Disclaimer: The interview and story recalled in this article was written by MWR writer and executive Véronique Leblanc, our only staff member who had access to information that would compromise the identity of the individual, and to details they did not wish to share.
Not too long ago, I sat down with an incredibly sweet girl who was brave and kind enough to share with me her story, and her experience with issues relating to mental health. For the sake of anonymity and clarity for this piece, we’ll call her Kathryn.
After formalities and introductions, Kathryn told me a bit about her story.
She was diagnosed with a mental health disease called Dysthymia at age 14, a late diagnosis with little severity that occurred after a lack of speaking out. Kathryn had dealt with a variety of issues from elementary school onward, but admitted to herself that everything that she was going through should be considered as a problem towards the end of her first year in high school. That period of time marked for her a number of suicidal thoughts, and continuous self-harm. A significant suicide attempt resulted in consultations with a therapist who focused on the negative impact that Kathryn’s condition had on her entourage ended her first high school experience, leaving her uneager to return.
Talking with Kathryn made me realize how potentially harmful the health and psychiatric system itself can be. Her only diagnosis was not given to her until years later, and her experience in therapy has done little to help her feel better about who she is.
Kathryn’s 3rd year in high school was tinted with obnoxious amounts of bullying, mainly originating from spoiled friendships, and affecting a large part of her social circle. The agglomeration of these events led to her most challenging year thus far, in her fourth year of high school, during which a friend of hers exposed her condition and suicidal experimentation to her parents. As a whole, this serious intervention led to the beginning of Kathryn’s journey through medication. Zoloft was prescribed to her, which she described as a numbing agent for her emotions.
Towards the end of her fourth year in high school, it became clear that something more drastic had to be done as a measure for her to get better. After applications and interviews, Kathryn was admitted into a group home for teens and students affected by mental health issues. Her stay lasted 8 months during her last year in high school.
At this point in our interview, Kathryn looked at me and told me something I found absolutely beautiful. She said that her recovery process started when she decided that she, herself, wanted and willed to get better. Kathryn was not forced into this group home, she decided herself that it had to be done, no matter how hard the experience may be.
The group home consisted of around 6 permanent inhabitants, with a few visitors that would come and go for shorter treatment. Her schooling environment completely shifted: she was taught within the home and was not allowed outside interaction towards the beginning of her stay.
As Kathryn explained to me the system of education, I couldn’t help but notice how adaptive it was for her issues specifically, and it was clear to me that this was the turning point in her life. The group home held daily group meetings, during which inhabitants were encouraged to speak up to their peers and share their experience. Her schedule also included private time with a social worker, art therapy and an individual recovery plan including code words to encourage or discourage certain behaviors.
Towards the end of her stay, Kathryn was rewarded with a high school education diploma from Mountain View High School, and no where on her transcript are her mental health issues or her stay at the group home disclosed.
I mentioned earlier the downfalls of the health system, and here is where I was proven somewhat wrong. I was incredibly pleasantly surprised by Kathryn’s story, simply because this group home procedure as a part of mental health recovery would have never really struck me as something that could truly change someone’s output on life; and yet that is exactly what this experience allowed Kathryn to do.
She hasn’t had any formal psychiatrist or psychologist intervention since her stay in the group home and has since decided to stop taking Prozac, the second prescription she was given, but feels like she is on the right path: one that includes speaking out about it.
ON FORMAL DIAGNOSIS AND THE MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM
When asked about her diagnosis and her personal thoughts on it, it was clear to me that Kathryn does not feel as though her diagnosis is correct. The lateness of it, her manipulation of statements and a history of bipolar disorder in her family leads Kathryn to believe that a true diagnosis has not been found for her yet.
The trickiness of mental illness is one that is hard to get through. Bipolar disorder, specifically, is an illness that is often diagnosed after the beginning of adulthood, as hormone changes can result in similar situations.
Kathryn received her diagnosis years following its appearance on her record, spontaneously and unexpectedly, and it was bittersweet.
She told me about labels, and how they are paradoxical in themselves: putting a label on feelings is somewhat freeing, as it stagnates some of the anxiety related to the unknown, but also somewhat butchers and puts your experience into a box. It further limits the wide arrangement of feelings you may have, and normalizes others.
This unrest felt by Kathryn is one of her deepest mental health issues at the moment, as she awaits a diagnosis that may never even be coming, or may reveal itself as false all over again.
Similarly, therapy has never really seemed to her as a good solution. I found it interesting when Kathryn told me that she had visited both private therapists and social workers in the public mental health spectrum. According to her, therapy is not for everyone, and sometimes makes it incredibly hard for individuals to be honest and open about their feelings, especially when faced with a stranger in a leather chair, holding up a notepad that should be filled with your every waking thought.
Following up on a potentially faulty diagnosis, Kathryn had some experience with pills. Zoloft and Prozac are medication that is often prescribed to individuals suffering from depression, which Dysthymia is a lesser version of. Here lies the issue with prescriptions: they rely on accurate diagnosis and often differ in consequences from a person to the other. There are prescription norms: medicine that is prescribed mostly for certain illnesses, but there are no universal cocktails of pills to treat people. Sometimes, individuals, just like Kathryn, gain absolutely nothing from medication.
Kathryn described Prozac to me as a sugar pill, I thought that was an interesting comparison.
This is inevitably hard to accept and pushes individuals to either give up or to desperately try to find something else that will get them out of the cage that is mental illness.
ON SELF HARM
After asking her about self harm and her experience with it, Kathryn told me about the long history she has had with it. It’s, in a way, always been a part of her life. She would bash her head on the floor as a child instead of screaming, and started to cut as a way of dealing with the stress and anxiety that came with intensive bullying.
Kathryn discussed relapses with me, something that is usually a natural process of recovery. She shared with me her record for stopping cutting: a period of a little over a year, predominantly during her stay at the group home, where she had no access to tools that would allow her to do so.
The majority of our discussion, however, circled around her present scars and the reactions others have to them. As a general rule, Kathryn does not expose her scars on many occurrences. Mostly, bathing suits and shorts expose them to her family, which still remains uncomfortable and awkward. As of late, she has not dealt with significant relapses, but continues her battle against self harm and her long-lived addiction to it.
ON REACHING OUT
Kathryn qualifies this portion of our discussion as a major lesson, one that she wanted everyone to know. To her, there is almost nothing as important as learning and finding what works, personally, for you. To some, that may be therapy, it may be medication. For Kathryn, the successful resources were writing, developing friendships with compassionate and loving people, as well as her extensive stay in the group home.
Asking for resources is not a failure or a sign of weakness. It is, however, a sign of strength and resilience.
ON FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIPS
Kathryn has, despite it all, developed friendships and found people who were incredibly understand, sweet and caring for her.
She had an almost surprised look on her face as she developed her idea, and she said that such a thing was surprising, considering she hadn’t even accepted herself: she never really expected others to.
Kathryn counted before my eyes a number of people who have helped her through her high school years, and are still a big part of her life currently. Nonetheless, she has had her fair share of friendships turned sour, which were, sadly, a big anxiety factor in her life.
On a similar note, her family was, of course, affected by her experience. In general, Kathryn believes her friends were more aware of the situation than her parents. However, a few calls to her therapist and some intervention resulted in her parents knowing the basics of her situation. Her sister would not be left alone with her, her father had trouble sharing and talking about emotions, and her mother did not know how to handle the situation.
Her stay in the group home also translated to her parents having to give up custody of their child to the institution, causing for fear and some regret of not having been enough from her family.
An important impact of mental health issues on her family was the general conversations Kathryn would have with her parents: they wouldn’t show their emotions so much, from fear of adding to her suffering. This is something that Kathryn found her friends were doing as well, which made her feel as if no one trusted her.
Throughout a significant portion of her struggles, Kathryn also dealt with romantic issues. In a long distance relationship that was carried out with another girl who had sizable mental health and depression issues, Kathryn experienced bad communication, which was present for similar reasons as her friendships and family: they both felt betrayed and as though their relationship being detrimental to their mental health, causing a breakup that was difficult.
As a whole, talking with her about this issue, as well as discussing her family and her friendships only reminded me of how detrimental mental health issues can be to the people around you.
ON INTERSECTIONALITY AND JUDGEMENT
Having never been told that being attracted to the same sex was even a possibility, Kathryn fell off a bench at the realization that she liked a girl at just 12 years old. Quickly, she didn’t really see a need to hide it from others: she told her mother quickly afterwards and started explaining her sexual identity to close friends around the same time.
I asked Kathryn, as she was telling me this, if she ever felt that being gay was a significant disadvantage to her. She responded with a few instances in which people didn’t understand. However, she felt compelled to tell me that the majority of the stigma she felt she was facing did not come from others: she simply hadn’t really accepted herself.
Developmental issues and sexual identities blended with her mental illness to make her feel abnormal, which strained her recovery, and is something she still deals with today.
She remains open, and willing to talk about who she is, which is admirable in a number of ways.
ON BEING WHOEVER THE HELL YOU WANT TO BE
When I asked Kathryn to describe herself in a few words, especially after talking about self-acceptance, the ones she chose put a smile on my face: “I am a complex entity that is weird, lovable, quirky, that makes gay jokes, loves writing and helping people.”
And when I asked her to tell me what her one message would be to anyone who would listen, she asked that no one be afraid or ashamed of what they are going through, and certainly that they should not feel inferior in any way, shape or form.
“It doesn’t define you.
It is a part of who you are, but it’s really only a fraction of it.”