It’s really OK to not be OK

Brooklyn Derksen talks about her struggle with mental illness. Bill Phillips photo
Brooklyn Derksen talks about her struggle with mental illness. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

In her final year of high school and first year of university, Brooklyn Derksen could almost be described as an over-achiever.

She kept a 92 per cent average in her classes. She was playing a high level of competitive soccer. She was participating in four different bands. She was competing at a Grade Nine level in vocals. She was planning to go to music school. And she wanted to pursue soccer collegiately.

She was busy and, like a lot of students, burning the candle at both ends.

“I started experiencing health issues in my final year of high school,” she says. “That alone is a stressful busy year for anyone. I was dealing with a lot of illness and sickness, lack of sleep and trying to keep up with my schedule. If I took a break at all would beat myself up about it.”

She was overworking herself.

“That four hours of sleep a night was not for me,” she says. “It led me down a path that got pretty dark, pretty fast.”

Physically, she was dealing chronic digestive illness and later on, fibromyalgia, poor cognitive function, extreme fatigue and the symptoms of neuropathy. Mentally, she was dealing with something just as bad, if not worse.

“My moods started to slip,” she says. “I was not a happy person. I’ve always been very bubbly, and happy and inclusive. I separated myself. I was hanging out in my basement alone after school. I lost a lot of weight, not that I wasn’t eating, it was almost like it was hard to eat. I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t Brooklyn.”

Like a lot of people who experience mental illness, Brooklyn didn’t realize at first that something was really, really wrong.

“I do know that it took quite the toll on the people I love,” she says. “It did crumble some relationships. I really distanced myself, I isolated myself.”

She started seeking medical help to deal with the chronic digestive illness. Finally, it was a doctor from B.C. Children’s Hospital who suggested she might be experiencing depression and suggested seeing a psychiatrist. That didn’t sit well with Brooklyn.

“I was so angry at him for saying that,” she says. “I remember being so, so frustrated. ‘How could you blame me for all these health things I have going on? How could you say that it’s my fault, that I’m causing all of this distress on myself?’”

After that, things really started to decline for Brooklyn. She had six manic attacks over the course of four years, which exposed itself in form of self-harm.

Eventually she agreed to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with depressive mood disorder due to mental depletion along with chronic stress and anxiety. The psychiatrist told her parents, Paula Van Horlick and Antony Derksen, that Brooklyn was really struggling and that he was surprised she hadn’t been hospitalized. What really helped her was support from family and friends.

“I’m grateful for my parents and my close friends who just loved all of me,” Brooklyn says.

She was working as a lifeguard at the time, so she stopped working. She took all of the stress out of life and things started picking up. She started to cope with all of the issues she was having.

Then she went through a tough break up.

“That was another trigger,” she says. “I had been away at school and I had been managing. I was really proud of myself through all of that. After my breakup, not only did my mental health decline but other aspects of my physical health also declined. I had never taken time off from everything. It all came to a head and exploded at that point. Things got pretty dark and pretty hard to handle. That was really the moment that I decided that I need to stop everything and I need to get better. That was the moment that I decided it was OK not to be OK.”

She dropped out of university with about three weeks left in the term, came home and told Paula she needed to work solely on getting better, no matter how long it took.

“I realized it was OK to cry, it was OK to feel the feelings I was feeling,” she says.

“Looking back, there’s no way I should have felt sad, but that’s just where you go. I have an amazing life, why am I sad?  Why am I feeling this way? I didn’t have a hard life, I never had a hard life. This illness really can affect anyone and everyone, regardless of their home life. It takes a lot of heart, a lot of bravery, and a lot of courage to just admit that it’s OK … It’s not that I wasn’t dealing with things, but I did have an enormous amount of support.”

That was about two years ago. She has improved “by leaps and bounds” since then.

She does lots of meditation at Chinook Yoga, she works with her psychiatrist, works with essential oils and therapeutic yoga, works on breathing, she journals, and she does integrative body psychotherapy.

And she accepts her ‘new normal’ and, working with alternative medicines, is off her anti-depressants.

“It’s still a fight, every day, and it is exhausting,” she says.

Just getting up enough courage for this interview was a challenge for Brooklyn.  But the knowledge that her story may reach others in similar situations gives her the strength she needs.

Brooklyn Derksen with her mother, Paula Van Horlick, and John Brink. Bill Phillips photo
Brooklyn Derksen with her mother, Paula Van Horlick, and John Brink. Bill Phillips photo

“I just sat there and I breathed it through, and I said: ‘You’re so strong, you can get through it. You have to say these things, you have to say these words because there are so many other people at this very moment who are experiencing exactly what you’re experiencing right now.’ I pulled myself together and I’m really proud of that.”

Brooklyn and her family have been involved in the Ride Don’t Hid event … Antony did the 50k loop this year.

She told her story to John Brink of the Brink Group of Companies this week, who was moved by the journey Brooklyn has been on and has committed to helping the Ride Don’t Hide fundraiser next year.

“I believe it is good, not only for her, but others, to hear her talk about mental illness,” he said. “It has, and always had, a certain amount of stigma about it where it’s something you don’t want to talk about it … Things are becoming much more open about it.”

The positive is for people to learn how to deal with mental illness and how people can help.

“The better it is understood, the better it is for everybody,” he said, adding he believes society is changing to accept and understand mental illness.

So what advice does Brooklyn have for anyone who is struggling?

“You can’t be ashamed of it,” she says. “Sometimes you just wake up and you’re feeling different. You have no control over it. It’s not our fault. A little bit of a chemical imbalance in our brain, it’s not our doing, it’s not the guy upstairs, it’s the cards we’re dealt. Maybe it’s the journey we were meant to take.

“Don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone too much, you’re ready when you’re ready. There’s no need to force it. Sometimes there’s a learning curve, sometimes you have to have a bit of a breakthrough moment where it comes to head and you just can’t handle it anymore. Sometimes you have to reach that point.”

To the people who feel like they need some help, she says don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who you feel comfortable with, someone who knows you really well. Someone who doesn’t just know the depression or the anxiety.

“Really try to focus on the people who make you feel like the best version of yourself.”

She also recommends keeping a journal. You can bring that to a doctor because that can be easier than talking about how your feeling. There are a lot of resources available … suicide hotlines, public awareness events, and lot of individuals who will lend a helping hand.

“It’s about mustering up the courage to ask,” she says. “It’s really worth it. Do what you’re comfortable with. Do things that will make it easier on you. Keep silent doesn’t help.

“It’s made me into the best version of myself that I’ve even known. I’m much more empathetic, understanding, stronger. Even in the moments where I feel happiness and joy, it’s extreme joy.

“If reaching out and getting help is going to get you to a point where you’re going to feel happiness again, well that’s just what you want to do.”