The Mental Illness Awareness Week blog, sharing stories of recovery, personal experiences, and mental health/mental illness news.


Face-to-Face with Marli Brown

My symptoms started very young, and first presented as anxiety.  As a toddler, if someone came into our house that I didn't know, I would curl up under my mom's chair and fall asleep.  I lost my hair going into Kindergarten, then as a school age student, experiencing panic attacks, which led to hyperventilation, which led to seizures, which led to lots of ambulance rides.  My first conscious thought of suicide was at the age of 8 - I thought everyone's brain worked like mine; worrying about what would happen if the school bus rolled over, how would I get out?  Worrying about my dad while he would wash the combine windows, visualizing him falling and what would I do?  Worrying about everything, all the time, looking to the stars for hope that someone/thing would end my pain.

In high school, I started with self-harming behaviours to cope.  Binge drinking, banging my head against walls, cutting - all while maintaining honour roll marks, being on extracurricular activities, and planning my post secondary education.  I worked very hard to hide the level of psychological pain that had become "normal" for me, and searched for my value in achievement.

The start of university brought a series of events - rural kid graduating from a class of 11 going to live in a large city, the university soon following with a staffing strike, a family cancer scare, and a massive loss from a vehicle accident.  Over a short amount of time, I became home bound; I became convinced that others could see how horrible of a person I was and I dreamed/planned/lived every moment on how I could die.  Soon after I experienced my first psychotic episode with a large antlike creature standing behind my couch telling me I had to die as I was so horrendous, so worthless, that I was taking my loved ones down with me.  The only way to save them was to kill myself.  Soon after, I had my first psychiatric hospitalization.

I struggled for over 10 years in the system, with revolving door admissions, many different medications, side effects, treatment plans, gathering new psychiatric diagnosis as I encountered different doctors on my journey.  I continued to try to find who I was, attending university classes, working 4 part time jobs when I could work, homebound during the times when I couldn't. I really thought that if I could just work harder I would just get into life.  Somehow, no matter how hard I worked, it just didn't work.

I would have longer periods of time of stability, although never being able to dump the never ending feeling of absolute worthlessness.  I learned coping strategies to do things anyway, and then would deal with the pain behind closed doors.  My husband and I (who I started dating at the age of 17), had to learn to navigate the changes within the relationship - sometimes he was the one who had to "watch" me to keep me alive, while other times we would be equal partners in life.

After much thought and discussion after a long period of stability, we decided to get married and have children after being together for 10 years.  Our first child was born after using fertility medication, and I experienced mild post-partum depression.  I worked very closely with my case manager to do everything I had to ensure attachment; all was well with work as I discovered social services and found I very much enjoyed community volunteering (and a strange knack for constitution and bylaws - always a nerd at heart!).  A few years passed and we decided to try for another baby.

We became pregnant with our first daughter, but that pregnancy was wrought with difficulties from the start.  We found out mid-pregnancy that she had triploidy (which the medical community considers "not compatible with life").  She was born still on April 18, 2007.  That was by far the most difficult process for my husband and myself.  I thought I had grieved as I had a little cry after she was born; little did I know the depths of pain that I had yet to encounter.

We got pregnant again soon after, miscarried, then pregnant again with our second daughter.  She was born April 10, 2008.  Eight days later, we signified the first anniversary loss of the stillbirth.  6 weeks later, I was in the midst of the most painful post partum depression episode, that lead into psychosis soon after.  I had the supplies I needed to end my life, the plan on where I was going to do it, just needed a safe place to put my daughter.  She had colic, and wouldn't stop crying so I couldn't leave her.  I drove for seemingly hours to get her to stop, she didn't, and fate lead me to my case manager at the time and I ended up in the ER.

I was in the hospital for 10 months over that first year.  Tried ECT, medications, different treatment plans; all seemed to lead nowhere.  I became profoundly broken - unresolved grief, mixed with pre-existing mental illness, mixed with post partum issues compounded to the point where I would sometimes be catatonic, writing codes on my hospital room walls, and seeing a man in a black coat that would follow me around the ward.  I could tell you the respiration rates of the patient 2 doors down as my senses were on fire.

The local psychologist was consulted - I had seen her on the ward with her dog (who attended as a therapy dog), and given my high love of animals, she intrigued me off the start.  As we met, she spent time developing trust.  She asked me about me, not just about the symptoms.  As the assessment ended and the recommendations evolved, we met regularly for therapy.  Due to the high level of trust I had developed, more "roots" of my pain were able to be shared, and for the first time in my life, I was able to start to process the trauma I experienced while being sexually abused as a young child.  The pain was exquisite, and I would often have to have the garbage can close by as nausea was overwhelming.  I would be angry at her, feeling like I could never go back - but then realized that the anger was not at her, but at the pain of the situation.  I knew that I had hit the end - either keep going back to slice this pain and figure my way through it, or die.  It was that complicated and yet that simple.

I was able to share the guilt I felt at losing our daughter, the guilt I felt of being a crappy human being, share my shameful inner core of knowing that I was a palliative psychiatric case.  Slowly, ever so slowly, I started finding my way again back into life.  The staff on that unit were amazing through that year, with high levels of collaboration, people thinking outside the box (I would have day passes to attend university class in the midst of this mess, as that was a sanctuary for me), and they were my cheerleaders as my husband would bring our children to visit daily so we could do the attachment work that needed to be done.  I was able to graduate with my social work degree in 2011, and continue to contribute back to my community through volunteering in any way I can.

As this campaign has rolled out, I have been asked if I'm cured.  Not even close....  I still experience mental illness symptoms - in particular dissociation, psychosis, and mood changes when stressors get too high.  The difference now is that I have a team (in particular the psychologist) who I trust 10000%, and I have worked very hard to identify symptoms as they first come up so we can deal with them right away.  I held onto the thought for many years that if I could just get my head wrapped around my symptoms, then they would go away.  I know now that insight does not stop symptoms from occurring, but rather allows me to access support much more quickly, leading to a shorter time of illness.  I accept the fact that my brain works differently than other people, and am acutely aware when I can feel things change in the way I think or perceive things.  I realize that I can compound that change with destructive thinking patterns and take it deeper into illness, but the initial change can be connected to changes in stress, sleep, or just plain random.  It is my job on the team to let others know when that initial change is happening, so the care plan can kick in to ensure it doesn't get exponentially worse.

Most recently, I had our third daughter.  My risk of PPD was profound.  It did come, but due to the team preparation and response it was a tiny little blip on the radar.  I was able to have the experience of feeling my newborn baby in my mama heart immediately after birth for the first time.  I am so thankful; the hours they have put into my care have not been easy, but the idea of recovery as I envision it is now in my life.  Recovery for me is not the absence of symptoms, but living a full life in the midst of managing them.  I was the walking dead for so many years, putting on a mask of expectations that I thought society should see.  By removing the mask, inviting team members to help me, I am working everyday to see through my differently wired brain.  Do I think I'm fabulous?  No, far from it - I actually think that part of my brain just doesn't work.  Do I struggle through that feeling to do things anyway?  Yes - and for that, I am forever grateful.