This was the message I saw written as I entered the bathroom stall on campus:
“Why can’t I fit in anywhere?”
The next day a new message was written underneath it that said:
“I can’t do this anymore. Everyone would be better off without me.”
These messages hurt my heart because I felt helpless to reach out and let this person know that there is someone ready and willing to listen to them. Their voice does not have to be stifled inside a bathroom stall. I know this for a fact because for 17 years I worked as a phone counselor on staff at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Volunteers and paid staff work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year answering the calls and chat messages from people who are experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, rage, and suicidal thoughts.
I understand the pain and fear behind the words in the bathroom stall because I have felt them myself. I spent most of my life living with anxiety and depression without having a name for them. I grew up experiencing abuse and neglect. I used anything I could find to numb my pain-food, religion, sex, alcohol and drugs. After losing everything and everyone in my life, after becoming someone I hated, after believing all the words that had been said to me over the years, I decided to end my life. I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, and everyone would be better off without me, but I was even a failure at killing myself. I tried calling the one person I thought I could count on, and she told me she couldn’t do this with me anymore. She gave me a phone number to the Crisis Suicide Hotline and begged me to call them. I can’t explain why I called them, but I did.
A counselor stayed on the phone with me for close to three hours that night, listening to me cry and tell my story. She gave me some resources for help including the name of a therapist. Someone from the Crisis Suicide Hotline called me the next day to follow up. I did get into therapy, got help for my addictions, and slowly began crawling my way back out of the black hole I knew as my life.
That was in March 1987. I have been clean and sober since April of that year. I worked with a therapist and found that I was one of the people who needed medication for my anxiety and depression. Even now, life isn’t always easy. During the past 32 years, I have been married and divorced, lost jobs, had my best friend and my mother both die unexpectedly, and dealt with all of the things that life tends to bring.
What I have learned is that life is worth living despite all the challenges that come with it. I found ways to deal with all of the craziness in this world. I don’t have to hide from pain; I can handle it with the help of family, friends, and my faith. There is hope no matter how deep the darkness. My voice is no longer silenced behind all the things I used to numb my pain.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide or dealing with anxiety, depression, fear, or anger, there are ways you can help. Learn the warning signs and how you can make a difference in that person’s life. If you are the person who feels their voice can’t be heard, take a chance and call, text, or chat with the groups below. Most colleges also offer peer counseling. Most communities have a mental health center.
Here are resources for help:
To talk, text or chat:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK or Chat online
Crisis TextLine : Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime, about any type of crisis.
IMAlive : IMAlive is a live online network that uses instant messaging to respond to people in crisis.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It was created in 1949 to raise awareness of mental health conditions and mental wellness for all. This year’s theme for Mental Health Month is – Tools 2 Thrive-providing practical tools that everyone can use to improve their mental health and increase their resiliency regardless of their personal situation. and will call on individuals to share what life with a mental illness feels like for them in words, pictures and video by tagging their social media posts with #mentalillnessfeelslike (or submitting to MHA anonymously). Posts will be collected and displayed at mentalhealthamerica.net/feelslike.
I am 1 in 5. I find it easier to tell you that I am a recovering alcoholic and addict than it is to tell you I have a mental health condition. I would almost rather admit to being a cat burglar. Even in our more enlightened time, mental illness still carries a huge stigma. A friend who works for our local mental health department says, “I wish we could put a huge band aid on the fore head of people with mental illness. Maybe then people would really understand it is an illness.”
I have heard people say there is no real test for mental illness. It is all just something a psychiatrist or therapist labels you. I want to take a moment to explain those “labels” to you. Mental health practitioners make a diagnosis based on the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and covers all mental health disorders for both children and adults. There is another manual called ICD (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.) Both manuals contain very strict, complicated, and definitive guidelines for diagnosing.
I was 36 years old when I received my first diagnoses (plural for diagnosis). It should have happened years before. There were several reasons for the delay. Mental illness wasn’t as treatable as it is now. Most people were afraid of being sent to a mental hospital. Doctor’s weren’t as knowledgeable as they are now. I also grew up in a household where mental illness was a taboo subject. My grandmother sent my great grandmother to the state mental hospital. They told her she was going for a ride in the country and then lied to everyone about where she was. That is what I understood happened to people who didn’t behave properly. She also felt that mental problems were from the devil. They were perhaps even punishment for a lack of faith and bad behavior.
When I was in my early twenties, I told my doctor some of the things going on in my life. He smiled. He said it was just my nerves. He said “all us women” didn’t cope well with stress and pressure. He gave me a prescription for Valium. Then he gave me another prescription. And then another. This went on for a couple of years. Valium was actually one of the worst things he could have given me. It was my first “drug” addiction.
As I told you, I have several diagnoses. My first was “Alcohol Use Disorder” That code is 303.90 (DSM V) in case you were wondering. There was also 304.10 (Substance Use Disorder). They didn’t come first in my life but were my first diagnoses. You can’t get to the problem when you are covering it with alcohol and drugs. I also have GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and Panic Disorder. I have SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), BiPolar II with Clinical Depression, and PTSD.
Wow, that looks like I must be a total mess. Truth is that I WAS a total mess. I don’t have time share all of that here, but let me assure you, my life was a mess. I tried suicide at one point. However, medication and therapy have changed my life. Prayer and faith play an important part as well. I can’t make these things go away. I live with them. I make adjustments. Most of my friends learn the hard way not to come up behind me without warning. I don’t know who jumps higher, me or them. It really isn’t any different from someone with diabetes. They watch their sugar, they exercise, they check their sugar levels, and do whatever treatment it is that allows them to lead a normal life.
The old question comes up about nature and nurture. Did my genetics cause all of this? I am sure it contributed to it. Was it the way I was raised? Not exactly, but childhood trauma and abuse does contribute to some of this. Scientists and doctors are learning more all the time about our brains and the way they work or don’t work.
Why am I telling you all of this? We need everyone’s help. Here are ways you can help.
- Fight The Stigma. Learn the truth about Mental Health. Often the media portrays people with mental illness in an untruthful, unflattering, and hurtful way. You can help set the record straight. Sites like NAMI http://www.nami.org/ or Mental Health America http://www.nmha.org/ will give you realistic information.
- Please don’t tell me (or others) these things: “Cheer Up, it will be OK”. “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” “You are so strong-you don’t really need that medication do you?” “Oh come on, we all get down sometimes.” “You have so much going for you. How can you be depressed?” “There is nothing to be scared of or worried about.” “Just eat healthy food and exercise!” ‘It’s not really that bad, is it?” “Everyone has problems.” If you want to understand, ask me and be willing to hear what I have to say.
- Continue to push for Mental Health legislation. The Mental Health Parity Act was a great step but some insurance companies are finding creative ways to try to get around it.
So there you have it. I have an illness that affects my brain. My serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all out of whack. My reuptake receptors don’t function right. My prefrontal cortex didn’t develop normally and I have poorly integrated cerebral hemispheres. (Those two are attributed to abuse.) But I am still me. I am the person you hang out with, call or text, chat with online, work with, play with, and pray with. I am a mother, grandmother, and friend. I worked most of my life. I have been blessed with two wonderful therapists in my lifetime and have found the proper medications that work to keep me in balance. I have an amazing family and group of friends that support me. I am a child of God. God made me and loves me.
As Anne Lamott says: “You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed in certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee.”
How can you argue with that?
If you need help or know someone who does, there is help available…
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. (Chat available as well)
Mental Health America https://mhanational.org/ Much of MHA’s work is guided by its Before Stage 4 (B4Stage4) philosophy – that mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process. When we think about diseases like cancer or heart disease, we don’t wait years to treat them. We start before Stage 4—we begin with prevention, identify symptoms, and develop a plan of action to stop and hopefully reverse the progression of the disease. Like other diseases, it is critical to address symptoms early and plan an appropriate course of action on a path towards overall health.
Trevor Project: The Trevor Project also offers a 24-hour toll-free confidential crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Call 1-866-4-uTREVOR (1-866-488-7386).
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.SAFE (799-7233)
NAMI National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Awareness-Month NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.