Taboo topic no longer

People grappling with mental illness write frankly about their experiences in new book

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on April 28, 2010
Paula Corcoran is among the contributers in "Out Loud: Essays on Mental Illness, Stigma and Recovery," published by Breakwater Books in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association. - Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

When Amanda Penney was pregnant, she looked forward to feeling the baby move inside her.

The problem was, Penney wasn't pregnant. She hadn't given birth to twins, and they weren't born missing limbs.

It wasn't the first time mental illness made her delusional, but it was one of the worst episodes.

When Amanda Penney was pregnant, she looked forward to feeling the baby move inside her.

The problem was, Penney wasn't pregnant. She hadn't given birth to twins, and they weren't born missing limbs.

It wasn't the first time mental illness made her delusional, but it was one of the worst episodes.

"I remember so many times feeling my stomach and feeling the kicking, but there was nothing in there," the 28-year-old she says during an interview at her Mount Pearl home.

Her story is one of many told in a soon-to-be-released book, "Out Loud: Essays on Mental Illness, Stigma and Recovery," published by Breakwater Books in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Penney hits readers square in the face when her story begins in the "delivery room."

"I spread my legs and remember a woman saying, 'She's helping us.' So then I pushed and wet my bed, thinking that I had just given birth to twins, yet in reality I was just lying in a bed coated with my own urine."

Penney traces her mental illness back to her early teens. Originally from Carbonear, she quit school in Grade 8, replacing textbooks with video games.

She's been diagnosed with depression, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, and tried to commit suicide several times by cutting her wrists and talking pills.

"Once a doctor gave me a rubber band to put on my wrist and said that whenever I have a negative thought to snap it. When she came back, my wrist was raw from all of my bad thoughts," Penney says.

Penney's story is heartbreaking, but it's also filled with promise.

She writes about the "dream job" she once had, working as an artist at a program run out of the Harbour Side Studio, and about attending the College of the North Atlantic to finish her high school education.

"The teachers are one of the main reasons that I am succeeding," she writes.

Penney's illness can be controlled by medication, so she takes her pills and lives life one day at a time, glad to have the strong support of her mother.

A writer and visual artist, she attends art classes at a church in St. John's.

"Out Loud" is a collection of more than 50 essays written by people with mental illness, their family and friends and the professionals who treat them.

The stories are threaded with honesty, hopelessness and hope.

Paula Corcoran had a great childhood, two wonderful children and a college education. Life was great, the 32-year-old writes, until she "woke up one morning unable to go on."

Corcoran is originally from Riverhead, St. Mary's Bay, and was diagnosed with depression at age 25.

"That meant I was a single mom, on welfare with a mental illness," she says during a recent interview at her home in Kilbride.

But the diagnosis also provided her with answers.

"I could now look at myself, not as stupid, reckless or uncaring, but rather as someone suffering from untreated symptoms of a disease," she writes.

Taking part in mental health programs offered by Eastern Health gave her the self-confidence she needed to work towards a university degree.

"The stresses of being a student and a single mom surviving on income support are never-ending," she admits. "Some days, I see the signs of my illness peeking at me, taunting me, looking for that vulnerable moment to creep back into my life."

Thankfully, she has the support of family and friends and a medical team to help her through her weakest moments.

"I'm learning that there is no cure, but a recovery process which includes the acceptance that the illness is not gone, but simply in remission," she said.

Corcoran will graduate from MUN in May. Her sons are now 11 and eight.

She's determined to find work in the mental health field and she hopes her story will help others realize that mental illness can strike anyone, any time.

"Nobody wants to talk about it. But if we had cancer or anything else, people would rally around us," Corcoran says.

Author and CBC "Radio Noon" host Ramona Dearing writes in the introduction to the book that those who contributed stories are "teaching by example."

"If they've come out the other side, the rest of us can do that, too," she writes. "Because of course all of us feel the effects of mental illness, whether we're wrestling with it ourselves, or whether it affects people we care about."

Penney also hopes her story will help others.

"It's not a death sentence," she says. "It doesn't take away from who you are as a person. It's part of who you are. You can't help it."

"Out Loud" will be launched Tuesday, May 4, from 5-7 p.m. at the Geo Centre in St. John's, to coincide with Mental Health Week.

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