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I have been diagnosed with many mental health issues over the last 16 years, including depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and an eating disorder.
The truth is that my true illness is some combination of all of those things; but I don’t think it’s the label that is the important thing here. I have been through a lot of tragedy in my 29 years, most of which I can directly relate to my illness. During that time, I have met a lot of others hurting from the same sorts of pains, and I am about to put this true story down in writing with the intention to help you, dear reader, understand that there are more of us than you know, and give you hope that there IS a life with mental illness.
My story starts off great. I had a wonderful childhood. I have two older brothers whom I am very close with and loving parents. My mother raised us to be intelligent, creative, thoughtful people with good morals and passionate hearts.
But when I was nine, my older brother was diagnosed with depression and a drug addiction. For four years, we attended family therapy; however, I was confined to the waiting area, listening to the yelling and crying over the white noise machine in the office. My parents and I drove two to three hours each way every weekend to visit my brother in rehab to deliver him clothes and CDs, visiting for ten minutes, and turning around to return home. I admit that I didn’t understand what was really happening and my parents did their best to keep me in the dark—until I was 13.
When I was 13 years old, I found my brother unconscious on his bedroom floor. My parents sent me to the neighbor’s house where they put me to bed, said there was nothing I could do and left me alone to cry and pray for God not to take him. When my parents retrieved me a few hours later, I sat on my father’s lap in our kitchen, and my mother told me that my brother had died. My eldest brother was living in Africa, and I remember how hard the telephone conversation was when we had to call him with the news. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. My gentle, loving, hilarious, creative, intelligent brother died of a heroin overdose at 19 years old.
At 14, my mother sent me to a therapist, but after the therapist’s diagnosis of depression, my mother was outraged and refused to send me back. I blamed her for a long time, but now I understand she was just scared. I spent the next three years in a living hell—paranoia, depression, hallucinations, mania, anger, psychological pain, physical pain, and total distrust of my own mind. At 17, I finally started on meds, but the side effects only made my pain worse.
When I was 18, I ironically lost my virginity to a boy from youth group. We started an unhealthy, obsessive relationship and I would spend days at a time living with him and his best friend. I remember vividly the pain of the deep suicidal depression I was submerged in during this time. At one time, my boyfriend had to take a knife away from me, and at another point, I remember crying uncontrollably and telling him that if he loved me, he’d kill me.
At 19, I went to a party in the inner city and was attacked and raped multiple times by most of the guys there, including my best friend. It sent me into Sheppard Pratt and ended my relationship with my boyfriend. But let me tell you, rape is a strange thing. I’ve seen it turn women into feminists; man-haters; sex haters; unable to be touched or looked at. Oh, but it didn’t do that to me. It fueled a disease that had been dormant up until this point, and I’m talking about sex addiction. I couldn’t get enough. I’ve lost track of the number of partners I’ve had. I sought approval and love through pleasure, but I can tell you those men didn’t love me. They didn’t respect me. They didn’t call me back. I’ve had five miscarriages over the years, which pain me to this day. Even though most of them didn’t get past the first month, it is something which still brings me sorrow.
But things seemed to just get worse. My second semester in college, in 2010, my psychiatrist believed that because I wasn’t responding to medication, I needed to try shock treatment. I received ten rounds over the course of a month, and the amount of memory loss I had from the treatment was enough to make me flunk out of all my classes. After a brief and ill-advised stint with using laced drugs, I was ultimately suspended. Many things that I’ve done and said I’ve forgotten from my memory loss or blocked out of for self-preservation, but believe me, Facebook loves to remind me with throwbacks to who I used to be.
I was angry. I was sooo angry. I was enraged and I was in excruciating mental pain that I cannot explain. The only way I can even begin to describe it is that I felt like layers of my brain were being slowly pulled away, like layers of an onion. I also had physical and psychological pain in my legs, like a death grip around my bones. My depression was suffocating me, and I was drowning in paralyzing panic attacks. I had no hope. I spent a good ten years suicidal. But slowly, very, very slowly, a combination of terrific therapy and experimenting with medications has led to a life I am happy living.
The reason I have divulged my entire past is to help you understand the miracle that is me standing here today. I have a very specific message for you, so listen closely: there is hope for you. Mental illness is a disease. It is a physical disease. You are not weak. You have an imbalance of chemicals in your brain. And just because no one can see that you have this disease, doesn’t make you crazy or make it any less real.
I spent the better part of my life hating myself. It took all these experiences to make me who I am today, and to find out who I am. If I hadn’t, I would not be a shred of the woman I am today: empathetic, loving, outgoing, patient, and emotionally balanced. In fact, if I had stayed the person I was, I would never have been friends with the person I am now. But, I’m telling you, it took work. Don’t think you’re going to get off scot-free. The pain you feel is going to shape you. It’s going to evolve you.
I have to emphasize the importance of medication and therapy in your recovery. I saw dozens of therapists before I found someone I vibed with: a young guy who cusses like a sailor and calls me out on my shit. It is so, so important to find someone you connect with. I realized during my treatment that I didn’t like to see female therapists. I realized I didn’t need a pat on the back, but someone to tell me when I wasn’t thinking clearly, or when what I did was stupid. These are things you’ll learn. But you have to stay the course. One thing that has really helped me is CBT and DBT therapy. It isn’t taught by everyone, but it teaches you to take control of your emotions and your thought life, and it is totally awesome and empowering. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. I don’t have time to get into it right now, but if you’d like more information about CBT and DBT, please see me after the panel.
The other side of treatment is medication, which I am sure is a sore subject for many people. Psychiatrists loving throwing pills at us to see what sticks but think about this: psychiatry is not an exact science. There isn’t a blood or pee test that says, hey! You have bipolar II and here’s the one medication that will treat it. What’s worse, is that it takes several weeks for psych meds to start working—or not work at all. Which is why I want to talk about patience. Mental illness is often a long game of patience. But you can’t sit on your hands and hope one day you’ll feel better. You MUST be proactive in your care. I cannot emphasize that enough. It’s tough if you’re experiencing a depression, but you MUST believe that there is a way out, and say to yourself, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to live out my life like this.”
If you walk away with one message today, let it be this: you are going through this so you can turn around and help the next person through it. At least, that’s the only rationalization I have been able to live with. Mental illness has positively changed me, but like I’ve been saying, it takes time. You have more strength and fight in you than you could possibly imagine. Do not give up. It is truly amazing the things we can withstand. It helps to have a support network, but even if you’re alone in this—or even if you think you’re alone in this—you have everything you need inside of you and you have to find a way to pull it out. I know your pains. I have been where you are. But the lightness I feel in my head, in my heart, in my soul NOW was worth every sleepless night. Every tear. I feel like sometimes to be made whole, you have to be broken first.
I have had tragic events in my life that I can directly link to some facet of my illness. And, honestly, if you’re in that place right now, I can tell you truthfully that there are things you’ll never get over. I don’t believe in “forgive and forget,” and I don’t believe you need to forgive your abusers, in fact, I certainly never will, and I don’t believe you have to forget what you’ve been through; but I also don’t believe in staying angry. That hate that you hold onto and nurse, those wounds that you lick… that hate will suck you dry and become a giant monster you cannot control. I see an alternative. I have chosen to seal my past life in a box, and put that box on a shelf. I know where it is, and I can access it if I need to, but it does not control my life. It does not affect the quality of my life. IT IS NOT WHO I AM.
In fact, let me make this plain: your past is not who you are and your illness is not who you are either. Yes, it may be something you must battle all your life. I will be battling mine too. Don’t misunderstand me: I have bad days even now. I have terrible, terrible depressions. But each time they come, they get shorter. They get less intense. And it isn’t because I’m “getting better.” But I am getting better at handling it. I’m getting better at knowing my signs, knowing my strengths and weaknesses, and knowing when to ask for help. You cannot be sick and be prideful and expect to get better. Asking for help may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But you are worth it. You are SO worth it.
I have seen the death of my brother, many family members including all of my grandparents, and many friends; I’ve been diagnosed and treated for “mixed bipolar,” which essentially is experiencing mania and depression simultaneously and is, in fact, a living hell; I was raped multiple times; I have had more encounters of unprotected and anonymous sex than I can count; I have had five miscarriages; roughly 99 percent of my friends over the years have abandoned me; I have had electroshock treatment; I’ve been hospitalized nine times; I was suicidal almost continuously for ten years; I have been abused emotionally, verbally, mentally, and physically by men; I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 26 because of my illness; I was expelled from high school and suspended from college; I’ve done drugs; I’ve hitchhiked; I’ve done everything in my power to put myself in situations where I could potentially die… and if I can successfully live through all of those things and come out on the other side, there is no reason that you can’t either. As I have improved over the years, I have found that it has become easier and easier to talk about my past, and harder and harder to remember the pain I used to feel. I consider this a gift, and I am eternally grateful for it.
Please trust me when I say that holding onto hope will change your recovery. I have hope for you, and I have hope for me, but you must have hope for yourself. Therapy, medication, prayer… these things mean nothing if you don’t continuously envision yourself reaching a better place. But don’t negate the steps you take along the way. If I have learned anything, it is that even a day with ten percent fewer tears or actually getting a full night of sleep is a milestone in the direction towards a rebirth. One day, you will be telling your own story, offering your hand to those coming behind you, as I am offering mine to you today.