The American Dream – that’s what I was living, or so it appeared. There was mom, dad, two kids, a dog, and a two-car garage. I never imagined this image would be shattered by mental illness.
Mental illness has directly impacted my family. One grandmother and aunt suffered from severe depression and were hospitalized a few times. An uncle experienced symptoms that resembled schizophrenia. Addiction was also a problem on both sides of my family. Yet, the topic was taboo, and no one ever talked about it.
When I was a teenager, my picture-perfect family bagan to fall apart, when one night my mom didn’t come home from work. As a result, I began to feel down and experience eating issues. I had always been very shy, but had withdrawn even further. My pastor approached me with the offer of counseling. I accepted and continued until I left for college, though much of what I discussed was superficial.
My faith had always been important to me, and I enrolled in a Christian college, studying to be a minister. But, I continued to be depressed and lose weight. After much debate, I began to see a counselor at school. One problem…therapy doesn’t work on its own. I didn’t participate in the sessions, but mostly sat there for an hour. The counselor also placed me in an anger group. In spite of my deteriorating mental health, I got through Freshman year with Dean’s List marks.
That fall, I returned to college. Just a few weeks into the semester, I attempted suicide. My counselor reported this to her supervisor, and I was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. I was admitted and started on medications. A few days later, I was moved to a hospital covered by my father’s insurance. Nothing was helping. They tried medications, family therapy, group therapy, and Electro-convulsive Therapy, all to no avail.
Due to this lack of improvement, I was sent to a state hospital for longer-term care. By now, doctors had diagnosed me with Depression, Eating Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. My suicide attempts became more frequent, and my weight plunged to a dangerously low number. My prognosis was grim, and many thought I’d never be able to live outside the hospital. For quite some time, this seemed true, but then things began to change.
About six and a half years after being admitted to the state hospital, I found a book on emotions that a staff member had given me. It was written by a popular Christian minister. As I began to read the book, I could really relate to the author as she shared her abuse experiences and how God healed her from them. I broke down in tears, for the first time admitting that I had been emotionally and sexually abused. This was a very difficult, but also freeing, time. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was added to my diagnoses. Less than six months later, I was discharged to my own apartment. I thought I’d never again face mental health challenges.
Moving to my own apartment after being in the structured hospital environment was a harder transition than I’d thought. I had three short-term admissions over the next three months. Consequently, I moved into a supervised apartment. I lived there about eight months. During that time, I got a job and worked on feeling safe when alone.
Feeling more equipped, I moved from the supervised setting to my own apartment. The dreams I had before I became sick were being rekindled, but I was afraid I could never become a minister after all I’d done. Didn’t having a mental illness and attempting suicide make me a bad Christian? But, I found a church where they accepted me, psychiatric history and all. They even had a ministry training program which I was accepted into. During this time, I started an outreach to people with mental health issues, and I was able to lead a Bible Study at the same state hospital where I was a patient. I got a job working at our local Social Rehab.
I was well enough to be on no psychiatric medications and discharged from all services. I was living a life many thought would never happen. Four years went by, and I again attempted suicide. I was hospitalized and restarted on medications. I felt like a failure and a fake, that how well I had been doing was only a sham.
Over the coming years, I came to learn what recovery really means. It is not a one-time, magic fix-it-all. It does not mean you’ll never again have symptoms. Instead, recovery is an ongoing process of learning, growth, and change that includes both ”good” and ”bad” days. Going into the hospital isn’t a failure if that’s what you need to be safe. But, no matter what happens, I can learn to live with an illness. It doesn’t have to defeat me or steal my dreams. I believe I am now living in recovery.
I would have several more hospitalizations, including a short stay at a different state hospital. Doctors continue to try different medications, and I’ve returned to individual therapy. I have a caseworker who helps coordinate my services and hold me accountable. These all continue to this day.
But, in the midst of the hospital stays, suicide attempts, and depression, there have been many bright spots. I completed the training and testing to become a Certified Peer Specialist. I continue to work at the Social Rehab. A little over a year ago, I was granted a Minister’s License. I participate in a drama club that educates people about mental health. And, I’ve shared my story in local churches, at special events, on the radio, and on the tv show of the author whose book changed my life. My goal is to become a chaplain in a psychiatric facility and continue to share my story to offer hope and encouragement.
So, no, my life may not be the American Dream. But, it’s my life. I have a new dream. I’ve been through some trying times, but I believe that good can come out of it. A Bible verse I hold fast to says, ”But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20). This is my dream now…be blessed.
Valerie is a social rehab facilitator who lives in Pennsylvania.