By Linda Ruiter, Student Accessibility Services
Between biathlon workouts, hiking trips or planning her next volunteer adventure to Guatemala, Augustana’s Rachel Burkinshaw-Zelko is finishing up a physical education major in Kinesiology and Sport Studies, with a psychology minor.
Petite, well-toned, perky haircut, ready smile and twinkling doe-eyes – Rachel looks as though she has the world by the tail.
She also lives with a depressive disorder and anxiety.
These days, depression, the shadowy stalker that could and often did defeat her, is much diminished in size and terror. But Rachel admits that depression is, and likely will be, a constant presence in her life, one she will need to stay alert to.
Depression seems to have come to a critical stage in her early teens. Rachel grew up in a happy home, raised by her mother and grandparents. Her beloved Granddad was a father to her, her Nana a second mother.
The security of family was suddenly undermined, however, when Rachel had to move to a new home and new city with her recently married mother. Already shaken by the loss she felt at leaving her grandparents and living in a strange city, Rachel now also found herself the target of school bullies.
“I didn’t recognize what it was at that time…I just kept saying to myself, I’m strong, I can do it.”
During this difficult period, when depression and anxiety was surfacing, Rachel got on as best she could. “I didn’t recognize what it was at that time and didn’t really do anything about it. I just kept saying to myself, I’m strong, I can do it.”
Then Rachel’s cherished grandfather died. At seventeen, crushed by grief, her depression intensified and Rachel found herself contemplating suicide. She knew then that it was not normal sadness. Spurred by fear, Rachel sought refuge with a trusted counsellor and slowly regained a fragile confidence. She began to prepare for university.
At Augustana, though, Rachel’s thin armour buckled. Unable to cope with the pressures of school, she began to see a recommended psychologist. Thus she entered into what would become a long and turbulent battle with her demons.
“People with anxiety will understand,” says Rachel, “It is a constant, constant burden. It takes control over your life.” As well as mental agony, it is physical. “It is like a knot in the middle of the chest that won’t go away…like a ball of energy that wants to break loose but can’t.”
In second year, Rachel finally confided in one of her instructors who introduced her to Student Accessibility Services. A reduced course load and modest exam accommodations provided some respite and Rachel found herself regaining enough resolve and energy to get by.
“I was in an endless cycle of negativity, of crippling self-deprecation.”
Yet, it wasn’t until her third year that Rachel made a major breakthrough. “I had a total melt down, train wreck situation in the first semester – big crash – spending days in bed, no motivation to even get up in the mornings, the worst I’d been since high school.” She wasn’t attending classes. “I was in an endless cycle of negativity, of crippling self-deprecation.”
Rachel had been telling herself she should be better by now and had revived her old mantra of “I’m strong. I can do it myself.” She insisted to others she was making good progress. She lied to everyone, including herself and her nowadays “on again, off again,” counsellor.
A turning point came when, of necessity, she told the truth – she wasn’t okay, she needed help. Then, surprise to her – “I started getting a huge influx of support from my family and friends …people who loved me.” The message? No one else saw her as a failure for needing support, for not being able to go it alone. It had been a self-inflicted belief.
This time Rachel committed to working on her depression at a deeper level with her counsellor and, for the first time, after years of resistance, began to consider medication. In the past Rachel believed that if she “gave in” to medication, she would have lost [the battle]. But, in order to do the hard work that she would need to do in counselling, she knew that she had to find a way to function first. Rachel saw a psychiatrist. After trial and error, she eventually had success with an anti-depressant that would amend a biological imbalance of norepinephrine and dopamine, and the unrelenting fatigue and despair subsided.
Intensified psychotherapy enabled Rachel to gain the tools and insight that would give her life. Through counselling she was ultimately able to uncover significant themes of loss in her life and a deep-seated, self-destructive belief that she was unworthy, undeserving of love or acceptance. “Who knows where that came from or when I adopted that story, but it was stuck so deep in my mind, in my subconscious, that all my actions, behaviours, thoughts and emotions were affected. It was a lot of what fuelled my depression. And I didn’t know this until I was able to say it out loud with my counsellor.”
“… now that I know how, I have the upper hand …
I’ve got the tools and the support.”
Through counselling supports, Rachel no longer allows negative thoughts to stay in her mind and poison her emotions. “I still have those thoughts,” she admits, “but instead of having them stick there and pull me down, control me, I let them go. I tell myself, this isn’t me – this is my depression talking. It will always be a struggle, I’ll always have to work at it, but now that I know how, I have the upper hand – because I’ve got the tools and the support.”
She has learned to focus on the present. “If I’m feeling sad at some point…it doesn’t mean I’ll be sad forever…sometime, probably in the near future, I’ll be happy again. Life is all about those ups and downs, they are two ends of the scale – you can’t have happiness without sadness. It is going with the flow, allowing the emotions to come and then allowing them to leave again.”
Telling her story is an opportunity to educate, to encourage,
and to perhaps inspire hope for others.
When asked about disclosing her disability, Rachel confesses that it isn’t easy. She knows it makes her vulnerable. “There was a time when I wasn’t comfortable with it and I think that is due to the stigma around mental illness in general.” But now she sees it as an opportunity to educate, to encourage and to perhaps inspire hope for others. This is her story though, she emphasizes, and no one solution works for everyone.
Today, she is motivated only to do her best. “I try not to compare myself with others because that’s a bad road to go down. I strive to become better in whatever I’m doing, [whether it is dealing with] depression, school, biathlon…”
Rachel urges us to think of wellness as encompassing many facets – mental, spiritual and physical, and encourages fellow students to strive for health on all levels.
Note: Along with 15 fellow Augustana students, Rachel was accepted into and is currently active in the first cohort of the Interdisciplinary Leadership study program with the Peter Lougheed Leadership College.
Resources in Camrose
Camrose Health Services