My Slow Decline Into Misery, And How I Got Out

As part of my role as mentor/trainer/boss/counsellor in a harm reduction program, I used to coach young people to do speeches. They were invited to speak at trainings, city meetings, or conferences about their lived experience related to homelessness, harm reduction, sexual health, and mental health. They were still homeless and struggling, so I would help them — as much as they’d let me — to write and deliver speeches from a place of power. I taught them to focus on change, and not worry about where they are now. I admitted that some audience members will want a cute little story where the beginning is bad, the middle is hard work and good support, and the end is a triumph. Some want you sober, housed, in school, and working at the end of the story. But the youths’ accomplishments were more like, “helped a friend,” “started attending a support group,” “entered a peer training program,” “cut back my drug use,” “recorded a dope beat,” or “finished a beautiful painting.” I was really proud of their accomplishments, and it wasn’t hard for me to coach them into defying narrow definitions of success and to celebrate their ongoing resilience in the face of adversity.

It has always been harder to do that for myself, as I’ve grieved the gap between where I am in my life and where I think I “should” be. However, where I am now is so much better than where I was a year ago, and I have to give myself credit for the work I’ve done to get unstuck.

The young peer educators I worked with were artistic, smart, sweet, insightful, badass, passionate about harm reduction, full of ideas, eager to learn, and excited for the opportunities to help people. Seriously, most of them were all of these things at the same time. One rainy day, I said, “Oh, I’m not sure we should go on street outreach. We might not be able to find anyone because they’ll have gone to the drop-ins.” My peer trainee replied, “Oh, but even if we only help one person; it will be worth it.” So we handed out kits and sandwiches in the rain. I tried to keep my energy and enthusiasm in line with theirs, in order to not be some kind of vampire who could only stay alive through proximity to their vitality. I didn’t always succeed.

I take a lot of selfies during long and boring commutes. This is me, physically and emotionally run down.

Most of the youth I worked with most closely had developmental trauma, used substances chaotically, and endured multiple stressors. They were often in their own crises or intervening in the crises of friends and family. Working could not always be the priority for them, and I constantly tried to adjust to the reality they presented me with each day. To get a picture of how that could look: once a young woman showed up for her afternoon shift absolutely hammered. A stressor had booted her off the wagon, where she had been for some time. I knew her as a student who sat quietly working on her goals as chaos raged around her. But today, she had bruises on her face and blood down her shirt, having had some kind of altercation with members of her family, who had then kicked her out of the apartment. She had nothing to wear, so she had grabbed an oversized pair of men’s jeans from the apartment, packed her backpack with booze, and left.

Obviously, she didn’t work, and I spent the whole shift looking after her. Both colleagues and other youth joined me to help hold her up or to calm her down. One second she was yelling with anger, and the next second she was being loud and silly. She hit on every male-presenting young person in the house, but they responded with care rather than sleaze. It was hard to pay attention to anything happening in the shelter other than her. When we were finally able to get her to sit down to eat, I started to call around for an available bed. I returned my attention to her again when she called her boyfriend and started to yell and cry. Someone had given her a benzo, perhaps thinking it would stop her from wilding. She would cry to her boyfriend then pass out, the phone falling from her hand. Then she would come to, and talk on the phone again. Her breath and pulse were okay, but eventually, we called an ambulance in hopes she could medically detox. She refused to go.

Her jeans kept falling down, and she had nothing on underneath. I tried making a belt for her with my lanyard. I walked next to her, holding her and her pants up. My colleague found a pair of gym shorts but she was too drunk to change herself. I changed her like a child as she cried about the things that had happened to her. “You don’t even know, Audrey, you don’t even know.”

By the end of my work day, we hadn’t found her a bed in another shelter or detox. We wanted her in a crisis bed. The centre wouldn’t take her if she didn’t go to the hospital first, and she refused to go. I had to leave not knowing what would happen. Another peer worker arrived for their shift; they had good rapport with her and a kind, calming presence. I felt better knowing they were there with her, but bad about the exposure to suffering it would mean for them.

The whole time this was happening, I felt like just stopping and bursting into tears, or leaving. I numbed myself in order to keep providing care, feeling partly dissociated from what was happening, but with my adrenaline still pumping. (Likely this was a combination of “fight/flight” and “shutdown” responses in my nervous system.) I interviewed for another job the next day that could have totally changed my life, but I wasn’t at 100%, obviously.

I had tried to deal with all this through “self-care.” After having a meltdown at a training on secondary trauma, I was forced to take my planned vacation a little early. I had already been looking forward to a weekend in Prince Edward County with a good friend (and the next “good thing,” and the next. It felt like my capacity to survive the job hinged on this one weekend away. But floating in a quiet bay in Lake Ontario under the bluest of skies, I couldn’t even get my body to relax. My chest felt like a clenched fist. I swung between hyperarousal and hypoarousal, talking my friend’s ear off one second and becoming inexplicably tired the next. I needed way more than a weekend.

Picture description: a dock, deck chairs, and view of a lake (the lake that wasn’t a magical cure for burnout).

I used all my sick days to take two short leaves that year, one in the summer, and one in the fall. I stepped up my job search. I did another interview. I didn’t get the job. I did another interview. Didn’t get it. Rollercoaster up, rollercoaster down. Including callbacks, I think I did about a dozen interviews in 6 months or so. Urgent, desperate thoughts would run through my mind: “Maybe my life is gonna change — maybe the suffering is over soon — maybe I’ll be okay.” Then, no. “Oh maybe…” No. A couple didn’t go well, but I got a lot of good feedback from a number of interviews. I was almost hired a few times. Other than the competitive nature of Toronto job competitions, I think the issue was that I was too burned out. I sounded desperate; my thinking was disorganized at times; I didn’t have a positive energy. Regardless of the reasons, looking back, I didn’t really want the jobs anyway.

I took myself to counselling, but couldn’t find a therapist who met my needs. I decided that something practical and empowering would be more likely to change my internal and external reality. With only a little money to spend on personal development, I chose employment counselling over healing. Fortunately, I got a good match for a coach. She gave great advice, rooted for me, and held space for me when I cried. But when I answered questions on the company’s platform, somehow the answers came out negative, not useful. It was a lot of “I like this but” and “I am good at this but no-one appreciates it.” I knew a lot about what I didn’t want to do, but not exactly what I did want to do. I had some ideas, but no clarity or passion. I could tell that she wanted me to get excited about something; that my despair was interfering with the process. The best I could muster was, “I just know I want to make more money and have an easier time.”

Picture description: Me on the subway, lips pressed in a breathing exercise, trying to reduce my anxiety before work.

One positive, in addition to the support of friends and family, was that I started writing more. I had a place to put my feelings, and my interest in sharing my ideas was increasing. Slowly, very slowly, change was starting, like crocuses coming through the soil in spring. I kept thinking I would be fine with a new job, that I would have the energy and focus to fix everything else in my life if I just fixed that. Of course context changes many things, but not everything. In Trauma Stewardship — a book I read years after first needing it — Lipsky warns, “If we allow our happiness and sense of success to hinge on things outside of ourselves, we will wait for our wellbeing indefinitely.” There was a lot of internal work I didn’t know I could and should do.

I showed up every day at work and I did my absolute best to keep the program going and to ensure a great experience for the young people. I was running on fumes though. Things were getting worse. I was in conflict a lot, partly because of the workplace becoming increasingly toxic and misaligned with my values, but also because of my reduced capacity to be diplomatic. It took all my emotional regulation to work positively with the youth, and I didn’t have energy left for my bosses. My colleagues were struggling and taking leaves and quitting all around me.

In my worst moments, I would think, “Well someone has to get hit by a car. May as well be me.” Or, “If someone gets cancer in my family, it would be best if it was me.” I wondered, “Yeah my friends and family love me, but would they really miss me?” The thoughts were increasing in frequency and intensity, and I worried that these thoughts would become real suicide ideation. On the outside, though, I was generally just a subdued version of myself. I wasn’t having a breakdown; as my mom observed sadly, “We were watching your slow decline into misery, and we didn’t know what to do.” I would get sad about how sad I was, but then coax myself into more positive thinking: “There’s no way this is forever. You’re smart, experienced and capable.” It was getting harder and harder to believe me.

So, once I got my cohort of trainees through to graduation, I went back to my doctor for a note excusing me from work for a few months. I also got a prescription for antidepressants. I had maxed out all my sick days, so I went on Employment Insurance. At around that same time, I heard back from an agency that they wanted to hire me part-time. It was a poorly paid contract, did not represent an upward career move, and involved a commute to a neighbourhood I didn’t know. But I feared that turning down the job to take a complete leave would result in me just procrastinating at home. The job also allowed me to step out of homelessness and harm reduction, as the work would be focussed on the empowerment of women.

The work had a slower pace, and I enjoyed facilitating the groups. The participants liked me. I realized how much I had learned about mental health and counselling despite not having the training, and how useful to women I was as a result. There was also something about women coming together all earnestly trying to improve their lives that made me want to change mine, too.

I rethought my plan to put everything else on hold until I got a proper job, and decided to get control over another aspect of my life needing movement. I reached out to the Fat Girls Hiking organizer and asked if I could organize the Toronto chapter. I love hiking and meeting new people, but had fears around both, which made it easy to be like, “Oh I’ll go if someone else leads it.” I decided I could be the person who got it going. I held a couple of events, and will return to trying as soon as we’re given the go-ahead for events.

Next, I found a better therapist. She helped me work through some grief and to clarify that I could myself become a counsellor. “Strong women shouldn’t work for organizations, Audrey,” she said. I started preparing to apply for a professional designation with the College of Social Workers and researching how to build a counselling and facilitation business.

I brainstormed ideas about what groups I wanted to run; my workshop topics; my niche as a counsellor. I started out thinking, “Oh if I just got a few clients, that would help financially.” I had to convince myself that I could be helpful to people, even without a professional designation. I ended up realizing I had to shift into the mentality of a businesswoman as well.

So much of personal change is mental.

When I finally officially quit, I celebrated with a party. This was part of a trend towards better connecting with family and friends. With every positive connection, every decision, I could feel my heart unclench a little. My easy laughter was returning, I had more energy to play with my nephews, and I was having fun with the constant learning and creative production.

For years, my cognitive functioning had been so bad that I hadn’t been able to get through reading a paragraph, and finally I found myself able to read again. I started building my own capacity, particularly in thoughtwork and bodywork. I was trying to learn some specific techniques to help others, but I was also learning how to help myself. I thought I had understood positive self-talk and helpful thinking. But in this time, I identified so many thoughts I had accepted as facts, and too many stories about myself that undermined my self-worth.

At one point, I observed that the leave, meds, therapy and new job all seemed to be adding up to more energy, positivity, and courage. My wise roommate said, “These aren’t things happening to you; these are things you’ve made happen.”

I completed my written test as the first step toward getting my driver’s license. I kept my momentum up to get into a class. Before my instructor went away for the winter, I got four lessons in. Learning to drive has been a phobia and obstacle my whole life, so I can’t express enough how huge that was.

Every brave thing I did made me feel like I could do the next brave thing, until I had become this version of myself that drives (kind of), cold-calls strangers to network, pitches my education services to organizations, and doesn’t lose steam on projects with an unpredictable payoff.

In December, I put my first two articles on Medium, and they were curated. Somehow one of them took off on Facebook, and on New Year’s Eve, it actually trended a bit. I’ve continued posting on Medium, often about social services and burnout. Even though I am not getting the same strong response from my first articles, I think my writing itself has improved. I was thrilled when a homelessness activist in the States reached out to invite me to publish on their website. They paid me. The article did well. I realized a childhood dream of being a published writer, and even if I had never published another piece, that remains true.

I was accepted to run an all-day training I’d pitched in the spring. I pitched some organizations with promising responses. I worked diligently for two months or so to build up my website: finding pictures, writing blog entries, fiddling with formatting. After the website went live, I continued to the next thing and the next. Another article. A profile on Psychology Today. Sharing wisdom online through Instagram memes. Isolated at home during the pandemic, I am now creating workbooks and courses from scratch.

A year ago I felt at the mercy of the Universe, and a bit like the Universe wasn’t that into me. I don’t believe in the “universe,” or fate, or God; I believe in people, ethics, and choice. The catastrophic thinking really meant that even though I was putting in the effort to change my life, I hadn’t truly believed that I could control my own experience. The change in that thought pattern is likely the most profound.

The contract for my part-time job wasn’t renewed, which is another setback at a time where many of us are and will be struggling financially due to COVID-19. This next chapter of 2020 will likely be difficult for all of us, but I absolutely refuse to get that miserable again. I am in control of my thoughts, feelings, and actions — and that it itself is a triumph. I will continue to make change, and I will help others do it, too.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly.

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