Coming Out of the Mental Health Closet

This upcoming week is Mental Health Awareness Week.  In its honor and in an effort to keep conversations flowing about mental health, public and private, I want to share my personal story.  It’s a tale about decades of depression, a suicide attempt resulting in a serious brain injury, acceptance and eventually finding balance.

I am pleased to also share with you the story of my good friend and fellow warrior, depression, suicide attempt, and brain injury survivor, Corrie Brundage. She also tells what has worked for her to find healing and a thriving life with mental illness.

Depression Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence

I’ve attempted suicide three times.

I don’t think I have always been depressed. Over the years, life wore me down and depression crept up on me. It was as if I was lugging around a sack of rocks, and all too often, life would me another boulder to add to my load.

My first week at college, I was raped. Here’s a rock.

As a young wife, I had two miscarriages in a row when trying to conceive my first child and another one after.  Add a couple more rocks.

A decade later, my husband had an affair. Here’s a ten pounder.

I took care of my brother for two years as he wasted away and died of AIDs. Here’s a mammoth boulder.

After 18 years, the husband and I split in a messy divorce. This one was a chunk of concrete.

The bag got so heavy that one day, my knees finally buckled and I tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. My most serious attempt.

The first was when I was a junior in high school. After a break up with my boyfriend — which was of monumental importance in my teenage world — I swallowed a bunch of aspirin and had my stomach pumped in the ER.

Fast forward two decades. I had now been married to the same boyfriend for 16 years and was a stay-at-home mother of two small sons. When the husband informed me that he wanted a divorce, I took off in my mommy van, bought a six-pack of wine coolers, an assortment of over-the-counter pills, and a couple of bottles of the night-time-so-you-can-rest medicine. Parking the van in a remote corner of a 24-hour store, I downed it all and stretched out in the back seat to die.

Hours later, I woke in a panicked stupor and tried to drive home, but plowed over a curb where I came to a stop, hung out of the door throwing up green goo, and passed out on the grass. Someone called 911, and I was rushed to the ER where they, once again, pumped my stomach. I didn’t suffer any physical consequences but did spend a couple of days in the psych ward. My ex-husband filed a restraining order and kicked me out of the house and the kids’ lives for over a month. I participated in crisis mental health counseling sessions and slapped a band-aid on everything long enough to get my kids’ back and get out of the marriage.

The last time was more serious — much more.

After the end of the marriage in an ugly parting that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I attempted suicide again in June of 2007, by swallowing over 90 pills. Because I wasn’t found in time, the drugs went all the way through my system.

After a week in a coma, I woke up with a serious brain injury to a very different world. Immediately following the attempt, the ex-husband sued me for custody of our two sons, won, and promptly moved out of state with them. (Read the full story here.)

When we share our stories, we help each other heal.

At first, I was painfully embarrassed and ashamed to admit to anyone that I had tried to kill myself, had my children taken away, and had mental issues. But during the first year, after it all happened, I began to realize that my self-inflicted shame was like a dagger I was plunging into my own heart. If I talked about these gasp-worthy events openly and refused to take on any shame, there was none. I know. Easier said than done. But it IS possible.

With determination, hard work, and discipline, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, counseling, doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly healed emotionally, mentally, and physically. As part of my healing journey, I started writing about my experiences and the touchy subjects of depression, suicide, and mental illness.

Upon putting all my dirty laundry out there, I found that there were, of course, those who were eager to criticize, but there were many who were compassionate and understanding. Several even told me their “me too!” stories. As I shared and healed, I began to feel like I was setting down weights that I’d been carrying for a long time.  In writing my memoir, it was as if I left the pain behind in the written words and didn’t have to shoulder it anymore.

A fulfilling life is possible with depression.

My beliefs about depression today are that it is a just part of life. Not everyone’s life — but mine and many others. I look at it like a chronic health condition, like diabetes. My mental health is something I’ve learned to prioritize and manage. Some people don’t have to. I do. If you have a mental health condition, maybe you do too.  It’s not a bad thing.  Your whole body and life benefit when you adopt a mentally healthy lifestyle.

I can tell you that sheer willpower won’t abolish depression and anxiety, but that you can find mental health tools, lifestyle habits, and yes, medications that allow you to live a full, vibrant life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to expend my energy running from dark feelings or make life decisions based on what I want to avoid. When I feel my feelings and thoughts and work with them for my highest good, things always turn out OK. I can honestly say that because if things aren’t OK yet, my work isn’t finished.

Pain, discomfort, and uncertainty are a part of life. My life. Your life. Everyone’s life. These are the norm — not the exception. Expect them. It’s my thoughts, attitudes, and actions in dealing with them that can make things worse or better.

When hardship and chaos do show up, I’ve learned that I don’t have to cower and run. If I accept the circumstances and my feelings and work with them, I can always find a sense of peace in the pain. I’ve learned that almost every situation, no matter how dismal it may seem initially, can be made better by asking myself “How can I make this work for me?” That one little question changes my perspective from that of a victim to an empowered, conscious person.

When I quit looking for an easy fix in a pill or therapist and confronted and worked through my issues and altered my behaviors and thinking, my depression lifted and my life and mental health grew infinitely better. I became stronger, resilient, and more optimistic.

Will the strategies that worked for me work for everyone? No. Each person has to find the right solution for them. Will making healthier food choices, exercising, and learning mental health tools hurt anyone? No.

I have gone from fearing the future in an anxious, unhappy existence to a curiosity about and acceptance of whatever the future brings. Because of a new sense of trust in myself and the universe, I know that everything will be OK. Not because life will be full of sparkles and rainbows and unicorns, but because, whatever happens, I will intentionally choose my perspective and choose to see it as and keep working with it until it is OK.

Please know that you’re not alone. I made it. You can too.

I’m Out of the Mental Health Closet For Good

Almost two and a half years ago, I intentionally overdosed on a black market euthanasia drug and wound up on life support in a coma. I’d suffered a lifetime of debilitating mental illness and had finally worked up the nerve to do the deed.

And man, I went hardcore. For a few days, things didn’t look too good for my survival, but I surprised everyone and woke up with only a mild brain injury and a radically different personality. Any brain injury is serious — even a mild one. Somehow my cognition remained intact, and miraculously I wasn’t clinically depressed anymore. Personality changes accompanying brain injuries are usually negative, but I got lucky.

What’s transpired since the intensive care unit followed by a sleepless stay in the psych ward has been an even weirder and unexpected ride. I’ve embarked on a learning journey that I never thought was possible. My whole life prior to the attempt had been utterly hopeless. I mean, no one thought I was capable of stability, mental health, or any semblance of recovery — least of all me.

Spoiler alert: I still get sad, anxious, and angry. I’m not a robot. What I know now is that these feelings are part of being mentally healthy too. The difference is I don’t feel panicked — like I have to do something drastic about them.

Because our brains are neuroplastic, I had decades of neural pathways for dysfunctional responses and behaviors carved into my brain. While those pathways may never disappear, they have become less active. In times of extreme stress, those well-worn grooves in my grey matter still light up like a Christmas tree. However, the same plasticity has allowed me to reroute my brain patterns around these old mazes most of the time.

So, how am I navigating this absurd, beautiful second chance at life?

The biggest change has been my lifestyle. I’ve adopted new habits that support my brain and body and encourage neuroplasticity to help make them stick. I’ve become an amateur biohacker and neuroplasticity groupie, which means I pursue protocols and treatments that aren’t typically used in traditional medicine but show promise and are grounded in science.

My life now prioritizes things like brain nutrition, specific types of exercise, meditation, strict adherence to circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, light therapies, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, pulsed electromagnetic frequency devices … you get the picture. These things, while being fascinating and dramatically beneficial for me, have just been the icing on the cake. The real breakthroughs have come in mindset shifts and releasing of old traumas, as well as the connecting to my body and rewiring of my subconscious.

Here’s what’s been working for me. I believe it can help other people, too.

No more pathologizing

For most of my life, I was given myriads of clinical diagnosis that changed on an almost yearly basis. Every thought and feeling I struggled with was given a new DSM label with corresponding treatment or medication. After my suicide attempt, I began researching trauma therapy and working with a trauma therapist.

It’s very likely that I wasn’t “mentally ill”. I was just really freaking traumatized. From an early age, complex trauma altered my brain and nervous system and was never appropriately addressed. Too often, people are labeled with a diagnosis of this or that disorder, when in reality, they are living with the after-effects of trauma.

Now, when the occasional sadness, fear, or anger shows up in my life, it’s no longer about what disease or disorder I might have. It’s about healing. It’s about allowing my body to feel what it needs to and exploring the root cause. I’ve learned that what I resist, persists. Almost ALL of us have been taught to avoid our feelings. We can’t out-think what we need to FEEL.

So what really needs to happen?

Inner work

That means going “touchy feely” as needed and allowing a lifetime of wounds to be healed — which no one can do for me or even with me. No more outward searching for sources to “fix” me. I now know that my feelings aren’t facts and that I can no longer think my way out of negative emotions. Learning more about my cognition is great, but that’s not what will keep me healthy. I have to go inward.

Take responsibility

Taking responsibility for myself, learning to set boundaries, and purging the toxins is a necessary next step. Because our subconscious picks up vast amounts of information without us even knowing, our environments are powerful influences. Until we take control of that, we are at the mercy of our subconscious programming. If you’re wondering why efforts to improve your mental health don’t go as well as they could, it might be because of existing toxic relationships and environments. The only person who can change that is you.

Leave the past in the past

Unhook from the cycles of drama and wants and needs from your past. They don’t define your future unless you let them. I have taken it upon myself to discover my truth and purpose. This means realizing that what I used to want might not fit anymore. I was just TOLD to want it, or shown via media, or groups of people I wanted to belong to. This can be a lone wolf lifestyle. Connecting with others on a similar path is sometimes near impossible. However, staying true to myself now is the only option.

Having deep compassion for myself when I get tired, lonely, or feel like nothing is progressing is absolutely essential. This isn’t easy for an impatient person who worries too much of her life has been wasted on mental illness already. I mean…I’m the epitome of a late bloomer!  I’ve found this world isn’t too understanding of that sometimes.

Challenge a scarcity mindset

It’s necessary to challenge the scarcity mindset of my past. Like me, you may have been told that you would never recover from mental illness and would ALWAYS need treatment. Eyeroll. So, when negative emotions show up, the default neural networks light up and say, “You’ll always feel this way. All hope is lost. This is as good as it gets.”

With time and practice, I’ve learned to put the brakes on those habitual patterns and catch them before I spiral too far down. If you stay with that thinking, you can’t see the good that life has to offer. Part of being depressed means that you cannot see beyond your own depressing perception of reality. When someone well-intentioned gets in your face with their rah-rah positivity, you become enraged and even more hopeless. That sort of invalidation is the last thing you need, but you also don’t need someone to enable your helplessness.

I’ve discovered that living in abundance is just as much of a possibility as living in hopeless despair. It’s a choice. It does take effort and, yes, sometimes it does feel fake. That’s OK. The only person who can make that choice is you.

In conclusion

I still get super overwhelmed, sad, and scared. The biggest difference between what led to my suicide attempt and now is daily structure, inward and outward. Today, I trust that my desire to be healthy will lead me to mental health tools and protocols that might be “off-the-grid” but that benefit me. I also possess a newfound openness to my old traumas and scary feelings that will never be released until I meet them head-on, accept them, and let them go.

To do this, I know I have to be in a safe place surrounded by stable, healthy people. This is my strongest message to you. You have to be in a safe enough place in your life to do this work. Walking this healing path takes courage, but if I can do it, I know you can, too. In the meantime, if you’re struggling with mental health issues and don’t know where to start, please make one phone call to a trusted friend or healthcare professional and ask for help.

Progress starts with a single step, but you have to make the choice to take that step. You’re the only one who can. If you do, and if you can commit to a journey that will never be straightforward, easy, or fast, you too can come out of the dark and join Debbie and me on the other side of mental illness.

Corrie BrundageCorrie Brundage is a New York sci-fi novelist, aspiring neuroplastician, biohacker, and cat addicted Polerina. She’s currently undergoing construction, but in the meantime, check out her author page here.

7 Comments

  1. Wow these experiences are gut-wrenching and heartwarming at the same time. Bless you both for sharing your incredibly stories of overcoming. What inspiration and encouragement for the rest of us. Thank you Debbi and Corrie.

  2. Thank you both for sharing your stories. Debbie, I can’t imagine going through all those tragedies, especially the rape and miscarriages. Big hugs to you, and I’m glad you are able to find different coping methods. ” I’ve learned that I don’t have to expend my energy running from dark feelings or make life decisions based on what I want to avoid” is certainly food for thought, fear motivates a lot of us unfortunately.

    I agree with Ms. Brundage that clinicians at times are too free to throw out a diagnosis and one may feel stuck in a particular label. Trauma IS different than inherent mental illness, and the hard work must be done, not just take a pill as psychiatrists seem happy to do. My takeaway from this article is “I’ve discovered that living in abundance is just as much of a possibility as living in hopeless despair. It’s a choice”. Indeed! A CHOICE! Changing one’s mind can change one’s life!

    Thanks Ladies!

    • Thank you for your thoughts Pinkpussycat! 🙂 I truly do believe that when we talk about our experiences openly and honestly it helps remove the shame and stigma a little bit for others. I’m glad you found it helpful. All the best to you on your journey!

    • Also, what root issues ever get solved when we, as women, walk around with labels and are denied our humanity? It’s a real mess out there but the solutions aren’t difficult. We need to feel safe to pursue them!

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