What’s the WHY behind Friends With Benefits?

13 Apr

I started writing this post on April 11, exactly one month from the date of Friends With Benefits for the Royal’s Jennie James Depression Research Fund.  Being a month away, I felt excited but also overwhelmed by everything that needs to take place in the next month in order to create the evening that all those organizing hope it will be, and to be a great evening for those who are showing their support by attending.

As we get closer to the “day of” I’m prompted to think of where this all started and how far this event has come in its journey from thought to fruition.  What this reflection has also brought up from me is the realization that I haven’t fulfilled one of my goals related to the event because of my own fear.

When my friends and I started to draft wording about the vision for the event for potential sponsors and supporters, myself and my gifted communication-consultant friends landed on the following description for the event:

“Friends With Benefits was conceptualized this year by a group of young professionals whose aim is to inspire conversations about mental health and mental illness, to break down the stigmas and stereotypes attached, and to demonstrate that there are many people with mental illness living and thriving in our community.”

It was important to me that this event generate some sort of discussion.  I didn’t want the evening to be solely about raising funds.  I realize that money and community support are very important in the research and treatment of mental illness, but I feel what’s more trouble is that we are still lacking is in the acceptance and open discussion of mental health issues.

I am lucky to be surrounded by friends, family and co-workers who are extremely accepting and progressive people,  but even in being aware we all continue to have some biases whether they be conscious or unconscious.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people refer to The Royal with a negative connotation attached.  I still hear people use terms “crazy”, “psycho” and “institutionalize” when discussing mental health issues.  While perhaps some of us feel that we have moved to place of acceptance because of how much more openly we discuss mental health issues in our society, I don’t feel that we have truly reached that place.

This is where I, the writer, have to call myself out a little bit.  I don’t think I have truly moved to a place of acceptance either.  I go back to that blurb I wrote about Friends With Benefits inspiring conversations about mental health and mental illness.  While I wrote those words, I haven’t exactly been open about why I was inspired to organize this event, and why it is so close to my heart: I suffer from a mental illness.

My struggle with recurrent depression began in my early 20s when I was studying at the University of Toronto.  Toronto, a city which I loved, became overwhelming.  After Thanksgiving in my second year I boarded the train back to Toronto from Ottawa in tears.  I thought I was just homesick, but later I realized it was something much larger.  My dad talks about the day he put me on the train and knowing something that was really wrong for me, but not knowing exactly what.

‘Homesickness’ turned into chronic fatigue, frequent crying, difficulty retaining information (not a great thing for a second year International Relations student), constant anxiety, and becoming overwhelmed by assignments or readings that were once a breeze.  My roommates noticed changes in my mood and ability to cope and began to open my door at night after I had gone to bed to ensure that I was ok.  I don’t remember a lot of that time now, because I felt like a zombie drifting from one activity to another as if I was on autopilot.

Things came to a head that spring when after hours of typing a Women’s Studies essay I had spent weeks researching, I looked at the computer screen and realized nothing made sense.  I had an amazing meltdown in the library, and then I called my parents in tears. It was then the decision was made that I would come home.

I lost my entire second year of University.  I wasn’t able to figure out a way to complete one credit – it all seemed like too much. A year of fees for residence, a meal plan, and Toronto living expenses gone.  I couldn’t work, couldn’t go back to summer school, and couldn’t figure out how I could carry on.  I didn’t feel like anything was worth it.

I began about a year of medical treatment until I found the right mix of medical specialists and medication to help me get back on track.  I credit my recovery from that bout of depression to the team at The Royal.  Through a chance referral I was able to join a program that gave me daily access to a team of doctors, nurses, and social workers who were able to make adjustments to my treatment plan as needed and speed up my recovery time.  I am thankful for that experience and that The Royal was there for myself and my family at a time that where we all desperately needed that support.

Over the almost 8 years that have followed my first major depression I have had some bumps in the road but the lessons I learned through my time at The Royal have shown me that I know exactly what I need to do when times get tough.  I always have a plan to deal with lows that feel too low, and have built exercise, sleep and stress-management techniques into my daily life so that I keep feeling the best I can.  I have also made the decision to accept the support that medication offers in combatting depressive symptoms and I’m happy to have it as yet another tool in my tool box.  It is hard work.  I have to choose every day to work actively for my own happiness and wellbeing.  That said, as a result of these tools and this experience I was able to finish University, start a career and buy my own home.

I am lucky in that although I am sometimes challenged by my depression, I am also highly functioning.  Many people who know me professionally or socially might not have ever guessed that I am one of the hundreds of people in our community that has been served by The Royal.  While I am open about this fact with those that are close to me, I have been scared to share it openly in a more public forum.  Despite wanting to start a conversation, I have been a bit afraid of the potential judgement attached to being “out” about my mental health challenges.

With one out of five people in our community living with a mental health issue, chances are you, know more than one person who has lived this struggle.  I know that  if we were all able discuss mental health more openly, we’d get to a place where we’d naturally let go of all the negative stereotypes and connotations attached.   Today I’m “outing” myself and putting it out there for the whole world wide web to know – I am one of five.  I hope that you’ll join me on May 11, 2012 to continue the conversation and to raise funds for the important work The Royal does in our community by supporting the Jennie James Depression Research Fund.


3 Responses to “What’s the WHY behind Friends With Benefits?”

  1. gococowordpress April 14, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    You’re an awesomely strong woman Laura.

  2. gococowordpress April 14, 2012 at 1:26 am #

    You’re an amazingly strong woman Laura! Keep on keeping on.

  3. Nancy Doherty April 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    The more people talk about it, the more we break the stigma. I too have struggled most of my life and most currently the past 5 yrs. battling depression, anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. It’s a constant battle but the ROH, the right Dr.’s, the right medication, the support from family & friends is tremendously important. Having these blogs and knowing people are out the just like yourself helps to know you are not alone. Thank you!

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