Community Stories

Ashley: Free From Silence

I've channelled the pain of repeatedly being silenced into something that's both meaningful and powerful. No more keeping quiet for me; I'm free from silence.

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Mental illness is something that’s not “supposed to” happen, and certainly not to someone who works in the mental health care field, right? Wrong.

I was 27 years old when major depressive disorder entered my life.

At that point, I’d been working as a mental health nurse on an inpatient psychiatry ward for just over two years. I was able to recognize that what I was experiencing were symptoms of depression, but I thought that because of my profession, I should be able to handle it on my own. So I told no one.

After my first suicide attempt, I lied through my teeth to the psychiatrist to avoid a diagnosis of depression and inpatient psychiatry stay.

Two months and another suicide attempt later, there was no faking it, and I ended up spending two months in hospital.

Conditions were placed on my nursing license because of my hospitalization, and because of this, I didn’t feel safe being open and honest with my community treatment. Instead, I omitted and I lied, staying mum about anything that was actually important.

It was only after the conditions were lifted that I disclosed to the treatment team that I hadn’t been taking my medications for almost a year.

The pressure to be silent was also imposed at work and ended up being a pattern that would continue for years.

Although it might seem like there should be less stigma in the field of psychiatry, there is a firm divide between being a patient and being a professional; crossover is not looked upon favourably.

After my first hospitalization for depression, my nurse manager delayed my return to work as long as she could.

I, as a person with a mental illness, was not welcome there, and in particular, my voice was not welcome there.

She tried very hard to break me, but I held my ground. I chose to be open with my colleagues about my illness, thinking that fact was better than a rumour. Their positive response was a stark contrast to the icy chill from my manager.

Fast forward a few years to another work site and another hospitalization. This manager fought my return to work even harder, but when I tried to find out why, I was met with total silence.

Once I did eventually return to work, I was no longer treated as a competent responsible employee, and although nothing was voiced, the marginalization was very clear.

I applied for another job. The mental health care community is a small one, and behind the scenes whispers about me being “crazy” and unreliable meant more silent treatment for me.

I wasn’t hired, despite being well qualified and there being no other applicants. I was given only the flimsiest of excuses when I asked for answers. I filed a grievance and won it, which got me the job but also a lot more silence.

It was as though I was invisible.

Being mentally ill was bad enough, but then to raise my voice with a grievance was completely unacceptable.

Since then, I’ve also been through more overt workplace bullying, with person after person refusing to hear or even acknowledge my voice. I then moved to another job where I was repeatedly chastised for raising my voice in support of what I believed was best for the clients with mental illness whom I was caring for.

All of this has taken its toll; my depression has become treatment resistant, and wellness doesn’t seem like it will be within reach anytime soon.

What I have gained, though, is the freedom to use my voice.

I first started writing about my illness while I was in graduate school doing a Master of Psychiatric Nursing degree. My thesis committee was firmly behind me in my desire to focus my thesis work on the intersection between being a nurse and having a mental illness. That support was extremely important in freeing me to be loud and unashamed.

I started blogging a year and a half ago, and it ‘s been profoundly empowering to be able to get in touch with my own true voice and use it in a way that can help not only me but also my readers.

I’ve channelled the pain of repeatedly being silenced into something that’s both meaningful and powerful.

I have a mental illness, and I’m passionate about speaking up about it.

No more keeping quiet for me; I’m free from silence.

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