Photo credit: Neil Zeller Photography
Hi, I’m Lori Gibbs and I have depression. Did you just say ‘Hi, Lori’ and picture us sitting on hard chairs in a church basement? Excellent! I’m also a comedian and radio host. How’s that for an oxymoron of an introduction? Let’s switch out those hard chairs for overstuffed couches draped with comfy pillows and blankets. Because this is not a therapy session. This is simply my way of sharing my story with you to ignite conversation around the unignorable issue of mental illness – because talking about it helps to destigmatize it.
So let’s talk. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as ‘the Black Dog,’ [cue Led Zeppelin]… I tried hard to make a connection between Winnie’s metaphor and the Led Zeppelin song to no avail. However, if I was talking about my depression on stage, having Black Dog as my intro song would be badass. Pardon my rock star fantasy. After doing stand-up comedy for 13 years and morning radio for four it’s hard not to think of things in terms of a show.
Years ago, a comedian named Dan nicknamed me the human antidepressant. Don’t think I don’t see the glaring irony. On a secondary Alberta highway on the way to a gig, Dan’s ear started leaking fluid. We were far from any town, so I rifled through my suitcase looking for something to help. And there it was – one highly-absorbent Always mini-pad. He literally stuck it to the side of his head under his ear. We were thrilled and amused at our ingenuity. Later in the trip, we made up a song called ‘Home’ where we sarcastically lamented about things we missed about home like kids who don’t clean up or roommates who pay utilities late. In between laughs and trying to breathe, he said, “Lori, YOU are a human antidepressant.”
The name has stuck. And there are lots of times I do feel like a human antidepressant.
But there are also times when I am in a black pit and have no idea who I am anymore.
My latest encounter with the Black Dog was in Mexico after Christmas – about a month ago. I knew he’d been circling around for a while. I could see him in my periphery and hoped I could will him to stay away. Oh, if only willing worked.
Here I was, going to one of my favourite places, so sure that simply being in a geographical location with snorkeling nearby would scare the dog away. I joked with a close friend before I left that I couldn’t wait to get into the sea and let the creatures I saw solve all my problems. They’d fill my soul with fresh wonder and firmly pull me towards happiness and away from the dog. But it didn’t happen. The dog had stowed away and was there with me. In my happy place. Ruining everything. Stealing everything.
Instead of waking up in awe of an ocean view and our good fortune to be there, I woke up thinking, “I wish I could sleep longer. When I’m asleep I can’t have dark thoughts. It’s easier.”
I was in an oceanfront suite lying in bed with the curtains drawn wondering where I had gone. I looked around at the people strolling on the beach, eating at restaurants, and enjoying vacation – carefree and soaking up their experiences. And I was so angry at myself for wasting this gift of time at this beautiful place. Yet I couldn’t change it. The black dog had me pinned.
The first time I met the dog was about 20 years ago. My second son was a baby and it was depression of the post-partum variety. I remember feeling so bizarre and unlike myself that I took the phone to my bedroom and called the public health nurse. God love her, she listened, calmed me and got me on the path to getting help. I mean, of course I was going to get help. I’m Lori. I’m happy. My own mother says I came into this world smiling!
Intent on getting happy Lori back, I went to my family doctor who had known me for several years. One thing she said that has always stuck with me is, “Lori, I know you. You wouldn’t choose to feel this way.”
“… You wouldn’t choose to feel this way.”
Darn right I wouldn’t choose this! I know how sweet life can be. I make it my business to find fun in every situation, even the hard ones like a yearly physical (but that’s another story). I can’t be a person who just ‘gets through life,’ never mind one who doesn’t want to get off the couch and has no enthusiasm for anything. But I am sometimes. And over the years I’ve come to realize that that’s okay. For me, a combination of psychology and meds has been invaluable.
I’ve seen the stigma of mental illness fade significantly over the last 20 years; so much so that sometimes I genuinely forget that not everybody is open about it. I wish that people could think of mental health the same as physical health. Physically, if you have a symptom, you go to the doctor, they treat you, and you heal. Shouldn’t mental health be the same?
When we talk about depression and challenges of being mentally healthy, stigma fades.
When we talk about depression and challenges of being mentally healthy, stigma fades. I have decided to talk about it from behind a microphone at 95.9 CHFM and from the comedy stage. What a gift I’ve been given to have these platforms to reach so many people.
Talking about my mental health struggles publicly has been so rewarding that my initial nervousness about sharing my story has been all but forgotten. The best reward is when someone messages me about their own struggle (I screenshot these and save them for when my tank is low) and the connection makes my soul vibrate. For what are we all doing on this earth if not to connect with one another and share our human experience on a deep, solid, goose-bump-inducing level?
The black dog doesn’t have me pinned right now. But I know he’s around and I know we’ll have future visits. My psychologist told me just last week that my homework was to practice self-care because the black dog is very uncomfortable in an environment of self-care. I liked that a lot.
Self-care is becoming both aware and specific about doing what fills one’s mental health tank.
Self-care is becoming both aware and specific about doing what fills one’s mental health tank. It’s not a list from an article on the Internet suggesting a bubble bath or phoning a friend as a cure, but everyday things that make a difference to you. I invite you to write down the things you’re doing when your soul sparkles to start identifying what these things are. And I hope the list will be valuable the next time things get dark or you’re starting to feel lost.
I’m grateful for the opportunities I have that enable me to share this part of me. My hope is that others will find comfort and a path to healing. You might not have a microphone but you have your voice. You have social media. You have your people. And you have access to resources like the Calgary Distress Centre and 211.
I am committed to keeping the conversation going all year. We have no idea just how far a ripple can travel if you dip your toe in the water. But do it when you’re ready. And know that you’re not alone!
Thank you, United Way, for this chance to make a difference. It fills my soul and for this I am deeply grateful.
Thanks to Lori Gibbs for sharing her story! Join the conversation using #UNIGNORABLE to help raise awareness for the unignorable issues affecting our city, like mental health!