How Holly Met U!Shine
To think back to the person, the Holly I was in 2014 and 2015, generates feelings of disbelief, sorrow, curiosity, and joy. My person, the part of myself that makes me ‘me’ was there as it always has been. But the rest? The rest of me was lost in the thickest mental fog I’d ever experienced in my life.
The components of this fog were postpartum-anxiety, panic, and depression, all of which arrived one by one after the birth of my first child. Anxiety was no stranger to my life, but I never named my fearful thoughts as “anxiety” out loud. I’d always referred to myself as a “consistent worrier” which I think may have been my way of sweeping the truth under the rug. But the fearful thoughts, the anxiety I experienced after the hospital sent me home with my newborn baby was crippling and, quite literally at times, suffocating. Everything was terrifying. Everything appeared dangerous. No one could be trusted, least of all myself. I told myself I’d snapped, that I was going crazy. Insane, even. And because I thought I knew I was losing it, I convinced myself not to tell a soul.
Ironically, it seemed that everything I said or did sent red flags flying up all over the place for all to see, a giveaway that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to leave the house or my bed. When I was awake, I was scared out of my mind and indescribably gloomy. When I was tired, I was panicky, filled to the brim with unwanted, displaced adrenaline. A small support group of friends and family helped me take care of my new baby boy while I attempted to make it to the next day. And the next. I thought about seeing a counselor after what seemed like my one hundredth panic attack. But I was embarrassed; ashamed. I was taking an antidepressant, but it was taking ages to kick in, and I was ashamed of that, too. Life felt unbearable. My brain was too loud — too noisy — as if ten million people were talking at once. I convinced myself I would never get better.
I’m here to tell you a few things: One, you can breathe now. I know that was heavy stuff, but I wrote out my story that way on purpose. It’s a true story and a dark one. But I wanted you to understand and possibly feel a slice of what severe bouts with anxiety, panic, depression can be like. Two, I did get better. I went to a counselor; I continued with antidepressants. I learned, and continue to learn, techniques for managing anxiety, panic, and depression. And though the methods, counseling, and medication have not been a panacea for my issues, they’ve helped immensely.
Three, that dark cloud of words you just read through is the inspiration for U!Shine Vienna.
Once I got back on my feet, figuratively and literally, I could feel people in a way I wasn’t able to before my battle with mental illness. Those people were struggling, big time, with mental illness in the same or similar ways I had. The loneliness. The shame. The fear. I wasn’t alone after all. But if I didn’t know I wasn’t alone when I was suffering, how could refugees from war-torn countries realize they weren’t alone in their struggle? What about the traveling spouse? The displaced foreigner? The student aching for familiarity? The people cast out of society because — why, again?
I kept my eyes and ears sharp in case something struck me as a way to reach out my hand to those trapped in their isolation as I had been. I didn’t see anything, didn’t see anything… Until Jenn Winton finally and unexpectedly popped into my world.
Jenn Winton is the founder and executive director of U!Shine which came into existence in 2016. She and I share an Oklahoma connection and have many friends in common, yet somehow, never crossed paths during my time in Oklahoma City. There is so much to say about Jenn, but what’s important to know for this moment is: Jenn gets it. Jenn gets mental illness because she’s battled it herself. She also sees the stigma, lack of support, and unawareness swirling around mental illness which is why she created U!Shine, a mental and emotional health community, devoted to hope, education, resilience, healthy living, support, and empathy. It seemed only natural that we have a conversation about what could be done in Vienna.
In all honesty, I thought Jenn would let me adopt a few of her ideas to the Austrian culture, and that’d be about it. I never for one moment dreamed she’d offer a partnership. But she did, and before I knew it, I was signing U!Shine Vienna into reality alongside my co-founder and dear friend, Michelle Terese Hrvat, who was dedicated to this organization when it was merely an idea.
This story is, more or less, how U!Shine Vienna went from a personal battle with mental illness to a city-wide support group. It also explains, or so I hope, why thinking about the past produces so many mixed emotions including joy, oddly enough. Sorrow, at some point, gives way to joy. It’s important you know that because that’s what U!Shine Vienna represents: there with you in the sorrow, there with you in the joy. No matter your color, culture, shape, size, experiences, beliefs— your sorrows and your joys are worthy of being shared and heard.