Tag Archives: Mental Health

D.I.F.D.; D.I.F.(Insert Initial of your friend)

Here I am, enjoying a great game between my beloved Leafs and the despised Ottawa Senators.  The game is going real well with  my team up 5-0 and it looks like it’s going to be a huge win for us.  But I find my thoughts being on something else…

This weekend’s game in Ottawa happens to also be a promotion for D.I.F.D., which stands for “Do It For Daron”.  D.I.F.D. is a youth driven program that is focused on raising awareness and conversations about youth mental health.  Daron Richardson is the daughter of NHL player Luke Richardson.  On November 12, 2010, she took her own life after a long struggle with mental health illness.  Daron was 14 years old.

Watching the game but thinking about Daron, I felt incredibly sad.   I was reminded of my own struggle with depression…the long period of darkness, despair, fear and hopelessness.  The fear of the stigma of being on medication.  The feeling of walking up to the pharmacy counter for the first time with an anti-depressant prescription and feeling like every eye in the store was on me.  Misunderstanding from people who were close to me…all those memories came back.

Looking at where I am today, I feel so fortunate.  Millions of Canadians struggle with mental health illnesses (1 in 5 Canadians will suffer from a mental illness at some poin in their lives)…many of those stories have tragic endings.  But they don’t have to.  If we learn to talk about it openly and honestly, if those of us who have experienced mental illness share our struggles and our stories to encourage others, perhaps more people will open up about their own issues and receive the support they need.

In my last concert “Crazy Hope” which was dedicated to raising awareness for mental health issues, people told me afterwards that the concert had opened doors for conversations.  Thinking about Daron tonight, I realize that I must keep talking, keep making music, keep tearing down the stigma associated with mental illness, keep opening those doors for conversations so that stories like Daron’s can have a different ending.

Chances are you know someone who is struggling with a mental health issue.  I invite you to get involved and help.  Talk with them.  Research to find local programs and services that is available.  Encourage them to reach out for help.  D.I.F.D., Do It For Daron, Do It For Your Friend.

Celebration of “Survival”

Last weekend I was invited to perform at the Annual General Meeting of the Hong Fook Mental Health Association.  What a wonderful group of people!   When I arrived, I was warmly greeted by staff and volunteers, who were all working hard to prepare for the event.   Many of the volunteers are themselves people who live with mental health issues, and it was so encouraging to see them being accepted and be appreciated for all they contribute.  I was invited to share my journey with depression through music and words.  I sang and spoke for about 30 minutes, and was touched by the warm and gracious response from everyone.  I ran into and old friend who works for Hong Fook.  She didn’t have to go to the meeting that day but she told me she made it a point to go because apparently she couldn’t get tickets to my last concert and when she found out I was performing she wanted to make sure she was there to encourage me.  As it is always the case, just when I think I am going to bring encouragement, I end up being the one encouraged.

When the emcee of the meeting was introducing me and I was getting ready to go on, I looked at the programme for the first time and saw that beside my name, they put the description: “survivor”.  Now, I’ve been called many things in my life, but this is the first time I’ve been called that :-)  At first I wasn’t sure what to think of it, but then it hit me that “title” puts me in a pretty elite group.  A group that many of you belong to…

I thought of those of you who have lived though the trauma of unemployment.  When you received notice that you have lost your job.  A thousand fears flooded your mind that instant…will you lose your house?  How will you pay for your son’s schooling?  Where will you find another job?   How will you tell your wife, she will be so worried…but you didn’t quit.  You pulled through, still standing tall.

I thought of those who had been hurt by those whom you loved, those whom you thought were friends.  You were betrayed, let down, wounded, abandoned, left to die.  You vowed you will never trust again, never love again, never give anyone else a chance to hurt you again.  Yet you couldn’t live up to that vow.  Your loving nature came through, and today you found yourself with new friends and a new community. 

I thought of those of you who lives with the threat of disease.  When the diagnosis first came, it was like the pronouncement of a death sentence.  But rather than dreading and worrying and fearing how long you still have, you set out to treasure each and every day.   Your lives remind me of the truth that ALL of us are dying.  But it is up to us to choose whether we want to truly LIVE.

As I looked down at the programme: “Keynote Presentation: Alfred Lam…Survivor”, I felt proud to be in your company.  Look at you!  You are here!  You lived through it!  Congratulations!

As opposed to my “previous life” when I was introduced as “Dr.” or “Rev.” or “Pastor”, my new “title” reminds me that I do not speak as one who is “above” the audience.   I am just one of many who share the same journey.  For some of us the journey has been long.  For some the climb is steep.  ALL of us have times when we want to stop.   But in the end, what matters is not how fast we walk or if we are quicker than the next guy.  What matters is that at the end of each day, we are still standing.  We  have survived. We will rest, and then we will face the battle of another day.

Here’s to you.  Here’s to all of us: “The Survivors”.

How’s Life?

A few nights ago I was chatting with someone I haven’t talked to in a while and we talked about my journey over the last number of years.  In the course of the conversation we talked about what it’s like to live with depression, and he asked, “So, how’s life for you these days?”

I thought for a while, not sure how to respond.  Eventually I said, “I have learned to live one day at a time.  Some days are better than others.  There are days when everything seems bright, and hopeful, and joyous, and I feel like I am soaring with wings like an eagle.   There are days when things seem dark, and hopeless and I struggle to find my smile, and I feel like I am just trying to walk and not faint.  But I have learned that’s okay, because that’s life.  Most days I hit the pillow knowing that I have not been as good as I could have been, and I close my eyes hoping that tomorrow will be a better day than today.”

It was then that I realize the last few years have taught me an important lesson about life.  Life is lived today.  Life ls lived one day at a time, one moment at a time.  Rather than getting caught up in drafting 10 year visions and 5 year plans, I am simply learning to live moment by moment:  Waking up this morning, feeling the warmth of the morning sun on my bed, tying pig tails for my little girl as I dropped her off at daycare, sending a text message to my wife tell her I love her, sharing a laugh over lunch with my friends at work, sitting down by my little girl’s bedside, just watching her sleep, enjoying the peace of being alone late at night, writing down my thoughts…

Here’s to enjoying the moments of our everyday lives.  And thanks for sharing your moment with me, reading this. :-)

The Healing Power of Music

Last night I performed at the Christmas Volunteer Appreciation Dinner of the Canadian Mental Health Association (York Region Branch).  What a wonderful group of people!  Many of the volunteers themselves have been diagnosed with a mental illness.  They have received support and help from this wonderful organization and as a way of giving back and contributing, they serve as volunteers to help others in need.  Many of these folks live in difficult financial circumstances, yet they demonstrate an incredible spirit of generosity.  They are a living testimony to me that life is not measured by how much you own, but by how much you are willing to give of yourself.

I performed a short set for about 15 minutes.  Towards the end I said that despite being a season of joy and celebration, for many of us Christmas is a difficult time.  I ended the set with the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as an encouragement and blessing to them.

The MC remarked about the healing power of music as she brought the evening to a close.  Afterwards an older gentleman came up to talk with me.  We talked about the realities of living with depression.  I told him hwo music has always given me that safe place of retreat even during my darkest days.  He then told me that he had decided to learn to play the guitar!  Horray for another guitar convert!! :-)  Another gentleman told me that he started playing with the idea of joining his church choir.  I witness again that not only does music has a power to heal, but it also has a way of breaking down barriers and bringing people together.

As I walked out the door, a lady shook my hand and simply said, “Keep singing!”  I was reminded once again, that my “calling” in life is to be a messenger, using words and music to bring encouragement and hope.  The goal is simple: Everyday striving to be a better person than I was yesterday, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

For all my musician friends: Keep singing, keep playing, don’t ever stop.  Someone is listening.  Just as you think no one is bothering to listen, someone comes along to remind you: “Keep Singing!”

This friday I am going to try my hand at “Street Singing” :-)  I am volunteering to watch the Salvation Army Kettle at Hillcrest Mall (Yonge and 16th) from 2-4pm and I figured I’d bring my guitar along and just sing to the people passing by in the mall.  It should be fun :-)

So…look after yourselves during this season, and have yourself a merry little Christmas :-)

Reality of Living with Depression (II)

Last week we saw in the news the tragic death of Robert Enke, a top German professional soccer goal keeper.   At the height of his career, Robert Enke took his own life.  It was only after his passing that details of his battle with depression were made known to the public.   Those close to Enke revealed that even though as a professional athlete he had access to a  medical and psychiatric support system that is beyond the reach of the average person, he was hesitant to admit to the problem.  Partly because of the stigma associated with mental health, and partly out of fear of how an admission like that would affect his career.

Reading about Enke’s experience made me feel that his life and mine are connected in the most unusual way:  We’ve both shared that split second moment where we had to make most unthinkable decision a person will ever face:  “Do I want to keep living?”

In that one split second that forever joined our lives, he had to decide whether to step in front of a train, where I had to choose  whether to drive in front of a truck.  Why did I turn back while he didn’t?  I don’t know.  I don’t think anyone ever will. 

But regardless, I feel that I now have a responsibility to share my story with others so hopefully they will never have to face that choice.

I have been asked often what is the difference between “clinical depression” and feelings of being “down” that all of us experience every now and then.  I need to be absolutely clear here:  I am NOT a psychiatrist and I am NOT qualified to give clinical or diagnostic advice.  I can only share from my personal experiences.  For me, the one signal that alerted me was the chronic nature of my depression.  It shadowed me day in and out, never seeming to lift.   As I wrote in my earlier post, when a person is face with a chronic pain, the most natural reaction is to seek relief.  And because the pain never goes away, the person keeps returning to the activity or substance that promises short term relief.  The result is obvious: addiction.

For myself, the first thing I turned to was alcohol.  Being a minister for almost 20 years, I had never been much of a drinker.  When  I first started drinking, it seemed to do the trick:  it didn’t take much to knock me out, and put me to sleep.  I was able to experience pain-free sleep for at least a few hours.

But, as with any addictive substance, the “effects” never lasts.  I ended up drinking more and more, but rather than relieving my pain, alcohol simply paralyzed my body, but the saddness, the pain never lifted.  I ended up even more miserable.   Much of this was happening while I was still a minister, so I had to keep my struggle a secret.  I was thankful that with counseling and medication, I was able to realize “early” that alcohol was not the answer. This did not take away my depression right away and my personal life would continue to spiral down before it hit rock bottom, but I was at least grateful that I was able to turn back before alcohol manage to fix its grip on me.

I have no idea who will read this, but my message to those who are in similar situations  is simple:  Please get help.  I know the temptation to try to “fix” things yourself is strong, and I know it is frightening to come out to admit to the problem.  I also have to be honest in admitting that not everyone will be able to understand or extend to you the kindness that you hope for.  I have experienced rejection and condemnation from some of my closest “friends”.  But the good news is that some will understand, some will go out of their way to be kind, real help is available and you WILL get better.  But YOU have to be willing to take that first step towards being well.

And you know what?  Regardless of what you may feel or think, YOU ARE WORTH IT!  You deserve to be well.  Please believe that.

My hope is that as more and more of us who live with depression and mental health issues share our stories, this will lead to more of an attitude and culture of kindness and understanding.  Which hopefully in turn will make it “easier” for people to seek help from those around them.

In a couple of weeks I will be giving a talk on the attitudes towards mental health in the Chinese/Asian religious community.   I hope some good will come from that.

Also, towards the end of November I will begin posting a new series of articles on the Lone Voice Workshop website written by people who live with mental health conditions.  The series will start with the transcript of a round table discussion I will be hosting with them.  The article should appear early in December on the Lone Voice Workshop site.  Please stay tuned for that.

Please feel free to connect with me further if you’d like to talk.  Thanks for reading.

Reality of Living with Depression

I remembered it as clear as if it happened yesterday.

It was about 4 years ago.  I was driving on the 401.  An 18-wheeler (transport truck) pulled up right beside me.  For a long stretch, we raced down the highway side by side.

I remember the thought rising up inside me: “Go on…if you steer your car into the truck, the pain will end, once and for all.”

That was the precise moment, the precise place along the 401, where I decided to get help.

Being a minister for all these years, I have had the opportunity to counsel people who were suicidal.  During all those encounters, one question continued to haunt me: “How does one get to a point in life where death becomes at attractive option?”  I had never been able to figure that out.

Until that moment on the 401.

Outwardly, everything seemed fine.  I was successful as a minister.  Everything was going well.   There was no sign of anything seriously wrong. 

But inwardly, I was struggling with this incredible, suffocating weight of despair.  It started a few years ago as uncontrollable weeping spells out of nowhere, I could be walking along in a shopping mall, driving down the street, or wherever.  All of a sudden, this tsunami of despair would wash over me, sweep me off my feet, knock the wind right out of me, until there is nothing left to do but cry.

Eventually the despair became a physical pain.  There was no escaping it.  I opened my eyes in the morning, and there it was. 

I began to crave sleep not to rest, but to escape the pain…if only just for a few hours.   But sleep became a luxury that was harder and harder to come by.

Sunday mornings became hell.  I had to “perform”.   There were times when I had to speak in 3 services, in 3 different languages, and then I would go home and collapse. 

After the episode on the 401, I seeked counselling.  I was sent to my doctor, where I was diagnosed with depression and was prescribed anti-depressant.

I remember the first time taking that prescription to the counter at the pharmacy.  I felt as though every eye in the store was looking at me.  I remembered saying to myself, “So this is what it feels like.”

The counselling and therapy and medication did not turn things around right away, my personal life continued to spiral downwards.  Until I completely fell apart and hit rock bottom.

To cope with the pain, people who struggle with depression turn to all sorts of different things:  Drugs, alcohol, food, sex, pornography, some seeked the thrill of dangerous behavior to numb the pain, some turn to extramarital affairs, some spend money like it’s going out of style, some turn to gambling.

The activities may be different, but the underlying dynamic is the same:  It is an addiction to try to escape the pain.

When we hear of people getting involved in such things, it is easy to be judgemental and say, “How can he/she does such a thing?  It is so wrong!”

What we fail to understand is that for a person in that situation, the mind no longer functions with the “Right Vs. Wrong” grid.  Instead, life becomes a single minded obsession to simply stop the pain.

I do not say this to make excuses for others, like myself who had fallen.  I simply point this out so perhaps we learn to understand a little more, and with more understanding, hopfully what follows is a little more kindness.

Alice Miller wrote in her book, “Breaking Down the Wall of Silence”: “What is addiction, really?  It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress.  It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.”

Wise words.

Today I am involved with the Speakers Bureau of the Canadian Mental Health Association – York Region Branch.  We share our stories with each other and we share our message with the community to bring more awareness and education about the reality of living with a mental health condition.

I approached the group and they have agreed to be featured as a first project of the Lone Voice Workshop.  I will have a sit down round table with them to hear their stories.  The script of that conversation (with names being changed) will be featured on the Lone Voice Workshop website.  Following that, some of the individuals in the group will write their own stories and they will also be published on the site.

Part of the reason of me starting this new blog and the related “Lonevoice Workshop” is to use this as a platform to share writings that will be helpful for others, ultimately inspiring others to become better people.  It is my conviction that part of learning to be better people is to learn to listen better, especially to voices that are marginalized by our society.   My hope is that with this first project of the Lone Voice Workshop, we will all learn to listen more, and judge less.

Stay tuned and please check back often.