The Diagnosis
Reader's Digest Canada|November 2021
For 30 years, Tracey Mellis struggled with a miserable, messy life. Then she found out why.
Bruce Grierson

My mother says I babbled non-stop almost from day one, to the point where they almost named me Brook. Even though I was a tiny child—I’m still under one-and-a-half metres at age 31—I was always the loudest person in the room.

We lived in Langley, B.C. At school, I was a disruptive class clown and a constant daydreamer. It was obvious to my teachers that I wasn’t listening, and they called me on it. In Grade 5, one of them finally raised the issue with my parents. “This girl has to get it together,” he told them. I was a poor reader and writer, lagging behind the class—but mostly it was my absentmindedness that was worrying him. “She’s so easily distracted; she needs discipline.”

The meeting put the fear into my parents, who gave me extra homework every night and sent me to a tutor in the summer. Those things helped because it wasn’t that I couldn’t learn, I just needed someone to sit with me and make me do it.

Along the way, a few teachers made it clear that they knew I was more than capable, since I aced the occasional assignment when I was actually interested. “You have so much potential. Why are you wasting it?” was a common refrain. Hearing that over and over was painful. I began asking myself the same question.

BY THE TIME I WAS 14, I was punching fist-sized holes in my bedroom wall in reaction to perceived slights. My emotions were in overdrive, and even small setbacks made me feel like my world was crashing down. It filled me with so much despair that I sometimes convinced myself I wanted to die. My parents finally sent me to a therapist, but the only thing I remember from those sessions is her telling me I was heading for juvenile delinquency.

I recognized that the anguish I felt couldn’t be normal, and so at age 16 I begged to be sent to a psychiatrist. He started me on antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Within weeks, I began having intense nightmares— like nothing I’d ever experienced—and my depression actually worsened as I became more agitated.

In Grade 11, I began dating a fellow rebel at our very religious school. Lasting a year and a half, the relationship ended up being one of my longest. I was generally boy crazy, falling in love frequently and indiscriminately. The infatuations were a diversion from my own feelings of inadequacy—and I craved the dopamine rush they provided. Usually, though, I’d lose interest quickly and then want nothing to do with them. Guys would also find my intensity overwhelming.

One day, a friend of mine told me she’d spotted my rebel boyfriend with another girl at a hockey game, and that night I swallowed an entire bottle of Ativan. My mom came home from work and found me stumbling around. She rushed me to the hospital, where I was put on IV fluids, monitored for 24 hours and referred to a child psychiatrist.

For the next couple of years, my parents and doctors closely watched me. Meanwhile, I was just so tired of being told by the adults in my life to simply “snap out of it” and get back on track. While my peers geared up for big and bright futures, I could only see mine disappearing.

At 18, I was on so many medications that, one afternoon while I was doing some filing for my dad at his work, I fell asleep under the desk. He called the psychiatrist and said, “What did you give my kid? She’s totally out of it!”

I temporarily stopped taking all the meds after that—long enough to pick up a little clarity and energy, and pass high school.

MY VIEW OF MYSELF swung between two poles: I was either a genius prodigy or a total failure, bedridden with anxiety and unable to get to class.

After a year at community college to bump up my GPA, I was able to transfer to Simon Fraser University, where I hoped to discover a career I could stick with and find meaningful. I’d be extremely productive for a semester or two but then completely lose interest and push pause on my studies to instead work full-time as a veterinary assistant in my hometown. At the animal hospital, I felt oddly at peace among the chaos of emergencies and big emotions. It kept me distracted from my own problems, at least while I was on shift.

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