This story is part of a blog series called, “Your Story: a conversation on mental and emotional health and disabilities.” Please read with a heart open and understanding – free of judgement.
Please be aware within this interview the topics of: depression, anxiety, ADHD, suicidal thoughts, disordered eating & sleeping, being antisocial, being hospitalized & in a residential treatment center, divorce, cigarette use, gender & sexuality are brought up. If these topics affect you in any way please stop reading, talk with a someone you trust, or contact a mental health professional immediately. You may also call the Suicide Hotline 800-273-TALK (8255).
A Note On Editing
Minor changes were made to help make the interview easier to read.
This story belongs to Erin. I am so grateful for her and to her for sharing this story. I can’t imagine the difficulties of her mental health journey, but I know she is a strong, independent, and capable woman. Though hard to hear at times, her story and stories like it, show us the willpower to survive and the hope that comes from fighting to discover oneself.
When did you realize there was something mentally or emotionally wrong? And what did you do about it?
That’s a hard question. Looking back, I can see the signs were showing up as early as eleven. During my teenage years, I struggled enormously and felt like something was wrong, but I mentally slapped in the label of “teenage angst” and left it at that.
My first year of college was kind of a “wait…maybe there’s more here than I thought” and started my first foray into the world of antidepressants, but the real eye-opener didn’t happen until after I’d had my first kid at twenty-one. That’s when my [then] husband and I realized something major was happening up in that brain of mine. I started visiting a psychiatrist every month and eventually started therapy. But really, that was just the start to a very turbulent journey.
Are there/were there moments in your life where this mental/emotional struggle becomes more present and you’re more aware of its existence?
I mean – right now I am in PEAK aka “I’m obscenely depressed right now and, boy, do I know it.” I think, with knowledge, you see the signs earlier and more clearly for what they are. When I was younger, I was depressed, but I didn’t realize it. I didn’t have the language or the information to be able to see that. Now, I do. In terms of situations that tend to cause flare-ups? Well, I can confidently say I’ve been in a constantly depressed state since I was thirteen, but things get EXPONENTIALLY worse when I’m not living according to my values: my true, personal, written-on-the-walls-of-my-heart values. I could go into all kinds of detail about this, but, in a nutshell, the more trapped I feel in my own life; the worse things are.
How has this experience affected your relationships with others?
Oh God. My mental health is, in effect, a big sack of grenades that’s strapped to my back, and I always have one in hand. People like to romanticize how going through these issues can bring you closer to the important people in your life, but, to put it bluntly, all of my relationships have suffered immensely because of it. My parents (and older sister) panic after not hearing from me for more than two days in a row – which sucks because I am both antisocial and have major ADHD, so I forget to contact them ALLLLL the time. Everyone is frustrated.
There were other contributing factors, but I also ended up getting a divorce during all of this. My ex and I both walked into our marriage with existing mental health issues, and due to the pressures of our choices and relationship dynamics, we both got sicker as the marriage went on. As dramatic as it sounds, I know that, if I hadn’t left, I would have been dead in another year or so.
AND THEN, there’s my son. Our relationship has been torn to shreds, and we are still on hands and knees trying to pick up the pieces. Mental health is no joke! Those grenades I mentioned? It is agonizing to watch them explode, over and over and over again, knowing you’re hurting the people you love. It’s agonizing because you can’t figure out how to get them to stop exploding.
What methods have you found are beneficial for your treatment and healing?
Medication and therapy are paramount. If I skip my medicine for more than a day or two, the people around me WILL notice. I nose-dive whether I’m flying at low or high altitude. Beyond those two, I have a bunch of random tricks. I have two printed out charts – one for anxiety and one for depression – that have the symptoms listed in order of severity. That way, I can look at them and be like, “Oh! I’m at an eight today. That’s no good.” My parents also have a copy, so when we talk, I can tell them the number, and they can better understand where I’m at right now.
I, also, have a good friend who has been through a lot of the same struggles, and we send each other memes and texts to each other about how hard it is to take a shower and other stuff. This is less about fixing, and more about feeling connected and validated, which is also massively important. I repeat, we don’t try and fix each other’s issues, we mutually wallow (aka, share the pain).
When I’m deep down the rabbit hole, it takes massive amounts of energy to do the simple things like: eat, shower or walk outside. When I’m in that place, my motto becomes, “Above 0% effort is a win.” Can’t eat? Well, if I can get my butt to the fridge and down a couple slices of cheese, it’s a win. Past that point, it’s all about doing things one small action at a time. Guided body meditations help me sleep and stay centered; going outside to walk my dog makes sure I get the minimum amount of vitamin-D and grounds me; doing something creative gives me a sense of accomplishment – especially when I can hold a tangible object at the end of it. There’s all kinds of things to do; it just depends at what level of functional I am. But at every level, talk. Talk, talk, talk!
What keeps you from receiving or accepting treatment and healing?
First, I hate feeling like a burden. That was actually what was playing on my mental tape when I was hospitalized the first time around. I felt like this massive weight, and it would be better if I wasn’t there. Looking deeper now, I can say that hand-in-hand with that is a sense that my thoughts and feelings are not worth anything, so even talking to a professional feels like I’m being a burden on them.
And second, I’m human. Talking about things means looking at them. Looking at them means acknowledging them. Acknowledging means experiencing them again. All that means pain. I’m human, so I want to avoid pain. I don’t want to set myself up to feel those feelings again or risk being judged or shamed. Opening my mouth means that becomes an option again.
What symptoms or behaviors of your mental/emotional health experience are the most difficult for you to handle? For example: self harm, disordered eating and sleeping, suicidal thoughts, loss of motivation.
Well, the most dangerous one is suicidal thoughts and behaviors. I’ve been hospitalized twice and put on suicide watch, and there were many other times I struggled without going to those lengths. I even had to drop out of college halfway through my last semester because they had gotten so bad.
Outside of those, I’d say the most disruptive symptoms (for me) is disorganized eating, a fractured sleeping schedule, and complete loss of motivation. I have gone days without eating anything except a handful of crackers. Just energy drinks and cigarettes. I recently had to go to the hospital after I started fainting. Turns out I had stopped eating to the point where my body couldn’t handle balancing my blood sugar levels. It’s been almost six months now that my sleeping schedule is a joke. Up for 46 hours straight, sleep 4 hours, awake for 24 hours, sleep 36 hours, awake for 8 hours, sleep 24 hours…it’s madness. I’ve skipped entire days without realizing it. And all that awake time? I read fan fiction or manga or stare at the wall. I don’t clean or work or study or call people. I’m essentially a ghost.
Have you shared your struggles with family and friends? If yes, what have their reactions been? Are they supportive, or do they wish to keep your struggles hidden?
Pretty much everyone in my life knows. And everyone’s been incredibly supportive. The hard part is watching your loved ones blame themselves for what’s happened. It actually makes me so angry. (And then there’s the people who actually did contribute who refuse to take any blame. Whole other story.)
What inspires you to stay hopeful through this experience? Or how do you find hope during this experience?
Honestly, a lot of the time, I don’t feel hopeful. It sounds sad, but it’s true. In many ways, the things that keep me going are small. My Pinterest board of the garden I want to have someday, the thoughts of my next tattoo, waiting to find out the winner of this season’s The Voice, wanting to see what clubs my kid joins in high school – that kind of stuff. But most of all, it’s the flat out stubbornness in refusing to lose. I feel weak and tired all the time, but I know that deep down, I am powerful and awesome. It’s there. I don’t know how to access it right now, but I’ll be damned if I lose before I get to see it come out.
If you could travel back in time and visit yourself just before or just after recognizing there was something amiss, what would you tell yourself?
Ugh! This question makes my heart hurt because I know I can’t actually do it. What makes me excited though is that I CAN do this for my kid and others like me who are still on the early parts of their journeys.
For me, I’d go all the way back to elementary school. I’d tell myself (and my parents) about my MAJOR ADHD, and how it shows up differently in girls. I’d get myself in therapy early and get school accommodations. I’d have a LONG chat about religious topics – especially related to sexuality and gender roles. I won’t lie; I’d also tell myself to keep the promise not to get married right out of high school. Lots of stuff.
If you met someone else going through a similar experience as yourself, what advice and words of courage would you give them?
Whatever you have to hold onto to keep yourself alive, hold on to it. Even if it’s a petty desire to beat the world at its own game.
Find out how to get yourself in therapy, and, more important, find out how to keep yourself going. Do your research. Read the DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) and advocate for yourself. Don’t wait for the doctors or other people to figure out what’s going on.
Find people like you. Join Facebook groups. Go to suicide prevention groups. Or Anonymous groups. Join quilting clubs or manga groups or get a rock climbing membership. Find your tribe.
Make decisions, one small one at a time. Sometimes that means, “Okay, lift your right foot and swing it over the side of the bed. Now the left. Stand up. Walk to the bathroom.” And sometimes that means, “Okay, submit that college application.” Just keep walking, and when it looks like a spot to the left of your trail is a little greener, drift towards it. And just keep doing that. One step at a time, and when there’s a chance at something a little better, move that direction.
Is there any final part of your story or thoughts of encouragement you wish to share with the readers?
I have hit rock bottom too many times to count. And honestly, sometimes, I am surprised that I’m still here, and I wonder how? and why? But, when I back up, I realize I’m still here because I know there is something more that is still possible. Do I know what it is? Nope. Do I feel like I can even get there right now? Debatable. But the possibility is there. The hope is there, and I had to completely tear my life apart to even feel that hope again.
After leaving the hospital for the second time, I knew that the person I was and the life I was living… If I had continued down that road and decided I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) change it because it felt impossible, I wouldn’t be here. I may not have done it elegantly, but I left my marriage because it was making me sicker. I left everyone behind for three months to go to a residential treatment facility because I needed help. My son lives with his grandparents because I knew I couldn’t do it on my own right now. I blew my life apart. Not for kicks or attention, I just realized, deep down, that if I was going to make it out alive, I had to make a change. I’m still floundering around, trying to find somewhere to stand. My head still goes below the surface sometimes, but as rough as it is, I am in a better place than I was. That’s all I can do.
Making small (and sometimes BIG) changes that put me somewhere a little better than where I was. Because, I KNOW that, somewhere – buried under all the rubble and soot, is the true me. The one who is going to kick ass, build something, and make the world a better place; the one who is going to carve out a place in this world for my own happiness. I don’t know her yet, but I know she’s in there. I just have to keep pushing until we find each other.
Thank you for sharing your story, Erin.
Continuing The Conversation
The final question I asked as part of this interview was whether she was willing to connect with others about her story. She agreed and said that she would be willing to connect with any interested through Facebook. To continue to protect her privacy though, I will not disclose her Facebook profile in this post. If you are interested in connecting with her, please send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will forward your message to her directly.
Feel free to continue the conversation on mental and emotional health in the comments below. But please understand that your comments are being moderated and will be deleted if they are hurtful, hateful, or inappropriate in any way. This is a safe space to share your story about mental and emotional health and disabilities. Please do what you can to keep it as such.
A Note For Readers
If Erin’s story has inspired you to share your own story, please click here to be taken to the introductory post where you will learn where the inspiration for this blog series came from as well as how to participate.
A Quick Note About The Art
All of the images were saved from the internet and can be found for purchase at https://paul-lovering.pixels.com/. I thought these paintings created a beautiful visual map to aid readers as they traveled with Erin along her mental health journey of self discovery as she searches for the True Me inside of her.