Wendy Matthews spent a long time waiting. Waiting to get better. Waiting to have a normal life. Waiting for something different to come her way.
Then one day, she thought of something she’d never thought about before. Maybe she was already there. Maybe she already had the thing she was waiting for.
So Matthews, 42, decided to stop waiting. And in a way, she surrendered herself to an illness that had not only consumed most of her life, but nearly stole it from her.
She accepted who she was. Illness and all.
She realized that the normal life she desperately wanted was just a mirage. That no one really has a normal life. Everyone has something.
Matthews’s something is a mental illness. Bipolar schizoaffective disorder. It causes her to fluctuate between deep pits of depression and high peaks of mania. It also brings on delusional beliefs and hallucinations.
To look at her, to talk to her, it’s likely you’d never know. She is not sick. She manages symptoms with medication and support from family and friends.
And she is happy. Finally, happy.
“You can’t live in your illness,” she says. “It will keep you down.”
Life changed back in the summer of 2007 when she got up in front of a crowd of people at the annual Canadian Mental Health Association banquet and told her story. The truth that she had hid from everyone except close family for so long was out there. For everyone to see.
Then something else happened. She woke up one morning with three words in her head: happy being me. It fit her life perfectly. It was a message she wanted others to hear. She used the words to empower her.
These days, she is an entrepreneur. Her “happy being me” message appears on a line of T-shirts along with a family of happy stick people. It’s about loving the person within.
Matthews will be one of several local artists at a exhibition at the Niagara Gallery in Niagara Falls. The artwork — paintings, hand-crafted canes, photographs and comic book cartoons — will be on display during Mental Health Week, May 4-11.
Mental Health Week encourages people to take care of themselves more than ever. People need to focus on the parts of their lives that work. The part that makes them happy.
“What did Wendy do to start again?” asks Karen Robson, education co-ordinator at the Canadian Mental Health Association. “She had to invest in life. Invest in the parts of life that were working.”
Back in 2007, Matthews was unemployed. Determined to work again, she signed up for the Self Employment Benefit Program, a program designed to help unemployed people start their own business.
Matthews developed a business plan. And for one year she received support from a mentor.
She did all the legwork. All the product development. The marketing. Sourcing out T-shirt companies. She even has a website.
“It was exhilarating,” she says. “Every day there was something new.”
Her shirts are based on a family of stick people. Mary is the woman. Norm, the man. He’s named after her husband. There are also babies. Children. Tweens. And teenagers. They all have the same eyes, shaped after the way Matthews’s 17-year-old son Dyllan smiles.
Her happy characters are fun. Simple. And all come with the trademarked motto, happy being ME.
“They were all up in my head,” says Matthews. “But I can’t draw.”
Enter her graphic designer niece, Ashley Brown, who turned Matthews’s vision into reality.
It began with the standard Mary and Norm. And quickly grew into the family members involved in various activities from golf to rowing, yoga to baseball.
There’s even a computer guy. A cellphone gal. A policeman. A nurse. And a fishing guy and gal. There’s a bottoms-up baby, bum in the air and face peering backwards through stick legs.
More are in the works. She can even customize characters for fundraising campaigns.
The shirts range in size from infant to adult plus. There are different colours, styles and fabrics. She offers an eco-line made of bamboo and organic cotton. She sells them online and at various events locally and abroad. She hopes to hire someone to expand the wholesale side of her business.
And Matthews is still telling her story. She’s part of a program where people who’ve experienced a mental illness share their life stories with students and other groups.
Matthews’s story begins with her first suicide attempt. She was 12. She was depressed.
“I thought everybody felt the way I did, and I just couldn’t handle it.”
She describes depression as a thick, dark, wet blanket thrown over her head.
“You can’t breathe. You can’t see past the darkness,” she says. “You can’t lift yourself up because of the weight.”
One day, she took a bunch of pills, then went for a walk. She felt sick. But she didn’t die.
She came home late. Her parents yelled at her. They didn’t know what she’d done. Matthews went to bed, expecting to die in the night. She didn’t.
Through high school, she drank heavily. Then in her 20s, she gave that up for cutting herself. Not to kill herself, but to relieve pain.
“It felt worse than how I felt inside,” she says.
Over the years, she tried about 10 times to end her life. She almost succeeded when she was 25. Her son was nine months old. She took a lot of pills. If her husband hadn’t found her, she likely would have died.
Up until then, she had kept her illness hidden from everyone.
In the years that followed, she worked hard to keep the secret by pretending she was happy. She invited her son’s friends over to play. Joined the PTA at her son’s school. (She had to sleep all day in order to have enough strength to cook dinner and make it to the meeting.) And she made sure she looked good.
“The worse I felt, the better I looked,” she says.
Then she broke her silence. She shared it first at the CMHA meeting in 2007 and in a newspaper feature.
Matthews still experiences symptoms. She has problems with sleep, often waking up to a voice screaming her name. Sometimes she hears voices and static, like a radio caught between two channels. She finds a balance between living with the side-effects of medication and living with the symptoms of the illness.
They are just a part of her.
She’s also acutely self-aware of when depression creeps in.
She knows the signs, mostly a withdrawal from public events and an unwillingness to go out with friends. When that happens, she sees her doctor. Right away. She knows the rewards.
“You get to participate in life instead of looking at it from the outside,” she says.
“There is joy.”
To learn more about Wendy Matthews, visit her website at www.happybeingme.com