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Growing Through Grace

Hey guys, my name is Alex and I am here to tell you my story of survival through the darkest time of my life.

Alex is a Skyland Trail alumni and a recent graduate of the RESPECT Institute, an organization that helps participants organize, construct, and customize their personal stories of recovery and independent living to share in diverse settings like management meetings, legislative meetings, employee orientations, university classrooms, civic meetings, and continuing education programs.

My journey with mental illness began at a young age. I exhibited symptoms of Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder around age three. Tourette’s is a neurological condition which causes you to have tics or repetitive uncontrollable movements and sounds. OCD is similar because it’s commonly referred to as “tics of the mind.” These can exhibit, as it did for me, in repetitive intrusive thoughts of violence.

Listen to Alex tell her story.

Throughout my childhood I moved on and off. We went to France for my father’s job until age 10, when I moved there and we stayed for three years. Moving back to the United States at age 13 was difficult for me. The stress of moving and finding myself at a new school really made my Tourette’s and OCD symptoms much more noticeable, and I was finally diagnosed with both of those disorders. Along with that I found that it was hard for me to make connections with people, and I attribute that to moving so often in my younger years. I learned that as soon as I would get close to someone, I would have to leave and it hurt. So not allowing myself to make connections was a coping mechanism of some sort. I found myself getting really sad and crying often at my new school, and I resorted to self-harm.

After spending two years at a school I did not fit in to, my parents decided it was time for a switch. I ended up at an all-girls school in Atlanta and it was an absolute perfect fit. I finally had friends and felt like I could be myself. Things were going very well and I became really good friends with the other new girl in my grade. She was funny and smart, and I just found myself drawn to her. We started dating and that’s when everything went terribly wrong. She began messaging me these really terrible messages that were threatening. I recall one of them saying, “Go cut yourself and bleed somewhere, no one needs you and I can’t wait to do shit to you tomorrow.” Still, I told no one.

One day she was yelling at me and tried punching me at school until a friend ran over and held her back so she couldn’t touch me. The school eventually found out about that and the messages and did absolutely nothing to help me. And so I thought I was over reacting.

Telling my story, for me, is a way to gain my power back from what was a terribly powerless situation.

Homecoming night was the absolute worst night of my life. She raped me at gun point and told me that if I told anyone, she would kill me. I believed her, so I kept it a secret. It was an immediate switch. I went from being relatively content to being virtually, as my therapist called it, catatonic. I was having near constant panic attacks at school and had to be switched out of all my classes I had with her. I began severely self-harming at home and at school. I became extremely suicidal and I just felt so incredibly alone. I was in so much emotional pain. I was severely disconnected from reality and dissociating almost constantly. I began hearing voices and seeing death shadows and thinking that people were trying to kill me. I had no friends anymore because everyone thought I was over reacting to a situation they knew absolutely nothing about. I would spend lunch period behind the couch in my empty math classroom because I had no energy to fake small talk with anyone anymore. I became so angry at everyone who would ask me if I was ok because I just wanted to scream, “NO, I AM NOT OK, PLEASE HELP ME!” But instead I just kept quiet.

Eventually it became all too much and someone tipped off the head of the school that I was suicidal and I spent the first of many weeks in the psychiatric hospital. I was then sent to a residential treatment center in Utah when I was 16. I absolutely hated every minute of it. I did everything I could to get out of there as soon as I could and after eight months, I graduated the program and was allowed to finally come home. I ended up at yet another school in Atlanta and again had trouble making connections; however, not without a struggle, I finally graduated high school.

Throughout my adolescent years, I was involved in a pre-professional musical theatre company called Orbit Arts Academy where I got to train with Broadway national tours that came through Atlanta. Theatre definitely saved my life during that time. There were so many times I told myself that if I wasn’t in a show and didn’t have that commitment, that I would absolutely kill myself. So it only made sense to pursue my love of theatre in college. And that is what I did.

However I found myself spiraling downward rapidly when I moved away.

Alex B Growing Through Grace

I had my first full blown manic episode and by my second year I was so depressed I did not get out of bed for three weeks. I eventually took an overdose which landed me in the hospital yet again. I moved back home and spent the next four months at a residential program called Skyland Trail.

I learned many valuable skills there; however, I still never spoke a word about my trauma. So when I graduated it was kind of like I had put a band aid on top of the problem rather than really getting to the root of it.

I ended up finding an incredible therapist who made me feel safe enough to finally share with her what I had experienced when I was 15. Because of the panic attacks and flashbacks and dissociative episodes I was exhibiting, I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The difference between that and standard PTSD is that it just means the abuse was prolonged over time and not just a singular event.

To anyone struggling to find others who believe you or if you’re having trouble believing yourself, I believe you and know that you are always, ALWAYS worthy of getting help.

Everything began to spiral downwards again and I became so depressed that my doctors hospitalized me—and by this time I had been hospitalized more than 10 times—but they recommended that I try ECT or Electroconvulsive Therapy. That’s when they put you to sleep and induce a seizure that way your brain can, essentially, reset itself. And for me, I felt immediate relief after the first session. I did not continue on maintenance ECT, so I relapsed pretty quickly and found myself more suicidal than ever.

I ended up having a serious suicide attempt in January of 2018 where I went into cardiac arrest. And when I finally woke up in the hospital I was so angry that I had survived. I started pulling out all of the tubes and wires that were keeping me alive and the doctors tied my wrists and ankles to the bed.

After my attempt, I ended up in another residential treatment center. I was so tired of living the life I was and I now had two options. To die. Or to put effort into my recovery. And I chose the latter.

It was there that I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder – bipolar type which is basically a mixture between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Finally the voices I was hearing made sense. I also finally began to work on my trauma and it was excruciating, scary and freaking hard. Most days I felt like everything that had happened to me was my fault, that I was such a disgusting human being that I deserved to have that happen to me. But as my recovery progressed those thoughts dissipated more and more and while I do still struggle with those thoughts on occasion, my brain is in a much healthier place than it was back then. I am proud to say that I have not cut myself in over three years and have not self-harmed in other ways for over one year. And while it’s not a miracle—because I put some really, really hard work into that—it definitely feels like one.

Alex B Growing Through Grace: Young woman with glasses and her golden retriever sitting on a picnic blanket in autumn.

You all hear me talk about connection a lot throughout sharing my story, and that is because I think one of the most crucial parts of my recovery is connection and it’s something I still struggle with today. But forming a connection with my therapists has helped me walk through this journey with someone by my side and not alone. So yes, I still have trouble trusting people and I think that makes sense given what I have been through. However, I am giving myself grace and space to grow and learn about what I do need to do in order to get to the place I want to be in.

Telling my story, for me, is a way to gain my power back from what was a terribly powerless situation. I see absolutely no purpose for all of the pain I’ve been through except to help other people through my experiences. My goal is to talk to high schools and teachers because I know at that age, if I had had someone to talk to me who had been through a similar situation that I would have had a bit more hope. And as for the teachers, I never want students to experience going to a teacher, telling them what was happening and not having any help offered back. Teachers and clinicians alike need to know that sometimes, a student or client has lost their voice and that someone still needs to advocate for them when they cannot for themselves. I want to give everyone that is suffering like I was some hope. Because you guys, it really gets better.

I used to not believe that, but my recovery has proved me wrong. So that is why I am here telling my story. You are not alone. Abusive relationships can happen at any age. The most powerful thing anybody has said to me is, “I believe you.”

To anyone struggling to find others who believe you or if you’re having trouble believing yourself, I believe you and know that you are always, ALWAYS worthy of getting help.

There’s a couple of pieces of advice I’d like to leave you with:

  1. Recovery is not about being cured—like my younger self thought it was. That thought process put a lot of pressure on me to appear perfect to my family. However, throughout the years I learned that recovery is about learning to live and successfully manage your illnesses. And it is absolutely possible to do that. It just takes a lot of commitment to recovery.
  2. There is no shame in taking your time. I’ve been in some form treatment more times than I can count on both hands. And that’s ok. It was all a part of my journey to get to where I am today. Heck, I’m 24 and I’m still an undergrad in college, and that is exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

So to you all listening. Whether you struggle with mental illness or not, take your time with whatever you are dealing with right now. Listen to what your body and mind are trying to tell you. And trust that you are right where you are supposed to be right now.

I’m going to leave you all with a poem I wrote:

 And however you arrived here today,
whether it was your soul raging just as much
as the storm around you and finding yourself
pounding on the door between then and now
with bloodied and bruised fists,

Or whether it was feeling your heart shatter
into a million pieces and so bravely picking
each one up and trying to complete the puzzle
of your heart with no guide, once again.

You are here now
and here is becoming home
because you are piecing yourself whole again
and you are learning that no guide is ok
because now you get to decide what whole is
and how whole feels
and then one day you'll learn that the storm
wasn’t the only force raging inside of your soul,

Courage was there all along raging just as strong.
Courage was the pounding on the door of now, bruised fists and all.
Courage was the piecing together of your heart again.

And soon you’ll learn that underneath all of the rubble and pain,
you were always whole—pieces of your heart together or not,
you are and have always been undeniably whole.

Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I hope that you all took away at least a little piece of what I have shared today. I really appreciate your time. So thank you again.