Mental Illness - My Mental Health Story
TW: Depression, Anxiety, Self harm, Suicide, Sexual Harassment
“You should smile more.”
“It could be worse.”
“Just don’t think about it.”
These were the phrases I heard throughout all of my elementary and high school years. There was never a time when my peers and teachers, would not mention some bizarre, ignorant statement revolving around mental health. Not to mention, my family also contributed heavily to the stigmatization of mental health issues. Essentially, my family approached the subject of mental health with extreme hesitation, they refused to talk about how it affects people of all age, gender, ethical background (etc.) Every time I would say “I’m feeling lost” my family would automatically dismiss my frantic worries and it was not any different when I went to school. My peers would continuously remind me that my pain was not valid and that I need to stop being so sensitive. My primary parental figures, my mother and brother did not have the adequate knowledge or tools to be able to hold space for me. I would frequently hear my mom say, “I could understand someone suffering from PTSD feeling upset or sad but you’re so young and healthy honey, you have nothing to worry about” or the old classic “Someone else has it worse than you”. Whether I was at home or at school, I heard the same ignorant statements spewing out from what felt like everyone. And I could never comprehend what was the point of these falsely “encouraging” statements and why profusely use them? These kinds of statements do not uplift, nor do they empower those struggling with mental health issues, if anything it makes it extremely debilitating when your emotions are not acknowledged nor validated. One cannot expect to simply brush away another person’s emotion, thought or feeling as though it means nothing.
With that being said, growing up, I lived in a dysfunctional household alongside my mother, my older brother, and my grandmother. My mother would always be juggling work, schooling, and her dating life. My brother was very reluctant about staying home so he would always vanish after school, hang out with friends, party hard and engage with various street substances. Now my grandmother? It was not long after she immigrated that she began to immerse herself within the Jehovah’s Witnesses ideology and “religiously” strayed away from us as my mother likes to say. My mother was never fond of religious practices that were not “orthodox”. My grandmother wanted to indoctrinate my mom, brother, and I into joining her religious little club but failed which resulted in countless fights, yelling matches, and multiple dents left in our walls. The back and forth with the yelling was what scared me most in my childhood even if it was over something as small as not closing the cabinet door. I think it was around this time period I experienced violence/ trauma at home and truth be told I was extremely stressed and anxious all the time as a kid. My mother would cover the punched indents by taking magazines and sticking pages onto the indent. Often times my stomach would turn as I looked at the pages covering the area where my brother punched the wall with brutal force. Moreover, I felt impending sadness because all I ever wanted was for everyone in my family to be able coexist and not argue. I was trying to keep the peace between everyone, yet I was always the one that got caught in the middle of everything whether I liked it or not. I would get blamed a lot for trying to mend things for everyone. Even though all I wanted was the best for all my family members.
Fast forward to my pre-teen/ teenage years. By this point, my brother and grandmother were no longer living under the same roof as my mother and I. My brother was living with his ex-girlfriend while working as a security guard meanwhile my grandmother was living in her own little subsidized apartment preaching the word of Jehovah. At that particular time, my mother and I lived in a marvellous urban semi-detached house in a peaceful neighbourhood. My mother’s boyfriend had moved in with us and for the most part I was really happy because at least it was not just me and her.
My mother’s boyfriend lived with us while I was going to school. He was a really nice, caring and warm-hearted individual although I could never understand why my mother argued with him so much. I once told him “You should propose to her, I can see you two together forever” to which he replied with a welcoming smile.
But eventually just like with all good things, there comes an end. The inevitable breakup my mom went through was very bitter and I had to be there for her. Afterall, I was technically the only child that was around to emotionally comfort her. Ironically, the breakup occurred during the time I was being bullied in school. And it was difficult to be fully present for my mother while dealing with a lot of negativity at school. I had been experiencing cyber bullying on MSN by a bunch of peers calling me “weird”, “ugly” and “different”. To make matters worse, the group of kids that bullied me online ended up following me everywhere I went for recess which posed as a big obstacle for my well being. I had to eat inside the portables when teachers weren’t around or inside the girl’s bathroom stall just to avoid being teased. I never felt like I had a safe space to myself where I could be vulnerable and open up. Not to mention, it was a difficult time and there was practically no one I could confide in. I didn’t have a social circle of supportive friends, after all I was an antisocial person. Fear washed over me as I worried about disclosing my unpleasant experience to my mother because she was already dealing with so much, the heartbreak, the bills, work problems (etc.), it was then and there that I decided to lie instead of telling the truth. Ultimately, lying became my cooping mechanism to deal with the ongoing pain.
I kept up the lying for a long time in order to make it seem like everything was okay. I lied to everyone from family members to school peers to the teaching staff to principals to counselors.
For the longest time, lying sheltered me from all sorts of unnecessary questions. No one could really tell whether I was truthful or disloyal because I was able to make it sound believable. When I was a teenager, I continued to go down the same destructive path by being dishonest with myself and others. Many times, the thought of suicide crossed my mind and when I started to think about it and plan/coordinate the intricate details it did not hit me that something was very wrong, and I needed urgent help. A big part of the problem was that I was so used to downplaying my pain, given my family circumstance and stigmatization I experienced growing up with. There is no denying that I would engage in negative self talk convincing myself that I deserved the pain and suffering for not being likeable enough or for not being smart enough.
Sometimes I think that is the thing… people do not understand that I lied because that was what I was required to do in order to survive my childhood. I, myself do not tolerate lying and I think it is a form of betrayal and if I were to be completely honest, I would have NEVER lied to my mom had it been safe for me to express myself authentically in my household.
I did not live in a household where it was safe to speak my mind freely and disagree with my mother. Disagreeing was always the last thing I wanted to do, disagreeing meant I got the belt, my devices would get confiscated or that I was going to get grounded. They say, “Honesty is the best policy” and I do not disagree however, it is not as black and white as one may think. In my situation, lying was not only an adaptive coping mechanism but it became a survival mechanism to keep me safe from harm/threat.
I did not have very much individuality growing up. I felt as though having an opinion of my own was bad. In order to perpetuate this fixated mindset that I had, my mother constantly deemed certain attributed behaviours or thoughts as “good” or “bad”. So, say you were upset about a recent breakup with your partner, my mother would scoff and say, “You know life isn’t just about love right?” and play it like it means nothing to the person affected by the situation.
The first time I ever felt depressed was when I was 13. At that age I did not understand why I was feeling what I was feeling. All I knew was that there was something wrong with me. It did not help when I was being picked on by my classmates telling me “Go die”, “You belong in a ditch ugly bitch.”
The moment when things started getting out of hand was when I was first started my Art and Family Studies class in the same semester. In both classes I was placed into groups amongst other students. In Family Studies I had to be in a collaborative group that would divide responsibilities and tasks accordingly. When it came to cooking, my group consisted of four snobby, rich yet immature peers who were unwilling to help and contribute in any shape or form, I had to become the bigger person and sure enough I took all the responsibilities on myself. Though, it was not a smart move. But I was super shy and felt anxious to do anything different least to say speak up and advocate for myself, so I did what I had to do which was prepare meals, clean, and wash the dishes. At the end of the day, none of my peers thanked me, the only thank you I got was getting groped while washing the dishes and getting laughed at.
After what happened I ran to my best friend in tears to tell her what happened just to find her say “It’s not that bad, you’ll be fine” I felt like my blood was going to boil and I was about to start fuming. I stood thinking “Huh, that is so weird, is this how you comfort a person after being sexually harassed?”
Not to sound all grim but that experience showed me that no one really cared about me. No one cared that I got groped or how I felt in that moment. Let alone not even my “best friend” who was supposed to fulfill her role and be there for me. All I wanted was comfort and to be heard out. I could not even tell my mother about this experience until I turned 21 because of how ashamed I felt carrying around that experience and not having the ability to open up and mourn what happened that day and to be able to heal that damaged part of myself. I carried that incident with me for 7 years in silence because I was scared of being honest.
That specific experience was very detrimental to my mental health. Everything began to spiral out of control, I sprawled into a dark depressive state. I began to have intense panic attacks, insomnia, forgetfulness (etc.) After a certain duration of time, I had thoughts of suicide lingering at the back of my head. I questioned my worth, my identity, my culture, my everything.
The bullying and name calling persisted and became so intense that I ended up missing weeks of school time. Some of the boys in my Art class found it funny to make fun of my last name and call me “Prostitute”.
One day in the early springtime, my Art teacher noticed the marks on my wrists as I was painting and had not said anything until I made it to my last period class. I was called down to the guidance counselors office and was interrogated with questions.
“It has come to our concern that one of the staff members noticed cuts on your arms.”
I sat in silence trying hard to contain my anxiety.
“Are you struggling with depression or low mood? Is everything okay at home?”
It came to the point when I got so tired of lying about my pain that I admitted “Yes, I am struggling, I need help”. I dived into the bullying occurrences, the cat calling, my low grades, my self-esteem, the groping, my home situation (etc). After that, I was told that my mother would have to be called down to the school for “safety” reasons even though my counselor promised not to disclose any personal information to my mother. My greatest fear was that I did not want my mom to know that something was wrong.
Of course, my mom came to my school. She was told everything that had happened. I met her at the counselor’s office just to find her wailing in distress “You are such an embarrassment” and “Your counselor told me what you did, how could you do this?”. When the counselor gave us resources for help, my mother grabbed the papers and shoved them into the trash, got up and yanked me out the office.
The next three days that followed, my mother withdrew into her room not saying a word to me. I felt really uneasy and upset. She had her right to be alone but locking herself away from me and avoiding communication altogether? Didn’t make much sense.
I felt extremely guilty for not opening up to my mother sooner. But instead of choosing to be compassionate and caring she chose to resort to anger. She furiously blamed me for being “quiet” and “not trustful” which all landed on my shoulders again. It was “my” fault I thought.
Bottling this up resulted in a full-blown mental breakdown. I could not focus or concentrate because of everything building up. It came to the point where my mom had to choose between living in a toxic community or starting fresh elsewhere.
And even though my mother kept subjecting me to her harmful stigmatizations, the transition from my old school to my new one helped me greatly. When we moved away, I gradually started to feel better emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Very quickly, I ended up adapting to my new high school where I finally made friends.
One thing I cannot deny is that there definitely was a silver lining to all of this. Although I went through severe bullying and torment at school and home, I managed to reclaim my power and through that I discovered my inner peace after being extracted from my toxic high school. The new school that I ended up attending completely changed me and inspired me to become a more authentic version of myself. It was almost as though I did a complete 180°
My new peers and teachers were enthusiastic, open-minded and caring. The new community I was surrounding myself in was a very positive one that broke down stigmas and encouraged deep understanding and acceptance. My mind was blown when I found that it was easier to conversate with girls and guys at my new school, I was gradually becoming confident and more vocal, and I liked the feeling of not hiding myself away from the world. It felt rejuvenating to finally be heard and seen by others.
Slowly but surely, I began to partake in various activities at my school. I joined the Poetry Club which I would have never considered joining had I stayed back in my old school due to fear of how I was perceived. Ultimately, I started caring and nurturing myself more. My new friends supported me, and teachers began to openly listen to my stories and encouraged me to write. When I started writing, I realized that I could use this medium to cope with my depression and anxiety. The acknowledgment made a major difference in my life like never before.
If it were not for the transition from my old high school, I would have not made progress in developing into the woman I am today. I know that I am not my pain, I am not my mistakes.
Do I still struggle and have bad days? Yes, of course. Just like any human being I have my days when I am not feeling the greatest however, I am more open to learning about how to engage with my mind, body and soul in order to soothe myself during turbulent times. I still have that inner critic however, I have been engaging with activities such as bike riding, painting, drawing, and reading to help occupy my mind which as a result has reduced the time that I spend ruminating. Occupying myself has worked magic, I am now able to reduce and control how much time I spend self-loathing, criticizing, and judging myself. Rather than judging every thought, I’ve learned to slow down and observe.
If you stuck along until the end of my story, I want to thank you for reading through my experience. My hope is that my story can shed some light on the myths and stigmas surrounding mental health, especially within the Eastern European community. I want you all to know that you are ALL valid and I wanted to be able to share my story so that my readers know that they are not alone.
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