Speaking from experience

My name hasn't always been Leonie (Leo for short). In fact, up until early 2016 I went by the name of Carrie. The impact of mental illness on my life was so great that in order to survive it, I had to adopt a whole new identity and a whole new persona in order to feel 'right'.

Without dwelling on my conditions too much... I live with quite a few conditions that have variously been diagnosed as different things. I have been diagnosed over the years with everything from anxiety through to full-blown Schizophrenia. In 2010 I was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which was confirmed by a psychologist who specialises in the disorder. I also have contributing conditions including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Not-Otherwise-Specified Transient Psychosis (unmedicated), Clinical Depression, Social Phobia / Anxiety, mild Agoraphobia, Not-Otherwise-Specified Mood Disorder, chronic insomnia and night terrors...

After years of struggling with these issues and trialling various medications and therapies, I started working with a good psychologist shortly after the DID was formally diagnosed and learned some brilliant strategies for managing my symptoms with minimal medication, and for the first time since my early teens I started to get my life under control.

I was bloody successful at it too. With strong support from a few amazing friends, I learned to believe in myself and what I could do, and I realised that I could set goals... and achieve them! I started small, volunteering in a local charity shop, worked my way up to being a carer in a nursing home, and in early 2014 I started volunteering at a local charity for disabilities. Although I began as an archivist, I soon progressed to working directly with clients and a few months later I was elected into the role of Vice President.

This new role meant that I needed to attend conferences and advocate for our centre in the city, as well as helping to manage the day-to-day running of the centre, organising fundraising and managing volunteers, liaising with local businesses to secure commercial support...

After a year, I was elected into the role of President. Me! A shy little mouse who was scared of her own shadow a year before! To me, it was a sign that I'd beaten the demons once and for all. I was functional and fulfilled.

A few months later the rot set in, as it always does, and the relapse began. I noticed the warning signs in Round One and took some time off, and thought that would be sufficient. Unfortunately it was not, and by July 2015 I was switching between alters and losing time again, getting irritable, and losing grip on reality. My physical health suffered and I repeatedly became unwell. In late July, I collapsed and was taken to hospital, but they sent me home. Too little is known about DID and they dismissed me out of hand without so much as a doctor consult.

I held it together for just two more weeks, and then the big breakdown came. All hell broke lose and I added "Nervous Breakdown" to my list. I ceased to function on any level, and the next 12 months were a roller-coaster of hospital admissions, interventions, and relapses. By November 2015 I felt there was no other way out of this hell, and I tried to take my own life. I tried to give away my belongings, I tried to give away all my animals, I just wanted it all to stop. I had disconnected from everything I once loved.

I won't bore you with the details of the shitty mental health system, the betrayals, and the let-downs and failures across the board. Let it suffice to say that I saw the ugliest side of what it means to be mentally ill, and I learned that the worst stigma and prejudice comes at the hands of the very professionals who are paid to help.

Through all this, I had one friend who refused to give up and refused to let go. No matter what I did to her, she stuck by me. All I wanted was for her to walk away so I could die without guilt, but she wouldn't go. Because of her persistence, I realised I had a choice to make; I could kill myself anyway, or I could start getting my shit together and fight back.

I fought back.

It wasn't easy. The suicide attempts continued for many more months, and there were endless months where I would call her late at night most nights just to survive... but slowly, day by day, the cloud lifted until in April 2016 I held Sam and actually felt love again. It was soft and fragile, but it was there. It was the first step.

It was time to make some serious changes. First on the list was to apply for a housing transfer; I struggled to stay in the house alone for more than an hour or two at a time because of the memories of all that had happened there. I needed a fresh start. Second item was to reevaluate what I needed and what I could get rid of. Twenty years of OCD hoarding had led to an unmanageable mess of clutter.

The third item seems heartless even to me. I had been doing animal rescue for twenty years and had too many animals as a result, in various stages of the rescue cycle. I had two 'keepers' (companion animals): a Belgian Shepherd Malinois named Dud, and Sam. I also had Magic and Opal, two rescued cat sisters, Tilly and George, rescues who had been with me with ten years, and Bunneh, a rescued bunny.

I had to be realistic; I no longer had the financial or emotional resources to look after so many. I made the very heartbreaking decision to surrender all but Sam and Dud to the RSPCA. I moved Sam and Dud to the new house shortly after, with the others booked for surrender later that week.

It quickly became apparent that Sam was distressed being housed by herself after being around other cats her whole life, and so I weighed up her bonds with the other cats and selected Magic to graduate from "rescue" to "keeper". This worked well and set the theme for my recovery; two cats, one dog... nice normal number of animals to be looking after, right?

With so few to look after I regained my ability to care about them, and as I did I also rediscovered how to care about myself. When I lost Dud a few months after I moved, I was devastated and swore I would never get another dog. It took just two weeks to realise that my mental health was deteriorating rapidly as a result, and I realised I needed a dog in my life. After some searching for the right dog, I found Ella. Soon after, I resumed my recovery journey.

It has now been several months since the last suicide attempt. I can be found most days pottering in the garden, 'assisted' by Ella, or inside fussing over one or another (or both!) of the cats, or just sitting and watching them play together. My house is a home now, somewhere I love to be, and I'm facing the dark days with a smile and a shrug; no matter how dark it gets, I just embrace the nearest animal and stroke them until I'm calm, and then figure out what to do.

About two months ago I was on Instagram, perusing mental health accounts, and I noticed a common theme; they were all 'competing' for who was having the worst time. There seemed to be a subtle badge of honour attached to being an in-patient, like it was a goal to be achieved. The more specialised the ward, the bigger the badge.

I made a choice right then and there that I didn't want my life to be that way. I decided that I want to my life to be about how well my garden is growing, how well my animals are responding to me, how much I am contributing to my friendships to keep them from being one-sided.

And that, I guess, is at the heart of what Two Cats One Dog is about; mental illness robs us of so much, but it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to let it be the focus of our lives. Every person is the sum total of their interests and their connections, and there is so much to every single one of us... and yet, so many of us live our lives identifying as "mentally ill" as thought that is all there is to define us. Why?

I guess what I'm saying is that I've lost so much this past year. I even lost myself. It took a new name and a fresh start to find myself again. Mental illness will always affect me in small ways, but in the past year I gave it far more power than I should have. I let it take over my life and define me until I completely disappeared.

Never again.

(November 30, 2016)