How My Mental Illness Gave Me My Life's Purpose
From the first day I started struggling with mental illness, I was shamed by stigma.
My experiences with mental illness began as they do for a good majority of people, when I was in puberty. I had a blog where I talked about the normal exciting things teenagers talk about: boys, clothes, school — you get the idea. But I began to write more about my feelings as I ventured into my first journey with depression, as I was experiencing feelings I had never experienced before. The darkness, the sadness… it was all new to me. As with a lot of teens, I didn’t really get along with my parents and didn’t believe I could tell them what I was going through, even as I became suicidal.
But I could blog about it.
Instead of getting the much needed support from my followers, I was faced with cruelty and was cyberbullied before the term “cyberbullying” had even been invented. What was the ammo my attackers used? My mental illness. In what seems like unbelievable evil of humanity, my attackers left anonymous comments on my blog.
“You’re not really depressed, you’re making it for attention.”
“If you were really depressed, you’d kill yourself.”
“The world would be better if you committed suicide.”
And I almost tried thanks to their taunting.
This went on for months, until my depression finally started easing up as spring came around. I didn’t know it, but I had undiagnosed seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and still get more depressed during the winter. I think because I was beginning to regain my self and the depression was lessening, I was able to tell my mom what was going on. After telling her how depressed I’d been, how I had been suicidal, she promised to get me into therapy.
Then we never talked about it again.
This further made me question if what I experienced was really that serious. No one seemed to take it that seriously. Earlier in that first depression, my friends told my guidance counselor I had started to self-harm. She called me to her office in the last 10 minutes of the school day and told me what my friends reported and asked me, “Are you cutting?”
“OK, you can go get the bus.”
That was the full extent of our conversation. It was winter and I had on long sleeves, but if she’d asked me to roll up my sleeves, the evidence couldn’t be hidden. I was cutting. But she didn’t even spare enough time to have a real conversation about what was happening. She didn’t call my parents to warn them. Again, someone looked at it as no big deal. I felt as if no one cared about my mental health.
My mom. My guidance counselor. The cyberbullies. None of them took me seriously. So I rarely shared with others that I struggled with my mental health. I was alone and hid due to the massive stigma that surrounds mental illness. So I didn’t try to get help as it seemed like no one wanted to help anyway. Each winter, I struggled with self-harm and suicidal ideation all alone, as I was too ashamed to share my pain.
This invalidation led to a series of abusive relationships. I got engaged way too young,. I had a particularly bad bout of SAD during our relationship, but he discouraged me for getting help, even though I was an adult and ready to talk to a doctor about my depression. He told me that if I took psychiatric medication I’d become a “different” person and no one would love me if I was one of those “zombies.” His father, who had been highly abusive to him growing up, was a much nicer, better version of himself after seeking treatment for his narcissistic personality disorder, but my fiance hated this version of his father because he was “fake.”
There it was, another person discouraging me from getting help for what was a very real problem. Since I felt no one believed me, no one believed I had something wrong with my brain, I self-medicated. Pills and alcohol became my life. Though my family knew about the addiction, helpfully telling me to “just stop,” I still couldn’t open up that I yearly struggled with suicidal depression.
But all that invalidation came to a head in my mid-20s when I attempted, and almost died by, suicide via overdose.
The secret was out — I had a mental illness and now everyone knew as my family called relatives and my health deteriorated to the point that they transferred me to another hospital after my liver failed and I needed a transplant. As I was being prepped for my transplant, by some miracle, my liver began functioning again and I never got that transplant.
After that first attempt, I became out of control. My mental health deteriorated greatly and I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). I felt hopeless and was highly suicidal, being hospitalized almost 20 times in one year due to suicide attempts and ideations.
I started dialectical behavior therapy, a therapy designed specifically for BPD, and that was the turning point. It would be a few years and a hell of a lot of work, but I am now living in recovery from BPD. This doesn’t mean I don’t still have BPD, it just means that now I know how to cope with my illness and live a life worth living.
My sister had outed me on Facebook after my first attempt, and everyone knew about my attempt to take my own life. At that point, support poured in from friends around the world. And finally, I was able to admit to myself and to the world that I had a mental illness.
I used Facebook to go back to the days of when I blogged about my feelings, and I shared my struggles and what I was going through on this new platform. First, it was only to update my friends of my next stint in the hospital, but as I met more people online that also had mental health problems, I began to talk more about it. I had always had an interest in psychology, and now I had an insider’s perspective of what mental illness was like. Stigma had silenced me for so long that I finally struck back and began to be open, maybe too open, about my mental health.
And people listened. As I became more well known in my Facebook world, I was asked to be an admin of a mental health support group. It was there where I started to mentor my peers, talking with them when they were lonely, counseling them when they in dangerous territory and helping many people find doctors when they needed professional help.
I became more and more open about my struggles, knew from personal experience the power of stigma and I became an advocate for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. As I got better, so did my advocacy. When I was actually living in recovery and had finished dialectical behavior therapy, my online advocacy came out of the computer and into the real world when I became an “In Our Own Voice” speaker for NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Illness).
The stigma that had kept me prisoner for most of my life was no longer holding me back, and I am now a force to be reckoned with. I publicly speak about my journey to larger and larger audiences. When my physical health made me take time off of doing public speaking, I started doing YouTube videos talking about mental health and BPD. I am still part of the online world, tweeting, talking on Facebook and even being featured on a Facebook Live event on The Mighty, where my video has been viewed over 18,000 times.
Mental illness and stigma cursed my life and ate up many good years of it. Now, I consider myself to be a voice for the voiceless. I speak openly and honestly about my journey with mental illness, and I speak loudly to speak for those who are still stuck in stigma’s cage or can’t speak out due to work, church or other institutional stigma. I never thought the worst thing that ever happened to me would eventually be my purpose in life. This year I was also trained to be a Peer Specialist, so I can also work using my lived experience to help others, but I prefer my work as an advocate and speaker.
Much to my surprise, I have become an inspiration to many people. People see me and know that recovery is possible. It’s still always surprising when someone tells me I inspire them. My favorite quote is “I want to inspire. I want someone to look at me and say because of you, I didn’t give up.” (Author Unknown). And they have. I now have found my purpose in life.
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