Sold-out crowd for emotional mental-health talk

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Kelly and Kaitlin Hrudey bared it all at the Arden

“You’ve got to put in the work,” Kelly Hrudey told the sold-out crowd at the Arden Theatre last Friday night. “There’s just no other way.”

The question of “How do we get through this?” is one asked at one point or another by anyone struggling with their own mental illness or that of a loved one, and it was asked at the St. Albert Community Foundation’s youth mental health awareness event.

The short answer is that there is no easy path. The only solution is hard work every day to overcome those challenges.

Kelly and his daughter, Kaitlin, shared the story of their own hard work in an often-emotional discussion that touched on the highs and the lows of their struggles as a family over the last decade dealing with Kaitlin’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yet a half-hour before going on stage in front of a full house, Kaitlin was remarkably calm, without a hint of anxiety about speaking in public – and about something so personal, no less.

“When I was first going through it, and even up to a couple years ago, I was so embarrassed to be going through it. Even my closest friends didn’t know,” she said. “If someone would have told me in Grade 7 that I would be talking to people about my story, I wouldn’t ever have believed them.”

Yet a short hour later, up on stage in front of the crowd, she laid it all out there for a group of strangers.

Her anxiety began to manifest in the summer before Grade 7 as voices in her head would convince her she had one disease or another. The anxiety was such that she couldn’t even go to school, and it all came to a head on the first day of school when she simply couldn’t get out of the car.

“I couldn’t deal with what was happening in my head any more,” she recalled. “I finally cracked from it all.”

The pain her illness caused her family was apparent when, even a decade later, Kelly had to fight through the emotion to explain the impact that moment had on them.

“My wife told me, ‘If only you could have seen the look of fear on her face,’ ” he said, fighting back tears at the recollection.

They related that it took years of hard work, setting small goals one after another, to get to the point where there were more good days than bad. First she worked on spending the whole day at school, then on spending time in the classroom, then spending full days in a classroom, and so on.

During that time, the work would include hours-long breathing exercises, sometimes several times a week, where the two would sit in their favourite spot and just breathe.

While things were up and down, with Kaitlin ultimately having more good days than bad, things again became incredibly dire a few years ago when she went to university. The voices came back, and again became incredibly controlling to the point she wouldn’t even leave her dorm room to go to class.

It was again through tears they related some of the pain the journey back to Calgary entailed, along with the weeks leading up to it. Kaitlin had threatened suicide on several occasions, and it was one of the darkest times during her entire struggle.

But while emotions ran high during the discussion, the Hrudeys were also able to look at the experience and see the humour in it, sharing several laughs with the crowd including making some jokes about Kaitlin’s hypochondria.

“I think Kaitlin’s had every disease out there. Just last week you were saying you had leukemia,” Kelly said with a smirk. “How’s that going for you now?”

“It’s getting better, I think,” she replied with a laugh.

The event ultimately served as inspiration to many of those in attendance, including a group of teenagers who afterwards said they had learned a lot about living with mental illness, the resources available, and how to help their own friends and family who are struggling.

The fact none were willing to share their names with the Gazette, however, illustrates how significant the stigma surrounding mental illness still is, and how we as a community must begin to have these discussions in earnest.

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Doug Neuman