When I turned 38, I had founded and been running a youth mental health nonprofit for two years. I spent most of that time telling young people that it was safe to turn to a trusted adult and share dark, and even suicidal, thoughts. I told them that they were safe, and they had nothing to be ashamed of for having these thoughts.
I saw countless youth that I mentored share their stories of struggle and suicidal ideation. They were my heroes because I was not as brave as them to share my own secrets.
It was at our third school mental health conference when I decided that it was time to share my story. I had never shared it with anyone minus a therapist or two, but even then, I gave them the edited version, because I was sure if they knew my real thoughts they would lock me up forever.
After 38 years, I decided to tell my story. I didn’t practice or write a script, so in front of 250 eager and compassionate souls I stumbled and over shared, but I did it. I finally unlocked one of the most guarded parts of my being.
At 12 years old, I had typical adolescent worries like who would I sit with in the cafeteria and would I have a friend to hang out with over the weekend, but I also had far more tormenting me. I grew up in a house that had grown increasingly chaotic and violent, especially that year.
My anxiety and depression were through the roof. I woke up most mornings feeling sick to my stomach. I went to school for an escape from the outside world, though the awkwardness and insecurity of junior high only compounded the toxic stress consuming my brain. I struggled to regulate my emotions and felt isolated and alone. Over time, my thoughts grew darker and more concerning. I felt hopeless and more than once contemplated taking my life.
I wish I could say it was the last time I had those thoughts. After a lot of therapy, I now better understand how trauma impacted my ability to regulate my emotions. I would be, and still can be, easily triggered by things I expect, but most often by things I didn’t anticipate.
There is nothing worse than being triggered by something and having to do what I call, “Sit in the suck.” It’s that moment when something happens and rapidly my mind seems to spiral out of control trapped in a deluge of negative self-talk.
“You’re a fraud.”
“No one cares what you say or do.”
“You’re not making a difference.”
“You have no worth.”
Over the years, I have had days that I handled the consuming thoughts well and others not so much.
Fortunately, I have gotten better at learning understanding that these feelings are like riding a wave. They ebb and flow, and so do my thoughts. It can feel rapidly out control and aggressive. So on the days that the “wave,” pulls me out to sea, I have learned to “sit with the suck,” knowing that eventually, it will take me back to shore. I make it sound easier than it actually is.
The other thing that I have made a conscious effort to do is to try to share with my network when I am struggling, for two reasons. First, it’s healthy for me. The more I talk to others, the quicker I am back to shore. What I think is the more important reason, is that if I genuinely want to do this work, and make a difference, I have to model what normalizing mental illness looks like.
If I had an asthma attack or allergies, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell my friends. Struggling with mental health needs to be exactly the same. There are a lot of badass people that struggle with mental illness. It is not a weakness nor a life sentence. While I will have this forever, I am lucky in that every day isn’t a struggle. I have gone years without any problems.
Last year, I had a hysterectomy that changed my chemistry, so this year I am finding as my body learns to adjust to that new chemistry, I am a more emotional person. I hate it, but I also know that I have learned a lot of strategies to keep myself healthy.
I work out, unapologetically eat ice cream, talk to anyone that will listen, and I create. I have learned that either through art or writing, I pour myself into it, and it feels so good.
I have learned to ride the wave far, far better than ever before because I know that it is something I will spend my life doing. Even more importantly, I know I am not alone riding the wave. I know that millions of other people are also trying to figure out how to ride the wave, too.
The more I talk about it, the more we talk about it, the more we look around and realize we aren’t doing this alone. We aren’t the only one. We aren’t the outcast. We are more the norm than not. If today happens to be a rough day for you, too, know that I’m out there riding the wave with you, and it will bring us back in soon enough.