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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Florence K – musician, mother, CBC host, and doctoral candidate – takes the theme of this year’s Mental Health Week and shares her personal story of mental health challenges, wellness, and discovery.

I was 12 when I first heard Forrest Gump share his mother’s view on life from that park bench in Savannah, Georgia: “Life was like a box of chocolates — you never you know what you’re gonna get.” Lots of people have heard the famous movie line. But as I was to find out, it was a perfect description of what life had in store for me.

At first, I saw myself following the path I’d mapped out in my head hundreds of times during my teenage years. It was a dream that I hoped would lead me to a successful singing career, and I did everything in my power to make it a reality. As a teenager and young adult, I auditioned, competed, took advanced classes, accepted contracts in seedy bars, entertained at nightclubs in Atlantic City and Casablanca, sang at masses, and played piano (for years) in an Old Montreal restaurant. No audience, and no stage, was beyond my reach because they guaranteed I was moving closer to my dream.

I wanted to shine on stage, be embraced by the love of others, show what I had to offer, draw everyone’s attention, and transform my raw emotions into notes to bring them out of my being. Without being aware of it, I also probably wanted to fill what I now call my “inner hole.” At the time, the term mental health was certainly not part of the culture, and I had no words to define it. But it felt like a sense of emptiness fueled by negative, sometimes self-destructive, thoughts about myself. While it even led to experiences of suicidal ideation following a break up at age 14, I would never have thought “this is not normal” or “not everyone feels this way” — or that this hole has a name and there are ways to address it.

My solution at the time was to fill the emptiness with parties, alcohol, and drugs. Later, I did so by being on stage, since performing was an outlet for me. But no matter what I did, the emptiness continued to grow, slyly and subtly as I avoided asking myself about its presence. I shrugged it off and focused on my career — at 23, my first album, Bossa Blue, went gold — and the birth of my first daughter. My emptiness was filled during the early years of motherhood by the happiness and presence of my wonderful little girl.

Florence Khoriaty

Florence Khoriaty

After my first tour, I quickly went on to record second and third albums, both followed by a series of shows and promotional campaigns. I couldn’t have asked for more: my big dream was now a reality. My team saw international success for me, and my ambitions followed theirs. But at the same time, I felt my inner hole slowly opening again. My relationship with my daughter’s father was crumbling. I wanted to leave him but couldn’t, consumed by guilt at the thought of unravelling the nest we had built. I now had two worlds: one on stage, which was becoming an addiction, and one as a couple, which I was stepping back from. This guilt about a possible break up started engulfing me, sucking me into a spiral of persecutory thoughts. I hated myself, I blamed myself, and I was afraid. Yet I suffered in silence because of what I told myself: it was shameful to feel this way when so many people were living in war-torn countries while I had a full fridge, a healthy daughter, friends, money, and a job I loved. Before long, I began disappearing into my thoughts, losing my ability to concentrate. I also started losing weight, hair, and most of all, sleep. Insomnia was the beginning of the hell that would inhabit my head for the next eight months. I spent whole nights feeling my fingers tremble, looking at the clock in anguish, grabbing my skull, begging it to let in some quiet and let me rest.

People around me also started to worry. I couldn’t take care of my daughter anymore. I’d asked her father to leave, and he took me up on it, disappearing completely from the life of his five-year-old. Thankfully, my father, mother, and sister-in-law began taking care of her. The important thing was giving her a framework that could continue providing her with everything a child needs while her mom tried to get better. At this point, doing it alone was impossible. All I could manage was to put on my best, fake smile to get on stage with what little voice I had left. I was clinging to this part of my life, the only one I was still able to give something to, for 90 minutes, three times a week.

But the emptiness caught up with me.

What followed was a series of suicidal ideations and behaviours, medication trials and errors, and emergency room visits, while my loved ones looked on feeling completely lost. They weren’t equipped to deal with such a whirlwind, and mental health was so poorly understood in 2011 that they did not fully understand what had taken hold of their daughter, sister, and friend. My final admission to the ER came after an ambulance ride, escorted by two police officers.

While the following weeks were very difficult, they were lifesaving. Being in psychiatric care finally made me realize that I was sick — but also that I wasn’t alone: I felt understood and enveloped by the other patients. With an adjustment of my medication and psychotherapy, I began feeling better. Then, in 2017, when I was on the verge of a relapse, a psychiatrist gave me a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. This diagnosis was a gift. I could finally understand this inner hole I’d been living with since my teenage years. I could put words to it and identify the symptoms, the triggers, and the tools and resources that could help me.

This quest for balance infused me with an enormous fascination for the brain and human behaviour. This passion became the driving force behind my return to university, where I completed a certificate in psychology, a master’s degree in mental health, then, after a bachelor’s degree in psychology I was finally accepted into a doctoral psychology program. My dissertation is inspired by my history, as it focuses on the possible links between creativity and bipolar disorder.

Today I am proud of my journey. It has been tortuous, unexpected, and fraught (I almost lost my life, more than once). But it has also led me to discover treasures hidden deep within myself that I never knew were there. Even though I live with this chronic disorder, my mental health is excellent. I aim for balance in my life, and I have learned to recognize and listen to the warning signs that could lead me into troubled waters. With my husband, two wonderful daughters, and a passion for my field of study, I now feel fulfilled. And if I was to run into Forrest Gump on the street, I would simply say, “Forrest, you were ab-so-lu-te-ly right!”

Author: is a singer, songwriter, pianist, and weekly host of C’est formidable! on CBC Radio One and CBC Music. She is completing her doctorate at UQÀM.
Inset photo: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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