’Til I am myself again: Taking mental health one moment, one day, at a time

Captain Bettina McCulloch-Drake listens in on the aircrew of a CC-130 Hercules aircraft participating in Exercise Vigilant Shield while monitoring the activities of the image technicians working with her. Master Corporal Mathieu Gaudreault

Captain Bettina McCulloch-Drake listens in on the aircrew of a CC-130 Hercules aircraft participating in Exercise Vigilant Shield while monitoring the activities of the image technicians working with her.
Master Corporal Mathieu Gaudreault

Captain Bettina McCulloch-Drake

’On August 5, 2004, I heard a knock on my rented townhome door in Nepean (now Ottawa), Ontario. Curious, almost dangerously so (curiosity has, at different times of my life, led to some close brushes with injuries of various types), I opened the door and came face-to-face with one of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chaplains from HMCS (Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship) Carleton, my naval reserve unit at the time.

It would not take long, unfortunately, to find out that my then-brother-in-law, a naval reservist like myself and my first husband, was gone. The smiling, talented man I knew, who had, at one time, spoken about opening up his own restaurant, had taken his life at the age of thirty-one, in one of the most horrific ways you might be able to imagine. I still shudder at the thought of what he must have looked like to his best friend, who found his body in his family home in southern Ontario.

As we gathered together to remember how he was in life, the inevitable questions and reflections passed through the lips of the family, friends and colleagues who knew him. Why did he do it? What was it that pushed him to this extreme? Why could he not confide in even his best friend, with whom he shared so much before? Why did we not realize how much pain he was in? What signs did we miss?

The fact is that some people are good at hiding their private pain. Suicide, whether a “fait accompli” or an attempt, would touch my life three times more. The last time, it was I who was thinking that it would be better to leave this world.

I am not writing this to indulge in a “self-pity party” or to look for sympathy. I am writing this to tell you that there is hope. You may hit rock bottom, you may find yourself fighting internally with ugly versions of yourself, or you may even think that you are completely alone. But you are not alone. Even if you think you have eroded any chance at coming back to a better version of yourself, you can count on at least one person who “gives a damn”.

One of these people is your local chaplain (fondly referred to by some as “padre”, although we do have a number of CAF chaplains who are women).

But, I will get back to that, perhaps, at another time.

First, let me make something perfectly clear. I did not deploy to a war zone. I did not see death countless times over. I did not come across a situation where I felt powerless to do something even though that situation was so against my values. I certainly do not want to cheapen the courage, nor the crash of emotions, faced by those who have deployed, who have faced stressful work environments, or who have put their lives in danger to save others.

What I can do, however, is tell an abridged version of my story to help you understand that mental health issues affect everyone. And perhaps, just maybe, more of you will be willing to reach out for help. Maybe more of you will share your own stories.

To understand a little of how I came to be admitted to a mental ward in a local hospital in Manitoba for six weeks in the summer of 2018 requires a brief flashback montage, if you will.
I am who I am because of the breadth of life experiences I have had since I came into this world. I am also who I am because, short of my becoming 19, I joined the CAF Forces and fell in love with the entire way of life that is uniformed military service.

I could tell you that I am the type to straddle the fine line between introversion and extroversion. Imagine that. A public affairs officer who prefers to be in the background. Lovely. But, I digress.

I could also tell you that, like so many other children and teenagers, I had my share of bullies and people trying to impose “false” social labels on me. That is certainly true. But I eventually came into my own and developed healthy relationships with people who I still call friends. At the time, I did not need hundreds of Facebook friends. (What was Facebook in the 1980s, anyway?) Rather, I had small circles of close friends.

But, there is another side. I am competitive and hate to fail at anything, although there are certainly times where I am very good at failing. Yet, if there is one thing I have learned as a member of the CAF, it is this: you take responsibility for your mistakes, you learn from your mistakes, and you carry on. It’s not always easy but, really, what is?

Yet, underneath the certainty, there also lies someone who is a harsh self-critic. Why can’t I do everything, be everything, and still be able to have both a career and a stable, loving, family?
Yep. You guessed it. I put an inordinate amount of pressure upon myself. I brooded about the past, worried too much about the future, and had a hard time, at times, being present.

But, depression has a strange way of creeping into the recesses of our psyche. It feeds on our doubts. It feeds on our trying to keep up, sometimes desperately, with a life that seems to thrive on speed. Time is seen as an enemy; there is only so much of it. There is such a drive to make every minute count that we forget that sometimes slowing down will let us focus on what is really important.

Depression also feeds on loss. The most common thread I heard among my fellow patients on that mental ward was loss. Some lost the health they once enjoyed. Some lost one or more members of their family or close friends. Some lost their careers, their way of life.

As for myself, I had to face my own losses. The loss of my mother, my life-long confidante, in December 2010. The unexpected loss of a baby in 2014. The loss of control I felt as I struggled with post-partum depression in 2017. Being at a loss as my husband and I dealt with a sick infant who eventually turned out to have a few different allergies. And, finally, feeling at a loss when I was placed on sick leave as I waited to find out what this or that drug would do to help me stop, or at least slow down, the roller coaster I felt myself on.

Even though I was not alone, in the strictest sense, I felt alone. No words from my loved ones, my supportive co-workers, my social worker at my base’s health centre, or my friends, seemed to alleviate the anger, the sadness, and the shame I felt as days passed to weeks. I felt alone, even as my children tried to get my attention, as I struggled to find the energy to spend time with them. Many of the activities I once enjoyed no longer held any meaning or drew out of me any sense of accomplishment or joy. Various stimuli would set me off in a spiral of sadness, followed by self-loathing, followed by hopelessness. I saw myself, in every way, a failure.

Simply put, I could not see past this self-feeding storm of self-persecution. I broke down.

If it was not for my husband taking me to where I could be cared for properly, I may have not been here today to tell you that there is always hope. In dark times, your path may not always be apparent, but it is there. You just need to take one moment, one day at a time, and reach out your hand. There will be bad days, but there will be good ones too.

Don’t wait to get help. Don’t wait to have that conversation as part of Bell Let’s Talk Day. Take that step today. Love yourself just enough to let others help you. As for me: I am ready to listen.