ALEXANDRA LOVES MOTIVATIONAL QUOTES. If she’s on social media or reading a book or leafing through a magazine, and sees one that’s particularly inspiring, she’ll jot it down on a piece of paper and pin it to the cork board that hangs above her desk.
She’s been doing this for a while, and over the past few years has managed to put together quite an impressive collection. Today, dozens of quotes fill up her corkboard. They’re all meaningful to her in their own way, but there is one that she holds closest to her heart. It’s by J.K. Rowling author of the Harry Potter series, and it goes like this:
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
– J.K. Rowling
When I first meet Alexandra on a sweltering summer morning in Kelowna, it’s hard to see why that particular phrase would be so meaningful to her. At 21, she exudes confidence. She even manages to maintain her grace in the abominable heat (I’m sweating buckets), and seems as far away from rock bottom as humanly possible.
But as soon as we take a seat on a bench overlooking Lake Okanagan, Alexandra makes it clear that had she not come across that quote a few years ago, she may not have been sitting across from me in the first place.
“I love J.K. Rowling’s quote because it spoke directly to me in a time of need,” she says. “When I first read it, I was close to rock bottom myself, and it pushed me to accept who I was even when I was at my worst. It taught me to say, this is where I am and that’s ok, and that sentiment was what helped me to start to grow past my challenges.”
LIKE MANY YOUNG PEOPLE who suffer with mental health challenges, Alexandra’s journey towards rock bottom was gradual. In fact, for the better part of a decade most people around her had no idea what she was going through.
“It all started when I was 9 or 10. Even then, I was constantly striving to be perfect and was putting so much pressure on myself to be a certain type of person: to get good grades, to have friends, to put on a brave face. The pressure eventually started weighing me down.”
By the time she was in Grade 10, the pressure had become unmanageable. Fear of failure had begun to paralyze her, and Alexandra started withdrawing from her friends. She quit her favourite extracurricular activities, and dreaded going to school. Instead, she would spend hours on end lying in bed – too numb to get up.
“I would go home and cry a lot, and I wouldn’t want to go to school…and I LOVED SCHOOL! I had always loved to learn and then all of a sudden I just didn’t want to go anymore. It felt pointless,” she says.
By Grade 11, things had gotten worse. Alexandra had changed schools in an attempt to find a new perspective, but it hadn’t helped. Her grades had dropped significantly and her self-confidence had plummeted. Her life seemed to be spiralling out of control.
“I felt like I wasn’t succeeding at anything and had lost all of my confidence,” she remembers. “I felt so low on myself, that every thought I had was an automatic negative thought. Everything underneath me was shattering, and although I was trying to find solid ground, there was never any place to plant my feet.”
To make matters worse, Alexandra was going through all of this alone.
“I didn’t tell people what was going on. If anyone asked I’d always say that everything was okay and that I had it under control,” she says. “I thought that if people knew what was going on, they’d see it as a sign of weakness.”
As J.K. Rowling would put it, Alexandra had hit rock bottom.
IT WASN’T UNTIL ALEXANDRA’S MOTHER POINTED OUT the changes in her daughter that Alexandra realized exactly what had been happening to her.
“I finally spoke to my mom when I thought there was no hope left and she immediately looked at me and said, ‘I think you have depression’,” Alexandra tells me. “All of a sudden everything made sense. Luckily she also said that there were things I could do to make myself feel better, which gave me hope that things could improve.”
With her mother’s support, Alexandra started going to counselling. She tried out a few different counsellors (“It’s kind of like dating,” she says) and eventually found one that fit her personality. “It wasn’t until I went to the right counsellor who told me that what I was feeling was valid and that it was ok to feel these things, that I could actually begin to rebuild my self-confidence,” Alexandra says.
With her mother’s support, Alexandra started going to counselling. She tried out a few different counsellors (“It’s kind of like dating,” she says) and eventually found one that fit her personality.
IN THE THREE YEARS that have passed since she started her recovery process, Alexandra has managed to change her life dramatically.
As the sun beats down on us by the shore of Lake Okanagan, she tells me that to this day, counselling continues to play an important role in her life. She says that cognitive behavioural therapy – an intervention system that focuses on disrupting the ways in which thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact with each other – has helped her modify her automatic negative thoughts, and that she continues benefiting from the support she receives from her counsellors.
“It’s very therapeutic for me to lay out my life every session and see where I am and how I can continue to grow. I also like having an outside perspective on my life, which helps me work through any struggle,” she says.
But what I find most impressive about Alexandra is the way in which overcoming these struggles has given her strength. Although she’s only 21, she has completed a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Quest University, in Squamish, BC, where she studied neuroscience, and uses her experience with depression and anxiety to fuel her newest passion: understanding the biological mechanisms that fuel mental illnesses, in order to inform future mental health policy.
“At school I researched a specific gene associated with working memory in people living with schizophrenia. Clearly, it’s one symptom of one mental illness, but I’m convinced that if we take these small steps to increase our understanding of the biological mechanisms that drive these illnesses, we’ll begin treating mental illnesses for what they are,” she says. “Illnesses.”
And while she’s passionate about her research and hopes to become a psychiatrist in the near future, she’s also aware that her main goal – at least for now – is simply to do her best.
“While I do have big goals, I’m not striving for a perfect life. I’m not striving to be happy 24/7 or to find the cure for all mental illnesses, because I’m aware that this may not be achievable,” she says. “But I am striving for contentment, and to live a fulfilling life, which is all you can really hope for.”
This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken.
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