Mental health is quite real, especially for those who don’t like to admit it—such as myself. I have not necessarily been diagnosed, but I have struggled with anxiety, depression, cutting, negative thoughts and addictive behavior.
My symptoms date back to early childhood. My parents got pregnant with me out of wedlock, and were not necessarily in love with each other. My dad was away most of the time and my mom stayed home to raise me. I was an only child. The love and attention that my mom showed me was more than enough to keep me fueled. She taught me that I could be anything that I wanted to be and she gave little me permission to spread my wings and fly.
When I was just six, things began to change. She began to abuse methamphetamine, date an alcoholic and abusive boyfriend, and she was suffering from the grief of losing her mom. All of her pain trickled down to me. At six years old, I was left home alone, exposed to domestic violence and was otherwise placed in unsafe situations. By the time I was eight, we had lost everything. Our apartment. Our car. Her job as a medical assistant. And our relationship.
I went to live with my paternal grandmother and I struggled with feeling unwanted. I felt disposed of, like somebody’s garbage. It seemed that neither of my parents cared about what happened to me. I felt alone. My grandmother tried to love me as best she could, but she too suffered from her own wounds and she couldn’t give me what she didn’t have. I was only ten years old, but I was beginning to feel fat and ugly. My dark complexion didn’t help much either.
When I was eleven, my mom decided that she was ready to try to be a mom again. So she moved me from my apartment and into a tent with her and a different boyfriend. She had progressed from dating an alcoholic to dating a meth addict. They both used in the tent where I slept. They tickled me and prodded me while I slept. They whispered into my ears. I had to force myself to wake up every day at 5am, see if I could find $1.25 to take the bus to school and see if I had clean clothes to wear. I was often dirty, hungry, thirsty, and my head was infested with head lice.
CPS became involved and my mom grew fearful. So we moved from the tent into a trailer and I switched schools. I was in 5th grade, going into 6th. I put all of my efforts into my academics and borrowed clothes and makeup from friends so that I could fit in with the rest of the students. I hid my trashed home, drug addict parent, empty fridge and broken heart from the world.
By the time I reached 7th grade, my mom couldn’t maintain her status as “mother.” We were kicked out of the trailer and living out of a motel. I had one garbage bag of clothes, my school backpack and a journal. I was dating a blonde-haired and green-eyed boy named Michael. My mom had to call the guy who was my dad and ask him if I could go live with him. My dad picked me up the next day.
That night, I carved “MICHAEL” onto the top of my left hand. He was the one who wanted me and I had to leave him to move to another town. I didn’t know how to express the pain I felt over the loss of that young relationship and the loss of my mother other than to etch it into my skin permanently.
Cutting became my way of coping with the pain. I couldn’t voice the pain I felt inside, because no one was sympathetic to it. And I wasn’t violent to the point of wanting to place that pain onto another person. So I internalized it. As I grew older, I’d cut every time my dad’s girlfriend would call my mother names like “crackhead,” when she’d tell me I wasn’t wanted, when she’d call me a “slut,” when my boyfriend betrayed me, when my mom went to jail, when my dad kicked me out of the house…when I was sexually assaulted. Every scar ever etched across my heart manifested in the form of a cut on my wrist or my arm.
Once I was eighteen and I could finally be in charge of my own life, things began to improve. I went to college and got a bachelors and master’s degree. I ended up getting a masters in social work because I wanted to help people who suffered with various social ailments such as myself.
I had a daughter while I was in college and her dad and I got ourselves involved in a very unhealthy relationship. We lived together. He cheated on me. He hit me while I was pregnant. We got into physical fights. He told me that I was ugly, worthless and I did the same to him. We brought out the worst in each other.
Two weeks after having my baby girl, our relationship ended for good and I began to focus on my daughter, my education and my career. I was employed at the Secretary of State and things were going well for me. Or so they appeared. I found new ways to cope with the pain I felt inside. I used men. I lived a double life of going to school, caring for my daughter and working during the week and then partying on the weekends when she’d visit with her paternal grandmother. I drank, hooked up with strangers and put myself in otherwise unsafe situations. Doing so was like a high for me. I was in control and nobody could stop me.
Through young adulthood I replaced cutting with binge drinking and sexual encounters. That was, until I met someone who I actually really liked. Someone who was worth loving myself. But loving myself was not easy. Falling in love with a young man and learning how to love myself was very challenging for me. I feared that he would leave me as my parents did when I was younger and I feared that he would one day decide that he didn’t truly love me, just as everyone in my past had. I feared he’d break my heart and that I’d be left broken once again.
So I tried everything in my power to push him away. I fought with him. I accused him of liking other girls. But nothing worked. He kept wanting to stay. Six months into our relationship, I picked a fight with him and told him to leave my apartment. I blocked his number and thought I was over him for good.
I felt empty without him. I dated another young man and used him for his money and shopping sprees. He gave me everything I wanted plus more, but I still felt empty inside. I was missing what really mattered most.
Eight months after breaking up, the first one I truly loved came back into my life. He was there for me. And I was there for him. I was there during his two week hospital stay and surgery. He was there throughout all of my efforts to push him far away from me and he was there for my daughter who was fatherless.
Two and a half years after meeting, we got married and I went on to graduate with my master’s. Being married to him certainly brought out the abandonment fears. Throughout our relationship I have simultaneously healed from my past traumas while suffering with learning how to cope with the mental health challenges that came up for me. He gave me a safe space to be seen and to heal, while I still desperately sought validation from him. At times, he wouldn’t give me what I wanted when I picked fights with him. And I’d retaliate by cutting on my skin and crying. I’d get into my car and drive away from the house in the middle of the night. I’d keep him up at night, fighting with him, knowing he had to be up early for work the next day.
About two years into our marriage he told me, “I just don’t know.” He shook his head and said to me, “I never thought I’d have to deal with this…” seeing him question our marriage stopped me in my tracks and frightened me. I was actually re-enacting my childhood and he was about to do what I most feared—leave me. I knew that I had to grow and that I had to change in order to keep the family that I had long dreamed for.
At that point in time, I was binge eating, using recreational drugs and I was ignoring my mental health needs. I decided that that needed to change. I began to eat mindfully. I began to meet with a therapist. I worked with a health coach. I wrote poems and read self-help books. I reached out to loved ones. I did yoga and developed a healthy exercise routine. I began to challenge the negative thoughts that popped up for me rather than impulsively react to them.
I consciously worked to not cut myself and to talk myself out of it. I began praying to my higher power. I focused on being a mom and spending more quality time with my daughter. I focused on listening to my husband and truly seeing him, rather than painting over his face with the demons of my past.
Today, I am left with healed scars on my left arm and thighs. Today I am an established Clinical Social Worker in the Emergency Department, where I treat patients who come in with mental illness and other psychiatric needs. Today, my husband and I are expecting our first baby girl together, and we are happier than ever. We are looking at homes and on track to purchase our first home.
Mental health is real. And as much as I’d love to deny it and pretend like it isn’t a part of my reality, I still cope with unsettling feelings in my heart and stomach. Negative thoughts still come up for me. From time to time, I wonder why my parents didn’t love me more. But through the practice of mindfulness, gratitude and by staying connected with my family, I have found a way to cope with my triggers.
My name is Marissa Montelongo, and I am a survivor of childhood trauma, anxiety, depression, addictive behavior and self-harm.