When CAMH launched the Mental Health is Health campaign a few years ago, we did not know Ivanka Siolkowsky yet. But the way she describes the death of her mother is a heartbreakingly powerful illustration of that message.
At its core, Mental Health is Heath is an appeal to our society stop making a distinction between physical health and mental health and to treat a diseased brain as urgently and comprehensively as we treat a diseased heart or cancer.
For much of Ivanka’s life, her brain has not been well. Now formally diagnosed with anxiety, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, she survived a suicide attempt while working in her career as an elementary school teacher in Saskatchewan.
I just wanted to stop hurting.
“It wasn’t about wanting to die; it was about not wanting to live in pain anymore. There’s a difference. I just wanted to stop hurting.”
She was hospitalized for roughly six weeks. Compounding her agony was a feeling of profound guilt because her father left the bedside of her ailing mother, who had cancer, to fly out west to be with her.
“I thought, ‘How could I do this to my father and my mother? I was trying to stay alive as long as I could for their sake, for my nieces and nephew, for my students. I tried. I really tried. I fought hard every day to stay alive, and every day for nine years I won. That day, however, I didn’t. Even I can’t explain what happened in those moments, other than to say my mental illness took over. I compare it to treading water. Nobody wants to drown–you want to stay alive and keep swimming, but you can only do it for so long. No matter how much you fight, at a certain point your muscles just seize up, and that’s when you drown. Fighting suicidal ideation is exactly like that.”
Her suicide attempt was eye opening for those closest to her. For the first time they began to see that this was more than just “feeling sad” or being in a bad mood (her mother especially). During the final conversation she had with her mother on her deathbed, the last words her mother said to her were “I’m so sorry that you’re suffering, Ivanka. If I had to choose between cancer and what you’re going through, I would choose cancer again.” This is a woman who took her final breaths shortly thereafter.
In large part because of those suicide attempts, she lost her teaching career, moved back to her home province of Ontario, and embarked on a new career as a professional organizer under the moniker The Tidy Moose. She looks at her work at decluttering people’s physical spaces through a mental health lens, as a way of helping people declutter their mind as well.
“I turned what began as a curse into a career. When I realized mental illness means I can’t control my thoughts, I wanted to control some aspect of my life, so I began taking control of my outer surroundings through decluttering and organization. This helps me remain calm in stressful situations. I now help others do the same.”
As with many people who live with mental illness, suicidal ideation is still a presence in her life. She recently went through a program of Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) brain stimulation at CAMH and she continues to seek mental health supports.
When she had her first look at CAMH's Not suicide. Not today. campaign, it immediately resonated with her on a personal level. When she survived her suicide attempt in 2013, the doctors told her she was lucky to be alive. “Someone must be looking out for you!” they said. She felt her life was spared for a reason, but she didn’t know why.
I want to use this second chance I’ve been given to help others understand, and to help those going through the struggles, get through the other side.
“Maybe sharing my story to help others is my why,” she says. “I feel like being a part of this campaign is part of my purpose. There are so many people who just don’t understand what it is like to go through suicidal ideation. I mean, how can they if they haven’t been there? Even I didn’t fully understand the full extent of the darkness until that day. I’ve gone as far down that dark path as a person can go, but I am one of the few still around to tell about it. So I want to use this second chance I’ve been given to help others understand, and to help those going through the struggles, get through the other side. It’s funny, the day after we were on the call with CAMH to walk through the campaign I was going through a rough patch and having severe suicidal thoughts. I walked into my room and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I stopped, and really looked at the person starting back at me. The words from the campaign went through my mind–‘not today’. Go to sleep. See how you feel tomorrow. And I did. Sure enough when I woke up, I was still hurting, but it wasn’t as bad. If I can help people practice that split second mind shift by sharing my story, then that’s what I’m here to do.”
Ivanka's story was part of our Not suicide. Not today. campaign in 2020. It remains a powerful story of hope for those living with mental illness.
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
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