Behind the Smile, by Michael Garuiccio

Let me preface this by saying, I am not writing this for any reason other than wanting to tell part of my story. I am not looking for pity, or social media responses. Simply, I want people to know that the truth can be misleading. That the people who look the most put together, can be the most broken. Mostly, I want to say what I have been feeling needs to be said aloud. Maybe it will resonate with someone else. Maybe it will not.

For those who know me well, mental health is an important topic for me. On the surface it would make sense, being that my roommate and good friend has survived multiple suicide attempts and has taken on advocacy as a vocation and profession. One of my close friends from high school died by suicide suddenly during our freshman year of college. So naturally, this issue has been close to my heart. However, unbeknownst to most I have struggled on and off with depression for more than a decade. So literally, this has always hit home for me.

In 2015, my roommate Drew attended a gala in New York raising money for his job, a non-­‐profit that does mental health education programs for young people across the country. When he returned from New York, Drew was blown away by what he had seen. The event, A Celebration of Life, was started by a group of fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt University who lost one of their brothers to suicide. To try and raise awareness, they threw a concert to raise money for mental health advocacy. Years later, as these men had grown into their careers and moved across the country, they had decided to turn it into a gala. The event had 300 young professionals come together in New York City and raised $125,000.

Drew had told me this, and said to me: “This is an amazing event, we can do this.” For me, it was a no brainer. I would do whatever I could to help Drew along the way. A Celebration of Life: Philadelphia was born. The months went by, and we began to see it come together. Sponsors, donations, ticket sales; the vision was becoming reality. We were incredibly excited for this amazing night that would not only raise money for our cause, but also would bring so many incredible people together to celebrate life (and party all night).

The night before the gala, I was out with some friends in the city. I had gotten to a bad place mentally, via alcohol. This had become a pattern for me at that time. Drinking and going out would be a vessel of hope for me. The possibility of making new friends, and meeting someone, was always exciting and made me hopeful of change regardless of my mental state.

Unfortunately, drinking began to open mental barriers I have developed over time to hold my anxieties and depression at bay. I would begin to fall into deep depressive states late at night after drinking, and over time it would grow into suicide ideation.

That night, I began to think about and dwell on the loneliness I had felt for much of my life. I sat on a street corner by myself in the night crying, feeling hopeless and not able to see change. I walked to a parking garage in the city, and climbed the stairs to the top. The same parking garage Madison Holleran jumped off of two years earlier. For whatever reason, I had always felt a connection to Madison. She and I had never met, but she died the same week my friend had. We were struggling at the same time, in the same city, for many of the same reasons. I was always walking in the city, out and about. I would wonder why we never crossed paths. Maybe we could have connected; maybe we would have become friends, maybe.

I stood at the ledge, looking to the street. Thinking on my life. Thinking of my struggles. Wanting to simply not be sad anymore. As I stood there, I began to think more of the change I was desperate for. For whatever reason, I made a phone call. I called a friend, who honestly today I cannot tell you who it was. They did not answer. I called another friend, no answer. I called one last person, at 4:00am. My friend Patty, at 4 o’clock in the morning, answered the call. Patty talked to me for what seemed like hours, though it was probably closer to 20 minutes. She got in her car and drove to pick me up. She took me to her office where in the early hours of the morning, she talked me through and developed a new plan to get my mental health on track.

I was worried now that I would not be able to attend our event, which was so important to Drew and me. After some sleep, I had come back to a manageable place. We had our event, and it was a great party that lasted deep into the night. We are now going into our third Celebration of Life:Philadelphia now having raised over $150,000 combined over the first two years.

I tell this story, simply because in a time in my life where I am struggling for much different reasons, I wanted to tell some truth about my past. That you never really know someone simply by surface. That pictures rarely tell the truth. That someone who looks so happy could have almost attempted suicide just 24 hours before.

Mike Garuccio blog

I hope that if you are struggling, you have the courage to reach out. I know I would not be here today, if many times over I had not reached out for help. I still struggle every day, but I have the tools to beat mental illness. I will always try to help and support those who need it, to the best of my ability. Whether it is through our advocacy work with A Celebration of Life, or simply a hug or phone call. Please know, there will always be someone who cares.


We Can All Do Something, by Carolyn

I just wanted to sincerely thank you again for visiting our school. I promise to use this momentum you have given me to make even more positive changes for my school. I’ve done several things this past year with mental health:

  • I found a curriculum created in Canada called “Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide”. The process of implementing the curriculum was long, and I went through it mostly alone besides asking for advice from my school psychologist. I was in contact with a board member of the curriculum asking questions and forming a proposal when I pitched the idea to my principal. I annotated the entire guide, which was 167 pages, but all on topics I’m familiar with. We had a few meetings and through collaborating with the health teacher, the psychologist, and principal, we were able to seamlessly fit the 12-module lesson plan in our curriculum. So far the class has been going good, I’ll be able to sit in on the class next week and I hear students are actively participating!
  • I found Minding Your Mind and decided you needed to come to our school. I went through a similar process on researching, writing proposals, and having meetings until we were finally able to book a presentation.
  • I have more plans for the future, I need to find ways to fundraise because I have been told that my plans could cost money. Since May is Mental Health Month, I want to have events and really educate the people in my school.
Throughout this year I have found my passion in life, I never expected to be where I am now. Things were a lot different and much darker over the summer with my mental issues. Keep doing what you’re doing, man.

Beneath the Surface, by Carlie

The purpose of my club, “Beneath the Surface,” is to help those who face challenges that cannot be seen by the naked eye, to educate people about these hidden challenges, and to teach the power of empathy. I started this club because of my own experiences with pain disorders as well as mental disorders that are not visible to others. My mission is to raise awareness and promote compassion across hidden differences. 

I wrote this last year. It explains some of the struggles I faced and why I want to raise awareness for anxiety, depression, and other invisible illnesses. 

Sometimes the biggest smile contains the most pain. November 19, 2015 was the day I had my surgery. Before surgery I have never experienced a day in pain, but ever since then I have never completely healed physically and emotionally. I have lived every single day of my life in pain. Once in a while I’ll have a good day with my pain being at a 5/10 but more often my days last with my pain being at a 10/10. My pain varies from sudden severe stabs to long aching cramps, in my temples, my jaw, my base of my skull, my neck, and down to my shoulder blades. 

My surgeon, “Dr. L,” said to me, “This has never happened to me in the 30 years I been doing oral surgery, I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m never doing the arch bar technique again .” As a 16 year old, hearing that internally destroyed me. I think to myself everyday why me? Why was I the one my surgeon used as the Guinea pig by using arch bars for the first time? 

Pre operation, I had so much hope leading up to my surgery. Believing that it was going to turn out great and I would finally have a smile without a huge over/open bite (a bite I would finally be able to chew food with) and now all of that hope has been crushed within the past year. I have been to doctors in numerous states for my relapsed jaw and have gotten replies like, “I have to cut your jaw into 3 pieces to help you, but I can’t guarantee it won’t relapse again” , “you need a prosthetic joint replacement”, “you have cheerleader,s disease” (condylar resorption), “you have TMJ and need to get your condyles reconstructed”, “you should have had braces and been wired shut after surgery, that’s a surgeons error”. As well as professionals that have said, “this is a complicated case, I don’t know what I can do for you.” How is that ok? All doctors have been scared to touch me or try to help me because I’m the rare  patient that can relapse easily.

IT’S BEEN OVER A YEAR AND WE HAVE GOTTEN NOWHERE. I have been in chronic pain. It has taken away from my entire life. I never sleep. I toss and turn all night because my jaw and neck are in excruciating pain. And when I do finally get sleep, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night because I have nightmares of being in mid surgery. My anxiety level has became unbearable ever since my surgery. I have flashbacks to surgery because of my pain constantly reminding me that’s there is something wrong with me, and will have anxiety attacks because I don’t know what’s to come next. I can’t even do things like look down for more than 10 minutes, sit in a chair comfortably, chew, brush my teeth, put on makeup around my cheek area, or yawn without being in pain. I live on pain killers which I quickly gained a tolerance to. 

Oral surgery is not an easy recovery. Surgeons have carelessly told me, “I’ll just have to redo the oral surgery,” with no positivity it will work better than it did the first time. I am traumatized. Waking up from surgery looking/ feeling like I got hit by a bus, having 102 fever every other day, getting an allergic reaction to the morphine and having hives all over my body, throwing up blood, and not being able to walk on my own for two weeks because of the dizzy spells. People get upset when they don’t eat for two hours, imagine being on a liquid diet for over two months. In addition to the recovery process, it was so emotionally challenging for me to have my face reconstructed, going out in public and get weird looks like I have something wrong with my face. 

I have been positive for so long through the recovery process. However, it’s at the point I have been to all the best surgeons in the country and have gotten nothing but negative responses about my case. I spent three months, three times a week going to physical therapy and got no progress. Now, I go four times a week to the chiropractor and two times a week to an acupuncturist. They give me a small amount of temporary relief. So, I plan my schedule around my pain management doctor appointments. I can’t even last a full day in school! I can’t even ride my horse more than once a week! How could Dr. L look at me and say, “you’ll be ok,” after knowing everything I been through and everything he’s done wrong?

My most recent diagnoses is trigeminal neuralgia. It is a chronic pain disorder affecting the trigeminal nerve in the face. This is because of my bio-mechanical malfunction in my jaw. It was caused by my oral surgery/face trauma. Doctors today call this the “suicidal nerve.” This is known to be one of the worst medical conditions. If it wasn’t for my amazing family and chiropractor I wouldn’t have the smile on my face I use to hide my pain. My chiropractor is the first doctor who has been there for me and continues to constantly check on me and offering to help.

However, there are so many people in this world who have no integrity. Small comments hurt. By this point I’m just frustrated. People make fun of me for having to carry a rolling backpack in school (because my of my neck), by kicking it and saying, “nice suitcase” while laughing sarcastically. That’s bullying. You have no moral qualities if you watch me sit in class with an ice pack on my neck and having all my work on a book reader (because I can’t look down for more than 10 minutes without getting jabbing neck pain) and tell me, “I’m just doing it for attention.”  I have endured so many hurtful comments about my jaw and what I’m going through. I have had people say, “you’re being dramatic, it’s just a little jaw/neck ache, it can’t be that bad.” Other people have said, “I wish I had a medical condition so I can get into any college I want.” Growing up around people with no heart make me really appreciate how my mom has raised me. I know from experience that the people who are in the most pain tend to be the ones who are always trying to make others smile. And for the evil people out there who know who they are, it is not that hard to think before you say! Just because I have a smile on my face when you see me does not mean I am physically and emotionally OK. No one will ever understand my pain unless they experience it. I am thankful for the few true friends in my life who have been there as my shoulder to cry on. 

God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand what God really wants to happen to me. And I will not always believe in the quote, “everything happens for a reason,” because what is the reason for the pain people suffer from around the world? However, I trust that God will put me where I am meant to be someday. And I know that through this dreadful experience I am growing. Everyday I act like nothing is wrong, and it’s simply called being strong.

The author with MYM speaker Drew Bergman at the Ranney School in New Jersey

“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.