I am a mental health counselor with a mental illness. I know, hard to believe, right? I have my own mental health issues that span the better part of the last fifteen years. I suffer from debilitating depression, feelings of anxiety, and panic attacks. I take an antidepressant daily to keep my symptoms in check. I see my own counselor every other week to process my feelings, thoughts, and past trauma.
As much as I have shared my self-care journey with you, I have not discussed the exact moment the idea became the focal point for my well-being. Let me back up for a second, and explain why this has been on my mind. It also came up at the most unexpected of times.
I presented at this year’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) NJ statewide conference. I was part of a panel discussion talking about First Episode Psychosis programs throughout the state. Prior to my presentation, I peered through the program for the day. I was taken aback in amazement at who I was sharing the stage with. Following our panel was the keynote speaker. It was former WWE wrestler AJ Lee. For anyone who is unfamiliar with AJ Lee, she was one of the top female wrestlers for nearly a decade from 2007 to 2015, winning three championships during this time. I was slightly baffled. What was a professional wrestler doing speaking at a NAMI conference?
After our panel finished answering a few tough questions, we sat down. I thought to myself, “This woman has a tough act to follow.” Kidding, of course. However, my curiosity was peaked to listen to what AJ had to say. The emcee introduced AJ to the crowd with a warm welcome, and a few chairs over AJ stands up. A petite, 5’2” Latina passed me to take the stage. Smiling brightly, she began speaking.
She started with her background, growing up as an urban nomad in northern New Jersey. Her family was constantly on the move due to financial hardship, sleeping in basements, on back porches, and in her family’s car. She alluded to how the poverty carried over into her interactions with peers at school (or lack thereof) and made her a victim of bullying. As a result, she suffered from crippling depression and frequent panic attacks. Despite this horrific situation, AJ found a valuable coping skill. She carried a notebook intended for school, but that served another purpose. It provided her an avenue to escape. She drew comics of herself saving people and fighting injustice. In this world, she was no longer the scared little girl, but rather a superhero.
As a high school senior, she was accepted at film school where she could bring her fantasies to life. Not long after though, AJ found herself visiting her mother in the psych ward. Her mother had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For those who are not familiar with bipolar disorder, feel free to check out the following link from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/index.shtml. AJ then found herself coming home every weekend from school to care for her mother. When she was 19 years old, AJ one day found herself in the hospital herself. AJ had attempted and failed to commit suicide following a pill overdose. Following in her mother’s footsteps unfortunately, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
At that moment, she had to make a conscious decision. She could continue to live in her fantasy and allow reality pass by, or she could use her imperfections to her advantage. This is when she enrolled in professional wrestling school, and “yes, that’s a thing” (AJ’s direct quote). She found this to be a perfect opportunity to become the superhero she always envisioned. AJ showcased her superpowers as the underdog when confronting the bad guys. In the ring, her opponents would oft comment on her “average” appearance, tiny frame, and normal clothes. However, AJ found her audience could relate to her flaws.
Here stood mere feet in front of me a role model for the average person who experienced obstacles every day. She motivated millions of people over the last decade by turning the negativity inside out and flipping it upside down. I was left speechless with tears in my eyes. A flood of emotion came over me. She forced me to reflect on my own experiences, particularly when I made a similar decision.
It was around ten o’clock on a Sunday night. I was trying to wind down in preparation for Monday morning. My thoughts would not stop racing. I was roughed up and at a low point. My mother was having a serious health scare, ending up in the hospital almost every other night. I was working ten to twelve hours a day to keep up with my workload, as my job continued to pile up the paperwork. My three-year relationship was in shambles. I was fighting with my girlfriend nearly every day, as in screaming at the top of our lungs arguing. I had isolated myself from everyone. I was at my tipping point. I was hopeless about my future since not one area of my life had stability. Every day I was dealing with passive suicidal ideation.
I pulled out my phone to check out my social media. It was a sad attempt to distract myself from the cascading avalanche of cognitive distortions. I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw a post by my girlfriend. It was sitting in the middle of this beautiful garden where we had one of our first dates. She was holding the ukulele I had given her. I had not taken the picture. Now I had been having suspicions that she had been seeing my best friend for several months. I flipped my lid. I threw my phone across the room and broke down into tears. The suicidal thoughts amplified. I had an impulse to take my car and crash it or ingest all of my pills. With my last hint of rationality, I picked up my phone and searched on Google for a suicide hotline. I made the call, and a female voice picked up. I wish I had this woman’s voice in my head all the time. She was able to bring me back a little, and the tears mildly subsided. She called the authorities for me. I was taken to the local crisis screening center.
When I arrived there, I was given a bed in the hallway of the emergency room. A screener came down the hallway and immediately turned around. I recognized the screener. It was my friend who I went to undergraduate and graduate school with. He could not screen me due to conflict of interest, so another young girl came out to conduct the intake. An hour or two later, my friend came back to talk to me. I told him what happened, while trying to hold back the tears. He did what he could to make me comfortable throughout the entire night. Thank you. You know who you are.
I slept less than an hour that night, and I was transferred to a short-term hospitalization unit a few miles away around ten o’clock that Monday morning. I spent the early afternoon acclimating to the setting where I would be for at least the next 72 hours. Around 5:30PM, my sleep-deprived self freaked out. I screamed at the nurses to “let me out of here” and to “let me talk to a lawyer.” I genuinely did not feel like I belonged there at that moment. The nurses stood their ground, and I stormed off to my room balling my eyes out. I could not believe what my life had become. I was sitting in a psych ward with the rest of the “crazies.”
I gathered myself together and went into the lobby area. Visiting hours started around six o’clock. Regardless of the events that transpired over the last 24 hours, I anxiously awaited my girlfriend’s arrival. I think I was looking more for some sense of normalcy or a sign that life still existed outside of these walls. She was not alone. When she walked through the doors, my face flushed with rage. My best friend who she had been cheating on me with meandered in behind her. They both sat down at the lobby table with me. She brought some clothes from my house to hold me over for the next few days. I could see the tears in her eyes building up.
Then, he spoke up, “I have something to say to you.”
I looked in his direction and firmly muttered, “Not right now.” I asked him to leave, so I could talk to my girlfriend alone. He left promptly after she looked in his direction, as if instructing him to follow the directive.
I looked at her asked, “What is he doing here?”
She replied, “He is here for you.”
I asked her swiftly, “Did you make up your mind?”
My now ex-girlfriend said, “I can’t keep doing this.” She cried at the table, and I tried to comfort her. Even with all the pain she brought me, I still had a soft spot for her deep down. It pained me more to see her like this. Once she calmed down, I looked into her tear-ridden eyes.
I shook my head and said, “I guess that’s it.” I walked over to the couch in front of the TV and did not look back. They left.
In the moments following, I sat there pondering which direction I wanted to take my life. Did I want to continue this pattern of misery? Was I going to let my anxiety and depression dominate my life as it had? Would I sit back and take the beating? Or could I start making a change? Could I take into account my weaknesses and use them for the betterment of those around me? Could I use my story and experiences to relate to others? Could I use this to make me a better counselor?
I can confidently say this was the beginning of my self-care journey. Over the next three days, I enjoyed my vacation. I cleared my mind and took the time to reflect on what changes I wanted to make first. I saw my ex-girlfriend once more after I got out of the hospital to let her get her things. It was only then that she admitted that she was dating my ex-best friend too. I did not let the negativity hold me down this time though. It was a fresh start for me.
I latched onto my imperfections, flaws, mental illness, and mistakes. They are a significant part of who I am and got me where I am today. I used them to catapult me past obstacles that otherwise seemed impossible. I have shared them with my friends, family, and clients in an effort to help them. Whether you are a mental health counselor, former wrestling champion, or an average everyday person, you can do the same. Negative experiences such as trauma and mental illness do not discriminate, but they can be flipped into a positive. Amongst the darkness, there is still light.
In the words of AJ Lee, “Embrace your crazy.”
-The Caring Counselor