My Journey From Diagnosis to Advocacy for Mental Illness
I’ve always been the happy one, the energetic one, the excited one, the ready-to-go one. It was a part of my personality, until it wasn’t. I hit a wall constructed by my own brain, composed of genetic links in my DNA subsidized by a shocking divorce. You would never think all that would add up to be something so strong, but it does. Life became mediocre and not worth living. The energetic became the lethargic, and the excited became the disinterested. There’s the saying, “High school is the best four years of your life!” For me, high school was me barely keeping afloat, with weights tied around my ankles.
When I started coming home to my room every day and slinking into bed, I thought I was just tired from school, or maybe my mono hadn’t gone away yet. Then, I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t want to see anyone, and I didn’t even want to watch television. I sat there, or slept, well into the night, waking up only to use the bathroom and return to slumber.
Waking up for school, already not an invigorating activity, became painful, and walking through its front doors gave me fear like no other. I felt stupid, out of place, ugly and worthless. It became difficult to sit through classes, and I made multiple visits a day to my counselor’s office. We became close, and it felt like my only safe place. My grades plummeted, having a dry eye was rare, and I isolated from everyone. I knew something was going on, but I didn’t care enough to do anything about it. I just wanted it all to be over. I wanted to die.
Many stories like this see the loss of friends. I wouldn’t say I truly lost them, but I did distance myself enough where it was too much effort on both ends. I couldn’t blame them. It’s a lot to deal with at that age, but I also couldn’t bring myself out of this alone. It makes a world of difference to have someone ask if you’re OK. I was thankful I had the type of friends who did. Sometimes, I was honest and sometimes I wasn’t, but at least someone cared.
A few weeks later, it happened to be time for the annual school depression screening. I looked at the piece of paper and laughed. I felt all of these, but it couldn’t have been that I was depressed. Could it? I was tempted to lie and continue pretending everything was fine, but something in me told me to tell the truth.
I answered honestly for all the questions, and then came to the last. It asked if we had ever considered suicide. I didn’t know what to answer. I knew if I said yes, that’s an immediate red flag and they’d have to call my mom. I didn’t know if I was ready for that to happen, but I continued to answer honestly and indicated I had considered suicide. Sure enough, 30 minutes later I was called down to my counselor’s office. She called my mom, and we scheduled the screening at a behavioral health center.
Now let me tell you, I don’t know if this is the norm, but I was in that center for five hours of testing, answering math questions (ew), solving puzzles (gross) and answering questions about myself I didn’t even know the answer to (ugh). When all was said and done, a week later they told me I had major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
I saw a talk therapist a week later and quit. I couldn’t do it. How on earth was I supposed to trust someone I had just met 15 minutes ago? I don’t even trust people in my personal life that quickly (hint: I have trust issues!). Later, I tried art therapy, which I loved and worked great, but of course, insurance didn’t cover it. I stopped receiving any treatment until I was well within my first year of college.
After receiving my diagnosis, not much changed. I don’t know if I expected anything to happen, but I still felt just as awful as I did before. Now, I understood it better. I’m curious and a researcher. Naturally, I spent the next few days reading all about it, other mental illnesses and various related subjects. Within the next few months, I decided I want to start a club at my high school dedicated to mental health awareness.
When the club was started and I had some members, I researched volunteer opportunities for us, and came across the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I emailed the Northern Virginia branch immediately, and the executive director and program director of that affiliate offered to come to the school and talk to us about their organization. When they left that day, they told me they were impressed with my initiative. I thought nothing of it, assuming they were just being nice and thanked them. A couple weeks later, to my surprise, they invited me to be part of a panel discussion at The George Washington University on mental health in young adults. I was appalled but went for it, and that’s where it all began.
NAMI quickly became my family and my cause. Following my first panel discussion, I was trained in two NAMI signature programs. I went to area schools to share my story and encourage others to reach out for help and to be a supportive community for their peers. I interned at the office in my last months of my senior year and developed a youth event for our community.
When I left for college that August, I was connected with the NAMI Virginia state office in Richmond, where I attend school, and began working with them and the Central Virginia office. Since the beginning, I have given speeches, served on two advisory boards, given three awards, attended and helped lead a workshop at the national convention, attended advocacy day at the Virginia General Assembly and interned at both the local and state level.
Through all of this, I have met people just like me. I have learned so much about different illnesses, the lives of others and how we can use our experiences to both help and inspire other people living with mental illness. I have gained not only an insight to the world of mental health, but to my own needs and well-being. I once again want to be here and fight for something.
Three years ago, I was a completely different person. I grew, I changed and I fought. There are people who probably do not like this Leah, but this is the real one. The one who will do whatever it takes to help the community I have become very close to. It has been, and still very much is, a bumpy roller coaster of weird feelings, breakdowns, happiness and all sorts of complications. Yet, I am stronger and more determined than I ever have been.
I feel ready to take on the world, and I want others to join me. I want all of us to look at mental health and say, “We need to fix this. We need to support people who are experiencing this.” A good chunk of our population faces challenges similar to what I did every day. It is a lifelong illness, and while many live in recovery and are doing awesome (keep it up guys! You’re great!), there is a disappointing percentage of brothers and sisters we had to say goodbye to because of how overwhelmed they were.
Join me in stomping out the stigma. Join me in fighting for equal care and equal treatment. Join me in ensuring the lives of the mentally ill are perceived just as important as the lives of everyone else.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.