By Alex Berthelot
My name is Alex and I am here to share my journey through mental illness and recovery!
My journey with mental illness began when I was a kid and diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was really distressing for a while however as I grew older it began to get easier to manage. As the OCD started to get better, the depression kicked in at age 13. I began crying a lot at school and I wasn’t able to figure out why. All I knew is that I felt really alone and none of my peers seemed to quite understand what I was going through.
I resorted to self harm in 8th grade and I so badly wish I could go back to that night, the moment before I hurt myself for the first time, and give my younger self a big hug and let her know that hurting yourself physically will not dull the pain on the inside, in fact it will make it much worse in the long run.
Years went by and things got a little better, I switched schools in 10th grade and finally thought I found a school where I fit in with my peers. It didn’t take long for me to become involved in a horribly controlling relationship that was abusive in almost all ways you can imagine. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that abusive relationships can happen at any age. Just because my abuser was 16 years old doesn’t justify it, and it doesn’t mean it wasn’t abuse. I tried so hard to reach out for help over the course of that relationship but no one believed me for reasons which I still fail to understand.
Thinking back to this time in my life is hard. It was such an incredibly dark time. My self harming behaviors became so severe that the people at the urgent care near my house knew why I would come in every time and the suicidal thoughts were overwhelming. The abuse was so bad that my body’s coping mechanism became to dissociate and detach myself completely from the present and live partially disconnected from daily life and my junior year of high school I spent more time in different psychiatric hospitals than I did at school. It became clear to my therapist and parents that I needed a higher level of care than I could receive at home and so when I was 16 years old my mom and I flew across the country to Utah and I was admitted to a residential treatment center there. I would not be standing here right now had I not gone to residential treatment back in 11th grade. I worked the program, worked hard in therapy and graduated and was able to move home after 8 months of living there. However, the month after I graduated that program I relapsed with self harm.
The next 3 years are a bit of a blur, I still struggled with self harm and depression but I managed and I graduated high school and moved to college which are 2 things I never thought I would be able to do. The first year of college was not without its struggles but I managed to enjoy most of it. However my Sophomore year is when my mental health started to decline rapidly. Second semester sophomore year is when I became really truly incapacitated by my mental illness. I ended up experiencing a manic episode, which is something I had never experienced before. I was feeling so incredibly good, I thought I was cured from all of the pain depression and PTSD brought along so I quit therapy. Soon the good energy I was feeling turned into angry pent up energy and I was barely able to sleep for a week. I started taking too much of my sleeping medication to try and help me sleep and ended up crashing really hard and really fast. The depression was back but this was no longer functioning depression, this was not being able to get out of bed for a week other than to use the restroom type of depression. I forfeited everything necessary to survive such as food and showering because I literally was so incapacitated, apathetic and lethargic. My roommates were starting to get really worried about me (for good reason) however my depression convinced me that there was no problem. My self harming behaviors were out of control and the suicidal thoughts were becoming so loud and it really seemed like the only way out was death. I remember sitting on my bed staring at my prescription medication. I knew I was on medication that could really be dangerous in an overdose situation and I wish so badly I could go back to that night and tell myself what I know now. Even though my depression was telling me that I wanted to die, I know now that I just wanted to no longer be in such emotional pain. So often depression convinces you that the only way out of such pain is through death and so a year and a half ago I tried so hard to leave this world. The next couple of days are a blur, I woke up to the sounds of the hospital machines that were keeping me alive and just stared at the ceiling in disbelief. I never imagined myself alive at age 20, but there I was in a cold hospital room, hopeless but alive. It took almost a week for me to be medically stable enough to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital and after I was discharged from psych, I withdrew from school and moved home and began treatment at Skyland Trail.
It was about 1 month into my stay at Skyland that I finally realized that I either put my all into recovery or I die. I realized recovery is not going to work if I only recover for my family. Recovery is only going to happen if I want it. And so that is when I fully committed to finding my way back to the light, not because my family wanted me to, but because I wanted to.
The biggest, most helpful realization I had at Skyland was realizing that recovery doesn’t mean the absence of mental illness, recovery means learning to live with it in a way that still allows you to have a full and fulfilled life. If you had asked me a year and a half ago if I believed that I would be able to live a life and experience happiness I would have laughed in your face. Now, a year and a half into recovery, I am still learning how to manage my illnesses and it’s still hard at times. In fact since I graduated from Skyland, I have been able to start processing through the trauma I experienced throughout that horrible relationship and this is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life and I am so proud to say that even though talking about it is beyond painful, I am still 100% committed to using the skills I learned to help regulate my emotions and when I need more support, I allow myself to reach out for it which is something I have never done in the past.
Something I really struggled with when I was in the depths of my depression was feeling like I didn’t deserve to be here and that I had no purpose in life. It’s still hard to find a purpose for all of this pain I’ve been through, especially when it comes to the abuse I endured but I am confident in saying that I did not fight through all of this pain and find my way back to the light only to stay quiet about it. I am here to share my story and to let others know that it is so possible to find a life worth living.
At Skyland I was inspired to start keeping an art journal.
Through journaling I came to this realization and learned that the reason I started self harming in the first place was because I was feeling so much emotional pain and distress and I didn’t know how else to convey how bad I was feeling, so I thought that maybe if I hurt myself on the outside, people would realize how badly I was hurting on the inside. That whole plan kind of backfired because I would self harm and immediately cover it up and not let anyone see. And before I knew it I was quite literally addicted to hurting myself. I am so thankful I began journaling and in my journal among random drawings is where I keep my poetry. I have found that even if writing doesn’t completely convey how I’m feeling on the inside, it is still much more effective in communicating the thought process in my head and helps not only me understand myself a bit better, but I also share my journal with my therapist and it helps her know how she can help me best. I found myself writing a piece on New Years Eve, which is typically the day I dread most out of the whole year. I have always detested it because in the past it always felt like a sick slap in the face because I spent a whole year sad. This year was different though. I found myself reflecting on everything that happened in 2016. It was most definitely the hardest year of my life and also the year where I allowed the most healing to take place. I wanted to share this poem with you all:
“this year i found myself broken
before i even knew i was breaking.
sitting on the edge of my bed
staring at the floor of my bedroom,
with a pain in my heart and a sickness in my head
that no living being should experience,
i tried so hard to leave this world
and i came so close to being gone.
i woke up to the sound of the hospital machines
that were keeping me alive and spent the following days
lying in an unfamiliar bed in a cold hospital room,
staring at the ceiling in disbelief.
i never imagined myself alive at age twenty,
but there i was, lying in a hospital bed,
alive, hopeless, but alive.
through this brokenness i was brought to people
who believed i had the strength to piece myself whole again.
and i spent so much of the time pushing them away
because i was afraid to fail at living,
the same way i had failed at dying.
but these people never gave up on me
even when i had long given up on myself,
and soon i started to accept the help i
had convinced my self i was so unworthy of.
this year was brutal.
even now there are times that feel impossible
but in those moments, i remind myself that
even breathing is an act of courage.
there are still days where i curse my sorrow
but i am learning that this pain is what has
taught me compassion in the truest form.
i have spent months unlearning the lies
that years of abuse left me believing true
and planting a garden of self love instead.
i had spent so long living in darkness
that i believed i was beyond repair,
but i am learning that there is no such thing.
i have a place in this world and
i am piecing myself whole again.
i am growing,
i am learning,
i am rebuilding.
i am alive.
and this is only the beginning.”
A year and a half ago, the thought of living without self harm was a joke to me. I never thought I could live without harming myself in some form. I am 21 years old now, I started self harming at age 13 and in those 7 years I was never clean for longer than 8 months. As I stand here right now, I am so proud to say that it’s been over a year since I last cut myself. And if anyone reading this is struggling, I want to let you know that it is ok to reach out and ask for help and it is so possible to find yourself on the other side of all of this pain. If you are hopeless right now, I am lending you some of the hope I have because, I have enough hope for both of us. You are not weak just because you are hurting and you do not have to go through this alone.
Looking back on everything I wish so badly that someone had believed me when I tried to reach out when I was stuck in that abusive relationship. I was left to deal with the pain alone until I finally found a treatment team who believed me. The most powerful thing anyone has ever said to me is ‘I believe you’. So to anyone struggling through an abusive relationship or to anyone who is struggling in finding people who believe you no matter what struggles you are facing. I just want to say, that I do. I believe you. Your pain is real and your pain is valid, and I believe that you can get through this. Keep reaching out because you will find help just as I did. You are worth it, you are worth recovery and you are so worth loving. Hang in there and keep fighting, you’re going to make it through.