Personal Story: Maria Belais
Personal Story: Maria Belais
On the BMP blog, we like to share personal stories whenever possible so that you, readers, know that you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing. If you’re interested in sharing your own story on this blog, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you tell me about your experience when you first started experiencing mental health issues?
I had signs of depression late in first-year university, my second year. I just told myself I wasn’t strong enough mentally and needed to buckle down and work harder. I saw no reason for me to assume that it was a bigger issue needing to be addressed. I was able to help out friends, be a sounding board, a source of reason, talking things through, problem solving, so I figured I would fix my problem without anyone else. My thinking was if they constantly came to me, what could I bring to them without weighing them down? I would follow this pattern of picking myself up, on my own and alone, get to a point where I was getting by, but that was it.
I’d see my marks pick up again, and I would try and get out and be social and active, but it eventually became exhausting having to give 100% when I wasn’t. I was hiding my academic failures and personal challenges- I was a shell of myself. It was in January of 2010, third year university, when everything spiralled out of control. I was lost, disengaged and running on empty. That was when I found out I had depression.
Did you seek help? If so, what was that experience like? Did you experience any barriers to care?
I sought help in that third year of university from the campus resources, but I was terrified. There was a waitlist for psychological services, but when I got in, I tried CBT with the psychiatrist, but it wasn't as effective for me in the long term. After third year I moved back in with my parents and started commuting for school. I did that and worked part-time for two years. I wondered whether I had ruined everything and didn’t know how I was going to get out of it on my own. I was unsure of who I was anymore and what I was doing. I had developed a way of closing myself off to others. I was the person you would go to for help, but I didn't ask that in return. I forgot how to ask myself if I was actually okay, how to reach out to others. I didn't want to be a burden and this clearly started eating away at me over the years.
I finished university, but not how I had planned. I didn’t go on to grad school, as my grades were a mess and all over the place. I felt the same way inside and didn’t recognize myself. I experienced low points after my degree, but without a well-paying job or insurance coverage through my parents or other means, access to consistent care was costly and out of reach to help with my depression. There weren’t many options for someone who wasn’t under 25 or not in crisis. The best I could do was work a part-time job, start paying off my student loans, and try and focus on my health in other ways. I made sure that I was eating well and exercising for mental and physical strength. The issue with that was I needed more professional support. It was tough with some friends and family, because I don’t think many knew how to be with me, what to say, and I certainly didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. I still made every effort to make sure they were never uncomfortable around me, because I still had this defense mechanism in place.
I moved out of my parents’ house for a second time at 26 and came back to Toronto where I began working in something career-related. I didn’t have and still don't have benefits at work because of the contract jobs I have to work. Only one of my contracts in five years has provided benefits to me as an employee, which I used as much as possible during those ten months. Without benefits though, I couldn’t take time off easily as I didn’t have things like vacation days or personal days. This would become apparent when I went through a severe depression in the summer and early fall of 2015. Not working was never an option as I needed to support myself financially; rent and cost of living couldn’t be met otherwise. I wanted the opportunity to be on my own, independent, without my mental health holding me back. In 2015-2016, I had reduced working hours as a compromise and I took that hit financially. This affected my personal life in other ways too – I avoided getting into relationships and steered clear of other social interactions. I stopped doing the things I loved. I saw some of my defences and patterns that I had developed, and felt the effects. I recognized how trying to manage depression without other tangible supports, during and especially after an episode, left me burnt out. It was a vicious cycle and the exhaustion was getting worse. I didn’t have the tools to cope and effectively manage, but I couldn’t just forego my responsibilities.
I went to my family doctor, I had tests done ensuring that I didn’t have any other underlying health issues, and went on waitlists. I found Blu Matter Project, which felt like this positive catalyst while I was waitlisted for therapy programs. I eventually heard back from CAMH and Women’s College Hospital (WCH) within a year. I did a brief psychotherapy program at WCH. I completed individual and group therapy for almost a year, and began to see changes in my life.
What kind of help was effective? What was ineffective?
I had done CBT at university, but only short-term was available. It may not have been the best therapy for me long-term, but I realise now that I also wasn’t ready to fully engage and work on what I needed to for myself I was scared, in denial, and incredibly self-critical about my lack of strength and ability to do better. I couldn’t commit to myself and I didn’t believe that I deserved help. I finished university, I made a schedule and developed routine in my life for my health and had positive results for a period of time. I was running outdoors every day, and I focused on eating well and getting consistent sleep. This was a short-term solution though because I would need professional support along with a routine. My family doctor couldn’t assist beyond referrals, and I didn’t have the money to access any other care or resources. Unfortunately my family couldn't help with this either.
I got into yoga at the end of 2015 early 2016, and the BMP program seemed like a blessing in disguise. At this point I was in the period after my depressive episode and it was just as taxing emotionally and physically, so finding something that wouldn’t be financially out of reach was encouraging. In October 2016, I started the WCH brief psychotherapy program (individual and group) and I can’t say enough about how this really changed everything for me. I reflected on myself, my life: who I am, where I came from, where I’m headed, what I need and what I want. It wasn’t a quick fix, which made a difference. I gained strength and confidence about how I would face the unknown, and cope with what I have. I started to love myself as I am, and accept the ups and downs of life differently. I had safe environments to explore and express myself with BMP and in therapy, and heal in a non-linear way.
How did you feel about sharing your feelings with other people
Sharing with others has always been hard for me. I felt like a sham if I did it, because I thought, “How could I be the one people come to all the time with problems, and not help myself?” Being open in this way felt like I was weaker or less than, but ultimately, I was afraid of being vulnerable. I had to be an example of strength for myself all the time. I realized that it wasn’t that I needed other people to validate me or that I necessarily cared about what they thought. I cared about what I thought of myself and was my harshest critic. I eventually couldn’t keep it all inside. One morning during my last episode, before opening the office& for the day, I started crying uncontrollably in front of my boss. Up to that point, I had been kind of stoic in how I was dealing with what was going on. Public displays of emotion were not for me, and when this happened, I had to deal with it and acknowledge it. I also had to accept that others wanted to help and did care. I needed to stop judging and criticizing myself. This really allowed for me to take the next steps to express myself in therapy and in BMP. Being vulnerable was and is one of my personal goals that I worked on and keep working on. I have cried and have been overcome by emotion during yoga and meditation many times. I don’t feel shame or fear about it anymore. I somehow found who I am again and feel so much better about sharing this with others. It hasn’t made everything easier and problem free, which would defeat the purpose. It has made things honest, and it is so much healthier to work with honesty.
When did yoga come into the picture? What was your first yoga experience like?
Yoga came into my life in December 2015. I got a Groupon for Iam Yoga with my friend, just as something to do during the holiday season. I was so worn out from the depression, I was desperate to have anything as a bit of distraction, a new focus. I took a class (Hatha) with Juliana Belinko. It was such a positive experience for me, both emotionally and physically. I didn’t know what to expect but came into it with as open a mind as possible. The practice was what I needed and what I wanted physically, emotionally and mentally,and I didn’t even know. The studio felt like a home away from home. I signed up for the energy exchange program, discovered Blu Matter Project, and for almost three years now, yoga and meditation have been a part of my life.
How are you feeling nowadays?
I can honestly say that I am in a better place today. I found my voice again. I had things come up in my personal life this past year that have been difficult, but I have gotten through them and am still getting through them. I focus on one thing at a time and let go of what I can’t change. I don’t go about solving or carrying other people’s problems anymore, but I ask for help and also help if I can, when asked. It's shifted some friendships and relationships, but it was necessary. I am more vulnerable and am still learning so much about myself on that level. I don’t feel pressure from anyone or anything, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I am, quite simply, hopeful.
Any other background or current details you would like to add?
It was important for me to accept that my story, no matter how simple it might seem, is still my story. That actually made for a stronger and more meaningful connection with other people, and that has been incredibly rewarding in this process.