TRIGGER WARNING This featured story contains information about suicide attempts and/or self harm which may be triggering to survivors.
I have never been afraid of death, nor have I ever shied away from talking about it. It is the natural order. All things that have lived, will die. We do what we can to prolong our lives, but in the end, we all draw our last breaths, and the circle of life completes itself. I have stared into the dark eyes of death a few times in my three decades, and each time was completely different. I’ve never seen a white light, no chorus of angels came to call me home. It was finite, nothingness – until it wasn’t, and I awoke to the land of the living once more.
The most significant brush with death came in February of 2013. I had long been ill with a flu that was exceptionally nasty. Laboured breathing, extreme pain in my sinuses, each lymph node had a pulse. My body was screaming at me, and I regularly dosed myself with DayQuil, NyQuil, Tylenol, and Ibuprofen. Cotton swabs coated in Vicks stuffed up my nose, hot tea, and a free couch to lay on while dog sitting for my neighbour was what I used to try and combat the ick, cursing myself on the regular for not getting my annual flu shot that year. My husband had just come home from the longest non-wartime deployment in Canadian history, and I knew that if I just relaxed and focused on getting better, I would.
One afternoon I made myself a bowl of soup and told my husband I’d be at the neighbours watching TV with their dog. I called my mom from their couch asking why I wasn’t better yet, crying that I couldn’t breathe and my skull felt like it was going to explode. It was after this phone call that I had my first seizure. My neighbours dog, Titan, was on my chest, licking my face, trying his best to wake me up. When that didn’t work he stood at the front door barking as loud as he could. By the time my husband heard my seizure was over, but I was clearly in bad shape. He took me home and asked me to please consider going to the doctor. Of course I had said no, because who goes to the doctor for the flu? He called the nurses hotline and gave them my symptoms while I laid in bed delirious from fever. After the nurses advised him to call 911 (which I would NOT have permitted) he did the next best thing and called my best friend. An RCMP officer, she was used to dealing with people in all states, and brought a cool head in a fast vehicle. When we arrived at the ER – literally minutes from my house – she and Big Daddy had to carry me to the entrance. She got me into a wheelchair, and thanks to her police-mode demeanor, she had me through triage immediately. My temperature was 105 degrees, and when they put the blood pressure cuff on my arm they couldn’t get a proper reading. My blood pressure was so low that the cuff couldn’t detect it. Somehow I was still conscious, reminding everyone that it’s just the flu. I was ushered into emerg where they started taking blood samples immediately. This is where things get foggy. I remember a male nurse coming to the foot of my bed and grabbing my foot forcibly and shaking it hard. His words still echo in the darker parts of my mind, “Cheantelle! We’re going to take you into a trauma room. The doctor wants to put an IV in your neck. He thinks you’re going to die.” He thinks you’re going to die. I awoke to pain in my neck, chest, head, and abdomen. Next to my bed was a hospital meal, salmon if memory serves. I lifted a heavy arm to my neck, feeling a large bandaid with protruding plastic edges. The lines in my arm brushed the central line going into my neck, which alerted me to what was there, and why. Intravenous lines in both arms, one in my neck, a puncture, and paddle rash on my chest. The same male nurse, who I realised was wearing a very cool handknit blue toque, came to my side and put his hand on my head. “Little girl, you gave us quite a scare,” he said, gently brushing the hair from my forehead. He took a seat next to me and told me that he’d be back in a minute to check my vitals, and that they were working hard to clear a room for me, but that they didn’t want me getting too far away until I was stable. “Do you understand what ‘coding’ means?”, I shook my head as much as I could. He told me that the doctor would be by to explain everything in a little bit, and it was ok for me to go back to sleep.
The next day I spoke with the doctor who saves my life, Doctor Simon. He told me that I was minutes from a non-reversible death thanks to an advanced septic infection that they believed had originated in my sinuses. I had flatlined while he was prepping me for the CVC, (an intravenous line fed directly through a vein and into the heart), so they attacked first with defibrillation, and had he not given up on that as quickly as he did, deciding instead to inject me with Amiodarone, I would have stayed dead that time.
I will spare the rest of the gory details, because there is another purpose to this story. Recently, a friend of mine who is currently kicking the shit out of cancer asked me if I would edit the written version of his life. I am, of course, honoured that he asked me, and appreciate the gravity of what he has tasked me with. His journey has not worried me about my own mortality, but has reminded me that these events should be recorded, if not for our own legacy, perhaps to help others dealing with similar scenarios. While I don’t consider myself having a legacy to leave, I do think of the people who, like me, have mental illness that was spawned from looking death in the face, and turning your back on it.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is what I took from this glance at the reaper, along with worsened depression and anxiety. The PTSD exacerbated my already stormy mood swings, and once I was healed physically from my septicaemia, I spiralled out of control so fast emotionally, that I tried to take my life twice in the year following my hospitalisation.
On a rainy spring day I sat on my porch and cried as I called the mental health urgent care line. I didn’t know what else to do, I had been to countless doctors and specialists, none of whom were psychiatrists. I spoke with a clinician who told me that she was proud of me for calling (even though I felt like a coward), and that all I needed to do was hang on. She would have an appointment for me by the end of the week. She gave me the address for the mental health unit, and told me that I could go to emergency if I was feeling suicidal and couldn’t bring myself to call the line again.
Mental health was something I knew very little about growing up, and even into early adulthood. When a walk-in clinic doctor casually told me that I should call mental health I was terrified. As a teenager I had a lot of trouble getting out of bed, and even more trouble getting to school. I was told by one of my English teachers that she thought I might be dealing with depression, but when I asked my guidance counselor if that could be one of the reasons I was struggling, he told me that teenagers can’t have depression. I was lazy, unmotivated, and arrogant, and if I didn’t pull my finger out and start pulling my grades up I wouldn’t graduate. At one point he went so far as to say that I was pathetic, and shouldn’t bother trying to graduate because I wouldn’t amount to anything anyway. His words stuck with me, and even still they haunt me on my bad days. Being told by a doctor that I needed mental health intervention sent me into a violent panic attack. I cried walking home, scared to tell my husband that the doctor thought I was mentally defective. Fresh air and exercise were the cures for depression according to my husband back then, and I was scared that this news would end my marriage. I thought about not telling him, trying to hide any medications that I was sure they would give me, but in the end I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. I stood in the kitchen with my husband, looking at him through streams of warm tears as a told him that I needed to see a psychiatrist, and that they might prescribe medication. I told him that I would do whatever was necessary to feel better, and if that meant medication, then I would do it. Looking back on that scenario, he did so much better than I could’ve expected. He was confused and scared, but he held me and told me that he would support me no matter what, and that I needed to do what was right for me, not what anyone else thought was right for me.
I met with a psychiatric nurse the following week, and then with the psychiatrist who would be treating me. He prescribed medication to help while we figured out what was actually wrong. This would just help me level out, and hopefully put me in a better state to deal with the real work that was to come. The meds were helping, but my anxiety shot through the roof. One day we had decided to meet my mom for lunch at the mall, and shortly after getting there I had an extreme panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, my lungs felt like they were on fire. My mum took the girls to the food court while my husband took me outside to get some air. We stood behind my truck and he wrapped me in a tight hug. He slowed his breathing and asked me to focus on his breathing, and I slowly synced my breathing with the rise and fall of his chest. My face soaked in tears, I stood in his embrace and prayed that my psychiatrist would be able to help me, because he and my kids didn’t deserve to have to live like this for the rest of our lives.
After numerous tests and hours of conversations, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Part of me was grateful for the diagnosis, that my problems finally had a name, and the other was horrified. How could I be bipolar? Only crazy people are bipolar. I was definitely not crazy, just confused. Out of control. In the months following my diagnosis I quietly spiralled out of control, imploding daily. I read articles, wrote articles, and made a few friends who were in similar situations. Underneath it all I was desperate for inner quiet, and that search for sanity pushed me over the edge.
Talking to the psychiatric nurse weekly would’ve helped me a lot, had I been honest with her from the beginning. I was so ashamed of the thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing, and I was sure that not only would she judge me harshly, but that she would have my kids taken away, because how could someone like me possibly parent children? I would tell her just enough to keep the prescriptions coming, and tried to fight the voices in my head that were screaming at me that I was lazy, that I was a liar, that it was all in my head, that I should just get over myself and be normal like everyone else.
I lied to myself, and everyone else, daily. I convinced myself that I was doing better, and did my best to keep up appearances while I was surrounded by people. Internally I was fighting with demons so big, so consuming, that when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t see life in my eyes. All I could think about was the storm inside of me that had reached hurricane proportions. I was viewing my life through a broken kaleidoscope. All of the pieces fell to the bottom and no matter how I turned it, I couldn’t make a full picture. I had secretly stopped going to counseling, and I was jumping between walk-in doctors to make sure my prescriptions were filled. I had reached my breaking point, and went to a clinic asking the doctor for morphine. I had been prescribed it before thanks to chronic back pain, and I was hoping that he would be too busy to question it. I had planned on going to the lagoon to take the morphine, and die. The squat, Scottish doctor spoke fast and asked a dozen questions. He left the room and came back several minutes later, telling me that there was no indication that I should need any more, and if I did I would have to see a doctor at the arthritis society so they could follow up and track my pain management. I argued, asking for just a few, a handful, something to keep the pain at bay while I waited to see another doctor, but he was unmoved. He said goodbye and left the room. I thought about waiting, but I knew he wasn’t coming back. I walked home frustrated and broken. I knew I needed to get in touch with my psychiatrist again, but I was so disappointed in myself for not being honest, and for skipping my appointments that I felt sure I would be punished if I reached out again.
It took me three years to make the call to the urgent care line once again. During those three years I grappled with intense episodes of mania, episodes that ruined relationships, got me in trouble, and exhausted my family. I got married, had another child, and set goals for myself that were so wildly unattainable that when I ultimately failed to reach them I punished myself internally. I fought hard against my suicidal urges, but I knew I couldn’t hold off much longer. On a beautiful summer day I downed what was left of my pills and prayed that death would finally come to take me away. Death did not show himself.
Crying, half from disappointment and half from shame, I told my husband what I had done. He didn’t scold me, but put me to bed and told me it was time to see my doctor. He was right, but I was scared. Surely this would be the point that they took my kids from me. Another six months would pass before I had a breakdown, that started with me staring in the mirror unable to recognise who I was seeing. I grabbed the scissors and started cutting my hair. I hacked away at it until I was almost bald. I came downstairs, the mania dropping rapidly into depression. My mom was standing in the hallway and asked if I was ok. For the first time in a long time, I answered truthfully. No, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I put a toque on and went outside, leaving a frantic message for my old psychiatric nurse. She called me back and told me that I wasn’t a patient anymore, but that she was willing to see me – I just needed a referral. She suggested that I go to the mental health unit at the hospital, as it would be faster than going to a walk in. I text my friend and asked her if she could take me, I knew I was in no condition go drive myself. When we arrived on the ward it was quiet, and I was asked to put my things in a locker. Phones were not permitted, so I stuffed my rucksack full of meds, and my phone, into the assigned locker and sat in a recliner next to my friend. She had been in similar situation, and her compassion and lack of judgement made that day bearable. It felt like prison, and the wait seemed forever. She left the ward to get us a tea, and I continued to wait, scratching at my bald head under the toque.
When I finally saw the on call psychiatrist I felt pathetic. I could feel her judgement, and I didn’t appreciate the interrogation style of interview that she was conducting. I ended the interview on my own terms, and asked for my things back, as well as a referral back to my counselor.
At the end of the day I felt as though I was worse off than when I went in. Tired and frustrated I went home to my worried mother and children. I had no contact with my husband, who was deployed during this episode. I got a call from mental health with an appointment, and agreed to meet her on a Friday afternoon. I was nervous beyond belief, I had no idea what was in store for me, or how I was going to be punished. When I met with her she was glad to see me, and told me that my former psychiatrist had been trying to get ahold of me. They had discussed in private the possibility that I had Borderline Personality Disorder, but because I disappeared I couldn’t be assessed for it. Some of the medications I was on were counterintuitive to the new diagnosis, which was causing the intense manic episodes and making the depression and anxiety worse. I was assigned to a new psychiatrist, and he explained to me that rarely people can have Bipolar and BPD at the same time, and he is sure that I’m a member of this unique club. At the first appointment with him he set up a tapering regimen to get me off of my old meds, and introduced a few others that would help combat the compulsive behaviours I was exhibiting.
I spent a night during research on BPD, as well as people with the combination of disorders. The first person I told, who I am choosing not to identify, responded with, “oh, Ted Bundy had BPD.” That comment sent me over the deep end and into blackness. Why did they compare me to Ted Bundy? Am I that crazy? Will I eventually torture and murder people? Is this what everyone sees in me? I chose not to tell anyone else, and secretly dwelled on the casual comparison, letting it eat away at me. During this time I was struggling with dissociation, sometimes dissociating for hours at a time. I could recognise that it was happening, but couldn’t pull myself out of it. The stress of trying to decide what was acceptable to tell to my doctors and what was kept secret was causing me to lose sleep, even though I was taking hard core sleep-aid medication for insomnia. I was having trouble driving, was losing whole days to dissociation, and the urge to self-harm appeared, something that I had never before dealt with. I had become used to living in the grey areas of suicide, but acute self-harm was new, and was what shocked me into being honest with my mental health team. In a meeting with both my doctor and counselor I told them that I was having delusions, and that these delusions often lead to acts of self harm, mostly in the form of burning myself. They didn’t judge me, which was another shock. Instead my doctor suggested a different medication to help, and my counselor suggested different tools that I was to try and use when I was in these dissociative or delusional states.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was admit that I was not in control of my thoughts or feelings, which lead to a lack of control over behaviours. I struggle daily with rapid cycling depression and bouts of mania. My visions of grandeur get in the way of logical thinking, and I have to fight them back to make sure I’m staying in the present reality. Smelling hand sanitizer still gives me panic attacks, as a result of my hospital stay, and my obsessive thoughts still take over on bad days. I have been faithfully going to my appointments, and am trying hard to utilise the tools that they are teaching me. I have spent the better part of two decades battling demons of various shapes and sizes, and will continue the fight for the rest of my life. I have turned a corner as far as being responsible goes, I think, and am trying to set a better example for my kids. I have always been an outspoken mental health warrior, but I’ve never been good at listening to my own words, taking my own advice. This most recent rock bottom experience has helped me to see that there truly is no shame in telling people, especially medical professionals, the truth in what I’m feeling and thinking. I can take the pills and go to the appointments, but if I’m not honest with them or myself, I’ll never truly get better. As I enter my thirties my goal is to get rid of the mask that I’ve been wearing for so long, and allow myself to really make progress, and hopefully heal.
This is a very condensed version of my journey thus far, but I thought in sharing it I could relieve myself of some of the guilt from these events that I still carry, and maybe even help someone in a similar situation. We all have demons, skeletons in our closets, that’s just a fact of life. How we chose to defeat these demons is up to us, but we need never have to do it alone. Reach out. Accept help. Take care. Love yourself.