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My name is Sarah, and this is my story.

My story began at the very early age of 6, when my mother’s undiagnosed mental illness and my father’s alcoholism reached their inevitable peaks and as a result, witnessed domestic violence between my parents for the first time. It started with yelling, screaming of insults and throwing objects into walls, and escalated over the next three years to include physical injuries to my mother.

My father, a funny looking and generally kind and humorous man of 45 became a completely different person when drinking. He became another man, a foolish, drunken, perverted man who spoke and acted in ways inappropriate for a child’s eyes. This lead my mother to lash out, and one way or the other, would end up attempting to injure him. Which ended up resulting in her injuring herself instead, though how she managed this was still, and will certainly hopefully, remain a mystery to me.

When my mother’s illness over took her one night, she kicked in the door of a neighbor, and after an altercation was arrested and charged with assault. Soon after, my father would be arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, as well as vandalism. With the possibility of jail time for my mother’s assault charge, my parents chose to leave the state and, for lack of a better word, hide in Alaska where my mother spent her high school years.

They packed me, our pets, and some important possessions into my father’s red work van and began the drive that would take us from Oregon, through Seattle and Canada, and into the forests that make up Alaska. During this month long trip, I would witness my mother have multiple seizures due to withdrawls from marijuana and her mental health medication, Prozac. They occurred during the night, when my father was asleep and I, as a small child and who was suffering too much anxiety and panic to be able to sleep well most nights, would see each one take place. However, due to my age, my father did not believe me when I told him about what I would see at night. Those four weeks would not be the worst in my life, but would become, as I aged, one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.

When my mother had a seizure in the day time at the Alaskan border, she was finally given help and was able to see a doctor once we arrived in Alaska. The following year she was only half of a mother. Mentally she could not recall much, and what she did recall only seemed to spur on her anger at my father, who in turn, would only drink more. This pattern continued until my father passed away before my eyes less then a year after arriving in Alaska.

I was only 9 years old when I found my father the night of his death, and I will never be able to get the images and emotional responses out of my head. We moved back to my home state, Oregon, after his death, and my mother began trying to recover from her loss, while ignoring that I had also lost someone. A father.

I, over the next 6 months, watched as my mother partied most Friday and weekend nights, leaving me alone in the small rental house to cope with his passing on my own. It was during this time that I thought about death. About his death, about my own death. I did not know about anxiety and depression. I did not understand mental illness or why I was feeling the way I was. I just knew that I wondered what It would be like to die, and soon I would try to find out just that.

At the age of 11, I self-harmed for the first time. As this progressed, I became increasingly withdrawn from friends and family. Even as my home life improved with my mother’s mental health treatment, I was falling deeper and deeper into the dark hole of depression and suicidality. I made my first, but sadly not last, endeavor at ending my life.

By the time I was 12 and going into middle school, I had already physically recovered from my first encounter with my own mortality. However within a few days of middle school I became unbelievably anxious, I was terrified of everything. The seemingly irrational fear of the possibility of losing my life, or my mother to another person took hold with a sudden and fierce panic. With this panic came more depression, more self-loathing, and more self harm. I soon found myself refusing to go to school, to the point of breaking my own feet in order to force my mother to let me stay home. My mother, who did not know what to do for a child experiencing these things, did what I, the child, wanted to do, and let me skip school. Eventually this lead to my complete withdrawal from society and my second brush with death.

As the years went by, I was passed onto high school without going to school more then a few days a semester. Once there, my mother renewed her efforts to get me help. She found a counselor for me to go to, despite not having money or insurance for me, and tried to encourage me to go to high school. This, however, had the opposite effect.

My counselor, if she can be reasonably called that, was a short, mean woman who cared little for me or my mother. She was much more focused on my weight and the assumption that I had been molested, which I had not, that she went as far as to talk to me about sex to see my response, while ignoring anything else I told her about how I was feeling. When my mother could no longer afford to pay her, she had her served for the money she owed. The problem was, though, that as my mother worked 7 days a week, I, at 14, in the summer before high school was given the court paper’s meant for my mother, and read the nasty, hateful things within them.

I attended only 6 months of high school before my depression once again forced me back into my house, and I withdrew from the world for the second time. I would come face to face with my own mortality one more time, and find myself at the edge of a fourth endeavor, before I found the inner strength to pull myself from the abyss.

This strength came from hearing about my God-mother’s cancer diagnosis, and finding out that it was terminal. I sat there, implement in hand on the hot summer night, at the age of 17, about to take that potentially final step for the fourth time, when, for the smallest of moments, I felt numb. Not the numb of depression, or the intense numbness following the choice to face that darkest of thoughts again. No, this was peaceful. And in those few precious moments I saw my aunt fighting for a life she knew would end. I saw my family’s faces as they watched her weakening. I thought about my therapy cat, who only ever loved me, and about my mother. And in that moment my determination wavered, started to break apart, and I cried. Long and hard and painfully, because I was not faced with the decision to die anymore. I was faced with the overwhelming need to live.

 

The next morning I felt that I was unchained from the anger, the depression, the anxiety, the hate, the bitterness of isolation and loneliness. I smiled for the first time in years.

I began to go to school online, got out into the world more, slowly, so slowly that slugs passed me as I tried to walk out the door for those first few times. It became a littler easier each day, with each try and step and breath of fresh air. I soon found myself working with a guidance counselor at my online school, who, after much talking, begging, pushing and pulling, got me to go into a NAMI office.

I walked in and felt at home. I began to go there once a week, then twice a week, then everyday. I would hide in the back, covered head to toe in black clothing, huge, panda-like black eyeliner surrounding my eyes, and I would talk to the other volunteers as I worked on their website. One person in particular spoke to me nearly every time I was in the office. She shared her story with me, showed me her scars from years of self harm, and slowly coaxed me into participating in her group. I loved it! I was understood, accepted, and I knew I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be the one to extend my hand to others.

I became a facilitator for their support groups the following year. As time went on, I continued volunteering there, eventually finding the courage to lead three support groups a week and offer to help at outreach events. I became the one to extend my hand to others, to tell them that I would be ok, that it does get better. I began acting as a presenter at the opening of other programs in the community, at high schools and middle schools telling my story to parents and teachers, and even at big events. I went from a girl pushed passed her limits, lost in darkness, to a strong, confident woman who knew she wanted to spend her life helping others.

I finished high school, graduated from college at 22, took peer classes to become a peer support specialist, and, eventually, got my first official job working with people in mental health crisis. I am now the one people in need come to for support. At 25, I have become someone useful, helpful. I have started to become the person I needed when I was a child. I plan to continue schooling for a doctorate in psychology. I want to work with children from broken homes, and with those with severe anger issues and mental health symptoms. I want to be the support they and their families need to stand up again, before they reach their breaking points, before a child or parent, or teenager has begun to lose their fight. I intend to fight with them.

I still have my ups and downs. I have been given a lot of big sounding labels since I was a teenager: bipolar, PTSD, anxiety, depression, mania… I could go on, but I wont let those labels define me, or anyone else. Because we are so much more then the illness we face. I am not a victim of this illness, I am a survivor. A warrior. And one day you can become one, in your own way, in your own time, in your own life. It wont be easy. There are times, years into recovery, when I still sit in that all too familiar darkness and cry as the memories flood my brain. There are still moments I look at the scars on my body, the ones that will never fade, and think-just one more time, just to feel it! I still feel the pain of loss, and the frustration of losing so much to an illness so many can’t understand or believe in.

But I’m here, living proof, that we still move forword. Even when we are reminded of the past, even when we are meeting our old foe’s in the darkness of the night, we can still wake up the next day and, like true warriors, carry those scars like armor. Because they are proof that I, that WE, are still here. That the dragons and demons and trolls that came for us were, and will be eventually, defeated.

 

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