For most of my adult life I have struggled. I don’t mean struggled in the conventional sense of trying to pay my bills on time, searching for my life’s purpose, striking a delicate work-life balance, etc. While I do share in those struggles alongside everyone else, a more destructive turmoil bubbles beneath the surface. One that consumes my joy from the inside out and often makes my will to live non-existent. That demon of darkness is mental illness.
Mental illness took an over-achieving, driven, happy-go-lucky girl and hollowed her into a shell of a human. Mind you, that shell was very good at playing the role of the “girl who has so much going for her that she couldn’t possibly be depressed”. I was a seemingly high-functioning individual who spent all of my energy preventing others from seeing that I was drowning. I was exhausted yet, for years, the fear of judgement and being viewed as a “lesser” or “weak” person prevented me from getting help.
It wasn’t until January 2010 after my Granddad, my “person”, passed that I finally sought medical attention. Even after taking that extremely difficult first step of asking for help, the battle was far from over. There were family members who needed to be convinced that my feeling this way wasn’t a choice, countless combinations of medications to be trialed to try to find “the right fit’, and hours of therapy and medical appointments to try to make sense of the mess in my head. Even with the help I received, I hit rock bottom and left university half-way through my third year because I was suicidal and could no longer function.
Over the years, my mental illnesses have been labelled many things, but it wasn’t until August 2018 that the illness working in conjunction with my Generalized Anxiety Disorder was diagnosed correctly – rapid cycling Bipolar Disorder.
Suddenly, the darkness had a name and moments in my life that hadn’t made sense before now had an explanation. But that name was tied to a very real illness that, while manageable, would never be cured. Post-diagnosis, I entered into what has been one of the most emotionally tumultuous periods of my life.
My support dog, Harley (a.k.a. Harls Barkley/Miss Harley Queen), is the reason I am still here; I say that with complete certainty. While recovering from a concussion and in the midst of a manic episode in January 2018, I contacted a rescue organization about fostering an abused and abandoned dog whom I had seen online. Her eyes housed the same brokenness flecked with a warrior’s fire that I recognized in my own. She felt like home without even knowing her.
Two weeks later, we had our first meeting. For a moment, she abandoned her fear of strangers and ran up to me, giving me one of her now signature “aggressive face kisses” (which involve a lot of tongue and dragging her underbite along your face). In that moment, she chose me. I adopted her on the spot and we have been inseparable ever since.
Harley has thwarted two suicide attempts and her presence has staved off the follow-through on several other plans. She is my reason for fighting and the reason I still can. She loves me through it all – every manic and depressive episode, my triumphs, my setbacks, and the mundane moments too. She is my “person” and we have truly rescued each other.
So why do I ride?
I ride because there is more work to be done. I ride because the fight isn’t over until everyone has barrier-free access to the help that they need. I ride to let others know that they are not alone. I ride for those still struggling in silence. I ride to smash the stigma surrounding mental illness into oblivion. I ride with my reason to live on my back who is a constant reminder that my story is not over. I ride because I am still here. I ride to make a difference.
We’ve got this, warriors.
Keirstyn is a performing artist, writer, and mental health advocate who lives in Calgary, AB with her emotional support dog, Harley. Her mental health journey and mission to #smashthestigma can be followed.