For as long as I can remember, I have been anxious. The earliest more severe form of it was in first grade when I used to throw up before going to school every day. I was good at school – straight A’s – but I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect to the point of it being detrimental to my overall health and well-being. Any kind of criticism felt like a complete failure. Even before that, as a young child, I used to have night terrors. I don’t really remember them since I was so young, but nightmares have plagued me for a lot of my life.
By the end of high school, I was so depressed that I was put on medication by my primary care physician that wasn’t the right medicine for me (pro-tip: see a psychiatrist before being put on anti-depressants!). It caused me to feel a lot of rage and I didn’t know how to handle it. I stopped taking the medication and the process of being weaned off of it made the rage even worse. I lashed out at my family and friends for no reason. People were scared of me. I got to thinking that I hadn’t been depressed; it was just the effect of the stress from the end of high school. Little did I know that depression would follow me throughout my life.
I grew up Catholic. I feel like I could go on and on about how this messed me up. I had extremely black and white feelings about what was right and wrong and what would send you to hell. I took things literally. I lost my virginity at a young age and because it was before marriage, I just knew I was going to hell. Because of that, I gave up my faith entirely. If I was going to hell anyway, what was the point of believing in anything? I became triggered any time someone made any kind of mention of faith, religion, etc. I would feel very anxious and nauseous when it was mentioned in any context and would basically shut down. This continued into my 30’s. Fortunately, I have found ways to have some forms of spirituality in my life that no longer cause anger – it’s more of a belief in energy and powers of meditation. I also married a Jewish person (who isn’t practicing) and that exposed me to another way of thinking as well.
When I say I lost my virginity at a young age, it goes further than that. I came to terms much later that it was rape/assault. Honestly, there isn’t a great word for it because he was my boyfriend and it wasn’t violent, but it was unwanted and continued to be unwanted for a long time. I was young and didn’t know how to say no – I was frankly terrified. I tried to say no, but it was to no effect. I was sheltered and didn’t really feel like I had anyone to talk to about it at the time. As I got older, I overcompensated by saying no all the time to most forms of physical contact. I feel some anxiety even being hugged. I am still struggling with this. I am an open book in most ways, but this is one that’s a very hard thing to talk about for me.
The first time I drank alcohol, I was probably 15 and I got so drunk that I blacked out. My parents were out of town and my brother decided he would get me drunk so I that would understand what it felt like. Unfortunately, my brother had alcoholic tendencies (he would go on to get a couple DUIs, go to jail, have his license suspended, etc.) and didn’t know how much my body could handle. I woke up with a broken nose and vomit everywhere. I ended up lying to my parents about what happened but they saw through it pretty quickly.
Cut to college when I had my first manic episode. It was like I became someone else. I did things I had never done before – I cut off my hair myself, I was promiscuous, and I drove drunk. My mom told me she didn’t even know me anymore and didn’t trust me (and my mom has always been my confidant and best friend). It was a scary time I didn’t understand, and I wouldn’t come to understand it until my 30’s.
I did well in college overall, but I still had the constant anxiety of not doing enough, not studying enough, feeling guilty if I actually went out and partied rather than did my homework. I had consistent racing thoughts and trouble sleeping because my brain wouldn’t shut off. While I did well in school, it felt like a sort of torture. I still have negative feelings about my time in college, other than the friends I made, but I do feel grateful I made it through it.
My junior year of college I studied abroad in Spain. When I got there, my anxiety was almost unbearable. I cried almost constantly at the beginning. It is extremely hard for me to speak in Spanish, even though I know how, because I know I won’t say everything correctly. I drank more than I ever drank in my life and partied hard while I was in Spain, but I did meet my husband there. I kind of hated him at the time. He was cocky and annoying (and still is!). I swore it was just a fling in Spain and we would break up when we returned to the U.S. Well, 11 years later and we’re still together and things are good for the most part. He has the most analytical, economics-focused mind of anyone I’ve ever met, which certainly makes things interesting given the emotional turmoil I experience that he doesn’t understand. That being said, he has stuck with me through a lot of ups and downs and I appreciate him so much for that.
I’m a quiet person, but I enjoy the company of a small group of people that I’m comfortable speaking around. All of my teachers growing up told me I needed to talk more – I needed to contribute more in class – I have good ideas, why don’t I just speak up? Well, as hard as I tried, my anxiety made that almost impossible and that has carried on through today. I constantly get the same feedback from all of the bosses I’ve had. I do have things to say, but the way I work best is to be invited to speak rather than take the initiative to speak up myself. I realize that can be a sort of “cop out” but I haven’t figured out how to change it, and maybe it doesn’t need to be changed. It’s the way I am.
My first real job was as an AmeriCorps member at a nonprofit organization. I had wanted to join the Peace Corps, but ended up deciding to stay in the U.S. instead. I have a passion for helping people and this job was perfect for that. I look back on the job fondly. It challenged me and I had the best boss I could imagine. During that job, I did “poverty simulations” with schools and community members. It’s an exercise that helps people understand briefly the challenges people living in poverty face. Through this, I learned that I’m actually really good at facilitation. I can take charge when given the opportunity. During that time, I also ran the disaster committee so that the organization would be prepared if a disaster struck (which did end up happening with fires and floods). Additionally, I helped design a training program for volunteer mentors assisting people experiencing homelessness. I am truly proud of all of that work.
Because I did well working as an AmeriCorps member, I was hired on as full-time staff. In my new role, I was in charge of volunteer programming for youth. I created a curriculum teaching middle and high school students the value of philanthropy and I was in charge of big community volunteer events. Again, I felt like this was meaningful work. Things changed when my boss quit and some of my co-workers began struggling with their relationship with their supervisors. While this was not my particular circumstance – I tend to find ways to get along with most people – I am fiercely protective of my friends. The environment became too toxic for me to remain, so I moved on to a new job at an organization that helps small businesses.
At this new job, I again found meaningful work helping entrepreneurs start businesses. However, as is my tendency, I ended up taking on far too much work. I have high standards for work that is done and I felt that some of my co-workers weren’t pulling their weight or weren’t doing it well enough for my standards. I was the marketing director, so I felt like it was my job to ensure we were responding to community needs efficiently and effectively. That wasn’t always the case, so I took over a lot. I would say that I ended up doing nearly four jobs in my one. I told my boss it was too much, but because the organization is funded by grants, I couldn’t figure out what I could give up in order to make things work. Things just needed to be done to meet our contractual obligations. I ended up becoming completely miserable to the point of a deep depression with suicidal ideation. I was getting high almost every evening to cope.
It took awhile but I eventually told people about the suicidal thoughts. It was like a weight had been lifted to just say it out loud. I ended up quitting my job, finding a psychiatrist, and finding an excellent therapist. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar II and OCD. I was initially against any kind of medication because of my earlier experiences, but my psychiatrist’s specialty is in bipolar II and he was able to find the right combination of meds that works for me. He explained that the first med I was put on back in high school wasn’t right for me because some of the main anti-depressants have very adverse effects for people with bipolar disorder.
While the meds drastically improved many of my issues, I believe it was my therapist that actually saved my life. She relates to me so well and helps explain so many things. I learned many coping mechanisms and ways to essentially re-program my brain. Meditation was key in this.
Because I quit my job, I finally had time to focus on myself and improving my mental state. I also chose that time to go through 6 surgeries. My mom has kidney and ovarian cancer and I carry the BRCA1 gene for breast and ovarian cancer. It was recommended that I get preventative surgeries since the likelihood of getting cancer was so high. I ended up getting a double mastectomy and a complete hysterectomy. While it may seem drastic to some people, I never liked my breasts – in fact, I had always been very self- conscious about them – and I had decided long ago that I didn’t want children of my own, so it wasn’t a huge decision to undergo these surgeries. The other surgeries were for my eyes. I was legally blind – most people couldn’t even fathom how bad my eyesight was – and I didn’t qualify for LASIK so I ended up getting a different surgery that involved replacing the lenses in my eyes. I don’t regret any of the surgeries for a minute. I don’t know how I could have done them if I was still working full-time though, so I am grateful that I had the means to take over a year off of work.
As so many people experience, I have also struggled with body image issues. Since I was young, I always felt like I was bigger and unhealthier than other kids. I got heat stroke several times as a child because my body couldn’t handle strenuous exercise or being outside when it was particularly hot. I essentially didn’t trust my body to be able to do many things. When I was in probably 3rd grade, I went to a summer camp and went horseback riding. My horse ended up bucking me off and I was convinced it was because it was mad at me for being so heavy. All the other kids were smaller. I was very self-conscious and continue to be. When I look at old pictures of myself, I only like the ones where I look skinny. I feel disgusted with myself when I look bigger. Rather than exercise more, I tend to just not eat much. This is especially true when something traumatic happens. I become too nauseous to eat. 2020 was full of heartache including the sudden death of my closest aunt, the cancer diagnosis of my dog (who is pretty much my everything), and the completed suicide of my closest uncle, in addition to all of the chaos of the global pandemic. I went months without eating much of anything. This is an issue I am still working on overcoming. I want to be comfortable in my own skin, but it’s not easy. Also, like so many others, It’s going to take me a long time to come to terms with everything that happened in 2020.
Through all of my experiences, I got very interested and passionate about mental health. I went through some trainings on mental health first aid and as a peer support specialist. These trainings were some of the most meaningful things I have done. I had attempted to start a business as a travel companion helping people with anxiety/panic attacks when flying. Unfortunately that business didn’t pan out, but I continue to look for other opportunities starting a business of my own where I can focus on the things I’m most passionate about. Working with so many entrepreneurs throughout my career has given me this desire.
I continue to be grateful for so many things in my life. I have an understanding and loving husband who does so much for me, the strongest mom I can imagine who has survived cancer for over 10 years, supportive parents, a good group of amazing friends and co-workers, two dogs that provide some of the best companionship, a great place to live, a wonderful therapist, a brother I have a positive relationship with (this wasn’t always the case), the ability to travel the world, some pretty great nephews and nieces, and so much more. Life is still challenging, but I couldn’t be more thankful for the resources and support I’ve been given.