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All of these things (little, big, and in between) have made a difference in my life and my mental health lately, and that’s something I’m grateful for.
I have been in weekly counseling for more than a year now, and I have to say, it's helped me become a WHOLE lot more self-aware than I ever was before.
"How's your anxiety?" He asked it simply, no judgment, no presumptions, just a question that felt both light and heavy all at once.The tears welled up, unexpectedly yet not.
I had a panic attack this week. Again. This is my attempt to give the feelings words, to somehow win back control over the anxiety that tried to take me over.
Meet Emily. She's 21, studying psychology with a business administration minor at Christopher Newport University. She volunteers twice a week with an animal adoption center and also works in a psychological research lab with a former professor and mentor. She has been conducting her own individual research on social media's affects on depression and perceived loneliness/self worth. She says she's currently trying to get through her last year at CNU, spend time with friends, and meet new people. She also loves traveling and can't get enough of leaving and exploring new places.
I've known Emily since I was in high school, when I was editor-in-chief of my school's newspaper and she was on the staff. She always seemed so cool to me, with a group of friends in the newspaper class that seemed fun, untouchable and a little rebellious. She wrote well and wasn't afraid of covering hard or controversial topics, always fighting to write what needed to be said, no matter what. I admired her from afar, but never really knew much about her. She became editor-in-chief after I graduated and I always knew the publication I had worked so hard on during my years was in incredible hands with her and her team.
I've followed Emily on Twitter for a while since high school, and I've always loved how outspoken she is about things that matter to her. Just from the things she shares, I've always known she cares deeply about people, about equality, about fighting stigmas and bringing things to light that others would rather mock or ignore. She's confident and brave, and I love that. My favorite kinds of people are the ones who are unashamedly passionate, yet gracious and relatable, sweet and authentic all at once, and that so perfectly describes her.
When she emailed me in response to my first Story Seeker post, I was so excited. Her email said "I think this sounds like a fantastic idea. Breaking free from your comfort zone is how you grow." I loved that. Those words have stuck with me and I love how simple and true they are.
Emily and I met up at Joe's Inn recently, a little restaurant and bar nestled in the neighborhoods of downtown Richmond. I introduced her to my favorite cider (VA folks, Bold Rock is local and it's the very best and you should try it) and we spent a while chatting in a wood booth during happy hour. It was so great to finally get to know her more and get to hear about her story. Knowing the things she cares about, it was incredible for me to hear the background of her life and learn more about the things she experienced that are fueling her passions day by day.
I had no idea what her story was like, no idea so much of it was happening when I knew her from our newspaper staff. I think she would probably say the same about me, and I think that's really the beauty of this whole thing. There are so many people we skate by in life and never get to know, but all it takes is a few hours over drinks in a bar and before you know it, you have a new friend in this world.
This girl's story is powerful and it will open your eyes to things you've probably never even thought about before. Aren't the best stories like that? Emily is so smart, down to earth, funny, generous, caring, talented and real. She's going to change the world around her in ways that make a beautiful impact. I've been so honored to hear her story, and I'm even more honored to share it with you.
Here's Emily's story.
It is often stressed that one should let go of that which they cannot change. And while the idea is seemingly plausible and rational, I have learned that carrying my past with me has only brightened my future. I have led anything but a commonplace life; on some days, when it’s raining out and my friends have other plans and I am staring at the wall immersed in utter boredom, I wish I had led a more typical life in my childhood and early adulthood. I sometimes wish I could have woken up to a freshly cooked breakfast, both my mom and dad sitting at the table reading the paper and awaiting my appearance. I wish I could have lived in one home my whole life, made ever-lasting friendships, and never had to learn what survival and healing truly meant.
But then I realize I was graced with my specific life and my specific experiences for a purpose. My 8th grade World History teacher recited to me the renowned quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” While I could have written it off as a standard line told to all soon-to-be highschoolers, and while I could have let my past justify self-deprecation, I have learned that my past is what needs to drive my present life.
My mother and father got divorced when I was 3 weeks old, so I have never been part of what society would call a “functional” family. While many children these days experience the hardships of divorce, my turmoil came from my mother alone. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression long before I was born, so every other weekend on my Thursday-Sunday visit, I experienced her weeping,I heard constant fabricated stories of abusive loved ones of mine, and I was consistently left alone while she begged for God to kill her. I grew up in a constant state of anger, fear, and loathing, never fully understanding why she couldn’t just love me enough to give me a normal childhood. I grew up with a mother who loved me so deeply and who tried to give me material goods to make me happy, but could not reach a state of mental health to truly give me the guidance I needed. I never really understood the implications of her illness until my freshman year of high school. She faced severe depression when I was 14 years old, and my emotionally abusive stepfather barricaded her from any and everybody in her life. Her depression was so detrimental, my stepfather decided it was the best course of action to have the doctor administer electroconvulsive therapy. That is when a patient is mildly sedated and then electrocuted. I could easily google a technical definition that paints it in a scientific and positive light, but there is no positive aspect I could ever see in a procedure so barbaric. ECT side effects include memory loss, motor loss, and all around brain injury. The normal amount a patient should receive is anywhere from 6-11, and my impressionable and helpless mother received 32. I cried malpractice, I cried spousal abuse, but at 15, 16, and 17 years old nobody would really listen.
I lost my mother when I was 14. She is alive and breathing, living every day as much as she can, but I lost my true mother when I was 14. She was not there for my sweet 16, nor my 17th, nor my 18th or 19th or 21st birthday. She was not there when my heart got broken for the first time and she was not there when I lost myself to fear, rejection, and low self-esteem. She was not there to help me pick what college to go to and she was not there to greet me with a warm hug on Christmas mornings. I lost her to an illness, I lost her to a corrupt doctor, and I lost her to an evil hearted man who claimed to love her. It was surreal to have to visit my own mother in a mental hospital. To see her frail and pale and blank. It hurt to know I could not save her – but that was such an important lesson to learn. You can’t save everybody, and sometimes the person that needs the most saving is yourself. I miss her, I love her, and I wish so desperately her life could have brought her more peace. But I can no longer have my heart break over the past which I cannot change.
While I could drown in my own self-pity and curse the universe for dealing me a raw hand, I just could never bring myself to give up so easily. High school was hard, holidays are hard, and I still find myself with a huge wall up in relationships. I faced my own depression throughout the whole ordeal, and still occasionally struggle with it today. It used to bring a sense of shame to me, admitting I had to take medicine just to get out of bed. But now I am so passionate about fighting to end the stigma on mental health, because I have been blessed enough to finally be enlightened by my experiences throughout my life. Yes, I was depressed. Yes, I still experiences symptoms on occasion. And I am damn proud of it. I have been off medication for a year now, and I have never felt stronger or more alive. I am finally determined to be the change I want to see in the world around me. In 2015 I plan on pursuing my PhD in clinical psychology in graduate school so I can make progress in the field. The stigma on mental health needs to end if society ever wants to truly progress. My mother is a prime example of what needs to change – in 20 years, I guarantee society will view ECT as they now view lobotomies.
Plenty of things have affected who I am today and have impacted my life greatly, but none of them have shaped me as much as the experiences with my mom and stepdad did. Yes, I had more than one relationship that blew up in my face. I had plenty of drama with friends. I had my days where I questioned my worth completely. But those factors don’t really make my story. I have had my heart broken into a thousand little pieces on numerous occasions, by friends, family, and boys alike. But each time it pulls itself back together and I carry on.
There are days when I wish I could call my mom to tell her about the asshole that broke my heart, or the guy that stood me up, or the friend that just lost touch. There are days when I see red with anger when I remember my stepfather uttering the words “You are the reason your mom is depressed.” There are days when I wish my dad would pay a little bit more attention to me, or my friends would pick up the phone and call me, or my ex would just admit how badly he messed up. But those days are becoming less and less as I continue to grow. I have a mission in my life, and that mission is to make a positive change in any and every way I can. I am so grateful I finally see my purpose in life and the reasons for all of my struggles. My past no longer brings me down and keeps me in bed, wondering what I could have done better. My past now drives me, inspires me, and continuously enlightens me.
My strength has come from my struggle. I am wise, I am smart, I am intuitive, and I am ready to fully embrace life for all of its beauty as opposed to despise it for its darkness. I am a fighter - I always have been.
Please feel free to comment or send me a message if you want to hear more, ask questions, give feedback, or are interested in connecting with Emily. You can also read more about the Story Seeker project here.