“Do you think if I died, my parents would get back together”.
I was roughly 5 years old when I first showed signs of being “off” or “different”.
My parents had broken the news to my brother and I while the four of us sat in a circle on their King bed. They assured us it wasn’t our fault, and that everything would be okay, but deep down, even at age 5 and 7, we felt guilty, that maybe we had been fighting too much, that maybe we were bad kids and they just couldn’t handle it.
We were very young, but I knew that I was sad and that something bad was happening.
It wasn’t until weeks into the separation that I began to realize what it all meant – it meant that one week Mom would live in the house and one week Dad would be there.
It was weird…but my life, for the most part, stayed the same. Yes, I missed my other parent when they weren’t at home, but I still had my room, my toys, my friends at school, and my normal schedule.
That was until the day I had my first internal struggle.
Up until that day, I had felt fine, but suddenly, and all at once, I wasn’t fine at all, I was numb, and to others, I was scary.
I had asked myself: Why did everyone else’s parent’s love each other by mine didn’t?
And my conclusion: It had to be me.
I was in senior kindergarten, yet was thinking thoughts beyond my years.
Although I was far from understanding the finality of life and death, I withdrew completely and reflected much deeper than any child ever should.
I went to school that day and decided that if I was going to be there, I was going to sit in the corner and be alone.
For some reason, unknown to my little self, I sat myself in a time-out situation, likely trying to punish myself in someway – for what had happened to my family.
My teacher had been made aware of my parent’s situation, so she gave me space, but of course, she had concerns. She checked on me throughout the day, but I continued to assure her, “I just need to sit here”.
This created a stir in the classroom, “Why is Kellie sitting over there”, “What did she do”, “Is she in trouble”.
At recess, my teacher sat down with me to talk. She asked me gently why I didn’t want to play or participate in school that day, and if everything was okay at home. I didn’t have much to say. She then asked me more specifically about my mom and my dad, and if that’s why I was upset, to which I simply answered, “Do you think if I died, my parents would get back to together, because they would be sad?”.
This question was asked innocently – with no intent on hurting myself – but I did ask it, and I had been thinking deeply about it, all day long.
With that answer, my teacher had quickly called my parents to come pick me up.
I remember my mother, tears in her eyes, as she was told what I had said.
She was obviously stunned and frightened.
It wasn’t until much later in my life that I reflected on this moment and realized I have likely always experienced hurt, pain, and grief differently, and more deeply, than most others…
In my next memory, I am seven years old. I can vividly recall the time my mom and her boyfriend had decided they were going to renovate our kitchen. Even more than replacing tile and grout, they were going to move the sink – from mid-laminate slab, to the kitchen corner, (about two feet to the right) to give us more space to prepare food.
This was a decision that scarred me deeply at the time.
Not only had this boyfriend entered my home, and was sleeping in my father place, but he had also he had filled my mother’s head with an idea – an idea to change MY kitchen, in MY house – the only home I had ever known.
I was okay with the update, as I had always had a flare for décor and design, but I could not fathom the idea of a sink-placement- change. To me, it was un-natural, unnecessary, and unnerving. I had gone to the same spot to wash my hands for my entire life, and now that would be no more?
The worst of it all was – it was out of my control; the decision had been made, without my approval.
I couldn’t contain myself – my world literally felt as if it were ending.
I burst out in tears, my heart quickened, and I vomited insults towards my mother, “How could you do this? Don’t you dare! I hate you!”. The words spilled out like fire, burning my lungs – as if it were escaping from a burning house – lining and seeping from under the door, then filling the entire room, choking you.
Hot tears burned my face and made my eye socked swell beyond belief. My head ached, but I kept going and going and going.
I cried for hours that night, loud enough so that the whole house could surely hear. Then, in rebellion, I decided to refuse to sleep in my bed – to cry closer to my mother’s door so she would have to notice my hurt. I gathered my blankets and a pillow, and moved to the staircase landing, right in the way of anyone trying to get downstairs. At the time, this move made sense.
I was an advocate of stability, a protestor of change.
I stood my ground, for a cause that I believed in, but at the time, had no idea why I was reacting this way.
To my mother, this event seemed overly dramatic and utterly confusing…. but it wasn’t until half way through the night, tired as could be, that I began to question myself as well.
What was I doing here on the staircase? Why was I so upset? What was going on?
It was like the haze broke and I could finally see.
My chest had finally settled and I could breathe again.
And with that, I eventually made it back into my bed, drifting quietly off to sleep.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was officially diagnosed, that I looked back on that event as another early sign of what I would later identify as my manic depression and general anxiety disorder.
Throughout my youth I was a relatively happy child, but there are these very specific moments, like the two above, that stick out most in my memory – and were all experiences of misdirected anxiety attacks/flashes, exposing my growing internal chemical imbalance.
Yes, I was a dramatic child, but there was much more to it than that, more than my parents and I had ever been able to understand…
My mental illness didn’t just surface a few years ago…I’ve been struggling internally, for my entire life.
The smallest and most insignificant things would set me off into a breakdown… things that wouldn’t make you bat and eye, but would make me scream at the top of my lungs, that would make me vomit from crying so aggressively, that would make me feel like dying would be easier.
I believe this internal struggle to cope is what inspired my sense of perfectionism.
Because I subconsciously knew that I was falling apart inside, I think I worked in over-drive to foster the energy to be the best that I could be in front of other people.
I worked extremely hard in elementary school to be well-liked, got perfect grades, sucked up to teachers, won speech competitions, got the lead in school plays, and joined every club… to seem even better than “normal” – to seem extraordinary, to be perfect.
I put myself into a million other things, just to feel better… dance, acting, music, guitar, girl guides, skating…
And this sense of perfectionism carried on through to my high school career – where I won the race for Student Council President, and also to University – where I pushed myself to keep up with social interactions and the partying scene. *My choice to apply and attend Western University alone – was a decision based on achieving the image I wanted – that I was smart, well put together, and whole.
My “breakdowns” first became a real cause for concern for my parents when I began fainting at the age of 14: at school, on school trips, at concerts with my friends, etc. They became concerned I was attempting to starve myself.
And Yes – I was eating less due to anxiety, but I was eating. Instead, my issues were more in line with experiencing social anxiety, now in High School – around many more people, (especially boys) and other “popular and skinny” girls who seemed to have it all.
I would get so worked up inside about my appearance, my popularity, and about how I was being perceived by others, that I would feel like the walls were closing in on me – and I would pass right out from the pressure I was placing on myself.
At that time, my parents were concerned that I was starving myself, not receiving enough nutrition and therefore passing out. But there was so more to it than that, I was feeling claustrophobic in my own skin, I wasn’t comfortable, nothing fulfilled me or made me happy, I was paranoid, my thoughts were attacking me, and as I reflect now, I know that I was experiencing very severe anxiety – without realizing what was going on.
With concern for my “anorexia risk”, my parents decided I was to see a therapist – who turned out to be a clueless old man – instructed to talk to me about eating disorders and boys. However, this experience was far from helpful, as my issue wasn’t food, and a 60-year-old man was not someone I was willing to open up to… especially because I had no idea how to articulate how I was feeling inside.
It took 3 more years for me to have another notable breakdown. This time, it was after finding out my first love had cheated on me. Naïve and young, it felt like my whole world had fallen apart.
And you’re probably thinking – okay, this is normal -that’s what it feels like to lose your first love.
But no – I can assure you, my hurt was very different.
This was the first time I really knew something was wrong with me.
I felt like I was going to die, and I wanted to die. I sat up at night thinking of how I could die without feeling pain, how I could make this hurt stop. I thought about how I worthless and unwanted I must be to have someone hurt me like that. I questioned every part of my being and my body. I thought about how I would never feel happiness again… and then I questioned if I had ever really been happy at all… I questioned if I was imaging everything.
My thoughts spun darker and deeper… and I had no control. I had no idea what was happening to me, but I needed it to stop before I exploded.
This time, it was me who begged my parents for help, wanting so badly to feel like myself again, to no longer feel such pain and self-loathing. This time, I saw a new therapist, a woman, someone I could hopefully connect with… and we did. I went to therapy for months, feeling better and better with each session. Starting to learn coping tools that helped me to manage anxiety.
That was until one of my best friends died. I took a break from therapy, assuring my parents my new coping tools would be enough to get me through. I attempted to be a pillar of strength in his death, for our High School, for our friends, and others, but I was absolutely broken inside… just wearing a mask. To everyone else, I was finally coping extraordinarily well, but inside, I had again become obsessed with death.
I thought about death all day long.
Everything about it…. how to do it, how not to do it, where you go, what happens…
Until I finally broke down, being sucked too far into the darkness.
I finally admitted to my family that I wanted to die.
I was taken to the hospital for the first time and assessed. We finally knew for sure that I wasn’t okay, but everyone hoped that my current depression would be temporary, a result of two consecutive difficult situations and life events.
As this first true breakdown happened in the summer of 2012, my parents we unsure if I was ready to go away to University. However, in perfectionist style, I worked hard to be the best therapy patient my therapist had ever had – just so I could go to Western on time – to be a normal kid. I worked hard to convince them I had come out of it, and in that moment, I was doing much better, so I believed it myself. I felt in control again and realized that yes – I must have just had situational depression, that I would hopefully never feel that way again in my life.
This normal lasted for a surprising two years of my undergrad.
It wasn’t until my 3rd year of University that it all came crashing down. It took an attempt on my life to finally realize my “dramatic” and emotional personality, as well my intensified need to succeed and be perfect, was more advanced, and more toxic, than we had ever thought. I had for so long made excuses, I had ignored so many signs, but it took almost losing my life, to wake me up – for me to realize I needed more than just the occasional therapy session. I was mentally ill – and I had been, for a very long time.
What I had for so long though was just me being very emotional when something bad happened to me (like a death or a break up) turned into me realizing, no – there’s a real and legitimate reason I feel so much more than everyone else, and not just when things go wrong. There is a real reason, I don’t feel okay, or safe, or truly happy… almost ever.
This moment changed everything… but I so badly wish I had known sooner. I so badly wish I had never had to get that bad.
I do not blame my parents at all for not taking more action – I was a good liar, and a good persuader. I was also REALLY good at covering up my darkest thoughts – through my impressive perfectionist skills, my involvement in the community, my high functioning brain and warm personality… they did everything they could have done with what they had known.
But, I do write this as a heads up to guidance councillors, to teachers, to parents, to siblings, to grandparents, to you… as a warning, as a notice… that depression and anxiety can be extremely hard to diagnose in children.
However – we need to make helping youth a PRIORITY.. we need to provide them with better and freer resources, guidance, and outlets, for their pain and emotion.
We need to stop writing children off as “problem kids”, or “dramatic kids”, or “whimpy kids” … because there are so many other things that can be going on under the surface.
We also need to recognize that not all depressed youth are mopey video-gaming basement dwellers… some are extremely high functioning perfectionists like me – who put way to much pressure on themselves without even realizing that something might be wrong.
And mostly – we need to reduce stigma, especially for youth.
If there had been as much advocacy and discussion about mental health when I was in Elementary school or High School, as there is now, I truly believe I would have been much more proactive and willing to admit and seek help…
When I was in school, I didn’t know what signs to look for, I didn’t know who I could talk to, and I didn’t know that anyone else was likely feeling the same way…. I thought talking about it would make me weird.
There was no education beyond learning the different types of mental illness… which only created more stigma because we were told the worst of the worst, “People with Depression sleep all day”… no, we don’t all sleep all day.
And I can tell you this… it is insane the amount of people from my High School who have reached out to me since I began writing about Mental Health, expressing that they too were feeling these things, at the very same time I was…
And none of us had to be alone. None of us had to feel scared. But we were, because our environment separated and excluded us from feeling safe.
So I beg of you, please talk about it. Please write about it. And please share coping tools.
In each of the situations I described, being officially diagnosed, and just knowing there was a real reason I felt the way I felt, (and that it wasn’t my fault), could have saved me hours of crying, of pain, of hurt.
In each of the situations I described, simple coping tools, that a few sessions of therapy taught me, could have saved me hours of crying, of pain, of hurt.
In each of these situations, knowing I had someone to talk to, who wasn’t going to judge me, could have saved me hours of crying, of pain, of hurt.
For some, medication and more aggressive treatment is needed, but for others, some of these very simple and proactive steps can make us feel a world of better… enough to make a bad day better.
Knowing you’re not the only one is half the battle – so let’s work to conquer that part together. Let’s work to prevent children from making it all the way to adulthood before receiving any help.