Frosted Tips


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I wasn’t sure how to respond to the cheerful text from the unknown number that said something along the lines of “Hey, I heard you told some people about your mental illness this one time – wanna do it again, except to a crowd of strangers? We won’t pay you but there’s free food.” What kind of free food? They had springrolls. I was in.

The gig was at the University of Toronto Scarborough, aka the campus whose mascot is a trash panda, and the place that supported me through the toughest years of my undergrad. I say “years” because I dropped courses like winter mittens, depending where my mood fell on the Richter scale. They say you can’t feel anything below a 2.0, and I’d honestly have to agree. I was already numb by the time my professor pulled me aside after class, and told me I needed a break. I think I was just scared to stop moving.

They say you can’t feel anything below a 2.0, and I’d honestly have to agree.

They had asked me to read “Partly Cloudy” – my winning entry to last year’s campus-wide creative writing contest – at the launch of the university’s landmark mental health magazine. I said yes, used the last of my printer ink to print the story, then got to campus and decided that it wasn’t happening. Upon obsessively re-reading the initial text, I was worried about the part where they wanted to “humanize” mental health. I was worried that maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job.

Because while “Partly Cloudy” is true, and it’s sad, and it’s important, it’s also what people are expecting when they hear about mental illness – 6 am bridge walks and sadness. Those are the stories that garner the most attention, and maybe that’s because they fit in with what people think they know. Last month, I was featured – without my knowledge – in a university newspaper article about creative writing. It was chock full of interesting tidbits like “Leanne Simpson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age, and she uses her writing to share her experiences of living with the disorder and surviving a suicide attempt.”

Fun fact – I also use my writing to share deep life talks with my dog, argue why ketchup tastes good on everything, and reminisce about that time I seriously asked my friend if salmonella came from salmon (it doesn’t). But for some reason, as soon as the m-bomb drops, the other parts of your biographical statement fade into the background. In one sentence, someone appropriated my life story and outed me to an entire student population, which was the real reason I wore heels on a Wednesday – U of T needed the straight goods on mental health (also springrolls – I cannot stress this enough).

I dragged my boyfriend to the event, mostly because he’s a better human than me, and I trusted that he wouldn’t let me abort mission if I got anxious. It was a good decision, because I got anxious almost immediately.

The first person I recognized was a coworker from my old job at UTSC Athletics. I use the word “coworker” fairly loosely, because I’m not sure how to articulate “girl who replaced me as customer service rep after I couldn’t stop scaring the customers with my tears.” She was holding a gym bag full of balls, and held a microphone in her hand: “Alright everyone, let’s get you on your feet! Please grab yourself a nametag and break into groups of eight. We’re going to do a bit of a name game – with dodgeballs!”

Everyone around me shuffled away from the seating area. I didn’t move.

“Come on babe,” said my boyfriend (his name is James, by the way), “It looks like that group needs a few more people.”

“I can’t even believe this,” I muttered.

“What’s wrong?”

My voice went from a whisper to Ariana Grande real quick. “Do they even know who they’re talking to? Did anyone stop and think about who this event is really for?!”

James hustled me out of the stage area, and into the cold. We watched people toss balls at each other, stonefaced, from the bike racks.

“You know what’s one of the most prevalent mental health disorders? Anxiety. You know who absolutely dreads the thought of icebreakers? People with anxiety and also anyone with a fucking soul!”

He rubbed my back vigorously, as if it would get all the swearing out of me before I took the stage.

It didn’t work.

“It’s just so fucking typical to have a bunch of psych students who want to change the goddamn world, but don’t know how to listen. They’re not taught that they need to listen to understand a problem that doesn’t come from a textbook. What if there was one person who knew they were having mental health issues, and got brave enough to come out to this, and they were called out of their comfort zone? That person wouldn’t come back. They wouldn’t open up again.”

I’ve never been that great with surprises, or waiting, or patience, or tennis. Mostly tennis.

I caught a glimpse of our friend Trevor – who happens to be a member of our super-exclusive anxiety club – walking up towards the doors.

“Guess what they’re doing right now,” I yelled, running at him. “Icebreakers. Goddamn icebreakers.”

I’ve never been that great with surprises, or waiting, or patience, or tennis. Mostly tennis.

“Do you want to leave? I’ve got my car,” he said.

I stopped. “I could really use a Frosty right now.”

Honestly, I could really use a Frosty always.

I went back over to where James was sitting. “We’re going for Frostys,” I said, “Because 1) they’re hiding the food right now, and 2) if a magazine devoted to mental health doesn’t get it, then who will?”

James shrugged. “Then go talk about it,” he said.

And for the first time in my entire life, my moral compass won out over ice cream.

“Hi there,” I said to a roomful of strangers, “My name is Leanne Simpson. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and didn’t finish high school. Three years ago, I failed out of university, went off my meds, and tried to throw myself off a bridge. Two years ago, I lost my job because I forgot how to smile, and wound up in the psych ward. This morning, I didn’t participate in class because my meds were making my speech slur. Ten minutes ago, I had a panic attack because of an ice breaker.”

I snuck a look at the organizers, and hoped they didn’t think I was ungrateful. I was just trying to be human.

“But this is only one half of the story. Five years ago, I chose to attend U of T even though I sometimes wasn’t sure who I was, or how long I would be there for. Four years ago, I discovered writing. Three years ago, I published my first story. Last year, I won a full scholarship to complete my Master’s at Ryerson University. My family told me not to go. I am now halfway through my degree and working at the university’s writing centre. In my last job interview, I told them I had bipolar disorder. They hired me on the spot.”

I took a deep breath, tried not to see faces. Saw all the faces. They were listening.

“There are tough days. Today, for me, is a tough day. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – my experiences have blessed me with a perspective that not everyone gets to have, and one that not everyone gets to share. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t be afraid of your stuff – don’t be afraid to talk about it – because you might inspire someone else to talk about theirs. Listen. Ask questions. And smile when they understand – because that quiet understanding is the most important feeling in the world. Six years in, I’ve started to get it, and I think you do too. Thank you.”

I shoved the mic into the emcee’s hands, and hurried to the wings, glancing backwards just long enough to see the entire audience on their feet.

I wish I could tell you that I handled it with grace, but then I’d be a goddamn liar.

“Frostys. Now.” I hissed, abandoning the springrolls to grab Trevor and James and drag them into the night.

Baby steps, my friends.

How did this story make you feel?


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I love this 🙂

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That’s great! I also have bipolar disorder and although I struggle almost every day, I’ve learned ways around it. I’m such a people pleaser I’ll do just about anything to reassure others I’m fine, except when I have crying fits. It’s nice to read your positive spin on some dibilitating situations. You are a hero!
Thanks for sharing!

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Thank you for sharing the story.
My blessings are anxiety, depression and PTSD.
I really hate icebreakers too – but just now tied them to anxiety. True.
I long for the day when I can tell people about my illness. For now I’m still pretty much in the closet.

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