For those of you hoping this week's entry is where I really let loose and describe a night in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district featuring dollar vodka shots, a Frenchman, an American, an Englishman, two tall European girls, and a card game called "%&#@ Noises," well, sorry to disappoint. But given the somewhat public nature of this forum, I feel the necessity to keep the blog relatively suitable for all ages (whereas you should be 18 years of age or over—or have written permission from your legal guardian—to read the book). And honestly, until we get to know each other a little better, I don't want to give you the impression I'm craa-zee or anything like that. Which brings me to something I actually do want to talk about.
Last Friday, the Mental Health Association of Nova Scotia held its annual gala fundraiser, A Different Stage of Mind, in support of mental illness. I was lucky enough to be invited by some friends, and given the number of fitness classes I've been teaching over the past few weeks, welcomed the opportunity to get dressed up in something other than spandex—a fact which did not go unnoticed amongst some of the other attendees who are also participants in my classes.
"Wow! Look at you! You're all done up in hair and make-up. And what a fabulous dress. We almost didn't recognize you. You're gorgeous." Yes, obviously they had been drinking, but they were so flabbergasted by my appearance, it was almost laughable. "We're just not used to seeing you in clothes."
Of course that last comment caused a number of heads to turn, as some of the mucky-mucks immediately thought there was a pole dancer in their midst. After informing them of my show times—9 and 11pm, Mondays through Fridays—I really did have to laugh since it never ceases to amaze me how people can have very distinct perceptions about an individual. And any time you step out of that box, it can lead to very different reactions. Especially when it comes to the discussion of mental illness, an issue that's been on my mind, both because of the event on Friday night and a commercial which has been playing on Canadian TVs repeatedly.
You see, back in 2010, Bell Canada launched a five-year, $50 million charitable program dedicated to the promotion and support of mental health throughout the country. As part of Bell’s efforts to reduce the stigma of mental illness, it created the "Let’s Talk" awareness campaign to engage Canadians in the dialogue around mental health. And for the 2012 marketing initiative, Bell hired Clara Hughes to star in their ads.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the name Clara Hughes, well, obviously you have no interest in sports...which is mind-boggling...but let's move on. Clara Hughes is a six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, and the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. Naturally, she was chosen to be Canada's Olympic flag bearer at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and watching her lead the Canadian team into the stadium, you couldn't help but grin from ear-to-ear upon seeing her bright red hair and dazzling smile light up BC Place Stadium and millions of TV sets around the world. But behind the famous smile lurked a fear of falling back into darkness, because Clara suffered from depression, a depression which she continues to battle to this day.
Rather than hide in shame about her illness, Clara decided to go public and is now a leading advocate of mental health. “My story is small compared to people I know still struggling with mental illness. But people come up to me to talk now. In an airport in Montreal, or on the street in Toronto, someone will tell me what they’ve gone through, or what their family member or friend has gone through. And they always say, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing with this campaign.’”
Because like it or not, there's a stigma that surrounds mental illness. Most people are unwilling to discuss it, even though when you factor in spouses, siblings, friends and co-workers, mental health touches each and every one of us. In fact, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness in his or her lifetime.
I should know. Because for a brief period, I was one of those one in five.
It was a couple years after my mom had died, yet in many ways, I was still reeling from her death, and even the death of my father a decade before. And although I had the love and support of literally hundreds of other family members and friends, I don't know when I'd ever felt so sadly alone.
To try and fix the problem, I went through a whole host of coping mechanisms, but nothing worked. I. Could. Not. Get. Happy. Which sounds, I'll admit it, "crazy," especially to those who know me...or think they know me. Because just as there is a perception that I wear nothing but Adidas and lululemon gear, there's also the idea that I'm one deliriously happy person. And for the most part, I am. Now.
But back in 1999, I wasn't. I was desperately unhappy. To even smile hurt both mentally and emotionally. And believe me, when you're teaching 11 fitness classes a week and can't smile at the dozens of participants who are relying on YOU for their leadership, motivation and fitness magic, well, Houston, we have a problem.
So I finally “caved in” and went to see a psychiatrist, who after hearing me out for 25 minutes, immediately prescribed me Paxil. Admittedly I didn't want to even try an anti-depressant, because I looked at it as a sign of weakness, a sign of failure that I wasn't strong enough to deal with this on my own. But with a great deal of trepidation, I took a pill, and a couple of hours later, it was like my motor of happiness had been jump-started. I was able to crawl out of the rock bottom I had hit in a personal pit of depression. However, once my head had risen above the despair of those first few inches, a new problem surfaced: I couldn’t sleep. My body felt like it was humming, vibrating, all the time.
At the next appointment with the psychiatrist the following week, I explained my reaction. And his reaction? He gave me a prescription for sleeping pills. I tried those for a couple of days, and not only did the humming continue, but I was sleeping even less. So I took the Paxil and the sleeping pills and threw them in the garbage—and then got a new therapist.
Because for me, personally, I realized I didn't need a prescription for happiness. Once I had been jump-started, I knew I just needed someone to talk to. Someone who didn't know me, who didn't have any preconceived ideas about me, nor I of them. Someone who could listen objectively, without judgement, and teach me a number of things, including my life is not a check-and-balance sheet on file with God.
That's what worked for me. And when those around me noticed the positive upswing, they wondered what had happened to begin with. So I shared my story, including the brief encounter with meds and psychiatrists, and was utterly surprised at how many other people were seeking professional counseling, or on anti-depressants, or wanted to get help and were terrified at the prospect. But the most shocking discovery was just how grateful these people were in hearing my story. Somehow that if Nicolle "The Fitness Magic Queen of Happiness" Spagnoli had gone through this, then perhaps we're not as alone in this battle as we might think.
And here's what I have to say about that.
Folks, the one truly positive thing that I've learned through the death of my parents is that life is too short, and so we owe it to ourselves to be as deliciously happy as we can be, each and every day. If that means falling in love, or getting a new job, or selling your house and travelling around the world for a couple of years, then you do it. And if it means seeking professional help, taking medication, or even sitting down with a life coach to figure out how to identify and achieve your personal goals of happiness, then you do it. You do whatever it takes to live your best life possible.
And then you share.