According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5% of adults in the United States experience mental illness every year. That's a significant portion of our population—one in five people—yet the stigma and misunderstanding that surround mental health remain rampant. That's why in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we put the call out to our readers to share their own experiences with mental illness: their victories, their struggles, and what it's really like to negotiate a society that makes misguided assumptions about who you are based on an arbitrary definition of the word "normal." Our series My Life With highlights the raw, unfiltered stories of women who deal with anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and more, all in their own words. Below, reader Sophia shares how she's still recovering from the trauma of abuse.
There isn’t a time I can recall my life without depression or anxiety. That's something I can attest to as well as the several therapy sessions I have been to since I was 12. Being a psychology student, I often analyze myself in the present, past, and future tense. I like to think of myself as my own lab rat, but maybe it's just a way to avoid my reality.
From a young age, I always knew I was to behave one way in public, one way at home, and there was never a real me to be. I was always the best daughter, the best friend, the trophy girlfriend, but I never knew who I was.
I came to know of the mental illnesses that plagued me when I was admitted to see a therapist at 12 about an eating disorder. From there, a few other things unfolded. My anxiety and severe depression were evident as the bones and cuts on my body. Yet I didn't want help; my parents made me feel like a burden as much as my doctors made me feel like I was going through a phase. In those six months, I gave up on the medical system because all it gave me was more grief.
I grew up in a house where I didn't know that I was abused. The abuse I went through was physical but mostly mental. I was controlled by my parents to the point where others commented where they "found me." I was perfect, to everyone except my parents. The control I lost from them caused me much grief. To gain some control, I used food, minimizing my portions to minimize my body. Additionally, you can imagine the anxiety one gets when they are repressing themselves and always in fear of punishment. As well the depression that follows, a life of abuse from birth doesn't leave much hope for one to live. Thus, being around doctors who didn't listen to me made me feel like I was drowning. No one ever told me the abuse inflicted on me as a child would cause chaos in my life and health. Even when it would leave me, I would still be plagued with its aftermath.
Once I turned 18, I moved out. A lot of things changed. I finally ate without having overbearing thoughts, yet this led me to gain a tremendous amount of weight in less than a year. I could be myself with no one to tell me what to do. I love my family as much as I hate the people they were to me, yet I still yearn for a family that doesn't make me disgusted at arm's length. Leaving my family saved me from them and myself. I was at a point of freedom from constant abuse in my life, and finally, I could breathe. The problem was that I didn't even realize my mental instability would still ruin me.
Shortly after moving out, I found myself in a relationship where I was sexually assaulted. It wasn't how we picture sexual assault, of a stranger who grabs you and shreds you to pieces. It's the ones we don't notice, the ones that are subtler. I was with a man and I realized I was in position to fight and face a wrath I had no control over or succumb and face the trauma I had some control over. I don't know if my choice was the right one as of now, but at the time, it was the best. From there truly began my downfall.
After realizing people who were supposed to love me didn't—I was a game piece in their life, and if I met their needs, only then was I perfection to them—I truly let myself go. I drank to forget, did drugs to stabilize my mood, and ate to soak up the morning after. This was a cycle of "fun." I let myself become the piece everyone wanted to use except now I was in control; even if I wasn't, I was too inebriated to recall it. There are many years of my life I don't remember from trauma, but there is also a whole year I can't recall due to substance abuse.
Only a few moments after leaving the reigns of one traumatic event did I find myself in another. I had no doubt I was nearing my end; I didn't find my purpose, and as a person, I didn't feel validated. I was the friend who knew to uplift others, but to myself, I was toxic. I was truly living in a cycle where I didn't care if I lived because I had no purpose. But as if my thoughts were heard, I found a sign.
I have always believed in signs and manifestation. It can seem a little out there for most, but to me they are crucial. So when I came across a TED Talk of a doctor speaking on how abuse affects children, for once I felt heard. I was the child they were speaking of, and there were credible people who understood the turmoils faced by children who are abused. That showed me my purpose: that I had a voice for others, the voice I didn't have for myself growing up. But in order to help others, I needed to help myself.
It took six months of therapy with three psychologists (one who made me suicidal) and a neurologist to help balance hormones. In those months, I also went completely sober, save for the monthly drink. I enrolled back in school full-time and finally started a job I love. I am completely grateful to the friends who stayed by my side from my ups and downs. On the other hand, I had a handful of people I had to leave because they brought nothing but grief to my life. I have always been someone who looks put together on the outside, but it was time to solidify that on the inside.
Currently, I am still in school full-time and working. My life took a Goop-like turn in that I now mostly eat clean and keep drinking to a minimum (once a month). I still see my therapist twice a month and am still working around my mental stability. I was the girl who never believed I would have a reason to live, yet now I do. Not to sound cliché, because some days it's still hard to see through the fog of my depression, but I have stability now that allows me to overcome such obstacles.
I hope my words illustrate that just because someone looks put together doesn't mean they are and that anyone who never believed life would be worth living—anyone like me—it is worth it. We are all valid as people, and your existence matters.