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Bizarre speech at King's College: Inspiring and shit defying

So I was flown out to Halifax to give a speech for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I made it as appropriate as I could.


So I went to King’s College and I graduated from this same program and I had a nervous breakdown. Things don’t look too good for you, do they? I’m not trying to make you apprehensive or stop listening to School’s Out for Summer by the Ramones. I’m saying this because we don’t have to share the same fate. When you leave this school you will fall on your face and you will fail. And I want you to know it’s absolutely normal. Everyone does. It’s how you grow up. I miss being a student at King’s. Even if it didn’t give me a job, it gave me some of the best friends I have ever had and taught me a lot of things my parents weren’t intending for me to learn when they sent my spoiled ass here.

A lot of my life has been spent on this campus.  I watched my sister get married here in September and I have never thought a person could look so beautiful. She was panicked in her 20s and she found someone who made her grow up.

I learned a lot about love here. I can remember during my Frosh week when the attractive Frosh leader showed me how to fit a condom on a banana and I thought she was trying to seduce me. I remember nine years ago leaning over the railing of Middle Bay’s second floor, having my first panic attack, heart beating like a machinegun as MSN announced in the other room that another girl considered me as a brother, aka we were never going to have sex.

And I remember how my pretentious friend who was on acid referenced Hobbes and how life was short, cold and brutish. Yup. I went to King’s. I was 18. That was seven years before I got treatment for my anxiety disorder. It was a week or two before I tried shrooms for the first time and played NHL 94 in the most polite manner in the world with one of my two best friends.

Laughing and passing the puck back and forth unable to score on each other because we were high enough to think we’d found enlightenment and NHL 94 was our Boddhi tree. Downstairs a friend of mine had thrown some mescaline on top of the shrooms and was hallucinating about putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. That night he started falling and it took him eight years to find the ground.

He’d been suffering from depression since he was 14. He didn’t kill himself, but he did try every drug in the world in an attempt to run away from his mental illness. One day he stopped running and he remains sober with the help of methadone. I remember six years ago sitting in that same chapel my sister got married in and listening to Doctor Barker tell me how we would never forget a friend of mine who killed himself during a schizophrenic break.

Weeping with my friends not like babies, but like grown men who didn’t know that such a horrible thing would make them adults. His funeral on the same campus where we had an April Fool’s Day water fight and he was the general. Where we surrounded the rest of the school and blasted them with balloons Simpson’s style.

Where the Middle Bay Crew wasn’t anything to F with. I didn’t understand until I was at my first love’s birthday party, holding a heart shaped balloon posing for a picture, wondering how in a week my life could fall apart. Staring at the camera, thinking, I’m sorry but I love you more than anything and I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t know to stop hurting myself. When she took that picture she didn’t know what was coming. It was just a bad week. She was making jokes, taking the picture, not realizing that our dream would become her sleeping next to an insomniac. She told me no matter what happened we would get through it together. And we did.

People say that mental illness is like a cancer you can’t see. There is a difference. Your love can’t affect cancer cells, but it can help save the people you love. I’m not with her anymore but she’s a lot of the reason I’m here with you today. At 25, I learned about mental illness for myself. I never learned about it in my junior high school, high school or university classrooms. I had to learn about it when I couldn’t ignore it any longer. At 25, I suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by intense anxiety.

By the end I was down to two hours of sleep a night, trapped in a constant cycle of negative thinking that I couldn’t break out of. I did everything the internet told me to do to get better. I quit smoking weed, drinking caffeine, eating poorly, all in the span of a week and my body went into shock. When I went to my community health center, I was told that I would have to wait six months to see a qualified therapist.

I was sent to a self-help group where I was the only person in attendance, where help was a human pamphlet reading a power point presentation without paraphrasing a single sentence. Imagine looking for help and not being able to find it. Realize that 2/3 out of people who suffer from mental illness don’t get treatment. And a lot of them end up like my two friends, on drugs or dead. And a lot of them end up like some of your best friends. Living with a burden you don’t know they carry. Scared that the people they love won’t love them if they knew.

Unaware that blaming yourself, the guilt and shame are part of the disease because no one ever bothered to explain to them what these diseases are. I didn’t recover because I was stronger than my friends. I recovered because I was luckier. My family was able to pay the 150 dollars an hour that my therapist charged so I had the privilege of getting better. It took the people in my life to remind who I was when I forgot who I was. I was privileged with having the support the system couldn’t provide me.

Everyone tells us to talk about mental illness but we rarely get a clear picture of what life is actually like for people living with mental illness. In the media we almost exclusively tell the success stories of celebrities who accomplish their miracles despite the obstacles in their way. Or we talk about murderous psychopaths who society failed to help or homeless men and women who can’t help themselves. We are either inspiring, terrifying or objects of pity. We are whatever sells newspapers that week.

We need to talk to people who don’t have stories that sell papers. Who get up, take medication, exercise and go to work every day no matter how they feel. I know that a lot of amazing people have dealt with mental illness. Just listen to Beethoven’s music, look at the wonders of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel, look at science where Einstein, Gödel and Newton rewrote reason and the world. Accomplishing amazing things isn’t strange for people who have mental illness. We do it all the time.

You just don’t know we do because you don’t know how shockingly common it is because 2 out of 3 people who suffer mental illness don’t seek help due to stigma. Our brothers, sisters, and best friends are scared to tell us what they are going through because they think we won’t understand. We have to make the effort to understand. You have to make the effort to make the world understand. We don’t need any more inspiring stories about instant cures and celebrities defeating all the obstacles. We need to redefine what a happy ending is.

Hope is getting up in the morning, hope is getting out of the house, hope is remaining alive when you can’t remember what it is to be happy, hope is taking one of a thousand steps back to yourself, hope is when we can make people understand for one second the burdens other people carry and make them actually care. I’m not here to inspire you. I’m here because I’m alive and some others aren’t. I’m talking to the media. To the mental health experts. You aren’t talking about a goddamn movie. You are talking about life. You are talking about my life. It doesn’t fit in a tweet or in a 500 word piece on how we are failing the homeless or how some privileged white kid defied the odds and you can’t explain it in technical jargon if you are actually trying to help a person suffering.

These diseases are more common than most of us realize. So is recovery.  Every day we get out of bed, we take on step back to life. It isn’t a miracle that we get better. It’s an everyday occurrence too boring for most of you to write about. If I had a dream, it’s that we would start speaking about how life is, rather than how it’s supposed to be. Every time you try to make life fit a story, you are just selling advertisements. That there is some easy answer, that everyone who doesn’t find it is a failure. Some people can’t recover and it’s not their fault.

It’s not because they are weak, or stupid or don’t try enough. It’s because this is life, not a movie. You chose to be a journalist, you gave up money, reasonable work hours and a stable job market. Don’t give up your integrity. We can’t sell the same garbage that all the self gurus and positive thinkers and pill salesman are trying to hock to the desperate. You need to make people understand what this life is like.

Not how you want it to be. Because people buy what you are selling.  And they think what they live isn’t life. When every time we try to build mental health awareness in the media follows a rare occasion when someone with mental illness hurts someone other than themselves. There is a problem with violence and the mentally ill and it gets worse every time we ignore it. Journalists feel comfortable talking about murder, we can’t talk about suicide. Right now suicide is the leading cause of violent death, not homicide. 4,000 people die of suicide every year in Canada, 32,000 in the United States. Silence comes both before and after suicide and it’s the silence before that we need to deal with most. We can’t keep our children in the dark for fear they will never be able to emerge from it. I talked to a 60-year-old mother who hid her illness from everyone in her life including her husband and children. I know a 25-year-old university student who refuses to tell her parents about her condition because they blame themselves for her brother’s mental illness and she doesn’t want to add to their burden. More than 30 years separate these women and things haven’t changed enough. In Canada, it is a privilege to be able to get better.

I’m asking you to help people who weren’t born as lucky as I was. To help us take the first few steps towards providing counselling to those who need it not just to those who can afford it. To begin the conversation with our youth to break the shame that is the foundation of so many of these afflictions. To eradicate this phantom idea of normalcy that makes so many of us feel hollow and broken, unable to live up to a standard that no one could ever hope to reach.

I want you to make the politicians to talk about mental illness in Parliament, in cities halls and in cabinet meetings. To make the government educate our children when they are going through puberty and experiencing those first changes. When they are in high school and university when most mental illnesses set in. I want parents to talk about it with their children.

I’ll have children and odds are they will deal with this. And it can’t be like it was for my friends. We need to change it. Today we are talking about it. I want you to make the conversation mean something. I went to King’s College and grew up and watched friends become adults and die as children. No one ever told me about mental illness. It’s up to you to tell everybody.

By Michael Kimber