*** Trigger warning: There are mentions of rape and sexual assault in this post. Due to these topics, the author has changed her name and will not be posting a photo.
Developing anxiety and depression by the young age of 18, Naomi has been bravely battling her own mental health for over a decade. A true story of how far one can climb when knowing their worth, she took some of the worst experiences of her life and made them inspiration for a future as a mental health professional.
With a mantra of standing up for yourself and creating a healthy inner environment, this mental heath warrior has turned struggle into her success. Meet Naomi.
Explain the origin of your mental health issues i.e., what is your mental health issue, how did you realize what was happening, how was it affecting your everyday life at the time?
I developed anxiety around age 12-13. It began in 7th grade, when I dreamt I drowned in a giant wave. I was so paralyzed by the dream I didn’t leave my house for days. Three days later, the December 2003 tsunami hit Thailand and Indonesia. I didn’t go to a beach for 3 years out of terror. I was convinced the tsunami dream (which has become recurrent for me) was a sign that I could see the future – and the future was death.
My mother attributed my nervousness to a major car accident she had while she was in her second trimester of pregnancy with me. She was forced over a 100ft cliff by a drunk driver in Hawaii. She climbed up the cliff to safety, carrying my brother (age 3) and cousin.
Now that I understand stress hormones during pregnancy and their contributions to later development of mental health issues, I believe my mother’s intuition was spot on. I believe epigenetics – the interaction of environmental stressors and my genetic predisposition toward anxiety and depression – shaped my future while I was a fetus. Science is amazing, isn’t it?
I developed depression around age 17-18. My family and primary care physician hypothesized the birth control I used for acne made me moody. Many of my feelings – worthlessness, social withdrawal, self-loathing – are so often associated with ‘normal’ teenage issues that no one gave my symptoms a second thought. It was something everyone assumed I’d grow out of.
What was the resounding moment when you decided to get help? What made you do it?
In college, I channeled my Type A, anxious and depressed self and became an academic beast. I held a 4.0 for the first half of college, and subdued the crippling feelings of worthlessness by attaining absolute perfection. You can imagine how well I handled my first A-!
Everything changed when I transferred home for my last year of college. At age 21, I was raped by an 18-year-old. The very next evening, my best friend attempted to sexually assault me. I unknowingly developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My anxiety and depression crippled me. I stopped going to class and got (gasp) B-’s, which forced me to face my ingrained belief that if I wasn’t perfect, I was worth nothing. I became suicidal under the combined weight of my traumas, my ignored mental health issues, and the extreme stress of college. Undergrad is a breeding ground for mental illness.
I decided to get help when my suicidal ideations landed me in a psychiatric ward. I checked myself in for 18 hours. I accepted the anti-depressants they offered out of desperation. I was a high functioning woman in a hospital full of low functioning individuals. The thought of repeated visits to places like this scared me enough to do something about problems I’d ignored for so long.
The hospital is where I began my journey into therapy for anxiety and depression, through 2 rounds of Prolonged Exposure therapy for PTSD, and ultimately how I was inspired to become a mental health professional.
How does it affect your everyday life now? Challenges? What skills have you learned to cope?
My PTSD is essentially gone, but occasionally I have what I call a PTSD ‘flare ups.’ I flare up in the months before the anniversaries of my assaults in April. I do a lot of personal reflection and cry a lot that time of year, sometimes out of sadness and other times out of pride for what I’ve survived. When the anniversaries pass, my symptoms disappear and I’m generally without flare-ups until the next January, when another anniversary looms.
Sans PTSD, I’m back to managing the anxiety and depression that was always there. After a serious injury last summer, I had to give up my primary coping mechanism: exercise. I know there’s a correlation between my lack of exercise and my poor sleep, concentration, and energy levels. Now that I’m healed, I’m making a workout schedule and know I’ll see improvement by the end of the summer.
I wish I could say I found a new coping skill while I wasn’t exercising, but the reality is I’ve floundered for almost a year. I’m incredibly thankful to be able to take my yoga and yoga sculpt classes again, and regain control over my mental health.
Psychotropic medications – like the 40mg of fluoxetine I take daily – are lovely but in the end, changing my behavior is what radically improves my symptoms. Since I’ve reduced the amount of Netflix I watch, I can see my concentration difficulties waning. Less Netflix and more exercise is my new recipe for success this summer.
How has living with this mental illness benefited your life? What has it given you?
I feel I’ve learned life lessons that many of my peers won’t learn for another decade or two. I’m halfway through my twenties and I’ve already survived the supposed worst thing a woman can experience. I’ve questioned my mortality through suicidal ideations and decided that life is worth living. I had my mid-life crisis at 23. Overcoming PTSD required a veracity that many are never required to hone and as such I have a self-confidence and respect for myself that never existed before.
I would not be the woman I am today if it weren’t for my traumas and my struggles with mental illness. Managing my psychological health has taught me how much my daily choices effect the quality of my life. I’m more mindful about what I eat, how I talk to myself, how I take care of myself… and so many other things.
I am so thankful to be a writer. I feel it’s my duty to write about this issue, normalize people’s psychological struggles and attack stigma. I’m writing a book about my story and hope to publish it. Apologies for my twisted sense of humor, but I think it’s a blessing when bad things happen to writers – they can communicate the realities, struggles, and joys of situations to the world at large in a way no one else can. A good book can change how society sees an issue and it is my deepest hope that you see my face on the back cover of a book someday.
What is one piece of advice you would give yourself when you were struggling the most with your mental illness?
My most effective tool when struggling is to talk to myself as if I’m my own mother. I coo myself to sleep with thoughts of, “You did your best. Tomorrow you’ll do the same.” When I see myself through the loving eyes of my mother, suddenly my successes and failures are put into perspective. I’m filled with nothing but pride at what I’ve accomplished and faith in my ability to make it out of this latest struggle. It’s amazing what happens when you give yourself unconditional love.
Stand up for yourself. I can be inconsistent when depression and anxiety take control of my life, and as such have been told I’m a flake. Don’t let people who don’t understand your struggles step on you, label you, and dismiss you. Put people in their fucking place, politely. Understanding how your mental health effects your behavior is not the same as using it as an excuse not to change. Grow your confidence to the point where people’s judgments roll off your shoulder. Their ignorance doesn’t change your reality or diminish the indomitable will you use daily to function. Educate people on your struggles, and if they still don’t get it: they don’t belong in your life.
You don’t control the external world, but you do control your internal one. You can create an inner environment where you try your best to combat your mental illness yet forgive yourself on days when it’s stamina outlasts your own.
Do you want to share your mental health story? Leave a comment about your journey and you could be featured!