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 warning...it 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.