Seems only fair, if I’m gonna talk the talk, I should share where it comes from.
Excerpt from one of my presentations:
Inspiration From Within, Part II: Walking the Walk
A Journey of Diagnosis & Recovery – to NY Certified Peer Specialist
I am a survivor.
I live with multiple mental health diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and general anxiety.
I am also a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a homeowner, a taxpayer, a volunteer, and an advocate. I worked amongst the gainfully employed to take care of my family from the time I was twelve, until I was diagnosed in 2010.
Now, six years into recovery, I am a NY Certified Peer Specialist in mental health. My message is one of encouragement, inclusion and a call to action. Regular folks out there in the big world don’t talk about mental illness very much. Because it’s taboo, or against their religion or, it’s just “too uncomfortable”. Truth is, most people don’t understand emotional wellness OR mental illness; it scares them. That’s the stigma attached to mental health. Stigma is based in fear and misunderstanding and builds barriers to wellness and community. Sharing positive information and lived experience have been shown to reduce fear and stigma, encourage recovery and break down barriers for those living with diagnoses, which is positive for them, for those who care for them, and for their greater community. But, I’ll come back to that.
For my own experience, I have lived abuse and trauma experience since early childhood, domestic violence at home throughout childhood and two prior marriages. I am also a survivor of rape, and chronic sexual abuse. I have survived armed robbery, arson, untimely deaths of family members, and the kidnapping of one of my children. I also experienced stalking and menacing subsequent to two divorces.
Despite seemingly insurmountable traumas, I am now happily married for over four years, to a very good man I’ve known for three decades, and between us, we have five grown sons, four of whom have known each other since nursery school. In spite of what both my husband and I come from, all of our sons have had opportunities and life experiences we could never have dreamt of for them, or as youths, for even ourselves. We have, somehow, seemingly reprogrammed the results of our own epigenetics.
Four of our sons are married or in long term relationships. One of our young men is an air traffic controller, one is a supervisor in commercial production and distribution, one is a director in media marketing production, another does band tour management for other musicians and is a professional musician himself. Well, actually, two are musicians, two are parents, one has traveled to all 48 states in the continental U.S., two have traveled to multiple foreign countries, two own homes so far, and one is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. They continue to be the greatest joy of our lives. They are, collectively, our own personal miracles, and we are so grateful for them.
When I first “destabilized”, it was 2010, and it was a long and difficult path. I suffered two nervous breakdowns within three years. They don’t call them that any more though. They are now referred to as major depressive episodes. Like somehow, that sounds so much better. Doesn’t matter what you call them. They suck. Such episodes are different for everyone. In my case, I initially believed I was having a heart attack, chest pains, short of breath. Had all the tests. Nothing. I’d rest, but then have racing thoughts in my head, couldn’t keep my thoughts straight, couldn’t read a sentence and understand it, I’d feel physically unwell again, and confused; uncontrolled shaking, long crying spells, just lost, and in such emotional pain, like I just shouldn’t be here, my heart literally felt broken. I. Felt. Broken.
When my mental health diagnoses came, I was scared. stunned. I thought my life was over. How would I tell my sons? What about my job? I had always worked. We couldn’t survive without that income. We were going to lose everything we had worked for and it was all my fault. Ugh. It was just beyond my comprehension. I was completely overwhelmed and as scared as I had ever been in my life.
Since then, I’ve been through trial and error to find the right interventions for myself. A year and a half to develop a med regimen that let me function, think straight and sleep without nightmares. Voluntary In patient hospitalization, day treatment, six months of dialectical behavioral therapy, private counseling, EMDR, support groups and workshops in trauma informed healing, workshops of all kinds – ACEs &Resilience, art therapy, music therapy, wellness programs in yoga, mindfulness, meditation. I have explored a lot of ground in working my recovery. The Mental Health Association was there for me, with someone who helped me file my complicated disability application, when I was too unwell to comprehend it. My husband was there for me through every struggle. My grown sons supported me and loved me, despite the fact that my illness brought such fear to them.
Recovery is possible. I am living proof. It turns out, recovery is normal. It’s what most of us do, just like we do with physical illness. Sure, there are extremes in any illness. Most of us are not the extremes. Not if we take responsibility for our own wellness, our own abilities, our own rights, and our own responsibilities. Now, I offer encouragement toward resilience, recovery and hope. I encourage people: if it’s not for yourself, then someone you know, find out what works for you and use those tools toward wellness. If you put your mind and your heart in it, there is nothing beyond your reach. There are good resources available, no matter your need.
I am also a firm believer in keeping your sense of humor. It can help you through absolutely anything. There has not been a day since my beloved husband and I got together, that we haven’t laughed. And he lived with me through those breakdowns, hospitalization, recovery, all of it! He also says he met all of my personalities before he married me and everyone gets along, so we are all good.
It’s a scientific fact though, that laughter releases naturally produced endorphins in your brain, which are known to reduce stress and anxiety. Along those lines, I have also, for the sheer fun of it, AND toward my own wellness, completed an 8-week comedy improvisational boot camp, TWICE, with the local Geva theatre’s impov group. It’s two months of weekly skill building and losing inhibition and then…. GRADUATION. Boot camp graduations consist of performing onstage at the theatre for a live audience of family, friends and community. I encourage you, no matter your circumstance, to find your funny. It is very liberating, and I highly recommend it.
I hope to utilize skills developed thru all of these explorations, to find ways to move forward and encourage others. If I had connected with someone like me early in my treatment, who had survived and thrived, I know it would not have taken me six years to get to the point I’ve reached now. If there were school age requirements in wellness instead of just physical education, I might never have gotten to the extreme level of illness I did.
There were also times, I have to admit, in the depths of my illness, I was sure the world would have been better off without me. Were it not for recognizing the need to take action and get help, were it not for the love and support of my husband and sons, were it not for my sheer curiosity as to how all this could possibly work out, I might not have found the strength to go on. Some people don’t have those kind of supports in their lives. They may have NO ONE.
Mental health systems in our country are reactive only, AND we have to pound on the door several times to get even that help. Mental health reform is slow and painful, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle.
WHATS MISSING? What are we not doing to be proactive in today’s world? We do not teach emotional wellness. Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked, yet we only teach physical education in school. With over 50% of diagnosed adults experiencing onset of mental illness prior to age 14, the two should not be treated as separate issues. Recovery is the norm for those who get treatment and support. Every illness has its extremes, but like any other health condition, most mental health diagnoses are treatable, manageable, and we can recover to become more than we were before treatment.
Those who live with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, we are homeowners, coworkers, taxpayers, parents, teachers, volunteers, first responders, musicians, artists, authors, scientists; we are every where. We make up 20-25% of the global population, across cultures, genders, races, religions, including gun owners and non-gunowners alike… 70% of our prison population are estimated to have mental health conditions.. . And to repeat, 50% of all adults diagnosed, experience onset prior to age 14! Teaching and promoting and encouraging wellness, awareness, breaking stereo type and stigma, can go a very long way toward improving the lives of future generations.
If I had been involved with a peer support professional earlier in my diagnoses,, I might never have had suicidal thoughts. Well, I guess that’s not really true, because I had those thoughts in childhood. You see, what ever you live through, or come up through during your youngest years, that’s what normal looks like for you. If your existence is dysfunctional, you don’t necessarily realize it’s dysfunctional. To you, that’s normal, that’s how life is. Doesn’t everyone live this way? But at every stage of brain development, and there are seven stages, those early traumas impact emotional development going forward. And then to learn as you grow, that in fact, no one lives the way you do, you grew up with a sociopath, well, by then, you just get good at it. Trying to fake normal everywhere else, when you aren’t even sure what that looks like, or feels like. Of course, this was way before information became so widely available. Without all of today’s technology, the Internet,, or cell phones, things were just much easier kept hidden back then. It was a different world then. When I was 9 yrs old, our family of six moved from a cottage in Western NY to a single wide trailer in the backwoods of SW Florida. We walked a dirt road to our school bus everyday, through a nearly abandoned strip of dilapidated migrant shacks. Just a small scary, everyday thing then. It was a very strange childhood, but at the time, I thought everyone lived like we did. I do not remember much of my youth without fear as a daily component. But that is a whole separate conversation.
The world is a very different place near fifty years later. I want to help people understand that recovery is the norm, that recovery is different for everyone, that it does take time, but all of it is progress toward wellness; that there are tools to help in developing our resilience; That knowledge equals power. Power equals resilience. Resilience leads to recovery. That there IS hope. HOPE, is a great acronym – Hold On. Pain Ends.
And when it does, some of us want to give back. To make it better or easier for the next person in our shoes. This thought is not new amongst survivors. The peer support movement in mental health actually began over one hundred years ago. It gained more prominence with deinstitutionalization, and the end of involuntary treatments and medical experimentation. Now, peer support is a recognized piece of the recovery puzzle. New York State his behind the curve though, and we need to change that.
This is my mission now. To raise awareness, encourage emotional wellness and self-advocacy, dispel myth, reduce fear, share lived experience, encourage resilience, recovery and hope. If I am able to somehow just help one person come back from, or maybe avoid, some of those darkest places, I will have been successful in this mission.
I thank you for your time today. Be well.