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RESPECT Institute Story: Christina

My name is Christina and this is my story. I was born in Queens, New York City as the youngest child of two Croatian immigrants, with a sister 12 years older than I. Some of my first memories of childhood are feeling what I now know to be anxiety.

RESPECT Institute Story Two

Before Skyland, I thought trauma was what happened to soldiers and assault victims. I didn’t think my life experience qualified, but I now realize that trauma can take many forms and other peoples’ experiences do not invalidate my own.

As a young child I would always nervously cling to my parents whenever we were somewhere new. I continued to be an anxious kid throughout childhood, which I think was best illustrated by my birthday parties every year. Every time the cake would come out and it was time to sing, I’d slip under the table and hide until they were done. I remember absolutely hating having everyone’s attention on me. At the time, it was the worst feeling in the world. My family always chalked this up to me just being shy, and it sort of became a running joke.

My dad didn’t want to “coddle” this behavior and would constantly tell me not to act “like a baby” any time I cried about something he deemed trivial. A recurring part of my childhood was him reminding me that I didn’t have it as bad as he did while growing up and that my pain wasn’t valid and I shouldn’t complain because there were others that had it worse.

I would view my parents fight on a daily basis and never saw them show an ounce of affection towards each other. It wasn’t until later that I realized this wasn’t healthy or normal behavior. I always felt loved as a kid, so as an adult, it took me until recently to realize the effect of constant invalidation.

I was very close to my dad as a kid but always feared him. Most of the time, he was the sweetest, most loving guy, but other times I viewed him as a monster. He would yell a lot and when he got frustrated, he would just explode. There’d be times when he would get triggered by me crying. I remember a time when I was frustrated with my homework and crying over not being able to do it. He took all my books and just threw them across the room. In retrospect, he clearly suffered from undiagnosed mental health issues and a childhood filled with trauma. I can recognize that his intentions were to be a loving and supportive father, but he didn’t have the tools to completely live up to that.

By the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I began feeling self-conscious and started getting teased. I always felt awkward and out of place. I had close friends growing up, but I was never the popular kid.

As I got into middle school, my parents fought more and more and eventually got divorced, with my dad moving out of the house. I saw him often, but he’d always make me feel horrible and guilty for not communicating with him enough and not being the one to reach out to him. Our relationship became more strained, and I became a teenager who didn’t want to spend every weekend with him.

By the time high school rolled around, I kept mostly to myself and hung out with a few friends who went to other schools. This was around the time my social anxiety and depression really started to manifest. I still managed to somehow do well in school, but started acting out, smoking cigarettes, and shoplifting.

When I was 15, my mom was diagnosed with ALS. I remember being scared as hell after I found out, and that emotion didn’t go away for the next three years. We knew my mom would die of this disease, but we didn’t know when. There was no treatment, no medicine, and definitely no cure. She went from limping to not being able to walk without assistance to not being mobile at all.

My sister and I were her main caretakers, along with a daytime home health aide and my aunt. We had to do everything for her. We helped her out of bed, to the toilet, to getting dressed and undressed, to turning her in bed when she could not even move herself. While her mind stayed intact, she was just unable to do anything. I think during these years I built up a lot of resentment toward her.

I was extremely angry that all of this was happening to us. I didn’t want my mom to die. I didn’t want all this responsibility. I just wanted to be a normal teenager. I didn’t know how to process my emotions, so I yelled, I cursed, I threw things, punched holes in the wall, and took most of my frustration out on my mom. I would often curse her out and tell her that I hated her. I also did not have a strong relationship with her while growing up and it continued to worsen.

Depression was really setting in now. I sometimes self-harmed, once even showing my mom and telling her it was her fault. My outlet during this time was staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. every night, hanging out on the internet, chain-smoking, and enjoying the only solitary time I had without feeling bothered by everyone and everything happening around me.

I met my first boyfriend during my senior year of high school and we would be together for the next seven years. He really became my support system through the last year of my mom’s life. I had a decent GPA and passed high school, but the only obvious choice was to go to community college. I just didn’t know or care about what I wanted to do.

I was 18 and a freshman when my mom died. Her respiratory muscles were the last to go and she passed in her sleep. While there was some relief, I spent a lot of time feeling either numb or extremely emotional and guilty for my actions. Mostly this period of time is a blur.

Soon after starting my first job at a large animal rescue and adoption organization, I sought out mental health care for debilitating anxiety, specifically social anxiety and panic attacks. I was put on medication for the first time ever, and it seemed to really help a lot, especially with my anxiety. I was soon promoted from being a part-time kennel associate to being a full-time assistant manager. Even though I was still working through my social anxiety, I took the promotion and ran with it. I received seven more promotions, eventually becoming Shelter Director, in charge of several department heads and the entire operation.

During this time, I grew so much professionally, but gave up so much personally. I didn’t have a life outside of work. I was well-liked and respected at work, and a lot about my job felt very personally fulfilling. I was conquering my social anxiety, even doing live television interviews as a spokesperson for the organization. These things would have been unimaginable to the earlier me; I felt like I was making real progress.

While things seemed to be going well, there was no balance. I had given up my sense of self and devoted every ounce of energy into my work. At work, I was important, knowledgeable, and confident. I was a problem solver who people could count on. But outside of work, I wasn’t really sure who I was. During this time my boyfriend and I broke up after being together for seven years. I began meeting guys online while working 60+ hours a week and threw myself into several unhealthy relationships. In all these relationships, there was a constant theme of me being the caretaker. There were always red flags I ignored because I felt like I could be the one to fix them. In between these relationships, I was promiscuous and would put myself in dangerous situations. I just wanted to feel a human connection and an escape from my chaotic reality.

In my last year of working there, I was stressed beyond belief, overworked, and emotionally abused and disrespected by my boss, all while struggling with chronic pain from a recent car accident.

In 2016, I met my current boyfriend. He was supposed to be no more than a one-night stand, but turned into the most supportive, important person in my life. He was completely different from anyone else I had dated. He wasn’t trying to play games with me and there were no red flags. I think for the first time, I saw the possibility of having a meaningful life outside of work.

Soon after meeting him, the toxicity at work got worse and worse, with my boss verbally abusing me in my own office. Two days later, I left my whole world behind and quit with no notice. My boyfriend was a huge support system and helped me to see that my life wasn’t over, but it was really hard. I had developed an identity at my job and a family too. I eventually found another job managing two veterinary offices, which I did until I moved to Atlanta in the summer of 2018. Though this job was not without stress and I put unnecessary pressure on myself, I had more of a work-life balance.

In the spring of 2018, I became more and more anxious, especially at work. I began slipping into a major depressive episode and isolating myself from the world more and more. By the time we moved to Atlanta for my boyfriend’s job, things had gotten a lot worse. I saw a psychiatrist to adjust my medication, thinking a new dose would fix all my problems again. But I would soon find out it wasn’t that easy.

I planned to get a job within a month of moving here, but every time I tried to search for jobs, I was crippled with anxiety and my thoughts would spiral out of control. What if I can’t do this? What if I don’t know how to do anything ever again? What if I was never really good at my job? I could hardly breathe in these moments thinking about how stupid and useless I was and deciding I should just give up. I know now these were cognitive distortions, but I still struggle with these thoughts.

I began an existence of sitting on the couch, never getting dressed or showering, getting stoned every day, and binge eating as a coping mechanism. I was in the midst of a major depressive episode, but I just constantly labeled myself as lazy. My whole life that’s what I’d been told about people like me.

I spent every day wishing I were dead. A journal entry I found from this time period reads: It’s as if I’m trying to swim with a heavy boulder strapped to one foot. Trying to swim toward land, water getting in my nose, into my eyes, choking me. Feeling like I’m never going to get to land, so I let the water swallow me up, flow into my nose, and I slowly sink to the bottom, accepting that I can’t fight with this heavy rock weighing me down.

I wanted so badly to have hope that it was going to get better, that this feeling would someday go away, but keeping hope afloat was hard too. My debilitating physical pain compounded with my depression had left me feeling even more hopeless. Even if my brain got better, I’d still be stuck in a broken body. I tried to remember the last time I was truly happy and couldn’t. This imposter robbed me of my memories too.

Some small spark of energy and desperation led me to finding a helpful support group where I connected with others with similar struggles. One of my fellow group members had mentioned an intensive outpatient program, and I was intrigued. I didn’t know that there was a middle ground between hospitalization and weekly therapy, but this was exactly what I needed.

I started day treatment and finally felt a tiny bit of hope, even though I still didn’t believe anyone could really help me. I decided to give it my all and be vulnerable and put everything on the table. At first it felt easy and good, but as treatment continued to progress, it got hard. I felt worse and like I didn’t have the will to live. I felt like I wasn’t getting better and I wasn’t going to get better.

I discovered that I had experienced trauma in my life. Before Skyland, I thought trauma was what happened to soldiers and assault victims. I didn’t think my life experience qualified, but I now realize that trauma can take many forms and other peoples’ experiences do not invalidate my own. My treatment team explained to me and I learned that this is all part of the process. There’s no easy road to recovery, and it’s not a linear path. There are lots of setbacks, and it takes time to get better.

Hearing other people’s stories and participating in a community made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I was able to open up to a validating and supportive group of people who wanted me to get better, some days even more than I did.

It wasn’t until I got close to the end of treatment that I realized I wasn’t going to walk out of Skyland as a happy, recovered person. I remind myself every day that recovery isn’t linear and that setbacks are part of the process. I continue to struggle with depression and anxiety, and I still wake up and have very challenging days. But I know that I’ve made significant progress in such a short amount of time. Even though I’ve graduated from treatment, my struggles with my mental health are not over. When I first met with my therapist after Skyland, we discussed that this was just the beginning of my recovery, which was a hard pill to swallow. Like an onion, the more I peel back, the more I learn about myself and the past trauma I now know I must work through to get to where I want to be.

I’ve realized that my passion truly lies in connecting with and helping others. I want to serve as a mental health advocate by shining a light on what is often hidden and considered shameful. Only by talking about these dark, terrible experiences can we work to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. I’m tired of people mistaking depression for laziness and no longer want those of us suffering with mental illness to be labeled as broken because we needed to take time to focus on our mental health.

My hope is that we can continue to prioritize mental health care, making it more accessible and affordable for those in need. I hope everyone can walk out of here today knowing that mental health is just as important as physical health.

To those who are supporting someone struggling with mental illness, please try to remember that we are fighting a daily battle. We may feel and act differently on a daily basis, we may have days where we’re just too tired to put the work in and still we are doing the best we can! Try not to make assumptions based on your own experiences or what you’ve been taught. Recovery truly is a journey full of setbacks and is by no means a straight line.

Thank you for listening to my story.

Christina is a Skyland Trail alumna 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.