By Hilary Caton
That’s all Zohra felt in the two months leading up to her treatment at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
She just felt numb.
“I had no feelings and no sense of anything. I felt like I was invisible to the world,” she said.
“Day and night would come and go; I just felt like I didn’t exist.”
It’s a far cry from the person she used to be just a few months ago. She remembers being a happy, positive person who was uplifting to other people. She enjoyed going to the gym, being with friends and watching episodes of the Real Housewives.
But Zohra’s bubbly and positive attitude was beginning to fade and she was spiraling into a depressive state.
She began receiving psychiatric treatment at CAMH’s Women’s Inpatient Unit in November after a gut-wrenching break up with her boyfriend of six years.
It completely blindsided her, she said.
At first she experienced feelings people would associate with a broken heart. She was sad, lonely and cried—a lot.
But two weeks later those feelings began to intensify and took a drastic turn.
“I just started to feel worthless and hopeless. At this time I started to express my feelings of not wanting to live anymore,” Zohra said.
She also quit her job and began isolating herself from her family and friends, fantasized about suicide and verbalized disgust with herself. She also began to self-medicate, drinking excessive amounts of cough syrup and Tylenol, which lead to a near overdose two weeks before she was admitted to CAMH.
Staring cultural ignorance in the face
“I felt like I was in this deep dark hole where no one could truly see my pain or hear it, and every time anyone said anything to help me, like ‘give it time’ or ‘you deserve better,’ they just pushed me deeper into that hole,” she explained.
“I hated myself and my life, I wanted to give up and felt it was my choice to end my life, and no one, not even my family, mattered enough to live.”
She told her parents how she felt, but she was faced with a lot of “cultural ignorance,” she said because “there isn’t this kind of help back home.”
Zohra is originally from Afghanistan and moved to Toronto when she was seven years old with her parents and siblings, all of whom lived through the war in Afghanistan to varying degrees.
“Being in that mindset you expect life not to be easy, you think it’s normal that it will be tough. For them, to be in a certain level of depression is considered normal; you have to tolerate it,” Zohra said.
Her parents didn’t know how to help her, and that helplessness led to their advice to “just ride it out and see what happens.”
She says that in her culture, mental illness and addiction isn’t something that’s discussed or fully understood or even taught at a basic level. Then there’s also the need to be perceived as perfect in the eyes of family and friends that creates added pressure, she said.
After her feelings were minimized by her parents, Zohra slipped deeper into her “dark hole.”
Reality check: “My mindset switched.”
It wasn’t until she nearly overdosed that her sister-in-law and younger sister insisted she be admitted to CAMH. Even as she hugged her parents goodbye as she left her home they remained in denial about her condition and Zohra was convinced this was a punishment.
As reluctant as she was in the beginning, her thinking switched the night her parents were leaving after their first visit. She wanted to leave with them and she knew the only way to do that was to accept the help being provided.
“I don’t know why, but it hit me so hard that night; my mindset switched. I thought, ‘you don’t deserve to be stuck here. Why should you let someone else who hurt you determine how you live?,’” she said.
Zohra spent six days at CAMH receiving treatment. Dr. Alan Kahn, a staff psychiatrist, helped her get back on her feet; he encouraged her to return to her regular routine and equipped her with worksheets, exercises to help her cope, and prescribed medication.
“I feel like I really haven’t had any issues because I keep remembering my time here. I left CAMH with such a clear mindset,” she explained.
“I’m getting my life back, slowly. I’m so grateful to be alive…Anytime I’m met with challenges now I look back at my time at CAMH and how precious life became. I remember my self-worth.”
This experience, Zohra said, has brought her family closer together and “opened their eyes to mental illness.”
She’s hoping her story will help other families, not just in her culture, see the importance of being supportive of a loved one experiencing a mental illness.
“As difficult as it may be to see someone you love face mental health and/or addiction issues, avoiding the matter could result in a far worse situation that cannot be fixed,” she said.
It’s also okay to not have all the answers right away, she said. Zohra also stresses the importance of paying close attention when people begin verbalizing hurt, lack of self-worth and suicide and get them help right away.
“There is always help out there with zero shame to it. My recommendation would be to start with your family doctor where appropriate referrals can be given, call a crisis line or visit a hospital.”