Clara Morgan's yearbook photo

Clara Morgan is a person with lived experience of mental illness. Her journey with mental illness has been tough, but with treatment, respect and family support, today Clara is living a happy and fulfilling life.

This story begins with my Grade 12 yearbook photo. Of all the pictures taken in my youth, this shot was my favourite; it was so soft and sweet.

That girl was a straight-A student whose mornings alternated between rowing in Stanley Park at 5 a.m. and singing in the school choir before class. She tutored students at lunch time to obscure the fact that she didn’t have a lot of friends to hang out with, and she volunteered for an HIV/AIDS organization downtown during her free time. She wanted a grand adventure after high school, and applied to McGill University in Montreal.

That girl, on the day she sat for her photo, was a year away from her life falling apart, and she didn’t even know it. She thought she had the world at her fingertips, and so did everyone else.

At the end of August 1996, I flew to my new life in Montreal with so much excitement. I will admit to some partying. I will admit that school became less important than having fun, because I had never been around so many people who liked me. My life wasn’t without struggle, but it was wonderful.

The joy I experienced filled my heart and soul like helium, yet it was dashed so quickly. Depression took a hold of me, pulled me down, and told me all sorts of nonsense. While I had just undergone training for one of McGill’s crisis lines, it was suddenly me placing a call for help; help before I killed myself.

Fast forward to November, where I am on the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Montreal. In my confusion and desperation, I self-harm for the first time, and then again. My mom comes. She holds me and rocks me in her arms because that is what I need, and ultimately packs up my dorm room. My university career is over and I am transferred to a hospital psychiatric ward back home in B.C. I’m in so much pain, and I become intent on ending my life.

Countless trips to ER because of my self-harming and my suicide attempts, and twenty hospitalizations later, I came out from the darkest of tunnels into the sunshine of a life on the mend.

Thank goodness for the psychiatrist who gathered collateral from my family about my mental fitness and stability prior to attending McGill (and listened), diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, put me on more appropriate medication, treated me with respect, believed in me, and gave me my life back. My recovery still took years.

And if you fall apart at seventeen, you have to do a lot of learning to meet your sophisticated peers.

First, you have to start brushing your teeth and showering again. You have to learn how to have a basic conversation, how to handle the least bit of stress, and what to say when strangers innocently ask you what you do with your life. You have to be able to function on bad days, find enough energy to get out of bed before noon, learn to ignore the negativity in your head, locate motivation to take the bus everywhere, manage medication side effects, and cope with the guilt-ridden jealousy that your sister, your ex-classmates, and so many people around you are growing and thriving and living it up when you can’t.

On the West Coast Trail, at age sixteen, I learned that hiking in the sand is tougher than on a trail. So is recovery from mental illness after you get off track – you’ll get there, but it can be painfully slow and very difficult. Apart from learning new skills, it is necessary to confront the grief of having mental illness; the grief of having your life derailed. Until a few years ago, I was still so devastated about what had happened to me that I could get triggered by a verse in a song and end up sobbing in some corner when I was supposed to be enjoying a social gathering. When you rebuild your life, that sense of tragedy passes. You’ll never be the same as you were, but maybe that’s okay. You can become a different but wonderful version of yourself.

Even when I found myself developing new symptoms of mental illness in the form of constant anxiety, my case managers at the mental health centre gave me one great gift: they never once said to me – even when I was not very well –– that I should perhaps not dream as big, for fear I would not succeed.

I am now a mother, and the shining lights of my life are my twin boys. My journey to motherhood has been unique, as I decided that I would never try to have a baby. Given that my biological father also has bipolar disorder, I could not bear to put my own children at high genetic risk of suffering as I was. And I knew that to carry a child I would have to stop or reduce my medication, which could never happen. My little guys have a biological mother (by egg donation), an amazing surrogate mother, and an adoring mother who witnessed their birth and tells herself every day that she is the luckiest mama in town. The boys give me strength and purpose and I have never been so stable, even in spite of choosing to leave my marriage and become a single parent.

I have special friends who know where I have been, and a close-knit family. I decided ages ago that while I wish in summer my scars couldn’t tell my story before I opened my mouth, this is who I am and I am okay with that. The fact that I obtained two degrees and have been practicing for seven years makes my jaw drop. My bachelor’s degree in social work took me five years to complete instead of two, and whereas my master’s degree was part-time and all the other students had full-time jobs, I stopped working in order to keep stress to a minimum. At the end of the day, a few extra years is nothing compared to how proud I am to be a social worker and how privileged I feel to help others. I love social work, especially in mental health.

I believe the expression that “only as high as I reach can I grow […] only as much as I dream can I be.” (Karen Ravn). In order to do this, I am extremely strict about taking my multiple medications, and I monitor myself closely, seeking help if I need it. And I have extra medication to take if I am heading downhill. Every once in a while, I do experience a little dip. It's okay, because give me a few days of rest and I will be right as rain.

I have told my story to police officers and recruits, to students and professionals in various mental health/health fields, to family members, and to high school classes. I like the idea that a simple story can impact someone’s thinking or even their practice. Of course, my tale is a forever changing one because every time I tell it there have been new events, insights, and challenges, and I continue to redefine myself.

Everyone is on their own journey, but it hurts me when I see barriers imposed on recovery because of stigma/self-stigma. That’s why I share my experience with others. And although I know I’m not alone, it’s so rare to hear someone else disclose. It is only when I talk about my life that someone says “me too!” or shares that one of their loved ones suffers as well. It saddens me that many people, me included, have to hide ourselves away from the friends or colleagues we spend so much time with, when they might otherwise be supportive of us and open up themselves – you know, we could finally all be real with each other.

The girl in the photo has newer grad photos she is rather fond of. Her life is never as she imagined it would be, yet somehow she ended up with everything she ever wanted. Although it would have been wonderful to avoid the agony inside her head and the damage to her body - and to save herself and her family members from such trauma, the truth is that she wouldn’t be the person she is now without knowing that intense struggle.

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