I have been grappling with suicidal ideation since I was around 7 years old.
Many little girls pretend to get married and plan their wedding. I was always planning my funeral.
I was ultimately labeled “a difficult child.”
I was very charming and funny but even from that age, when the mask came off my inner tumultuous world came barreling out. I often got reprimanded by my teachers for acting out, babysitters flat out refused to come back to my house, and my parents were at a complete loss of what to do with me.
Finally, at the age of fourteen, I was brought to a psychiatrist to be assessed. I was diagnosed with “Manic Depression” which we now refer to as “Bipolar Disorder.”
Side bar lesson: There are 2 types of Bipolar disorder.
Patients who suffer from Bipolar I disorder experience every type of pathological emotional state associated with bipolar disorder, including mania, depression, hypomania and mixed episodes. The mixed episodes can also include delusional and paranoid behaviors.
Bipolar II patients experience all the emotional states characteristic of bipolar disorder other than mania. These mood episodes include hypomania, depression and mixed states. Hypomania is a condition similar to but less-severe-than actual mania. Suicidal ideation is a prime component of having Bi-Polar ll, hence my longstanding obsession with wanting to die.
After being diagnosed, I was put on Prozac. It was the new antidepressant (SSRI) on the market that would define mental health in the 90’s—oftentimes as a derogatory catch phrase that added to medication stigma as in “Go take your Prozac!” It gave me hot flashes, constant cottonmouth, and profuse sweating.
At the same time, I was getting high and drinking. I used mostly hallucinogen’s and enjoyed marijuana as well as basucos (marijuana laced with cocaine) on a regular basis. I drank until I blacked out, vomited, or both. Using was a way to self-medicate and as a means of escape. Each drug affected me differently, and certainly amplified my mental illness for the worse. Cocaine made me really quick, and what I thought was a funnier, wittier and far more interesting version of myself. Acid allowed me to venture in a make believe world, not unlike Alice and Wonderland, and alcohol chilled me out and allowed me to socialize uninhibited.
I should mention that mental illness stems from both sides of my family—as does addiction and alcoholism. The National Bureau of Economic Research shows there is clearly a connection between substance abuse and mental health disorders. (69% are responsible for the consumption of alcohol, 84% of cocaine and 68% of cigarettes.)
I was a reckless and out of control teenager. I stole my parent’s car, threw wild parties that ravaged our beautiful home, was arrested twice and generally laughed in the face of my parents and their rules. Somehow, I managed to stay on the honor-roll, was involved with sports and student council.
The first time I acted out my suicidal ideation I was 15. I lay on the train-tracks near my home, but changed my mind at the last minute. I told no one about that episode. I’ve always been able to slap on a smile when it counts, no matter how much it may crack my face and my heart.
At nineteen, I moved to New York City to pursue my dream of becoming a performer. I got a scholarship my second year and took advantage of my working visa to stay longer. Alcohol and drugs reared their ugly necks again, like a two-headed snake wrapping itself around my brain and my heart.
I returned to Canada (I lived in Montreal at that time) and I had my first obvious psychotic episode. I was extremely delusional, completely isolated, and was intent on killing myself. My roommate quite literally walked in right before I tried to slit my wrists. I was quickly admitted to the psychiatric ward at Montreal General Hospital, where I stayed for a month as an in-patient and four months as an (all day) outpatient.
It was awful.
At least in a mental health and addiction HOSPITAL you’re put on the ward where everyone is suffering from the same thing (i.e. mood disorders and PTSD) but in a general hospital precinct the entire rainbow of mental illness is on full display— anorexics, personality disorders, schizophrenics, etc. My new heavy-set roommate had a protruding scar around her neck from attempting to hang herself, and a proclivity for nightly, highly vocal masturbation sessions. I believe she single handedly scared me back into remission, if that was even possible.
This was also my first stint of sobriety and it lasted for about a year.
By 24, things started to look up. I was in the best shape I had ever been in, living with my two best friends and my acting career was burgeoning. I did a lot of television shows, films, and plays. The fact that I was bipolar aided me in my work by having a fluid emotional range. Throughout my mid-twenties I suffered highs and lows—like everyone does, but mine were Leviathan in scope. By the time I turned 28, my skin and the whites of my eyes started to turn yellow and I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs. I was diagnosed with cirrhosis—a liver disease that was directly a result of my drinking and drug use.
Feeling dejected, I no longer wanted to live. I didn’t have a plan to end my life but I knew I wanted to. My two best friends nursed me back to “reality” and I sobered and cleaned up for two years. However, something had changed. After a fifteen-year struggle with this sickness, I realized it was never going to surrender. It felt like a shadow following me, even in times of sheer happiness, ever-ready to ambush me at any given time.
By the time I was in my early thirties, my career centered more on stand-up comedy than acting but I was doing well with both. I decided to move to Los Angeles to further my career. It was a disaster. I was high all the time on anything I could get my hands on and drank until I blacked out constantly.
I was ‘less than zero’ when my best friend called my family. My mother dragged me back to Toronto, where I spent six weeks at The Centre of Addiction and Mental Health. I felt hopeless. The doctors tested a myriad of drug cocktails (anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety drugs, etc.) I underwent ten rounds of ECT (electro-convulsive therapy, aka: electroshock therapy).
I didn’t care what they did to me anymore, I just wanted everyone to leave me alone and let me die. Much to the chagrin of everyone, I discharged myself and flew back to L.A. While I should’ve been recovering from what my body and my brain had just been through, my thinking was that I would kill myself slowly or by overdose. So I drank more and got high more.
My mother flew back to L.A. and this time she wasn’t playing around. She took me back to CAMH, where I was placed on an F1 (a “form 1” in Ontario means that you are legally bound to stay in the hospital for up to seventy-two hours because you are either a threat to yourself/society). I should mention that every time I’ve been admitted to the hospital, I’ve been placed on an F1. I stayed in the hospital for two months where I split my time between therapy for my disorder and my addictions. By the time I left, I was clean and sober and ready to get back to real life in Toronto. Because of the huge blocks missing from my memory due to the ECT, I couldn’t remember my stand-up act. I had no money and nowhere to go. My sister/my angel let me live in her basement until I could get back on my feet. I spent two more years in remission, clean and sober.
I started drinking and using again when I was 37. By my thirty-ninth birthday not only was I obsessed with killing myself, I was drunk and high all the time.
My “rock-bottom” happened at a very exclusive event made up of peers and patricians.
It was an open bar and I was snorting cocaine and methamphetamines. I face-planted into the cement, broke off my two front teeth and got a black eye. I didn’t even know it had happened until I woke up the next morning and looked in the mirror?! That was the last time I used drugs or had a drink.
In the thick of my sobriety, my depression didn’t let up. I was tired of prescribed drugs that made me lose interest in sex, dehydrated me, gave me anxiety, depleted me of energy, and some that ironically intensified my suicidal ideation. I knew all too well that if I took myself OFF any of my prescribed drugs, I would suffer severely from discontinuation-syndrome. I couldn’t see a way out. Sobriety wasn’t helping, therapy wasn’t working, medication wasn’t working and I was fading away. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. It was that I couldn’t bear to live.
I solemnly told my loving parents “this thing is going to get me! It’s going to be my end, so please don’t blame yourselves when it happens…”
Do you believe in miracles? I now do.
I have found a psychiatrist who I trust and feel extremely comfortable with. She put me on a mood stabilizer for the first time, something I realize I should have been on eons ago, as its generally prescribed to patients who suffer from Bipolar II. To understand the difference between mood stabilizers and SSRI’s read here
It’s the first time I WANT to be sober, as opposed to being forced into it. It’s the first time I have HOPE. It’s the first time in years that my friends and family have seen me this healthy. I understand that I’ll always have to be vigilant taking care of myself (staying sober, staying active, having a healthy diet, continued therapy, etc.) but it doesn’t dissuade me. For the first time that I can remember, I WANT TO LIVE!
For so long I’ve felt like I’ve been drowning in choppy waters with bricks tied to my feet and I’ve finally reached the lighthouse. I am human again. I am rational again. My heart is full of love, again.
Upon reading my story, it may sound like I’ve led only a very dark existence. I need to tell you that although I’ve suffered quite a lot, I’ve also had an abundance of joy, love, happiness, a wonderful support system, lots of laughs and lots of luck!
My advice is to keep going until you find the right doctor for you. Medication and the right dosage/category can oftentimes feel like throwing spaghetti at the wall with seeing what sticks, ie; what works. So when you think you’ve reached your absolute limit, think of me and the fact that I had to wait until I was 40 to find the right combination of medication after trying what I thought was everything! To be fair, I was also completely jeopardizing any sort of recovery by being high and drunk all the time. The point is: IT CAN TAKE TIME.
My story is that of ongoing survival and one that acknowledges that none of us can exist alone in a vacuum.
We are not our illness.
We are someone’s daughter, sister and friend. We are actors, comedians and writers. In fact, many creative types have a long history with mental illness, so I frame it now as a group of ‘geniuses’ that I am proud to be a part of.
Ultimately, I am forever grateful to still be here, proceeding with one foot in front of the other. I’m thankful that my family and friends didn’t give up on me, and that fate intervened when I needed it most.
Claire Brosseau is an actor, singer, stand-up comedian and writer. She has acted with the likes of George Clooney, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden and Janeane Garofalo. Her blog entitled “The Manbbatical” was reprinted in Toronto’s arts weekly, Now Magazine. She has been interviewed by every major newspaper and talk show in Canada. She performed at the Just For Laughs festival, comedy festivals around the world, and at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Her singing voice can be heard on soundtracks for film and TV. She is a die-hard Toronto Blue Jays fan and caught TWO FOUL BALLS IN ONE GAME which was the best day of her life, so far.