Hello, my name is Michelle Auerbach, and my life definitely didn’t go as planned
. When I was younger, I had high hopes for my future, just like any other kid. In elementary school I had visions of being a world-renowned author, and in high school that turned into dreams of becoming a world-renowned photographer. Now, some those dreams may have been on their way to being achieved, had I not been kicked in the butt by my mental and physical health.
In the middle of high school, I began a serious struggle with depression, anxiety, and a mood disorder. I remember mustering up the courage to tell my mom that I thought I needed help. I had been attending a very competitive private school and I felt all of these changes happening to my mind. Many days, I just couldn’t make it out of bed. My world was very dark for me at that time, yet I kept asking myself why this was so. I had great friends and the most loving family, so it made no sense to me why I was so depressed. But I was a captive of my own mind, and I couldn’t escape it. It got to a point where I would have done almost anything just to stop living. Not necessarily because I wanted to die, but because I couldn’t take another day of feeling so horrible. I ended up going inpatient for about a year toward the end of high school and I eventually graduated high school solely thanks to the incredible people at this rehabilitation house. Needless to say, I am eternally grateful to them. That treatment center genuinely saved my life, many, many times. I lived there with other kids, and we each had our own issues. Some had mood disorders like me, some had behavioural issues, some had eating disorders, and some paralyzing anxiety, but everyone’s story was unique. We all supported each other during the hard times we had in there, especially having to be away from our parents.
When I got out of the treatment center, I was feeling pretty good. I had a pretty good handle on my mental health and was in a good place. So I applied to the Professional Photography program at Dawson. Photography had been my creative outlet through years of depression, and I hoped I could do something great with it. I was ecstatic to hear that I got into the program, and I truly enjoyed my first semester there. Shortly after starting though, strange thinks began happening to my body. It started with mind-numbing fatigue. My muscles seemed to be deteriorating and taking public transit to school was becoming increasingly difficult. Walking was becoming a challenge and I felt weak and exhausted – something was obviously wrong. Nonetheless, my tests were coming back clear, and my Type 1 diabetes and thyroid disease definitely weren’t the culprits, so all the doctors could do was shrug their shoulders.
Here began a 3-year medical investigation that is still not quite over. These last few years have been many things. They have been hard. Very hard. They have been eye opening. A lot of things happened in these 3 years. I’ve had stroke-like episodes that landed me in the ER for days at a time. My limbs would go numb and I’d lose my vision. I developed ataxia and gait problems and was stuck using a walker for a while. My bladder slowly developed issues until it went into full retention and I had to run to the ER to be catheterized. I’d never imagined that I’d be catheterized at the age of 23. Through some not-so-fun tests, I was diagnosed with bladder-sphincter dyssynergia, a form of neurogenic bladder, of which we still don’t know the cause.
All of these things were happening to me, but no one could explain why. I was a mystery. One of my doctors started calling me mystery girl. I laugh, but being “mystery girl” sucks. We put some of my movement issues down to being medication-induced, but no one really knew. And the concept of not knowing causes a lot of anxiety, especially for someone who is already prone to anxiety. Mental turmoil is what I like to call it.
The mental toll of this mystery illness was huge. Dealing with the unknown, and not knowing what is going to happen next is a scary thing. A doctor shrugging at you while you are losing your ability to walk properly at the age of 20 is a scary thing. The isolation caused by not being able to travel far from your house is a scary thing. There were so many nights of tears, of wondering why things couldn’t just be easy for once, of wondering if I would ever be able to lead a semi-normal life.
So here I am. I’m about 9 years from when this battle started and on some days I win and on other days I lose. But when I write my story for you, and I see all that I’ve been through, I feel pride. I see all the things that I didn’t think I’d make it through and yet, here I am. I am currently doing rehabilitation at Constance Lethbridge and we’re working on my ataxia, my strength, and my fine motor skills. I have people on my team. And I have to believe that one of these days, when the time is right, I will have a name for this illness that has put such a hold on my life.
The way I get through it all? Raising awareness. It’s all I can do, and it’s something everyone can do. Every bit of awareness makes a difference. Every time you teach someone something that they didn’t know about your illness, or the illness of a loved one, you’re changing the world little by little. You’re making the world a little bit easier to live in for people living with that illness.
On a final note, when you’re going about your day and running into strangers; be kinder than you feel like being. These illnesses, whether they be mental or physical, are often invisible to others. The guy checking you out at the cash register, give him an extra smile, because maybe right before his shift started he had an anxiety attack and is struggling to find the will to live. The girl walking slowly in front of you that you want to push out of the way, maybe she has an invisible illness and is using all her strength to take those steps. You never know. Everyone has their own story and you can’t know it just looking at them.