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RESPECT Institute Story: Victoria

Hello my name is Victoria and this is my story.

I was born in North Carolina and raised in Georgia. My father was a retired naval aviator turned software developer, and my mother a homemaker. My father traveled a lot for work leaving my mother to handle the day-to-day, but that didn’t stop him from keeping a tight rein on the family with fear-based discipline and over-the-top physical punishments.

Victoria's RESPECT Story

I truly feel that had I been given access to or even had mental health care explained to me during my adolescence, my journey would have looked much different.

From a young age, I was witness to a lot of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse between my parents—nine times out of ten fueled by my father’s excessive drinking. Even with this family dysfunction, I strived to be a typical kid. I played sports. I did my best in school. I had a lot friends and even had some not-so-typical imaginary friends, which most attributed to my extremely overactive and creative imagination.

At the age of 11, my parents filed for divorce. With my dad’s infidelity putting my mother into a depressive state and giving her no choice but to go back to work, I had to step up as a secondary caregiver to my two younger sisters.

With my mother working constantly and mourning the loss of her marriage, having two sisters who weren’t quite old enough to understand what was going on, and a father whose only response to any emotional turmoil was, “Suck it up, buttercup,” I felt isolated and was having a hard time coping with everything. To make things even more confusing, I was having my first experience hearing voices.

These weren’t the voices of the imaginary friends that I knew as a young child, they were different. Some were nice. Some were mean. Some were downright scary, but the one that stood out the most, was that of a mother figure who helped me raise my sisters.

She gave me a feeling of comfort and security, encouraging me to act as if I was their mother so much so, that they began calling me mom. This marked the beginning of a very turbulent and detached relationship with my mother.

By the age of 15, I started having my first experiences with anxiety and depression. Over the years, I had been silently struggling with the idea of hearing voices, which by then had become even more intrusive. I was concerned that I could be psychotic or schizophrenic, but that was something I was too terrified and embarrassed to explore. I convinced myself that it was just my conscious.

I was also beginning to question my sexual orientation and sometimes even my gender identity, specifically my internal feelings of being male and sometimes being both male and female at one time, which was extremely difficult to understand. Along with this, I was also starting to experience memory loss and behavioral issues. I was unable to recall conversations, responsibilities, actions, even people and because all of these things were something that I felt I could not take to my conservative Christian mother, I was constantly lashing out at my family and authority figures.

My mom had me put on antidepressants, but because of the intense stigma my father engrained in me that mental health equaled weakness—and the obvious disgust he showed towards my treatment—I stopped taking my meds and suffered my first episode of agoraphobia, a fear of places or situations that might cause panic. I couldn’t leave my house without being riddled with severe nausea or vomiting from the anxiety. I would chug a bottle of Pepto every morning just to make it to school, hiding in-between classes behind lockers just to catch a breath, and spending the afternoons locked up in my room.

My parents brushed off my behavior as simple car sickness and even ignored a lot of my other warning signs, chalking it up to me being an angst-filled teenager. By the end of high school, my agoraphobia had subsided and the uncharacteristic behaviors began.

I had been engaging in promiscuity, infidelity, and waking up with cuts on my body with no absolutely no recollection of my actions. This put a huge strain on several relationships and earned me the title of a compulsive liar and the inability to gain the trust of anyone around me. This only led me into a deeper state of depression and isolation, spending more time listening to the voices in my head than the voices around me. Even with this going on, I was able to graduate high school, attend a technical school, and obtain a job.

All was well until, at the age of 19, my mother and sisters moved away with no notice to me, and I was forced to move in with my abusive father. That was my last memory of being 19 and still to this day, I have no recollection of my life between the ages of 20 and 22.

At 23 I had moved out of my father’s house, started a career in mortgage banking, and was quickly moving up the ladder to a successful career only to be met with a very painful reproductive disease called endometriosis. I went through three surgeries only to be told I would most likely never have children and with this, was thrown into my second episode of agoraphobia.

I was forced to take medical leave from work. I didn’t leave my apartment for three months. I paid my roommate to get groceries for me, and lived off anything that could be delivered. I ended up being let go from my job and would go on to suffer three more agoraphobic episodes over the next two years, each one getting progressively worse, pushing me farther from my family, further into my head, and destroying the career I worked so hard to achieve. My life continued to ebb and flow.

By the age of 30, I had lost the love of my life, was forced to terminate a pregnancy, became pregnant again, married the father of our now beautiful eight-year-old son, and survived ovarian cancer leaving me hollowed out and deep in the throes of menopause.

As I’m sure you can imagine, my depression and anxiety were thriving—as were the voices in my head. My memory issues also returned, and I started engaging in behaviors that I had not dabbled in since high school.

For the next three years I would go on to have an affair, divorced my husband, change my last name twice, sell my home, blow through the proceeds in less than a year, cut out family members, was arrested for shoplifting, became extremely promiscuous and put myself in very dangerous situations, some resulting in trips to the hospital and on two occasions ending in rape.

I finally fell into another episode of agoraphobia, and it wasn’t until I received a call from my son’s school letting me know that he was sick and needed to be picked up that I realized I can’t pick him up. I can’t even leave the house. I can’t live like this, and I needed help.

At 34, I took a medical leave of absence from my current job and admitted myself into a mental health facility called Skyland Trail. I attended their day treatment program on the Dialectic Behavioral Therapy track (DBT). It was at this time that I was diagnoses with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Depression.

Unfortunately, I did myself a bit of a disservice during this time as I was extremely willful in my treatment and under no circumstances was I going to let anyone know that I had been hearing voices from a young age. I thought, ‘The minute I say something they are going to label me as certifiable and have my child taken away from me.’ Plus, by now, the voices I had been hearing had become a sense of comfort and guidance for me, with the exception of the mean ones of course.

I successfully completed the 90-day program and was able to return to work even receiving a promotion right out of treatment. I continued on to excel in my career as a fraud manager and even got a break from the voices in my head. I was living what was a seemingly normal new life.

In October of 2017 that changed. My best friend from high school took her own life. I was devastated, and just like that the voices came back loud and clear. In addition to the voices, I developed debilitating headaches that would last for days, and I began having out of body experiences. If things got to difficult, overwhelming, too upsetting, or if I was just tired, it was as if I had floated outside of my body and was watching my life play out in front of me, almost like a movie.

By December I was experiencing memory issues again and by January, was coming to or waking up in random places and having no idea how I got there. I was forgetting how to get to work, how to work, where I lived, and on a few occasions forgetting how to drive while I was driving. With all these experiences, I was forced to go on medical leave to protect my job in March of 2018. Less than two weeks later while sitting in a hammock with my son, I experienced my first grand mal seizure. This would be the first of many, many more to come.

Right off the bat I was diagnosed with epilepsy. My ability to drive was revoked and any sense of independence was stripped. I tried several medications and, no matter what I tried, I was still seizing. What made this situation even more difficult is under the surface I felt I was having more experiences out of my body than I was in it. I had no control over who or what I was or what I was doing. I felt nonexistent.

After five months of continuous testing, my diagnoses was changed from epilepsy to psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES). The doctors told me the seizures were all in my head—most likely from stress. They handed me a pamphlet on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and wished me luck. Because I had such a positive experience at Skyland Trail the first time, I decided to admit myself into their cognitive behavioral program.

By the time I started my second round of treatment, my sense of self was completely nonexistent. I had shaved my head on a whim, was dressing more masculine, not wearing makeup, and honestly not sure of who or how I identified. They took notice.

I remember my personal counselor asking, “Why the change? You look so different.” I made up some lie about why I shaved my head, but couldn’t give him a straight answer on anything else. All I knew is I wanted to find one.

Treatment was hard. I had to leave my son for three months. I was still seizing, sometimes even in groups. I had to walk around with rug burns on my face or the embarrassment on my back, and still muster up the mental energy to stay present. This time around I underwent physiological testing, during which, I was asked about hearing voices and once again I was terrified to answer. By this point I was certain with everything else going on, voices would guarantee the loss of my son. But I decided to give in, I completed the testing and the results changed my life.

I was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID) with bipolar spectrum disorder—better known by the public as multiple personality disorder.

Having my doctors explain what this meant was shocking to say the least, but it set me free. It meant that I wasn’t crazy, that the imaginary friends I had as a child, the internal mother figure that helped me raise my sisters, the voices that I was once so terrified of, were anything but. They were a part of me, my pride of lions that fought for me when I no longer could. It meant that my mind was brilliant. It had created an internal family system to make up for the lack of an external one. It meant that I could get the treatment I needed to be the present mother I knew I could be. It answered so many unanswered questions that it allowed for me to lay the foundation for a true and strong recovery.

Since the end of my treatment, I have been attending DID support groups, one-on-one trauma therapy, and even family therapy with my parts or alters, learning to work together and gain an understanding that if you are going to ride my struggle bus, you can sit next me, sit in the back, offer directions, even ask to pull over if needed, but that I was the driver. I would be the one in control. I truly feel that had I been given access to or even had mental health care explained to me during my adolescence, my journey would have looked much different.

My goal is to help lift the stigma of mental health care and provide the education and resources needed to show that you can go on to live a fulfilling life after a diagnosis.

I want to help remove the fear associated with mental health diagnoses, especially ones that have been demonized by the entertainment industry, not only for the people living with them, but also for those that walk beside them.

Victoria 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.