“What’s This?”

As a high school kid I remember learning about drug addiction in one short class by watching Requiem for a Dream and talking about the movie as a group. The teacher wanted his students to be exposed to the destructive effects of various drugs before we headed off to college, where problems with recreational drugs are much more present.

In addition the topic of drugs, I wish I had been introduced to the topic of mental disorders earlier on as well. Mental disorders such as depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, OCD or PTSD are unfortunately not too uncommon in today’s world. It affects 1 in 4 Americans. Depression, however, was not a familiar concept in my adolescent mind at all. I had never experienced such emotional condition, ever, until the second semester of my college freshman year, when the disease completely debilitated me. Without prior knowledge of any mental disorders back then, I couldn’t help myself at all – or even reach for any help from family, friends, or professionals.

Clinical depression was a strange and terrifying feeling. For weeks and weeks, I felt I was absolutely worthless and pathetic for every moment I am awake. Living was painful day by day. My mind slowed down noticeably and couldn’t recall simple information or finish complete sentences, especially in front of people. Every person in the cafeteria seemed to be making fun of me for no clear reason; eating became an unbelievably difficult task. So was taking a shower. The only place where I felt safe in the world was in my dorm bed under the blanket with my phone off and when I was asleep to escape reality. I was extremely afraid of any social interactions, in and out of classrooms. Every morning I thought how hard another day would be and couldn’t think of why I should continue to live. With my disorder, I fell down hard with no strength to stand back up by myself, searching yet desperately for some hope and reasons to live.

With immense help from my parents and friends, I then left college and went home on a medical leave. In midst of the chaos, a New York psychiatrist handed a piece of paper with my name and ‘Major Depressive Disorder’ written on it. What’s this? I had no idea what mood disorders were, never mind how to deal with one myself. Scared of the uncertainty, I thought I would be consumed by my disability forever with no chance at recovery. When I broke my clavicle from a snowboarding accident, it was also excruciatingly painful – but at least I knew what was wrong. It was clear that the broken bone near my left shoulder was the problem and that time would heal the fracture. On the other hand, I simply didn’t know what a mental disorder was, or how recovery took place, until I received a diagnosis myself.

When I recall that moment when I first heard I had ‘Major Depressive Disorder’, many thoughts rush to my mind. I remember how frightened I was – physically shivering with fear as I walk out of the psychiatric evaluation room – then how clueless I was for the next four months of clinical depression. My medical diagnosis then changed to a ‘Bipolar Disorder’ after I experienced symptoms of mania after my long and painful depression. What’s this? Another mental disorder I had no idea about or even heard of. I wish I had learned more about what mental disorders were before they were triggered in me. Knowing about the symptoms won’t prevent diseases, but it can certainly help accept and manage symptoms better by earlier treatment with more awareness in students, teachers, and parents.

In the personal journey of living with mental disorder diagnoses, I am slowly discovering more reasons to have hope and carry on through the struggle. One reason is to contribute to the open discussion of mental disorders and to educate about prevention and recovery. I wish there were times in my high school when, just like the drug education class, students and teachers had an honest conversation about common mental disorders and taking care of one’s own mental health. Mental disorders affect many individuals and should be talked about more without stigma and shame. No changes in society, after all, have been ever made by not talking about an issue.

– Jack P.

“I am here to let you know…”

“I wish that when I was younger and struggling, a speaker such as a Minding Your Mind young adult speaker had come to my school to let me know I wasn’t alone and that I had a voice.” That’s what I always wanted but unfortunately I was never blessed with that experience. Instead I was told to hide the things I was going through because they weren’t things that others accepted. This led me to having issues with self worth and working to fit in because I was afraid of being judged by others. After being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Depression, I was devastated because I couldn’t let anyone know that behind the girl that played sports and smiled there were demons that she had to face everyday. I felt so alone.  I felt like I didn’t have a voice and always had to work to please those around me. My mind would make me believe that I was useless and that I would always be defined by my issues because mental health is not something we talk about lightly in society. I reached a really hard time in my life where I felt like nothing could ever get better and this was when a friend really started noticing that I was struggling. She became a huge support system and gave me the strength to realize that I wasn’t defined by the things I went through and I could get help and still live my life. For the first time, I started feeling the strength to use my voice because I did not want anyone else to feel the way I felt and I thought it was my job to help those around me just as my friend did for me. When I finally started using my voice and volunteering for the cause, I felt empowered and for the past nine years I have had the best job in the world; speaking to young adults. Now when I go into middle and high schools I make sure to tell the students this, “I am here to let you know that you are not alone and to let you know that you have a voice and that is a very powerful thing!”

-Melissa H.

“I Need You Here”

When I wake up the next morning, the sun is just barely out. I know it is early but I cannot tell exactly what time it is. I am lying on my floor still wearing the clothes I wore out last night. I was doing so well, too. It’s been 127 days since the last time.

 I can barely bend my fingers. When I finally manage to focus my eyes, I see what I have done. There is a hole in my wall from the screw that held my mirror in place. The mirror lies broken beside me. Its sharp, collapsed pieces still reveal my pale, sloppy complexion. My head is heavy with thick fog. My eyes are icy and raw and dead. What happened last night?

I remember it in fragments. I remember the walk home after detaching, after the long wait in the street, after not being able to fix it. I remember trying to call someone, to call my sister, to call home. It is two in the morning. No answer. My heartbeat is shallow and suppressed by the churn of my stomach. Halfway up the stairs to my room I feel like I cannot breathe. I tell myself I can. I push open my bedroom door and stare briefly into the mirror on the wall. There is nothing and no one to stop me. With one wide swing the glass shatters from its frame and lands at my feet. I kneel down and pile the sharper pieces one on top of another. Then, I took another swing.  A brief moment of pain shoots through my bones and then I am numb again. I can see it what I have done, but I cannot feel it. I wait for a moment and listen for movement outside my room hoping no one has heard me. It is silent. I take a deep breath, and stack the pieces again for my last swing. I finally fall back onto my knees and start to feel lucid. I feel awake – like I exist here again. I grab a first aid kit already half used from the time before this and try to bandage it up. I cannot tell how far into cleaning I have gotten before sleep overcomes me.

When I stand to make my way to the shower, it is hard to keep balance. I peek my head into the hallway to be sure no one will see me, walk swiftly into the bathroom, and lock the door. I turn the water on to the hottest setting and lean into the sink until the air starts to blur with steam. It takes too much energy to stand up inside the stall, so I sit down. My knees are tucked into my chest and my arms are wrapped around them just below the gap where my head rests. The water is hot. It hurts. I can feel it now. Good.  I rock back and forth, and try to breathe.

I know that shortly, I will have to walk out of here and explain this. I know I won’t be able to. I pick myself up off the ground, dress myself and clean up the mess from the night before. I have made another trip to hell and back and no one knows it.

Self-harm was part of my life for seven years before I was truly able to say that the frequency of it had significantly reduced.I had been in therapy for almost two years and transitioning into a different program. Anxiety and depression had been part of my life for thirteen years before I properly and effectively learned how to manage it.

A year before that relapse, in a similar situation, I stuck my arm repeatedly through a stack of glass I had broken out of a picture frame. When I woke up the next morning, I was so weak I could barely walk and so nauseous I couldn’t breathe. My roommate throughout all four years of college, Lainey, was still asleep while I spilled onto the hardwood floor just beside my bed and crawled into the bathroom. That morning was different from other times I had hurt myself because I needed stitches. I sat beside the toilet for some time before I was able to walk out. I remember being terrified of myself.  I didn’t have a lot of time to think up a story to tell everyone else. I vaguely described that I lost my balance when I stumbled out of bed that morning and fell over a large stack of trash and cardboard piling in the foyer. Lainey was just opening her eyes when I worked up enough energy to move from the bathroom floor. I was on the phone with my father, calmly explaining to him that I needed to go to the hospital. Lainey sprung up in her bed and started listening to the conversation to make sense of what was going on and decide what she could do for me.

While we waited to leave, Lainey called her uncle who was a doctor, her mom who was a nurse, dipped my arm in salt water for me, cleaned it while I looked away and bandaged it while I flinched. She drove me to the urgent care where we met my father and the doctor took care of me. I had to lie about how it happened to everyone. We had to pay out of pocket to be seen.

Living with just Lainey for that year made it tricky for her to address the suspicions she had about my behavior. Although the morning of the stitches may have been the most serious, it was not the first time she had noticed. Some mornings, I would wake up with with unexplained marks of self-harm. Sometimes, I would be so detached from reality I could barely hold a conversation with her. I was a master at hiding my destructive behavior in middle school and high school because of the fact I was not around my friends at all times of the day. I learned how to wear a mask for a certain number of hours during the school day and then let it fall off as soon as I stepped foot into my own house where no one could see me. I didn’t have that option in college but especially not when I lived with Lainey. Our beds were in the same room, we shared a bathroom and we did every activity of the day together. She saw and felt everything that people otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to see or feel. We didn’t talk about it all at once. Instead, I let her in a little bit at a time. I’m not sure there is ever a “right” way to react to any given situation, but I do know the way she handled it was genuine, and that made me trust her.

On more than one occasion, I remember her holding me so tightly it felt like all my broken pieces were sticking together again. She never tiptoed around the subject. Instead, she often brought it to the forefront of the conversation. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it that openly, but then I realized how helpful it was. She blindly stated her willingness to create a safe space for me to talk. Sometimes, when she would see articles about new ways to manage anxiety or depression, she would print them for me. She introduced me to exercising, to yoga, to meditation, to boxing, and to eating right. In a way I felt she put me on training wheels into recovery until she could let go and I was able to maintain a healthy routine on my own.   Since she was the first person I had ever had a real conversation about it with, she let me take my time telling other people. It was not her story to tell, and she knew that.   I could hear her voice in my head when it felt like I was never going to feel better. You have no idea how important you are. I need you here. Everything you feel is valid and you are so loved. You are more than enough.

For a while I thought I would be able to figure everything out in therapy and leave there a new person without having to let anyone in my life in far enough to actually experience any of it. I wanted to get the help I needed and then be done with it forever. Although I was working towards convincing myself I could not handle all things on my own, I didn’t think I wanted any help. Then, as I opened up to Lainey, the idea of opening up fully became less scary. The weight on my shoulders shifted a bit and my perception of the Hell I was living it started to change. She found ways to bring me back when I started feeling disconnected. I remember the first time she grabbed my two cheeks when she noticed my eyes going blank and when she butted her head into mine. Where are you, Jack? Come back to me. It forced an instant smile on my face. Sometimes when she would pick up on it at a party or a bar, she would dart at me from across the room, pile into my lap and swing her arms around me. If you’re feeling weird, we can walk back. More than once, she did walk me back and never made me feel guilty about it. Whatever you need to do, we’ll do. You don’t have to go or stay anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable. I will always understand that. Her acceptance of me was so consistent that I had no choice but to believe it. She was good with words, sure, but her actions kept me moving.

Often when I tell the story about my relapses with self-harm in front of a crowd, people wonder how it is possible for me to stand before them and be so vulnerable. I’ve thought about the answer to that question over and over. I can’t stress enough how much easier it became to accept my experiences once I began opening up about them. I wasn’t familiar with the power of communication and how it could change and unlock every piece of pain I stowed away. Self-harm was initially my all purpose solution for everything that went wrong in my life, but as it escalated, it became clear that I had to find another way. Waging a war on myself never fixed any of the pain something or someone else caused me. I know that now.

When I became a speaker for Minding Your Mind, I didn’t realize how drastically my life would change.  I didn’t realize how many people are out there struggling just like me.  I also didn’t realize how many strangers I would connect with based solely on familiarity with each other’s pain. I was not alone, although I was under the impression that I was for several years.  Lainey was the first person who helped me to find my voice and soon after, when I let other friends and my family in, my voice became stronger than I ever knew it to be. I did not ever plan on telling my story to the people in my life, and definitely not to crowds of thousands of people. I’ve found that I do not have to feel any way I do not want to feel, and that I have the ability at any given moment to change it.  I’ve found that unconditional love does exist, even when we think it doesn’t. Most of all, through the power of words, I’ve found out what it feels like to be a whole person.  I no longer have to live as a perfectionist or as the girl who has her entire life together.  I am thriving although I am imperfect.  Minding Your Mind reiterates that for me each day.  If nothing else, I hope my story will encourage others to come forward about theirs.  The stereotypes are often so far from the truth, and I set out to explain that to our our society each and every day. There is help, there is hope and there is still time for each and every one of you.

-Jackie R.

 

Speak Up!

The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was the ability to think for myself. I was raised to know how to speak up. I was allowed to question things and to be my own person. I never considered that my voice, my sense of self, was something that I could ever be without. I just figured it was as much a part of me as my brown eyes or the freckles that sprinkle my nose and elbows.

When I was 16 I became a firefighter and everything in my world changed. I had found what I was born to do and I tackled it with a passion I didn’t know I had in me. I knew that I had found the job I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I very quickly found myself in an unwelcome and unsafe environment. I learned that not only did I not fit the stereotype of a firefighter by being a girl; I didn’t fit the female stereotype. I wasn’t willing to succumb to the expectations those firefighters had for me. I wasn’t willing to throw away my morals to do the things these men were asking me to do. As soon as I made it clear that I wasn’t going to cave to their expectations of me, the way they were treating me became extremely dangerous. They were unwilling to accept my presence in their fire house because I wouldn’t become the type of person they wanted me to be. For three years I lived in an environment where I was constantly in danger. Fear became my everyday reality. I stayed because firefighting was still my passion and purpose but the environment was changing me emotionally and physically until I was no longer the same person. After years of enduring this daily treatment, when my stress levels were at their highest, I experienced an attempted gang rape at the hands of three drunk firefighters. In that moment my body reached its capacity to handle stress. I stopped being able to feel a range of emotions and fear and anger became my default state.

I descended into what I later learned is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is caused by experiencing a traumatic event that is either a singular moment or prolonged over the course of time. Some of its symptoms include constantly relieving the event, nightmares, flashbacks and a debilitating inability to forget the past. I lost my short term memory, my appetite, and my ability to sleep well. My mind was so busy trying to keep me safe from assumed threats, it forgot to give me normal body cues such as hunger and daily memories. I truly no longer recognized myself. Any sense of self or ability to stand up for myself had been erased. I no longer believed in the goodness of people or in my ability to overcome anything at all.

The hardest part of struggle, especially those which cause us to recede into the darkness for months or years at a time, is realizing that the voice telling you you’re alone is lying. When I finally opened my eyes I noticed the help that was around me. It wasn’t that the help just suddenly showed up, it had always been there. One of the most empowering things you can do in this life is to speak up for yourself. Your right as a person on this planet is to ask for and receive help. If you don’t speak up for yourself, who will?

PTSD is an anxiety disorder by nature, but often comes with major bouts of depression. When I finally picked my head up out of the hole of depression, I realized that I was still had that ability to make my own choices. That ability was still very much mine. That was my first step to becoming healthy again. It was me taking my life back and saying that I had the ability to make choices for myself again. Being in recovery regardless of what from doesn’t mean that everything automatically magically gets better. It just means that you’ve made the ongoing decision to keep your voice and your true sense of self louder than anything that tells you you aren’t good enough.

So don’t forget what’s yours. Find your voice and fight every day to keep it.

 

-Ali Warren

“I’m Fine.”

“I’m fine.”

I can’t count how many times I have said this in my life. When I ask the question, “How are you doing?” it’s the answer I expect, and often people are thrown off if you answer in any more detail. I have heard people refer to the word “fine” as an acronym which, in good taste, I won’t expound on in detail in this blog post- but I think the point of the acronym is that fine almost never really means fine. In my experience people’s lives are always in flux, and in the ebb and flow we always are experiencing a struggle on some level. So, I guess my question is, why do we feel obliged to say, “I am fine,” when most of the time we are not? In this week’s post I want to answer why I felt the need to say “I’m fine” for so many years, and why I don’t say that anymore.

I think there is a huge misconception about the attitude behind “I’m fine”. I was taught, by many people at many times in my life, that self-reliance was a virtue and that needing help was a sign of weakness, the folly of children. We are taught that there is something stoic to a person who handles their problems with no help, who can put on the appearance that everything is OK. This narrative deeply affected me as a young child and I can remember the very concept of it feeling so alien. It left me with a lot of questions.

“Am I the only one that feels this way?”

I would wonder, “Why does everyone else seem to have a clue when I don’t?”

“These feelings of self-doubt, this knot in my stomach, does no one else really know what this feels like?”

I learned the lessons quickly. I learned to put up walls, to not show weakness, to hide my vulnerabilities lest people pick and prod at them. I learned to answer “I’m fine” like everyone else, thinking that I was being brave, I was being strong, that the appearance of self-reliance was a replacement for the real thing. I remember a poem I wrote in grade school that ended with the line “no one can hear when you scream inside”, I thought that it was important to keep those screams inside- because I never heard anyone else screaming. “I’m fine” they said, “I’m fine.”

Over the years this narrative became like a suit of armor. It looked strong and resilient, and with each passing day there were less and less weak spots. It covered every inch of the man inside and I thought, “Now nothing can ever touch me.” For me, this is what the attitude of “I’m fine” was supposed to bring. Safety, respect, adoration. I was a model of strength and on the outside I gleamed with perfection. However, the view from inside the suit was much different. Yes, the suit covered every inch and had no weak spots; but because of this it was very heavy and made it difficult to move. The very act of getting up each day became a strain on the man inside the suit. The helmet was stifling, and it was hard to breathe. I could see, but as if through a long hallway; and I could hear, but it echoed as if from a distant dream. I thought my suit would give me freedom, but hiding the man inside the suit became the greatest burden I have ever endured, and after a time I collapsed under the weight of the very armor that I built to keep me safe, to set me free.

I remember awaking from this collapse in a place full of other people. People who had lived their lives in suits of armor that had broken down and rusted, and we all sat together exhausted from the journey that lead us here. A journey of self-reliance, alone, in silence. There were some though, that I remember with vivid clarity. It was the look in their eyes, a look that I hadn’t seen in so long. I remember looking at others from my suit of armor and asking, “How are you?” and they would smile with their mouth, but not with their eyes as they parroted back, “I’m fine.” These people, though, smiled with their whole being. I remember how deeply their hope inspired me, and inspires me until this day. Their strength did not come from armor any more, nor did it come from anything outside at all. It came from within and it exuded from them in a way that amazed me. They had found their true voice.

Following in their path, finding my own voice, has been a perplexing journey; a series of contradictions that once I accepted, changed the way I saw myself and the people around me. Despite what I was told as a child, I have learned that people who ask for help are some of the bravest people I have ever met, and that it takes an immense amount of strength to be able to work on yourself. I was taught early in life that my struggle should be my secret, and I planned to carry that burden for the rest of my life, until when early in my recovery a beautiful thing happened. I remember talking to a person who had followed a similar path to mine. I shared with him my experience and how far I had come since then and I watched that little glint of hope sparkle in his eyes, as it did in mine when I first met those bright eyed people the year before. As I watched that glint of hope change that man’s life as it had changed mine, I noticed that how I felt about my experience began to change, too. Suddenly, my secret was helping other people and that burden of guilt and shame began to melt away. As I opened up I met hundreds of people who had struggled in their life like I had, and I started to realize just how much the attitude of “I’m fine” was affecting those around me. I began to see that every person I had seen in the past 22 years was carrying a burden I knew nothing about, and that deep down inside each and every one of those people would have loved a person to share that burden with. You are not alone. People around you every day are walking around thinking, like you, that no one can know the depth of their pain, their struggle. So I challenge each and every person reading this- to be brave enough to drop the “I’m fine” and to keep an eye out for someone struggling through what it is you have been through, and when you find that person go tell them that they are not alone. When you watch that little bit of hope change their life, you’ll see that it changes how you feel about yours- and that has been the most freeing experience of my life.

Today, I don’t want to be fine. I want to be free.

-Carl Antisell

“I want to see you be brave.”

“You can be amazing; you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug. You can be the outcast, or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love. Or you can start speaking up.”

I am writing for this blog because words can save lives.

I am writing this for you: peers, educators, families, friends of somebody who may be battling with a mental health condition, or of somebody who isn’t. I am writing this for those of you who know nothing at all about what it means to have a mental illness. I am writing this in hopes that you might learn something, that you might take away a piece of knowledge that you can use to help someone in need. I’m writing this so that the next time you hear a phrase like “ugh, that class makes me want to shoot myself”, you won’t chuckle and shrug it off; so that when you notice a friend has been sleeping more than usual and stopped caring about their schoolwork, you don’t feel nervous to be the person to ask them how they’ve been doing. I want you to feel prepared to have those honest conversations. I want you to feel confident enough to stand up to those who make stigmatizing jokes about mental illnesses. Truthfully, as foreign as those struggles may seem, the person in need of help and advocacy could someday be you.

I am writing this for you: who is certain that you’re entirely alone, that you never belonged here, that you’re going to feel this way forever; you, whose eyes can’t see through the fog, whose skin suffers at the hands of your mind, who feels like you’re suffocating from the weight; you, who punctuates every tiny thought of hope with “yeah, but…not me”, who doesn’t feel like your voice is worthy of sound, who can’t bear to face the outside world; you, whose mind races, whose heart races, whose limbs can’t stop moving. This is for you: who feels wrong, who feels lost, who feels stuck. You, who has forgotten that you deserve the world simply because you’re you.

I am writing this for you most of all. I’m writing this for you because I have been there, and sometimes when it’s hard to find words,  finding shelter in someone else’s can give you hope.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way the words do when they settle ‘neath your skin. Kept on the inside, no sunlight, sometimes a shadow wins.”

For way too long, I hid my pain beneath laughter, beneath layers of clothes, beneath excuses. I didn’t want anybody to be pulled down by my weight. I wanted to protect my family and friends. I was convinced that nobody would be able to help me anyway or that I would just be cast away as being overdramatic or stupid. I had always been the good girl, the perfect daughter, the A+ student, and everything was spiraling out of control. I was afraid of who I was becoming, but I was so ashamed that I didn’t want anybody to know. I didn’t want to show how vulnerable I was; and after all, how do you bring up a conversation like that? How do you push those words out?

“But I wonder what would happen if you say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.”

I wish I could pinpoint a specific moment during my journey when I found my voice, but like any solid structure, it had to be built brick by brick. It’s true that once you let the words out, it becomes easier to add those bricks. When you use your voice, when you speak up to friends, counselors, teachers, family members, they can help lift you up and give you the boost you need to keep building, to reach higher than you ever thought you could. They might even offer to carry some of the weight.

“Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”

Some days it’s harder to talk about the pain you feel. Some days there will be a lump in your throat and a heaviness in your chest that suffocates the words inside you. And some days others’ ignorance will make you choke on your words. Know that you don’t have to feel completely confident or have the right words; just let them fall out. The first call I made to the counseling center on my college campus was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but throughout my journey, it really did get easier to talk about my mental illness. And years later, after talking through my pain, after reaching out to those who care about me, after learning to fight for myself, I look back and realize that I have this amazing structure with which I have learned to protect my mental health and to work through the obstacles I face. I have support and it makes me feel safe; it makes me feel lighter. If it weren’t for my friends, family, mentors, therapists, doctors, and all those who were willing to help in between, I wouldn’t be here.

“Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live; maybe one of these days you can let the light in.”

You do not have to battle this alone. You are capable of feeling better, and you are worthy of feeling better. If you are hurting and unsure of what to do, please speak up, reach out, ask for help. Let the words fall out. It could save your life, and we need you here. Be brave.

-Leah B.