Robyn Thomas was told she may never recover.
She was told her mental illness was so severe she might never again hold down a job, sustain a long-term relationship, and may need sedatives for the rest of her life. The trauma of sexualized violence combined with mental illness had her at a crisis point, her mother was even sleeping in front of her bedroom door at night to protect Thomas from herself.
“I tried to jump off a ferry, I tried to exit a moving car, I eventually tried to escape from my seventh-storey window,” Thomas said. “And that is when my mom had to call the police and they took me back to the psych ward.”
Thomas’ history of mental illness started at ten. As a child, she couldn’t stop thinking about the symmetry of her body, her hair, the way her stomach moved when she breathed. Intrusive and debilitating thoughts took over when she saw something a-symmetrical in herself. If someone yelled into one of her ears, she would ask them to yell into her other ear, the mirrors in her house had become an unhealthy obsession.
“I would just be stuck in front of the mirror for sometimes hours at a time, every single day,” Thomas said. “And just being unable to step away.”
In public, she learned to avert her gaze from reflective surfaces. She avoided mirrors, store windows and car windshields in case she saw her own reflection. As a teenager, she began to cut her herself, never too deep, just enough to “externalize her internal pain.” Sometime she would wander downtown Vancouver alone at two or three a.m., not caring if something would happen to her.
“(I) remember hearing this voice telling me I didn’t deserve to be here and I would never get out of this hell that I was in,” she said. “I remember looking in the mirror and not even recognizing who that person was.”
As a young adult Thomas suffered in private, working as a restaurant server and auditioning for acting gigs when she could. She didn’t share her pain with friends, her deepening shame exacerbated her pain, manifesting in suicidal thoughts.
“People often think that suicide is this selfish thing, ‘how could you do that to your family?’ But in my brain when I have been depressed, it tricks me into thinking literally everyone would be better off without me,” she said. “So it would be the kind thing to do.”
Thomas said trauma compounded her mental health challenges. Instances of sexualized violence, sexual harassment and being threatened at knifepoint forced her to leave her restaurant job. Seeking justice through the BC Human Rights Tribunal turned into an ordeal and didn’t yield the support she expected.
“Even the mediator from the Human Rights Tribunal, who was a man, told me to drop the case because I should be afraid for my life,” Thomas said. “That was really shocking to me. I wanted to stand up for myself and do this to protect women after me because I knew this wasn’t a one time incident with this man.”
Despite seeing her restaurant co-worker fired, the year-long process was heavy, stressful, taking a mental and emotional toll, her mental health was further tested when she was sexually assaulted on a trip to Morocco. She only escaped her assailant by defending herself with a rock to his head.
“That experience was the straw that kind of made everything fall apart,” she said. “ I had really bad suicidal thoughts and was making plans to end things. So one night I took myself to the emergency room,” she said.
Thomas’ life had hit a crisis, both ashamed of her illness and feeling guilt for what she had put her family and then boyfriend through, she couldn’t even leave the hospital she checked herself into. Looking back she says her suffering has turned into a blessing.
“For me mental illness has been this amazing teacher and when we are given this narrative (that) ‘It is a terrible shameful thing and it means you are broken for life’ then we get trapped in that,” Thomas said. “So I am grateful for everything I went through because it has made me a better person and made me treat myself a lot better… How to be compassionate to myself.”
Now a manager for the Victoria chapter of the Stigma-Free Society, she advocates for acceptance and understanding of mental illness. Thomas shares her personal challenges, travelling from school to school connecting with youth about the importance of a stigma-free society. Her job and a renewed sense of purpose has helped transform what was once shame into hope for anyone else suffering in silence.
“Define your own story, be compassionate with yourself,” she said. “Forgive yourself for what is not even your fault,” she said. “It’s a liberating thing when you can let all of that go and have compassion for ourselves and what we have been through.”
For more information on the Stigma-Free Society or their programs visit stigmafreesociety.com