Talking About Suicide

More from Canada, part 2: Listening to Wendy Matthews


One of the several attempt survivors I met last week at Canada’s national conference for suicide prevention was Wendy Matthews, who gave an open, engaging presentation about her experience. “I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness,” she told the audience. “It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.”

She agreed to let me post her speech here:

Good afternoon, my name is Wendy Matthews. And I thought I would start with a little bit about who I am.

On Dec. 26, I will be married for 25 years to the same wonderful man.

I am a proud mom of an 21-year-old son.

I am a college graduate.

I am a board member of a local not-for-profit agency.

I am a public speaker for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Niagara, United Way of St. Catharines and for my own company. I own three businesses: Happy Being ME, Button Me Happy and Wendy Speaks Up.

My life sounds pretty typical, don’t you think?

What I haven’t told you is that I have a mental illness. I have been ill for over 30 years and was properly diagnosed only 13 years ago. For over 10 years, I was totally unable to do any type of work. My diagnosis is bipolar-schizoaffective disorder. This means that I suffer from deep, dark pits of depression for long periods of time and sometimes for years. Depression for me is like a wet, thick, dark blanket that is thrown over my head. I can’t breathe, I can’t see past the darkness and I can’t lift myself up because of the weight of the blanket.

I also spring over to the other extreme, to the mountainous highs of mania. In this part of my illness, it is the exact opposite. I am light as a feather and as free as a bird. I know I could fly if I just take that leap. During these times, I do not sleep or eat for days on end. I commit myself to everything and anything people ask of me, and I have put myself into unsafe and at times dangerous situations. Mania for me can last for days or weeks at a time.

I also suffer from schizophrenia, which for me includes hallucinations and delusions. Some voices tell me horrible things. Other voices are just my friends, and we chat. Other times, it is just a lot of unrecognizable talk, kind of like being between radio stations, hearing the static and voices but not being able to understand what they are saying. I see dark figures and forms that live in the corners of rooms, behind things and in the ceilings. My delusional thoughts are harder to describe. The best way I know how to describe it is like being awake in a dream or nightmare. Well, more like a nightmare. I think, feel and see life, but no one else is going through the same things. I feel confused, terrified and angry during these episodes. These feelings only intensify when someone challenges me on what is going on.

My illness started back when I was 12, with a deep depression and my first of many suicide attempts. One day after school, I swallowed a bottle of pills that was in the medicine cabinet and left home. I was young and had no idea about how medications worked. I thought I would walk for a while and drop dead in my steps and everyone would be so much better off without me. After walking for a while, I started to feel ill and was getting tired, so I headed home to go to bed and die. I came home, and my parents were there waiting for me. They yelled at me because I had left and not told anyone where I was going.

I was grounded. I listened to them lecture and kept thinking in the back of my head that they wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore. I went to bed and awoke the next morning very disappointed that I couldn’t even get a suicide right. I had survived and no one knew what I had done, and I was still grounded.

By the time I reached high school, I was drinking to cope with school and life. I needed to drink to go to school, to be at home and to go out with my friends.

During my time in high school, I had a few more suicide attempts, and still no one knew. I would overdose and go to sleep. Sometimes I would get sick, but mostly I would lie down and expect to die but always wake up the next morning feeling that same disappointment that I felt years ago. Still, I never told anyone. I didn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with me. I thought other people felt the way that I did, only they were able to cope with life better than me.

So, after five intoxicated years in high school, I left without graduating. After high school, I worked at a bunch of different jobs, dated a bunch of different guys, and finally I met and married my husband. We moved to Nova Scotia, and a few years later we welcomed home a beautiful baby boy. All during this time, I still hid everything, my depression, my suicide attempts and my drinking, which was no longer working for me and had now turned into cutting myself as a way of dealing with everything.

My family didn’t know what I was doing or how I felt. Not even my husband knew. I kept everything from everyone. I was becoming the world’s greatest actress.

When my son was nine months old and I was 26, once again I tried to kill myself with an overdose. However, this time, if no one had found me I would have got it right. I was taken away unconscious in an ambulance in front of all our friends and neighbours.

My secret that I had hidden for 16 years was finally out in the open.

I was hospitalized for a few weeks and was diagnosed as bipolar, even though I was hearing things that were not really there. I was told that the reason for the voices was because I was tired and overwhelmed from being a new mom. So I went home from the hospital. But I needed help and support to look after my son as well as myself. My husband was in the Navy and had to quit his job, and we all moved back to St. Catharines. Back here, my husband found another job and my parents helped care for my son while I attended a day program at the hospital.

Over the next few years, that was how our lives carried on. I had lost contact with my friends from Nova Scotia, and my friends back here slowly dropped off because of my illness. I was not the party girl that they remembered.

Over those years, I had been put on dozens of different medications or combinations of them. Getting on the correct medication was the first thing to help me move forward. Medication doesn’t fix everything, but it helps you with a kind of kick-start to the brain. Even though my medications were working, I, like many others with my illness, have gone off my medications more than a few times, only to disastrous results. My medication does not take away all my symptoms, but it is a good balance between side effects and symptoms.

Finally, at the age of 30, I received my correct diagnosis but was also told that I would never be able to work again. This was hard to hear, but on the other hand, I was almost relieved. I had not worked for a long period of time and knew that I couldn’t. It was validating for me to hear a professional say this. So I went home and settled for the life that was given to me, but only for a while. I wanted a better life. I wanted to care for my family. I wanted friends. And I wanted things to be normal, like I thought other peoples’ lives were. So, never being one to be told what to do, I went back to school. Six months after starting back at school, I finally received my grade 12 diploma.

I then decided that I wanted to work. I started with one day a week. This was hard. It was harder than school. I had not worked in over 10 years, and the medication I was on made me soooo tired. But I figured I could do this one day a week and rest for the other six. Kind of like God, but backwards.

Over the next few years, I was finally able to work full time as well as go to night school. I graduated with a certificate in business management. Work was going pretty good for a few years, but as life would have it, things always happen, and for the first time since I had been back to work I had to go off sick due to my illness.

I felt sooooooo defeated, and I was very hard on myself, but after hiding out with my head buried under the covers for a while, I started to think of what I should do now. During this time of self-discovery, I was also able to finally come to terms with my illness. I no longer was asking my doctor that forever unanswered question of “When will I be better?” It just didn’t matter anymore. My illness wasn’t who I was. It was just a part of me, sometimes big, sometimes small. But I was more than that. My illness does not define who I am.

I had started opening up to people outside of my family, who to this point were the only ones other than a few professionals who knew about my illness. I had worked very hard all these years to hide it from everyone. I was so afraid that someone would find out and treat me differently, or more importantly, my family. I was especially worried that my husband and son would be affected by the reactions of others because of the stigma attached to this illness. But I could not go on hiding who I was any longer. It was exhausting, and it was time to tell my story. So in the summer of 2007, I started speaking publicly about my life. I must say it was quite empowering.

Another thing also happened that summer. I was awoken from my sleep with the fact that I was finally Happy Being ME. Me, the person who had wished myself dead for so many years, was finally happy. These powerful words and feelings would not leave my head. The more it went through my mind, the more I wanted everyone else to feel this way.  To be proud of who they are, no matter what their challenges.

Since this thought was not going to leave my head, I got up and sat at my computer and started a business plan. By the next morning, my business was born. Happy Being ME, offering happy, eco-friendly T’s and accessories, all sporting the Happy Being ME message as well as a fun character from our family, for babies to adults. I wanted everyone to be able to express themselves in this positive way.

The next day, I told my husband my idea, and to my surprise, he said, “Great idea, let’s get started.” But you should have been there for the conversation with my parents. There I sat telling them that their 40-something-year-old daughter who currently was off sick from work due to her mental illness was going to start an eco-friendly T-shirt business with printed stick figures and the words “Happy Being ME” on them. They smiled. You know that smile a parent gives their child when they’re thinking, “What the heck is she doing? But we’re going to support her anyway because we love her.”

I tell you about my business not only to shamelessly plug it but I tell you because my business is a very important part of my recovery.

People always ask me what helped me the most, but before I tell you that, I just want to touch on a couple of things that have held me back over the years.

Number one, stigma. I believe that the stigma surrounding mental illness is a direct result of the lack of education. Stigma is probably the most significant thing that has held me back. Stigma was not just pushed upon me by others and society, it was also my own self-stigma that created problems.

The second thing is recovery, or what I thought recovery meant. I look back and remember talking to a support worker and them talking about recovery. I looked at her as though she had two heads. You see, to this point, I had been ill for so long, had problems just getting out of bed in the morning or off the couch during the day. I had already being given that mental health life sentence from my doctor, which I mentioned before. What I didn’t understand about recovery was that I may always have my illness, but I have finally been able to recover my life, and my illness finally turned into just that. An illness. It is no longer who I am. It is something that I have.

So, as promised, I want to share with you some of the things that have helped me in the retaking of my life:

Forgiveness. Give the gift of forgiveness, and start with yourself. I thought that my illness was a character flaw. I had to come to terms with my illness and myself. When I finally realized that the things I had done, felt, or experienced was my illness, it was much easier to forgive myself. Next was to forgive those around me who could not understand my illness. I was angry at people around me, and a lot of that anger was directed at my husband. I was angry at him for not understanding what I was going through or how I felt. I carried this anger with me for many years, but when I started to look at it differently, I finally came to this realization: He was not able to understand my illness. Not everyone is capable of empathy. This was not his fault. It was who he was. But he has stuck with me through all of my years of illness because of his love for me.

Do something new, as often as you can. Say yes. It was much easier for me to stay in the depression, stay in my bed, stay in my cocoon that I had created. It was an awful place, but it was what I knew. But this was not what I wanted for myself or my family. At the suggestion of a professional, I started to add things to my life. I started to do one thing different at a time. Sometimes I would keep moving forward, and at other times I would fall back into the old routine. But I kept remembering that quote by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Accept help. I took the help offered to me from family and professionals. There were groups and programs out there to help me, whatever I needed help with. This does not mean that they did everything for me. I was the one who had to do the hard work, and with their encouragement I was able to start living a functional life with my illness.

And finally, fake it ’til you make it. This phrase was told to me many years ago, and I have used it many times. I faked a good life, I faked smiles and I faked happiness to the outside world until they actually became my world.

You know, I look at the statistics of mental illness. One in five will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime. One in 100 will have schizophrenia, 8 percent will suffer a major depression, 1 percent will experience bipolar, and so on and so on. And I look at those odds, and I fall into so many of them. I think my number just keeps coming up. I’ve hit the lottery. Unfortunately, it’s the mental health lottery, but as funny as that is, many more people will hit the mental health lottery. This is why I tell my story to complete strangers. My goal is to educate, to reduce and eliminate stigma that surrounds mental illness. I also hope to inspire anyone who is suffering from, or cares for someone with, a mental illness to move forward, to get help, forgive and believe that recovery is possible. But most important, I want people to finally be able to say that I am Happy Being ME.

Thanks for allowing me tell my story.