Content Warning: This article talks about issues related to self-harm and attempted suicide. The bottom of the page features quick links and phone numbers for resources in our community. Please do not hesitate to reach out to these services, even if it’s to chat. You are a valued member of our community.

Thirty years is a long time, and a short time, to be alive.

The number of people, places, and things I have seen spreads across North America and Europe.  I have friendships from kindergarten and ones that began during a pandemic. There have been ebbs and flows, highs and lows. But if it weren’t for the doctors at Victoria Hospital, I wouldn’t have lived past a suicide attempt at age 15. This part of my life was the beginning of a long recovery and mental health advocacy journey.

What Is Recovery?

Recovery means something different for each person. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) notes that  “[r]ecovery involves changes in the way individuals with mental illness think, act and feel about themselves and the possibilities in their lives. It also requires changes in the ways services are funded and organized, mental health professionals are trained, and success is measured. Recovery is about transforming the mental health system so that it truly puts the person at the centre.”

Children's Hospital signage at Victoria Hospital, London, ON. Photograph by Elizabeth McDonald
Victoria Hospital in London, ON. Photograph by Elizabeth McDonald

This person-centred approach works. I would know.

My Breaking Point

Victoria Hospital admitted me in the spring of 2006 for a suicide attempt, where I spent three days in the ICU. Doctors prescribed activated charcoal to induce vomiting. Copious amounts of saline flushed ibuprofen from my system. The physicians repeatedly checked my blood for toxicity levels. From there, I went to the pediatric psych ward for two weeks. After my release, I would continue to face challenges on my road to recovery.

I saw a counsellor before this period, and my family doctor was aware of my struggles. Unfortunately, these supports didn’t prevent me from attempting to take my own life. A lot has changed since the mid-2000s, especially about speaking out on mental health. For that, I am grateful. As a survivor and now thriver, I want to be a part of the conversation.

Seventy percent of mental health issues start in adolescence. After my release from the hospital, I wanted to live an everyday teenage life. Things stabilized more by grade eleven, but with periodic bouts of self-harm. I began to see a youth psychiatrist, but my attendance dropped off. Alcohol and substance use was a method I used to cope with the anxiety and sadness I often felt. CAMH notes that more than fifteen percent of people with mental illness also have a “substance use issue.”

Spring tulips in Victoria Park, London, ON. Photography by Elizabeth McDonald.
Spring tulips in Victoria Park, London, ON. Photography by Elizabeth McDonald.

I’m proud to be open about my recovery, but I deserved love and compassion before this phase of my life, as well. People don’t get better when there is a stigma attached. They heal with humanization and compassionate community support.

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The Process Takes Time

It has taken me 15 years to reach a point where I see myself as recovered. For me, recovery means many things. I am attaining my goals. My beliefs about myself are positive. I have fulfilling and meaningful friendships. I reignited my passion for sports and creativity. One thing I lost when I hit high school was my love for sports. I had a childhood as a gymnast and competitive diver. I loved track and field, played baseball, volleyball and tried my seat at horseback riding. Competitive sports stopped partway through grade nine. I gained a passion for theatre in high school, which was a much-needed outlet for my emotions.

Today, sport and creativity are once again a huge part of my life. My movement practices help me manage anxiety and provide me with endorphins. My creative outlets give joy and connection to others.

A woman, Elizabeth McDonald sits on a slackline tied between two trees in a winter setting.
Finding balance. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

I now see my anxiety for what it is: fear on overdrive. My heart pounds, my palms sweat, my throat begins to close up, and my body shakes. By anchoring myself to the present moment, I can challenge the narrative in my head. Sometimes, anxiety means a tense body and shallow breathing. I take a deep breath from my nose and let it out through my mouth. My favourite self-talk thought is, “What evidence do you have to support your theory?” As an academic, this works for me. For you, it could be something else.  Grounding takes practice and gets easier with time. This method comes from cognitive behavioural therapy. 

I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support of a therapist for the last three and a half years. I went back to university in my mid-20s, and it was stressful. I began to visit a therapist to start the process of getting support. She provided me space, compassion, and strategies. She was a non-judgemental ear that I could go to whenever I needed her. I have reached a point where I am no longer in active therapy. We agreed that I was ready to graduate.

Quitting drinking was another part of my recovery that has let me lead a stable and nourishing life. My success in healing doesn’t mean I don’t struggle sometimes. For me, my symptoms are manageable. I have experience and tools. I know when to ask for help. My tools include meditation, running, yoga, slacklining, journaling and deep breathing. Calling a close friend is a good one, too.

I can’t reiterate enough that recovery doesn’t happen overnight or by yourself. I have a team of support. Not everyone is this resourced. I wish they were.

My life has not always been easy, but it has been far more than I ever expected when I attempted suicide at 15 years young. If I could tell myself at 15 what life would look like now, I wouldn’t believe me. And that’s okay. What is essential is that today, I believe in me, and I believe in you, too.


Resources

If you are struggling with mental health, as many people do, please see the resources below. This list is non-exhaustive. Please know that you are not alone and that it’s human to need help. The world needs the wondrous person you are and the spectacular life you can lead.

Reach Out

Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex

Atlohsa Family Healing Services

My Sisters’ Place

Humana Community Services (Previously WAYS and Anago)

Family Services Thames Valley

Feature photograph by Elizabeth McDonald.

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