I don’t do trigger warnings, but if you’re triggered about mental illness, don’t keep reading. The only warning I will issue is this post is long and it gets pretty personal.
If you just want to access the mental health resources/tips and accompanying pictures, feel free to just scroll to the bottom. The shoot took place on a melancholy Boston day and tried to evoke the darkest that could be experienced by people suffering from mental illness.
For anyone that knows me or my family personally knows that I come from a line of people who suffer from severe mental illness. My grandmother has both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. My aunt also suffers from severe mental illness and various cousins and myself suffer from anxiety and depression. I have an interesting relationship with mental illness and I wanted to write this post to help break the stigma, normalize the reality of so many, share my personal experiences and provide resources and information in case you or anyone you know need to seek help and don’t know where to turn.
It’s important to discuss mental illness, since we’re generally so quiet about it. We’re a society quick to label those who are suffering as “crazy” and assume their sickness isn’t real (or at least as severe as someone suffering from a physical illness). Mental Illness is just as serious as the worst cancer. And like a cancer, it can destroy everything you love and cherish about a person and those around them. I watched my grandmother’s illness ostracize her from my family. I’m currently watching my aunt’s battle come to a similar fate. Let’s work to end the stigma.
The majority of my childhood is riddled with memories and stories of the horrifying effects mental illness has had on my family. While my parents tried to hide most of the details from me, one way or another my young mind was scared with images no one – young or old – should ever have imprinted in their mind. This fear always kept me on my toes with my own mental health, always worrying about the day something would be triggered in me and I would fall down a similar spiral as my family members. Unfortunately, every time I thought my fear was becoming a reality and I tried to address the issue with my parents, they would write out my worries as nonsense. “You’re fine, you’re not grandma, you don’t need therapy, you don’t have anxiety.” And while at the time I thought my parents always knew best, I realized later on that sometimes they don’t. If you’re a parent reading this, I urge you to take your children seriously if they approach you about their mental health. Too many people view mental health as a non-issue.
Out of respect for my family, I will keep most details private. However, what I will divulge is that the personality mixed with the wrong illnesses can be the most detrimental. I have not had a relationship with my grandmother because she has become an enigma in my family. “Crazy Maria” she’s been dubbed (a term of which I do not approve). My aunt – her daughter – is on a similar path. When they’ve been on their properly calibrated medications, they’ve been wonderful people to be around. I have great memories with both of them. Now, without acceptance of their illness and refusal to medicate, they’re excommunicated from my family and they’re labeled as “crazy” and “evil” and “lost causes.”
For me, I’ve always struggled with my self worth. The typical queer-child-in-a-conservative-upbringing, I was bullied (particularly for being LGBTQ+) since I was in diapers. I was sent to Dr. Hoffman to “fix” me. I left the public school system in fifth grade thanks to the bullying. Catholic middle school didn’t help much, a smaller group of people (30 kids) meant a smaller pool of people to befriend. I was fat, I was queer, I was in denial, I was eager to blossom. I didn’t. For my freshman year of high school, I attended an all-boys Catholic school far away from home. That environment only perpetuated the anti-gay rhetoric thrown at me. I was on a downward spiral and I needed to get out. I luckily earned a 4.0 in my first trimester and was able to transfer the following year to a local boarding school, Choate.
At Choate, I was able to find myself – I came out, I learned Mandarin, I had my first boyfriend (an interracial relationship that I knew would not go over well in my house), I made friends – I was on the up and up. But my anxiety always trailed behind me. Whether it be from questioning this newfound sudo-popularity or my parents’ belittlement of my successes (& threats to pull me out of the one place where I could thrive as my authentic self), I always had a weighing anxiety. Even in my relationships I would always ask: how could these people actually like me? My childhood left me with deep scars.
College was a whole different ballgame. I went knowing that my top priority was to make as many friends as I could and rise up the BU social ladder. And I did! I had friends in every college, across every grade. But something still wasn’t right. I was consumed with self doubt. I had my “hoe” phase and went through as many men as I own t-shirts (and I have a decent amount of t-shirts). My “hoe” phase did wane after sophomore year though and I was starting to be secure in myself. By the time I graduated, I was at the highest of my highs. I had an amazing circle of friends, I loved the work I was doing and the classes I was in. I didn’t want to leave Boston for a second even though my heart has been in NYC for as long as I could remember. I realized that I feed off of other people’s energies. Cities give me the ultimate high. Rural Connecticut, where I currently feel stuck, does not.
I graduated unemployed, but I wasn’t upset. Most people I knew in my field (and otherwise) were in the same boat as I. As soon as I was handed my diploma, I was off to Milan and Paris. I took June to relax, ending the month with a weekend trip to New York to celebrate Pride. I started July visiting my best friend in Puerto Rico. My wanderlust was quenched for the moment.
But since I’ve come back from vacationing and been on the job hunt (100 apps and counting), I’ve been at a low. I’ve felt like a prisoner in my own home. I’ve been having regular panic attacks. I’m perpetually in a stalemate with my parents. Home is no longer a place I can retreat to. I had to do something. I couldn’t sit idly by anymore and watch my mental health deteriorate as it once did as an adolescent. Even though my parents never supported my desire to seek outside help, I decided to take charge. I needed to.
A few weeks ago, I started seeing a therapist. We’ve been getting to the root of my anxiety and thankfully ruled out the possibility of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any severe mental illnesses. My therapist has transformed my worldview. I realized that I could’ve been much more secure a long time ago if I was able to work through my anxiety in a different way.
I work every day to make sure my mental health is at its best. And I’m blessed to have an amazing support group of friends and some family to keep me moving forward. I know that isn’t the case for everyone. I’m on the up and up and the future looks bright. This is a story, though, that is to be continued.
With love & light,
UPDATE October 24, 2016:
Since this post was written, a lot has changed. For starters, I’m writing this from my friend’s couch in Boston. That couch will become mine come January. That’s right, I moved back to Boston. Shocked? I still am, too.
As you know from the original post, I’ve had a pretty rough post-grad transition. Everything came to a head when I was in a car accident two days before my 23rd birthday. The crash wasn’t the worst part. Luckily, everyone walked away without a scratch. However, when I called my parents, they cared more about the car, the insurance and the fact that it was “only a matter of time” before an accident would happen. They didn’t ask if I was okay. Not once. I spiraled.
Once I left I scene, I knew I was in for an even worse one once my parents and I were all home. All I could do was brace myself for the firestorm that would arrive with my mom.
As I finally calmed down, I heard my mother’s footsteps come up the stairs. Before she reached the top step, her wrath was unleashed. If she was on network TV, her entire tirade would be bleeped out. She triggered the worst panic attack I have ever had in my life. The attack was met with only a worse wrath and comments like “Man Up” (which is a completely different issue that I simply can’t go into right now). I needed to finally remove myself from the toxic environment I reentered after graduation.
So I made a plan. And I’m blessed to have amazing, supportive friends and extended family. With a little help and resilience, I packed up my life and made my way back to Boston. Accident on Saturday, moved on Friday.
The details between the accident and my return to Boston are minute compared to the fact that I’m here. At the end of the day, my future successes will be determined by the quality of my mental health and happiness. Sometimes it takes a traumatic experience to trigger a wake up call. I knew the only way that I could find success and happiness would be to start from scratch. I would rather couch surf and start from nothing than to stay living in a toxic enviroment just to save a couple bucks.
The next few months will rough. I’m back here with no job and very little money. But I love it. I’m happier already. I’m ready for the challenge. As for my mental health, the second I decided that this was the only move, the only thing that caused me any anxiety was breaking the news to my parents. They weren’t happy, but I shut them out.
I learned that I have some of the most amazing people in my life and I wouldn’t have been able to escape without them. And know that I’m someone who hates being relient on others, but I recognize that sometimes it’s necessary in order to better yourself in the long run. Life is temporary and there’s no time to let anxiety consume you. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to realize that a place that is supposed to a sanctuary may not always be one and that you may need to leave. So it goes.
Thank you to my Aunt and Uncle who allowed me to collect myself while I decided to make this move. Thank you to Koco and Elle for opening your doors to me as I crash on your couches before my sublet starts in January. Thank you to Melinda and Cassie for listening to me in the immediate moments following the crash. Thank you Kelsey for taking a detour on your way to New Hampshire to pack up your car with all of my stuff and bringing me to Boston. Thank you to all of the above for just listening to me and helping me stay strong and make the right now. Thank you to anyone I haven’t directly named that have also supported me throughout the last week.
I decided to update this post to thank all the people who have supported me in one of the hardest weeks of my life mentally and to show anyone who may be in similar situations that there’s always a way out – it might not be easy, but it can be done and you will survive. Even if you have to sleep on a couch for a little bit.
And while it might be slightly out of context, as Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, we go high.” Always go high.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, take action – it’s easier than you may think. Investigate with the resources below:
If you can’t afford therapy:
- You are not weak if you have a mental illness
- One in five American adults experience a mental health issue
- One in 10 young people experience a period of major depression
- One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
- Stigma prevents people from seeking proper help for mental illness
- Mental illness can be caused by biological factors, life experiences and family history
- If you’re under 26, over 18 and on your parent’s insurance, you do not have to disclose treatment to your parents if you don’t want to and still use their plan
- Prevention helps: if you question that you may suffer from a mental illness in the future, take steps to try and circumvent the illness from developing
Photography by Nicki Gitter