By Minal Abhange
If you’re looking for a feel-good story with a happy ending, this isn’t it.
This is not a tale of redemption, but rather a story more closely resembling the never-ending battle between good and evil. The villain in this story is mental illness and the hero is just a regular guy struggling every day to live his best life.
Laughter and mental illness may not exactly go hand-in-hand, but that doesn’t mean that people in the business of being funny are any less likely to struggle with mental health.
Jeff Patey, a CNA student of the Geomatics / Survey Engineering Technology program, quotes Canadian comedies greatest, icon the late Mike MacDonald: “There are two types of comedians – those who are medicated, and those who are not medicated yet.”
Everyone who knows Jeff well understands how passionate and open he is about discussing mental illness and sharing his own journey. A former stand-up comedian himself, Jeff says reflecting and talking about it helps him feel better, while at the same time, helps others – educating people about the resources available, and most importantly, assuring them they are not alone.
“It feels like there’s this misconception, especially growing up in a small town, that men are mentally stronger than women; that they should cope better, I guess,” Jeff says. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mental illness does not discriminate, and when it strikes, it can be completely overwhelming. But that misconception can make it tough for a guy too, not only admit he has a problem, but to also seek help. It has been a long journey for me personally. I have good days and bad. I just try to take it one day at a time.”
Even today, Jeff struggles to pinpoint exactly when he started to feel something was wrong.
Jeff recalls suffering in silence for many years before actually realizing he had a problem and then admitting it to himself. He even turned to self-medicating with alcohol for a long time.
“I don’t know exactly when my depression started, but I remember suffering for a long while before I finally ran out of things to blame it on. I just kept making excuses – my boss/job, where I lived, a break-up,” he recalls. “Life was going pretty good. I was pursuing the Marine Cooking program, at CNA; something I loved and had recently started seeing a great girl …and all of a sudden it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I felt awful and had no clue why. That’s when I realized that something was wrong, so I decided to see my family doctor.”
Once he decided to visit a doctor to discuss how he felt and got some medication, Jeff says that’s when a new struggle started – the struggle to get better.
“I told the doctor how I felt, and he prescribed some medication and submitted a referral to a physiatrist. I received a letter stating I was on an 18-month wait list, but I was lucky – I got in to see him in 10 months. Once I started the medication, I felt great for about a week. The medication takes six to eight weeks to take effect, so this was what is known as the placebo effect. I was feeling this way, I think, because I was finally doing something about my problem. It was the first step of a lifetime of steps.”
After that first week, the placebo effect wore off and Jeff started to experience the side effects of the medication – all of the side effects! At around the six-week mark, the medication started working, and he started to feel normal again. When it stopped working. he went back to his doctor and the dosage was increased. It lasted another brief period.
By that time, he finally got in to see a physiatrist and he added a second medication to Jeff’s daily intake. This new medication helped keep him level.
“I felt like I was always in the middle, with no highs or lows. While not ideal, this was better than the lows I had been experiencing.”
A native of St. Anthony, Jeff says his family were incredibly supportive, once he finally told them about his struggle. Finding the strength to ask for help was certainly one of the biggest challenges.
“Once I got over the stigma of it and stopped caring about what others might think of me, I had a support system in place almost instantly. However, I’ve come to learn that it is quite difficult for someone who has never struggled with mental illness.
Coping through comedy
While some people might think making people laugh is an easy job, Jeff assures that standing in front of an audience is never easy, especially an audience who judges everything you say and expecting to laugh every few seconds.
“People don’t get into the comedy because they’re happy. Most comics are usually trying to overcome something. I mean, there’s got to be something wrong for a person to willingly stand in front of a room full of strangers and try to make them laugh.”
In spite of the ups and many downs during his experience as a stand-up comedian, Jeff says it was extremely therapeutic.
“I felt I could get away with anything up there on stage. Comedy gave me an outlet where I had permission to do and say pretty much whatever I wanted. If I needed to vent, I could vent. It was therapeutic in a way. While I had a pretty decent first set, they weren’t all good.”
In fact, most weren’t. Sure, if I had a good set, I could ride the high for weeks, but likewise, if I had a bad set, I could ride the low for weeks. There were a lot of lows. This was one of the reasons I decided to walk away from comedy. That said, I often use comedy and humour to help me cope with the daily struggle of my depression and anxiety, just not up on stage in front of a group of strangers!”
While humour may be the best medicine, Jeff knows coping with mental illness is no funny business.
Along his path, he discovered the importance of being positive, trying to find balance in his life, as well as redefining himself and his goals.
“After deciding to return to school, I figured my current medication would be problematic. While I wasn’t experiencing any lows, I didn’t really care about anything and had little to no motivation I was always in the middle and didn’t think that was a good spot to be for learning. My psychiatrist put me on a plan to ween off of the current medication and start a new one.”
Today, Jeff is over five years sober and tries to maintain a healthy lifestyle. He recently started participating in peer support groups, both in St. John’s (Better Days Support Group and Channal Self Help Centre) and in his hometown (St. Anthony and Area Mental Health Peer Support Group), where he can talk about his struggle with people who understand what he’s going through.
“When I went to that first group meeting, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if it was for me. After about an hour and a half of listening to everyone else speak, it was my turn and I struggled to get a word out. I told them that I had done stand-up for seven years and this was the hardest time I’d ever had to talk. Everyone was so supportive though. It was a really great experience. Since then, I’ve found it a bit easier to participate in these groups, and definitely find myself drawing upon my days on stage as an aspiring comic.”
He actually credits getting through a difficult period just this past fall to these peer groups.
“I had been going through a rough patch; my anxiety was worse than it had ever been, I wasn’t sleeping, I was missing classes, and my school work was getting away from me. I hadn’t been to a peer support meeting in quite some time, so I made the decision to force myself to go. I did and everything seemed to snowball from there.”
He met with the campus guidance counsellor and his co-op coordinator, Wanda Flannigan to find solutions.
“They must have spent an hour with me, just listening and trying to understand what I was going through. They ended up coming up with a plan of action that will enable me to complete my program (a little bit longer than initially anticipated, but I’ll complete it nonetheless). This helped tremendously. They cut my anxiety in half that day and I really want to acknowledge them for that.”
Jeff says he is excited about all things positive in his future and is looking forward to pursuing an amazing career as a Geomatics/Survey Engineering Technologist.
“My depression and anxiety might be currently at bay, but it’s still lurking around waiting to strike just like the villains are never far away from the superheroes. I don’t know when and I don’t know why, but I know it will. And when it hits me again, I know I’ll get through it just as I have every other time. I’ll always win the battle, but the war will wage on.”