When I was in seventh grade, I started to feel different. My moods changed a lot; I would be fine one minute, then I would be crying and agitated the next. I’m sure the adults in my life thought I was just adjusting to middle school — that the moodiness was a result of turning 13.
I remember being overwhelmingly sad, lonely and misunderstood. My sadness was accompanied by intrusive thoughts. Suddenly, horrible notions would parade through my head:
Your parents are going to die.
You’re going to die.
Something bad is going to happen.
Nobody loves you.
I didn’t realize that my sadness and intrusive thoughts weren’t normal. The only thing I could do about it, I thought, was pray. Over and over, I’d ask that my thoughts and fears not come true. It became obsessive.
As I continued to struggle, I began isolating myself from friends. I also missed a lot of school. When I actually went, I’d ask to go to the nurse so I could call my mom and eventually come home. This happened so frequently that the nurse told my mom I could have school phobia (frequently called school refusal), a term used to describe a child’s severe anxiety about — and resulting avoidance of — attending school. Nothing happened after that call.
I continued to miss class and after school activities, even the volleyball games which I’d once loved. I felt enormous guilt about my constant absences, but the relief of staying home was more powerful than the feeling of being around my friends and having fun.
Looking back, I can identify those behaviors and feelings as symptoms of depression and an anxiety disorder, but other than one phone call from the school nurse, no one in my life suggested that I needed help. I wish I had spoken up, but I had no idea that what I was experiencing was indicative of a larger problem. As I reflect on my past, I realize just how much early intervention would’ve changed the trajectory of my life.
I Spent Most of My Life Struggling
I wasn’t diagnosed with depression or anxiety until I was in college, after my beloved grandmother passed away. I was drowning in grief and went to a college counselor who suggested I find a psychiatrist. As I learned more about depression and anxiety, I realized that I had been battling symptoms since childhood. My Mema’s passing, I realized, was just the final straw. My mental illness had always been there.
At first, I didn’t tell anyone that I was seeing a psychiatrist or that I had been prescribed medication. I was embarrassed; I saw how my family members were coping with their grief, and nobody seemed to be struggling the way I was. I dropped two classes, becoming a part-time student. I drove to my parents’ house during the week and on weekends because I needed comfort. I isolated from my roommates and friends, who voiced their concerns, but I couldn’t listen.
Eventually, my depression became easier to live with, and I saw it as an inconvenience, rather than an interruption to my everyday life — until years later when I moved away, got married and had children. I experienced severe postpartum depression, and it was more powerful than anything I’d felt before. I had suicidal thoughts, cried all the time and I even started to believe some of my enduring intrusive thoughts. I didn’t feel rational. And I wasn’t. The suicidal thoughts paired with the idea that I wasn’t a good mom. Guilt infiltrated every inch of my body.
One night, after a fight with my husband, I was experiencing suicidal thoughts and feeling scared for my future. I called my best friend, frantic, begging for help. She urged me to go to the nearest emergency room, so I did.
This incident opened my eyes to just how bad my mental health had become. I couldn’t take care of myself. I went weeks without brushing my teeth. Showering was rare, too. It didn’t feel like I was being a good mom, but how could I? I was pouring from an empty cup. Self-care was at the bottom of my to-do list.
I Finally Got the Help I Needed
Eventually I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Houston, Texas, almost four hours away from my family. While I was there, something just clicked. I started to understand my unhealthy coping skills and self-sabotaging behavior. After years of living in denial, I acknowledged my eating disorder, too. I learned about self-care and how to cope when things go wrong.
It was like a second chance at life.
Now, four years later, I can honestly say I’m in recovery. I’m living my best life and enjoying things I’d taken for granted for years. I still have bad days. I still have horrible days, but now I know how to deal with it. I go to therapy weekly and work with the local chapter of NAMI, NAMI Greater Corpus Christi.
Do I wish things had gone differently? Sometimes. I feel like the best version of myself, but it still hurts thinking of that lonely seventh grader begging God not to die. The signs of mental illness were all there, but she stigma of mental illness prevented anyone from noticing or speaking up.
Now we know better. I work to end stigma and share my experience so this won’t happen to another little girl. I’ll keep fighting for that seventh grade me until my last breath.
Heather Loeb is the creator of Unruly Neurons, a blog dedicated to eradicating the stigma of mental illness. Heather has lived with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, avoidant personality disorder and binge eating disorder for the past 20 years. She also writes a mental health column in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and is the Communications Manager for NAMI Greater Corpus Christi.