How Seeing My Childhood With Mental Illness in the Media Has Helped My Recovery
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If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
Growing up in the foster care system, I did not have anyone who had grown up with an experience similar to mine. It took a negative toll on my mental health and caused me to experience depression and anxiety. No one I knew had experienced foster care, let alone suffered the death of two parents by the age of 9. Everyone in my circle had their parents. Everyone’s parents looked young.
I felt alone and lost in the world — isolated and ashamed. I did not have the representation of foster care or mental illnesses that we have today. I did not have YouTube, blogs, or the internet to turn to.
When I entered college, I had a daunting statistic against me — only three percent of former foster youth graduate college with a Bachelor’s degree. I was charting my own path in school, and as far as I knew, I was the only former foster child at my college.
The first time I saw foster care represented in the media, I was 20 years old. I watched the show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” where one of the characters, Ricky Underwood, was in foster care and went to therapy. In the series, I saw him confront his mother and father for abusing him. I also saw him struggle with the effects of sexual abuse. This validated my experience because Ricky experienced some of the same emotions I had experienced in my own life. His struggle to find his way in the world and not be defined by his abuse was similar to my struggle. This show also helped me realize I needed to go to therapy to address my own childhood abuse and trauma.
I continued to find media representation of my experiences. I saw the short film “ReMoved” and its sequel, “ReMoved Part 2: Remember My Story” about Zoe Locke’s journey through foster care, her decision to break the generational cycles of domestic violence and foster care in her family, and her journey to become an art teacher while never forgetting her past. She was a person I admired for overcoming her childhood abuse and finding a path in education as a teacher. I wanted to find my path as a clinical social worker.
Most recently, I discovered Elyn R. Saks, a 66-year-old university law school professor who lives with schizophrenia, survived cancer, gives TEDx Talks, and once struggled with suicidal ideation. Her book, “The Center Cannot Hold,” changed my life. I hung onto hope that my life could be free of suicidal ideation. I hoped that in spite of my mental illness, I could still fight to create a life I could be proud of. I felt seen, like I no longer had to hide my mental illness.
I felt like if Elyn Saks could live without suicidal ideation and defy all the stereotypes associated with schizophrenia, then I could do the same with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. I felt like I could make a difference in the world! This professor made a difference as a lawyer, and I want to do the same as a clinical social worker.
Today, I am working towards my second Master’s degree and my LCSW, and I work in the mental health field. I felt like my mental illness was “winning” for three years, but I keep managing to thrive and not let my mental illness and former foster care status define me. I guess I am more like my heroes than I initially thought!
This is why representation matters. This is why we share our stories of lived experience — so that others can feel seen and heard and share their own life stories. Representation can help others out of a dark place and provide hope.