Break The Stigma: My Story. Part 1.

May is not only Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month, a chronic and life threatening disease I was born with (you can read more here), but it’s also Mental Health Awareness Month.

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Studies have shown that people with CF, as well as their family members, are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general population. I fall into this category. At the present time, and for the past few years, I have been able to successfully manage my anxiety and depression. It hasn’t always been that way. I can’t say it’s always been because I have CF, but CF definitely played a role in my struggles with anxiety and depression throughout the years.

I struggled (silently) for many years with low self-esteem and lack of self confidence, especially starting in middle school, but by the time I was in my last year of high school things were starting to get really bad. I felt lost and began to experience an increase in anxiety when at school and especially when having to interact with my peers. I dreaded going to school and was uncomfortable the entire time I was there. This led to me skipping classes more and more often.

One day, near the end of the first semester, a friend mentioned in passing that she was graduating early. I didn’t even know this was on option but it seemed appealing to me right off the bat. I asked her how it was possible and she said she had all her credits. Immediately after that conversation I made an appointment to talk to my school counselor to see if this was an option for me. My friend was graduating early so she could start taking classes at the Jr. college early. I wanted to graduate early so I could get the hell out of dodge.

Turns out I had all my required credits, which  amazed me since I had been skipping classes and slacking on assignments, but I was thankful. I talked to my parents about this idea and we came to an agreement. I don’t remember the exact details, but it was something along the lines of, I could graduate early if I got a job and took classes at the Jr.  college. It was a done deal for me.

I was officially done with high school a few weeks later. I got a job and started taking classes. I started off strong. I really enjoyed my job and I was even doing really well in school. That summer I got to walk with my graduating class.

But things didn’t stay well for long. I stopped going to classes and unofficially dropped out of college without telling my parents. I left the job I enjoyed and bounced from job to job and only showed up if I felt like it, which wasn’t often.

The group of people I was hanging out with wasn’t the best influence, although I take full credit for all my choices as no one forced me to do anything. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for people to discourage me from doing the things they were doing because they knew about my health issues. I didn’t care though and I didn’t listen. Things were getting dark and bad real fast.

My anxiety and depression quickly escalated. I had no hope. I had no self respect. I hated myself. Hated. I started drinking to numb my emotions and forget about everything. Some nights I drank until I blacked out. I started smoking weed and cigarettes. Yes, the girl with the chronic, progressive, life-threatening lung disease started smoking. Something I’m not proud of, but a choice I made nonetheless. I experimented with other things. Anything to make me forget. Anything to let me escape my mind, even if  only temporarily.

I lost any interest in anything that used bring me joy. I began isolating. And when I did go out with others I chose people who only brought me down. I made poor in the people I chose to surround myself which only led to more poor choices.

I was living in my own personal hell. I couldn’t see any way out. As I saw it, there was no hope.

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The darkness, the loneliness, the racing thoughts, all of it became too much. Yet, I was too scared and ashamed to ask for help. I often wondered if I was even worth helping. One day I made a choice. A choice to end it all. In that moment, I felt like that was my only option. The details don’t matter. What does matter is that I survived and that I am here today.

While I thought I was doing a good job at hiding all that was going on my parents noticed I was struggling. I’ll never forget the day my mom came and got me out of bed. She told my dad was on his way home and they were taking me to the hospital. This time I wasn’t headed to the hospital for another ‘clean out’ for a cystic fibrosis exacerbation. I was headed to a hospital to get help for everything else I was struggling with. I was headed to the neuropsychiatric hospital, in short I was headed to the ‘psych ward’. I had no clue what to expect.

That car ride was long and silent. The intake process was difficult. My parents were in the room with me and before that moment they never knew about my attempt to take my own life. They knew I was struggling, but they didn’t realize just how bad. I didn’t realize until I walked in that room just how much I wanted help. During the intake process, I broke down completely and answered every question with more honesty than I had in some time.

Because of what I shared I ended up spending some time in the ‘lock down’ unit. It was strict. I was only allowed limited items of clothing in my possession. We weren’t even allowed to have shoelaces. I saw some people struggling with some serious issues while in that unit, it was hard. I was soon able to move to the step down unit. It was here that I started seeing a therapist and was put on medications to help  manage the anxiety, depression, and ADD.

Eventually, I was able to go home but  I had to attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We met four nights a week. We had a family night every other week. 12-Step meetings were required and so were random drugs tests. I saw a private therapist and psychiatrist.

While in IOP I had a relapse with self-harm and ended up back up in the  lockdown unit for a brief time. Eventually I ‘graduated’ from IOP.

Even after treatment the healing process continued for years. It wasn’t smooth sailing. There were still highs and lows. And there still are, though thankfully the lows aren’t nearly as low as they once were.

It took time, but I eventually found hope. It was just a small sliver, but it was something to hang onto while I continued to work on myself. It’s been a lot hard work but I’m at a place now where I am genuinely happy and love myself. I still continue to work everyday on self love through care. It’s a priority for me. I’m able to find joy and gratitude in each day.

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I will never be able to express the gratitude I have for my parents for taking me to the hospital that day and for the unconditional love they have for me. For being there for me through it all. This process and experience was incredibly difficult on them too.

I don’t share all this for pity or even sympathy. I share this to let you know, that if you are going through something similar, you are not alone. I hear you. I see you. I’m hear for you.

I share this to raise awareness. I share this to help break the stigma against mental illness and substance abuse.

Hope is real. Help is out there. You are worth it. You are loved. You’re story  is important. YOU are important. It’s okay to not be okay.

If you or someone you love needs help, start here.

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