When I entered recovery I became aware of my journey through mental illness. The life I enjoy is filled with love, gratitude, openness and appreciation for my life experience. I wouldn’t change a thing about my past because I’ve learnt; only in acceptance can I be free. I never understood that being happy was my responsibility. I never knew that excuses and blaming others kept me sick and blocked off from an enjoyable life.
At the age of 12, prior to experiencing the effects of alcohol or marijuana I experienced a drug induced psychotic episode when I used “magic mushrooms”. This was one of the worst experiences of my life and I now understand its connection to my journey through mental illness and recovery.
Starting a life of dependence
After this episode, I wanted to continue experimenting with drugs & alcohol. Generally when people suffer the consequences of their actions they change their behavior. Through recovery I’m able to see how I desperately wanted something to make me feel ok in my skin. This was 20 years ago when mental health and addiction issues weren’t being discussed nor well understood. I didn’t understand my feelings, emotions and thoughts or knew where to get support. Once I settled into a life of marijuana dependence I no longer felt anything, I did everything I could to use drugs or alcohol to stuff my emotions down. This behavior continued and worsened over the next 17-18 years. As time went on, my depression, anxiety, OCD and ADD problems increased, intensifying the destructive cycle of my drug addiction and hopelessness.
Without coping skills or support, and the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction, I relied more and more on marijuana to medicate and treat my mental health problems. I had troubles with the police, my parents and school. I did anything to maintain the supply of my only known solution. My parents didn’t know what to do, nor did the school know how to support troubled kids. My drug use stunted my emotional and cognitive development and limited my ability to succeed academically. I didn’t understand who I was or how to care for myself.
Helpless to help
I cheated my way through high school and through sheer determination and resiliency I graduated university. In the middle of university my brother suffered his 1st psychotic episode and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was studying politics and economics when the 9/11 attacks in NYC happened. My global awareness increased my anxiety, worsened my depression and fed my obsessive thinking. I had to fix the worlds problems and “make” my brother get better. Stigma was a barrier for my brother and my family. We didn’t understand mental illness or how to seek help. Stigma limited our understanding that we needed our own care and support. It was emotionally and psychologically painful not understanding my brother’s illness and feeling helpless in how to care for him. It’s very difficult to know how to help our loved ones. One thing is certain; we must care for ourselves first. If we’re not healthy than we’re of no service to others. This is difficult for people to accept. We want to fix things; we want to make things better. I struggled with this for many years. It wasn’t until my recovery strengthened that I could apply it to supporting my brother. I like to use the airplane metaphor because many people know it. Before assisting other passengers, make sure you secure your own oxygen mask. As much as we want to resist this concept, we won’t be of service to our loved one’s if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, it’s that simple.
My family and I have been through many ups and downs supporting my brother, but we’re doing our best. He’s had extended periods of wellness and good quality of life, with a few relapses. He’s no different than the rest of us. If he isn’t willing to do what he needs to keep himself well, then he’ll slip back into the grips of his illness. I find the best thing we can do along these lines is be examples of wellness to those in our families or to those we’re trying to support. We can’t tell people or force them to do things “WE” think they should do. Compassion and owning our space has been the best approach for me.
Throughout my 20’s my fears and illnesses worsened. I could no longer pretend things would be different. I desperately wanted to change, but never could. Who I was kept getting further from the person I wanted to be.
A path to recovery
My path to recovery began when I had a brief break in my depression. I stopped isolating and was fortunate enough to meet a lovely woman. I’m a “romantic” and always wanted to be a husband and father. This friendship brought me face to face with my insanity. My insanity is, as Einstein says, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. I came face to face with DENIAL(Don’t Even Notice I’m Lying). I still didn’t understand how addiction and mental health problems affected my life. Being in a relationship helped me realize that if I wanted a different life, I had to do things differently. Stigma played a role in how she understood my addiction problems. She wasn’t aware of the connection between mental health and addiction. We worked through our challenges and a few years later she became my wife. The responsibilities of marriage propelled me to accept the profound gap between who I pretended to be, and who I was. I realized I couldn’t manage the unmanageable. I could no longer believe my own lies; it was time to let go.
The accordion of who I wanted to be and whom I was that I’d been playing for almost 20 years finally ran out of air. I knew… I’d end up alone… admitted to the psych ward… or entertain thoughts of suicide. I was at the end of my rope or “bottom.” I like to describe a bottom as “when we decide to stop digging” because all our bottoms are different.
I surrendered to the fact I was sick and needed help. Hope, peace and serenity entered my consciousness. Letting go of my illusion of control was an incredible relief. Reaching out my hand for help was a liberating experience. The amount of support and resources I found inspired me. I did anything to get and stay high for well over half of my life. Now I do whatever it takes to support my wellness and recovery. I woke up as a thirteen-year-old kid in a 30 year old mans body. Changing my feelings, thoughts, behaviours and emotions ensures I undergo the personality transformation necessary to keep me living in wellness.
My tools to stay well
Personal therapy, group therapy, peer support, exercise, good diet, meditation, and practicing a spiritual life are my tools for recovery and wellness. All of my supports help me treat different aspects of my mental health. Meditation helps slow down my thoughts relieves my anxiety and is a great defense for the onset and duration of depressive episodes. Therapy and group support are amazing places to share thoughts, feelings and emotions. I’ve learnt so much from talking with professionals and other people who share my experience. It’s nice to talk about things and stigma often prevents people from opening up. Putting myself in environments where stigma isn’t a barrier to seek support or companionship has been invaluable. I’ve learned people can do amazing things regardless of their challenges.
Now, I cultivate my positive qualities, I learn to expand and welcome what enters my life. I experience symptoms but they don’t prevent me from pursuing my goals. I know the solution to all my challenges starts with me. I’m creating loving and trusting relationships. I’m a wonderful dad of two and learning to be a better husband ;)) Addressing stigma, expanding our awareness and educating each other is a huge reason people like me can feel comfortable sharing our stories.
Starts With Me is a company I started to immerse myself in the world of mental health & wellness. I’m filled with gratitude for my experience and I receive many gifts from the universe. One of those gifts is this opportunity to share my story with you and for that I’m blessed and grateful.
Original artwork: David Stroh (Mike’s brother)
Mike Stroh lived with addiction and mental health issues for 18 years prior to entering recovery. Mike currently speaks for the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, he’s a member of the St Michaels hospital mental health community and advisory panel & he speaks and educates with CAMH’s “Beyond the Cuckoo’s Nest” High School Mental Health anti-stigma awareness program. Mike is the founder of “Starts With Me” which engages people to increase awareness of mental health, mental illness, wellness and stigma. Connect with “Starts With Me” at startswithme.ca.
Nicely written article, Mike. I like your repeated emphasis on “caring” for ourselves. Not just physically, but caring for the things that we want and feel we need. I find that the obsessive/compulsive habits we develop with anxiety and depression have us caring more about what others think, and how we can get their approval. Projecting expectations we imagine they have of us, but very often don’t.
Finding the happiness you describe can’t be done in isolation. I think that’s another valuable point you make. We need the sense that someone’s in our corner, so to speak. Someone who cares about us. Gabor Mate says that addicts don’t want sobriety; they want connection to other human beings. Wonderful to hear that you’ve found it!!
Thanks so much Paul! I appreciate your comments and for taking the time to read the story. I love the work Mr. Mate does and I’ve made it this far through a community of support from every possible place I could find it. Once I freed myself from fear and isolation, I was able to receive the warmth, support and connection from others. The gifts are endless.
thanks again Paul!!