Interview/Written by: Trish
Leah has a nice smile. I remember it from the first time I met her and now as we meet to discuss her story, her face brightens with it. But it is fleeting as she softly speaks about how her life is challenging right now. On top of distressing life events, she is struggling with depression again and feeling dispirited by gaining weight.
As I listen to what’s going on in her life, I observe how self-reflective Leah is about her negative thoughts and self-sabotaging patterns. She has the strength to look at herself honestly and the courage to talk about it openly.
“I have suffered with depression all my life and have struggled all my life to survive, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way because I now realize it has made me a stronger person[;] a very caring, loving, compassionate, passionate, honest, listener and I thank God for putting my through hell and back again because had I not gone through Hell, I would not be the warm, caring, loving person that I am today.”
Leah was conceived after a very short courtship between her Mother and Father and to do the right thing, they got married. Given the circumstances of her birth, which Leah says her Father now refers to as “a mistake”, she felt doomed from day 1.
“I was born crossed-eyed, I sucked my thumb so I had buck teeth, I was born with a learning disability and I was fat.”
Over years the family grew and she had 3 sisters; one 16 months younger, another 7 years younger and the youngest is 17 years younger. Leah loved taking care of her 2 youngest siblings as she gave them the love she was not receiving from her own parents.
“My parent’s put me down, cut me up about everything. I will never forget one day I heard them talk about me and make fun of me. My childhood has really affected me—I grew up very insecure, no confidence. I felt I was a misfit in society. I felt I was stupid, very fat and not loved and not wanted. My Mother always blamed me for everything so I would always get yelled at. I would tell them to kill me and get me out of my misery. My Mother always told me to drop dead.”
She began at an early age to self-medicate with food: “I hated myself and I needed to harm myself and I was to chicken to use alcohol or drugs. Food is a silent, odorless, killer.”
Not only did she experience ridicule from her parents, the sisters she so lovingly took care of were very hurtful.
“The next sister down from me is 16 months younger. She always made fun of me and said I was dumb and stupid, called me Fat Bertha. She always attacked me mentally and my only defence was to get her physically. We hated each other. She would chase me around the house with knives […]”
Stuck in a home feeling alone and anxious, she would escape to her only friend.
“My parents would always fight and I hated my house and everybody in it. So I would run away to my best friend’s house which was across the road.”
Breaking free to feel imprisoned once again
Leah left home and met the man she would marry. The emotional abuse started earlier on.
“When our first girl was born, I wanted him to come to the hospital. He wouldn’t. I later found out that he had gone to the track. He was a liar right from the start. I never knew what to believe.”
Through the years, he became more distant. It was her role to stay home and take care of their 4 girls while he spent most of his time away from home.
“He would ignore me and the kids and play with his dog instead. I just wanted to get out of the house and when I asked him to take me and the kids shopping, he would say “no.” His behaviour confirmed that I was meant to be a loner.”
He was having affairs and one day he brought home another woman and her two sons. They moved in and Leah was tasked with the responsibility of taking care of her 4 girls and the 2 boys.
She was plunging deeper and deeper into depression. She was unable to take care of herself going for days without bathing or changing her clothes. Keeping the house overwhelmed her and she was unable to clean up after the family. She put the little bit of energy she had into taking care of her children.
Eating became her constant nemesis; her self-confidence and self-worth falling at the same rate as the weight on the scale climbed. She once again felt unloved and useless.
A promise to keep
“My first daughter has mental health issues. As a young child, I took her to psychiatrists and would tell them “there is something wrong with her”. It was at an appointment with one of these psychiatrists that I was told I needed to see a psychiatrist. I was shocked.”
She was advised to admit herself to the hospital immediately. She refused saying she had kids to take care of. The compromise was she would enroll in the day program at the hospital.
“Here I am in an abusive marriage, eating myself to death, hating the weekends, trying to take care of my kids and going to this day program. I thought the program would cure me” she laughs.
One day she met a woman who she shared her story with. She will always remember the woman telling her not to waste her days in her marriage.
This advice weighed heavily on Leah. She told me she was “scared of her own shadow” but she found the courage to consider what it would be like to leave her marriage. One day, she told her husband he better watch it or she would go to a lawyer. He laughed in her face.
“I would ask myself is this how I want to live my life? I knew I wanted to show my kids what a proper marriage was.”
Then she realized what she had in common with her Mother: they had both ended up in an abusive marriage.
But Leah had made a promise never to stay.
After 11 years in the marriage, she kept that promise.
A dream and passion
Leah has learned a lot over her 50 years of life. Some of her big lessons came from her abusive relationships and how they made her more independent and responsible (though she tells me she was terrified of having to “grow up”.)
Ending up in another abusive relationship following her marriage, she is now strong in her determination to identify abuse early and never to go down that road again.
Her latest insight is she has a gift to know how to help others and by synchronicity or chance, she is running into a lot of unplanned opportunities to help her neighbours who experience mental health issues.
She feels this is a sign.
Leah describes her passion to do meaningful work in the mental health community:
“I want to give back to the community what they gave to me. I have been a member with CMHA for 15 or more years and my dream is hopefully to be employed by them one day […] it is important to speak up or out and help out somebody who is less fortunate than you are because there are so many different diseases and diagnosis. I myself find it very rewarding and therapeutic; helping and listening to people so this is my journey through life.”
She is taking actions on her dream. Even with her learning disability, she graduated with honours from a Personal Supporter Worker program and she is using that experience to apply for mental health programs.
Her ultimate dream is to use her voice; to be part of a speaker’s bureau to tell her story or to teach others tools through a mental health recovery program.
She may be soft spoken at times but when she talks about her passion to help, her smile comes back and her laughter is like comic relief in the script of her life story.
I am reminded of what she said as we experienced moments of laughter together during the interview: “if I couldn’t laugh at myself, I wouldn’t be here right now.” [Tweet this quote!]
That is just one among so many reasons I am grateful to bear witness to her story.
And her laugh.
Use your voice Leah. Whether it is to tell you story or hear your laugh, we are listening.
Photo credit: Mary Lock- Goldilock Photography
The Krasman Centre is a community mental health drop-in centre, with locations in Richmond Hill and Alliston Ontario Canada. The Krasman Centre is an organization that is governed, led and staffed by consumer/survivors and family members. They work with consumer/survivors and families to improve lives through information and education, self-help, mutual support and partnership. They promote wellness and recovery, and foster supports to help people stay well.
Click here to visit their site.