There isn’t much empty space on Jennifer Dickson’s walls. Almost every square inch of her vertical surfaces are covered with pictures of friends, family, inspirational quotes and the occasional comic strip clipping. Even book shelves and table tops bear an endless display of small trinkets. Every little snapshot down to the smallest knick-knack reminds Jennifer that she is loved by many and that she is going to be ‘ok’. These are necessary external triggers that compensate for what, at times, her brain isn’t doing.
After her first suicide attempt in 2000 at the age of 30, Jennifer was diagnosed with clinical depression. Jennifer had just purchased her first home and she did it on her own. But the achievement felt like a failure- a feeling that she had become accustomed to most of her life.
“I did not feel like a success to be buying a home by myself when I was thirty years old. Society was telling me that I was supposed to be doing this with a husband. And I was supposed to have 2.2 children and a white picket fence by my age.”
It was during a two-day First Aid course in 2000 where Jennifer learned about how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. But instead of the information arming her with preventative strategies it offered her a solution to escape her life. “I thought ‘this is great! I have a detached garage and now I have a way.’ I was just so tired. I was tired of the fight. I felt like I was failing at life every day.”
Two days later she drove to the gas station and filled her tank with gas. “I wanted to have a full tank so that the car would run long enough.”
She had only been in her new home for a few months. The first time she ever parked in her garage was on that Tuesday night when she was planning to kill herself. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to fit the car in the garage but I did. I just backed it in and then swung the door shut.”
That she had lost all logic in that moment couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than by what she did next. Jennifer headed into the house for one last time to have a popsicle in front of a ‘Big Brother’ episode. Before the show finished an unexpected visit from her friend threw a wrench in her suicide plan. Stopping by to drop off a small light catcher that she had just picked up, her friend unwittingly purchased enough time that possibly saved Jennifer’s life.
“I don’t know if she sensed something but she ended up staying,” Jennifer recalled of the visit. “I could not get rid of her. And then her husband turned off the car and he came in. And I remember just sitting there and thinking ‘would you people just go so I can do this thing’. And then just as she was leaving, probably about an hour later, another friend called and said ‘hey how are you’ and I lost it. I told her everything.”
The next day Jennifer sought help from her doctor and began her journey to wellness. And she has been travelling that road for sixteen years.
From the year 2010 to 2012 the reported rate of suicides in Sault Ste. Marie increased by 317%.
Information compiled by the Office of the Chief Coroner, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, shows that in 2010 there were 6 reported suicides in Sault Ste. Marie, in 2011 there were 14 suicides and in 2012 there were 19 suicides.
Suicide rates for the Algoma District during those years were recorded at 11 suicides in 2010, 18 in 2011 and 26 in 2012.
When information regarding prior psychiatric treatment of victims of suicide is available to the Office of the Coroner the data is recorded. However, it is possible that this type of information is not always available to the coroner. In the year 2010 less than 5 victims of suicide in the Algoma District were reported to have been receiving psychiatric treatment, in 2011, 5 people were receiving treatment prior to suicide and in 2012, 9 people were receiving treatment prior to suicide.
It is reported by the Canadian Association for Mental Health that of the 4, 000 victims of suicide in Canada every year, 90% experience some form of mental illness. The risk of suicide increases with the presence of a mental illness and a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.
Looking back over the years suicidal ideations – a preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, were present in Jennifer’s life at a young age. “I always had the thought to harm myself. I always felt like I was a burden to my family and friends. And I felt like I was not worthy of love. I tried to compensate for that belief by trying to be perfect. I tried to never say ‘no’ so that people would like me.”
There were three more incidents since Jennifer’s first suicide attempt where thoughts about suicide and developing plans to kill herself became a priority in her life. During those darkest moments in her life Jennifer could not fathom one reason why her life on earth was important. “It’s never a case of not wanting to live anymore, it’s how can I put my family through ‘this’ by staying alive.”
It wasn’t until she entered counselling after her first attempt that Jennifer realized that her thinking wasn’t ‘normal’. “I thought everyone thought and felt like I did and were just better at dealing with it. So it was another failure- I couldn’t cope like everyone else. That left me telling myself that ‘I better just suck it up and deal with it like everybody else’.”
In part, Jennifer’s thinking was not just about the chemical imbalance in her brain, but it was also nurtured by the common misconceptions held by society about the behaviour of people who live with clinical depression. “My thinking was stuck in a belief that I didn’t have any reason to be depressed. I had a job, a house, friends and my parents were happily married. Other people experienced tragedy in their life and they were fine. I had a very, very good life. I truly believed that I had no right to be like this.”
Her diagnosis of clinical depression in 2010 launched years of counselling and trying to find the right combination of medication- and it has been a process. Through a lot of hard work Jennifer was able to back track to identify that the core belief she holds about herself is that she isn’t ‘good enough to love’. An individual’s core beliefs are often shaped by major events in one’s life. However, the chemical imbalance in Jennifer’s brain distorted the lens through which she filtered her perception of those experiences.
Today Jennifer is working towards changing this thinking through cognitive behaviour therapy. She has also found a ‘good’ combination of medication that has helped with her depression. “I can honestly say that this is the best I have ever felt in my life.”
Jennifer is using her experiences with clinical depression and suicidal ideation as a tool to help others who are struggling with similar issues and to challenge the stigma that exists around these conditions. She also volunteers with the Canadian Mental Health Association in the program called TAMI- Talking About Mental Illness.
“I used to be deathly afraid to speak about this. It could have cost me clients and friends- it still can. In fact, I already lost a friend when I started speaking about this. And I have been six months into a new relationship with a man and when I’ll disclose that I live with depression and thoughts of suicide and they leave and don’t come back.”
It is still an unfortunate truth that many individuals like Jennifer may cross paths with people who struggle to see beyond the labels attached to those with mental illness. The Canadian Association for Mental Health reported that 42% of Canadians are unsure whether they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness and that a 55% of Canadians say they would be unlikely to enter a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness.
However, fortunately for Jennifer, she has a loyal group of friends that love her just as she is. Tracey Pinder was the friend who showed up unexpectedly at Jennifer’s door that evening when she was planning to kill herself for the first time.
Tracey had been shopping that evening and found a small light catcher that she thought Jennifer would like. On a whim she dropped by Jennifer’s house to give it to her. Jennifer still has that little plastic light catcher and it hangs in her bedroom window- one of her many external triggers that reminds her that she is loved- and worthy of it.
According to Tracey, being Jennifer’s friend isn’t the hardship that Jennifer makes it out to be. “She still seems to think that she’s a burden on me, on all of her friends. She doesn’t realize that she gives us so much. She is loyal, compassionate and loving. And fun- she is so much fun.”
When Tracey learned about Jennifer’s struggle she was supportive and understanding. “When I first met Jennifer she had book after book on self-help and of course none of them worked because she was depressed. She needed medication. Even after she was diagnosed it took her a long time to come to terms with it- like anybody who has a life changing disease.”
There are times when Tracey fears for Jennifer’s well-being. “But I came to the realization years ago that I have no control over her. There’s nothing that I’m going to be able to do to stop her if she decides to commit suicide. But what I do is send her little cards or texts when I’m thinking about her – something to make her smile. I don’t do that with my other friends.” Tracey laughed and then added, “But I probably should do that with all my friends now that I think about it!”
Jennifer’s friends have become part of her ‘safety’ plan. When she’s having a particularly bad day there is any one of half a dozen friends ready to be a sounding board or a distraction until Jennifer can rebound from her ‘rabbit hole’.
“Sometimes when she really doesn’t want to have anything to do with the world I drive over to her house and tell her to get dressed and then we get out of the house. But you have to know when you need to do that,” Tracey admitted. “I think what people really need to understand is that when someone has a mental illness you have to brush off the labels and preconceived notions to find the person inside- and they’re worth finding.”
Understanding her negative triggers has been a critical element for Jennifer to develop coping strategies around her illness. “Too much time to think or be alone is never a good thing for me. I like the distraction of being busy and having a schedule. Especially on long weekends I try to have something to do every day- even if it’s only for a couple of hours- going to a movie or planning to meet a friend for coffee. It just needs to be something that forces me to get up in the morning, have a shower and to move.”
And that’s why Jennifer rescued Jordan eleven years ago. Jordan was just a four month old pup and had been abused by her previous owner. “She was so timid when I first got her. Before I got her, come Friday night I could go three days – until Monday, without talking to anybody. Jordan is a big part of why I get up every day. She needs me and I won’t ever leave her.”
Today, there’s no room to park a car in Jennifer’s garage. “I don’t have a problem brushing the snow off my car in the winter,” she chuckled.
Jennifer runs not one- but two successful businesses. She pays a mortgage, cuts her lawn, walks her dog and on occasion enjoys tearing it up with her posse. She lives her life conscious of the fact that she must be diligent to manage her chronic diagnosis of clinical depression. She is inspired to help others who can relate to her experiences and to help those understand how to love someone with a mental illness.
“It’s not that people who have mental illness tell you about it because we want you to fix it. We just want you to know that it’s a part of our lives and we want to be accepted as a whole person.”
Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline: 1-866-531-2600, http://www.connexontario.ca/
Algoma District, Central Access: 705.759.5989 or 855.366.1466
Feature image: Jennifer Dickson (left), Tracey Pinder (right)