Cleoni Crawford, 33, a student in the transition to post-secondary education (TPE) program at George Brown College (GBC) has turned her experiences with mental illness, and newfound self-acceptance, into motivation.
“Once you’ve accepted it yourself, you learn more about your illness and learn how to advocate for yourself,” says Crawford.
Suffering from bipolar one disorder, Crawford describes her life as being an uphill battle fighting for acceptance.
“When I first came into the knowledge of having bipolar disorder, I resisted it,” said Crawford.
According to Here to Help, a project of the B.C. Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, when you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s easy to wonder if you caused it yourself. Close family members may blame themselves, but no one is immune from mental health problems and it isn’t a moral weakness or flaw in your character.
“Just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you are not human,” said Crawford.
After being diagnosed in 2005, she was afraid. But Crawford says that she didn’t accept her disorder until 2012, when she says things went “crazy.”
Bipolar Disorder as described by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), is a serious medical condition causing sufferers to have extreme mood swings, affecting the way they behave and function.
Consisting of three states affecting both functioning and behaviour, those who suffer from bipolar one disorder will experience a high state called mania, a low state called depression as well as a well state in which the person will feel and function normally.
Though she was previously a student in GBC’s fashion and design program, and the winner of the JVS Outstanding Youth Award, her studies ended abruptly after a heated argument with a former classmate left her with an “assault with a weapon” charge.
The charges were withdrawn, but she was suspended from the college for one year with the request for a psychological assessment. She says she felt as though she was treated unfairly.
“In 2011 after I lost my job and things started to get progressively worse, I finally had my first real, serious, manic episode,” said Crawford.
Unsure if she had psychosis, but describing herself as delusional, the episode lead to a series of events including being homeless, losing friends, five hospital stays and 12 days in prison after being arrested for assaulting a Canadian Border Services officer during a manic episode.
After ending up in CAMH for 17 days in the summer of 2013 she entered a serious depression and that was when she realized there was something seriously wrong.
“I switched from mania to depression,” said Crawford. “I tried to hang myself, I tried to stab myself, I looked up on the internet how to find a cheap gun, I looked up how to overdose on your pills, I tried to overdose on my pills, I tried to jump off a few bridges, I would try to hang myself daily.”
After choosing to take medication, attending peer-support groups and seeing counsellors, she found inspiration through connecting with others who were also suffering from the symptoms of bipolar disorder; shortly afterwards she entered the TPE program at GBC.
“My religious faith really helped me, and those sporadic phone calls that I would get to try and stop me from what I was doing, and it would drive me nuts because I really wanted to die,” said Crawford.
Crawford is currently in the process of creating a new talk show called Happy Home 42, a new weekly talk show that will air on television that will help raise awareness for mental illness, while discussing trending topics, from a Christian perspective, over the set of a dinner table, according to her website iamcleoni.com.
“The whole idea around sitting around a dinner table is if you want to talk about mental illness or any other topics, the best place is to start is around the dinner table,” said Crawford.
According to Crawford’s website, so far the show has raised $740 out of the $7,000 she’s hoping to raise to cover the costs of production and airtime.
With a love for social media, she is in the process of developing her new social media business. She believes that social media “gives us an opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals across the globe and that is exciting.”
After finding comfort in sharing her experiences, she is helping others to share theirs as well.
Although mental illness had been a burden in her life, it became a blessing in disguise and inspiration for her current work.
“You are not alone,” says Crawford. “You can thrive, you can be healthy, you can live a good life.”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of the Canadian population has experienced mental illness.
“I believe my past has afforded me the ability to relate to many different people on different levels of their mental illness journey,” says Crawford. “Despite my past, I am confident that I will be able to show people that no matter what life has dished you, you can overcome it and you can turn it around for good as I am doing with this new talk show.”