Did you know that 1 in 5 people live with a mental health condition? Chances are you or someone you know has been affected.
I recently was nominated to be a NAMI Keystone In Our Own Voice Presenter. I’ll be speaking to middle and high school students, as well as community organizations across Pennsylvania to share my personal story and explain what it is like to live with and care for someone with a mental illness. After much thoughtful deliberation, I have decided to publicly share my story. If I can help just one person by sharing this story then it will be worth it. Maybe that person is you.
During my childhood, I was an excessive worrier. It was my normal – I thought everyone felt this way. I remember worrying so much in 1st grade that I would get physically sick to my stomach and have to go to the nurse’s office on a regular basis.
When I was in 6th grade, 11 years old, I was bullied repeatedly for being shy by a group of older guys. I was teased and tormented on a regular basis. Although I don’t remember exactly what they said, I’ll never forget how they made me feel – like I was an outcast, unaccepted, and absolutely worthless. The wounds from cruel words can cut much deeper than physical ones, and the scars can last forever. I hid this from everyone because I didn’t want to be a burden, and unfortunately at the time I believed everything they were saying. They were the cool kids and I wasn’t, so they must have been right.
I began to struggle with social situations and my self-esteem. During school dances, I would shake. I also became extremely fearful that I might run into someone I knew in public, to the point that I avoided going out altogether. I withdrew from most of my friends.
When I was 12, my family had a large party. There were going to be a lot of other kids my age there that I didn’t know very well. I acted like this was fine but was secretly agonizing over this in my head all day. I got so worked up about it that I ended up getting physically sick and threw up. So that no one would know what was really going on, I tried to cover it up and act like I just had a bug. In reality I was relieved that it happened because I was able to avoid the party.
I felt like my true self was trapped inside an iron box, but I felt powerless and paralyzed. I felt like everyone was against me, and that I couldn’t truly be myself because I would never be accepted. It was very isolating. I didn’t realize that help was available when I was young, or that anything was even wrong. When I brought this situation up to people, I often heard, just get over it, you’re just shy. It was brushed off as nothing. On the outside I looked normal, but on the inside only I knew the extent of the pain I was experiencing. In my teen years, my life was run by constant anxiety, fear and the feeling of worthlessness, especially in social situations.
High school was especially painful. There was a time in high school when I had isolated myself so much that over summer break I had no friends from school to call, talk to, or hang out with. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed.
At one point in high school, my goal was to talk to just one person in each of my classes. To just say one thing to one person. I couldn’t do it. They would probably just think I was weird and I would make a fool out of myself.
In one of my classes, participation was a large percent of our grade. In order to get our full participation points, we had to raise our hand and contribute at least once per day. I got a B, rather than an A in the class because I could not do it. The last thing I wanted was to be the center of attention. I really just wanted to crawl in a hole. When I did have to speak in front of the class, my thoughts would race, my heart would beat out of my chest, and I would feel like I was going to pass out or throw up.
When I went to college, I discovered alcohol and used it as a social lubricant for many years. Talking to others became much easier, and it took away my inhibitions and fears. I had finally found the “cure”! Or so I thought…
Realizing There was a Problem
Things came to a head when I was 19 years old. I was home for summer break and my parents asked me to come meet them at my sister’s softball game. I got dressed, put on makeup and got ready. But I sat on my bed and looked in the mirror and I couldn’t go. I looked perfect, but it wasn’t good enough. I just sat there and cried. Feeling as if I didn’t measure up, I was absolutely terrified to go. I felt paralyzed. This is when I decided to see a therapist for the first time. It did help, but I didn’t go for long because I had to go back to college when the summer was over. At the end of our last session, I was feeling better. I thought I was “fixed”. And for a while, it seemed like I was.
For years, I didn’t realize how bad my social anxiety actually was, and I continued to struggle with self-esteem. This was my normal, and I didn’t know feeling any better was an option.
After things intensified later, I finally began to seek therapy again when I was 28 years old. It took a few tries to find a therapist that I felt really comfortable with. Once I found the right therapist, she validated my condition. I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and she ensured me that I didn’t have to live this way and help was available.
I very much benefitted from therapy. It changed my perspective about myself and the world. I grew so much and learned strategies and coping skills to deal with the racing thoughts and negative beliefs about myself. I also eventually started taking medication. The medication was the missing puzzle piece for me that helped me to begin to live my life as my true self, without the burden of anxiety and fear clouding my mind constantly. The mix of therapy and medication made a huge difference for me. After I started taking the medication, the social anxiety dissipated. I realized that it had been much worse than I ever realized. It was amazing how I felt like a brand new person. I could finally be myself!
Things that Help
I also learned some healthy habits that helped me to feel better. Journaling, meditation, therapy, and faith all became things that kept me balanced and grounded. I also started running. I used to hate running and decided to try running a 5k in my late 20’s. Running made me feel calm and less anxious. I now utilize running as one of my favorite self-care routines. I recently started a run coaching business to help others with running as a way to improve their own mental heath and wellbeing.
My life is very hopeful, and I now feel that I am on the other side of my anxiety. I love interacting with people now, and I found out at age 31 that… Surprise! I am actually a very social person. Who knew? I still have good and bad days, like everyone else, but overall, my anxiety is much better than it ever was previously in my life.
I was able to get a handle on my mental health right in time, because life presented a new challenge. This time though, I was equipped to handle it. Two years ago, my husband Jeff and I were expecting our first baby. Everything was going great. We felt like we were on top of the world, except Jeff had started to isolate himself from me, work late nights constantly, drink a lot, and I could tell something was really off with him.
One night, he got home late at night after promising to be home earlier. I was fed up. I tearfully confronted him about it. After laying it all out, he admitted that he was struggling and needed to get help. He vowed that he was going to do it for me and the baby. Neither of us realized it at the time, but he was in a major deep dark depression. That tearful conversation, by the grace of God, was the wakeup call that he needed to get help. The next day he saw a therapist for the first time. He was immediately diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and PTSD, put on medication, and was hospitalized for the first time.
Life with Depression
This began his long battle with depression – dozens of therapists, psychiatrists, medications, and multiple hospitalizations. This, without a doubt, has brought some of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced in my life, and that we have faced as a couple in our entire relationship. At times it has brought us both to our knees. Imagine watching your partner, your best friend, battle an invisible illness that no one can see and many people don’t even understand.
Jeff is a survivor and has been fighting hard to overcome his depression since that first day. He has come a long way since then. He has good days and bad days but overall continues to make progress. Through all of this, we have grown closer as a couple than I ever expected, and learned the true meaning of ‘in sickness and in health’. I have found my own inner strength that I never knew I had, and he has too.
Today, I’m a mental health advocate, speaker, and writer, supportive wife, working mother, and running coach. I love my life and I know that I wouldn’t be who I am today without the struggles that I have gone through. I believe that God had me go through my own struggles so that I could help others overcome theirs. And I’ve found a new passion and purpose in my life: to help others find their way out of the darkness through mental health advocacy.
Sharing this story is terrifying but what is even more terrifying is the fact that someone out there may suffer in silence for far too long because they don’t know that things can get better. Staying silent only allows the stigma to continue. Mental illness does not discriminate and it can happen to anyone (even people who appear to have it all together). I’m speaking up to help you become aware of symptoms and warning signs to look for in yourself and others. If you silently battle, know that you are not alone and that recovery is possible.
So, if you are going through the same thing Jeff or I have gone through, I have something to say to you. I know things are really difficult right now. I know you are afraid and feeling hopeless, but you are going to be ok. I know you don’t know it, but you are smart, beautiful, strong, resilient, valuable, and worthy just the way you are. Reach out to someone for help. You are not alone. You will get better, and the world is a better place because you are here.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can use any of the following resources:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline – We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
- NAMI Help Line – The NAMI HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with a mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public. HelpLine staff and volunteers are experienced, well-trained and able to provide guidance.
- If you would like to learn more about mental illness, please visit https://www.nami.org/Home.
- To learn more about how to prevent bullying, visit https://www.stopbullying.gov/.
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