Inside the mind of mental illness

Mental Illness, as described to me by my son…

Imagine you’re on a train, like an old-fashioned passenger train. It’s comfortable and you’re sitting in a seat, with people in almost all of the other seats. A lot of the people you know and you’re friends with but there are also lots of people you don’t know. They’re walking around too and going from train car to train car, just doing what they do. There’s people talking and laughing, some just reading or being quiet. You’ve just been having a fun conversation with some of your friends but now you look out the window and there’s scenery going by; fields and lakes and mountains… and it’s pretty and you’re having a good time looking at what goes by.

You’re not sure how long you were looking out the window and you think maybe you fell asleep because things look different a little now. It’s not sunny anymore – kind of grey and cold looking now. The lakes are gone and the trees and grasses aren’t green anymore. You figure that you must have gone a really long way and you miss the way the scenery was. All this time, you’re not really sure where you’re going anyways.

You realize that it’s really quiet around you so you stop looking out the window and notice that the train is empty. Everyone is gone and you don’t know where they went or when they left. You don’t remember the train stopping or anyone getting off or even any of your friends saying goodbye to you – but they’re all gone now and you’re alone.

The train is cold now and you look back outside and it’s almost dark now. It’s all rocks and cold outside now and nothing is growing. You get out of your seat and walk up and down the train car alone. The doors at the end that led to the other cars are still there but they don’t lead anywhere now. You go to the window at the end that looks back on where you’ve come from and can see a faint light way back in the distance but the train car is speeding away from it so fast it’s almost gone.

You go to the window at the front of the train car that looks forward to where you’re going and it’s pitch black and ice is starting to form on the window because it’s getting so cold outside.

You know that you can’t stop the train car or make it go back to where you were. You know that the only way to not go where you’re heading – which looks horrible – is to get off the train… and that means jumping and that you’ll die. So you make the choice to do that … because you can’t go back and you don’t want to end up where you’re going.

This was how Willie described it to me one day when he was trying to explain what it was like inside his head… and why he wanted to kill himself. I haven’t shared this before as it was very private to me but I hope this helps people understand as much as it did for me when he explained it this way.


This is traditionally a time of year to look forward and make resolutions for the coming year and set goals for what you want to achieve. While that’s certainly something that I tend to do, it’s harder for me right now. Grieving and moving through a depression makes it tough for me to plan and look forward sometimes. It’s a work in progress and getting better but it’s still a challenge. A close friend suggested that I focus on, and write down, the victories that I’ve achieved and celebrate those…. So here it is for the last year and a half…

1. I’m still here to write this list. There have been times this past almost couple of years that that wasn’t always clear that I would make it – but I have.
2. My kids are amazing! Ok, this may not seem like my victory but it is. Recognizing and celebrating the fact that I had something to do with them turning out so great is a big thing for me. Owning the great job I did as a parent didn’t come easy after losing Willie and the guilt that I still battle with.
3. I am living where I have wanted to be for many years. After many years of wanting to move to Victoria I finally made that happen. Gave away or sold almost all of my physical belongings and moved with only what would fit in 2 car loads … a new start in a place that is truly home.
4. I have a job that I love. I didn’t settle or give up. It was a struggle and many months of searching but I found a job that fits with how I wanted to live my life.
5. I am letting love into my heart again.
6. I’m having good hours – not yet at full good “days” but getting there …there were many times that I doubted that I would ever have that again, but I am.
7. I’m setting goals. For anyone who has lived with not wanting to be around you’ll understand how much that means to plan for the future – even if the future plans are just a week in advance.
8. I can talk about past events and remember them with laughter… still often times with tears… but now with laughter as well and more often.
9. I can read again. The ability to focus on words on a page – reading for pleasure – was lost to me for a very long time. Now, that’s coming back, thankfully.
10. I have hope. That alone is the biggest victory of all.

Raw sharing

Sometimes what I write is eloquent and pretty and insightful. Sometimes it’s painful and wrenching and filled with my emotions and pain. Believe it or not though… I do censor what I put out there. I have had many people tell me that I share so openly but the truth is that no one has any idea of the numerous journal entries that will never see the light of day because of their content and because of how what is inside of me is displayed on the page. How sometimes the ugly part of what we went through with Willie is just too much to put out there. That I , many times, decide that something is too loaded and too vulgar to share – even though I know that in order for us all to really grasp what hell mental illness can be – we need to see that ugly side. So with that in mind, here’s where my head is at tonight…you don’t have to understand or agree with me…barely a glimpse into torment

I remember a few thoughts I had when the police officer told me that Willie was dead. The first thought was not so much a thought as it was simply a feeling. No. To this day, that still sits within me. That first guttural reaction of the belief that what I had been told couldn’t be true still rears up every now and then. I know, intellectually, that Willie is dead; but emotionally and instinctively…. That’s another story.

Recently, in a therapy session, while talking about accepting that what Willie did was what he really wanted I said something that was a recall of a thought I had during those first few moments. Unremembered for almost two years and then just there… the words out of my mouth capturing a thought so repellant to me that I didn’t want to think it, never mind voice it.

That thought was relief. Relief that his attempt had been successful. Not in the sense that I was relieved he was dead… but relief that his biggest fear wouldn’t come true. Willie had shared with me that he was so afraid of trying to kill himself and having it not be successful and that he would be left brain-damaged or vegetative… and unable to complete what he had been attempting. While my conscious mind was in shock at hearing that he was dead…. While I wanted more than anything for him to not have done what he did… there was some part of me in that split second that was relieved that he wasn’t going to face what he was scared of by attempting. Also that I wasn’t going to have to face what to do… he had come to me a couple of months earlier with an internet story of a teen that had tried to kill herself and had been saved. As a result, she was unable to move or speak and was mentally damaged from the attempt. Yet, she was somewhat cognitive. Willie showed it to me and he asked me that if that ever happened that I had to promise him that I would end his life for him at that point – that if he wasn’t physically able to, he asked me to. That may sound like an odd conversation but he was very open about being suicidal and as a result, we all were. To allay his fears, I promised him that I would… I also re-iterated that we would get through this all and that suicide was not the answer.

As I stood there and heard the words from that police officer I was flooded with emotions and thoughts and feelings beyond description and at a rate that defied me being able to even connect with it all. I felt what I had heard described as the world stopping or the bottom falling out of everything.
It’s only now, almost 2 years later that those few moments are starting to slow down enough for me to decipher what is in them. With each second uncovered and recalled the pain burns in a new way… grief is raw and sometimes what we need to talk about with regards to suicide is raw too, but this is the only way it comes out of the shadows and gets dealt with.


I am reminded and counselled and nudged to remember that Willie would want me to be happy. That he would want me to move forward and have a happy rest of my life. I know that’s true, I know that I need to do that and I want to. I don’t want to be where I am… hurting and missing him and reeling every other day it seems like. I feel like I’m letting him down and letting myself down when I hit another spell of not being able to get out of the bed to do what I’m supposed to do. When I sit and cry and can’t stop.

I hear from well-meaning friends and from therapists that I am the only one who can choose to make the decision to let go and move forward and let myself be happy. I know this to be true. The frustration that I have in me when I am struck by another day like today … a day where I can’t move because of the grief and the tears and the pain… the frustration is enraging. I don’t know anymore how to grieve and feel the loss without feeling like I shouldn’t be feeling this.

If I push the feelings away and don’t feel them then I’m not processing things and just perpetuating the issues of not facing it… and I’ve been told I need to stop pushing it all away in order to be able to move forward…but when I feel what comes and am struck with this pain, I feel like I’m failing at choosing to be happy and that people will be just more and more pissed off that I’m not moving on and letting go. Am I stuck like this forever?
There comes a point where it becomes me that is keeping me from moving forward, that’s what I’ve been told… and I guess it’s true….so how the hell do I grieve?

Fuck, I hate this. Yes, that’s crude and vulgar – so is grief.


Pushing people away… or keeping them at a distance that is safe. Safe from what though? This is something that I have been trying to understand. I have had a real issue with this since Willie died .

I didn’t realize until just recently that I was doing it – or to what extent I have been. It’s become noticeable to me now only because I am finally starting to desire to have people close to me again… and I’m finding that there’s a wall that was never there before; and that I built that wall.

A wall that went up very quickly after Willie’s death. Looking back now I see that it started right away. The day after Willie died, I pushed away offers of help and continued that way for a very long time; something that I still struggle with today. I pulled away from my friends, barely seeing them. When I did spend time with them, there was a distance and a barrier between us that was palpable and uncomfortable. It began with avoiding people in public and when I would drop my son off at school. I wouldn’t get out of the car… it was too hard to run the gauntlet of people offering condolences or asking if there was anything they could do to help. At the grocery store I would go to check outs with clerks that I didn’t know personally – a hard feat in a small community that I had been in for so many years. Ducking out of aisles in stores when I saw someone I knew, before they saw me. I got my ex-husband to take my son to soccer games so that I wouldn’t have to see anyone and face talking – or worse, the polite avoidance because no one knows what to say.

So the wall started to be built and it stayed, and it grew to what it is now. An obstacle that I have put there and that I have to work to remove. At its core is the fear of being hurt by loss. It’s impossible to explain the loss of a child… losing someone who was inside of me and a part of me from his first being. He was separate from me, but, like all my children, also a part of me and inseparable from my being in a way. To lose him hurts more than I could have ever imagined. That wall exists in a manner of keeping anyone from coming close again so that I don’t have to experience that pain again if I lose them.

The wall went up so quickly and unconsciously that it’s going to take some time to take it apart. Slowly and painstakingly, little by little. Sometimes shoring back up the bricks I’ve just taken down as the fear storms in… fear born out of feelings that feel foreign and scary to me. Coming down consciously now though.


Forgiveness is a rough journey that I’m travelling right now. Whether or not the guilt that I carry is valid or rational or not is a moot point. The fact is that I do carry it; and it’s heavy. I have had therapists help me dissect it and try to understand why I have no actual reasons to have this guilt but the end result is that I do… and I have to learn how to forgive myself… because it doesn’t matter whether I need to forgive myself or not; what matters is that I have to because I believe that I am guilty.

My belief is simple… when my children were entrusted to me to care for them, nurture them, teach them and guide them to adulthood… it became my responsibility to ensure that they reached adulthood, safely. No matter how much anyone picks it apart or reasons that I did everything that I could the very basic fact remains that I failed. That Willie is dead.

But this isn’t about guilt or trying to convince myself that I DO feel guilt… a new thought has settled. An acceptance that, very simply, I do feel guilt. Whether that is right or wrong is inconsequential – I just do. This, in a way, is very freeing. With that acceptance comes the understanding that I need to forgive myself. I am the person who has imposed this guilt on me, so I am the only one who can lift it.
As with so many other areas of my life, there’s no one else who can do the work or enact the changes that need to happen internally. It’s just Me.

The understanding and the acceptance are the truths that have settled with me recently; not with sadness but with the freedom to know that to move forward and leave it behind I know what to do. Forgiveness.

“These are a few of my favourite things….”

I’m approaching the second holiday season since Willie died. Last year was a complete departure from the “usual” holiday festivities. In place of our standard decorations and baking and dinners and being together… christmas tree decorating and presents and stockings… instead of all of that there was nothing. I chose it that way. I did try to put up a few decorations but it felt wrong and made me more sad than anything else. Last year was the christmas season that I just wanted to not happen. Myself and the older boys made the decision to not have a tree, to not exchange presents and to forego the turkey dinner that I did every year. Instead we had chinese food, went for a hike christmas morning and enjoyed our time together. It was unlike any other holiday season and it was good in its own way. It felt right that it was so different since it felt so wrong for it to be happening without Willie.

This year, as I am starting to forge into really seeking joy again and figuring out how to live with grief and missing Willie but also at the same time have happiness in my life again I find myself asking a lot of questions. Questioning not only the holiday season traditions that I bucked last year but so much more in my life.

Sticking with holiday thoughts for now though…

I’ve spent the last month or so growling about holiday decorations in store windows and flinching at christmas songs. Part of me hates the holidays because of what is lost. The togetherness, the family time and the traditions that are gone now that I loved so much. The feelings that I used to have when we got out the tree and decorated the house. The kids all over the house because school was out… the baking and the stupid christmas movies we would watch every year together. All of that now gone and the hurt of it being gone is symbolized for me in every christmas song that I used to hum along with and every glittery wreath that used to make me giddy that it was the holidays.

It snowed here the other day, Just a little bit; but it was enough to make my walk home feel brisk and wintery. I smiled as I walked and actually realized how much I love the snow still – especially since I don’t have to drive :). It brought me that “warm and fuzzy” feeling that I used to get… and this time I just enjoyed it. I didn’t turn from it and hate it because of what wasn’t anymore… I looked at it and saw that the happy of the snow in the streetlights and the crisp in the air could exist in the same space as my grief… that the tears in my eyes just made the snow prettier for that moment as I felt joy in it again.

I went out with a special friend last night and when she suggested going to the Empress to see the Festival of Trees on display my gut instinct was to say no… but instead I said yes. We went and strolled and looked at the Christmas trees all lit up and decorated and it was nice. A little sad for me as I remembered times spent with the boys as we would set up our own tree, but I let myself look inside and see what I was feeling… and it was happiness. Enjoying something that I didn’t know if I ever would be able to again.

A little start towards re-examining what it is that still makes me smile and what new things I’ve discovered that do as well. The biggest joy is finding that I have the ability to feel that still.

And to wrap it up… one of my favourite holiday songs… just because it still makes me smile to hear it…

Suicide “Survivor”

After Willie died, I went to a few counselling sessions and was introduced, personally, to the term “suicide survivor”. I disliked the term at once. I didn’t like the way it sounded and I didn’t really understand why those of us who have lost a loved one to death by suicide are called “survivors”.

I can say that now, almost 2 years later, I understand that term and how aptly it conveys the truth.

For those who have had someone they love die by suicide it is truly survival…for me it is at least…for right now. There is a big difference between living, really living, and just surviving day in and day out.

Since February 1st 2012, it has been survival. The first few months are a blur, I barely remember anything from that time and have no recall of specific days or even weeks during that time. I don’t know how I got my youngest son to school every day or made lunches or dinners, how I shopped for groceries and did laundry… I know I did it, but I don’t know how. I know I learned to let a lot of my standards slide during that time and to be ok with just getting by. That’s what happens when you’re surviving. You learn to live with less than. Less organization, less structure, less planning and less things that you always considered “must-haves”.

Then eventually for me something else happened. I learned to live with less of the more important things that had already slid during that time of shock. In those first few months I was incapable of feeling, it seemed, anything other than pain and loss. Even that was dampened and felt numb in a way. After a year or so, I realized that the pain was getting worse and have learned that as the shock wears off, you really actually “feel” the loss. Surviving kicked in for me..again. I tried to shut down all those feelings and muster them into a way that I could handle and process. It didn’t work and I am now on the other side of understanding how toxic that is to myself.

Part of the surviving though is that I also learned to live with “less than” in terms of emotional and physical. I learned to live with almost no physical contact or emotional connections. Joy and enjoyment of things became fleeting and I didn’t seek it out. I started to merely exist and survive in my life on an emotional level. Life is all about balances and for me to live with joy and happiness again means that I also have to open myself up to experience all the hurt and the pain. As I work to process and face the painful emotions I need to constantly remind myself that without the balance of joy, my life isn’t living… it’s surviving. And I don’t want to just survive, I want to live. Losing Willie brought to the forefront what I already lived… that life is precious and uncertain. Just getting by every day is not how I wanted to live my life and it still isn’t.

Being a suicide survivor is not what I want to be and I’m not; because to call myself that implies, for me, that I’m not really living, I’m just existing…and that’s no way to live a life.

As I make plans for the upcoming year of things I want to do and places I want to travel to (finally!) I see that a corner is turning and joy is starting to be a consideration for me in my life. The balancing will always be a struggle – I don’t believe the pain will ever diminish to the point that it’s not there every day – but I do believe that I have to be the one to make a conscious choice to keep that balance in check. A work in progress, but at least in the right direction.


This is a very difficult post not only to write but to publish. I am publishing this to give voice to what I know isn’t just my struggle. This blog is not only Willie’s blog but also a vehicle for dialogue about mental health. This is part of that. I have carried a lifetime of shame over my feelings addressed here and part of me healing is letting go of the shame and the guilt for how I feel and my way of dealing with those feelings.

Self-harm is, for me, the epitome of complicated. It’s not as simple as I want to hurt myself. If only it were, then it might be believable to myself that I’ll be able to end it. I am no stranger to this and it’s something that has been a part of my life since as far back as my pre-teen years; really kicking into habitual behaviour in my very early teens and continuing in some form or another in varying degrees even now. Speaking only for myself and my experiences…

Self-harm is something that happens essentially one of two ways for me. The most obvious and the way most people relate to it, is by actually physically hurting myself. The other way which has been the predominant way for years is a purposeful and conscious refusal to do what is “good” or what will benefit me, either physically or emotionally. This is different from choosing to be not well… it is calculatingly choosing to harm myself by denying myself something I need to be “better”.

I know how this sounds; when I write it out I have so much shame and guilt and disgust for myself and what I do that I don’t want to let anyone read it or know what goes on inside of me. I have written this out in so many forms over the last couple of years and every time I have destroyed/deleted it. I may still with this version; I’m not sure yet.

Breaking this down even further; physically hurting myself falls into a couple of different slots as well. When I first started doing it, it was actually therapeutic – or at least that was how I saw it. I would exercise or run whenever I would get overwhelmed emotionally. If I was stressed and needed to “blow off steam” I would throw on my shoes and run – fast and as far as I could go. I would run until I was exhausted. Or I would go to the studio after work and put on loud music and turn the lights off and dance until I was sweating and panting and couldn’t move. I would do Yoga strenuously after that until my body ached and my muscles were shaking. All the while telling myself that it was healthy… this was a healthy choice to release stress. And for a while it was. Until I started to hurt when I ran.. my knees or hips would scream and I would feel that and then I would push harder. The pain was nothing more than a sensation. To me, it became a way of physically feeling what was inside of me that hurt so much. A way of transferring the emotional pain into something tangible that I could feel, process and release. I started to run seeking that pain and not stopping until I found it. And it worked for a long time… years in fact. Until it stopped working. The last year and a half the pain has been too much and injuries had sidelined me from running for a while. Cutting became something that took me by surprise. Done one night when I was in so much pain that I had no idea what to do. The cutting, for me, was a way to pull myself back to the present from where my mind had gone it its turmoil. It was the vessel for the emotions that were swirling inside and threatening worse. Again, seemingly destructive but in actuality, a safer release. I know how “crazy” that may sound but it is just that. The scars I have now a testament that during those times that I couldn’t take it anymore, I got through it. Every cut followed by the mantra that I wouldn’t do it again – and the shame. Fresh cuts again now on my arms tell a different story though. Still doing what I need to when it gets too much. Providing release but also fueling the other side of the self-harming…

The side that isn’t a “healthy” way of dealing with internal struggles. The side that is intentionally hurtful and destructive and hateful. The side that has been here the longest. Starting with control and eventually growing into a way to punish and inflict hurt on someone who doesn’t deserve anything better – me. Anorexia and bulimia in my early teen years morphing into a lifetime of disordered eating that has at its roots the belief that I am fundamentally broken and flawed. The body dysmorphia that I logically know is there but that I can’t control or alter. It skews my vision of myself and my ability to embrace behaviours and habits that will bring my body pleasure and enjoyment. Decades of self-hatred that can’t be accurately described no matter how hard I try. A self-image that isn’t dissuaded by anyone elses opinion.

This has now become an almost debilitating condition with the result that I am terrified at the idea of anyone seeing or touching me. Physical, sexual contact is horrifying to me as I can’t stand the concept of being naked in front of someone and having them explore my body. My own grotesqueness, in my mind, repulsive to me… so it must be to them. No matter what anyone tells me, I can’t believe otherwise. My sexual desires dwindling as I recoil from the chance of ever having to be in that situation again. The frustration over my physical loneliness and wanting coupled with the internal distaste for contact right now.

I see this inside of me and I see my inability to change it… regardless of how aware I am or how many times I’ve tried it never goes away. The result is that it fuels the self-hatred even more… I can’t control myself and because of that I hate myself. My weakness, my disgusting lack of ability to make myself better. I see friends who try to make me see what they do and I see their frustration and eventual annoyance at me and I hate myself more. Or worse yet, the friends who believe that it’s all an act to garner compliments. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to be different, I want to be free of the thoughts in my mind and the way that my eyes see my shape and how my body feels to my hands. And as the years go by I lose faith that I will ever be free of this.

How many times can you start over and believe that THIS time it will be different… that this time, I’ll be able to change what needs to change and learn to love myself? What is inside of me that has that base belief that I am not deserving of love and nurturing? It’s been there so long that it was hidden… it took me a long time – and some professional help – to discover that this is one of the reason for these behaviours.

It’s not anything that anyone else can convince me of. It began inside me and that’s where it has to be resolved.