How did working with your treatment team help you? Were there any times when their counsel set off a “light bulb” for you? What conversations were the most meaningful?
My primary counselor, April, challenged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone during every session, but I always felt supported and validated throughout the process. She was kind and empathetic, but also made me feel like more than anything, I was the one who could help myself, and that a therapist couldn’t “fix” things for me.
Sometimes April would give me homework assignments that asked me to practice the interpersonal skills we were addressing in our sessions, and in the beginning, I thought that they were silly. I didn’t see how communicating differently with other clients at the residence, most of whom were much younger than me and in a different phase of life, could help me get well. I remember suddenly realizing that these homework assignments were absolutely connected to living the life I wanted after treatment, and that my life depended on learning the skills they asked me to practice. I realized that if I didn’t push myself in treatment, I’d never be able to change outside of it. I was practicing new skills in a supportive therapeutic environment,cementing healthy ways of doing and thinking, to put into practice once I left.When thinking back on your time at Skyland Trail and where you are today, what are you most grateful for? What are you most proud of?
Skyland Trail saved my life. That is not at all an exaggeration. I know that if I had not pushed pause and gone to treatment, I would have ended up in danger again eventually. Skyland is the kind of place where you don’t have to ask people if they like their jobs, or if it’s a good place to work; you can tell that they do, and that it is. There is a sense of commitment to delivering principled and effective mental healthcare that permeates the place and exudes from everyone who works there, from food service staff to doctors. I’m grateful to have found it, and to have had a family who supported me in getting treatment there.
I am most proud of learning to let go of outside expectations and self-imposed pressure and to be unapologetically myself. There have always been activities and people in my life who made me happy. I was happy when I was doing those things or around those people. But my grip on contentment was tenuous, and it didn’t take much to knock me off course. Now I feel, for the first time in my life, that I am happy. Rather than reaching for things or people to make me feel complete, there is a layer of solid acceptance underneath all the chaos of life that makes me feel secure in the knowledge that who I am is enough.
I’m also grateful that I was able, with April’s guidance, to let go of what I thought recovery and treatment “should” be like, and trust that the process that worked for so many clients before me might bring me healing too, even if I didn’t understand why or how that would unfold. I remember that she encouraged me, during the first week, to practice mindfulness and living in the present moment, and I thought, “That’s it?! We’ve got a lot of work to do! We need to hit the ground running!” But I learned in the end that attacking treatment with the same perfectionistic, overachiever attitude that I’d carried around my whole life wasn’t going to serve me. I only began to truly heal when I learned to do let go of pressure and expectation, and allowed my recovery to unfold as it would.
Can you describe how your relationships with family or friends have improved?
My parents and I participated in family therapy sessions during my time at Skyland, and having those difficult conversations helped us to understand how our family dynamics might have been a factor in my illness. They had always known that I struggled with depression and anxiety, and would do anything they could to help me, but it was very hard for them to understand why I suffered, or what it really felt like for me. Family therapy sessions gave us the space and support to really understand how my illness affected us, and what we could do differently to be healthier. Now, we are all more open with our thoughts and feelings, and we aren’t as scared of the repercussions of asking hard questions.
Did you feel you were part of a “community” at Skyland Trail? Do you still feel connected to that community? In what way?
The sense of community with other clients at Skyland was one of the biggest factors in my healing process. I had been walking around my whole life thinking that there was something gravely wrong with me, something that no one else could understand. The world stung me in ways that it didn’t seem to for anyone else. When I came to Skyland, I found my people. We came from vastly different backgrounds, most people were younger than me, but some older, we had left behind different lives and had different dreams for after treatment. But we were all united in the knowledge that the lives we had been living were not ones that we wanted any more, and that Skyland might be able to help. I met lifelong friends who I am still in touch with, and I know I always will be. I attend alumni events whenever I can, and I am always interested in learning about how I can contribute to Skyland’s continuing success.
Why do you think it’s important for individuals living with mental illness to share their stories and support others?
There is power in telling the world, in ways big and small, that you have struggled and that you are still living to share that story with others. Living with mental illness can be a shameful, and it definitely was for me. The burden of suffering such pain hurt so much more because I felt that I was alone. I know now that I wasn’t, but stigma kept me quiet about my struggles in the same way that it did for others who I met. I think sometimes people have a singular idea of what a depressed person, or a person who suffers from addiction, or bi-polar disorder, or anxiety, looks like, of where they come from, of what they are capable of acheiving. But I learned at Skyland that mental illness is indiscriminate in who it afflicts, and that means that there is no profile of a depressed person. We are all beautifully unique, and sharing who we are and how we experience the world can only help us heal, and promote healing in others. Especially now that I’m entering my professional life, I feel a responsibility to share my story in any way I can. The stakes are higher for people in visible positions to share their struggles, but it’s crucial to do so, because if I hide the dark places I’ve been, I’m complicit in perpetuating the shame of mental illness.