Originally delivered as a speech at the City of Edmonton, May 3, 2016.
“Good evening. My name is Wendy Enberg. Thank you for being here to listen to my story about living with mental illness and how I’ve come to learn how to overcome the many challenges that I have faced. Currently, I am diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder and PTSD. That’s quite a mouthful to be saying out loud, so I tend to usually just say I have a ‘complex’ mental illness. I relate it to someone who may have several things wrong with their heart, yet they say they have a ‘heart condition’. It makes it easier for people to understand. Unfortunately, when you say you have a mental illness, it doesn’t quite evoke the same reactions of compassion and kindness as a heart condition, but with events like this, and through the courage of my fellow speakers and storytellers, we are breaking down those barriers, one voice at a time.
I am now 43 years old and have had an awareness of my illness since I was 32. That’s eleven years now, of finally knowing that there was a medical reason for the way I was feeling and thinking and why I kept choosing behaviours that were unhealthy. Gaining an awareness was the beginning of my journey to recovery.
From about the age of 6 years old, I knew there was something different about me and I spent most of my life struggling to understand why I didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the world. My young mind was far too often filled with thoughts of suicide and self-loathing and I lacked the skills to regulate emotions and control behaviours. To cope with these thoughts, I often acted out by drinking, spending recklessly and engaging in high risk behaviours. I used many unhealthy ways to cope with my intense feelings, mostly as a way to numb the pain and confusion I was experiencing and as a result, made a lot of poor decisions – with many painful consequences that I still live with today.
Tonight, I’d like to share how I compare my journey of living with and recovering from mental illness to that of a child who masters the art of building blocks. Do you recall being a small child and playing with those small wooden building blocks? Remember your clumsy little toddler hands awkwardly trying to build something? The feeling of excitement of building something new?
Do you also recall the feelings of frustration and anger when the tower you had so carefully built came tumbling down? Maybe because it wasn’t strong enough or perhaps because your big brother thought it was funny to knock it over on you? If you were a toddler, you probably got mad, cried and maybe even threw a temper tantrum. Most likely, you gave up when it wasn’t fun anymore, moved on to something else and later, you’d come back and try again. Eventually you mastered it.
My life with mental illness feels like I’m constantly rebuilding the blocks of my life. Just when I think I’ve got my tower strong and steady THIS time, crisis happens and my carefully stacked blocks are yet again scattered all over the place. I feel angry, frustrated and most of all defeated. I sit and weep at the sight of my blocks strewn around me; and I’m tired of rebuilding and I just want to quit.
My mind and my illness work against me you see. They tell me that I’ll never make my tower strong enough and that I’m foolish to try to figure out how to put the blocks in a way that will sustain the storms. I get stuck feeling helpless, hopeless, and sad. I envy those around me who appear to have such strong structures and I feel shame that I cannot compare. In these times, I withdraw and begin to isolate, and surround myself with only my scattered blocks to comfort me.
In this darkness, I stumble, looking for ways to escape. It is here that I find so many like me – who too have given up on their blocks and now wander in the darkness below. This journey we are on is exhausting and frightening and it’s difficult to navigate. We need to have maps and lights to show us the way out. Unfortunately, we are lost here, waiting to be found.
In that darkness, I did find one such beacon of light through therapy. I started to learn new ways to put my blocks together that could make a stronger structure. The therapy and professionals gave me tips and strategies to implement in the design of my structures so they could withstand more. With each new therapy I threw myself into, I learned new ways to improve, each time reinforcing my foundation to make it stronger. With courage, determination and a resiliency I didn’t know I had, I kept rebuilding.
I believe now that I am the architect of my future and life is still about getting my blocks knocked down but when I rebuild, I build resiliency and strength. I now use my anger and frustration as tools to motivate me to continue moving forward.
I believe it’s time we take a new approach in how we look at treating mental illness. It’s time for those of us who have learned how to build strong structures to help those who are struggling and lost. To do this, we need to climb into the darkness with them and bring them light, love, hope and compassion to bring them back.
Why should the onus fall upon those that are lost and broken to find their own way out? The world needs more architects and lamplighters. Take a look around and ask yourself, which one can I be?
As someone who dances between the dark and the light, I’ve become a messenger of sorts. My hope is to reassure those still in the dark that the light is coming.