The last thing Stephen Harman remembers about July 25, 2014, was holding a bottle of anti-anxiety pills in one hand and a container of industrial alcohol in the other.
He’d harboured secret thoughts over the previous six months about shooting himself in the head. Since he didn’t own a gun, these two bottles would have to do.
The next few hours were — and still are — a complete blank for the owner of a sculpture foundry southwest of Red Deer.
Harman doesn’t remember consuming the alcohol and pills. But he was found stumbling across his backyard towards his shop by a couple of his employees, who noticed his incapacitation and rushed him to hospital in Red Deer.
They saved his life, but Harman — a married father of three who had everything to live for — had yet to figure out how to survive.
Less than a year later, he believes he has climbed out of “a deep, dark place” of depression.
He wants to tell his story to puncture any remaining stigma about mental illness, and to let others know there’s hope.
“Once it all starts to come together for you, you want to shout it from the roof tops,” said the affable 49-year-old. “I know there are so many people suffering, and I want those people to know there’s help out there — a lot of help.”
After spending 10 weeks in hospitals in Red Deer and Ponoka, Harman tried various therapy options in the community — including a free, very helpful group session run by Alberta Addiction Services (formerly AADAC) in the Provincial Building.
He also did a lot of personal reading, and believes he’s found the way to happiness by combining meditation with group therapy and anti-depressant medication.
“It was like a light went off in his brain three months ago,” said his wife Jen, who’s relieved to be past the “devastating” events of last year. She feels she no longer has to worry about her husband’s state of mind, saying “he bounces out of bed in the morning and can’t wait to get up and see the kids.”
By learning to live in the moment, Harman feels he can enjoy simple things, like the methodical process of making coffee, which he considers to be very like meditation. “You can think of your brain as a wide blue sky and all your thoughts — positive or negative — are like clouds that come and go,” to be acknowledged, but not obsessed over.
He feels this allows him to suppress the overload of anxiety and fear chemicals released by his lower “fight, flight or freeze” brain, so his higher brain’s reasoning power can kick in.
While he was in the grips of depression, he remembers entering his deadline-oriented foundry, which cast such high-profile statues as Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox installations for Vancouver. He would immediately “shut down” from the profusion of stress hormones being released into his body.
Harman used to think he was just tired, moody and unmotivated. To fully function, he would drink alcohol, which temporarily soothed his anxiety but caused other problems.
Harman has now quit drinking and achieves serenity through the “mindfulness” technique he first learned through Alberta Addiction Services and continues to hone in yoga classes. The four-minute daily meditation exercise is best summarized by author Sam Harris in his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
“It is so useful, it’s unbelievable,” said Harman.
He also takes the anti-depression medication Effexor, and continues with weekly group therapy at Addiction Services. The sessions include people from all walks of life — from the homeless to seemingly-functional professionals. “I’ve come to realize we’re all the same,” he said.
Everybody is just trying to be happy.
“Sometimes I think, it’s so unfair. Here we are, the six of us, sitting around (the group therapy table), learning all of this incredibly useful, powerful information about life and happiness. …
“And there’s the rest of the world, walking around blindly, wondering ‘Why am I experiencing this road rage? Why is my anger so overwhelming?’ Well, it’s the lower brain taking over.”
Harman has no idea why his mood slipped at about age 40, except he was told by a psychiatrist that he fits all five markers for people at high risk of suicide — he’s male, middle aged, with a high IQ, a stressful job and family history of mental illness.
His older sister was bipolar and killed herself when she was 37 in 1998. His grandmother suffered from mental illness. And his aunt and great-grandfather also committed suicide.
“When I was younger, I couldn’t understand why anyone could be depressed,” he recalled. “I would sympathize and try to understand, but I thought life is so good, how can you be depressed when there are so many opportunities?”
Now he realizes there isn’t a life out there — not his, not the late actor Robin Williams’s — that’s so amazing it’s immune from depression.
There should be absolutely no stigma about asking for help, he stressed. “No one is embarrassed to talk about cancer. …”
Yet one of his sons showed him a statistic that states only 10 per cent of people with depression seek help for it. And only a 10th of that small number go back a second time.
“He’s so impressed by his dad right now,” said Harman, with a wide grin.
Other resources the Harman family found helpful were family counselling sessions at Red Deer Family Services and information provided by the local Alberta Mental Health office.