- Bipolar Disorder
- Eating Disorder
- Substance Abuse
Having bipolar or another mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t be successful
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 22, Maurice remembers being hospitalized —at times being so manic, he suffered from psychosis. Like many people, Maurice has to take medication daily to remain healthy.
I have been on medication for the last 30 years, and I learned a long time ago that those medications are what help me stay balanced. Otherwise, bipolar takes hold and I become someone I don’t want to be. When I take my medication, everything is great. When I don’t, it’s a problem.
After his diagnosis, people within show business advised him against admitting publicly that he had bipolar disorder. Maurice decided to open up about his illnesses in Soap Opera Magazine, and the initial response was positive. Then, the star of General Hospital appeared on Oprah and told millions of viewers around the world that he was living with a mental illness.
That was a really positive experience, and people started coming up to me and thanking me for being brave and for showing the world that anyone can have a mental illness. From that point on, I’ve made it my mission to fight against the stigma of mental illness and do what I can to help other people like me.
Maurice has been so open about his experience with mental illness, the show’s writers worked with him to develop a storyline to include his character, Sonny, and his character’s son both being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Being open about having bipolar is something that is very important to me because by being open, I know I am helping people. Whether it is helping them understand the illness, helping them relate to someone else who has a mental illness, or simply by showing them that having bipolar or any other mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.
Depression doesn’t care who you want to be. It can resurface when you least expect it
Jessika had a secret.
Ever since losing two close friends to suicide, one being her high school best friend, Jessika has worked tirelessly in the field of suicide prevention—urging those who are desperate to step forward and seek help. What she never told anyone until recently was that she, too, tried to end it all when she was just 17.
Even with everything I know and have learned about mental illness, I still felt like I had to be silent. I was ashamed of who I was.
Jessika had buried the despair of her teenage years—including an intense battle with depression, an eating disorder, and self-injury—deep inside. It wasn’t until years later, after the birth of her third child, that the struggles resurfaced. She knew she needed help, but feared her illness could impact her reputation and that of her husband, a notable figure in the city.
My brain tells me there is a certain expectation for the wife of a community leader. We are both so involved. My husband is the head of a school—what will they think of him if his wife has mental health issues?
After years of trying to mask her issues and keep up appearances, Jessika finally began weekly therapy sessions. However, she was unprepared for the intense bout of depression that hit and its subsequent spiral downward. It was as though a time capsule had been opened and everything she had been trying to avoid and conceal came rushing back.
I realized that I had never learned positive coping skills, so my brain automatically took me back to the dangerous ones that I had come to rely on for so many years. I ended up in the hospital for two weeks after I hit a horribly low point. I never thought I would be there again. Depression can strike at any time, and there isn’t always a tangible reason.
As difficult as this process has been and continues to be, Jessika decided it would be a disservice to continue to keep her story private. She couldn’t let her fear keep her silent. For inspiration, she has only to look at the tattoo on her wrist—three birds with the initials of each of her children and husband embedded into the design.
It’s a reminder of what I’ve overcome, why I’m here, and why I must keep pushing forward.
I wear green to raise awareness about mental health. I wear green so others know I am like them and they are like me.
As a Pro Bowl football player, Brandon is trained to be aggressive, to show anger, and to get pumped up. It’s what fans all over the world expect of the “gladiators of the gridiron.” But as a man, especially as an African-American man, Brandon felt pressure not to reveal his emotions off of the playing field.
All of my emotions would be bottled up inside of me, and I didn’t know how to cope with the anger and the sadness that I felt, so I would do things that were destructive. My behavior nearly cost me my career and my family.
Recognizing that if he didn’t seek help to control his emotions that he would lose the things he loved the most, Brandon decided to spend three months at McLean Hospital, where he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Brandon underwent intensive treatment and learned a set of emotions coping skills called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that he continues to use today in his professional and personal lives.
It was a huge relief to finally be able to put a name to what I had—borderline personality disorder. It had a name, and therefore we could tackle it head on.
Brandon credits DBT and the care he received when he was in the depths of despair with helping to save his life. Today, he is a star wide receiver for the New York Jets, has two beautiful children, and wakes up every morning knowing that he is making a difference in the lives of others. Brandon is also dedicated to helping others with mental illness. Through PROJECT 375, a foundation started by Brandon and his wife Michi, they have supported mental health clinical and research programs and have become outspoken and recognizable mental health advocates.
Football is my job, but being a mental health advocate and changing how mental illness is perceived and treated are my calling. We wear pink to raise awareness about breast cancer. I wear green to raise awareness about mental health. I wear green so others know I am like them and they are like me.
In case you are not familiar with Brandon’s story, we encourage you to watch this great video created by the New York Jets.
Mary, above, in magenta.
We save each other
It was the last day of eighth grade when Mary came through the door of her home, excited to be on summer break. That’s when her mom picked up Mary’s phone. Mary begged to get it back. But her mom examined the messages and saw them—dozens of pictures of Mary and some other girls, cutting.
We did it in a group. One of the girls urged that we cut to make our sad thoughts go away. It was a really stupid way to cope with the stress of school and friends.
Mary used bracelets to cover the cuts she had made on her arms. She also had cuts on her thighs. With the help of a therapist and her high school’s psychologist, Mary began to learn coping skills. More recently, when family stress led to another cutting episode—this time with deep cuts to her hip—Mary was admitted to McLean Hospital. There, she participated in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), learning healthy ways to manage her anxiety, including breathing techniques, going for a walk, or listening to her favorite punk-rock music.
The good thing about being in the hospital was there were kids older and younger than me, and it’s a relief to know others are going through the same things.
She sits with me and talks to me. We’ll cry together over stuff. She also makes me laugh. We go on Dunkin’ Donuts adventures or just ride around in the car with the music cranked up.
Mary also enjoys playing street hockey with her older brother. She works hard in school. By being public about her struggle with anxiety, she hopes others will also step forward and talk about their mental health issues, defeating the stigma that surrounds it.
Mental illness shouldn’t be treated like a joke. It’s not just “in your head” or “a phase” or something that can be managed with a happy pill. It’s a serious medical illness, and a lot of people have it. We should make it a priority to help each other.
In the South Asian culture, we simply don’t talk about mental health
It was a raw March day when the patrol car pulled into Dimple’s driveway. An officer carried the devastating news that Dimple’s mom had taken her own life.
It took me a long time to process that my mother’s death was a suicide. There is such a stigma about mental health in my culture. At first, I just did not know how to explain it, or even approach it. I felt like I had to hide behind the truth, as I “should not” talk about it. It made me so angry.
Dimple says there were signs. Her mother rarely went out in public and stopped doing the things she once enjoyed. She was worried that she did not fit in, and wondered what people would think of her.
It was so much to deal with. It’s been five years, and I can’t get myself to read the letter she left. I’m not ready to say goodbye.
Dimple has battled mental health issues herself. When she was 21, she fractured her pelvis in a serious car crash. The panic attacks began once she went back to college, where she was majoring in pre-med at the time. Her parents told her she would be fine, but Dimple sought therapy.
I walked into DePaul University’s counseling center and never looked back. I changed my major to psychology, and every class I had helped me understand my trauma better.
Dimple is proud to be the first in her family to finish high school, and a four-year college, and then go on to graduate school. She looks forward to applying for her internship next year and hopes to work in a psychiatric hospital setting, particularly with children and adolescents. She is also committed to advocacy. Dimple serves as a team captain for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Chicagoland Out of the Darkness fundraising walk to benefit suicide prevention. In addition, she serves on the Associate Board of Directors for PROJECT 375. Dimple hopes to continue to knock down the stigma so prevalent around South Asian mental health.
My parents have taught me so much growing up, but now I’m educating my family on mental health issues. I want others to join me and speak up about mental health issues in the South Asian culture. This issue is too important to keep quiet. I have found my voice, and I want to share it with as many people as I can.
If you can face the worst fears your mind can create, you can overcome just about anything.
It started the summer before eighth grade. Nathaniel, like many kids, ventured out for a few weeks of summer camp. What started out as a few drops of hand sanitizer quickly spiraled out of control.
I would spend up to six hours a day washing my hands and would take two-and-a-half-hour showers … sometimes longer.
As he grew, so did the types of rituals he practiced. In his later teens, he would constantly check to make sure he switched the stove off, terrified he would burn down the house. If he drove over a pothole, his mind pictured he had hit a person so he would turn the car around, again and again and again, just to make sure he hadn’t hurt anyone.
I became overwhelmed by irrational fears of getting others pregnant with a mere touch, afraid I would be responsible for ruining their lives and potentially sending them to hell. Even though I knew the fears didn’t make sense, that didn’t make them feel any less real.
Over those adolescent years, Nathaniel worked with six or seven therapists to control his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), experiencing limited relief until he found a therapist he connected with. This one was a true partner and working together, they created a plan. Utilizing exposure and response prevention (ERP), Nathaniel learned to face his fears head on. He touched “contaminated” items. If the car hit a bump, he stopped himself from looking in the rearview mirror.
Instead of washing my hands for four hours, I would set a timer and step down one minute at a time. I got to the point where I learned I could set these goals on my own.
Today, at age 30, Nathaniel has completed his PhD in clinical psychology, focusing on the treatment of adults with severe OCD and is the administrative director of research at McLean Hospital’s OCD Institute. One of his areas of study is the understanding of the impact of motivation on OCD treatment. He says some with OCD may become afraid that overcoming the disorder means losing or letting go of an important part of their identity, such as being a good/caring person. Nathaniel believes clinicians can help patients realize other ways they can demonstrate these traits without the presence of their OCD.
Many with OCD have inherent strengths, such as amazing creativity or attention to detail. The disease may distort these strengths, latching onto that characteristic in a maladaptive way. Treatment is about teaching clients to harness these characteristics and use them in flexible and adaptive ways.
Nathaniel has been able to maintain his recovery. There are days when he doesn’t think about his illness. He integrates the ERP principles he learned into his daily life to keep his OCD at bay, even when he becomes stressed. He is also working to decrease stigma about mental illness within the mental health field itself. Nathaniel notes he hid his diagnosis during much of his training (initially disclosing only to selected advisers/mentors), as he was told it could limit his opportunities. He wants to make the field a safer place for clinicians and researchers struggling with disorders to step forward and ask for mentorship. Nathaniel co-founded a special interest group for mental health professionals/trainees with OCD and related disorders and runs a local support group in Boston.
I wanted to prove that having mental illness does not limit what you can achieve, no matter what anyone says. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can make anything happen, even if others think your illness is too severe for you to succeed.
The tics started in fourth grade
Jessica would sniff. And sniff again. It turned out to be a motor tic, an involuntary movement that occurred during the day and sometimes continued for a full hour before she fell asleep at night. Jessica was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, and combined with her sensory issues and intense anxiety about schoolwork, her differences were obstacles that began during her younger years.
I was very emotional and high strung. I’d get home from school and just fall apart. The stress of keeping it all together during the school day was exhausting.
The hurdles continued in high school. Special ed administrators struggled with how to help her. Jessica changed schools numerous times until she found the right placement.
I wanted to make everyone proud of me, but I couldn’t for some reason. I was anxious and tired a lot. The tics were physically painful and demanding.
Jessica met with a number of medical professionals over the years and tried various medications with limited success. Jessica found comfort in writing poetry to express her intense thoughts and feelings. Her desire for a normal life, nurtured by the support and encouragement of her family, helped Jessica find her way.
It took a long time before I found the right people to help, but now I have a supportive team.
Jessica’s determination earned her a high school diploma. Over the years, she worked with children in an afterschool program and at a summer camp for kids with special needs. These days, she’s working part time. Jessica loves to read. She relaxes by going on long walks around the neighborhood or a mall. By stepping forward with her story, Jessica wants others to realize that people who face challenges look no different from anyone else and have the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
I am Jes and I am proud of who I am.
We all fear the first step
Despite attempts to love and care for his mother, Alan never felt valued growing up. As a youth, he tried to take his own life. He wound up in a series of foster homes.
It’s been a battle since I was 11 just to be here.
Generations of Alan’s family had battled mental illness. His grandfather, noted Red Sox centerfielder Jimmy Piersall, became the first sports figure to publicly declare his fight with bipolar disorder. Alan shared that diagnosis by the time he was 27.
There were manic episodes in my life where I could jump off a building as high as the sky and land on my feet, followed by depressive states where I was sadder than sad.
Alan would go on to try various medications to control his illness, but without success. In 2010, determined to break the cycle and take control of his life, he bought a gym membership and a pair of running shoes. He dropped 75 pounds. He began using a camera to capture the raw, beautiful emotion of the world as he sees it.
You’ve got to find a way to like yourself. That’s a beginning. I’ve learned an active body builds a calmer mind.
Now Alan leads a community fitness group and has taken to social media to inspire others with positive thoughts, nutrition and fitness tips, and his zest for life.
The Lord is going to have to take me kicking and screaming now. I want to be a beacon of light and hope for others.
Alan was recently featured in Sentinel & Enterprise – check out this and other recent press coverage of Deconstructing Stigma!
Abby, above, in blue.
We save each other
We hit a very low point at the same time, and I remember sitting on the floor, cross-legged with her, holding each other and crying.
Abby has been in therapy since age 7. In grade school, she had trouble making friends, and she describes social situations back then as paralyzing.
You know when you have to go in for an interview or speak in front of a class, and you feel like you can’t breathe? That’s me from the minute I wake up until I close my eyes and go to sleep.
Abby spent much of middle school in the nurse’s office, enduring panic attacks. Then in high school, she would need major back surgery to correct a severe spinal curvature. By her senior year, the pressure of making up the work she had missed, taking three AP classes, and enduring a run-in with an ex-boyfriend pushed Abby to the edge. Admitted to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital, Abby finally received a diagnosis of severe anxiety disorder and was prescribed medication. She’s now working with toddlers and will soon start classes toward a degree in early childhood education at a community college.
I adore working with the kids at the daycare. But I still have those days when I want to curl up and hide away.
Abby made the decision to become an aggressive advocate for mental health issues when she learned her little sister had been cutting herself as a way to cope with her depression. Abby hopes speaking about her own story will help dampen the misconceptions and harsh judgments some people have about mental illness. And she wants anyone who is struggling to know that if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Having someone to open up to, cry with, and hold you really makes a difference.
My sister has become the most important person in my life. It’s crazy to think that a 16-year-old has pushed me past the most difficult things in my life. We have both come so far.
If you can show compassion for your fears, you can begin to overcome them
Sean had his first panic attack at age 13. His mom was losing her battle with cancer, and at school, he was picked on and his grades were falling.
I would go home with math homework, but I had to write the number four 75 times [before I could do anything else]. That doesn’t equate to getting homework done.
In Sean’s mind, having any negative thought while performing a basic task meant a member of his family would be harmed or he would harm them. Forcing his head to be free of anything bad meant an hour of flipping a light switch on and off before he could leave a room, or so many attempts at putting his pants on that his shins suffered permanent scars. As Sean grew into his 20s, he would mask his obsessive worries with denial and avoidance by way of binge drinking.
I decided I would escape on the weekends with my friends, and during the week, I wasn’t going to live, I was just going to exist.
In 2010, Sean’s illness became so debilitating he spent the next two years terrified to move from his living room chair. With his father’s help, Sean began treatment in Ohio. Finally, at age 32, he had a diagnosis—obsessive compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. His OCD was so advanced, doctors referred him to an intensive, three-month residential program at McLean Hospital.
It was a monumental success. I still struggle some days. But I am confident enough, hopeful enough, inspired enough, and motivated enough to want to be a part of this life.
Sean is now an accomplished artist and working on ways to help those with mental health disorders express their feelings through art.
You might not be able to verbalize this feeling, this monster inside you, but you can usually put it on paper or in some form. Once you can look at it, you can deal with it.
I want people to know they are not alone
He was on the cover of magazines, was the star of a hit television show, had a song on the top of the Billboard charts, was a new father, and seemed to have the perfect life. Behind the dazzling smile and his outwardly easy-going demeanor, Rick hid a terrible secret: he was miserable.
I was supposed to be living a life that other people envied, but the reality was that I was deeply depressed, and I just didn’t understand why I was supposed to feel happy and didn’t. It was awful.
What few people knew was that Rick had suffered from depression since adolescence and had even attempted suicide as a teenager. Realizing that he couldn’t continue to hide his feelings, he took a 10-year break from show business in order to spend time with his family and seek treatment for depression.
Getting treatment was a big step, but unlike with other illnesses, where there is a recovery period or a cure, depression is something you live with for the rest of your life.
Rick knows that depression is part of who he is and at times, it has sparked creativity that helped him write some of his best songs.
I think good art does come from a dark place. It’s our struggle to come to terms with things in our own life that, as writers, you write about.
Although Rick still struggles with depression, he credits his wife Barbara with being his biggest source of support. With her along with their two sons by his side, he is actively working again, recently starring in the television shows “Supernatural” and “True Detective,” and the film “Ricki and Flash” opposite Meryl Streep. He has also been actively touring, where throngs of fans turn out nightly to hear him play the hits, the most popular being “Jessie’s Girl.”
I talk about my depression and the experiences I have had because I don’t want anyone else to ever feel alone like I did. It is important for people to watch me on stage or on TV and know that I am just like them and that it’s important to be introspective and recognize when you need help.
Be sure to check out this great Profiles of Hope video about Rick’s experience with mental illness, produced by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
They put me in paper clothes. It was dehumanizing.
The symptoms started just after her twins were born. On the days Ann didn’t report to her job as a nurse practitioner in a busy cardiothoracic unit, she had trouble getting up and dressed. Her reactions to the most basic issues seemed overblown.
If the kids were waking up crying because they were hungry during the night, I would fly into a rage. I threw pillows across the room because I didn’t want to get up.
Ann’s obstetrician referred her to a women’s mood disorder clinic where she was diagnosed with postpartum depression. To assist her with the boys, Ann’s husband hired a mother’s helper. But in Ann’s mind, the woman took to her children too quickly. Ann was convinced she was plotting to kidnap the twins and insisted she be fired. Even after the family moved to Connecticut and she found a new therapist and medication, Ann struggled.
Everything got worse. I went from not getting out of bed to not getting out of bed and planning my suicide.
That’s when Ann experienced her first of four hospitalizations. She tried electroconvulsive therapy, which helped for a while, despite some memory loss. Then came the months of not sleeping and the drinking—even when her husband wasn’t around.
I would be up and functioning at work, but I would also go on spending sprees and stopped paying our bills. My therapist at the time called me “unruly” and said he could no longer help me.
Throughout her journey, Ann experienced difficulty accessing quality mental health care. Psychologists and therapists often had long waiting lists and didn’t take her health insurance. Psychiatric hospitals didn’t have available beds, and when they did, stuck her in a room with three others. She also would learn she was misdiagnosed—she actually had bipolar disorder. When Ann came to accept her illness, she finally started on the road to recovery. She has not been hospitalized in three years.
I started blogging, and people started reading it. I found my voice. Don’t let people treat you crappy because of mental health issues. I can raise my hand now and say I helped pave the way.
My throat hurt. I was holding back tears and words.
For Luanne, writing is therapeutic. She creates characters in her best-selling novels that are rich in the dark experiences of her own life. Growing up in a close, middle-class, Connecticut family, she remembers a constant, heavy sadness as she worried about everything. In fact, she missed a lot of school—sometimes, as much as half the school year.
It wasn’t until she attended high school that a caring, insightful teacher suggested she see a counselor. That therapist helped Luanne express her feelings by drawing pictures.
Just having someone who understood made a world of difference.
Luanne’s depression has surfaced a number of times in her life. At one point, the darkness grew to the point she needed to be hospitalized.
I’ve never been healed or cured. I’ve had periods of remission. But knowing the illness is there forces me to be vigilant and have the best help possible by my side.
Being vigilant means taking her antidepressant medication on time and seeing her therapist regularly. Luanne is lucky, she says, to have turned writing into a successful career. After publishing 33 novels, her most recent is for adolescents. The Beautiful Lost revolves around a teenage girl with depression who becomes hospitalized. Luanne hopes the story will lead to a kinship with this young audience, so readers know they don’t need to hide their pain.
Secret-keeping eats you up and that leads to self-hatred and then suicide. Share what you’re feeling. Talk about it. Write about it. It’s serious, but there is help.
We’re always looking out for each other
During the three years they dated, Amy had heard her soon-to-be husband, Jason, talk about the depression he had been diagnosed with in college. But she did not get a glimpse of it until two years into their marriage, when their little boy turned six months old.
We went to visit my brother in DC, and when we returned to our house from the trip, Jason sat down and said, “I need to go to the hospital.”
It was the first of Jason’s 30 hospitalizations over the next dozen years. The couple hoped that each inpatient session and treatment would be the magic one—but antidepressant medications and high-tech procedures, like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), did not control Jason’s depression, which was so severe that he was often suicidal. Jason’s diagnosis: chronic, treatment-resistant depression.
As our son Cooper grew up, we would talk to him openly about his dad’s illness, in the most age appropriate way we could think of. He knew his dad sometimes needed to go to the “feelings hospital.” We didn’t want to hide it.
Through the years, the frequent disruption in their lives and the stress of caring for her husband became difficult for Amy. She now has her own therapist, and she and Jason participate in regular couples counseling, as well. While this is not the life Amy imagined for herself, there are many bright spots.
We are actually fortunate. Our friends, as well as supervisors and colleagues at work, are amazingly kind. The staff at Cooper’s school has been attentive and compassionate. I can’t imagine going through this and not having this type of support.
Amy pulls her strength from that support and from her love for Jason and Cooper. She deeply believes Jason, who is an artist and an avid gardener, is so much more than his illness.
I’ll come home from work and although he may not have been able to do anything else that day, he’ll have the table set for dinner. He’ll offer me a special salad, with the very best vegetables he grew for me in our greenhouse. I can see the care and pride in his eyes.
I hope he can see the pride in mine.
I want to touch the people who slip through the cracks, because I always did.
Laura grew up thinking everyone felt as depressed as she did. She assumed people got out of bed and put on a smile in the morning, even though they were miserable inside.
Inexplicably shy, Laura never learned how to talk to people. Her sadness led to frustration and then to crying spurts and isolation. It wasn’t until she was 19 and started seeing a therapist weekly that she realized her suicidal thoughts were not normal.
I would drive around at night, a suicide letter neatly written on the passenger seat next to me, looking for a hotel where I could end it. I didn’t want anyone I knew to find me.
At age 20, Laura’s illness became even more intense. No longer able to keep herself safe, she was hospitalized. Because Laura had become expert at hiding her feelings, her parents were surprised to learn of her debilitating struggle. While her family was supportive of her and her efforts to recover, Laura, aware of the societal stigma of mental illness, felt deeply ashamed.
I wouldn’t let my parents come visit. I felt like I was letting them down.
Over the next two decades, Laura would hold a number of jobs—at an insurance company and even volunteering with animals—but she would always wind up back in the hospital, averaging 8 to 10 admissions per year. Lately though, with her sisters, brother, and her cat, Kami, cheering her on, Laura’s been doing better. She had a three-year break from hospitalization before having to go back last March. She’s also learned to express herself with an artistic flair.
I enjoy making cards for members of my family. Birthday cards. Thank you notes. People encourage me to keep doing them, so I do!
Laura is sharing her story because she wants others who are feeling isolated and sad to know they are not alone, and it is okay to ask for help.
If you are getting on a plane in this airport and you are feeling really depressed, talk to someone. No matter what you think, things can improve.
You’re no different than me
I remember being six years old and walking home from school with a weird limp because I didn’t want to trip on my untied shoe laces. I couldn’t retie them because that would require me to touch laces that had touched the ground.
For Howie, the fear triggered by the thought of touching his dirty shoelaces signaled the beginning of what would become a lifelong struggle with OCD and depression.
Howie kept his illness a secret until one day, while appearing on the Howard Stern radio show, he was forced to admit that he lived with overwhelming anxiety. As a comedian and talk show host, Howie thought his career was over and that no one would understand.
He was wrong.
I left the studio and almost immediately a man came up to me to tell me he too had OCD. It was the first time that I understood that I wasn’t a freak. That I wasn’t alone.
Far from being shunned, Howie is one of the most recognizable and beloved stars in Hollywood, seen by millions of viewers weekly on America’s Got Talent. Though OCD is still a presence in his life—most notably, his fear of contamination prevents him from shaking hands, which has led him to adopt his now famous fist-bump greeting.
I’m no different than everybody else. These people—the people with mental health issues are everyone. If they don’t have a mental illness or a need for mental health care now, they will. Everyone needs or could use mental health care sometime in their lives.
Using his fame to highlight the needs for greater mental health care, Howie has become a strong advocate, both in the United States and Canada—even speaking before Congress.
Not being mentally healthy is an epidemic that is sweeping the world. If you have a toothache, you can tell your coworkers, and they’ll encourage you to take time out of your day to go to the dentist. The same cannot be said if you needed to take time out of your day to see a psychiatrist. Why is mental health so shameful? Why doesn’t mental health get the same support as dental and physical health?
I’ve always been capable of feeling great joy. With that, though, can come great despair.
When Jamie was 21, she made a pact with herself. She had 15 years at most to emerge from her deep depression.
I told myself if I was still feeling this impenetrable darkness every day by age 36, I would end my life.
Jamie had grown up in a loving home, had close friends, and was active in school. Outwardly, she appeared fine. Inside, however, a web of self-hatred grew. Her thoughts told her she wasn’t pretty, thin, or smart enough. Throughout high school, Jamie kept the depths of her depression to herself—she feared the truth would hurt her parents. It wasn’t until she saw a psychiatrist in college, realizing she would need her parent’s insurance to access potentially helpful medications, when Jamie found the courage to speak up.
Their 18-year-old, well-adjusted, outgoing, upbeat, achieving daughter was having an internal struggle. They didn’t know much about mental illness, and there was a stigma. They were scared.
Despite the unfamiliar territory, Jamie’s parents were supportive. Jamie’s inability to focus, however, would force her to leave school. Having always loved academics, her depression worsened. She held a few jobs, but struggled to get out of bed many days. Jamie would be hospitalized three times. In 2001, she walked out of work and into the psychiatric emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Everything was crumbling. Everything felt dark, suffocating. I was afraid to go home that night. I couldn’t get suicide out of my mind.
Jamie eventually found a medication that helped free her of persistent suicidal thoughts. It worked well enough to allow her to focus on getting better. She says the therapy sessions she has had over the years, and to which she remains committed, have empowered her, helping strip away the shame and embarrassment of mental illness.
Fifteen years later at age 36, Jamie was married. She now has two children who bring out her joy and who never fail to make her laugh. She still battles her depression daily, though she is no longer despairing or desperate. She knows her illness will always be part of her life, something she must continue to accept, to treat and to never again ignore.
It’s not about a happy ending. It’s about respecting myself enough to continue moving forward.
If you liked this story, be sure to check out a great interview with Jamie on Mental Health News Radio!
Anyone should be able to say, “I need help”
After graduating from a small liberal arts school in Connecticut, Paul found himself swept up in the hypnotic swirl of New York society. He jumped at the opportunity for an internship at Vogue Magazine, and soon found himself in the spotlight. Before long, he became caught up in the social scene, gaining the attention of journalists, bloggers, and gossip columnists. He even starred in a CW television series based on the lives of well-known New York “it kids”.
The attention … I loved it. But, at the same time, I had not dealt with the issues that I’d bottled up for many years, and inevitably they all came to a head.
Those issues started when Paul was a kid. Growing up in a quiet, picture-perfect New England town, his expressive style made it difficult to fit in. He spent the bulk of his childhood dedicated to ballet—an escape that allowed him to get out of his head, which always seemed to be racing. He would perform in The Nutcracker at the end of each year. But, after the bustle of the holiday season, the long, bleak winters would lull Paul into deep depression, because ballet is all about the illusion of perfection, and outside of that world, perfection is unattainable. In his teens, he sometimes had suicidal thoughts stemming from these unrealistic expectations. Drugs and alcohol took the edge off the depression and anxiety.
Unfortunately, substance abuse (much like fame) has a shelf life. Sooner or later, they both stop helping you cope, and start helping you unravel. New York and all of that “socialite”/”it boy” nonsense and the invasiveness of all that fanaticism from strangers, and phonies, and the press … It was like quicksand.
The addiction continued to spiral out of control for years. One summer night, while driving through the Hamptons, police arrested him for a DUI and he spent the night in jail. On another night, depressed and in despair, he tried to take his own life. Instead of ending it all then, he awoke to an apartment littered with wine bottles and drug residue. Knowing in that moment that he could no longer survive alone and on this path, Paul took an Amtrak to Boston, where he admitted himself to McLean Hospital.
It helped to be surrounded by others who were working on similar issues. One girl told us in group about how she left an abusive home situation at 15, and turned to prostitution to score her heroin. I’ve never forgotten that story. That put it all into perspective. I’ve had a pretty privileged life. I had a wonderful childhood and loving parents. I could never imagine going through what she went through … And yet, here we all are, crippled by the same afflictions.
Paul is now living in San Francisco, where he works as a writer and fashion stylist. His medium has evolved from print to digital, working most recently with the ecommerce style team at Ralph Lauren. He also writes for Deuxmoi.com, an advertising-free website that is edgy and honest but still focused on fashion. To maintain balance in his life, he checks in with a therapist when needed. His work provides a creative outlet that keeps him inspired and grounded.
It is strange, because having a nervous breakdown or even acknowledging mental health problems doesn’t fit into an imagebased industry. But I believe now that these are not insurmountable problems; although you may feel broken on the inside, you can be fixed by reaching out and seeking help. And, if you have the courage to be vocal about it, not only can you get the help you need, but also help others who are suffering.
I remind myself to live in the moment
A trip to the local market could send Meg into a severe state of panic.
Just going to the grocery store and paying for things. That interaction, the eye contact with the clerk, would give me major anxiety.
Meg’s struggle to control her own emotions began in middle school. The onset of a panic attack, a surge of intense fear accompanied by heart pounding, sweating, and shortness of breath that can last for minutes, forced administrators to call 911. Meg spent the majority of her days hiding in the nurse’s office to prevent interaction with others—anything that could set off another attack. The panic attacks and depression followed her into her adult life, where she tried multiple times to kill herself.
There are many days I wake up and say “how am I going to make it through this day?” Nothing is more terrifying than battling your own mind constantly.
It wasn’t until after college that Meg was formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and began dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a specialized therapy that helps patients identify and regulate triggers of their anxiety. She also learned breathing techniques, meditation, and mindfulness, which keeps her focused on the present.
I’m lucky to nanny for four beautiful children who, without even knowing it, keep me going, even on my hardest days.
Meg still struggles. Recently, she considered ending it all again, this time going so far as to pen a suicide note to her parents. Images of her family and the little girls she nannies for flashed in her mind.
Instead of going through with it, I went to my parents and made a new plan. I decided to fight for myself. My life is worth fighting for. I’m capable of being happy.
Meg wants others out there with a similar diagnosis to know they’re not alone.
Having a mental illness is so consuming and exhausting that we should all be proud we are able to live with it. We’re a lot stronger than we think.
Be sure to check out Meg talk about Deconstructing Stigma on WBZ’s Keller @ Large.
Proper treatment requires a proper diagnosis
Carol was preparing for midterm exams during her freshman year at a prestigious women’s college when the dean of students called her into her office and demanded she take a semester off.
The dean told me to drop out of college and instead see a psychiatrist. She never explained why.
The year was 1958, and mental health was rarely discussed. Carol was 18. It wouldn’t be until nearly three decades, and a second opinion, that Carol would actually have a name for that troubling behavior—bipolar disorder.
I started seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in bipolar symptoms. I got on medication and had discussions that allowed me to finally move forward with my life.
Carol is what is called a “slow” cycler and often has ten years between bipolar episodes of severe depression and energy-charged mania. She was surprised that she had an unexpected episode six years ago, when she was recovering from hip replacement surgery.
At that time, I tried electroconvulsive therapy. I also began seeing a case manager and attending a social worker-facilitated women’s support group at a geriatric day program for older adults with mood disorders. These interventions definitely helped me, but I still need to devote time and patience to the healing process.
Throughout her life, Carol has been a pioneer in encouraging advocacy for those seeking management of their symptoms. In 1991, Carol co-authored an article published in a professional, peer-reviewed journal; the article focused on the benefits of doctors and their patients collaborating, when relevant, on the notes of visits. She also served as the first clerk of a chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), a peer support organization, helping to expand attendance from 11 to sometimes as many 300 people at their weekly meetings.
In addition to having a formal team in place to help you with your illness, I recommend having peer support. Having other people who understand what you are going through, first hand, helps you feel less isolated.
Carol has been married to her current husband for 43 years and they have traveled the world.
Don’t give up until you find a doctor who gives you the proper diagnosis. That’s what you need to begin to get better. It’s an ongoing healing process.
The fear of being judged is paralyzing
When Maria thinks about kindergarten, there are no happy memories of snack time, arts and crafts, and recess. She recalls a fellow student replying to a teacher’s question with “I don’t know” and the teacher berating the pupil until she burst into tears.
My compassion for my classmate was eclipsed by the terror welling up within me at the thought of being in her shoes. I never wanted to speak in class again.
Since preschool, Maria had been selectively mute—unable to speak to anyone other than close family. The school incident solidified her fears. To this day, Maria battles social anxiety—an illness so great that she requested to communicate with the writer of this narrative by email instead of phone.
I told myself I was a failure. When someone addressed me, I froze; my face fixed in a vacant stare.
Maria began seeing a psychologist at age seven. She also met with child psychiatrists who prescribed her medication, none of which offered her relief from extreme anxiety. One therapist introduced Maria to exposure therapy by taking her on walks around the building and encouraging her to speak to people in the elevator. She was able to thrive in middle school, receiving a top academic award in the eighth grade. But the pressures of high school would set her on a path of hospitalizations, including two therapeutic wilderness programs.
I’ve actually lost count of the number of treatment programs and psychiatric hospitals I’ve been in and out of over the past 12 years.
Today, Maria’s treatment consists of a cocktail of medications and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She is working toward her college degree and is interested in research psychology. She notes that mental illness is just like any other disability and hopes people can be accepting of it.
I firmly believe that the more we talk about mental illness, the more we will reduce the stigma that surrounds it.
I’m not crazy for feeling this way
From outward appearances, Darryl seemed to have everything a person could want. What the public couldn’t see about the founding member of the legendary group Run-DMC was that depression and alcohol abuse were destroying his spirit and his body.
I had everything—I was the King of Rock—we were touring, making money and everyone knew who we were. But I didn’t feel right and not a day passed that I didn’t think about suicide.
Looking back, Darryl remembers being a nerdy kid in school—a shy boy who wore glasses and loved to lose himself in comic books. As a teen he became a regular in the hip hop scene and his popularity as a young rap artist grew, but so did his anxiety and his reliance on alcohol to get out on stage to perform. By the time Darryl and his group were household names, he was downing twelve 40-ounce bottles of beer a day.
The first time I performed in front of an actual audience, I was so scared that I couldn’t face the crowd. I used alcohol to overcome that fear and eventually alcohol took over my life.
After an emergency room doctor warned that he was heading down a very dark path, Darryl immediately quit drinking and remained sober for more than a decade. However, the startling news that he was adopted sent him into a deep depression and once again, he turned to alcohol to cope. This time Darryl entered a treatment facility and began to address not only his reliance on alcohol, but also his lifelong feelings of depression and anxiety.
I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one who felt this type of despair – I wanted to shout out to everyone “Hey, I’m not crazy for feeling this way!”
Today, Darryl is back in the recording studio, has a best-selling book about his experience with mental illness, and has become a vocal mental health advocate.
By being open about my own experiences, I am opening a pathway for other people to know they aren’t alone. If you’re not feeling right—whether you are depressed, suicidal or drinking too much—there is always someone in your life who will listen and be willing to help you. Just start talking about your feelings—we all have them.
My insides were numb
Since elementary school, Joe has had trouble with something that comes so naturally to most people—sleep.
I would be up until two in the morning, rolling around in bed. At 3am, I would get up, get dressed for school, and go back to bed in my clothes for a few hours. That way, when my alarm went off, I could just run to the bus stop.
Despite his sleep patterns, good grades always came easily to Joe. He played music and was good at sports. Yet Joe frequently felt anxious. Just days after he started college, the 9/11 attacks happened and placed a cloud over daily life. One night, Joe felt unmotivated to do schoolwork, and a friend introduced him to the drug Adderall.
I finished a five-page paper in just a few hours. I went to the doctor and told him I had tried it. I walked out of there with a prescription for Adderall, along with a benzo for anxiety and an antidepressant.
It was the start of a decade-long love/hate relationship with medication. The drugs would help for a year or so, then the upper and downers would impact Joe’s sleep. He’d have major depressive episodes and wind up in detox and the hospital. The cycle would repeat again and again. Making matters worse, Joe began having psychotic episodes, talking to himself about spaceships and someone trying to kill him. Doctors prescribed more medication.
My insides were numb, melting. I wanted to kill myself every second.
It was 2013 when Joe decided there must be another way. He found a new doctor who taught him meditation techniques and proper nutrition and referred him to an herbalist to help manage his symptoms. Joe repaired relationships with friends and family. He wanted to give back and looked to the diary entries he made over the years as a possible way to help others.
When I was a mess, people were handing me 300-page self-help books. I wanted to write something short that described how I was feeling and what I learned.
Joe has published three books of insight and poetry about his illness, with part of the proceeds going to mental health organizations. He still sees a psychiatrist regularly. Someday, he wants to work with kids with learning disabilities or mental health issues.
Writing helped me find some light and some peace. Hopefully, it can help others out there feel like they aren’t alone.
You can always extract the good from your mental illness
Jessica is the picture of success. She manages more than 25 employees that oversee lab space where scientists work on lifesaving discoveries. She recently married her love, an army veteran of the Afghanistan war turned police officer. They bought a house and rounded out their family with a new puggle puppy (a pug/beagle mix).
I’m living the American dream. Even if you are diagnosed with mental illness, you can have a fulfilling, happy life.
Looking back, Jessica remembers the ritualistic behaviors she developed as a young child. She would recite prayers over and over again until they were perfect, otherwise she feared someone in her family would die. She also pulled her hair and eyebrows out and picked at her cuticles until they bled because of her nervousness. Her senior year in high school, she had her first panic attack—gasping for breath and white flashes in her vision—and called her mother, terrified.
My mom told me she knew exactly what it was. That’s when I learned about my vibrant family history of anxiety disorders. It was so taboo, I didn’t even know.
Curious about her illness, Jessica studied psychology in college. She started weekly therapy there, and while she feels much more in control of her anxiety and OCD today, she still sees a therapist every month to keep it in check.
I believe my anxiety, when managed well, pushes me to work harder and be more prepared, which is why I think I’ve succeeded in my career.
She wants others dealing with mental illness to know that even when you can’t see a way out, there is one. Don’t be afraid to step forward. Tell someone you need help.
The taboo needs to stop. This can happen to anybody. It doesn’t make you wrong or bad or different. With help, you can overcome it and enjoy life to its fullest.
I know how it is to need help and be terrified to ask
Shellye hopes her passion for music evolves into a career. She sees herself on the business side of the industry, possibly as a tour manager, as she’s not a performer herself. In fact, as a child, Shellye had trouble even talking.
I started seeing a therapist when I was 4 or 5 because I had selective mutism—I would only talk to people I knew. And when I grew out of that, I still didn’t speak much out of fear of saying the wrong thing and being judged.
Shellye hit puberty earlier than the other girls, which gave the bullies in 6th grade another reason to taunt her. Test anxiety turned into full-blown panic attacks. Shellye’s family interpreted the displays as her way of seeking attention. Their reaction, in turn, left Shellye feeling like a bad person. She developed an eating disorder and struggled with self-harm. By the time Shellye attended her first year of college in Boston, the depression had intensified. Feeling like no one understood her, Shellye wanted out. Her suicidal thoughts persisted until she knew she needed help.
I was afraid to tell my parents because I didn’t want them to be mad at me. So I texted them what was going on. They were upset but supportive. My mom drove to the school to get me and took me to McLean Hospital.
After a few months of residential treatment, Shellye’s mom rented an apartment nearby so she could continue with outpatient programs. Shellye credits dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) with helping her tremendously. It gave her the tools to disrupt her suicidal thoughts and help her find a more positive path.
When my emotions are high, I learned to ice dive—take a bucket of cold water and dunk my head in it. Or it could just be a cold shower, or a walk outside. Whatever cools you down so you can think through what action you should take.
Shellye refuses to be defined by her illness. She transferred to a New York college, to be closer to family, including her twin sister. She still attends regular therapy sessions—in fact, her parents call into a family meeting every Monday. Shellye wants anyone who is struggling to know it’s okay to speak up.
It’s scary to admit you need help. But tell someone. Even if you do it via text or email. There’s no reason to go through this alone.
I want to help educate people
Hitting myself until I bruised.
Scratching myself until I bled.
At the young age of six, Rachel’s overwhelming anxiety drove her to self-harm. She would eventually turn to food to help feel more comfortable. Without even recognizing it, Rachel developed an eating disorder.
When I was in 7th grade, I had a history teacher who asked us to write a paper on what we liked about ourselves. I was sitting in class, and I just started crying.
I was suicidal through high school. I tried to keep my eating problems hidden as much as I could. Now I think—why was I ashamed of something I didn’t want? If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t hide that.
Rachel made it to graduation and on to Bridgewater State University. But with more flexibility in class schedule, she found herself either at the dining hall or the campus gym—her binging and purging caused her to become so dehydrated, an ambulance needed to be called several times. The school eventually told her not to come back.
It was the worst my eating disorder had ever been. I felt like I failed college.
Rachel spent six months in an inpatient program for young women with eating disorders. The tools she learned there helped her continue her studies at a community college. She hopes to get her master’s degree in social work and pursue a career as a high school counselor. Still, she knows she must continue to manage her eating disorder.
It’s still a roadblock in my life. As recent as two months ago, my doctor wanted me to take time off school to work on my illness. But staying busy helps me. If I keep pushing for what I want, I’ll get it eventually.
I’m going to defeat you, depression. You can’t hold me down.
Sonya Maria experienced the stress of a typical teenager. She did well in school, but frequently felt anxious and started seeing a therapist when she was 16.
I told my mom I felt like I was about to take a test and didn’t know any of the answers. But it felt like that all the time.
That anxiety intensified after Sonya Maria found her little sister, Karen, unconscious at home—the result of a suicide attempt. The family was shocked to discover that Karen had been hiding an eating disorder and a deep battle with depression. Over the next two years, the family tried to connect with the right services—Karen for her severe depression and Sonya Maria for post-traumatic stress. Though Karen seemed to be doing well in her recovery, she went missing in October of 2013 and was found three days later in the woods, after taking her own life. Sonya Maria was just 19.
After my sister died, all of the dreams, the nightmares about finding my sister after her first attempt, came back full force. There was no peace.
Even now, after all this time, the family struggles to understand what happened. But what bothers Sonya Maria most is the societal pressure to keep the cause of Karen’s death quiet as well as the state of her own mental health. It is disturbing, she says, that somehow our culture does not think of suicide as an appropriate topic for discussion or public dialogue.
We need to give people at risk for suicide and mental illness an outlet to talk about it, to normalize it, so they don’t feel ashamed and secretive. Breaking that silence is the only way to end the stigma we currently have.
Raising awareness about mental illness is exactly what Sonya Maria does now as president of her university’s chapter of Active Minds. She is in her final semester of college and after graduation will be working as mission coordinator at a non-profit, the Global Smile Foundation, helping to fix the smiles of kids born with cleft deformities. She’ll also be taking night classes to prepare her for dental school. Sonya Maria also enjoys channeling her energy into creative outlets, like singing soprano II in her a cappella group, the Ketones, and exercising by rock climbing with friends at her local gym, something she started as a way to take back her sense of self-worth.
I love it because it has a definitive goal—to get to the top. When I’m 50 feet above ground, I feel the things I don’t normally feel—strong and validated. I know I can do anything.
I admire the courage of my patients who want to work on themselves
Luanna met the man who would become her husband in a psychiatric hospital—he was a psychologist, and she was a psychiatric worker, her first job after college. For more than 25 years, they shared intertwining personal and professional lives… but then came financial reversals, an affair, and the marriage dissolved.
As a result of the loss of that relationship, I became severely depressed, but now I feel much more compassion for my patients because I understand on a deeper level what it is like to feel helpless and hopeless about the future.
Luanna had previous personal experience with mental illness. Her younger brother, Jonas, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17, and she saw how the stigma of his illness led to shame and further isolation in the family.
My extended family didn’t understand my brother’s problems and would make excuses as to why he wasn’t able to participate in family functions—like he had a skiing accident.
Her brother died of lung cancer in 2008, and her marriage fell apart a short time later. Luanna lost weight and withdrew from the world. It wasn’t until she was placed on an antidepressant that she felt strong enough to follow her own psychotherapist’s advice—to actively seek out the support of others. She relocated her residence and practice to her hometown, where she reconnected with friends from high school and college, and joined several groups, where she made new connections.
It provided emotional support for me. I also worked hard in my own psychotherapy and focused on rebuilding my personal life and professional practice.
Luanna enjoys working with young people in particular, because she knows that a little nudge in the right direction can have a big impact on someone’s life. She is astonished at comments from patients, who say that some of their friends and family members assume that if they are going for counseling, they must be messed up.
Going to therapy doesn’t mean that you are messed up; it means that you want to be connected to your own life. Those individuals who are in psychotherapy are among the healthiest and strongest people I know.
Music speaks for me when I don’t know what to say
Christina’s fondest memories growing up involved music—singing in a children’s choir, blasting Carole King and The Beatles, and dancing in the living room with her mother and brother.
I could sing before I could talk. I sang on stage at Carnegie Hall in 2010.
But Christina had an uneasy childhood. Deeply troubled by verbal and physical abuse, she spent hours at a time throwing tantrums.
My room was above the kitchen, and I would bang on the floor until the ceiling fan below shook. I would get jolts of pain going up my legs.
The outbursts, Christina believes, were the result of never being taught how to deal with negative emotions like distress or anger. Her parents brought her to therapists, but she refused to participate in treatment. By age 12, she was cutting. By 15, she landed in a hospital ER. Then came her senior year, prom weekend, and the night—and again the following morning—she vividly remembers being raped. The horrific trauma led to a suicide attempt, and a total of six hospitalizations.
I didn’t talk much about it until the last year of school. It was sexual assault awareness month, and I wrote a post on Facebook. I was pleasantly surprised how super supportive my friends and others were.
While post-traumatic stress disorder challenges Christina on a daily basis, a few times a week she experiences an episode of dissociation. Mild episodes impact her ability to focus. Severe ones could last many hours.
Sometimes I am unresponsive, sitting in a corner, hyperventilating, and staring at the ground. I am right back in the trauma, reliving the rape.
Christina finally found two therapists she adores who specialize in trauma treatment. She adopted an approved emotional support animal, her cat, Lorelai, and she’s back at school, building on her social work degree with a master’s in student affairs. She hopes for a career in residence life, helping all students, including those with disabilities, feel safe and comfortable in their home environment. Christina continues to rely on music as therapy. She cites a line from a song in her favorite musical, Wicked, as particularly relevant.
And this gift or this curse I have inside—maybe at last, I’ll know why.
Sometimes, there are just no words to express what you’re feeling
A year ago, Marlena stopped the antidepressant medication she had been taking for a dozen years. She had hoped to have a baby. But instead, she developed memories of childhood abuse.
It happened more than 30 years ago. The perpetrator had abused other kids. The trauma had blocked it from my memory.
What Marlena had remembered was the depression, irritability, and isolation. As a child, she would rather doodle on her notebooks than be around people. Still, she was a good student and got accepted to college. Then in her freshman year, suicidal thoughts led to hospitalization.
I’ve had some people say, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Well, if it was that easy, I would have been well years ago. They just don’t understand.
Marlena uses photography, drawing, poetry, and painting to express the way she is feeling. Through PeaceLove Studios in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, she honed her expressive art skills through their CREATORS program, with hopes of teaching the technique to others, including kids and teens with autism. On Facebook, she talks about her own battle with mental illness, and launched the Pix of the Day project, a series of rich, moving photos that instill emotion.
The visual helps people who don’t have mental illness understand. You can say all you want, but when you see it in a photo, it just clicks with people.
When she’s not behind the camera, Marlena surrounds herself with animals—including a 2-year-old pitbull, Kemo, and her rabbit, Penelope. She now sees her therapist of 13 years weekly to work through her childhood memories. And she hopes to revisit her dream of motherhood soon. She is committed to speaking up about her mental health, to change attitudes about an illness that is not unlike any other.
Some people are afraid. They wonder if they could lose their job or their kids if someone finds out. We need to send the message that we are no different than anyone else.
I’m not ashamed of who I am anymore
I would leave work and be afraid my curling iron was still on so I had to keep going back to check. I was terrified it would start a fire. I could envision the salon up in flames.
Although she lives just 10 minutes from the hair salon where she worked, it often took Lisa an hour and a half to drive home.The obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that debuted with patterned knuckle cracking at age 12 was still there later in life. But other obsessions took over. So certain was she that the pothole she hit driving her car was actually a person, she spent hours going to and from the scene to recheck. Her mind replayed images of her younger sister being murdered—a gruesome event that never actually happened.
Eventually, with the support of her family, she checked into a 10-week exposure therapy program at Massachusetts’ McLean Hospital. There she also learned tools to cope with OCD.
My husband dropped me off with a duffle bag, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But, it was also the best. They made me face my fears. With my coach, I spent hours replaying what my mind told me was my sister’s death—in graphic detail.
Despite the severity of her illness, Lisa says many of her friends and family members did not know about it until she wrote them a letter explaining OCD and its crippling symptoms. She also asked for donations for her first-time participation in the 1 Million Steps For OCD walk. Since then, Lisa’s team has grown to about 25 people.
It felt so good to come out and say it. I was surprised at the response I received from people with donations and cards with kind words. I’m not ashamed of who I am anymore.
Lisa is continuing outpatient therapy, attends OCD meetings, and enjoys spending time with her husband, son, family, friends, and work family at her salon. She believes that being open about mental illness will help trim the stigma associated with it.
With mental illness, you suffer from the inside. No one can see what’s wrong with you. If being vocal will help even just one person understand, it’s worth it.
With treatment, I felt different. I wondered, “Is this how people feel normally?”
The breakdown hit as Ashley sat on a bench in Midtown Manhattan.
She had just been discharged from a New York hospital after a manic episode kept her awake for 10 days straight. Doctors released her with no plan in place to help. No new therapy. No new medications. Exhausted and hopeless from a decade-long battle with an illness she could not control, Ashley desperately just wanted to go home. Her brother drove from Boston to pick her up.
When I got into the car, my mom called. She told me I would always be welcome home. But she could only give me love. And I needed more than that.
Looking back, Ashley recalls that as a kid, her mind would race—her thoughts changing rapidly. At 13, she fell into her first deep depression, an overwhelming feeling of gloom held her to her bed for days at a time. In high school, she notes incredible highs where she would feel invincible. She would drive recklessly and overdraw her checking account. She started college as a music major, but when her high crashed, so would her grades.
The depression would set in again. I felt terrible for all the bad decisions I made when I was “up.” Worthless. Helpless. I experienced every negative feeling there is.
At times, the dark thoughts and the energy bursts would hit at the same time, leading to hallucinations, paranoia, and self-harm. One episode prompted Ashley to hurt herself so badly she needed 17 staples. Another time, she hid under a table for an entire day, certain the people in her life were out to get her.
These were a hellish clash of opposing forces, like revving a car engine and hitting the brakes at the same time.
These mixed episodes made proper diagnosis tricky. Finally, at age 18, after three years of being misdiagnosed, doctors told her she had bipolar disorder. Over a span of 10 years, Ashley was hospitalized seven times and tried 20 medications. Nothing was working. As much as Ashley did not want to go to yet another hospital, her mom convinced her during that long ride home to try one more—McLean Hospital.
I was placed in a unit where everyone specialized in bipolar. Doctors were surprised I hadn’t been on the right medications. I met other patients struggling with this illness that I still am in touch with today.
Now, it’s five years later. Ashley and her mom shared a cross-country trip of a lifetime this past summer. Ashley is back in college part-time, this time with an eye toward social work. She has begun to get back to her music—and really enjoy it.
This illness is an everyday struggle, and it will be for the rest of my life. Even though that’s the case, it is possible to live with and move forward.
You’ve got to find the good in life. I’m still working on that
It’s been six months since Clare has woken up in a psychiatric hospital, her longest separation from inpatient treatment since 2012. Over the years, the overwhelming pressure she placed on herself to be a good student, a good friend, and a good daughter led her to suicidal thoughts.
I’m constantly over-thinking things—Am I weird? Am I okay? Do they like being my friend? I feel like I am one hair trigger away from being rejected, and that’s the worst pain.
Making matters worse was the sense that not everyone felt her illness—borderline personality disorder—was legitimate. She’s noticed it, most surprisingly, among those she sought help from— members of law enforcement, EMTs, and hospital staff who appeared to act as if Clare’s illness was a nuisance. She also noticed the topic was an unwelcome one among family members and friends.
We have the ice bucket challenge for ALS and breast cancer awareness and the diabetes walk. You can post about those on social media, but if you say you’re mentally ill, people are like “What’s wrong with you?”
For someone with such insecurity, Clare feels remarkably at home and confident on stage. In front of the microphone, she belts out songs from the 60’s at local pubs.
Sometimes you’re just so focused on hitting notes that you just feel free.
Clare continues to see a psychiatrist and therapist regularly. She hopes to get her master’s degree in healthcare informatics, a specialty she agrees sounds nerdy, but is fast changing and challenging.
Mental Illness can make you feel unstable. I want to find a career that I love and work for a living. I want some sense of stability.
Once I started treatment, I could smile at my little boy
It was the winter of 1995. Colder than normal temperatures and record-breaking snowfall intensified Amy’s feeling of isolation. She loved the baby boy she had just brought into this world. But instead of her days being filled with joy, Amy felt anxious and alone.
I was used to being in control. I was a project manager for some substantial businesses. But you can’t be in control of an infant.
Amy’s dad had battled depression for many years in an age when doctors didn’t treat mental health issues as a medical illness. In her case, Amy calls the combination of social, psychological, and biological factors the “perfect storm,” as her depression continued to worsen.
There was one day I couldn’t get out of bed and pulled the sheets over my head. I thought, “I can’t take care of this child,” and I didn’t think it was going to get better.
Her husband took Amy to the ER, but she was sent home with only a prescription for anxiety pills. Fortunately, her father’s psychiatrist recommended a therapist who specialized in postpartum depression. Amy started on antidepressants. Her family helped out in any way they could.
Within a couple of months I felt stabilized and human again. I could engage with the world and take care of my son.
When it came time to have a second child, Amy spoke with her doctor and changed her medication to one safe for pregnancy. Her symptoms never returned and given her family history, she has opted to remain on antidepressants. Her oldest son is now 21 years old, studying pre-med, and her youngest is a high school junior, on the honors track and a talented athlete.
Postpartum depression is an illness just like any other illness. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You can feel better. You will feel better. And you all will thrive.
I could feel people looking at me—even if they weren’t
Jennifer was caught off-guard when her eight-year-old son asked her about the scars on her arms.
I wasn’t prepared. I knew my answer would shape his ideas about mental illness.
Jennifer didn’t start cutting until she was 20. As a teen, she knew she was different than others. Her friends would label her as angry, irritable, and moody. They warned her she wouldn’t have friends if she didn’t fix what was wrong. When Jennifer finally met with a therapist in her late teens, she realized she had clinical depression.
That was the first time I started connecting the dots—there are symptoms and they lead to a diagnosis, and that means there’s a sound reason why I have difficulty interacting with people. I felt relief, but I was too young to realize that was just the beginning.
The first time Jennifer cut, she was a college senior and had been drinking. She recalls the act left her feeling “satisfied” and would do it from time to time, without anyone knowing. But eventually it became public—she had an argument with a boyfriend, broke a glass in her car and cut on the way to a friend’s house.
I got out of the car and was gushing blood. My friend freaked out and called 911, and they called my parents.
Jennifer’s parents didn’t know their daughter had been struggling with depression. Instead of feeling relieved that her family now knew, Jennifer was ashamed and embarrassed. When she had her son at age 30, Jennifer vowed to lead a healthier life, but the cutting continued. It wasn’t until she learned coping skills and found the right medications through a new community psychiatrist that she successfully stopped self-harming. So taken by the healing power of therapy, Jennifer ditched her career track in criminal justice and took up mental health counseling.
After a long pause, Jennifer answered her son by explaining she didn’t take good care of herself when she was younger. Jennifer told him that she had a sickness that lived in her brain and she went through a tough time.
My son looked at me and asked, “Are you okay now?” I said, “Yeah, I’m better.”
You never know, underneath, what people are going through
Depression can impact anyone, at any time. But for Meredith, the episodes were cyclical … and severe.
In fact, between the ages of 16 and 19, Meredith was hospitalized seven times. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a doctor who first put the puzzle pieces together, but a hospital social worker.
She recognized the pattern and started researching it like crazy. I consider her to be the one who saved my life.
Meredith had a condition that was just being recognized in medical circles—premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)—a severe form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Symptoms such as fatigue, sadness, anxiety, and irritability—along with breast tenderness, changes in sleep and eating—begin between seven and ten days prior to a monthly period and last a few days into menstruation.
There are a lot of women out there who have this issue, and they don’t even know what it is.
Once diagnosed, doctors suggested a logical tactic—stopping Meredith’s periods. She receives an injection of Depo-Provera, known as the birth control shot, every three months. The medication contains the hormone progestin, which suppresses ovulation.
That medication really helps. It not only brings down my PMS symptoms, it saves me from making dangerous decisions.
She also sees a therapist every other week, a practice she had stopped for a while, but started up again last year when she learned that the social worker who made such an impact on her life had taken her own life. Meredith says the news still hurts to this day. But she is proud that she herself will graduate in a few months with her own degree in social work—Meredith’s chance to give another young person what she received in a hospital bed not long ago … hope.
People don’t know there are resources out there. I don’t want anyone to feel alone.
Because of the stigma, no one wants to see mental illness
Growing up as a kid outside of Chicago, John describes a sadness that he didn’t notice in other kids. He was easily frustrated and socially awkward. As a high school student, John’s grades were good, but he could feel depression surrounding him, suffocating him. He didn’t want to let people down by asking for help, so he turned elsewhere.
I was 14 when I started drinking. Alcohol lured me in. When I was drunk, the sadness was gone.
Alcohol use was common among John’s family and friends, and nobody thought much of his drinking, but it became unmanageable for him. When he turned 25, John realized the late parties and all-day hangovers needed to stop, even as those close to him insisted he didn’t have a problem.
I had to convince people that something was wrong. It seemed nobody wanted me to quit. I even had a woman come up to me at a party and pour a drink in my mouth.
A few years later, John’s primary care doctor suggested he see a psychiatrist who prescribed him his first antidepressant medication. Although his struggles with alcohol continued, within just a few months the medication started to work.
One morning I woke up and realized my life was completely different. I could experience hope and see solutions to problems. It was not all gloom and doom.
Despite the progress, John would endure a failed marriage and multiple attempts at sobriety before Alcoholics Anonymous would help free him of his addiction. He has not had a drink in two years. He enjoys being a father of two and best friend to his terrier-spaniel mix, Abbie. John is working with local schools on a plan to impart his life lesson to high school students, so that young people know it’s okay to seek help.
Don’t wait until you’re 40 years old to get your life in order. You might have this feeling you are letting people down, or not living up to their expectations. In reality, the surest way to succeed is to reach out for help.
I am playing music again
Lisa’s home was rarely without music—either of her own creation or from the Broadway musical soundtracks she has loved all of her life. Then, without warning, at 57, Lisa—an energetic music teacher who loved introducing her students to sounds of the world—suddenly lost all hope and joy in her life.
She could not play music. She had no desire to eat. She no longer wanted to go to the job she loved. She had no interest in the things that once brought her joy. Depression left her unable to function.
I was in such a dark place, looking back on that time, I remember not even knowing who I was anymore. Everything just seemed so bleak.
The day before Thanksgiving 2012, Lisa’s family became so concerned about her behavior and dark thoughts that they brought her for a psychiatric evaluation, where she was diagnosed with severe depression. Lisa was immediately admitted into McLean Hospital’s inpatient program for older adults.
That was the hardest time in my life. I was in the hospital and just felt like the weight of the world was bearing down on me.
Having grown up in an Irish Catholic family, Lisa was raised not to talk about her problems and to never let on in public that anything was wrong.
Admitting out loud that I was depressed and needed help was its own struggle. But I knew I needed to get better—if not for me, for the people who loved and supported me.
With the determination to battle depression head-on, Lisa embraced her treatment and about a week into the program—thanks to medication and group and individual therapy—she started to feel more like her old self.
No one ever wants to go into the hospital. It’s scary on many levels, but I am thankful each day that I went. By the time I left, I was playing the piano again. I was reading and reconnecting with old friends. I felt like I regained my life.
While Lisa continues to struggle with depression—she still sees a therapist regularly—she speaks openly about her challenges to all who will listen because she hopes that they will learn from her experience.
If I can help even just one person not get to the desperate place I got to, then I’ll feel accomplished.
I didn’t think I would make it to age 20
When the horror of 9/11 hit, Molly was just seven years old. Days later, her mom, a Navy officer, was deployed.
I was so worried about her safety. My dad told me I wouldn’t stop watching breaking news on TV.
The event added to daily anxiety that already consumed Molly. A quiet child, she was terrified of attending school. While she was an excellent student and strived for perfection, Molly feared being judged or ridiculed by her peers—so much so that she missed weeks of classes at a time. While her parents tried to comfort and support her, schoolmates were sometimes cruel.
Middle school was hard enough to begin with, but when I had told some friends I had stopped going to school because I had general anxiety disorder, I was alienated.
Molly’s pediatrician referred her to a psychiatrist who suggested antidepressants. Still, her symptoms would roll in and out like waves. In addition to regular outpatient sessions, she was hospitalized twice. Then, a few months ago, when the hopelessness swelled, Molly ended up in the emergency room with an urgent plea for help.
I needed to do something. I couldn’t go on just ruminating about ending my life.
Molly found hope in a treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a therapy used to stimulate small regions of the brain. It’s an outpatient procedure performed five days a week, for a total of 36 treatments.
I wear a helmet and the doctors send impulses into my brain. It’s wild. I’m halfway through treatment, and I don’t feel so dark in a way. I’m not jumping for joy, but I feel better.
Molly also finds solace with her Chihuahua—dachshund mix, Pinto. Now in her sophomore year in college, she is studying psychology and is hoping to be able to use her own experience and education to someday counsel patients.
I am here because of the amazing people who helped me along the way. I want to give back.
Some people reacted negatively. It was sad. But that’s exactly why I needed to speak up
The walls were closing in. Since Miriam was a teenager, she fought depression’s strong grip. Crying. Struggling to face each new day. Somehow she got through high school and college, but as her friends one by one got engaged or married, loneliness and hopelessness consumed her thoughts. By the time she was 30, Miriam admitted herself to one hospital, then a second in New York.
I told only a few people that I was in the hospital, including a close childhood friend. She called me while I was there and said “I only want to talk to you when you’re happy. Let’s speak then.” I never heard from her again.
The rejection at a time when Miriam felt particularly down came as a blow and set her back in her treatment. She eventually decided on making a fresh start in LA, but after a short time, she realized her illness required a support system and she moved back to her family in Chicago, making a commitment to herself to get better.
I didn’t get it before—you need to have the right therapist and take your medication each day at the same time. Your health has to be your number one priority.
Miriam got a job at a big law firm. She got married to a man she describes as extremely supportive and accepting of her illness. Yet she had never told any of her colleagues about her hospitalizations. Then she won a charity auction item—lunch with award-winning actress and mental health advocate Glenn Close. She shared her story with Glenn.
Other than relatives, she was the first person I told my story to. I figured, if I can tell her, then maybe I can tell others and have an impact on my community.
Inspired by Glenn, Miriam founded No Shame on U, a non-profit dedicated to eliminate stigma and raising mental health awareness. The group does events and has an active online community, with 35,000 Facebook followers.
My hope is for people to see that having a mental health condition is a medical illness, just like a physical condition. If you break your leg, you do not hesitate to seek treatment/care. The same is true with mental illness. Why do we treat the two so differently?
You can learn more about Miriam and her mental health activism efforts in her interview with Mental Health News Radio.