Mental illness: my story

Derek Montague
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Don't wait too long to ask for help

I can recall the exact time and moment when I realized that something wasn’t right. I was 24 years old and in Montreal attending a national university newspaper conference. At the time, I was sports editor for The Aquinian, St. Thomas University’s student publication.

It was right after Christmas break, the beginning of my final university semester. I was hoping to move forward from the previous semester, which had been marked by tragedy, anger and deep sadness.

On Oct. 24, 2010 one of my best friends, Andrew, died suddenly in an unfortunate accident. To make matters worse, his death and the events surrounding it were being heavily covered by my journalism class, the paper I worked for and the mainstream media.

Every time I wanted to try and move forward and grieve privately, there was some public reminder of my beloved one’s death. I started skipping journalism classes to avoid hearing the discussions, and I became bitter and short-tempered with classmates and colleagues.

But I felt that the Montreal conference would change things. The media attention had died down after months of coverage, and Montreal was a fun city. I had always been highly social since I was a  teenager, and was never shy in new surroundings.

Then came the realization that all was not well with me. I was sitting in a crowded room, listening to one of the keynote speakers, when I got a sudden, rushing urge to get out of the room. I walked out, leaned on a staircase railing and whispered to myself:  “something is wrong.”

For the rest of the trip, I stayed to myself, spending most of my time in the hotel room. I tried joining my friends and fellow editors at a pub, but left after five minutes and zero socialization.

I also made the most significant mistake of my life: I walked into the Montreal Casino and won hundreds of dollars playing poker. I went to the casino three out of the four nights I was in the city, staying at least six hours each time.

Gambling, I realized, was the only thing that seemed to take my mind away from all the terrible things in my life. When I arrived back in Fredericton, I would continue using that form of therapy, and it became an out-of-control addiction, which I struggle with to this day.

When my final semester resumed, I continued to withdraw from everyone except my closest friends. I turned down countless invitations to birthday parties and get-togethers, behaviour that was once inconceivable to me.

In May 2011, I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree, with majors in journalism and human rights. But I felt no pride in this accomplishment. I graduated during the darkest era of my life and I just wanted to get out of university

I refused to admit that what I was going through was mental health-related. I kept telling myself that I was grieving Andrew’s death in my own way. But with each passing year, I became more and more withdrawn and kept gambling more to try and distract myself from my progressive downfall.

I was in denial about my mental health because I had spent more than 10 years beforehand dealing with it. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t lost control again, after working so hard to carve out a successful life.

When I was 12, I began having obsessive and disturbing thoughts that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I became paranoid and unable to function, in and out of school.

I had to fly out to Halifax to get a diagnosis. In the late ’90s, Newfoundland and Labrador had very few child psychiatrists and the waiting list for the Janeway was long. My state of paranoia and anxiety made my case urgent.

After talking with the Halifax psychiatrist for a couple of hours, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and put on a heavy dose of medication.

In a perfect world, this would have been the end of my struggles, but dealing with a mental health disorder is a long process. By the time I was an adult, I felt that I could cope with my troubles and not allow them to interfere with my life.

So, for more than three years after my problems began in Montreal, I did nothing to help myself. I didn’t want to start a new battle, so I chose to languish instead.

Then, in August of this year, I reached rock bottom. My gambling was causing serious financial strain and was getting rapidly worse. My state of depression had closed my life away from the outside world, and trying put on a brave front was becoming exhausting.

I knew that if I didn’t do something, I would eventually commit suicide. I kept looking back on the three years of youth gone to waste, the friendships that I let slip away and the risks I didn’t take. I was filled with constant pangs of nostalgia and regret.

I kept thinking back to the height of my happiness — when I was 21 years old. It was an age where I self-published a book and began a new life in university, where I partied, made awesome friends (who have, thankfully, stuck with me through all of this), and maintained a near-perfect grade point average. The sky was truly the limit, and to think about how it could all be destroyed in a few short years was hard to bear.

So after avoiding the issue for more than three years, I finally saw a psychiatrist, for the first time in more than a decade.

 During my appointment, certain things came to light — the most obvious being that I was suffering from depression and pathological gambling.

 But then came a surprise: the psychiatrist was skeptical about the diagnosis of OCD I had received when I was 12. He felt strongly that I suffer from anxious (avoidant) personality disorder.

The possibility that I was misdiagnosed for 16 years came as a shock. But the good doctor did admit that diagnosis could vary from one professional to the next. If I went to another psychiatrist, he or she might reaffirm that I have OCD and not a personality disorder.

Out of that appointment came new resolve to better my life and not waste any more years. To deal with my gambling problem, I put myself on a waiting list for the rehab centre in Corner Brook, which has a six to eight week waiting list, unfortunately.

I’m also on new medication, which may or may not work. The sad reality is that we live in an era of mental illness where trial and error is the norm when it comes to treatment. It could take a long time to find the right drug and the right dose. I went through it before and now I’ll be doing it again. But it’s much better than doing nothing at all.

I’m sharing my story because I don’t want anyone else to make the same mistakes I made over the past three years. If you suspect that you’re suffering from a mental health issue, don’t hesitate to get help. The longer you wait, the harder it is to crawl out of the doldrums.

And whatever you do, don’t turn to gambling, alcohol or drugs to help you cope. The problems caused by addiction will only double your hardships.

And, perhaps most importantly, I’m sharing this to help the next generation of suffers. I’m sure that I’ll be part of the whole trial-and-error generation for as long as I live. That gives me all the more reason for me and everyone else who has been a part of this difficult reality to start sharing our stories.

The more we talk about our experience, the more we will help the next generation find their way through, and hopefully their journey will be a lot less rough.

 

The Labradorian

derek.montague@thelabradorian.ca

 

Organizations: Montreal Casino

Geographic location: Montreal, Halifax, Fredericton Newfoundland and Labrador Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • Bonnie Kyritsis
    September 14, 2014 - 19:53

    You are a great inspiration to other sufferers Derek...Mental Illness needs to be openly spoken about without being judged by others..Bravo to you!!!!

  • John
    September 07, 2014 - 13:38

    Sometimes medication is the answer especially if someone is seriously thinking about harming him/herself or someone else. However, everyone knows that if you want to use your body well to, say, be an athlete, you need to be in good shape which means adequate sleep, proper exercise, good personal nutrition, and a supportive group of people. If you want to use your mind well, your brain needs to be in good shape. The brain, being part of the body is subject to the same guidelines. Correcting imbalances with medication can permanently alter the brain's production of neurotransmitters and density of receptors.

  • Scosha diamond
    September 04, 2014 - 16:40

    Thank you for sharing your story, I thnk you are very brave. Also you share a lot of positive comment, and successes, a great mentor . Mental health and emotional health is so,etching I have been struggling with for years, since a youth. I have found meditation has helped me, and relally learning to listen to my body, what my heart and body are saying to me... I also wouldn't mind sharingif you are ever looking for another story. Thank you

  • Robert Way
    September 04, 2014 - 16:00

    This is a brave and inspiring story. I applaud you for writing it.