When I was young, like most little girls, my Mom was my idol. She was an incredible mother to me. She taught me about the world and put me in every extra-curricular under the sun, so I could figure out what I liked to do and who I wanted to be. I felt her love every day. She was also an incredible teacher who touched the lives of her students – especially those who struggled in school, turning it around for many. She took kids in her classes who were struggling because she had a special way of reaching out to them and empathizing with them. It was her gift, and she performed it for over 20 years. She was a social butterfly with many friends and an infectious laugh. She had a successful career, was a loving mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. From the outside looking in, everything seemed perfect.
In reality, my Mom had struggled with her mental health since her teens, after suffering a breakdown and taking some time off school. As these things tended to be swept under the rug at the time, it was not something that she, or her family, spoke about. In her forties, after some difficult events that caused stress in her life, things started to unravel. She reached a point where she wasn’t able to cope with stress the way she once had, and she started to experience manic episodes followed by very low lows.
She was eventually diagnosed with manic depression, today - called bipolar disorder. My parents’ marriage didn’t survive, my Mom’s illness worsened and she was no longer able to work. Her support network, though extremely well-meaning, didn’t understand the severity of her illness and didn’t know how to help. They also had a hard time differentiating between the illness and my Mom’s personality – as manic episodes, left untreated, can sometimes result in erratic and destructive behaviours. Twenty-five years ago mental health issues were highly stigmatized and not well understood - much less so than today. As her illness worsened, a lot of the support in her life dropped off. At the time, the resources available to people suffering from mental health issues, along with those in their support network, were scarce.
Through the hardest parts of my Mom’s life, I was living with my Dad, going to high school, playing sports, hanging out with friends, and doing my best to maintain a “normal” life, though I worried about my Mom all the time. Doctors struggled to find the right medication for her, and her life was extremely unstable. She struggled with alcohol (often a concurrent issue), suffered from paranoia, was in and out of women’s shelters, and wound up in a terrible abusive relationship with a man that put her in the hospital and nearly took her life. It was a very scary time.
Things did get better though. Once in the hospital, as things were so severe, my Mom was able to get some in-patient care at The Royal, where the best Doctors in the field of mental health were able to help her. After her stay there, she moved into her own place and stopped drinking. Though she still struggled with finding the right balance of medications, there was now a specialized team working on it with her. There were more and more support programs beginning to take shape at The Royal, and she found some good friends in the community who ran a home for recovering addicts and schizophrenics where she volunteered once she was back on her feet. She gave her time volunteering at a crisis hotline, hoping to help others in their time of need. She also worked hard to eventually wind up back in the classroom, volunteering at a school in her neighborhood. I was just starting University and my relationship with my Mom was mending - we were close again. Unfortunately, in my second year of University, my Mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She fought it courageously, mentally stable and sober, for three years and passed away just before my graduation. Though cancer took my Mom’s life, finding mental health had been her biggest battle, and so now, to honour her memory – I run.
The Run for Women in support of women’s mental health programs at The Royal supports programs that are one-hundred percent funded by philanthropy. Though we know that mental health affects everyone, the reason this run supports women-specific programs is because traditionally, mental health research, including treatment programs and medication dosages, has been focused on men. Women experience life differently, from different challenges to different hormones. So though everyone’s mental health is important, this run supports women because our research and treatment options have some catching up to do.
The Run has benefits threefold: It raises funds, it raises awareness and helps end the stigma of mental health issues, and it gets people exercising. In talking about my Mom’s story I have found more and more people have felt comfortable sharing their stories with me. One in four people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. These are part of the human experience, and no one should ever feel like they have to suffer alone. Being able to talk to someone is important.
Exercise and running have become a powerful tool in my tool belt to take care of my own mental health. After my Mom passed away, I suffered from a depression. Since then, knowing that these things can sometimes be hereditary, my own mental health is something that I think about often and take care of actively. Running is one of the easiest ways to change a negative mindset. If you can just put your shoes on and put rubber to pavement, you can immediately stop yourself from ruminating and change your perspective. It gets you out in nature, it releases endorphins and it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something – because you are.
We’ve come a long way from where things were twenty-five years ago, when my Mom was struggling with her disorder, but we still have a long way to go. The stigma still exists and it can be hard for people to ask for help when they are suffering. I have a lot to thank my Mom for. She struggled and battled and lost things in life so that I didn’t have to, and found the strength and resilience to come back. She opened my eyes to what mental health issues are and showed me how important it is to take care of my own mental health.
For Mental Health Awareness week, I hope that we continue to push the yardstick forward, and I am thankful that we have reached a day where we have so many platforms and opportunities to continue having these important discussions. I know that my Mom would be thankful too.