(⚠️ Trigger warning: suicide)
There's a one year anniversary coming up in my life that's been hitting me hard and making me feel like I need to shed some light on it so I can move on. It's pretty heavy, dark and surrounded by stigma (even more so than I'm used to), but I believe it needs to be talked about because if I would have known more going into it, I probably wouldn't have fallen so far.
The good news is the story ends with the hero back on top again, don't worry ❤️
Let's go back to the start of the whole pandemic and beginning of the lockdowns (I know, I'm sorry). I was supposed to go home to Alberta to spend time with family for a much needed break, which just so happened to be the same day that everything got shut down and cancelled (NHL, NBA, etc.), so I didn't end up going. The pandemic got very real that day.
That night I got severely sick with what could have either been COVID (more on this below) or just brutal food poisoning and my health took a really scary turn. I couldn't keep food down and I started to not be able to sleep, so I was basically becoming delirious. On top of that, I had been smoking quite a bit of marijuana during this time and it likely contributed to an episode of psychosis that was very intense because of the amount of stress my mind and body were under. To add to the stress, my business basically evaporated overnight as the businesses I work with were all forced to close due to COVID and lockdown restrictions (and therefore wouldn't be doing any marketing), so my income was now gone. I remember receiving an email from every client within hours of each other with the same news. It really felt as though my life were starting to crumble all around me...
Due to what transpired over this time, I never went to get tested to know if it was COVID or not as I was simply self isolating and then basically lost control. That being said, there's more and more stories and studies coming out showing a possible link between COVID-19 and psychosis. Here's the story of Ivan Agerton and the unfortunate loss of Ben Price who both experienced psychosis after a positive diagnosis of COVID-19.
Just before all of this, I was at my peak. My business was at it's best position it had ever been in, my health was great, I had a lot of momentum going my way and felt like the life I'd built for myself was all coming together. It's scary how quickly I was able to fall from this position, but it was basically a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime factors hitting me all at once.
This is when the nightmare began...
The episode (a nightmare turned reality) 😓
It all happened so fast. I cannot recall what started it all and lead me down this path, but at some point early on I became quite paranoid and scared for my life, thinking that there were people coming to kill me. I had this overwhelming sense that I was in danger and voices in my head told me urgently that I needed to hide in the back closet of my apartment as people were coming now to break in, which led to hours of terrifyingly real auditory hallucinations of multiple people smashing through the front and back doors and tearing apart the apartment searching for me. I believe I stood frozen and as silent as possible in horror for at least an hour, if not a few in a row... Of course, after the noises were gone and I finally felt like it was safe to move and try to open the door to come out again, nothing had occurred in the apartment (which was a shock of it's own due to how real it all felt). As I mention below, the psychosis would kind of come in waves, almost like I was dipping in and out of a dream throughout the night — switching between alternate realities without having any control or sense of which one I was in at the time. Before you're able to gather your senses and clue in to what's happening, you're back in it again... and feeling like you're in immediate danger.
Every smaller episode or scene within the psychosis that I experienced simply added more stress on my body and mind, which just made me more vulnerable and exacerbated the issue. It was a vicious cycle I couldn't escape.
Another reality was being visited by demons, evil spirits, and people who'd been possessed by such (religious themes are common within psychosis) — once again, all converging on my apartment to get at me. This started to occur when I was in bed trying to get some rest with an eye shade on, which led to full blown visual and auditory hallucinations that were so vivid, engulfing and intense I got lost within them for hours and hours without realizing I was simply in bed and could take off my eye mask to "check the reality". Again, it came in waves and it's almost as if the input noise of the hallucinations becomes so loud that it drowns out the true reality inputs, so you're completely disconnected from it. The hallucination sounds drowned out the lack of sound in my quiet bedroom, the visual hallucinations filled out the darkness of the eye shade over my eyes and the physical hallucinations overwhelmed the lack of sensation on my body as I lay in bed. During this time, I was subjected to every kind of violence you could think of (I'll spare you the gruesome details), which looked, sounded and felt (yes, pain) very real. I very much thought I was on the verge of death many times over, which was probably made more real by how weak and tired I was at this point. All I could do was focus on my breath, which within the hallucination allowed me to heal and stay alive. It was as if I was living out the stuff of my worst nightmares and it wouldn't end.
Understanding Psychosis 🌀🧠🌀
First off, I know how this all sounds... Please trust me when I say that despite knowing on some level that it's not real, psychosis has a way of consuming you when you're "in" it. If you read other stories and accounts of psychosis, you'll hear them speak of this conflict. Everything is very intense and immediate. It basically feels as though you're in fight or flight mode 24/7.
One way to think of it is that (in my experience) psychosis is kind of like getting sucked into a dream state that feels completely real, you're consumed by it and are completely unaware you're dreaming. It quickly adds onto or builds a whole new reality and it happens so quickly that it can be difficult to see what happened or what lead you there because now you're already in it. Plus, especially in this case, it's so all-consuming and loud that it takes up all of your attention and you're unable to escape from it or distract yourself back to your true reality. The lines between everything become incredibly blurred and it can be hard to know or tell what's real anymore.
Some hallucinations are more fantastical and far-fetched, but the stakes are usually so high (life or death) and it's so convincingly real to your senses that you don't want to dismiss what could very likely be an actual threat.
Even if you "check the reality" of one that's more obviously delusional and are able to come back to your senses again, you can quickly be scooped back up into one that's more plausible right away.
From the outside, it seems completely ridiculous and simple. From experience, it's probably one of the most challenging things you can go through as a human being.
Unfortunately, one of the main features of the psychosis for me was hearing voices of loved ones and people I care about speaking to me. They sounded incredibly accurate (as if they were right there next to me in the same room), which astounds me to the power of the mind and only made it more confusing to handle. It all happened so quickly and being in the state I was in, I was simply overwhelmed and confused by it as it took over my every moment. Even more unfortunate, was the voices said the most horrible things about me and very quickly plummeted my self esteem as they convinced me that I was not the person I thought I was and my impact on this world and the people around me was based in pain and negativity. I became lost within myself very quickly and broke down as I was constantly berated over and over. This was probably the most alone I have ever felt in my life...
All of this snowballed into the call to action for me to kill myself to get it over with and stop causing all of these people in my life so much pain. A non-stop barrage of familiar voices yelling at me to end it right there because the world would be better for it. I really wish that I could say different, but with the vulnerable state that I was in with little to no sleep and from it all occurring so quickly I was unable to gather my senses and all of this became my new reality. I began to believe them, became consumed by shame and guilt and just wanted it all to stop... suicide seemed like the only way at that point. So I struggled (because deep down I really didn't want to) and made a few attempts at ending my life. This was a first for me despite struggling quite a bit with my mental health in the past, I never got to that point. And I came within moments of losing consciousness. Scary close...
It continued throughout the next day. Another attempt...
If I had access to a gun (which became a preoccupying thought for a while to make it all easier to end), I don't think I would have made it because there's basically no room for second guessing with that method. Just to be clear, I did not have any thoughts of harming another person at any point of this whole episode.
Eventually I gained enough sense and courage (again, it's quite difficult to confess that you are hearing voices and hallucinating...) to reach out to my parents and tell them what was going on and what had happened. I also had my regularly scheduled appointment with my therapist, which led me to the action of going to a mental health clinic and checking in for the night because at that point I wasn't safe on my own.
I'd be lying if I told you this (and many other parts of this journey) didn't massively challenge my internal stigma, making it harder to get the help I needed. There were a lot of internal hurdles I needed to get through.
Starting the recovery process 🔑
So I checked myself in, got an assessment and stayed the night at a mental health clinic. Something that I had hoped I'd never have to do in my life, but I very much needed in that moment to cope with this persistent state of psychosis. The assessment was that it was psychosis sparked by a tremendous amount of stress (which I was told is actually much more common than most people realize) mixed with the marijuana. Again, it could have also been related to COVID, but there's no way to know for me at this point. A simple lack of sleep can even cause psychosis, so it was likely a mixture of all of these factors, which is probably why it was such an intense and long-lasting episode. I was given medication that night to help me sleep, which was another mental hurdle and area of stigma, but I'll admit I'm grateful that I was finally able to get some rest. By far, that was the most exhausted I've ever been in my life.
I was able to leave the next day by my own choice, waiting for someone to come pick me up as I wasn't allowed to leave on my own, with a prescription in-hand for an anti-psychotic (Olanzapine/Zyprexa) to take every night before I go to bed. A friend came to take me home and then my dad took a flight to get here the next day to stay with me for a week, which I'm eternally grateful for.
The voices slowly started to fade and grow quieter as the medication began to take further effect. I was able to sleep a lot thanks to the medication and start to allow my mind to rest as psychosis takes a massive toll on your brain. The flu or food poisoning or COVID (whatever had its grips on me) was over and I was able to start eating healthy food again to regain my energy and strength. I started to employ every self care routine and technique in my toolbox to get the recovery process going. In a weird way, it was helpful that the world had essentially shut down and my business put on pause as I needed to fully focus on just my health at this point. The flip side of this was the additional challenge of being isolated and locked away alone in my apartment as I tried to make sense of a massive mental breakdown, suicide attempt and the psychosis still persisting at times.
I was assigned a psychiatrist and a social worker who I would have regular check up calls with to check on my progress and support me through the recovery. I was told early on that the recovery would take at least a year... which is not at all what I wanted to hear. I just wanted it all to be over already, so that I could move on. We discussed what I needed to do in order to recover and they continuously told me that I already knew what was best as I've spent more than a decade figuring out my mental toolkit. Again, it just goes to show that despite knowing all of this and being in such a strong position — a rare occurrence of events all hitting you at once can completely floor you and take you down a few levels. The mental health equivalent of being t-boned by a bus while driving home from work.
At some point the voices were completely gone and there were no more symptoms of psychosis. I regained some sense of normalcy and stability to my reality once again. The worry was that if I was not on the medication, the symptoms may persist or I may have a relapse into another episode of psychosis (possibly signalling schizophrenia, which I have history of in my family). This became a big fear that this would not be a battle and recovery of a year, but a lifelong challenge and diagnosis, possibly leaving me on medication for the rest of my life.
The link between marijuana and psychosis 🔗
What I'd later learn after coming off the medication, was that it was most likely psychosis sparked by the marijuana use, which is well documented and something that had happened before on a much smaller scale in my past. The previous time wasn't enough to make the connection at that point as it happens so rarely (it doesn't happen with every use or very commonly at all). Perhaps it was both COVID-related and the marijuana use because this episode was about 1000x more intense, persistent/long-lasting and traumatizing compared to the previous time. Or that was simply because of the amount of stress involved. Now, the connection is clear in my eyes that marijuana at least sparks or aggravates it for me at times and it's not worth the risk anymore.
"As mentioned previously, marijuana can produce an acute psychotic reaction in non-schizophrenic people who use marijuana, especially at high doses, although this fades as the drug wears off." (source)
One of the most challenging parts of all of this was the process of recovering my self esteem again. There was a massive impact on it from the hallucinations because despite being able to logically know it wasn't real, they still impacted me as if it was. The pathways in my brain that I had worked so hard to establish had been bulldozed overnight and the negative thoughts deepened by the endless ongoing stream of hallucinations that occurred. I knew the difference, but my brain didn't. I had spent years and years building my confidence and self esteem into a really great place and now it felt like I was back at square one (or even worse) in just a few days, which was a tough pill to swallow. This was another aspect of my recovery that was made more challenging being stuck at home in a global pandemic as my amount of social interactions plummeted compared to normal.
I began to cherish each and every positive interaction and piece of feedback that I received from others during this recovery period as it helped me get back to where (and who) I was. Thankfully, quite a large group of friends heard that I went through a challenging time early on and they all sent me encouraging messages and positive memories they had of me, which helped kickstart the healing. A direct conflict and opposite to the hallucinations that I needed to hear to start to build back up the right pathways again.
Thank you to everyone who's been a part of my journey over the last year, I hope you know how much of an impact you've had on my recovery and life. ❤️
Where I'm at now (one year later) 🔥
I'll admit that I didn't have a ton of hope for a while about being able to recover and get back on the track that I was on just days before it all broke down. Thankfully, I can look back on that time now and know that I was able to get through it and build a life that's even better.
I've been off of the medication for over a month now and feel like I have my full energy, focus and drive back again. This also confirms it's likely not schizophrenia.
My self esteem and confidence is back and stronger than ever (see below).
I was able to build my business back again, improve what I do for myself and my clients and am currently on pace to double or triple it all within the next year to expand my impact even further.
Best of all, I'm currently surrounded by an incredible community, have made some amazing new friends and have been the happiest I've been in years feeling very aligned with my purpose, my work and my life.
✨ Light at the end of the tunnel ✨
Now, the benefits and insights that I've gained from hitting rock bottom:
- My confidence has grown to a whole new level. There's a special type of confidence that comes from losing essentially everything (especially your mind or grip on reality, which I think is one of most people's greatest fears) and being able to recover and get back to where you were, eventually exceeding it. I truly feel much more antifragile (highly recommend the book) and able to handle whatever life throws at me now that I've been through this experience.
- All of the dark can be transmuted into light. No matter how difficult and dark it gets, I am becoming more confident and full of hope that I'll be able to eventually transmute it into gratitude and insights.
- I'm much better at asking for help now, no matter what the issue is, and my support network has strengthened. The stigma around hallucinations is pretty strong, which made it difficult to talk about even with family, my therapist, or the professionals. Now I feel much more confident confiding in my support network regardless of what is going on knowing I'll receive support without judgement.
- I am in full control of my health. I'm grateful for the support and guidance of professionals in my therapist, the psychiatrist, and social worker, who helped me through the last year in many ways. When I was in a much better space about a year later and recognized that the medication was causing more issues than it was helping, I made the decision (in communication with my professional team) to come off of the medication earlier than their official recommendation and it was one of the best decisions I've made in a while and was very empowering. Medication has it's time and place and it's important to have open, honest conversations with your doctor and medical professionals to decide what's best for you. I now have my energy, drive and focus back again. Thankfully, there's been no psychosis or symptoms of relapse. This was also very symbolic for me to close the chapter.
- My level of understanding and empathy for the spectrum of mental health issues and the mental health system has expanded greatly. I encountered a lot of first time experiences including staying at a mental health clinic, taking medication for my mental health, and experiencing hallucinations — all of which will help me further my advocacy and work in the field.
- My mental toolkit has been proven and solidified to help me recover from absolutely anything. It was helpful to hear from professionals how my routines, tools and habits line up to their professional recommendations. Also, seeing how it helped to speed up my recovery from rock bottom shows me that the hard work I've done to develop this toolkit and lifestyle is something that will help me for the rest of my life, even the worst parts. In many ways, the hardest work has been done and now all I need to do is remember this and maintain it moving forward throughout my life.
- The mind is malleable and can recover from a lot with the right tools and effort. I wasn't myself for quite a while during the early part of the recovery, probably because my brain was traumatized and needing to recover from the massive amount of stress it endured. Thanks to practices like journaling, meditation and floating I was able to give my mind the rest and opportunities to recover (and grow) that it needed. As I mentioned above, I was also able to reinstill the pathways for positive, productive thoughts again through repetition and practice to counteract the negativity that had flooded in.
A call to action ✌️
This pandemic and the corresponding lockdowns have massacred a lot of people's mental health for obvious reasons. I know that there are many stories similar to mine of those who have lost loved ones, had to close down businesses tied to their life savings, or simply been stuck in isolation for far too long. Please take this as a reminder to check in on your friends and loved ones, or anyone you think may be struggling, and do your best to have conversations that allow the opportunity for them to open up and get support. Send someone a love note of how much they mean to you or even a memory that you cherish of them. It could mean the world.
We'll make it through this together.