiety or whatever, we might have to accept that there is a physical cause for the mental disease. I personally find that my own thinking and emotions get a little out of control when I am coming down with an illness. When the cold or flu manifests itself with the first physical symptoms a day or so later, I can say, “So THAT’S why I was feeling depressed the other day.” It’s pretty consistent–I’ve noticed it time and again.
But so many people look at a person suffering clinical depression and want to know why. They tried to analyze Sylvia Plath’s relationships…a supposedly authoritarian father (who died when she was eight years old), her mother, her husband…as if an explanation could be found there.
I recently heard an interview of Jenny Lawson (“The Bloggess,” who also suffers severe bouts of depression), in which she said, categorically, that nothing bad had ever happened to her to cause her mental illness.
And I don’t know why anyone would think that a person can be talked out of it. There may be some benefit in counselling with a view to developing coping strategies, but when an episode reaches crisis proportions, no one should be surprised that the coping strategies are not always available when needed. At best, the counselling may help the person to keep hold of the thought that, as Jenny Lawson has written in her blog site, the illness tells lies. When one is in the throes of a depression, despite what ‘the beast’ in one’s brain is saying, the darkness WILL lift, and one WILL regain one’s life and self. The lie is that the darkness and the torment is all there is, forever.
As is obvious from Victoria’s life and writing, she was intelligent, and no one was more positive, optimistic and capable than she on a good day. She was courageous and generous in sharing her experiences to promote understanding and care for others. She knew the dangers of her illness, and was aware of the times that she needed medical help. It does not seem to be possible to maintain mental equilibrium with force of will alone; medical assistance must factor into care, at least until medical researchers manage to come up with something curative.
Medical research can look at viruses and bacteria under a microscope, but cannot—at last not at the moment—test human cells in a laboratory and isolate the ‘germ’ of a mental disease. As a result, and because the brain is the generator for the intangible world of thought, ideas, and imagination, people somehow think it possible to work from the outside-in and compel the mental illness sufferer to ‘get their mind right.’
But what if, for example, mental illness is caused by something biological, perhaps an allergy or something of that nature that disrupts our body chemistry and affects our brains?
Victoria appears to have attributed her success against her mental illness earlier in the year to her new mode of thinking positively. The fact that she also altered her diet makes me wonder about the part it might have played in the success she experienced at the beginning of the year.
The following may be anecdotal evidence, but I had a friend whose daughter was suffering all the symptoms of schizophrenia. My friend had to retire from work to stay home and look after her daughter. They tried to find help everywhere, and eventually heard about a physician in Ontario who believed in modifying diet to resolve mental problems. His thought was that some people have sensitivities to certain substances, and eliminating them could have a beneficial effect. When they visited him, he suggested that they stringently avoid any foods with additives, preservatives, dyes and so forth.
After a period of months, she was so much improved that she could return to work, and has been living a normal, drug-free life ever since. Quite a dramatic result, but maybe not a ‘one size fits all.’
I was glad to see that there is currently some support for looking at a biological cause for mental illness. The following comes from an article by Kirsten Weir, “The Roots of Mental Illness, How much of mental illness can the biology of the brain explain?” [from the American Psychological Association website, http://www.apa.org, June 2012, Vol 43, No. 6 Print version: page 30]
“Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and professor of brain science at Columbia University, believes it’s all about biology. “All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases,” he says. “The brain is the organ of the mind. Where else could [mental illness] be if not in the brain?”
That viewpoint is quickly gaining supporters, thanks in part to Thomas R. Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who has championed a biological perspective during his tenure at the agency.
To Insel, mental illnesses are no different from heart disease, diabetes or any other chronic illness. All chronic diseases have behavioral components as well as biological components, he says. “The only difference here is that the organ of interest is the brain instead of the heart or pancreas. But the same basic principles apply.””
I hope that one day we will look back on these days as ‘the unenlightened times’…the dark ages of mental illness…not only in terms of attitudes, but also in terms of treatment. In some ways our era is a continuance of the time in the 18th century when fashionable people—and others who could afford it—paid an admission to tour Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital in south London, England. Those people who toured Bethlem Hospital did so largely for entertainment purposes; to look at the ‘lunatics’ warehoused there and observe their manner and eccentric behaviour. This propagated the perception of the general public that people with mental problems were ‘the other’…that they were not quite human. I think we know better than that, today, but we still have a long way to go to gain full understanding.
Even in 2014, a 15-year-old named Chris Brennan died of asphyxiation while at Bethlem hospital after repeated self harming. The coroner found lack of proper risk assessment and lack of a care plan contributed to this death. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethlem_Royal_Hospital]
It’s difficult to understand how a person with a history of repeated self harming, and who is under medical care in hospital, can die as a result of improper risk assessment and lack of a care plan. 2014 was only three years ago–surely SOMEONE knew what to do to help him? But apparently not.
And speaking of self harm, here are Victoria’s own words on that subject…
This is from Victoria’s Facebook posting of January 25, 2017:
“Mental illness has been a daily struggle for me since I can remember. Today it still affects me each day, but I am winning this war because of the fantastic support system around me, some great coping strategies, and the work I did to remove negative thinking from my life and focus my brain on logic-based thought almost exclusively. (If you don’t know what DBT is, please look it up.)
On the outside looking in, this past year seems to have been full of successes and happy moments for me – a great year for my business, two sold-out charity shows, and of course successfully purchasing a house on my own. 2016 was the best year of my life, but it was also the worst. So goes the roller coaster ride that is fighting with your brain every day. I’ve achieved all these successes by only focusing on the positive experiences in my life, so that’s what you see on social media. I’ve learned to let the failures go immediately – they are just learning experiences wrapped in ugly paper anyway.
But today is about awareness so I’m going to share a little more of my story. I was always open about my issues but there has always been one topic I’ve been hesitant to talk about. I was speaking with friends and tweeting while drinking my morning coffee earlier on this inspiring #BellLetsTalk day, looking at the scene you see in the attached photo, when I decided I was ready to open up a little further.
You see, I had the misfortune of developing an invisible “self destruct button.” I haven’t fully adapted to my new positive lifestyle yet – it seems when things are going really well, my brain is unable to process a certain amount of happiness, so I do things to sabotage my own successes. You saw the happy concert posts and videos, but you didn’t see the severe panic attack that almost cancelled the show in which I completely blacked out for over an hour. You saw me on my new front lawn with my two dogs, smiling and holding my house keys, but you didn’t see the crash that forced me to sleep for two days straight, right through my original closing date – almost costing me everything I had worked so hard for.
Sometimes my self-destruct button means drinking enough to put life on pause. Other times it means eating so much that I can’t sleep with the stomach pain. And occasionally, I do some real damage, and that’s what this photo is about. Self harm is one of the least understood topics associated with the mental health spectrum today. It’s an addiction you can never fully recover from, and is always in the mind of those affected, even when the scars have faded. It’s the most spectacular release with the most devastating and frustrating consequences. It has plagued me every day since my first cut over twelve years ago.
When things started getting better for me, I booked a tattoo appointment to get my extensive thigh scars covered up. It was a part of my goal to change my perspective on the bad things that had happened to me in the past. I couldn’t erase the scars, but I could turn them into something beautiful. For such a large tattoo, three sessions were required. My first was in July 2015, the second the following December, and the last was scheduled for March 2016. After my second session I began counting down the days until a time when I would no longer have any visible scars to cover up. No more shorts in the summer, and maybe I could even wear a bathing suit someday! I almost made it. I had two days to go. But then on March 15th, 2016, I had the worst relapse of my life. I was devastated to go to my final tattoo session to cover the last remaining scars on my leg with my arm wrapped in a bandage. Then, after eight months and all the happiness of moving into my first home, it happened again on New Year’s Eve.
Why am I sharing this very personal story with the whole world? Because I’m so scared for the girls and boys who are alone in their rooms, lonely and frustrated, who just want to feel better and have run out of viable options. I was 14 and I was that girl. If I had a time machine, my only wish would be to go back to that first incident and stop myself from making that first cut. That’s why I’m sharing this story – so maybe I can stop that first cut from happening for someone else. There is ALWAYS a better option and there are people out there to help you find which one will work best for you. There are so many better things to absorb your anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, and loneliness than your own skin.
I’m also sharing this today as part of a pledge to make it through this entire year without another relapse. I promise every single person who reads this that I will do absolutely everything in my power to stay clean of self harm for all of 2017. If I make it – actually WHEN I make it – I’ll book an appointment to cover up my remaining scars and finally achieve my original goal.
It’s also a reminder to always be kind. A person may seem like the happiest person in the world, but you never know what struggles they face behind closed doors. As always, I am so willing to talk to anyone and everyone who needs some outside help with their own mental health issues. I know a stranger with no background information can sometimes be the most helpful when you need a fresh perspective and I’m willing to be that person.
And last but not least, even though the focus is on today, please remember to continue this conversation every day of the year. I am so appreciative of the continued support, Facebook friends, and I will continue to pay it forward.”
Tragically, Victoria was unable to stay completely clean of self-harm for all of 2017. The year that began with the best intentions, ended with the worst outcome.
A person taking the step of ending his or her own life usually leaves family and friends with an added dimension of shock and grief, and so it was for Victoria’s family and friends. However, while the cause of her death was incomprehensible, it was at the same time known. Because she was so generous and open, with a talent for writing and an earnest desire to help, her friends and family could express their sorrow while celebrating her life and accomplishments at her funeral service. Many, many people, some total strangers to Victoria and her family, joined them at the visitations, in sympathy and respect.
And, unlike most deaths, there was something people could do to help cope with the loss. They could carry on where Victoria left off, advocating for mental health support and promoting understanding of mental illness.
News of Victoria’s passing, and its cause, was broadcast on television, on radio, and in newspapers, thanks to the friends who knew that she would want to continue to be the instrument of advocacy. Everyone wishes that she had stayed to continue the fight herself–no amount of benefit can ever compensate for her loss–but she does leave a legacy. This can be seen in the determination of her friends to eradicate the stigma of mental illness, and continue her fight for better mental healthcare resources.
This song by the Beatles was important to Victoria, and emblematic of her struggle…
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night