My name’s Veronica and I’m a mother of a 17 year old young man and an 12 year old beautiful girl. I speak from my heart when I tell you that I am in love with my life and how far I’ve come. I have an open relationship with my children and have a great support system, but it wasn’t always like that. This has been a 24-year long journey and it’s gone from my family not believing in depression, humiliating me for taking antidepressants, and my ex-husband threatening to take my son away because of my mental health condition.
But today I stand in front of you, proudly. I am proud because there’s nothing that anyone can do or say about my mental health condition that will shame me. I undoubtedly believe that knowledge is power and the knowledge I’ve acquired during my journey has taken away the stigma that for many becomes the dead-end to their recovery. Too many people fail to seek treatment because of the shame associated with mental health or having to tell people they are diagnosed with something that not many understand.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—which is 43.8 million, live with a mental illness. I joined Stop Stigma because I believe that more individuals will seek treatment if we remove this barrier called stigma. Once we remove the shame we are able to openly discuss the symptoms, causes and treatments. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned that once a word loses its power over me, it is just that, a word. Depression. Anxiety, suicidal ideation. Schizophrenia. None of these words are uncommon to me anymore and the more I learn about these words the less power and shame they have over me and my loved ones.
I’ve lived with major depressive disorder, anxiety, and PTSD. The first time I had a suicidal thought was when I was 12 years old. At that age, I was used to seeing my father beat my mother, one time kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with my third brother. At the age of 14, my four brothers and I witnessed our father shot our mother in the face. My father’s been in prison since 1996, my mother survived and took on the role of a single parent since that day. She provided everything we needed, except now that I am older I understand that she didn’t provide emotional support because she was in survival mode and she did not believe in depression. When I wanted to speak to her about my feelings, she would tell me that the bible said it was a sin to commit suicide and she would ask how could I be depressed if she herself had not experienced it and she went through a lot.
At 17 when I told my doctor I thought I was depressed, she told me that depression was such a big word for me to use. At 22 I attempted to check myself into a hospital for evaluation when the suicidal thoughts were getting stronger. I called my mother to ask if she’d watch my 3 year-old son so that I could get treatment. She denied and told me to stop with my foolishness and get my son.
I ended up getting treatment two years later when I was dealing with post-partum depression from my pregnancy with my daughter. I came to a realization that I did not have support but I needed to stay alive for my son. I was prescribed antidepressants and I began therapy, through which I learned that I was suffering with depression, anxiety, and PTSD due to my childhood trauma. I’ve learned to identify what triggers my episodes and to give my mind and body a break when it’s needed. I learned that exercise and eating healthy makes a positive difference as well as voicing my fears.
I know when depression is setting when it feels like everything is going wrong. My mind tells me that life is not good, that I’m a failure as a human being and the only way to end my sadness is to die. I don’t have any plans at actually attempting suicide but having the thoughts alone is painful and distressing. Depression settles and I find myself going through my daily routines feeling like a zombie. I feel empty and I a sleep a lot. I begin isolating myself and eat the bare minimum. Since I know that if I stay home my thoughts will get darker and I will only sink in deeper, I don’t call in to work. I actually find myself relieved by the thought of going into work and getting my mind occupied in my excel reports and I try everything to avoid having to speak to anyone. I image if I speak to someone long enough, they’ll notice that I’m depressed.
I know anxiety is creeping in when my mind takes me to the worst case scenario. When I started my new job and I made a mistake, I would image that I’d be called in to the office and get fired; that I would not be able to provide for my children, not be able to pay my mortgage. Luckily, I find myself with an employer that is extremely understanding. The structure and compassion that my management team demonstrates helps me come out of my anxiety and depression, whereas when I worked in a hostile environment and my coworkers chose to humiliate me for opening up about my anxiety, I found myself depressed every single day and my suicidal thoughts worsened.
When I have anxiety, I feel acid in the pit of my stomach; I feel that being in a fetal position will give me relief. I could best describe it as having an earthquake inside my mind and body. I have a hard time concentrating. I feel like crying because I don’t have control. I find it useful to take a deep breath and smell any nice-scented lotion to ground me. I also start looking around and naming things, for example, I could name a red Toyota, a bush, a woman walking towards me, and the more items I name the farther I get away from the bad thoughts.
I asked my family what signs they see when I’m experiencing anxiety or depression and my son mentioned that I can easily blow something way out of proportion and I’m easily irritated. As soon as I thought my son was old enough to understand, I spoke to him about mental illness. I told him that because my brain lies to me sometimes, it was important for him not to be afraid of speaking up to me about anything that bothers him or to challenge me. As a single mother, I found myself being strict with him and imagining the worst would happen if I gave him any freedom. With me acknowledging that my mental illnesses could interfere with having sound judgment, I raise my children to give me feedback. I feel that has built a stronger relationship between us. We have trust with each other.
The most useful thing I have found is to say out loud what’s in my mind. I feel that once I release the ugly thoughts they lose their power over me. I have a good support system that consists of both of my children, my mother, my partner, a good friend, and my cousin. They are supportive in the way that they listen and don’t judge me. It is so beneficial to be able to say what’s on my mind, no matter how ridiculous and far-fetched it may sound because then I get to combat those thoughts. I learned this method in a therapy session. I start off with the bad thought and I start challenging the statement. At the end, I end up realizing my thoughts are brought on by a past experience and have no relevancy to the current situation.
I would love to find that my story has encouraged someone to speak up about their mental illness, to love themselves as they are, and to know that there’s hope for recovery. That there’s no such thing as a perfect person, and that we are all created to be loved. Just as someone goes to the doctor for high blood pressure, one should not be ashamed to ask for help if their mind is not feeling well. Let’s work together to help our teens, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandfathers, and everyone else that might be dealing with a mental illness feel accepted! Once we accept that mental illness is not anybody’s fault, we could get on the path for recovery of ourselves and of our loved ones.