After I was born, my mother began showing symptoms of what was thought to be postpartum depression. She started spending time in and out of mental institutions, and years later was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder. Being just a kid, I didn’t understand what that meant. How could I? I was just sick of having to visit my mom in the “looney bin”, as I had heard people refer to it. Is it strange that to this day I’ve never been able to form an attachment with her? My own mother? I don’t blame her for her illness, but I find it hard to feel anything that resembles love.
Imagine being a kid and staying up late to sit at the bottom of the stairs, listening to your parents drink and fight. Naturally, I started acting out in elementary school. I felt like the other kids wouldn’t like me anyway, so I used to beat up on the boys and yell, “No girls allowed!” on the jungle gym at recess. I felt like everyone was my enemy, until proven otherwise. I remember wanting to be liked, but I ended up just alienating myself instead.
There were times my mom would stop taking her medication, and when she was experiencing episodes of mania, she wanted to move. A lot. After my sister and brother were born, we moved four times before I was even halfway through middle school. By then I had become overly sensitive to everything, and trying to make friends was a nightmare. The thought of going to another new school made my stomach drop. I felt ugly, and was embarrassed about not having more stylish clothes. So by the time high school started, I was totally self conscious. I had just started hitting puberty, and I had been having some pretty morbid thoughts for a while. My grades were below average, I was skipping school a lot, and I started writing poems about suicide. When my parents found those, that’s when they took me to therapy.
I don’t know how seriously I took therapy sessions. I mostly just complained about being teased in school and my parents fighting. I didn’t feel like it helped me, but I liked the attention. I was given a medication called Paxil, and though I took it regularly for a couple of months, I didn’t feel better. So I quit taking them, and stopped going to therapy. My dad didn’t complain, he thought therapy was a joke. He said nothing was really wrong with me, I just needed to change my perception.
One day, some kids at school told me I was ugly and that no one would ever like me. I’m guessing that would make anyone feel bad, but to me it was more than just painful. That same night, I overdosed on aspirin (don’t ask me why I thought that would work), only to throw it up the rest of the night. I woke up my dad and told him what I had done. He told me to eat some bread and go back to sleep. Nice. But really, what do you do when your kid comes to you with something like that?
I didn’t stop being sensitive to things, and pretty quickly I’d had my fill of high school. My last straw was in tenth grade. Some girls posted flyers around the school that had my photo and the words “this girl is a hoe” underneath them. I was mortified, and told my parents I was never going back. I dropped out and ended up being home-schooled.
As I got older, I still found it hard to make friends. I thought it was important to be honest with people about what I was going through, and I expected people to be understanding. But how can you expect someone to understand something they’ve never been through or even heard of? Talking about mental health wasn’t exactly common. So I was told things like “snap out of it” and “nothing is really as bad as you make it out to be” by both friends and family, which just made me feel worse. Did they think I was faking it for attention? Or that I was weak? I didn’t want to be thought of that way, so I stopped talking about how I felt. I really think if they had been more compassionate and concerned, I would have handled things much better, much sooner.
It took several more years of feeling bad about myself, trying several medications and even spending some time in a mental health ward for me to realize that I had to do something different. I knew I didn’t deserve to feel the way I felt, and I was tired of feeling embarrassed about it. When my symptoms were at an all time high, I started looking for information online for different things I could do. I happened upon a site that mentioned mental health research, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about it before. I know if I had, I would have considered it immediately.
I started registering for studies right away. I found several that were being conducted at a nearby university, and actually got excited to be part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t think of myself as being just a number; I thought, “What if because of my brain, they find something out that can help me with treatment later?” I thought about the likelihood of whether or not that would happen anytime soon, but I also considered the fact that I would feel pretty good about helping people in the future. It gave me a real sense of purpose. I wanted to tell everyone I knew about it, whether they lived with a mental health disorder or not. Even healthy participants are needed for studies, and I think the more people that get involved, the more progress we’ll make all around.
I wanted to turn my depression into something positive, so I decided to get involved in more than just one way. I want to share my story with others, because I don’t think anyone should feel alone in what they’re going through. I think if I share my stories and experiences, maybe others will feel less afraid to share theirs. Today, I am an Outreach Specialist for the project, WeSearchTogether.org. It is funded by the National Institute of Health, and is the brainchild of the U of M Depression Center, and the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). The goal is to encourage participation in mental health research, and enhance community-researcher relationships. More importantly, I feel like by doing this we are helping to reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
My hope is that there are others out there who would like to imagine a world where people feel comfortable opening up about what they’re going through, AND are accepted for it. Wouldn’t you want to contribute to something as big as changing the way people view mental health?