5 minute read

Falling Back Together



Valéry BROSSEAU’05 has transformed her struggles with mental health into a career with purpose


Like the stories of so many high-profile Branksome alumni, Valéry Brosseau’s trajectory has been inspirational. It is a testament to resilience and determination; it reveals her dedication to helping people; and it celebrates her burgeoning professional and personal success. What diff erentiates her from many, though, is how she has found her sense of purpose by overcoming periods of extreme darkness associated with mental illness and its life-altering eff ects.

And it could be very dark. “Everybody thought I was just this great, interesting go-getter of a girl who could hold a conversation with anyone,” she says. “Meanwhile, I was falling apart inside, and I had no idea what this was called or what was going on.”

“It’s something to be proud of overcoming. And then being able to connect through that experience with someone else is helpful as well—to know that you’re not alone. You’re not a freak for having these battle wounds from what you’ve fought in the past.”

Now, as a public speaker, coach and writer, Valéry advocates for mental health while dismantling stigma. She carries out private sessions and company workshops and addresses issues such as suicide prevention with unvarnished directness. Drawing on her lived experience—including three suicide attempts, treatment and ongoing recovery—she has developed the tools and necessary language to communicate that progress is always possible.

“Because we can’t see mental illness, we refuse to acknowledge it,” she told an audience at a 2019 TEDx McGill talk. At once poised and vulnerable on stage, Valéry spoke about the scars marking her arms from repeated instances of self-harm; elaborated on the ways that society makes light of mental health (as in, referring to the weather as “bipolar”); and concluded with the importance of improving mental health education. “Mental health is health. Talk about it. You could easily save a life.”

Th e proof is irrefutable, as Valéry has endured the highs and lows of saving her own life for the better part of a decade. She can trace warning signs as far back as age 10, but identifi es how certain behaviours turned more chronic and concerning while she was at McGill and following graduation. “I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was a medical condition, as opposed to a fl aw in character, and I saw this as a shortcoming,” she recalls.

For a while, she maintained a semblance of normalcy, even misleading a therapist into thinking that she had life under control. Finally diagnosed in her mid-20s with borderline personality disorder as well as bipolar disorder, Valéry felt a certain clarity aft er years of grappling with a chasm between her inward- and outward-facing actions. “It fi nally validated that this is something real that happens to other people and there’s something going on in my brain that’s diff erent. It’s not for lack of fortitude,” she says.

But if this marked the beginning of her journey in some respects, she stresses that “recovery is rarely linear,” citing her darkest moments in 2014 with two suicide attempts just weeks apart. Emerging from fi ve days in a coma, she eventually began in-patient treatment at a private facility in Boston. Th ere, the clinician apparently marvelled over how Valéry had persevered as long as she had given the severity of her illness. “For me, achievement and accomplishment—these were my drugs,” she says, aware now that the situation had turned dire.

At a certain point in her recovery, Valéry approached the Distress Centre Durham in Whitby, Ont.—near where her mother lived— to volunteer. Gradually, she progressed to mentor and trainer, coordinating their online support and communication. Th is experience contributed to envisioning her own potential as a coach and advocate.

That has now started to feel like a bona-fi de small business. Valéry positions her services as “educated peer support,” making clear that she is not a clinician. Conversely, the relatability and empathy she possesses transcends any formal program, and between her training with the helpline, supplemental psychology courses from the University of Toronto and a diploma in social service work, she is highly qualifi ed to provide well-informed and positive pathways. “Th ere is a background in what I’m off ering but I am not a therapist. I know my limitations.”

Whether through workshops, talks or oneon-one sessions, Valéry is now cultivating self-worth in the most literal sense, noting how rewarding it feels when people agree to her fees. “Th ere is a lot of self-worth that comes from a career, a profession.”

And thankfully, amid the pandemic Valéry could continue her career working from her Toronto apartment, which she shares with her fi ancé, Shane, and their rescue dog Wellington. She oversees all facets of her business, from scheduling to social media. “If you see me talking to myself, I’m having a staff meeting,” she jokes.

Asked how she processes the openness— frequently revisiting her suff ering, displaying her scars, answering people’s questions— Valéry acknowledges that it was difficult initially. Without detaching from it, she is increasingly able to re-contextualize an authentic experience. “It’s not something to be proud of, but it’s something to be proud of overcoming. And then being able to connect through that experience with someone else is helpful as well—to know that you’re not alone. You’re not a freak for having these battle wounds from what you’ve fought in the past.”

If many of the wounds are now covered by tattoos, she says the intention has never been to hide them. Similarly, steps forward and steps back can oft en blur, as when she took herself to the emergency room not long ago because this was the best way to de-escalate the situation and monitor her safety. Notably, she will need to live with her diagnoses without letting them defi ne her. “I do have moments of despair where I think ‘will it never end’,” she admits. “But it’s a fi ne line. I do not want my identity to be my illness.”

Perhaps this explains her longstanding attraction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Having attained a high-ranking purple belt, Valéry says this reaffi rms her notions of strength and confi dence. “One huge thing about being strong in that sport is that it taught me as a woman to value my body for what it can do rather than what it looks like. And that was a huge lesson for me,” she says.

From lessons to visions for the future, Valéry hopes to complete and publish her memoir and would like to do an offi cial TED talk. One senses she will arrive at both. Aft er all, turning dreams into reality is simply a more poetic way to describe personal progress. R

Amy VERNER’98 is a freelance writer covering lifestyle and culture from Paris and Toronto.