I’ve just finished a post for Healthy Minds Canada called Change. It’s about some of the changes I’ve made in my life since September 2014 in pursuit of recovery. These changes are simple in concept, but much harder in application. But by applying them on a regular basis, they’ve become a near automatic response. Moreover, they’ve all worked in concert to make me more resilient.
In this post I’ll expand on one of these changes, openness and transparency, and explore what it means to me and how I’ve accomplished it.
I’m an introvert. I’m naturally quiet and reserved. I’m the guy at the party who sits by himself quietly until someone, and it’s always just one person, engages me in conversation. Then I can talk. I’m the guy who, when things become too loud or too chaotic, will step outside by himself to regroup.
Additionally, I was raised in a don’t tell don’t ask home. We were taught that what happened inside our home was no-one else’s business, and what happened in anyone else’s home was not ours. We were taught not to share personal information. We were taught not to ask personal questions.
Finally, I once was employed in a profession where confidentiality was a huge requirement. This job required me to be invasive into the privacy of others. This resulted in my wanting to preserve my own privacy that much more. In fact, I became over-protective of it.
These three elements worked together to create someone who divulged very little about himself.
Add to this another factor. I was raised to deal with illness at home for as long as possible. Only when you were truly ill did you go to the doctor. It was not uncommon for me to not see a doctor for years on end. Going to the doctor was the exception, not the rule. This inevitably meant that I didn’t have the bond with my doctor I needed to discuss personal matters. My visits were always restricted to dealing with an illness and no more.
Into this mix we toss a mental illness, Major Depressive Disorder. MDD promotes isolation, but I was already a very isolated person so I didn’t notice the subtle increase. MDD involves physical affects, but some are more apparent to others than to the self, like slowed movement or speech. MDD may include excessive sleeping or not sleeping enough but I also have sleep apnea (more on this in a moment) so poor sleep is commonplace. There was no obvious illness, so a trip to the doctor wasn’t warranted. You see my point. For someone as closed off as I was, MDD just fed into my preconceived habits.
Eventually, I succumbed to the predations of MDD. But I survived and in that survival I realized that things had to change or else I would succumb again.
It began with a moment of good fortune.
As I mentioned a moment ago, I suffer from sleep apnea, periods of interrupted breathing during my sleep which create a broken and disturbed sleep. I had undergone surgery to correct the sleep apnea but it had failed. I didn’t know this. This meant that my sleep apnea continued to adversely effect the quality of my sleep.
A common treatment for sleep apnea is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. In essence, gently pressurized air is used to keep the airways open during sleep thus reducing the apnea events and generating a more fulfilling sleep. Since I didn’t know the surgery had failed, I didn’t have a CPAP machine.
When I succumbed to the effects of MDD, I was hospitalized in a bid to save my life. This included the use of an O2 tube. The O2 tube delivered gently pressurized O2 that acted in a similar fashion to a CPAP machine. This resulted in my having a deep sleep, the first such sleep in many years. It meant that I awoke feeling refreshed.
It was only when I awoke with clarity of thought, that I came to understand just how clouded my thinking had been. This clarity made it clear to me that I was in very deep trouble. I knew that I had to make very real changes or the trouble would continue. It was at that moment that I decided that my excessive privacy had to stop. My life now depended on it.
I made the choice to be more transparent about myself, my mental health in particular. The motivation that I had, preserving my life, made the choice obvious. It wasn’t easy to overcome a lifetime of silence. However, just as elements of my silence had been learned, I resolved that they could be unlearned and replaced with elements of openness.
Two additional events made this openness both more of a necessity and more accessible to me.
The first event involved my son and ex-wife. She was going through her own crisis, an adverse reaction to medication, the net effect of which was that her mental health was precarious. My son was confused and lost. To explain to him what was happening with his mum, I explained what had happened with me. It was a difficult conversation, a necessary conversation, but it showed me that openness was possible and even sometimes necessary.
The second event was my writing. Initially, my writing was restricted to a journal where I described the darkness, The Black, in which I’d found myself. I discussed these entries with my son. I came to see that he was beginning to understand but that he was terribly concerned for both his mum and myself. It occurred to me that his concern for me could be abated if he could see my journal periodically. By reading it, he would see for himself that I was safe. So, my writing morphed into my creating a blog.
My intention in creating a blog was to keep my son informed. However, to my immense surprise, others discovered it and read it. The comfort and education that I was trying to impart to my son, was shared with them as well. More than one reached out to thank me for sharing. This taught me that my openness might be of benefit to others, not just my son and myself.
In regard to others, being less private began when I reached out to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Even though I had benefited from a period of clarity, my thinking was devolving into The Black. I was still in the midst of a very severe depressive episode and I was actively seeking a solution. In my first call I explained that I needed help, that I was just released from hospital and that my mental state remained precarious. I begged for assistance.
For me, this was a huge step, for it was an acceptance that I couldn’t work through my mental health issues alone. It was recognition that asking for help was not a weakness, it was a necessity and a strength.
This full sharing continued with each professional, mental health or otherwise, that I approached. I accepted that the only way to receive proper help was to be honest, to be forthright and to hold nothing back. Each time I shared, I received compassion and guidance. Through sharing with my parents’ family doctor, I began to take medication and received a referral to a psychiatrist. Through sharing with CMHA, I was directed to Ontario Shores for an assessment, to Durham Family Services for individual counselling and to Community Care Durham (COPE) for group support. Through sharing with my psychiatrist, I was directed to the in-house day program and to the Big White Wall, an online tool.
Just as I’d once learned to hold back, to preserve my privacy at all costs, I was now learning that being less closed off could help. I was telling strangers more about myself in brief conversations than I had many over a lifetime.
This new me is reflected in my writing. Being candid has allowed me to come to terms with The Black, to better understand it. It’s helped me to rid myself of its mystery.
More importantly, though, writing is a key tool in creating and preserving my openness. I write first and foremost for myself and my son. I’m honest, I’m raw and I feel better because of it.
Not everyone appreciates my candor. There are some who resort to the old platitudes and stigma-laden catchphrases to challenge me. But I choose to remain open, to continue to share, especially in the face of their ignorance.
Thirty months ago I was in a very dark place. My penchant for privacy had helped put me there. Today, even in the midst of a new depressive episode, I see light. There’s no doubt that much of this light is a result of the openness and transparency with which I now conduct myself. There’s no doubt that it’s saved my life.
Perhaps increased openness may save yours.