This article first published with Daddy’s Digest August 2019.
I was always a weird kid. I was the loner, the outcast, the one playing with bugs in the yard instead of with the other kids. While they did stunts and chased each other, I sat back and watched from a safe distance. I was too scared to take risks. Too afraid to get hurt, afraid of what they’d think of me, afraid of being their friend and afraid of staying on the outside and not having friends. Everything about being a kid terrified me.
I never learned to ride a bike, I never broke a bone, I was always last to try anything, and it was with such terrifying intensity that I’m amazed I didn’t just puke my way through childhood. As I got older it got worse, but it also got easier to hide. But getting older brought on more weird. Around 10, I was starting to slow down. I just felt heavier, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and I was obviously too small to carry it. My eyes constantly threatened to close, my shoulders gained a permanent droop and my smile faded away.
I tried talking to my parents about it, and they both took me to a doctor, who ordered blood work, and when the blood work came back normal, I was deemed normal. Normal means there’s nothing wrong, right? I never saw a doctor for it again. When I said I still wasn’t okay, my mother determined that it was a spiritual issue. She started taking me to prayer meetings and forcing me to stand in front of the whole church while everyone I knew prayed for me. I was told different things from different people.
“It’s just a phase, you’ll be fine.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sad about.”
“God will heal you if you have enough faith.”
And my personal favorite: “There’s no such thing as mental illness. You’ve got demons inside you. You need to cast them out.”
While it all sounded different, it felt like they were all saying the same thing:
There’s something wrong with you.
So, after the last prayer meeting that didn’t go very well, I screamed at my mom that I was never going back.
I started to lie. It worked! I’m cured! Must have been those pesky demons because I’m okay now. Look at this smile. Totally normal kid.
The dangerous part is… They bought it. I don’t know if the adults in my life believed I was really okay or were just relieved not to hear about it anymore, but they stopped asking. I put on an act, and I was a damn good actress. But on the inside, I was broken. The adults in my life had shown me that there was no point in speaking up, so I learned to keep it in. And when I kept it in, it grew. The depression that had been a tiny tumor hinting at trouble, started to turn malignant. Vicious, aggressive, and life threatening. I felt it growing inside me and I sobbed through the nights because I was dying, and no one could see it. And I almost did.
I lost track of how often I thought about suicide. How many times I planned. But through years of acting, I had gotten too good. I fooled myself. I spent my preteen and teenage years going through the motions on autopilot, acting the way I thought was expected of me. Dressing the way my friends did, listening to the same music they did. Partied how they did. I didn’t know who I was or what I liked because if I looked behind the mask, it hurt too much. The person I pretended to be was a shield protecting me from my own brain. And that person just kept going. She fell in love, got married, had a baby. And through my adult years, that mask began to crack.
Becoming a stay-at-home mom changed everything. I was suddenly sheltered, alone and in charge of another human life and the stress was breaking me. The tumor sensed the crack in my defense and it started to grow again. It grew, and it grew, and I kept on smiling, pretending I was a young, happy mom. I got pregnant again, lost my baby and the crack widened, threatening to swallow me whole. Pregnant again and I kept it together because I had to. I had two kids now, and I had to care for them. I was on autopilot again and terrified of something I still couldn’t completely understand.
When I was 25, on a day that looked like every other day, the crack in my defense broke completely. The kids distracted with a movie, I ran to the other room and had the worst panic attack of my life. I suddenly couldn’t take it anymore. I looked at my precious babies in the next room and lost it because I knew in my heart that they were going to lose their mother. I was going to die. I tried to push it away, and I did many times whenever they needed something, but for months I slipped farther and farther into the worst state of depression I had ever been in, with no hope of ever finding my way out. I lost track of how many times I planned to die. I came very close more than once. And I honestly feel very lucky to still be here.
In the end, I couldn’t leave them. I made the decision to seek help, and I was finally diagnosed with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and attention deficit disorder.
Disorder, disorder, disorder, broken, broken, BROKEN.
But this time it was different. This time I was more mature and the more I looked back on my past, the more I knew I needed to change. I was ready to be fixed. At some point, I decided that I needed more than just doctors’ visits and meds. I needed a failsafe. Something to remind me to hang on even if nothing else gets through. I realized that almost my whole life I was fighting something, that I still am. I have these battles that will never truly end and if I am going to keep fighting I needed to become something else. I needed to be a warrior. So, I did the best thing I could think of, and I armed myself. A sword, right on my forearm where I am sure to see it every single day. When I’m doing well, it makes me feel strong. And when I’m not, when I get low, it reminds me that when I was at my worst, I chose to keep going. I chose to stand up and fight and never give up.
My mask is gone now. It leaves me open to more attacks; gives my brain more chances to fight against me. But now, in its place, it’s just me. Finally trying new things, finding who I am and who I want to be. I’m not hiding anymore. And that’s the strongest thing I could ever do.
So now, while I am finally trying to learn how to be okay, I want others to know stories like mine. I want parents to read and pay attention. Listen to your kids. If they say something is wrong, do not dismiss them and don’t you dare ignore them. Find real help and know that mental illness is not a common cold or flu type of sick. It’s a chronic, there for life type of thing and you need to be there for all of it. It might end up being a phase brought on by hormones and teenage emotion. It might be grief over something in their life changing or the loss of a loved one. It might very well be one of those temporary types of things. But just in case it’s not, be there. I had just enough at just the right time in my life to keep me here and it makes me feel damn lucky. But there are countless other kids with similar stories that can’t write about this. Countless others who lost their fight. So, this is for them. For our kids, and for other parents going through this themselves. We are warriors, and we will never stop fighting.