My Journey to Mental Health, Not Recovery

young Brette

Fleeting happiness is still happiness, I just wish I had more of it when I was this age.

Trigger Warning: depression, death, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders

This is a condensed (but still long AF) telling of my journey to mental health. I realized as I started writing this, that I am tired of writing about my mental illness. I simply feel like my major depression no longer defines me. It is a part of me and always will be, but it is not me.

With this considered, I believe mental health becomes more prevalent in daily lives. I recognize the importance of the topic, especially when someone can share their story because so many people are struggling and the more often and longer we maintain a dialogue, the closer we are to normalizing mental health care and moving away from stigma.

I separated the sections by periods of my life as these events occurred. Without any more delays, let’s dive in…

Childhood

When I was a kid, I was self destructive and obsessed with death. The thought of death left me crippled with anxiety and panic (and still does to a degree). It took phone calls to both grandmas and mom holding my hand to get me to fall asleep at night. I had terrible nightmares, and the ones I remember were horrifyingly advanced for the ages I was having them (one was me lying on a metal morgue slab while people looked at me, I couldn’t move or speak. I didn’t know what was happening at the time of the dream other than it was scary). Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in my parent’s bed. I was also a tiny rage ball because I didn’t sleep and we got up incredibly early every morning (4 am early).

I would smash my head in frustration and self loathing on the brick wall in our dining room (timeout was moved to a softer spot). My mom tells me a story of being in a grocery store parking lot when I threw myself onto the ground and smashed my face into the pavement until my forehead was a bloody mess. I’m sorry for the image, but mom said my face was like hamburger whens he got me to stop. I would rip my hair out in clumps in the bathroom, and bite and hit myself.

I was afraid of being social. I remember the absolute fear and dread the day mom left me at my first day of preschool. I was a perfectionist and I was always angry or afraid. Every mistake ended in an explosion of emotion and me saying upsettingly nihilistic things to classmates and teachers. My kindergarten teacher told my mom that I scared her in class sometimes and that I should see a doctor.

My doctor told my parents that I was autistic. Mom found a new doctor for a second opinion. I began psychotherapy (a therapy, not a psychiatry) soon after. It helped tremendously. Suddenly I could function and have fun. I began seeing a school counselor weekly for check-ins. I spent a lot of time in elementary school, sitting in a quiet room, talking to a counselor, and coloring. This continued until fourth grade ( I changed schools), then the check ups were a quiet “how are you doing?” with a different counselor every now and then. I made real friends that actually wanted to hang out with me. I was “normal” outside of the obvious early body development and my occasional emotional outbursts.

In middle school I was flying my freak flag high and took the normal levels of bullying just fine. Although, the bullying was confusing; at one moment I was Malibu Barbie, and the next I was a Dyke. I didn’t care for the most part.

High school

High school started and I was doing okay. I had a strong group of friends, I was doing a sport I loved. I even stopped eating bread, anything with sugar, and anything that came out of a box or bag, I was being “healthy.” Sophomore year was a little rough, I still wasn’t really interested in boys as much as I tried to be and cliques in my friend group were changing. My favorite teacher was let go. I started to have migraines.

In junior year the migraines were enough to keep me from going to class two to three days a week. I started to feel hopeless and all I wanted to do was sleep. I went to a headache specialists, they started me on amitriptyline. The drug made me a zombie, but it suppressed the migraines for the most part. I totaled my brothers car because I stopped caring about everything. They took me off the amitriptyline, then found out some horrifying facts about the drug. After that I was subjected to a host of drugs that really did nothing but make me gain weight even though I was practically starving myself to combat the weight gain at this point. I was emotionally fragile. I couldn’t make it through the day without crying. My friends were assholes. I wasn’t sleeping or I was sleeping all the time. My headaches weren’t getting any better. I felt like my parents thought I was useless. They didn’t know why I was unmotivated, and extremely sensitive.

b and sh b and w

Junior year was really hard, but you’s never know from this picture. A smile isn’t an indicator of health.

My school counselor, sometime my junior year, asked me if depression ran in my family. I told her no. I asked my mom that day if we could find me a psychiatrist. She told me no. There was no way I had problems that were big enough to need a psychiatrist. Later, after leaving a class in tears, I ended back up in the counselor’s office. I told her mom wouldn’t help me find a psychiatrist. She offered to call my mom. I told her no, I would try to convince mom myself. Mom wouldn’t budge.

At this point I was feeling a bleak despair, I felt like I was useless, and a burden. I sometimes wondered when I was cutting my apple up in the morning, how much would it hurt to stab myself. I sometimes mused about maiming my breasts so that they would have to be removed. I wondered about how much my friends and family would miss me if I did die. I never hurt myself outside of minor bruising I could pass off as cheerleading injuries. My body hurt even without me inflicting damage, and my head was already trying to kill me.

One day mom told me she found me a psychiatrist. I asked her when she changed her mind. She only told me someone called her and asked if someone had died in our family because I was behaving strangely and seemed depressed. I was never told who called her and I may never know. I don’t think I really need to know either.

I started going to the psychiatrist (Dr. Hu, for any timelords out there) and they decided that I should be tested for early menopause because I displayed all the symptoms (even my psychiatrist thought my problems were physical). That came back negative, so then we started treating me for depression. I began taking Zoloft and a month later I was a functioning human being again for the first time in a few years. The zoloft made me gain more weight. I was still struggling with my mental health, but I was in a much better place.

Post high school and a little college

I graduated high school, went on summer break and worked out of state, then started college. I was no longer seeing the psychiatrist. My primary care physician and I decided it was probably time to stop the Zoloft. I was feeling awful about the weight gain (I was 150 lbs) and had been on it over a year. My doctor didn’t think long time prescription use was something I needed and that I really had only had one depressive episode. I agreed. I went of the zoloft. I went to see the plastic surgeon my doctor referred me to (and we know that was a bust). Then my doctor retired.

My weight went down a bit and it fluctuated between 143 lbs and 147 lbs. I was fine, stressed, but fine. I sometimes broke down hysterically over missing the bus, but I was also commuting two hours one way to be at an eight am class. I was also working two jobs.

Then I was in another car accident. We brushed it off because it was truly something that came down to the stormy road conditions. Then I finished my first term of college at Portland State and decided PSU wasn’t for me at that moment in my life. I decided to do Portland Community College until I was ready to go back to PSU.

I started at PCC and began having emotional breakdowns again. I didn’t feel sad, but sometimes I was full of this seemingly endless despair and emotional pain. I would drive all the way to campus, wait outside my first class’s room and became more and more distressed as the minutes got closer to the hour. I would leave almost as soon as I got to campus at least once a week; driving an hour there only to turn around and drive the hour back. The only thing that got me to go to my classes was the immense guilt I felt for skipping so many. I have C’s on my transcript because of this term. I thought about dropping out, maybe college wasn’t for me.

I hated my body, I hated my weight, I began to restrict again. At one point, I was eating between 800 and 1000 calories a day, and doing ballet and walking a lot. It didn’t make a difference. I hated my breasts the most. More than once my mother had to hold me while I cried in a pile of clothing on the floor, and then dress me so we could be where we needed to be and only be a little late.

Once Shelby witnessed one of my major breakdowns. It was on a Saturday (I had a biology class and lab on Saturdays). I don’t even remember what the breakdown was about but Shelby got me and my things out the door and into my car so I would make it to the class on time. I pretended like nothing happened the rest of the day.

Pretending was something I was always particularly good at until I couldn’t do it anymore.

Around this time, I finally got a new doctor. One that I selected because she specialized in family and mental health care. We started me on Wellbutrin and within one week I felt like I could function like a normal person again (again). This was 2015. I still take Wellbutrin today.

This was also around the time I met with another plastic surgeon, who eventually performed my breast reduction later that year.

In May of 2015, a close friend, Kerrigan, died in a car accident. On the same day, my great grandmother died in her sleep. Everyone was devastated. I don’t know anyone who didn’t know or love my friend. And with the death of great grandma, my extended family fell apart.

I got drunk, and then I got sick, really sick. Because you can’t drink alcohol and take wellbutrin; I didn’t know that at the time.

Following these events, I lost friends and a lot of weight. I applied to Washington State University and Oregon Tech. I was accepted to both, but I ended up choosing Oregon tech.

I went back to PCC for my sophomore year and started preparing to leave the Portland area. Almost every weekend during fall quarter, I was down in klamath Falls looking for place to live. Fall quarter ended on my Birthday, December 7th, and I moved into my new home in a new city on December 20th.

Klamath Falls

I have been pretty stable since moving to Klamath Falls outside of my normal personality ticks (I will always be a moody person prone to isolating myself). There was one instance where I had a break down and I contribute that widely to my parents visiting and latent body insecurity. The dress I bought to wear to my uncle’s wedding was too big because I had lost more weight since buying it, and I didn’t have a back up plan. My forced back up plan was a peach colored backless dress that I went braless in. I was mortified but my mom assured me it was okay. Since then I have been more accepting and loving of my body because it truly was okay.

I started at OIT, went through my first “Dating experience” longer than one or two dates since high school. I lost my last great grandma on my dads side. Then shortly after it was my dad’s cousin to advanced and aggressive skin cancer. Then my childhood friend’s grandmother, who I called grandma too, died. I actually began to feel like every funeral was getting easier. Every death would be easier than the last. I was still mentally okay, I was maintaining my mental health.

I started to do things in 2017 that I would not have done in previous years. I went to Paris because I wanted to. I made friends for the first time in a long time. I was in a really good place. I considered myself recovered.

In April 2017, my mom called to tell me that my cousin Susan’s baby had been taken off life support after months of trying to save him.

In May, I got another call from my mom. She was crying. She told me that My cousin Jessie had a beautiful healthy baby boy the night before… but Jessie had died that morning. I was shocked. I dropped everything and went to Medford two days later to be with my family. Little did I know that Jessie’s brain had died and I would be with my aunt when they took her off the ventilator and wheeled her down to the OR to harvest what they could to donate. Within four hours, Jessie’s heart was in someone else. It was more than shocking, it was traumatizing. My family did not prepare me for it. Jessie was so young and it brought back grief for Kerrigan. It hit me hard.

A few weeks later, I saw a facebook post about my cousin Sierra having been found, but she had “passed on.” I called my mom and asked her what happened to Sierra. She told me it looked like Sierra had been murdered (Sierra was two months younger than me). I found the news story detailing her “suspicious death.” I felt numb at this point. Three deaths in less than three months. All under the age of 30. After a few weeks, I called my mom again to ask about Sierra. She said she hadn’t wanted to tell me, but they determined Sierra’s death was a suicide and that she had gone to be with her mother. (Her mother had committed suicide in 2014). We were not invited to Sierra’s funeral, I fretted over what lead her to do it. Why did no one help her? Someone should have been there for her. I felt physically sick.

I struggled. Especially with Jessie. Her death awoke fears and anxieties I had worked so hard to cope with. I kept thinking about her. And then I would think about Kerrigan, and Sierra and then three years worth of grief consumed me. I slept with the light on and with my stuffed pooh bear for an entire summer. I tried to find a counselor in Klamath Falls and had to get my insurance company to make a deal with a local provider.

I started grief counseling and we talked about all my other issues. I got better and coped with my grief over the course of three months. Two days before my last appointment, I had a breakdown. I began hysterically crying at 10 pm on Sunday night and did not stop until midnight. I was up at four am crying again. I called my mom and we talked about what was going on. How I was feeling and talked about solutions to what was causing my distress. I got up and went to a 7:30 am final and did very well. The rest of the week was a blur but I was fine. I decided I really needed to let it all out. I hadn’t cried like that in years and I think it was my body trying to heal.

Today I am doing just fine. I am stressed. My workload has doubled. I’m really doing too much, but I feel fantastic. I rely on wellbutrin and hormonal birth control to balance my janky progesterone hormones and the chemicals in my brain. I am doing my best to stay mentally healthy, and will for the rest of my life.

Recovery with mental illness is an ongoing process. I don’t believe a final recovery happens, I think maintaining mental health does and is a better gauge of personal mental health care. I never recovered like I believed I had, I was just healthy at specific point. It was unhealthy to think it was “over” when I felt normal again. Considering myself recovered was not healthy.

Mental health is truly like physical health. If you don’t eat well, exercise, see your doctor regularly, get your vaccinations, and be safe, you might (very likely)  get physically sick. This is even more important when you live with chronic illness. It is the same for mental health. You have to take care of yourself, practice activities that make you happy, see a counselor or therapist, and let yourself be emotional to be healthy. If you have an established or chronic mental illness, you have to work harder. With mental and physical health, you are healthy until you are not. You should work hard to remain healthy even if there is something working against you. Focus on being healthy, not a recovery “end goal.”

Brette and Sylvie _edited

I’m happy and I’m mentally healthy. I intend to do my best to stay healthy by being proactive/

3 thoughts on “My Journey to Mental Health, Not Recovery

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