My Mental Health Journey: By Andrew

From the Intern’s Desk: Andrew shares his personal journey with mental health,

From the Intern’s Desk: Andrew shares his personal journey with mental health,

Without being fully aware of it, my mental health journey actually started pretty early on due to my family situation. Unfortunately at 2 years old I lost my mother to cancer and from then on my father had to raise me by himself while also working his job; a lot of tension was created as balance was constantly sought. While this intermittent tension and stress was going on, the lack of a mother figure in my life surely took its toll on me in more ways the I am conscious of. In some ways I feel it may have affected me in my relations to others, my needs for intimacy, and of course having a mother figure in my life.

Despite my family situation I  was actually an extremely social, extroverted, and socially apt. Still though, with my family situation at play, in addition to having ADHD, my relationships with other people my age were affected, especially with the hyper behavior of an ADHD child. This became very clear as I reached the higher grade levels in elementary school. With my extroverted, rambunctious nature, I became a lot for other kids and teachers handle. To a point where it seemed like many were automatically annoyed by me and tired of me. I came to truly realize this in 5th grade and steadily began to view self as an annoyance when all I had wanted was to connect with others. I remember feeling  dejected and detached from the rest of my class, not really doing like it was worth it to try and connect with them.

Soon after this 5th grade experience, I started middle school. As with any 13 year old, starting my pre-teens was certainly a very awkward time for me, not at all helping my already existing feelings of alienation and rejection from people my age. Puberty was setting in, my voice was cracking, I was feeling socially awkward and awkward in my body, and connecting with and relating to the others was both hard and scary for me. The social interaction I did get was from people that I simply ate lunch with. It wasn’t about actually having a connection with them, for we didn’t socialize or connect all too well. It was more about not being alone. Spaces where everyone else is sitting and talking together are those that often made me feel the most lonely, or at least that was the case for me.

At one point I did gain some friends. But unfortunately they turned out to be fake friends who avoided me and often bullied me , creating this feeling of rejection and reinforcing my thoughts that I was socially incapable and didn’t deserve friends. As middle school progressed, I steadily went from being a very open , energetic, social, and extroverted kid to being shut in, quiet, detached, self-conscious kid.  By the time highschool had been coming around the corner, I had completely forgotten who that energetic, social kid was.

Highschool provided some hope as well as its own challenges. As I came into highschool, I immediately joined marching band. Having a background in playing music and an attraction to the feeling of community that it brought. It was certainly something wonderful to have as I joined a school of 4,000 other teenagers, all of whom were going through the trials and tribulations that can be the teenage years. Marching band certainly provided me with some structure and a social network. Unfortunately my high school was rather demanding and with that came a more intense and exhausting academic workload.Things like marching band became both tiring and stressful as we worked hard for marching band competitions and I was kept from getting all my stressful school work done which only added to my stress.

With this, socializing in and out of marching band lessened as I became more stressed and more busy. As a teenager it's not easy being able to regulate emotions and react better to situations so I began to experience stress constantly. Soon my time was spent getting work done, getting band done, and not enough of it was spent socializing. In addition, I was still trying to find the right people to connect with and often settled for whoever I could just with sit at lunch. Just like in middle school I didn’t actually have a connection to them, I just didn’t want to be alone and often times this made it so I wasn’t socializing with them I was just sitting there existing silently or on my phone. It's hard to relate to people when you are thrown in to a stressful environment without much choice. You are still trying to figure out who you are, and you go to a school with such intensive work and a large population--that is really hard to handle when you’re a shy nervous kid like I was.

Overall, school and marching band became something of a job that I was stuck in: it was stressful, it was busy, it was tiring, and I didn’t want to be there. That’s the unfortunate thing about American public high school, especially intensive ones, you’re kind of just thrown into a stressful mix of academics and adolescence and expected to figure everything out from there, which can be very hard to do.

In addition to that, I was soon cast into the very dramatic world of teen dating which became my main source of social interaction. As part of a lot of teenagers new to the whole dating thing, feeling kind of pressured by society to be dating, it was a very awkward and dramatic thing that I almost felt pressured to do. It felt like something would be wrong with me if I was didn’t have a girlfriend. Not to mention, I was starved of social interaction and intimacy so it was something I was immediately attracted to: having someone to talk to and be intimate with while also feeling attractive and interesting enough by having someone to validate my looks and behaviours. I was lucky enough to notice when people and because of all these pressures and needs to date I dated anybody was interested, not really considering if or not I actually wanted to date them but instead settling for whatever form of intimacy, validation, and social interaction I could get.

Dating became my crutch, this external thing to bring me happiness. I was depending on other people  for my own happiness instead of developing an inner foundation of happiness, self-support, and self-validation. It was my only source of true social interaction and the only thing feeding my fragile adolescent self-esteem. Incidentally, codependence proves to be a very unhealthy relationship style. This crutch eventually came to hurt me at the beginning of sophomore year (my second year of highschool) when my girlfriend at the time, whom I was more or less attached at the hip with, admitted to cheating on me. This was devastating to me as someone who felt dedicated to, in love with, and who put full trust in her.

My one source of intimacy, socializing, and validation had betrayed my trust and I could not handle it. Up until the very end of the relationship, I tried to still make it work despite the fact that she had cheated but eventually I had to give it up and I remember this intense feeling of hurt that was both emotional and physical. It was truly a mistake to rely on something external like another person as my sole source of well being.

In addition to my one source of social support being ripped away and this feeling of intense, I was also still dealing with the high stress of school and marching band as I went back to my previous socially isolating state. Looking back, this combination of lack of social support, constant high stress, and my history with social connection issues and my family situation created this very dark time for me. Soon enough this dark time came to a focal point when I experienced something of a panicked, almost dissociative episode during band practice one night.

School was becoming very hectic and stressful, I was going through this dark time, and marching band was working us hard and it was all too much to deal with. I remember that specific night feeling so stressed and not being able to control it as it intensified. My head was racing with intrusive thoughts as I worried about the work I needed to get done, but couldn’t because of band practice. It all just got worse and worse in that moment and all of the sudden, awareness of everything blanked and there was nothing. It was this sort of lapse in memory as I went from being stressed and pacing around  to suddenly being seated with my hands clutching the hair on my head and my band director calling my name over and over again till I responded. It was then that I knew something wasn’t right.

With all the stress, loneliness, self esteem issues, and inability to control my emotions that I had been experiencing in my teens, I often wondered if what I had been experiencing was normal. It seemed like everything was easier for other people: getting work done, socializing, being comfortable with one’s self, and just being happy. That terrible episode at band practice kind of forced me to realize that what I was dealing with wasn’t normal and that I needed to get help. I didn’t really know how to come to my Dad to this, despite him always being wonderful and supportive, but on yet another stressful night after band practice I just did it.

I essentially told him “hey, this is what’s been going on and I think I need to get help” and without skipping a beat he was ready to help me find a therapist. He opened up about seeing a life coach and how it had been helpful in dealing with my mothers death and raising a child alone and that lucky for me I am provided a certain number of hours of counselling because of her death.  The process for finding the right therapist was immediately set in place and eventually I was fitted with my wonderful therapist whom I still see today.

With her help I’ve learned to overcome my past issues p,  overcome whatever issues have presented themselves as I learned to build within myself a strong foundation of tools to use in order to handle my depression and anxiety, and also providing skills and encouragement for getting the most out of my life. Nowadays, while I still encounter obstacles, challenges, anxiety, and depression I now find myself in a more stable place where I can handle it.  While all these problems were much more extreme and intense in the past, they are now much more manageable.

Now, at 20, I find that I am in a much better place than was in the past years. I’m no longer that shy, lonely, quiet kid. I’m no longer as stressed and afraid to meet new people and now actually find that making friends is coming much easier to me, giving me a wonderful network of social support which only improves my mental well-being. As I continue through life I find myself learning and growing more and  and getting more and more out of life.

This journey I’ve gone through with mental health and mental illness has given me a lot of compassion and empathy for others who go through their own issues with mental illness and life in general. As I have gone through this journey, and continue to, I’ve found my niche in helping other as I have developed a knack for being a good compassionate listener and advice giver. It feels good and right to give back , imparting what I’ve learned in my life on to others who ask, and make sure others don’t have to go through life alone.