Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Today is World Mental Health Day and I’m here for it. I’m here to tell you that I crawled on glass to get mentally healthy so that my girls could casually and nonchalantly get the help they need without stigma or hesitation. You see, when I was growing up, everything was “rub some dirt on it” and “just calm down” and “ADHD? My kid doesn’t need meds for ADHD, she’ll outgrow it.” No one thought that mental health is the cure to generational trauma. Seeking mental health help was about as taboo as sodomization. Yep, I said that too.
Growing up the daughter of a depressed, introverted mother with a people-pleasing complex and an alcoholic father prone to fits of rage, tumultuous was an understatement. Most of my childhood felt like I was stuck on a tiny, deserted island prone to excessive erosion and every day was hurricane season and when it wasn’t hurricane season, it was surely typhoon season. Any wrong step in any direction could surely make this house of cards childhood crumble.
I was prone to stomach issues from anxiety, from a very early age. I remember frequenting the pediatrician’s office and even the emergency of our local hospital often because no one could get to the bottom of my constant pain and diarrhea. The kept up until high school and then I fell into a deep, dark hole of depression. Still, with six kids, a raging alcoholic and a depressed mom…no one really noticed and if they did, they chalked it up to teenage angst and hormones. My eating disorders went unnoticed for years, as did my body dysmorphia, depression and subsequent bipolar.
They say that people can be born genetically predisposed to mental illness disorders but without trauma to activate that illness, they may never develop one. I wasn’t that lucky because if there was one thing I had a plenty of, besides brothers and sisters, it was triggering trauma. Most people who know me today, think I am an eternal optimist. In fact, in my house, the Big Guy and my girls think I’m practically delusional with my “where there’s a will, there’s a way” attitude but when you’re raised with so little, you have to believe that you can to survive the despair.
But back to my depression, it was the kind where you feel like you’re so far deep in a hole that even when you’re looking up all you can see is more black. I was suicidal. I don’t say that lightly but with reverence and honesty. It wasn’t a cry for attention or help. I felt so helpless and hopeless and stuck that I really wanted to just go into a deep, dark corner and disappear. I had thought it out thoroughly. I had several ideas of how to do it quietly, without a chance to be caught before I was done and how to make sure that it was final. I wanted to be dead because living was torturous. It was so painful to live that I just couldn’t see enduring it any longer. That was my existence between the ages of 15-17. The only thing that kept me from doing it was my mom. She never intervened, in fact, she had no idea I was even thinking about it but I knew that if I were to kill myself; it was the same as murdering her so I could never go through with it. Her love, literally, saved me from myself.
Fast forward a few years later and at the age of 27-years-old, I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. I was relieved. I know some people would be embarrassed or ashamed but I was just relieved to give a name to the brokenness I had suffered since I was in my teens because giving it a name, gave me the courage to face it, process it and move through it. My diagnosis was, in a way, the power to heal and the chance to realize that I was not broken, just bent.
It may seem from reading this that I was sick and then I was better. Obviously, that was not the case. The years in between were the things that drug-fueled nightmares are made of. I was out of control of myself and I couldn’t stop any of it. I was just along for the ride, as my brain chemistry held me hostage and nearly killed me in a myriad of ways while destroying many relationships, obliterating opportunities along the way and all I could do was hang on for dear life.
Meanwhile, I had no idea what was happening to me. I just knew I was impulsive, reckless and irrationally irritable and angry. I waxed and waned between manic elation and extreme irritability almost daily. I blew things up in my mind. I cried a lot. I got angry. I hurt the people I loved with my words, actions and deeds. I was selfish but I thought I was magnanimous. I was narcissistic. I was mean when I wasn’t the sweetest person in the room and you never knew who you were going to get. To be honest, neither did I. To the people who knew and loved me through those dark and twisty times, I apologize and for those who remain, words will never be enough to express my love and gratitude for your love and care.
It took multiple diagnoses, years of behavioral therapy, psychiatric care, a cocktail of medications, a lot of education, a handful of clinical psychology classes in grad school, a shit ton of self-acceptance, a healthy devouring of the DSM and learning to let go to become the woman I am today. I have been practically non-episodic for almost 20 years save for a couple of hypomanic episodes, the most recent during this pandemic. The Big Guy and I are constantly monitoring my moods and sleep habits because hormones and big life changes can trigger an episode. I’ll spend the rest of my life being the guard of my own mental health. To be honest, after recently speaking with a therapist, maybe mom should have treated that ADHD because you don’t just grow out of it. But that’s a story still in progress.
My point is that I had to do a lot of work on myself, really look inward, and learn about my illnesses, embrace them in order to become part of the solution. Knowing my own mental health challenges, I have always been very open and honest about mental health with my girls and, I am always looking for the signs because mine was missed for so long. Mental health is just as important as physical health in our family. In fact, in April of 2020 I put both of my girls in therapy because the pandemic was very negatively affecting their mental health and, to be honest, I’ve always thought that every single human being could do with some therapy.
My girls had no qualms about talking to a therapist. Though we are very open, I know that there are things that maybe they would feel more comfortable with, as teens, speaking with a non-biased professional and I’m fine with that because their mental health is more important than my pride. The goal is to be mentally healthy, comfortable in their own skin and happy. I never want them to feel shame and stigma about a very normal issue that so many people are affected by and avoid getting the help they need.
The thought of my girls lying in their bed at night alone in the dark, feeling such despair that it hurts to go on living like I used to, breaks my heart. So I talk to them about their days and their feelings, sometimes more than they want to and reassure them that I am here for them always and if it’s beyond my capabilities to help, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep them healthy in every single way.