December 30, 2013

Stigma and the fear of not being ‘normal’ was enough to keep me from getting treatment for a debilitating mental and physical illness for 23 years. Elementary school, middle, high school and college were a constant struggle. Academia was my enemy and I could never catch a break. I hated learning and being taught, because I couldn’t learn. You grow up accepting that this must be how life is and drag your way through it, mind wandering, tired, confused, and all. That is until I drastically changed my lifestyle, and my new life changed me.

A year and a half ago, I moved to California from South Carolina to live with my fiancé. The amount of changes was incredibly stressful and was a very sad and scary time for me. My saving grace was getting a job as a substance abuse counselor. My only problem was I had absolutely no previous knowledge of drugs, substance abuse or addiction. I figured out quickly I was going to need to teach myself, and learn this stuff quickly. I began spending every day after work learning more and more about substance abuse, the neuroscience of addiction, and the psychological and sociological aspects of addiction. I was in the ongoing process of an incredible discovery that there is SO much more to addiction than what is taught in our society.

This inspired me to continue learning and educating myself, and the more I did, the more fascinated I became. This was my first introduction to the power and beauty of self-education. The relationship I moved to California for was extremely rocky and eventually I also learned that my fiancé was living with bipolar disorder, and two personality disorders. I was someone who didn’t understand mental illness, and it left me often wondering, why does he act the way he does? But I wasn’t completely free from any behavioral and emotional issues either.

My fiancé took notice of some of my own problems of extreme inattentiveness, the wandering of my mind in the middle of a conversation, uncontrollable impulsivity, continued distraction, and likely, he also thought to himself: “why does she act the way she does?” My fiancé was the first person to bravely stand up and say, “Hey, I have a mental illness. I take medication, I go to therapy, but it doesn’t mean I’m crazy or I can’t accomplish many things.” He convinced me that seeing a therapist or psychiatrist was actually ok and didn’t have to mean I was crazy, lazy or stupid. For me, all it took was that one person to show acceptance and support, and I took that first step of getting diagnosed.

I was diagnosed with ADD-Inattentive type in that first visit and was given a prescription medication. The next day I took my first dose and instantly felt a feeling I never felt before. I felt awake, alert, clear headed, and I felt good! I felt this huge relief from realizing, oh, so this is why I’ve had so much trouble throughout my life.” I was both relieved but also saddened that it took me this long to find why I’ve been having difficulties all this time.

Now that I have the tools to treat my mental illness I can get through the rest of my life with understanding and acceptance and take as many necessary steps to fight a battle I do not have to lose. But I also must let myself grieve for the pain and suffering my mental illness has put me through. But more so, I must also grieve for the pain and damage the stigma has caused me.

Volunteering with NAMI was a chance for me to get involved and help other people living with a mental illness. Mental illness is something I am both intellectually interested in, but also have a personal connection to. Having ADD made academics and education terrifying. It wasn’t until learning became a true necessity that it also became a profound interest. By participating in NAMI Ending the Silence, I get a chance to teach younger people about my illness, and story of recovery. It only took one person to normalize a very misunderstood health issue and be supportive for me to feel confident enough to seek treatment. I am passionate about the education of mental illness, and believe in striking up a conversation so others can also get help and no longer have to hurt.

By presenting and teaching the facts about mental illness to others, it provides an opportunity to learn. When people learn about a topic, they gain understanding. A better understanding of mental illness will lead to having more conversation and conversation reduces uncertainty and ignorance. By reducing ignorance, we’re opening minds and stomping out stigma. This promotes more sympathy, compassion, love and acceptance and what harm can come from that? Certainly only good can come from opening minds and opening hearts.

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