Welcome to the third annual Life is Sweet month on Dancing Through Life. Over the month of February, I'll be sharing posts from a variety of guests who have offered to share their stories of mental health, mental illness, suicide and loss. The last 2 years of posts have provided an outlet for people to share their stories and continue the conversation about mental health. You can read the posts from previous years, here and here.
I hope that you're visit the blog this month to read the stories of my guest bloggers and continue to open up the dialogue about mental health by sharing their stories via social media with the hashtag, #lifeissweet.
I had connected with Justin last year about contributing to the series, but my message was lost in Facebook's 'Other' inbox. I'm thankful that we were able to connect and appreciate that he was willing to share his story.
=== WARNING: TRIGGER ALERT. ===
I don't like February. It's never been a favourite month of mine. The cold. The dreary weather. The constant grey.
While February has been dubbed "the dead of winter", the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics have both reported that suicide rates in the United States are lowest during the winter months and highest in the summer and spring. Despite this, popular belief tends to promote the line of thinking that most suicides peak during the winter months. (Source)
I've been very public about my struggle with depression, and with the recent passing of well-known public figures such as Robin Williams and many others who have struggled with mental health issues, as well as the recent #BellLetsTalk day, this topic has only become more important to me.
However, there's a side of this story that I haven't shared publicly. A side people haven't heard before. It's the dark side of this story, one that deserves to be told.
To begin explaining this story is to go way back into time. All the way back to the beginning, some 30 years ago.
I grew up in a violent environment where fear and intimidation were omnipresent. Where the threat of violence was always around the corner - and in many instances, it appeared out of nowhere. An environment where the act of violence was carried out without understanding what the end result might be. The bruises, the blood and the inevitable tears were not the final outcomes.
Those final outcomes were a lack of self-esteem. A crippling lack of confidence. A loss of trust. The feeling that I would never be the same. That safety and security would always be elusive.
The feeling that I would never be worthy of being loved, that I would never be capable of loving something or someone else and that I would never be accepted were always there, lurking just below a blistered, bruised and battered surface.
But most of all, I was left with feelings of betrayal, confusion and anger. How could this happen to me? How could anyone willingly do this to another person, despite the obvious signs of fear, suffering and sadness?
I believed that I could never love myself and that I would forever be an empty shell of a person who couldn’t offer something to the world - someone who, despite their best efforts, would never be good enough.
For many years, I struggled with these feelings. I blamed myself. I began to believe that it was somehow my fault, that I had done something terrible to do deserve this. These feelings began to manifest themselves in some pretty terrible ways.
I began to shutdown. I started filing away the feelings and emotions, resolute in my desire to never let anyone see the side of me that had eroded at every aspect of my being.
On October 14th 2014, I came dangerously close to committing suicide.
To seriously consider suicide is the unlike any feeling I've ever had. It was a feeling of utter emptiness. I felt nothing except incredible disappointment, overwhelming sadness and that ending it all was the only way to make it go away.
I remember standing on the subway platform and thinking that jumping in front of the train would be easy, quick and painless. While I teetered on the edge of life and death, I began to think about all the things that could go wrong. Would I live and be horribly incapacitated? Who would see this happen? What would my family think? Would they understand? Would this make them understand that the gravity of my situation warranted such a decision?
I saw their faces, their disappointment, and realized the finality of it all. I broke down in tears and collapsed on the platform. The utter disappointment I felt was nothing what they would experience in the years to come as they would have to explain what happened, why I did it, and the hole it would leave in their lives.
I called a friend, and while I don't remember exactly what I said, I remember feeling as though I could never claw my way back to a sense of belonging. A sense of being needed. A sense of being loved and being wanted. A place where I'd be loved and cared for - and cared about.
What followed this were a few weeks of living in a robot-like trance where I felt nothing. I was tired most of the time, yet I couldn't sleep. I displayed no emotion, yet I cried numerous times a week. I couldn't think straight, yet my mind raced and was thinking a million different thoughts at once.
It came to a head in December, when I finally broke down and told someone what I was going through. This was the first time I openly cried and explained what had happened. I felt lost, and until then, it was as though I was wandering through a desolate place where there was no-one to talk to and nothing I could do to escape what I was feeling.
In short, I was an emotional wreck. Having that conversation, and the many that have followed since, have been both revelatory and exhausting.
Since then, I've learned a few things about how I deal with my mental health issues.
I've learned how to rewrite my history. For many years, I let the actions of an angry individual define my future, dictate who I am and determine what I'm capable of. I've come to realize that my past doesn't define who I am. Realizing this has been the most freeing moment of certainty I've had in quite some time.
The world is a gift shop. There are so many beautiful things to be seen, if only we open our eyes. I've made a conscientious choice to ignore the negatives, the things that affect my mood, the behaviours that have contributed to my feeling of frustration. Instead, I choose to see the positives in this world and focus on those things.
I am safe. I am loved. I have people who love and care for me. Realizing this seems easy to most, but I am not most people. For a long time, I certainly didn't feel like "most people". In some aspects, I still don't. But as the days go by, pieces of the old me disappear, and are replaced with understanding, awareness and a resolve to be mindful, be open, and be receptive.
Do I still harbor feelings of disappointment? Yes. Do I still have feelings of confusion? Sure. These feelings won’t disappear overnight, and I’m fairly certain I will probably always have these feelings, but through therapy, I've come to learn they're manageable. With a bit of work, I have developed a strategy for dealing with the triggers that have historically been associated with these feelings. Having a strategy to recognize the triggers and manage their outcomes has been at times difficult to learn, but one that was necessary in better understanding the effects mental health has on me and my behaviour.
I can't say my struggle with mental health is over. I think it will be with me for the rest of my life. But starting this month, and every month, I choose to be happy. I choose to be open, be receptive and mindful of the beautiful things this world has to offer.
I choose to not let my past define me. Instead, I choose to use my past as as a series of stepping stones along the path to doing great things.
I choose not to suffer alone. Because while it can feel as though we suffer alone, let me say this: You're not alone. I know that it feels that way sometime, but this couldn't be further from the truth. If you ever feel that way, I want you to remember these three very important words: You're not alone.
We can support each other. We can laugh together, cry together, and learn together. We're all in this together, and when we support one another - in the good times and the bad - we can come back into the light and see the world for how it really is: A beautiful place full of even more beautiful things.
All we need to do is open our eyes.
Justin Kozuch is a Toronto-based technology reporter covering startups, mobile and marketing. When not staring into his computer screen, he can be found exploring the Ontario backcountry, reading a book or enjoying a glass of scotch.