Foundation Director Michelle Mak shares her mental health journey

No matter how accomplished or successful a person may be, mental health challenges are a universal human experience.  In an effort to set examples of healing and to show others that they are not alone, we are speaking to folks who have struggled to now thrive, despite their obstacles.  One such individual is Michelle Mak, Director of the Western Communities Foundation.

 

As a child who came to Canada from Hong Kong at the tender age of 9, Michelle has certainly experienced trials and tribulations that could make even the mightiest of mighty falter.

Her mother chose to take a huge chance and move to Canada in hopes of a better future for her children (Michelle and her two sisters). She knew the move would jeopardize her marriage, but she did it anyway, and became a single mum, in a new country, with three daughters.

Michelle always worked multiple jobs to help make ends meet. She paid her way through school and earned a Bachelor of Arts, a Certificate in TESOL, and later a Master of Education. Michelle considers herself an educator at heart, having worked in education and feels strongly about sharing her passion for helping marginalized groups via corporate funding, sponsorship and education, and mentorship. Michelle now works at Western Financial Group, as Director, Western Communities Foundation.

Read on for our conversation with Michelle Mak.

Can you share some of your personal struggles with your mental health?

In high school, I went through a tough time with my body image. I was totally fixated on my weight and how I looked, and it led me down a really rough path with my eating habits. I stopped eating. I was obsessed with counting calories and my body mass. I remember that I only ate an apple or a slice of bread the entire day on certain days, and I felt guilty for it. I kept exercising and checking the circumference of my arm. It started with anorexia, then turned into bulimia, and eventually led to compulsive eating. I didn’t even realize how bad it had gotten until a friend pointed out how shockingly thin I’d become, especially compared to another friend whom I thought was too skinny. That was a wake-up call when I knew I was no longer ‘chubby’, which many of my relatives and friends used to describe me. My mom took me to a doctor, and I remember how the doctor asked if I thought I was skinny, and I answered no. I knew what they were trying to do. By that time, I had dropped to 79 lbs and even stopped getting my period. I was 15 at the time.  I think that was the turning point when I recognized I had a problem, and I had to stop this obsession.

 

What has been the biggest game changer in your journey to true self care?

Learning to love myself for who I am, not how others see me, has been a transformative journey. It took a long time, and I’m still a work in progress, but the shift in mindset has definitely been a game changer in my journey to self-care and self-love. I realized I was unhappy when I tried to live up to people’s expectations of what I should be, look, or behave. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant, single-mother family, I had a lot of burden on me and my two sisters to do well in school, at work and in life so that we could take care of our mom and be financially independent. Growing up, this pressure to care for and think about others before myself was ingrained in me. I am also a twin, so I grew up being compared since I was born. It’s not a great feeling when you’re constantly judged and compared with someone who practically looks the same. I was my own enemy in a way where I continuously tried to live up to the world’s expectations and social construct of what and how a daughter, an immigrant, a minority, a wife and a divorcee, woman, and a Chinese woman should be and behave. It was a lot, to be honest.  It was not until I went through a broken marriage that I realized it was time for a change. I started investing in myself and surrounded myself with supportive and loving friends. I learned to set boundaries, say no when necessary, and not let my guilt stop me. I stopped judging and being hard on myself. I prioritized my well-being and mental health over others, understanding that taking care of myself is not selfish but necessary for me to be there for my family and be happy at the same time.

Today, I am in a much better place mentally and emotionally. I have learned to love myself for who I am, embracing my strengths and flaws. I understand self-love is an ongoing process. There are still moments when I struggle to find a balance, but at least now I am not afraid to say no, or to prioritize my own needs when it matters.

 

Tell us about how your mother inspired you?

My mother has instilled in me the values of kindness, perseverance, and hard work from a very young age. She is a strong woman who never gives up. As a single parent, she raised three kids on her own while navigating life in a new country. She is also an incredibly compassionate person. She is one of the rare few who would bring home injured animals such as birds, chicks, and kittens to try to heal them at home. When she comes across an animal’s body on the road, she’s someone who would stop her car, even on the highway once, to move the body to the side of the street so no more cars can go over it.

My mother also works hard and doesn’t give up. She taught me the value of perseverance in the face of challenges. She lives by the saying, “If you don’t know something, you study 100 times, and even 1000 times until you master it, and you will.” That’s her motto and what defines who she is as a person. When she first arrived in Canada, she could barely speak English. To help improve her skills and to assimilate into the new culture, she enrolled in a community college course to learn English, and she also took a tourism course which she struggled to understand. I remember seeing her studying in her bedroom every night to review the materials, using her dictionary. This is the type of woman, a role model, I grew up looking up to. I feel very blessed to have a wonderful, strong, caring and loving mother to be my guiding light. If not for her, I would not be who I am today.

 

What advice do you have for women struggling with their mental health?

Surround yourself with people who love and support you. It might seem easier to keep your troubles to yourself, but what I find helpful in my personal journey is not being afraid to let my feelings be heard. Sometimes, all it takes is to let it out to feel better. Recognize that not everyone would understand or appreciate what you’re going through, and that’s ok. Still, you’ll be surprised that, more often than not, your problems are shared by many others and that you’re not alone. Help is always available as long as you seek it.

 

What does the future hold for you now?

I’m not exactly sure what the future holds, but I’m open to whatever comes my way and embracing new adventures as they come. Sometimes, the best way to plan is to keep an open mind and let life take me where possible. I was trained as an English as a Second Language teacher. I worked and volunteered in non-profit organizations to help disadvantaged groups in Asia. Having returned to Canada after being away for 12 years, I’m grateful to now take on the role of Director of Western Communities Foundation at Western Financial Group. In this role, I am very fortunate to work with a team of passionate people dedicated to creating more impact in communities through leveraging multi-sector partnerships and corporate social responsibility. I’m excited to see what the future holds!

https://westernfinancialgroup.ca/Our-Foundation

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly

Nadia Elkharadly is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Addicted Magazine. Her myriad of addictions include music, fashion, travel, technology, boxing and trying to make the world a better place. Nadia is also a feminist, an animal lover, and a neverending dreamer. Keep up with her on social media through @thenadiae.
Nadia Elkharadly

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