My Struggles with Mental Health
Last month was Mental Health Awareness Month, as it has been every May since 1949.
Last week, two individuals in the public eye died by suicide. Kate Spade, a fashion designer and businesswoman, was found dead in New York on 5 June. Anthony Bourdain, a chef, author, explorer, and television personality, was found dead in France on 8 June.
A lot of people I know or follow on social media shared the number for the suicide hotline, links to various articles, strategies for dealing with mental health and reaching out to those who might be fighting the battle, and of course their condolences for both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and their families. A number of people also drew attention to the fact that these two people weren't the only two who died by suicide that week--or even that day.
Did you know that each year, nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide? (via American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
Did you know that suicide rates are climbing, up 25% since 1999? (via Center for Disease Control)
Did you know that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds and 2nd for 24 to 35-year-olds? (via Do Something)
Did you know that in 2015, 54% of people who died by suicide had no known mental health condition? (via Center for Disease Control)
Did you know that on average, 1 person dies by suicide every 16.2 minutes? (via Do Something)
Did you know that for every 1 suicide, there are 25 attempts? (via American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)
I've had a public online presence since 2009 via blogs and social media and there have been many times when I've considered writing this post and then decided my story doesn't matter and it isn't worth sharing. Today, I've decided that it does and it is.
I was in middle school when I first started having suicidal thoughts. I was completely immersed in a world of cyber bullying and mean girl cliques. And I was on both sides as the victim and the bully. Self worth and self esteem came from what my friends and boys thought of me. And no one is meaner than middle school girls, so it was rough for all of us. I don't remember ever telling anyone what I considered, but the thoughts came and went. The political tides in our social circle were always turning and in a few days, there would be a new target for ridicule and the cycle would continue.
In high school, those thoughts periodically came back. I continued to struggle with friends. I was sometimes bullied, but more often just simply left out, which I often found more hurtful. I still considered my value to be whatever someone decided it would be, whether that was an individual--a friend or a guy--or a group of people. High school, like middle school, was often lonely. Things did get better my junior and senior year when I fell into a really great group of friends, but I over time learned that the group of girls I knew from church weren't immune to drama and even mean girl tactics, even though it wasn't as hard with them.
College was truly the worst of it. I made all new friends and our hobbies were meeting guys and partying. And those two things usually went hand-in-hand. In the spring semester of my freshman year, I dated a guy I had liked most of the year, but our relationship was rocky at best. When he ended things for the second time, it was really difficult for me. That weekend, before I went out to yet another party with my friends, I took a few painkillers for a headache, but then just kept taking them. And I started drinking. They weren't what I would consider serious painkillers, you could find them in any medicine cabinet, but a few hours later, after I don't even know how many pills or drinks, I wasn't feeling well. My friends panicked and called an ambulance to come get me from our dorm. I was taken to the hospital and given activated charcoal to counter the pills and alcohol. I was sent home that night and, while I had to meet with my RA at least once that I can remember, I was back in class on Monday like everything was fine. However, during my stay in the ER, the doctor--whether he was an MD or a psychiatrist, I don't remember--asked me multiple times if I had taken any other painkillers, emphasising that one of them that I might have easy access too (again, found in most medicine cabinets) is particularly dangerous.
A few months later, my whole world kind of collapsed. I had just started my sophomore year. I was living at home, about 20 minutes from campus and had scheduled my classes so poorly. I didn't have a break all day and my classes were scattered across campus making it difficult to get there in just 10 minutes. But mainly, I was completely abandoned by my friends. There had been a minor incident at the fraternity house where we hung out all the time. If I remember correctly, I think I had slipped on the roof, but wasn't anywhere close to falling. So when my friends and I were getting ready to go to a party at that frat, I got a text from a friend who was both in the frat and dating one of my friends that the new president didn't want me hanging around the house anymore because I was a liability or something. Even though my friends were really kind at first, somehow things got out of control quickly. My friends were forced to choose between their boyfriends and their whole social circle and me. They didn't choose me. And some of them turned on me viciously. I remember being in class quietly sobbing as I got bullied by two different people via text. It was really difficult. And while I have some perspective now, as a 19 year old, my life seemed like it was over.
So I decided to take things into my own hands. A few weeks before, I had fainted at my on-campus job and hit my head, so the doctor suggested I take the painkiller that I had been grilled about in the ER a few months before, even though I had avoided it ever since learning how dangerous it could be. I bought a bottle of that painkiller and took it as the doctor prescribed for a few days. One night, I just didn't stop taking them. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning feeling awful. I stumbled into my mom's bedroom and told her what I had done. She rushed me to the ER and I was told that if I had come in any later, there wouldn't have been much they could do for me. I spent a few days in the hospital before the doctor recommend I be admitted to the psychiatric ward.
There were a handful of other patients there, we had a lot of free time and a lot of counselling. I ordered quesadillas for most of my meals and they always came with a purple tropical flower. I wasn't allowed to have sweat pants or sweat shirts with strings. My family could visit and I think I read a lot and played a lot of Scrabble. I spent a week there and I remember feeling more at peace than I had for a while. When I got discharged, my roommate gave me a Siamese cat that she had made before I got there. I still have that little clay cat and it continues to serve as a reminder of that time of healing.
I feel I need to pause here to say that there were a lot of factors at play that lead to me making the choices that I made. After nearly a decade, it's hard to remember the thoughts I had and the lies I told myself that also contributed to my choices. Maybe that's for the best. What remains now are these monumental shifts and events in my life, particularly my social life, that I can pinpoint as sort of a cause and effect, but that wasn't the whole story in my head at the time. I didn't make these decisions solely because a few people left me out or left me behind. I didn't make these decisions solely because a few (or more than a few) mean things were said to me. I made these decisions because everything piled up and it felt like it was too much to sift through anymore.
I had been in and out of therapy for years. I had been on anti-depressants for a while. And while I'm not doing either of those things anymore and it's been over eight years since that last visit to the hospital, there hasn't been a quick fix for me at all. There have been stretches of time when I could barely get out of bed, when I could barely eat. There have been days when I daydreamed about a time when I was "more courageous" to at least try to take matters into my own hands and wanted to do it again.
Things have been better the last few years. For almost two years before I moved, I had a job I really loved that truly fulfilled me. I've met some really incredible people, particularly through church, in the last few years that have changed my life. I met an incredible man who has agreed to meet me where I'm at--wherever that may be--and has chosen to love me. And even though my professional life isn't where I'd like it to be right now, things are mostly better. But the last year has been difficult as well. I was unemployed for six months and there were days when I didn't want to get off the couch or couldn't change out of my pajamas. There have been days since I moved when I didn't want to make friends here. There have been days since I moved when I felt my life had no purpose.
Yes, it feels like I'm in a much better place most days, but I'm always aware that things could change at any time. I've realised that I have anxiety and that's another thing I need to work on. I'm trying to become habitual in things that make me feel good, but there are still days when I just can't do something that I know will shift my perspective. I'm getting comfortable with my emotions. I check in with the most basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear, excitement, joy, tenderness, shame, peace, hope, gratitude) and track how I'm feeling everyday. I'm proud of the fact that I've learned to recognise them and have more control over them, but I'm at least more accepting of them, even if they're "negative". I try not to let other people determine my worth, but that's an everyday battle. I'm also terrified that if the day ever comes, I'll get severe postpartum depression.
In the last week, a lot of people have been sharing the suicide hotline--and that's not a bad thing to share. In the US, you can call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. But I recently saw a tweet from Chrissy Teigen that I could completely understand.
In my deepest, darkest post-partum depression, I would have personally never called a phone number. If John or my doctor never reached out, I would have never even known. It really can be a lonely hole. Watch the people you love and don’t be afraid to speak up.— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) June 8, 2018
Sometimes people will seek out help on their own via friends, family, or lifelines. Sometimes people need you to wade into their darkness with them to pull them out.
I want to share the bullet points from an article from HuffPost called How To Talk About Suicide In A Way That's Actually Helpful.
- Realise that self-harm can happen to someone you know.
- Know that bringing it up isn’t going to make things worse.
- Talk about the topic of suicide like you would any other health condition.
- Open up about any difficult experiences you might be going through.
- Really listen when someone is talking during the discussion.
- Ask direct, pointed questions.
- Check any bias at the door.
- Accept that you will feel uncomfortable — and that’s OK.
- Don’t downplay the issue.
- Speak up over staying silent.
If you're surprised to read my story, consider it a valuable lesson. People can put on a face both in public and online. They can hide behind what's really going on in their hearts and in their minds. Pay attention to how people act, to what people post on social media and reach out if something doesn't seem right. Be kind to people you know and strangers you encounter. Practice random acts of kindness whenever you can, no matter how small or big the gesture. Don't discount the kindness and love you spread because you never know what impact it has on someone's life in that moment or going forward. Be a part of the change in how we talk about mental health so people know it's okay to ask for help and they don't need to be ashamed of what they're feeling or afraid of what people will think.
If you've struggled with thoughts of suicide in the past, tell someone you can trust. Let them know that this has been on your mind before and might come up again. Be honest with them about what to look for and tell them how they might help you. Even if you're feeling better right now. I truly hope you'll seek the help you need. That help might look different for everyone, whether it be therapy, medication, or something else. I encourage you to build a routine of things that make you happy into your everyday life--no matter how simple or small or short. I encourage you to hold on to things that are worth fighting for, things that are worth living for. No matter what it is, hold on to it. There was a time when I seriously thought "I cannot die without knowing how Harry Potter ends." I clung to that until I didn't feel like I had to grip so tightly.
I have decided to donate 50% of the proceeds from my online store, Shop Joy42, to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention from today through 30 June. Creativity has been a fantastic outlet and release for me, as well as being incredibly therapeutic at times. In my INSPIRE collection, I set out to create prints that I would want hanging in my home to serve as an everyday reminder of my worth, my strength, and my capabilities, like the ENOUGH print and the GRACE print. I hope that you'll help my make a difference for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
I heard on a podcast the other day "Living a vibrant and meaningful life is supposed to be messy." (via The Goal Digger Podcast, episode 160) That really resonated with me as I thought about the journey I've been on with my mental health. But I want to leave you with this today:
Your story matters.
And so does mine. It took me a long time to realise that--and some days I still don't even believe it--but it matters.
Your story matters. You matter.