My Mental Health Journey's Story

Me cuddling with my dog on the floor, to help cheer me up, during a bad depressive episode

In addition to being Ehlers Danlos Awareness Month, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, where people try to bring these stories to light to reduce stigma. So I wanted to tell you about my story. (PS for those who are saying to be careful with sharing this, my ex and his lawyer know all about this already as does social services and fortunately, it hasn't been able to hurt me.) Warning- I will be talking about some triggering stuff.

I had a pretty miserable childhood. I dealt with a lot of abuse at home, physically, verbally and emotionally, was bullied in school, etc. I had a lot of sadness and hopelessness in me but tried to be positive. At the age of 14 things reached a point that completely broke me and I just couldn't anymore. I was angry at God, angry at the religious community I was a part of and the world and was super depressed, started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and started getting myself into trouble. Someone special came into my life and accepted me as I was, gave me hope that things didn't have to be so bad, and I decided to try to fix up my life and give my community and society another chance.

My family moved to abroad when I was 16 and I was totally heartbroken, and it wasn't an easy year for me. I was also pretty miserable in addition to feeling very lost spiritually and didn't have any good friends. I was sent to a therapist by my head of my school but after once I never went back.

The next year back in the US I found myself religiously and discovered a religious movement and it's approach to being happy and making yourself happy and I decided that, while I knew I had a depressive nature, I'd shove it down and make the decision to  force myself to be happy all the time since that is the "correct thing to do". I tried therapy, knowing that I'd gone through tremendous abuse. But because of the "I'll force myself to be happy" I was in such denial that I never mentioned to the therapist about the abuse I went through and gave up after four sessions.

I got married very young because I desperately wanted someone to love me, afraid everyone would leave me like I felt everyone did to me in the past, and pressured him into marrying me. And it was a bad marriage from the start. But I was in a new community in a new country and I wanted to make friends and felt that no one would want to be friends with someone who was a mopey miserable mess and didn't want to be a "depressive person" so I decided to shove it all down. "So I'm a depressive person by nature, doesn't mean I need to feel depressed. I just need to avoid those thoughts and be positive."

That started the stage of pushing my emotions so deep down that I almost forgot I had them. I basically chose not to feel, and not to think about certain things, because it would land me down a dark path. I did it so well that I convinced myself I was happy and was known for my smileyness and even talked/wrote about being happy despite challenges. Though the signs were there. I was a slug during my pregnancies, with no energy to do anything. When Ike was born and was really challenging I started going downhill and feeling helpless, but when he turned three things improved and I leveled off again.

After Rose was born I slowly started unraveling. I remember telling someone that I was going crazy. One night when she was a few months old and crying in the middle of the night I shoved her at Michael and said "Please take her, I'm not safe, all I want to do now is throw her out the window." I realized then that I was going through something bad. As she got more and more challenging as she got older, I felt worse and worse, getting panic attacks very frequently, and I decided finally to get help. Because admitting I was depressed felt like a failure to me but panic attacks felt less stigmatized, I felt safe admitting that and going to therapy

I started therapy about 6 years ago at a local therapist training program, seeing a counselor who was in training to learn more, since that was the cheapest place to get therapy and the only thing I could afford. (It was $30 per session, but because of my financial situation I was able to get for $15 a session) and from the start I decided to do things differently and make sure to do what I could to get help. 

I knew the previous therapy failed because I wasn't ready to talk about the abuse I went through, so decided to do it right from the start, telling her in the first or second session about the most horrific episodes of abuse I went through. I talked about my issues at home, my issues in my marriage, with my kids, with money, and my general stress levels. I talked to her about when my brain got foggy and I couldn't focus. She was a good listening ear. She asked good questions to get me to think. But during all this, I was more or less in story telling mode. I would talk about how I felt, but in a very clinical and detached type of way. I didn't actually emotionally feel what I talked about, more like I was intellectually feeling. I realized that almost all the time I wasn't actually feeling anything, just intellectually feeling certain ways because I knew that was how I should feel.

One day, about 3/4 of the way through that year, the therapist asked me "Penny, you talk to me about a lot of stuff. But you also have friends that you talk to about these things. What do you want from me that is different from what you already get from your friends?" 

That one question did it. It broke down the dam holding back all my feelings. All my feelings that I had blocked off for so long because I didn't want to be depressed... it tumbled out. It was not a pretty sight. I was a mess. An emotional wreck. I was back to the same depressive state I was in at 14, only this time it was worse. I was spiraling. I was drowning. And talking to a friend, she pointed out that I had lots of the symptoms of complex PTSD, such a severe PTSD from repeated trauma that it affects every aspect of your life, down to your very personality, causing issues with emotional regulation among other things. I realized that she was right, that I fit the diagnostic criteria for that, and that scared the crap out of me even more.

My spiraling got worse. I learned that my "brain fog and shutting off my feelings when I was overwhelmed" was actually called dissociation, which is a trauma response to protect you from things your psyche can't handle. I realized that I had been low key dissociating for years, which is why I only "felt things intellectually" instead of actually feeling them. One time during a fight with my husband I started dissociating so badly that I literally felt like I had two mes, one me that was on the ground crying her head off, and another me looking at her and saying "What is wrong with you? Stop crying like a baby!" 

I felt very much like I was too much. That all my friends would abandon me once they saw this real, truly depressed, me. I tried talking about this with my therapist, but she didn't confirm or deny that I had it, just asked me "how I felt about the possibility I had it". I started to get the feeling that I was too much for her, that she would abandon me because of my "too muchness" because that is a more serious mental illness than just anxiety and depression and it didn't get better when I heard that in about 2 months she would be leaving the program where she was seeing me, and wouldn't give me a straight answer if I could continue with her once she left.

I decided to try to find a therapist that specializes in trauma, so that she wouldn't feel like I was too much, because that is her specialty, and hopefully she would be able to give me tools to heal. The therapist I had been in, she just asked questions to help me figure things out for myself, but I realized that I did not have the answers, I needed someone to tell me how to handle my mental health issues, give me tips on how to stop spiraling, which she didn't do.

I found a therapist that seemed like she would be a good fit, asked around about her and got good feedback, so decided to have a trial session with her. She had a psychiatrist to recommend to me that specialized in complex PTSD and other emotional regulation disorders, but said the only reason I'd need to go to him was if I wanted a diagnosis for my own sake, or if I wanted meds.  I had a good feeling with her from the start, when she didn't confirm or deny whether I had complex PTSD, because she said it didn't matter whether or not I actually had that diagnosis, that if I met at least some of the criteria, she'd help me with those issues. Already that first session she gave me a tool to use during my dissociative episodes to help bring me back to reality.

I went back to my current therapist and told her I would be leaving, that I found a therapist that specializes in trauma that I felt would be able to help me better, and she did a wrap up session with me, telling me what she admired about me, what positives she saw in me, and when she said that she saw how much of a hard worker I was, and when I argued about that, how I was so lazy and non functional, she said that I was working so hard to not drown. That set me off even more, because it was so true, and I just fell apart. After that session, I asked for another room because I wasn't able to go home just yet, and just cried my eyes out, curled up on the floor, for about two hours. I felt abandoned, even though I was the one leaving her, felt all sorts of terrible things, and, quite frankly, was suicidal. Passively, meaning without a plan, but I didn't want to be alive.

Starting with my new therapist was really hard. I didn't want to "waste time" with my backstory since I was in such a bad place that I needed help with the now, so I wrote up my entire history in an email to her, and already in the second session got down to business, making a treatment plan, and started at it.

But I was in a really bad place. My anxiety was through the roof. Every little thing caused me to have panic attacks. I'd see that I got an email from my therapist and before I even opened it, my legs felt like jelly and like I'd collapse. I was basically living in one constant panic attack, suicidal, at the lowest place I'd been in in my entire life. I decided to go to the psychiatrist, because I realized that I needed medication since I absolutely was not functioning.

The psychiatrist was wonderful, confirmed that I did have complex PTSD, along with really bad anxiety and depression. He said that, while he doesn't necessarily suggest medication for me in the long term, that therapy would be what would help me most, if my mental health state was this bad, I wouldn't be able to function enough to be able to get the benefits from therapy, so wanted me to try them temporarily. Absolutely. I went on medication then, first on a mood stabilizer, and already it started to help. He also recommended that I join his intensive summer DBT program, 3 days a week, 3-4 hours each time, for 6 weeks. He felt DBT would be what would help me the most to get my complex PTSD under control, and hopefully once I learned enough skills, would be able to wean off the medication. I didn't have the money to pay for this DBT course, as it was quite expensive and not covered by my insurance. (In my country, there was a year long waiting list for DBT and it wasn't in English which I needed.) So I was given a payment plan and fundraised money/charity to pay for it, because it was absolutely necessary.

To put a long story short, from that point on it was more or less an upward climb. The medication helped, but it wasn't enough. We raised the dose, added an anti depressant/anti anxiety, and it made a huge difference. Though the psychiatrist mentioned that I might be able to wean off the medication with enough therapy, I realized that therapy wasn't enough, and the medication made my life feel like it was worth living, so I went from someone who was anti meds because they "weren't natural" to someone who became extremely thankful for meds and how they let me function.

The upward climb emotionally isn't a fast process. It was plodding, and there were plateaus, and there were also times when I started spiraling again, but overall it was better and better. I did lose friends who were there for me as long as I was "happy go lucky Penny" and weren't interested in "mentally ill Penny" but I made many more friends who have been a lifeline for me. Also, I realized that by having "shut off" my negative emotions for years, I also "shut off" my ability to feel positive things, and when I feel I feel things all the way, including happiness, which was an unexpected surprise- an ability to feel truly happy and blissful.

However, one thing I began to realize as a result of therapy, was that I could never fully heal from my trauma as long as I was in my unhealthy marriage... that caused a spiral too, but eventually I got the courage to ask for a divorce. Don't get me wrong, divorce can mess with your emotional health in a big way, and with all the ups and downs that are involved in the divorce proceedings, I did spiral multiple times, but overall it was an upward climb, and leaving my unhealthy marriage allowed me to heal so much. I also found the strength to cut certain toxic people out of my life that were adversely affecting my ability to heal.

Over this time, I also adjusted my medication, switched from one to another, added yet another pill, and right now I take 2 different mood stabilizers, one antidepresant/anti-anxiety medication, and another pain med that also is supposed to help mentally. I have been with my current therapist for the past five years (come June), also did a year of somatic therapy to see if it would help with my chronic pain that can result from trauma (unfortunately it didn't help, but I did learn some more good tools).

And I am very happy to share that I am in the best emotional state I've been in my entire life. I've healed a lot. I still have a ways to go; trauma isn't healed quickly, but I'm stable emotionally, more or less. Even now, though, I have times when I get into a mental health crisis, when things trigger me in major ways from my trauma, but I finally see the light. 

With everything that happened, with all the help I've gotten, both chemically and theraputically, despite my chronic pain and health issues and other crap in my life that I don't write about, most of my days are sunny, and I'm not constantly suffering from my mental health as I used to be.

I wrote this post for a few reasons.

Number one, to attempt to destigmatize mental health issues. Yes, before I've written about anxiety and depression, but never about having an emotional regulation disorder caused by complex trauma. It is scary as heck for me to do this, because I worry people will see me differently knowing this about me (and therefore writing this is making me dissociate badly- I'm not actually feeling when writing this, my vision is foggy, I have tunnel vision, and it feels like my eyes are zooming in and out from the computer as with a telescope) but I feel it is very important to do so. Hopefully most of the readers here respect me, and if you know that someone you respect has an emotional regulation disorder, maybe you'll be less judgmental of other people if you hear they also have one. And I think keeping these things secret just adds to the stigma.

Number two, I want to raise awareness that people can be going through a lot emotionally without people knowing. Most of the people I know didn't realize in how bad a state I was, that I was suicidal and falling apart, because I put on a brave face to the world, and hid when I wasn't able to.

Number three, more than anything, I wanted to give hope to people suffering from mental health issues, that things can and will get better. When I was at the lowest of the lows, I would not have believed that it was possible for me to ever have emotional stability, to not always feel like I wanted to not be alive. But these things are possible. For me, most days are good days, and when things are bad, I know I will survive them and have tips and tricks of how to get through them. If you are going through emotional hell, just know that with therapy and medication, things do get better. Even if not perfect, they don't always have to be as low as you are now.

I hope you and yours emotional wellbeing.

And I really hope my sharing this side of myself won't make me lose readers or friends or whatever... but if it does, well, those are people I don't need to have in my life.

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I just wanted to say that you are such a brave and inspirational person. I hope your health both physically and mentally will improve and you will heal. Sending you virtual hugs for the courage you have shown in an attempt to destigmatize mental health issues. Your honesty will help other people and show them they are not alone.

  2. Thank you for your honesty and bravery in sharing your story. I admire the hard work you have done, and are doing, to get yourself onto a new level. Many people who think they don't have mental illness can benefit from your story. We all have something to work on and you can't rest on your laurels, ever. Go from strength to strength.

  3. Bless you for sharing your story, I know it will help others.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this, I think it will help a lot of people to hear about your journey and I want to wish you and all your family all the best

  5. You are a very courageous woman who helps and inspires others with your honesty. Best wishes to you for a happy future.

  6. Thank you, Penny, for your courageous post. I, too, have suffered a great deal over the years from mental health issues, so I can relate and empathize. I really appreciate you writing this, and hope all your tools continue to help you on your journey.

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