Michael Gray Kimber is a writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since the age of six he has wanted to be a writer. Michael graduated from The University of King’s College with degrees in English and Journalism.
Today, through his blog, Colony of Losers, and book, “The Cure”, Michael reflects on his slow fall into anxiety and depression and shares a story of finding recovery. Unable to sleep or function properly, Michael began his search for the cure. In a society where the human condition is considered to be a treatable illness, he tried everything from Hot Yoga to vitamins, sleeping pills to almonds, antidepressants to meditation, self help books, therapy and positive thinking, all in the hopes of ending his anxiety. With the help of friends, family and physicians, he slowly became himself again, stopped looking for a cure and learned to live with it.
Michael’s story is about his journey and the people who got him through it. 1 in 5 people experience mental illness at least once in their life and the number is rising. Anxiety is the most common mental illness. Michael talks about the reality that it can take up to six months (or longer!) to get in to see a counsellor and that there is a real gap for people with a need for individual treatment. He notes that, “For people suffering from social anxiety the idea of a support group seems strangely ironic”; his dream is that “people who need help can actually get it.”
What do you think comes to most people’s minds when they hear the words “mental illness”?
I think people’s first impulse is to imagine a stranger in a straight jacket or a homeless person begging on the street when they think of mental illness. Mental illness and the word crazy while diametrically opposed are often put together. Once they take a second to think about it the stranger’s face disappears and they remember friends and family who have undergone similar trials. Everyone I know has someone in their life who has been stuck in dark places and needed help to get out.
What is your dream or vision of the changes you’d like to see regarding “mental illness”?
My dream vision is that somehow a cure is found and we can all stop wasting so much time and energy fighting ourselves just to live. As I don’t think a cure is possible, I guess my dream is that the people who need help can actually get it. Right now it’s a six month waiting period to see a qualified therapist in Nova Scotia. Until then you have to go to support groups. For people suffering from social anxiety the idea of a support group seems strangely ironic. As they are uncomfortable in social circumstances you are now forcing them to talk about the stories they are most uncomfortable sharing in a room full of strangers. My dream is that the government acknowledges how much their citizens need help and actually provide the funds to make that possible. There simply aren’t enough qualified workers to meet the demands. My dream is that people in need won’t feel guilty or ashamed for needing to get help. I guess my dream is that people will actually start treating mental illness as an illness. After all, why should we feel guilty? Would a diabetic feel guilty for needing insulin to live?
In November of 2009, you say depression and anxiety caught up with you, and when it did, you began what you call a search for the cure. Can you talk about this process and where you reached out for help?
When I got sick I hit up the internet looking for an answer. We all have different symptoms. For me, it felt like caffeine was being injected into my veins and I couldn’t sit still. My heart would beat a thousand miles a minute and I live in constant fear of something I couldn’t name. I wanted it to stop. Every self help guru offered this one breathing exercise, a certain meditation style, vitamin, a specific diet, a step-by-step process where I would learn to think positively and all my problems would disappear. So I tried it all: ate almonds by the handful hoping to fill my mind with GABA; I did hot yoga and flexible chicks farted in my face. I did meditation classes at the local Buddhist temple and worried a madman in a mullet was going to murder me. I went to self-help classes where I was the only student and an instructor read word for word from a power point presentation called “So You’re Suffering From Anxiety.” I quit weed, caffeine, alcohol and eating terribly and my body replied that it liked the abuse and gave me the worst insomnia my doctor had ever seen. I excercised, I took every sleeping pill known to man and it kept getting worse. In the worst stages I was down to two hours of sleep a night. The more I searched, the worse I got. I reached out to family, friends and physicians, willing to try anything to make it stop. After awhile I realized that my search for a cure had become the disease itself. Eventually I tried anti-depressants and that stopped the downward spiral. Not that it was a cure. It just stopped me from getting worse. The love and support of my family, friends and first love gave me the strength to take the million small steps back to myself. For me the moment when things began to turn around was the moment I realized there wasn’t a cure.
How did you learn to manage your anxiety and depression?
My therapist taught me a lot of different coping skills using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The problem with depression and anxiety is that positive thinking doesn’t work. May as well as ask a man with broken legs to run a race. You have to teach yourself to become rational again. Using exercises from Mind Over Mood I slowly trained myself to rationally deal with my problems. Due to the intensity of my insomnia I needed medication, which is a scary thing...scary for me at least. After all it’s hard to get off medication and the internet is filled with horror stories. They all have their own side effects and having only recently fallen in love for the first time I was scared of the sexual side effects. They aren’t happy pills despite what the public thinks. They just put you on a level playing field. Though that first moment when the drug kicks in is ridiculously awesome. It’s like holy crap I actually want to be alive again. Like a flood of memories as you come back to yourself. I remember I couldn’t stop laughing when the Remeron kicked in. After a long enough period in a dark place you forget that you don’t live there, that you weren’t born there. They aren’t miracle pills. It just helps you stop spinning. For me spinning is that physical feeling, like you are about to throw up in your brain. As if you can feel a physical pain where your bad thoughts are hurting you. Positive thinking didn’t help me very much. Nor did breathing excercises. Honestly how many deep breaths can you take in a business meeting without someone looking at you like you are having a mental breakdown? Exercise helped a lot. After an hour on the stationary bike my brain was clean. It was like being an Alzheimers patient and waking up lucid. I loved it, cardio especially. Weight lifting only made me more anxious for some reason.
What do you find most difficult about dealing with anxiety or depression?
Fighting a war with yourself is never easy. Learning to not fight it was the hardest part for me. I have always been a solution driven person. If you put effort it in you get results. The harder I fought my depression, talking back to every negative thought, spending hours doing CBT, the more I gave into it. You can’t build your life around it. You have to try to live and that’s hard sometimes. Blaming myself only made it worse. My mom who also suffers anxiety made me understand how ridiculous blaming yourself is. Like why the hell would you want to be this way? It happens. You don’t choose it. You can only chose how you deal with it. It fed off my anger at myself. When I learned to accept it, the anxiety lost its power. But that was a long journey.
It’s great how you’re creating awareness about mental illness in a positive way. What made you decide that you wanted to create awareness?
The love of my friends, family and first love helped me recover. I learned that I could love and be worth loving even in the worst depths of my own personal hell. What they did for me brought me back more than any medication, more than any therapist. You have to do the hard stuff yourself but they reminded me who I was, what I was fighting to get back to. Their love saved my life. I wanted to record it to honour what they did for me. And to hope that my story could help someone else in a similar situation. When I was sick I needed someone to tell me that it was a long road. No instant cure. No one stop shopping for sanity. A long road that ends somewhere. I wrote the Cure so that someone like me could find it and the love that saved me could help them.
How has your life changed since you started your blog, Colony of Losers and your book “The Cure”?
Colony of Losers is about the journey most people take after university. The impossible leap from being a child with a student debt to an adult with a mortgage. That horrifying attempt to make your dreams come true in a world where it isn’t that easy and paying your dues often means a lot of humiliation. I began writing Colony of Losers the day I recovered from my breakdown. March 28th, 2010. Little less than five months after I had a nervous breakdown. I lost my job and almost lost my girlfriend. Like many of us I got used to being taken care of, addicted to the comfort and reassurance loved ones can offer. My girlfriend was the best person I have ever met with a gigantic heart. She helped me through it all. One day, while I was just getting on a new medication, I got really jealous and showed an essential lack of trust. Seeing how I hurt her, I knew that it was me doing it. My insecurities. It wasn’t the anxiety it was me. And I could change it. By taking responsibility for myself I came back to myself. I also started writing Colony of Losers. Hoping that I could tell a story about being lost and find myself in it. The site receives thousands of views every week. Since I started writing the Cure I receive dozens of emails daily from people all around the world who say that my work is helping them deal with the problems in their own life. A woman enlisted her child in therapy after reading my blog about my own experience with a therapist. I have never received such love from strangers. The response has been totally and completely astounding.
What do you hope your book will accomplish or how do you hope it will affect others?
I hope that somehow what I went through needed to happen. I also hope it will be published by a major publisher and I can afford to buy very nice presents for all the people who helped me. My mother needs a yacht, my first love needs an airplane and my friends need a party to end all parties. I could use a diamond ring and a luxury car but I’m a writer and am used to being poor. My more realistic hope is that I keep touching people and helping them deal with it. I wasn’t alone during my struggles and I want to help the people that are.
All seriousness aside, if you had the chance to meet Justin Bieber and had $100 to buy him a gift what would it be?
I’d probably give him a hundred dollars towards getting a vasectomy so that he wouldn’t have children with his teeny bopper fans. Hmmm. This is much harder than the rest of your questions. After all I have to wonder why a millionaire needs a present from a writer who barely covers his own rent. But I assume you are fronting me the cash. Hmmm. I’d probably get him a plastic face mask that looked like me. To help him hide from his fans. And when he took it off at a concert people would think Justin Bieber was just faking the Mike Kimber funk. And then they’d be like….if Justin Bieber wants to look like Mike Kimber then I should to. Then eventually everyone would look like me. And then I could start rocking a Justin Bieber haircut without feeling like such a biter. I’d look fresh with that shaggy hair. You best believe that.