Photo by John Packman.
Michael Kimber may be a lot of things—eccentric, awkward, passionate—but bashful he is not. Several times during our interview with him we glance about the busy Yorkville coffee shop to determine whether any of its patrons can hear the gems escaping from his mouth (“I’m in a sword fight with my penis” and “If you’re unemployed and you sit on the couch all day like jerking off to terrible porn, you’re not going to be happy.”) Kimber has a voice that rises above the rest, even when he’s discussing intensely personal issues. He doesn’t give a whit that everyone around us knows he suffers from severe anxiety, or that a little over a year ago he had a nervous breakdown—an event that has shaped his life in odd and fantastic ways. That’s kind of the point. Michael Kimber is open and honest about his struggles with mental illness because he wants others to be too.
“I’m trying to kick mental illness in the balls!” he says. According to Kimber, two-thirds of people with mental illness don’t get the help they need due to the stigmas that still surround it. He’s created the Come Out Campaign to encourage individuals to break the cycle of shame by telling friends and family about their mental illness.
“You’re never so lost as when you don’t know where you’re going…and I had no idea where I was going,” Kimber tells us. He’s referring to the fact that this time last year he was recovering from the nervous breakdown he suffered in November 2009. Having recently finished university, Kimber was confronted with the prospect of stepping out into the world as an adult, something he was not ready for. Add to this that he was “desperately, crazily in love” and he found himself in the midst of a perfect storm of uncertainty, anxiety, and depression.
Kimber tried everything he could think of to steer himself off this path but, he says, “It got significantly worse when I started trying to fight myself.” Quitting all of his vices—weed, caffeine, and junk food—in the same week, he sent his body into a tailspin.
“I’ve always been the stable one,” Kimber admits, with a hint of irony. “Or, at least, that’s how I imagined myself. Everybody falls and you can never predict when that’s going to happen. I never would have assumed that this would be me.”
Desperate to turn his life around, Kimber began searching for a cure. “Anything you can do, I did,” he says. But nothing seemed to work. “I went to hot yoga and a girl farted in my mouth. I was immune to sleeping pills.” Kimber even tried a self-help technique called Quantum Jumping in which, he says, “you meditate and you go into an alternate reality where you visualize that you meet yourself. This visualization of yourself has the things that you want and tells you how to get them.” That didn’t work either.
Kimber finally started to recover when he decided that there was no quick fix or permanent cure and that he had to learn how to live with his mental illness. Kimber created a blog, Colony of Losers, to work through the frustration that built up during his breakdown. “I had this gigantic desire to be something more and I needed to write [about] it,” he says. Much to Kimber’s surprise, his deeply personal ramblings touched a nerve with many readers, and before he knew it he was getting ten thousand hits per week.
Kimber admits that the blog has created a weird life for him. “Last Wednesday, I had three people I’d never met get in touch with me and tell me that they wanted to die.” Though he accepted the role with some reluctance, his illness and subsequent experiences have made him an advocate for mental health.
“This is a gigantic problem that’s getting worse and worse and can’t be addressed because so few people want to be labelled as part of this group. Nobody wants to fight for [mental illness] because if you fight for it you’re admitting you’re suffering from it.”
Kimber passionately believes that people with mental illness need to make themselves heard, and that Toronto is the perfect place to start shouting. “Being in Toronto offers a world of opportunity to push this campaign one step further,” he says. “If I talk on CBC radio in Toronto I could be talking to a million people. You can only change the opinions of people who are put in a position where they are able to listen to you. Toronto is the gateway to the rest of Canada.”
Kimber hopes the Come Out Campaign will help people realize that mental illness affects many members of our communities, especially in a city like Toronto, which Kimber claims is “bursting at the seams with loneliness.” As with all large, dense urban areas, feeling isolated and disconnected is common. Kimber hopes that the Come Out Campaign will create a national community of support for people with mental illness, starting in Toronto.
“We need to [come out] for each other,” he says. “When you come out, you encourage other people to come out. Hopefully it’s a chain reaction of happy dominoes.”
For more on the stigmas surrounding mental health, Toronto writer Emma Woolley has some suggested reading in this month’s issue of Aggregation.