Why Alicia Elliott, David Alexander Robertson & Sarah Leavitt met for an honest talk about mental health
While nonfiction writer Alicia Elliott (A Mind Spread Out on the Ground ), graphic novelist and writer David Alexander Robertson (Ghosts, Strangers) and cartoonist Sarah Leavitt (Agnes, Murderess) are completely different authors, they do share a lot in common when it comes to the issue of mental health.
The three authors spoke on a panel with Shelagh Rogers at Calgary's Wordfest event in October for a deep conversation about the issue, both as subject matter and lived experience.
David Alexander Robertson on living with anxiety
'You never know when someone's struggling. I posted a picture of myself on Instagram a few months ago from an event I was at. If you look at the picture, you wouldn't think that anything was up — but I was having a panic attack. And about 10 years ago, I had a nervous breakdown and a lot of things had happened. But I felt it building for a few years. I had moved, my grandmother died, I switched jobs and our family had a baby. This all happened within two months of each other.
"And so I had a breakdown. One day, I was coming home from work and I stopped at a Shoppers Drug Mart. I took my blood pressure and it was through the roof. They told me to call an ambulance. I went to the hospital and they sent me home with some anxiety drugs. I couldn't get out of bed for about a month. I forced myself to go back to work because I needed to make money for my family. A month later, I was in the hospital again. This went on for six or seven months.
About ten years ago, I had a nervous breakdown and a lot of things had happened. I felt it building for a few years.- David Alexander Robertson
"I was laying in bed, as I always did when I got home from work, and my wife came in and said I needed to get some groceries. I didn't think I could do it. I felt like I was going to die. She told me that she couldn't support the family all by herself. And she said, 'How do you want to live?' That was a really big turning point for me.
"Anxiety tells you that you can't do all these things all the time. You live it. It's always there. But the less you feed it, the more you're able to live. It never really goes away, but you can manage it and you can live a good life. Over the years I've learned to do that. What's helped me the most is to talk about it. That's something I've done over the last couple of years, talking more about it with people and with kids. It's been healing for me and hopefully healing for other people."
Alicia Elliott on the intergenerational impact of mental illness
"My mother has schizoaffective disorder: bipolar type. It combines elements of two very severe mental illnesses, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which are the scary mental illnesses. The ones where, if you see someone suffering from an episode, you want to get the hell away from them.
"Seeing my mother as she was dealing with that — and having to be her caretaker when she couldn't take care of us — was something that really manifested in my head. This is what mental illness looked like. I have always been terrified that I was going to develop a bipolar disorder. It's one of the big fears that I've had. But because I was so focused on that, I wasn't really thinking about how I moved through the world and the the emotional toll that certain things were taking.
What happens with people who have family members with severe mental illness or with addictions is the idea of co-dependency.- Alicia Elliott
"What happens with people who have family members with severe mental illness or with addictions is the idea of co-dependency. You are always wanting to take care of someone or put all of your energy into that. For me, my coping mechanism has always been to listen to other people's problems, to ask them how they're doing and to take care of them and not tell them anything about what's going on with me.
"It all came to a head three or four years ago. It got to the point where I couldn't really function anymore. I was carrying everything for numerous people who were going through a mental health crisis and severe break ups. I had a mental breakdown. I talked to a therapist who gave me a depression anxiety checklist. As I was going through it, I was shocked. There were so many things that I'd been going through that I didn't realize weren't normal.
"I've been dealing with varying degrees of depression for two years straight. I didn't talk about it a lot. Sharing it with people, through writing, has become an outlet; I can process those things without worrying about whether the person who's reading it is going to understand it. I wouldn't say it's therapeutic, but I would say that it's helped me to better understand what I'm going through so that I can talk about it with people."
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Sarah Leavitt on dealing with depression
"I was always a miserable person from the time I was really little. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I always thought it was from the stress of moving and always being the new kid. When I was a teenager, I would lie in bed crying for hours. The word depression was used but it never felt right. I don't think I ever was depressed. I was extremely anxious, full of fear all the time and not functioning. This lasted to varying degrees of intensity throughout my 20s. It's terrifying. Then my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and that was the hardest thing that had ever happened to me. But it was also a reason why I finally got help.
I still have lots of stresses in my life right now but these present stresses are a different thing than having a completely distorted way of being in the world or perceiving the world like I used to.- Sarah Leavitt
"I had this moment of realization: I had to step up and help my mom. I went through this period of trying different medications — but that made things worse. When I finally got on a medication that worked for me, I had this feeling of stability. I finally realized what it felt like to just wake up in the morning and feel stable enough to get through the day.
"I still have lots of stresses in my life right now, but these present stresses are a different thing, compared to having the completely distorted way of being in the world or perceiving the world like I used to."
The panellist's comments have been edited for length and clarity.