I’m the problem: A story of stigma & recovery

Danny

Mental health has become such a buzz-worthy and hot-button topic these days that sometimes I wonder if there is still stigma associated with it. I’m involved in so many welcoming and positive communities that sometimes I forget there’s a whole world out there that isn’t on the same page. Then, there are other times I think about the interactions I’ve had with people and realize stigma is a very real problem. The only way to combat this issue is by being honest and vulnerable.

Here’s a little about me: I’m 23 years old and grew up in a tiny town, with loving parents and everything going for me. I had a tight circle of friends, always made great grades, and was involved in every club or group you could imagine. I was president of student council, salutatorian, and even prom queen. However, there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes that I didn’t share with most.

I can remember being in elementary school and laying on my bedroom floor, sobbing for no reason. I may have even had a great day, but I was horribly sad and I didn’t understand why. I would get weird feelings sometimes and feel shaky and nervous, and my mom would give me a snack, thinking my blood sugar was probably low. At 13, I began cutting myself. I couldn’t tell you why at the time; I did not understand my feelings or behavior that stemmed from them. In middle school my mother became terribly ill and spent more time in the hospital than not, and another family member who I was very close to, began using drugs and having a host of problems of her own. I felt very isolated and afraid to wake up every morning. I did go to my parents and try to explain what I would later understand as my depression, but neither of us got it. They assured me it would get better in high school.  I was just going through puberty, and I would feel better soon.

Fast forward to the promised high school days and I began using drugs myself.  I don’t remember many mornings during freshman year. I was drinking a lot and became very angry. I hate to think about my behavior during this time, but I hurt people- hurt people. I was just a mess. My grades started to slip and I was getting into minor trouble in my classes. I kept all of this from my parents, but I did try going to them again about how hopeless I felt. “High school is hard for everyone, sweetheart, college will be so much better. I guarantee it.”

I chose to go to the community college in my town. All of my friends I managed to keep (bless them) moved away to their own colleges. I tried finding a new group I could hang around, or even study with at the least. I tried finding classes that interested me. I tried, and tried, and tried. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I noticed that my supposed “low blood sugar” symptoms were getting worse. My hands would shake all the time and I would be short of breath. I later learned this was anxiety I had had for years that only got worse by ignoring it for so long. I experienced a new level of depression and often thought about suicide. The once straight-A student began failing classes, and eventually dropped out before earning any type of degree.

Fast forward again- I am in a serious relationship with a wonderful man and have tried to come to terms with my “issues”. Being an adult, I decided to seek some kind of help since they never just went away on their own like everyone thought they would. I began going to therapy, seeing a psychiatrist, and trying different medications. It was a very rocky road, and one I’m still walking. We tried many different meds, including one that seemed to make me feel better than I ever thought I could! I wasn’t tired- in fact I stopped sleeping for days at a time. I didn’t need to eat, I had plenty of energy, I spoke faster and louder and I felt great about myself and the world. Then I crashed. I spent days crying in the shower. The period following that “high” is a blur. I do remember, however, that I ended up in the ER for a suicide attempt. That’s when we learned I was not simply depressed- I had Bipolar Disorder type II (plus the anxiety). The antidepressant had initially made me manic, followed by an extreme bout of depression. Now the real treatment could begin.

I was distraught with this diagnosis. It was almost as if I had already come to terms with being “depressed”, and I could handle that type of label, but Bipolar? That’s nuts, and bipolar people are nuts. Surely I’m not crazy. Right? Thinking about that attitude now pisses me off, honestly. Where did I learn this from? If someone I cared about confided in me and told me they had bipolar disorder, I imagine I would’ve been compassionate and understanding, but obviously I had some kind of underlying stigma because it felt like a death sentence had been handed to me. I spent a lot of time in therapy and scouring the internet to better understand the disease and myself. It became okay, and I knew I would be okay. I became an advocate for all things “mental health” and realized that it was something that desperately needed to be discussed. I didn’t know anything about these things before, and neither did most of the people I knew.

My parents are truly wonderful people, and I know they did their best with what they knew. They told me I would get better, because they believed it,  but that’s half of the problem. They didn’t have enough information and understanding of the symptoms I was presenting. Shaky hands can easily mean low blood sugar before it means panic attack. The chest pains I had for an entire summer landed me in the ER running tests and never finding the problem, which makes complete sense in retrospect. Our whole family’s lack of information on the subject made things more difficult than they needed to be. This is completely preventable, and is a huge reason why I strive to open a line of communication on the subject and spread awareness. More often than not, people suffering with mental illnesses don’t have a voice, or it’s not loud enough to be heard and they need help doing so.

I’m also guilty of not understanding “everything mental health” and having my own biases. I was recently donned with a new diagnosis: PTSD. I never learned much about this condition. I knew nothing about the symptoms or what it entailed or even what would cause it. I thought only people who had to endure the tragedies of war could get PTSD. I was terribly wrong. Full disclosure to follow, and forgive me for being quite to the point as this isn’t easy: about three months ago, I was sexually assaulted, which can be a trauma resulting in PTSD. I never knew panic attacks like I do now. I never understood what night terrors, flashbacks, and hallucinations were. I’ve realized I made those into very small things, and they are not. They can be life-destroying. As a result of my symptoms, I spent some time in a psychiatric hospital and was essentially forced to quit my job I had just been promoted to. I had very little understanding of this illness and could’ve never understood someone’s pain until I experienced it myself. That can make someone feel very alone and helpless.

As terrible as it was, this experience has only made me want to advocate for mental health awareness and people who struggle with it even more. We need to better understand. We need to be a voice. I need to better understand and I need to be a voice. Sometimes, someone advocating for you may seem like the only hope you have. I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the amazing people that make up my support group.

Now, I go to therapy weekly, sometimes more, and am taking an array of new medications. I still have trouble sleeping and have bouts of severe depression. However, for the most part the night terrors and hallucinations are greatly reduced thanks to the meds. My best friend (who has also been diagnosed with a mental illness and is an advocate) and I started running an Instagram account to help bring awareness and try to build a community that could be there for one another. We share bits and pieces of our stories, coping strategies that have helped us, tips we’ve learned from our therapists, and recaps of our days- the good and the bad. It’s about honesty and vulnerability. If sharing what I’ve been through can help a single person better understand a loved one or feel less alone in their own struggles- then I can say the whole journey has been worth it. With so many people in the world, there’s no reason for anyone to have to feel alone. That’s why I advocate for mental health and strive to stop the stigma- in others as well as myself. We could all be a little bit better, and feel a little bit better, one day at a time.

 

Charay

Hello Everybody, my name is ChaRay. I am an animal lover, nerd, writer, painter, and my favorite: aunt. I am also a, self proclaimed, advocate for mental health.

I went my entire life feeling like an outside within my own family, not saying that my family was horrible and ostracized me. They didn’t. In fact, they were great. We spent many weekends travelling and going on outings. My dad was funny and supportive, my mom was loving and ‘crazy’ (in the most endearing way) while my sister was goofy and my best friend. My brother was also one of my favorite people and someone I look up to, to this day. My family was amazing. So why did the little girl who enjoyed every moment with her family feel so left out and alone?

I have vivid memories of crying for no reason, shaking, and screaming for my mom after having horrible night terrors. Any little thing that made me uncomfortable brought about sobs and nausea. My mom would always tell me that I “looked for the negatives in situations.” She had a front row seat to every ugly thing that I went through, and bless her heart she tried her best.  As so many of us know, back when we were young, mental illness was not a “normal” thing. If it was even mentioned as it was tied to some horrible event or person, so it wasn’t even an option for some of our parents to believe that could be what was wrong with their babies. It didn’t even cross my mom’s mind to take me to a therapist or a doctor.

When I was in elementary school in a small town in Missouri, there was a before and after school care program that my mom put both my sister and I in. I was in second or third grade, and I remember being so terrified of staying there. Once when my mom dropped me off, I ran out of the doors past the teachers and chased my mom’s car down. I told her through sobs and hyperventilating that I “just couldn’t do it anymore.” I had no reason to not be okay, I actually loved school, but that day was just not the day. (If that makes any sense.)

Recently my mom and I have talked about this very instance. She said, “I should have known something was wrong back then. “ She talks a lot about things I don’t even remember. She said I have always been a nervous child, almost terrified of everything. I can’t blame my mom for anything. Mental illness has been a taboo subject for too long and too many people have suffered for it. I don’t want my (future) children to grow up in a world where they afraid to get help for a problem that can be manageable with help.

I have always been a girl who loves her friends and family. When I went to middle school is when the self-harm began. I felt numb, sad, or mad almost all of the time. There were probably good days and okay days but they’re hard to remember. I hung out with my friends and was frequently told how I was always sad and quiet. They would tell me to be happy, or try to make me laugh. However, it seemed they would stop being concerned when they asked what was wrong and I told them I didn’t know.  They slowly stopped inviting me to hang out after school. We would still chill at school but weekends were pretty lonely. I was hurt and angry, I didn’t understand why I was the way I was and thus began my self- hatred.

Allowing the misunderstanding of what mental illness is, will continue to hurt those affected by it. Family, friends, employers, etc. need to understand what and how mental illnesses work so it can stop being treated like an imaginary friend. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD and etc. are all very real and make living almost unbearable. If awareness can be spread then maybe, just maybe people wouldn’t be afraid to get help or hate themselves over a problem that isn’t their fault.

High school comes around, and I am bound and determined that this will be my time to shine. However, I didn’t account for the fact that mental illness does not wait for your ‘time to shine’ to be over to hit. I stopped eating, and when I say I stopped eating I mean I went for as long as possible without putting something in my mouth. That is until my mom and I sat down and had a talk after she noticed the weight loss and my lack of appetite. She told me all the things a mom should say “You’re beautiful.” “I love you.” Etc, etc. I do not struggle with anorexia, I just couldn’t eat. It made me sick to do so, and I had no idea how to explain to my mother that I couldn’t. I had no reason why I couldn’t eat or why I couldn’t sleep and that was probably the hardest part. I couldn’t explain to her why her child was doing the things she was doing. There was no explaining it.

The first three years of high school were the hardest. My best friend at the time and I were both very religious, and she called me a portal for demons. She said that my depression was causing demons to latch onto her. Yikes. This is probably the night that changed my life. This was the night that I realized no one understood me, or understood what was going on with me. Sadly, this friend told me this after she told everyone else in our friend group. It was one of the worst years of my life.  I was alone and already horribly depressed.

I apologize for the length of this but these are the reasons I want to spread awareness. I am currently in therapy and working on getting into a psychiatrist. I obviously still have my bad days, good days, and REALLY good days, but most importantly I am still working on it. My best friend (also diagnosed with mental illness and an advocate) started an Instagram to share everything we are going through and to maybe brighten and help those who follow us. There are too many people in the world who are misunderstood due to a trauma and chemical imbalance that isn’t their fault.  It’s time to stop the stigma.

Be sure to follow Danny and Charay on Instagram 

@bodyandmindadventure

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