The original vision of “It Runs in the Family” was to share the stories of my family members and our shared experiences dealing with life’s challenges – not the least of which was various mental health diagnoses – from my own mild depression and anxiety, to my mother’s bi-polar disorder, to my grandmother’s depression, to my grandfather’s schizophrenia…etc. But I know that my family is one of millions dealing with these issues everyday.
Last week, a friend of mine posted a powerful testimonial on Facebook recounting her experience with a breakdown a couple of years ago. It was beautiful and brave and I asked her if I could share it on the blog and she said absolutely. My biggest vision for us here – for everyone who reads and who may one day read – is that we are a family. We love and support and encourage each other. Last week, October 5 – 11, was Mental Health Awareness Week – but everyday is love your people day – and this is one of my people sharing her story. Now, she’s one of your people too. I hope that you find a little more hope, understanding or compassion in reading her words. Thank you so much! xo
Two and a half years ago, I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. At 31 years old, I had struggled with depression and anxiety for a good half of my existence. I had a graduate degree in counseling. I worked with people with mental illness on a daily basis. And yet it never dawned on me that I was slowly spiraling into a breakdown of my own — that is, until I woke up that morning, finally immobilized by my sadness and fear.
I spent that week alternating between a comatose state and being unable to sit still. Barely talking, whimpering, rocking back and forth. It was the week that I relinquished control, that I finally accepted that there was something different about my brain chemistry, that I reached out and asked for help. And people were there for me. People were there.
I’ll be forever indebted to Will, who took care of me when I was at my most vulnerable, who kept me company when I was afraid to be alone, who loved me when I was completely incapable of loving myself. That old adage about not being able to love someone else until you love yourself? It’s bullshit. He’s the one who helped me begin to love myself again.
I’m incredibly grateful for my psychologist and nurse practitioner, who both took the time to listen, to be present, and to give a damn. Through a combination of therapy and medication, I found the strength to push forward. To do more than exist — to live. And to keep living.
October 5 – 11 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. In honor of those who cared enough to pull me out of the darkness when I couldn’t find my way — I promise you, you are never alone. http://www.nami.org/
I asked Lisa if I could post her amazing, honest and eloquent testimonial and she quickly responded yes! Then I thought it would be great if she would be willing to delve a little deeper. What a mensch – she said absolutely! Thank you Lisa, for your bravery and candor. This is how we reduce the stigma, get better services for those in deepest need, and finally come to better understand each other.
Here are my questions and Lisa’s answers:
- Was there a precipitating factor that led to the breakdown you described?
Well, as someone who has struggled with anxiety since I was a young child, and with depression since I was a teenager, I’m a bit of a creature of habit. I learned throughout the years that, for better or for worse, staying inside my comfort zone felt safe and stable. So when I found myself faced with a divorce, a career change, two moves, some family issues, and a new relationship, you could say that I was forced slightly outside of my comfort zone. You know the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, that ranks a bunch of stressful life events? Yeah, my life WAS the Holmes and Rahe scale! Even positive changes can be stressful, and I was up against so many of them all at once. I had been able to “manage” my depression and anxiety as long as everything stayed stable, but as soon as I was pushed outside of my norm, I cracked. Life’s demands became too much for me to handle. What’s interesting is that I initially landed in therapy because I was struggling to acclimate to my new job, but once I started talking, I quickly realized that the work issue was only the tip of the iceberg.
- How has that experience changed you?
Upon seeking treatment, I began to feel a wider spectrum of emotions. It’s like the world has been painted over with color; I no longer see in monochrome. For years, when someone asked me how I was doing, I might say “fine” or “alright”. But I never used the word “happy”. I was afraid to. It felt inauthentic. Even if I felt “okay”, deep down, I always knew that “happy” must feel like so much more. Now I can actually use that word, and feel like I’m telling the truth.
I like to think that my experience has only increased my empathy for others who struggle with anxiety and depression. Chronic depression is so much more than “the blues”. Anxiety is not just “the jitters”. These feelings are often complicated, deeply ingrained, and difficult to overcome. But I think there’s a great deal of strength to be found in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Sometimes, being strong and brave doesn’t mean continuing the fight on our own, but rather, putting down the gloves, reaching out, and asking for help.
I still get sad. I still have mornings where I wake up with a pit of nerves in my stomach. But I no longer get stuck in the mire. I no longer feel the anger toward myself and the world that I used to feel. I no longer allow my anxiety to immobilize me. I feel more self-assured, and am more gentle with myself and the world around me. I’m more apt to embrace others and bridge the gap between our differences, as opposed to seeing those differences as irreconcilable.
- Why do you feel it’s so important to share your story?
My greatest goal is to erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness. I tend to think that we all struggle with existential angst to some degree — it’s part of the human condition. It’s just that some of us get stuck a little deeper, a little longer, a little more frequently. Others are a bit more resilient, and bounce back with a bit more ease.
My hope is that, as someone who has worked in the mental health field for thirteen years, my story will allow others to see that mental illness can touch anyone. You might relate yourself, or you might know a family member, friend, or colleague who is having a hard time. I hope my story will help you feel less alone, or give you a greater sense of empathy for what someone else is experiencing. I hope my story will remind you that life is hard, that you aren’t a failure, that things can get better. I hope my story will give yours a voice, that you will feel a sense of hope and strength in our solidarity. Our secrets keep us sick, but when we share our stories, we begin the healing process.
- What do you consider a positive outcome of living with depression? We hear about the negatives, which are pretty obvious — what is the good, in your experience?
My experience has shaped me into a more authentic, transparent person. I am less afraid to share my feelings and opinions, and worry less about their reception by others. Having been so deep in the trenches, I am also far more appreciative of the beautiful moments as they arise. I realize that they were always there, but only now am I able to fully embrace them for what they are.
It took me years, but I finally reached the point where the pain of remaining where I was felt greater than the pain of asking for help and courting change. I was a counselor prior to my breakdown, but my experience has only strengthened my desire to devote my life to psychological healing. I can think of no greater, more noble cause than that of empowering others along the route to self-improvement. It is only through helping others, by getting outside of my own mind, that I am able to continue down my own path toward growth and healing.