Suzanne Venuta’s memories of her childhood are vague and incomplete. The age of four was the first time she remembers wanting to die, and by the age of 12, she was drinking to withdraw from her reality. But from a very young age, her most effective way of escaping the horrible abuse was in her mind.
“Because of the abuse and the neglect that happened to me when I was a child, I created what’s called dissociative identity disorder (DID),” she said. “The only way I could escape was in my mind, so I created a persona that the abuse was happening to – it wasn’t happening to the core me and that’s how I got through it.”
Venuta was the 2018 winner in the Mental Health category of Coast Mental Health’s Courage to Come Back Awards for her work to reduce the stigma of mental health and to raise awareness for DID. At the awards ceremony in May, Venuta accepted the award alongside recipients in the addiction, medical, physical rehabilitation and youth categories.
With the nomination deadline for the 2019 awards coming up at the end of January, Venuta hopes Comox Valley residents will think of people in their lives who are deserving of this recognition because for her, winning the award showed her that she is making a difference.
“This award encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing and change the world one conversation at a time,” she said in her acceptance speech in May.
Months later, sitting in a coffee shop in her hometown of Comox, Venuta recounts once again the story she has told time and time again to high school and post-secondary students, medical professionals and the media – the story of her journey towards a correct mental illness diagnosis, and the steps she has taken since, to create conversation and change.
“I never know where my words, written or spoken, are going to land or who they’re going to help.”
As a child, Venuta suffered horrible abuse and neglect at the hands of her father. In school, she was bullied and thought she was dumb because of a learning disability she didn’t know she had. She developed depression, anxiety and complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to the ongoing trauma she experienced throughout the first 20 years of her life.
“Everything I experienced either was dangerous, was a threat of danger, so I had to constantly be on guard 24 hours a day for anything,” she said. “That’s not really a very healthy way to view the world when you’re an adult, but it’s the old coping mechanism that kept me alive back then.”
Though she began receiving mental health treatment as an adult, including attending support groups, some things still weren’t lining up. She struggled with an unhealthy coping mechanism and was admitted to a psychiatric unit multiple times to stabilize.
It wasn’t until 2003, at the age of 44, she was finally correctly diagnosed with DID.
“When I got the correct diagnosis, it was like, ‘Thank Christ, I’m not crazy.’ And then the dots started coming together and I was like, ‘Holy … I must be crazy’,” she said. “The only understanding I had was what was on TV, what was portrayed in the media.”
She said a common misconception of DID is that people with the disorder have two or more drastically different personalities, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In reality, when a person switches, it looks more like subtle mood swings.
She adds that even in the medical profession, DID is misunderstood, but says, “I am proof of what can happen with the correct diagnosis and support.”
After learning as much as she could about the disorder and learning how to deal with it herself, Venuta got up the courage to do a presentation at a local school about her journey and how to successfully live with a mental illness. After receiving a positive reaction from students, she began doing more school presentations, and began speaking to post-secondary psychology, medical and social work students.
“I’ve been down to hell and back so many times, I tell the kids I should get Air Mile points,” she laughed.
Among other things, she has also written articles in newspapers, maintains three blogs, and volunteers time as a peer support worker with Outward Bound Canada’s Women of Courage program for women who have experienced violence or abuse.
She says though the conversations about mental health have improved and become more prominent, there is still a long way to go.
“We’re talking the talk, we need to walk the walk,” she said. “Even still, we’re not getting enough of the talk.”
She emphasizes the need to normalize conversations about mental health, and ensure people have access to the help and support they need.
In the meantime, she hopes her journey will demonstrate the need for change and inspire others to have the courage to come back.
“I’m just the average Joe and I’ve been through a lot of crap, but life’s good.”
The deadline to nominate someone for Coast Mental Health’s Courage to Come Back Awards in the addiction, medical, mental health, physical rehabilitation and youth categories is Jan. 31.