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Living with Mental Illness by Valerie S., Age: 21

In the beginning, I was in denial because this illness has a bad reputation, but I’ve learned more about my illness and now I feel more empowered to share my story.

What have you struggled with? When did it become too much?

I was born with health issues and colic because I was extra sensitive to sound, light, etc, so my mother did her best to maintain routine for me to keep me calm. Experiencing significant trauma in early childhood, however, triggered me to become more hyper-vigilant. I was always preparing for the worst and I feared most males and I worried about losing those I trusted.

I started to feel the effects of my mental illness when I was a freshman in high school. I had high expectations I made for myself academically as well as my involvement in my extracurricular activities. Part of me loved to be busy with dance competition, musical rehearsals, after school club meetings, studying etc. because it kept me on track and it masked many of my compulsions. Unfortunately, I pushed myself so hard that my expectations became unattainable. I crashed and began drowning in depression. When I was stressed or overwhelmed with too much emotion, I self-injured to secretly maintain my pain. The constant phrase of “I want to die” turned into “you deserve to die” on repeat in my brain and I didn’t know how to shut it off. I questioned if anyone else was experiencing the same thing as I was or “was I just crazy?” Instead of cutting to hide the pain, it became cutting to bring me back to reality. This self-injurious behavior stopped working and before I knew it, I attempted suicide various ways and landed myself in the hospital a few times.

What kind of support did you get at first? Did it work?

I would occasionally visit the school psychologist to seek support during emotional times, but I was referred to a private practicing therapist in my junior year of high school. After seventeen years of trying to present myself as a “perfectly fine” and “never angry” child, I couldn’t believe I was sitting in a therapist’s office expected to talk about my feelings. Once I got over the shame of being there, I eventually opened up about some of the demons inside my mind. I believe it’s helped me because I can finally grant myself permission to release the burdens troubling my mind (and today I believe it!). My therapist also reinforced how I don’t always have to be happy and reminded me the specific tasks I was doing to keep grounded, was self-destructive.

In my senior year of high school, I hit another major low. After being hospitalized for the second time, I was sent to a three month partial hospital where I had to participate in intensive daily group talk therapy, art, music, etc. to help me become stable again. This type of hospital was helpful because I was working with people in my age group, so we all could connect about the current struggles we were facing. While I was in the hospital, I had to come to terms that I could not go to college until I was managing my illness well enough to attend. It was heartbreaking for me because I was accepted into my dream school with an amazing merit scholarship and I had to turn it down. I was baffled by how fast my life changed because of this illness, but today I am grateful for this experience and what my life now has become.

Were there any turning points where things really started to change for the better?

It took over a year to track my moods and tendencies for my therapist and prescriber to finally diagnose me with a primary diagnosis of bipolar disorder (or as some people say “bipolar depression” or “manic depression”). In the beginning, I was in denial because this illness has a bad reputation, but I’ve learned more about my illness and now I feel more empowered to share my story. The biggest turning point for me was after another hospitalization when I was nineteen. The clinician who worked with me felt I needed to go for another type of treatment for my Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). She referred me to another therapist who specializes in a process called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which helps individuals cope with significant repeated trauma. When I started doing the work, it pulled so many unresolved traumatic memories out of my brain that I kept in the back of my head to protect myself. I had no idea how significant it was to work on these experiences because every tendency or connection I had with people was because of specific events I went through in my early childhood. It was (and still is) tough work and I have to take it one day at a time.

What’s your life like now? What have you been able to accomplish, and what are you working towards?

Today, I am in more control over my mental health. I am not perfect, but I definitely feel much stronger than I was about six years ago. Instead of filling my workload to the max and moving to New York to attend school, I take a couple of courses each semester at my local community college and I moved into my own place nearby. It is one of the healthiest and scariest decisions I needed to make, but it has significantly changed my life. I have not self-injured in almost two years now and have been surviving the extremes of my illness. I also am currently working a full time position in the mental health field and LOVING IT! I have the opportunity to work with young adults facing the same challenges I’ve experienced and focus on their recovery, so they too can live successful and healthy lives. I plan to continue working in the mental health field and obtain a degree in psychology. I thank God every day for the second, third, and many more chances that turned my life around into a more positive light. Now, I want to wake up and live every day to the fullest.

What would you say to people who are having a tough time? What’s helped you that you wish you had known earlier

For those of you having a tough time, I encourage you to reach out and talk to someone (especially a professional). I know it is hard to think about, but people do care! We have so many resources and hotlines to call now, so please dial 2-1-1 and talk to them. I didn’t realize when I was a teen there were so many individuals struggling with the same problems I was, but now I know and I have supports that’ve helped me. I also learned not all therapists and medication are a correct match the first time, so be patient and speak up! You are not alone in this fight!