My battle with mental health has been a long and turbulent one, and I know it’s not over yet. It’s not easy for me to talk about what I’ve gone through, but I understand now more than ever the importance of sharing a little bit of my story to help raise awareness and hopefully help affirm what some of you may be going through.
In honor of mental health awareness month, I write and share this with you as a friend, and I hope that you read this as a friend, without assumption or malice.
I have had PTSD since I was four but wasn’t properly diagnosed or treated until I was sixteen years old. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental disorder that can be developed after a traumatizing event. The causes and manifestations of PTSD may differ, but it’s often characterized with anxiety attacks, triggers, depression/withdrawal, paranoia, and reckless behavior. If not properly treated, these symptoms could get worse over time- which is what happened with me.
As a result, I spent most, if not all, of my childhood and youth repressing memories and symptoms, constantly confused about the raging whirlwind of emotions going on inside of me.
In elementary school I threw tantrums, yelled and fought with teachers because I just wanted to go home where I was safe. Adults chalked it up to separation anxiety, and although my school psychologist helped me cope with being away from my family, I was never treated or diagnosed with PTSD.
I was a kid, and everyone expected me to be happy-go-lucky because of that. Even as a sixth grader when my depression and flashbacks were starting to really make their way to the surface, I kept denying that something could possibly wrong with me. I didn’t want my parents to be disappointed that their daughter wasn’t normal, and I didn’t want my teachers or classmates looking at me differently.
In middle school, my depression, anxiety, and flashbacks became worse. I tried talking to my parents about it, but because we come from a very religious and conservative country, they thought that the answer to my problems was to praying more often- that it’s all in my head and I can choose how to feel. As if, with inherited depression, I could scold my brain until it balanced its own chemicals.
I started hurting myself out of anger and desperation. It made the most sense to me at the time- I was already hurting emotionally, what difference would it make if I hurt physically, too?
I reached out to the guidance counselor and principal. I showed them my cuts, told them how I was feeling, that I really just didn’t want to be alive anymore and I wanted to stop feeling like that. They told me to come back the next day, in case I changed my mind.
So I went back, hesitant but hopeful, only for them to have forgotten my name and reason for visiting. I walked away, determined to set my past on fire and force myself into normalcy.
If anything, that made everything much, much worse. At the start of high school, I was completely and utterly convinced that I was alone and that any cry for help I could muster would fall on deaf ears. Repressed memories and flashbacks woke me up in the middle of the night. During the day, I was plagued with fear that the person responsible for my trauma was right around the corner. I was a fifteen year old trying to function on less than three hours of sleep. Everything meant nothing. I wanted the memories to stop, I wanted the anger, the fear, the sadness and loneliness to just disappear. And I found myself looking at two options:
1. End my life.
2. Fix my life.
I’m glad I chose option two. I wanted to give my parents the daughter they deserve, my brother the sister he deserves, and my friends the support they deserve. But most importantly and significantly, I wanted to give myself a life that I deserve. I wanted to at least try to get better, and everyone who thought otherwise or tried to hinder me could go f*ck themselves.
At the end of sophomore year, I reached out to the school psychologist without consulting my parents because I knew that they would give me the same old advice as before, and I didn’t need any more discouragement. I walked into her office before school started, knowing with all my heart that I had absolutely nothing left to lose.
It was the best decision I ever made.
I opened up about my struggles and within an hour, she laid out all my options and possible solutions with the upmost genuine compassion. By the end of the week, she got my parents on board in getting me an outside therapist to see once or twice a week. She ended up being a really great friend and confidant all throughout high school.
My therapist became a really great part of my life, too. If you told me five years ago that I would be spilling my heart and soul out to someone completely unlike me, I would’ve given you my death stare. I didn’t think I’d like therapy, but I knew it would benefit me one way or another. I was really lucky that I “clicked” with my first therapist. Some people don’t find a good fit for a long time, but what’s important is that you don’t stop looking and that you don’t stop showing up.
After a year, I decided to take my therapist’s advice and start seeing a psychiatrist for medication. Working hand in hand, my therapist, psychiatrist, and school psychologist all found a way to help me cope and provided me with the tools to confront my trauma head on.
Those three years in therapy going through all of my feelings and over a decade’s worth of repressed memories were some of the most difficult times, but nowhere near as difficult as the times I went without help.
With the help of this incredible support system both in and out of school, I was able to find confidence in myself. I took my love for writing, filmmaking, and storytelling and turned it into my life and career. I found the courage to form new friendships and relationships. I discovered the importance of strengthening my relationship with my parents and brother, who have been nothing but loving and supportive of all of my choices since high school.
It’s a great feeling to be able to look back and see how far you’ve come. However, there will still be bumps in the road. Sometimes they’re small, and sometimes they feel like mountains. I haven’t been to therapy or taken medication for about two years and although I’ve accomplished a lot without them, I’m entering a new phase of my life where I think I might need more reinforcement. So I’m making the choice to go back to therapy and medication.
This just goes to show that it’s okay if you need to go back. There’s nothing wrong with you for seeking help in the first place. There’s a lot of trial and error in getting better. But at least you’re getting better.
Friend, if you’re still reading this and wondering what you should do next, I say sit down and have a raw and honest conversation with yourself. Everyone’s situation is different. You don’t have to fit into a neat box of symptoms to find a solution. It’s almost always going to be scary, but it’s scarier to keep living with the depth of mental illness threatening to drown you at any moment. I’ve suffered from mental illness for over a decade and I suspect that it’ll go on for a little bit longer, but that’s okay. I’m ready.
Not everyone has access to helpful school psychologists, therapists, or psychiatrists. My story, along with millions of other people’s stories, is a prime example of why mental health care should be accessible to everyone, everywhere. Similarly, everyone should be aware of how important it is to listen and be active in helping better someone’s life. Find a friend, be a friend. You don’t have to be someone to do something.
At last, I leave you with words of wisdom from someone I’ve looked up to for a very long time, someone who helped me find peace with mental health.
“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”
-Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist
With many types of mental illness prevalent among the nation, here are some hotlines and resources if you’re unsure of where to start or need access to care:
NAMI HelpLine: 800-950-NAMI (6264) or email@example.com (They’ll help you go over symptoms, treatment options, support groups, etc., or, visit their website ww.nami.org to find out more)
National Center for PTSD: 800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Hotlines & Hospitals in LA: http://namila.org/crisis-hotlines-hospitals/
National Help Hotlines (Confidential & Anonymous): https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/hotlines/