Kirsten’s Story – Looking back, I first recognized the beginning of my family’s mental health story back in the fall of 2010. My youngest daughter was in grade 5. Our once happy, easygoing little girl had a significant shift within. As my husband described it, “Her light and spark just disappeared over night, and she went dark.” To be honest, I am glad I had no idea what our family (and especially our daughter) was about to endure over the next several years.

The impact and consequences of a mental health challenge and/or mental health diagnosis on an individual are well known in society. What is less known is the impact and consequences the family experiences, especially if they are in a supporting role.

For me (as a parent), I never thought I could be so bent and broken AND keep going as I did back then. To be frank, unless a person experiences this scenario in their own family, they likely cannot relate to or understand the impact that caring for a family member experiencing a mental health challenge or illness has on the entire family.

Back then, I believed wholeheartedly that if my children were not thriving, I was clearly failing them as a mother. With this belief I carried a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and a negative internal stigma that was relentless. I believed we were the only family on this planet that was experiencing what was happening in our home.

I thought I was protecting my daughter from harsh judgment by creating a culture of secrecy and shame in our family: we are not to speak of this outside our home.

The years that followed were extremely difficult. My daughter started self-harming at 10. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 12, anorexia at 13, and spent a year in treatment when she was 15. She embraced drugs and alcohol by 16 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19. As her mother, I gave myself the role of 24/7 caregiver and I made it my fulltime job to keep her safe and alive. This left my own needs and the needs of my entire family completely neglected.

The chronic stress over the years went beyond what I was capable of handling. Chronic stress, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and a physical illness all crept in. I was not functioning, and I was not okay. I can look back today and clearly see I was not giving my family the best version of me; I was fractured, and I was broken. I now know I did the best I could and that time with what I knew. If the me of today could go back and support the me of years past. I think our family story could have been different.

In the summer of 2016, I met my dear friend Charlotte. While we stood on the steps of our legislature building during a mental health rally here in Winnipeg, I finally met a mother who had a similar story. This was my first experience with peer support, and it was a much-needed lifeline for me and my family.

Fast forward to today, my daughter lives in wellness and has taken ownership of her own health. My family has gone from surviving to thriving.