Participating in Bell Let's Talk has become somewhat of an annual tradition for me over the years. I love the way this powerful campaign sparks important conversations about mental health. And, the timing (late January) is great. (Winter blahs, anyone?) So I'll be part of the online conversation on January 27 and beyond (mainly on Twitter because I'm very much a Twitter person). And I'll be volunteering behind the scenes as a speaker at three Bell Let's Talk events in Toronto, Mississauga, and Ottawa. (See my workshop calendar for details about the Ottawa event, a fundraising breakfast on behalf of the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa which is open to members of the public.)
Bell Let's Talk recently interviewed me about my reasons for being involved with the campaign. This is what I had to say:
What inspired you to get involved in mental health advocacy?
I got involved in mental health advocacy because I wanted to let people know that it’s possible to have a mental illness and to have a great life. You don’t have to choose one or the other.
I have learned this through personal experience—both as a person who lives with bipolar disorder herself and as a person whose family members have also grappled with a number of mental health challenges—and who are currently thriving.
I think it’s important to get this message out so that people don’t end up feeling terrified or defeated if they—or someone they love—is diagnosed with a mental illness. A diagnosis is simply a piece of information about you. It doesn’t begin to define you and it certainly doesn’t have to limit you. It is possible to live well while you’re living with a mental illness.
What has been the most difficult challenge as a parent of a child with mental illnesses?
There are so many things that are hard about being the parent of a child with a mental illness. You feel stressed and overwhelmed. You feel unsure about what you can do to help. You worry about your child. You feel lonely and alone. You feel frustrated and angry. You feel sad that life is so difficult for your child. You feel so many things, and sometimes you feel all of these things at the same time.
But one of the hardest things is feeling like you and your child are being judged by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be a child who is struggling with a mental illness—or what it’s like to be that child’s parent. People need to understand that having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent—just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid.
If you could send one message to parents with a similar lived experience to your own, what would it be?
Self-care isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. You can’t put your own life and happiness on hold until some future day when your child is no longer struggling. You need to do the hard work of taking good care of yourself and finding joy in your life right now, even if your child happens to be going through a really tough time. This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can feel really sad about the difficulties that your child is experiencing and you can allow yourself to experience happiness in your life, starting right now.
So don’t feel guilty for doing things that give you pleasure, like meeting a friend for a cup of coffee or going for a walk on a beautiful day. Practicing good self-care isn’t just a gift that you give yourself. It’s a gift that you give to your child, too, because a child who is struggling needs and deserves the strongest, healthiest parent possible.
What does your support network look like when your family is facing challenges?
It looks and feels like a family that is being enveloped in a blanket of caring. We are so, so lucky….
For starters, I have three great sisters who are incredibly helpful and resourceful—the very type of people you want to have in your court when you’re feeling frightened and overwhelmed. They have been there for me—and they have been there for my kids—on countless occasions.
I am also really lucky to have three close friends who have been through similar experiences with their kids. They have been incredible sources of support and wisdom to me over the years. My friend Darlene meets me for lunch and listens to me talk about my worries and frustrations. My friend Lori sends me e-mails of support from across the miles. And my friend (and cousin!) Karen checks in with me by phone if I go too long without e-mailing her to let her know how I’m really doing. I am so grateful for the love and support I have received from these three wonderful women that I dedicated my book Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between to the three of them. The dedication reads, “To Darlene, Karen, and Lori: For lunches, phone calls, and emails when I needed them most—at the height of the storm.”
And that is just touching the tip of the iceberg, in terms of highlighting the depth and breadth of the support my family has received over the years. So many people have rallied to our side when we needed them. I’m thinking about my friend Bridget, who arrived in the middle of the night to stay with our three boys when our daughter had to be rushed to hospital—and how our next-door neighbor David brought us endless cups of coffee in the aftermath of our recent house fire. (But that’s a whole other story!)
Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for parents who are seeking support?
Remind yourself that there are people out there who aren’t merely willing to help, but who are actually eager to help. People derive a lot of joy and satisfaction from helping other people. It’s the way we’re wired as humans. So don’t deprive another person of the pleasure that comes from helping your family in your time of need. Simply look forward to being able to pay this kindness forward to some other family in some other way at some other time. Bottom line? You don’t have to do this on your own. Let people know what you need and be willing to accept that help. Embrace this aspect of being human.