Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Simone Biles, Olympic gold gymnast, tied as the most decorated gymnast of all times with 32 medals, including seven Olympic medals.
Carey Price, goaltender for gold medalist Team Canada in the 2007 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, and winning Montreal Canadiens goaltender.
Clara Hughes, Olympic speed skater and cyclist, one of a very few athletes to have competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Michael Phelps, record–breaking Olympic swimmer.
Serena Williams, champion women’s tennis player.
Abby Wambach, two–time Olympic gold medal winner with the USA women’s soccer team.
Steve Young, Superbowl winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
Donny Osmond, singer and performer.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar winning actor.
Daniel Radcliffe, who made Harry Potter a household name at the age of 10.
J.K. Rowling, best–selling author of the Harry Potter series.
Lady Gaga, successful musician, performer, and actor.
Adele, Grammy award winning performer and composer.
Carrie Fisher, the original Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise.
Dwayne Johnson, aka “The Rock”, professional wrestler, college football player, and actor.
Robin Williams, comedian and actor.
Yme Woensdregt, former Presbyterian minister and retired Anglican priest.
I’ll bet you didn’t expect to see my name on a list like that. It’s almost impossible to imagine me on a list of exceptional athletes and performers. But here we are. Athletes. Musicians. Actors. Politicians. Religious leaders. Celebrities. And ordinary people; millions of ordinary people.
This is a list of people who have one thing in common — we have all struggled with mental health issues. And it’s been hard. As J.K. Rowling puts it, “It’s so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness; it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed–out feeling.”
I don’t know their stories. While we all struggle with mental health, we struggle with it in individual ways. It affects each of us differently, and we each deal with it in our own ways. We feel so unbearably alone. It’s such an isolating disease, as if no one else can understand our pain, our sense of being numb, the pain of feeling completely empty.
I’ve written about my story before. About 22 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I felt trapped in a never-ending darkness. Every day, I woke up feeling like I was useless, and it would just be better if I ended it all. It was a scary and terrible place to be.
As a priest, I felt like I had to keep it private. I couldn’t let others know I was struggling. After all, I was supposed to be the helper. I couldn’t admit that I needed help. And then I finally reached the point where I couldn’t hold it together anymore. My world came crashing down. I was ready to say goodbye to it all. Literally. I had made a suicide plan and was so very close to carrying it out.
It was only by sheer grace that someone found me in time; they called the police who took me to the Mental Health Ward in Regina. I was involuntarily committed for 72 hours. They took away anything with which I could harm myself, and they watched me.
And then, I began to receive treatment. After 68 hours, a psych nurse sat with me and explained to me that this wasn’t my fault. It was an illness. I started to learn. I received individual counselling. I participated in group counselling. I learned new ways of dealing with the pain and the emptiness and the feeling of uselessness.
Part of the problem is the stigma around mental health. We saw it when Simone Biles decided to opt out of some of the gymnastic events in the Summer Olympics. It’s okay to admit that you’ve got a broken leg, to get it looked after and to wear a cast. But it’s not okay to admit that your thoughts and emotions are spiralling out of control. So we hide it.
I tried to deal with it on my own, and I did everything wrong. I kept it all to myself. I denied what was happening. I self–medicated with scotch. I avoided other people. I worked harder and harder, spending longer hours at work. I told myself that if I weren’t such a terrible, lazy, incompetent so–and–so, I’d get on top of this.
I finally got the help I needed. I learned how to avoid spiralling out of control. I have learned to lament when life sucks (as I did a few weeks ago). I have learned skills to cope with the difficulties of life.
Above all, I learned that I am lovable. I am capable. I am enough. I have learned to be gentler with myself and with others. I learned that I am not alone. It was a long journey to wholeness.
I am writing about this because January 26 is “Let’s Talk” day. The goal is to end the stigma of mental illness, to provide care for those who are suffering, to pay for research into this disease, and to help us all understand the debilitating effects of this disease. We talk about it, raising awareness, and provide resources.
Mental illness looks like this for so many —lying in bed for days; struggling to do basic tasks like showering or eating or going to the front door to get the mail; huddling in the darkness and avoiding contact with anyone. It’s debilitating.
Helping people who struggle with mental illness is not just about talking it out with a friend. It requires treatment from therapists who have been trained to help. If we know someone who struggles, we need to advocate on their behalf for accessible, affordable therapy. They can’t reach out themselves.
And if you are suffering, know that you are not alone. You are in the company of those I listed at the beginning of this column. Know that there are countless others who suffer. You are not alone.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook