Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Recovery Conference Speech

Hi guys, last Friday I had the incredible opportunity to be a Keynote speaker at the Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services annual Recovery Conference.
I was asked by a couple people to share my speech, so here it is. This is my story with mental illness and my thoughts on what recovery means.
Fair was a 15 minute speech so it's a little long.

Recovery in Motion
            Hi everyone! I am so grateful and incredibly humbled to be able to stand here today and talk with you about recovery and my journey with it.
            My story begins about four years ago when I was 15 years old. I was a Freshman in High School and mental illness never crossed my mind, that is, until I started struggling with it.
            My symptoms started out gradually and progressively became worse. About the time my Freshman year was ending I started experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. I did not know what was happening to me, but I felt like it wasn’t right and so I hid it from everyone around me.
            As my sophomore year was starting the depression was getting worse. I knew I needed help, but I was embarrassed and I didn’t know how to talk about it; so, I wrote my mom a note and left it on her pillow one night.
            I was blessed with parents who took what was happening seriously and my mom found a therapist for me to start seeing. This would be the therapist that I would stay with for the following two years. Despite getting on medication and being in therapy once a week my life started to unravel as I became more and more unstable.
            A few months after starting therapy for anxiety and depression I started experiencing psychotic symptoms that slowly became more severe. I was having auditory and visual hallucinations, I was delusional, and I became paranoid. I was given the diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder. That disorder began dictating my life.
            I had missed a significant number of days of my Sophomore year due to depression, but as the end of the year drew nearer my psychotic symptoms became such that I had to go on Home Study.
In May, when my classmates were taking their finals I was being admitted to what was then known as Good Samaritan Hospital for my first psychiatric hospitalization. In June I was hospitalized again this time in UCLA’s Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital. I came out relatively stable for the summer.
When August rolled around I wanted to go back to school. This launched me into my second psychotic episode. Most days I would end up hallucinating in a teacher’s classroom and the administration would have to call my mom to come take me home. I lasted about two weeks before going back on Home Study for the remainder of my Junior Year.
This time around the psychosis was worse than the first. I could barely read or write clearly. Some days I couldn’t think or talk clearly. My safety was a big concern and so I was unable to stay home alone or go anywhere without being watched by someone who knew about what was happening inside my mind. I felt like a prisoner. A prisoner to my mind and a prisoner in my home.
In December of 2014 I was hospitalized for the third time in UCLA. I left that stay less stable than my previous one. When my doctor came in to discharge me he told me I was going home because “there is nothing else we can do for you here.” That was incredibly discouraging to me, but it was also one of the driving factors to make me fight.
I have been told more times than I can count that I am a “complicated case.” I was told at one point that I should expect to have to be hospitalized every year or so of my life to be re-stabilized. For a long time I thought that was what my life was going to be, but I never wanted to fully resign myself to it. I had a choice to make. I chose ignore those who told me I could not doing something and I chose to fight. So I let my psychiatrist put me on what was probably the 20th new medication and I showed up to every therapy appointment.
Do you know what happened? Things didn’t get better, not for a long time. In fact, they got worse for a little bit.
Around August of 2015 right as my Senior year was about to start the psychotic symptoms started becoming less and less, but my depression was bad again. You see, I had a secret. A secret of something that had happened two years prior. A secret I had dissociated from for about a year and kept quiet for another year, but my secret was about to kill me. I couldn’t say it out loud so I typed my therapist an email late one night.
What I told him was that in Spring of 2013, right before all my symptoms started seemingly out of no where, I had been raped by a man from my church. I didn’t know what dissociation was at the time, but my therapist explained it to me as the mind being a powerful tool. My mind made me forget about the trauma for a short time to protect itself from something I didn’t have the capacity to handle. The memories were still there, they just manifested as anxiety, depression, and psychotic symptoms.
All of a sudden all these little things we didn’t have answers for made sense. The pieces of the puzzle were all in place and we finally had a picture. I was grateful to just be believed. My biggest fear was that became of my history with hallucinations and delusions I wouldn’t be believed, but that was never the case. Telling my therapist about that assault opened the door for me to start working on the root of my problems and from there things started getting a bit better.
After telling my therapist I was hospitalized for the fourth time in UCLA. This was the first time I was being admitted for suicidal thoughts instead of psychosis. The diagnosis of Schizoaffective was taken away and labeled a misdiagnosis. My new one was PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I was in UCLA for three weeks. I came home the day before Senior year started. I went to school for three weeks, but refused to talk to my therapist about the assault. I became actively suicidal and was sent back to UCLA for my fifth and final hospitalization.
I was there for another three weeks, but this time something had to change. I couldn’t keep living like this. I was three months away from turning 18. If I got admitted again the next time I would be in the adult unit and that terrified me.
So the decision was made and on September 27, 2015 I entered Destinations to Recovery, a residential treatment center in Topanga, California.
Destinations was the absolute best thing that could have happened to me. I was there for 10 weeks. In that time I worked with some therapists who taught me what a good therapist/client relationship can look like. They taught me how to trust. They taught me my life didn’t have to be a revolving door of hospitals. They taught me how to fight, how to believe in myself, and they taught me I was worth it.
My progress at Destinations was multi-faceted. I progressed in therapy to the point I was able to tell multiple therapists about my trauma. I learned how to trust others and gained a best friend out of my first roommate. I also learned how to have fun and feel safe again. We did multiple activities that were both fun and had a therapeutic benefit including surfing lessons, taking care of horses, and expressive art groups.
I spent both my 18th birthday and Thanksgiving in Destinations. Thanksgiving especially was a really special day for me. All the families came, the chef made an awesome dinner, and we all had a good time together. The special part for me was how happy I was that day. I had spent the last two Thanksgivings psychotic and I felt like I had come so far.
I came out of Destinations in December of 2015 a completely different person. I was more stable than I had been in over two years, I was happy, I was strong, and I was determined to continue my progress. One of my first accomplishments was going back to school for my last semester. Not only did I graduate with my class, but I was in the top 75 of my class out of 500 students and I gave commencement address at the graduation ceremony.

Normally that is where I would conclude when asked to share “my story,” but today’s theme is “Recovery in Motion” so I wanted to be a little bit more transparent with you about what recovery means to me.
I used to think recovery and being recovered meant that one day I would get to a place where I would wake up and go about my life with anything relating to mental illness just a distant memory from another lifetime.
I have since come to the understanding that at least for me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, because I continue to fight my mental illnesses.
I still struggle with my PTSD. I’m hypervigilant, I have flashbacks and nightmares. I have an anxious mind and I don’t sleep enough. I have not had a depressive episode in two years, but I still feel the depression sometimes.
These are things I have to deal with, but my life today is about more than just my symptoms. I am doing things that two years ago I would have never dreamed possible. I’m a college student at CSUB. I made the Dean’s List last year. I am the President of a Club and part of Health Outreach Committees on campus. I teach the three year olds at my church. I am a speaker and a writer, and I volunteer with the KBHRS Transitional Age Youth team.
Now I’m not telling you these things about me to say “oh look what I can do.” No. I am telling you this to let you know that struggling with mental illness doesn’t have to be the beginning and the end to your story.
Your life might be a little harder and you might have to do things a little differently, but that’s okay. I still see a therapist every week. I still take medication. I attend an awesome support group at Riverlakes. I make sure to schedule into my planner time to rest, time to reflect, and time to recharge. I carry coping skills with me wherever I go and if life become to overwhelming I give up one of the activities I am involved in, even if it is something I love, because my mental health must come above all else.
Guys, I am not special. Well, my mom tells me I’m special, but the things I have done and continue to do in order to maintain my mental health and live the life I want are simple. They are steps any one of us can take.
I have come to learn that my past and my illnesses do not have to be a weakness. I choose to use them as an asset. Sure, I will admit that from my mental illnesses have come some of my biggest weaknesses, but I have also gained strength and opportunities because of them I could have gotten no other way.
So today I want to challenge you to take a look into your own life. Whether you struggle with mental illness or some other adversity. Look at what you view as your biggest deficit or weakness. Now look a little deeper and see how that struggle has made you stronger. Use it to your advantage. It might not be easy to find, but every situation has at least two sides.

In that, is where I believe recovery comes from. Not in an absence of symptoms, but in a new way of viewing and managing our struggles. The power is within each of us to succeed and live a fulfilling life. You just have to find it. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Needing Help Doesn't Mean I'm Not Strong

I will be the first person to admit that I am a stubborn person and I base too many of my actions off of feelings like I "should" do something. That is something that I am working on and slowly but surely becoming better at.

I can see the progression in the different parts of my lives. I am good at taking care of my mental health and putting that first. I've done so much work on it that I can make those good decisions fairly easy. If I need assistance or accommodations I will ask for them.

I have been dealing with that for about four years now so it has been a journey to get to the point where I felt comfortable doing that.

I have been dealing with chronic illness for about a year and so it is a bit of a slower process figuring out and accepting what I need to do for that.

I don't like feeling like I have limitations or that I can't do everything. I feel like I have this weird relationship with EDS and POTS where I spend half the time trying to pretend like they don't affect my life and the other half advocating for treatments and trying to show others that they do exist.

One thing I am not  very good at for the physical illnesses is asking for and receiving help. This is where the "shoulds" come in. I feel like I'm only 19 so I should be able to do all these things and keep up with everyone my age, but the reality is that doesn't always happen.

One instance this has come into play recently is how I deal with pain. I've written about dealing with chronic pain before because of my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I don't keep it a secret, but when I'm interacting with people I don't like them to be able to see that I am in pain. I hate the days I'm limping or the days I need to use my cane because then it's more obvious that I'm hurting.

Part of this stems from a bad experience I had very early on when I was honest with someone I knew very well. I saw her every day and she saw the progression of braces and mobility aids and saw me training Jenny in more mobility tasks. So when she asked about the reason why I was told her.

She is the sweetest individual and all she does comes from a place of love, but her response was, "oh you poor thing. Let me do everything for you because you can't do it for yourself." She continues to ask me every day if I'm feeling better yet. For a few months now I've been telling her yes so that she wouldn't get that sad look in her eye if I said anything else.

Because of that experience I don't want to let people I'm with know if I'm in pain or dealing with other symptoms because I want to be seen as competent and able to fulfill my responsibilities.

But sometimes I do need help and one of those instances happened last week. For a reason I am not aware of my hips were in a mood last week and doing this weird thing where one of them would just give out randomly when I was standing or walking.

So I was at Institute one night and I almost didn't go because my pain meds weren't working, I was tired and anxious about the fact that my hips were in a mood but I decided to go anyways because I wanted to feel the Spirit and peace that is always present in the Institute building.

I was glad I went. Class was good. It finished and I got up to go. When I stood up there was this shooting pain that radiated from my hip all the way down my leg and I kind of fell, but kind of caught myself, but still ended up on the floor. (lets all just ignore my grammar. It's late. I'm not too worried about it)

While I was sitting on the floor some girls came up to me with questions about Jenny so I acted normal and answered their questions. It's not unusual for people to see me sitting on the floor at Institute. They walked away and our teacher came over. I think he kind of knew that this time my sitting on the floor was not normal. He asked if I was okay a second time and then if I needed help.

I was honest about the fact that I didn't know if I could stand up, but I declined his offer of help.  That was my stubborn pride of thinking I "should" be able to get up and the fact that I don't want to bug people and he had already helped me with something else a couple days earlier.

Short story shorter - he walked away, I tried to stand up, more pain, he came back, I asked for help.

Getting help up was not the part I was super concerned about. The part that worried/embarrassed me was that I was hurting and I knew getting up was going to hurt. As I stood up we were facing each other and I was aware of the fact that he could see the pain in my face. I don't like people to see that.

Anyways, he was cool about it in that he didn't make a thing out of it. After I was upright he walked away and went about the night normally like nothing had happened.

Later I both thanked him for his help and apologized for needing it. (Yes, I'm working on not doing that). His reply was something I didn't know I needed to hear. He told me that it was a blessing to be able to help and that I shouldn't hesitate to ask for help because of the blessing it could be in the other persons life. He told me that needed doesn't mean I'm not strong.

This instance was the opposite of the first interaction I had. It challenged my way of thinking.

I'm definitely still not super comfortable asking for help in most situations. I will always try every way to do things on my own first, but that night planted the seed that maybe it's okay to need help sometimes. Maybe it's okay to not be able to do everything. And that needing help doesn't take away from my strength.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

God Sees us Different than We See Ourselves

As I have been working on a speech for an upcoming event I am speaking at I have been pondering change and how God has worked in my life to change the course I was on. A big part of my speech is about changing the way you view your trials, struggles, and weaknesses. 

Through writing this speech I was reminded of a song that was shared with me about a year ago. The song is called "Mended" by Matthew West. It talks about how sometimes we feel like we are beyond repair, but that God always has his hand in our lives and what he sees in us is our potential. 

Especially concerning my mental illnesses I used to think that I was damaged goods, that I would never be good enough to reach that potential we all have, but no matter how we view ourselves that is not what God sees when he looks at us. 

When my Heavenly Father looks at me he sees everything I am and everything I can become. He sees the struggle I am in now, but also how it can make me better. I don't believe that we have trials just because. They all have a purpose in our lives. To test us, to help us grow, to make us stronger. 

I love Matthew West's lyrics because they describe all pf that while beautifully put to music. 

Here is some of what he says

...Look in the mirror, but you find someone
you never thought you'd be
oh, but I can still recognize
the one I love in your tear stained eyes...

When you see broken beyond repair 
I see healing beyond belief...

When you see nothing but damaged goods
I see something good in the making
I'm not finished yet
When you see wounded, I see mended

You see your worst mistake
But I see the price I paid...

I see my child, my beloved
The new creation you're becoming
You see the scars from when you fell
but I see the stories they will tell

You see worthless, I see priceless
You see pain, but I see a purpose
You see unworthy, undeserving
But I see you through the eyes of mercy

You see broken beyond repair
I see healing beyond belief...

When you see wounded, I see mended

When I changed the way I viewed my mental illnesses I became a happier, more successful version of myself. I'm not saying they're a great thing, but I am saying they have made me who I am and I don't need to be ashamed of them. 
Yes, they have given me some of my biggest weaknesses, but from them I have also gained strength and opportunity I would have found no other way. That is what I choose to focus on. 
I choose to use the trials I have been given and let them aid me in becoming who I am meant to be. 

Every story and situation has more than one side. I see both sides, but I choose to focus on the good and the possibilities. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Love Them or Hate Them, Most of us Need Them: Therapists

I have been significantly MIA on here for quite a while, but I think it is time I get back into writing. Today I wanted to talk about therapy, or more specifically therapists. 

You might love them, you might hate them, but I'm under the impression that most of us need them. 

Over my years of experience with mental illness I have seen quite a few therapists and learned a thing or two. 

Dr. C. was the first therapist I ever saw. I started seeing him when I was 15 years old and continued seeing him right up until I went into Residential at 17. While I liked him and he helped keep me alive for two years I should have never stayed with him that long. 

Most of the problems (not all) we had were my fault. I'll admit this. I must have been a very difficult client to work with especially the first few months. I didn't talk hardly at all. I was so deep in a depression I didn't even realize how much of the time we sat in silence. I didn't know how to talk about my feelings and so I didn't say anything. 

I also did not realize this at the time, but I didn't trust him, because of that I only told him what I felt he "needed to know at the time" which was not in fact what he needed to know at the time. But he was the only therapist I'd ever had. I didn't know it could be better than what we had, until I went to Residential. 

At Residential I had two amazing therapists. One of them, T, I still keep in contact with. The experience I had with them was almost a 180 from Dr. C. This was because I was willing to work with them and because I was willing to be honest with them. 

T's style was direct. From her I learned what style I needed a therapist to use in our work together. That is that I need someone to push me. I need someone who will be able to understand how much I am capable of and then not allow me to do anything less. 

After returning from Residential I started with a new therapist here in town. I only stayed with her for 3 or 4 weeks. I honestly feel bad, but I don't even remember her name. I didn't stay with her because she didn't push me. She didn't make me work and if I don't have a therapist who makes me work I won't always push myself to do the hard stuff. 

So I switched and in doing so I found an amazing therapist who I still work with. I started seeing her in February of 2016 and we have done some really good work together. Unfortunately she went on maternity leave at the beginning of June. (Unfortunately for me, congratulations for her). I am expecting her to return in November. 

I knew that I couldn't halt therapy while she was gone so that left me working with someone new. I started working more with a therapist at my school I had seen a few times. I worked with her from June up until school started. 

You see, one of the things I've learned and that I want people to know is to not settle if a therapist isn't working for you. The one I was seeing over summer I had the same problem with that I'd had before. She didn't push me and I didn't trust her. I had made the decision back in December of 2015 that I wasn't going to do what I did with Dr. C ever again. If it wasn't working with a therapist I would switch. 

It's not a personal relationship. I talked it over with her and we agreed that if it would be better for me to switch than I should. She was not mad. There were no hard feelings. 

So two weeks ago I started seeing a new therapist in my school's counseling center. I am once again working with a guy which was a little nerve wracking given my trauma history, but I felt like it would be good for me. 

And you know what? Switching to him as my new therapist has been one of the best decisions I have made for myself all summer. It's only been two weeks, but I can already tell that we're going to be able to work together well. 

So for any of you who see a therapist, good job. You've taken a great step for yourself. If it is working that's awesome. If not, don't be afraid to switch. You have to prioritize your health and do what is best for you. 

For those of you who want to see a therapist: go for it! Don't be afraid to shop around. If it doesn't work with the first one you try, go back for a second or third session to be sure, but then find someone new. It might take a little bit of searching, but a good therapist makes all the difference. 

If you know me and are wanting to see a therapist, hit me up. I get asked for recommendations all the time so I've started keeping a list of ones who I know are good on my phone. Or I recommend the website I find most of the people I have seen off of there. 

Good luck on your adventure. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Forgiving the Man Who Raped Me

I honestly feel bad for the people who have never had the opportunity to attend LDS Institute classes. I have taken two so far, one last semester and one over the summer. I don't always make it to class, but when I do it is often the highlight of my day.

Institute is such a uplifting environment where I have the opportunity to learn and feel the spirit. I feel like I always get something out of the class. It might not be what the lesson is about, but there is always something said either by our teacher or the Spirit that I needed to hear.

When I started attending Institute I expected to grow in my knowledge of the Gospel. That's why I was going, right? I figured it would be like Sunday School. I did not expect to be touched and grow as much as I did in my personal challenges.

I have written before about being diagnosed with PTSD  and how I felt about  seeing my rapist at church. I write for many reasons. I write to know that I am not alone. I write to spread awareness. I write to heal, but I had not completely healed because there were still things I was holding onto.

When I started this last class at Institute I had not forgiven the man who assaulted me. After going through this past class, I have. It wasn't purely the class that did it.  We didn't talk about it. I'm not sure if anyone there really knows about what happened to me, but going to class, learning more about the gospel, feeling the Spirit and growing as a person were big components of me coming to the point in my life where I could forgive this man.

For a long time I couldn't fathom the idea of forgiving my rapist. I knew I needed to. I knew I was commanded to, but I didn't know how I could. I tried to justify not forgiving him thinking, "How can I forgive this man who broke my trust? How could I forgive this man who hurt me so much? How could I forgive this man who hasn't shown any remorse? How could I forgive this man I was still afraid of?" And for a while that worked.

I was at Institute one night and I don't remember what the lesson was on that night, but I remember some of the thoughts and feeling I had which I wrote down in the journal I brought with me. One of which was "God accepts me as I am." Perhaps the most powerful thing I wrote down that night was, "God loves him. God loves this man, despite the terrible choices he has made, the same as He loves me."

I had never thought about that before. I had thought about everything else. I had thought about his wife and kids, his job, his house, his calling, but I had not thought about how God feels for this man. This point I had not thought about made all the difference to me.

Throughout the past couple months though Heavenly Father has been putting things in my path that were letting me know it was time to forgive this man. One of which was a beautiful video I saw where the LDS mother of a Sandy Hook victim was speaking about her feelings for the man who killed her daughter. (you can find that here. I highly recommend watching it) This mom's words about the shooter mirrored my feelings almost exactly.

The only person who was being hurt by my anger toward him was me. He had no idea. He didn't care. I was the one who was losing peace. I was the one who was not keeping the commandment of forgiveness.

As I was preparing my Sunbeam lesson this week which was titled "I can Forgive,"  (I told you the topic of forgiveness has been all over my life) I pondered on everything I've learned this past year. As I was doing this I realized I could think about this man without anger in my heart. That is when I knew I had finally forgiven the man who had raped me. And that filled my soul with peace.

Friday, June 16, 2017

What it is Really Like in UCLA's Mental Hospital

There are many misconceptions and stigmas about mental illness and treatment. One of the biggest stigmas I have found is that of spending time in a mental hospital. So many people think that if you have to be hospitalized you are crazy or dangerous. This is simply not true.

Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen I was hospitalized five times. The first trip was at my local psychiatric hospital in my home town. The last four stays were in UCLA's Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital. Those are the stays I will be talking about here.

I would like to point out that this is purely my experiences. This is not what all hospitals are like. UCLA is top of the line. Many people are not so fortunate to be able to receive treatment in such a great hospital.

At UCLA I was on Unit B, their acute adolescent unit. My first stay was about a week. The second and third were about two weeks. My last stay was for 3 weeks. The days were filled with groups and doctors all designed to help me return home better equipped to cope with my mental illnesses.

We had about a dozen groups including Ocupational Therapy, Recreational Therapy, Art, Coping Cards, Mindfullness, Cooking Group, and our daily Community group where we set goals for the day.

What I like about my stays at UCLA compared to my stay at tiny towns local hospital was that they really did a lot to help rehabilitate and teach me new skills. When I was hospitalized in my hometown we colored, slept, and watched tv all day. At UCLA our days were filled. Every time slot was assigned and had a purpose.

The staff at UCLA was amazing. There was a very high nurse to patient ratio, everyone was assigned a psychiatrist they saw every day, and a therapist and social worker who they saw respectively a couple times a week. I still remember all of the nurses and staff who I worked with while hospitalized. I will be forever grateful for the time they took to comfort me, help me, and teach me.

I am so glad that I was blessed enough to be able to be hospitalized in UCLA's hospital. I learned and grew so much there. I continue to this day to use some of the coping skills I learned during my time inpatient. So while many people think of mental hospitals as scary places with crazy people, my experiences were the complete opposite.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why I Don't Hide the Bad Parts

I'm pretty open about my life. I put a lot out there, especially about my struggles with mental illness. I know this isn't a decision everyone would make or agree with, but I don't regret it in the slightest. 

I don't believe in hiding the bad parts of my life. Not even the bad parts, because they're not all bad. I don't believe in hiding the parts of my life that don't conform to what society perceives as normal. 

Through being open I have gained new experiences and opportunities, been in a place to help others, and given myself permission to stop being ashamed of my illnesses. 

I've had very difficult times in my life. It's not a secret. I have had bad things happen to me and I've struggled with my mental health because of it. It's amazing though, how Heavenly Father has used everything I've been through to continually open new doors for me. I can see his hand guiding so many aspects of my life, leading me to the right people and places I need to be. 

One of the best things about deciding to be open about my story is how it has opened me up to help other people. I've had countless people come to me and tell me they have been through something similar and are now getting help. I often get asked to talk to friends or friends of friends who are struggling. Because I'm open about what I struggle with people feel more comfortable reaching out for help. 

Another amazing thing I've gotten out of sharing my story is the freedom I have found within myself. I'm not ashamed of where I've been. For so long I kept everything a secret. That only led to feeding the beast of shame and guilt that continued to grow inside of me. Since I stopped hiding and started speaking I've grown so much more comfortable with who I am. 

So I don't hide the parts of my life that aren't all sunshine and rainbows because that's not real. 

I'm not looking for attention. 
I'm not looking for sympathy or pity. 
I'm looking to foster a society where it's okay to be honest about the struggles you are going through. 
I'm looking to share the good and the bad and hopefully help someone along the way. 
I'm looking to continue to heal through my writing.