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La Viola Ward

I grew up in a household where mental health was not a ‘thing’. Our home was headed by a strong, black single mother who worked her fingers to the bone. We had a strict Pentecostal household and rejected of any secular or “worldly” living. In our world, you laid hands in prayer on someone suffering from a mental illness, rather than getting them clinical help. Nobody went to therapy. Depression was never a topic of discussion. If you had some sort of trouble, you just had to pray about it.  
When I was 12 years old I was assaulted. Following the assault, I started feeling symptoms of what I now know are anxiety and depression… but I never had a name for what I felt. The whole experience was traumatic and riddled with shame and confusion for me. Something changed in my brain. I couldn’t pinpoint it though… I just knew I was sad. Eating sometimes made me feel better so I put on weight… the spiral continued. Meanwhile, I tried my best to be a “good girl” as I was expected to be and just hoped that eventually enough prayer would calm the hurricane brewing in my head.  
Whenever I talked to my mother about it, the answer was always to take it to the Lord. (Although, she didn’t know the root of much of my symptoms, until I finally told her about the assault over 20 years later). After a while, I figured the Lord must be busy because I was praying my heart out and he still wasn’t fixing my brain. I just never could seem to shake it off the feeling of being defective. I was tall and awkward… crippled with social anxiety. I was always smart, thought. I got good grades and tried to remain as productive as possible to meet all the expectations that my mother had for me. When I was 17, I graduated high school a year early and went off to college.  
In college, I was away from home and the strict church life that I was used to. At this point, studying was the last thing on my list of priorities. I partied. Hard. Sometimes 7 days a week. I drank until I blacked out. I smoked all the weed I could tolerate, and then some. I went wild. Deep down I still had that empty pit that I was trying to fill but getting drunk or high could never quite fill it for me. I spiraled deeper into depression. I was even suicidal at times. But we NEVER said the ‘S’ word in our family. So… I partied some more. I popped pills, smoked weed, chugged cheap liquor, and eased my sorrow the only way I knew how.  

These days, caring for my mental health and substance abuse issues are at the forefront of my mind ALWAYS. I am an alcoholic. I am a person living with depression and anxiety. I was once ashamed of all of this, but now I know that I have to keep it real if I am going to be of any assistance to anyone.

Life went on, as it does. I moved to another city, busied myself with adulting, and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Life was good… or so it seemed. I had a bout with postpartum depression after having my son but was subsequently medicated and figured that the problem would go away. Still couldn’t shake that gnawing anxiety or the occasional pit of despair, though… But I put on my “big girl panties” and tried not to let that overcome me. 
The first time I had any real mental health treatment was after work one day in my mid 20’s, when I collapsed in my shower. I couldn’t breathe. I gasped for air and clawed at the shower curtain. I felt like bricks were on my chest. My throat was tightening I felt like something invisible was choking me. I thought I was having a heart attack. My family called 911 and paramedics rushed me to the Emergency Department, where I learned that my heart was actually fine– but I did suffer from panic disorder. I’d had my first panic attack.  
After my first panic attack, I went to the doctor and they made some referrals for me to go and see a therapist. I finally sat down with a professional and poured out all the things that I’d been dealing with for all those years. In addition to medication for depression, they treated my anxiety and panic disorder simultaneously and put me on a course of treatment so that all my issues could be addressed. I began to go to regular therapy sessions and participate in support groups. I started to feel better.  
After that, I went back to school and got a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. I figured that after having my own life saved by mental health treatment, it was necessary that I dedicate my life to the same path to help others. I started working with Stop Stigma Sacramento in 2017 and began these talks to try and motivate others into their own healing mental health journeys. I guess you could consider me FIXED at this point? And then she lived happily, and sanely ever after…right? WRONG.  
Even after obtaining a master’ degree in clinical mental health counseling and working tirelessly to help others deal with their own mental health issues, I wasn’t doing a great job of managing my own issues full-time. I still coped with my stress, depression, and anxiety in unhealthy ways… I kept myself occupied with chronic multitasking. I took “comfort food” quite literally and packed on pounds soothing myself with snacks. And I drank. I “drank like a fish”, as my old Uncle Gip would say. But these days, I upgraded my dorm room cheap vodka days to high(ish) end cocktails and wine. “I am GOOD. I can stop anytime I want… it’s not even that bad. I still have a job. I am helping people!” I would reassure myself– then pour another shot.  
In 2018, I hit that cliché rock bottom people always talk about. I had a toxic 5-year relationship that ended abruptly, and with its fair share of drama… my spiral was swift. So swift, in fact, that I woke up one day in a hospital. I did that thing in the movies where people wake up and start snatching tubes out of themselves and try to stumble out of their hospital bed because they don’t understand what is going on. I was a mess. See– I had been depressed and lonely, reeling from my breakup. So, I went to my hometown and went on a partying spree with my father (also an addict) and some hometown friends. In the midst of this wild weekend, I had driven drunk and ran into another driver. I nearly died—and worse, I hurt someone else in the process. This was a turning point in my life. No amount of schooling could have prepared me for the insights that almost dying AND potentially killing someone else can bring into your perspective. It was at that point that I stopped being a good Samaritan on paper and actually got myself together.  
My life has changed drastically since the accident. I got married. I gave birth to my second child. I had a raging bout with postpartum depression that I am not quite sure I am fully over, although my daughter just turned one last Saturday. In addition, the world was turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic, and that came with its own share of mental health disturbances. But I have not given up.  
These days, caring for my mental health and substance abuse issues are at the forefront of my mind ALWAYS. I am an alcoholic. I am a person living with depression and anxiety. I was once ashamed of all of this, but now I know that I have to keep it real if I am going to be of any assistance to anyone. I am flawed and I work daily to remain “okay”. I attend AA meetings twice a week. I have a sponsor. I attend therapy regularly. Full disclosure: I had almost a year of sobriety under my belt but had a relapse on the Fourth of July. I take full accountability for that, and after that relapse fall, I got back up again. I now have 34 days of sobriety under my belt. I am no longer in the business of saying frothy, feel-good euphemisms to make you think I am better than I am. I am a work in perpetual progress. But when life is overwhelming, and I want to drink or wallow in my feels, I take inventory of what I am actually experiencing. Rather than catastrophizing (my brain often decides that it is the end of the world), I practice mindfulness. Like my sponsor taught me, I ask myself: “am I okay right this very minute?” Usually, the answer is “yes”. Then I can make it until the next panic, then I simply ask myself the same thing.  
If you can take anything from my story, let it be this: No matter what you are going through, there is help. There is no once-size-fits-all approach to mental health, either. You must put in time and effort to determine what will best work for YOU. Please continue to rely on your faith, family, and loved ones for support if they are available to you. However, doing so is not mutually exclusive to obtaining professional help. Seek out mental health agencies within your community. Call 211 and find out where to go or who to call if you are in crisis. There is help out there for any and every single one of us. And contrary to what social media might have you believe, not one of us is perfect. We are all out here flawed and imperfect.  Just know, you are not alone, and there are brighter days ahead.