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What 'Starting Over' Means When You Live With a Mental Illness

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Starting over. Twelve letters, four vowels, two words. Seems simple when you break it down like this, right?


When someone typically says they’re “starting over,” one imagines a blank slate, a sunrise after a long night, sunshine breaking through the clouds on a rainy day. This imagery gives way to the perception starting over always equals a fresh start, a new beginning. However, it’s not always as easy as these flowery descriptions make it seem. It’s a long process. It’s hard, grueling even. And starting over once doesn’t always equate to all your problems being solved.

Let me begin with a little background. I’m a 22-year-old girl, green eyes, blonde hair. Grew up in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Loving family, 31 on the ACT, high school diploma, former athlete, college scholarship, steady job, no criminal record. Sounds perfectly normal — even good — on paper. However, like the words printed on this page, this is merely a thin, surface description. When you dig a little deeper, you’d see things you’d never imagine by simply looking at my history.

In this age of technology, many adolescents, young adults, older people — everyone really — is constantly connected to each other. But social media can only give you a superficial view of who someone is. I am not defined by my latest tweet. I cannot be dissected by my most recent “selfie” or Facebook status. I’m a person, with many layers, most of them unapparent and unknown to my peers. Unless you do a little digging, that is.

To get a better overview of myself, you have to look beyond the surface layers. Behind my high school diploma are years of struggle with mental illness. That’s right, I have severe clinical depression and anxiety. Years of self–injury, self-torment, suicidal ideation and multiple inpatient mental hospital stays under my belt. Even electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy). Sounds very “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” am I right? (Don’t worry, it’s come very far since those days.)

Every Facebook friend, every Twitter follower, every Instagram “like” you receive, is a person. A real person, with so much beyond the external facade.

Now back to my main point: starting over.

I should have graduated college last year. Four years after graduating high school, I should have my degree, a job — or at least be interning somewhere in relation to my degree. I should be able to have a healthy relationship with a significant other as well as myself. I should be surrounded by those I love and well on my way to a successful and fulfilling future.

But no.

I used to attend DePaul University, a four-year college in the middle of Chicago, surrounded by my best friends. As previously stated, I had a sizable scholarship and I was surrounded by some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my lifetime. On the exterior level, my life looked perfect. Yet, on the inside, I was struggling. I was self-harming and imagining different ways to end my own life. Drowning under the heavy weight of my depression and anxiety. Being completely paralyzed by my anxiety attacks and feeling lonely, miserable and defeated due to my depression. Desperately craving human connection but living in self-imposed isolation and mental torment. I had to drop out of school and was once again admitted to the local mental hospital.

I wish I could say this is where my fresh start, began. But, once again, it wasn’t. I repeated this process twice more over the past four years. While my friends were earning their degrees in subjects they were passionate about, I was struggling on the daily to keep from hurting myself. I couldn’t even settle on what degree I wanted to pursue. I went from English to graphic design to nursing, but never felt satisfied. I never felt contentment in my heart, the fulfillment in my bones from knowing I was pursuing the right path. It felt like any enjoyment of life, any spark of happiness and all of my former passion were completely gone. I was filled with self-doubt, debilitated by anxiety and suicidal from my depression. I spent many late nights curled up on my bed, too numb to cry, with fresh cuts stinging my arms imagining how my life would go nowhere.

All I knew was I wanted to have a positive impact on this world in any way I could, but my mind convinced me I’d never be capable of that. I had a supportive family, an amazing psychiatrist and had been on a seemingly endless roulette of medications to placate my illness, to “fix” myself and put the drive, the passion, the spark back within me. But no combination of prescriptions ever felt like it made any impact whatsoever. I thought I’d endlessly live in this cycle of self-hatred, immobilization and loneliness.

I felt like I’d eventually end up taking my own life. I despised myself and my scars and felt in my heart the world and anyone I had ever met, was better off without me.

I wish I could say now in December of 2016, I’m completely healed. I wish I could say I’m living the life I want to be living, the one I dreamt about. One free of depression and anxiety, surrounded by loving people and on the fast track to success, leaving a positive impact on everyone I meet. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. However, that’s the greatest thing about fresh starts: you can have as many as you need.

As of December 2016, I’m re-enrolled in college at the local community college. I’ve always loved to help people, so I’m taking classes aimed toward becoming a psychologist, a career path I’ve chosen so I can hopefully have a positive impact on as many people as I can. I’m hoping my experience will only make me more empathetic towards those I wish to help.

I haven’t cut myself for weeks and I’m finally on a regimen of medications I truly believe have a positive effect on me. I’m surrounded by a loving, supportive family and I’ve reached out to many of the amazing people I isolated myself from over the years. This isn’t to say I no longer have bad days. Some days — even weeks — are filled with a struggle to get out of bed, urges to self-injure, and fleeting ideations of ending my own life.

However, I’m taking the steps I need to take. I attend all my classes, I communicate and go out with friends and I even pursue my hobby of photography. I attend weekly therapy sessions. I have a steady job. Though I know my past is littered with what some would consider failures, I try my best to keep positive. I’m learning to care about and appreciate myself, despite my history. One of the things that has helped me the most is knowing no matter how many tries it takes, no matter how many defeats and mistakes I may have in my past, I can always keep my focus on the present and what’s to come. I’m not defined by my past or my illness; the steps I’m taking now towards a better future define me. Every decision I make, every goal I achieve and every day is a fresh start. A new beginning. A new me.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 30, 2017
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