I’m thirty-three years old, a special education teacher, behavioral therapist, softball coach, volleyball coach, tennis player, and lover of poetry and rap and hip-hop. I live with comorbid, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Here is a summary of my life before I go into greater detail. I attended Columbia Central High School in a small town called Brooklyn, and no, it’s not like Brooklyn, New York. It is Brooklyn, Michigan — two stop lights that blink between the hours of 10 PM and 7 AM. Yes, that small of a town. I played during all sports seasons — tennis, volleyball, and softball. Late into my junior year, I applied to Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Apparently, I thought I only needed two “safe schools.”
After being accepted into both schools and programs, I then thought it would be a great idea to attend a huge university, Michigan State University, for their business/marketing program. A year and a half into the program, I changed my major to teaching special education, specifically for those with language disorders. I found language to be interpretive, and business was more about financials and numbers. I realized that I wanted more of a social/personal component in my career.
After college, I worked in a variety of special-education settings as a teacher, from institutionalized youth (preschool-aged), to middle school and high school. I enjoyed coaching while teaching. I also tutored at-risk students in an after-school program. I found a lot of satisfaction in integrating the mindfulness training that I received through Wayne State University into my high school and elementary programs. I am a strong believer in the benefits of mindfulness.
I suffered from generalized anxiety and major depressive disorder in high school and was diagnosed at age sixteen. If you can imagine feeling like you could close your eyes in the middle of class and be able to fall asleep, or you were too sick to leave your bed, that’s what having depression was like for me from age fourteen to fifteen. I would mainly talk to the teachers, not so much to my peers, and a lot to my mother during my childhood. I didn’t feel like I could connect emotionally to people my own age. I remember coming home most days after school and just breaking down crying. Finally, my mother took me to my family doctor, and he prescribed a medication for depression. I knew it would be a trial-and-error experience of finding the right medications. But what I didn’t realize is that as I aged and changed, so did my diagnosis.
The first rounds of medications numbed me, and I didn’t feel like myself, as I told my doctor at my three-week checkup. We changed to a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) drug, and it changed my life for the better. Better that is until I was no longer able to sleep at night. Now, I realize it was the anxiety that wasn’t addressed.
Fast forward to almost three-and-a-half years of successfully managing my symptoms. I was attending a Big Ten university. Before class one afternoon, I felt as though I was having a heart attack. As I walked into the large lecture hall that day, people were flooding out of the building because a fire alarm had been pulled. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Less than twenty minutes and a dozen text messages later, my roommate, who knew my history, took me to the emergency room where I could get my breathing under control. She stayed with me until I was discharged three hours later.
Diagnosed with an anxiety attack, and prescribed new medications, I again went through the trial-and-error experience. I didn’t realize that many of my symptoms were actually underlying ADHD symptoms that were intensifying the depression and anxiety. I was now twenty-two to twenty-three years old and had finally been diagnosed after a full evaluation from a psychiatrist. I finally understood my struggle and could talk openly about this in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). My therapist was great, and I still appreciate all the self-reflection and journaling she wanted.
I discovered that when my best friends in college started to point out that I was withdrawing socially from things I’d committed to, I was better able to see the negative impacts my mental health had on myself and others. I had to accept the fact that as I aged and matured, so did my mental health condition and the way in which I treated it. Rather than drinking excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol, I would just stay home and not visit my friends or return their texts/calls. I found a therapist and counselor who listened to me, and I felt comfortable. I wish you could picture someone like me walking into a building, checking in with the receptionist, meeting the therapist, and then leaving with some lame excuse of “I have to use the bathroom,” and never returning. Yep, that was me. Despite all these struggles, I was able to graduate from college and move forward with my life.
Fast forward four years. After student teaching , also known as “teaching for free,” while taking Master’s level courses at Michigan State University, I found myself in a predicament again. My field instructor, the woman who shadowed me once a month while I taught, came to critique one of my groups. When she reviewed her notes with me, I couldn’t stop crying, and she ended up taking me to our family care doctor in my hometown, where I was reassessed and diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and adult ADHD. I was also given a referral to speak with a cognitive behavioral therapist, which changed my life for the better.
Initially, the therapist listened to me and let me vent. Then, she gave me homework, things to reflect on after our sessions. I appreciated her genuine interest in my growth and felt safe. I realized many of my own thoughts were determining my actions and future. CBT taught me skills and gave me tools to use to “check in” with myself when I could feel my tensions and anxieties rising. Mindfulness has also brought me a sense of therapeutic relief with tension relief and breathing techniques. It even made me more aware of my eating, tastes, smells, textures and reasons for eating. I no longer eat in front of a TV or computer screen for those reasons.
I’ve now been managing my mental health successfully for the last ten or more years. I continue to stay active, and I communicate with my family and friends to ensure I don’t relapse. I also stay active in my treatment and involved in my recovery. I practice mindfulness in my career with others with mental illnesses, and allow them to reflect on the benefits. We do guided imagery, therapeutic drawing with music, and body scans to relax their bodies or help clear their minds.
Recovery for me was getting help from people I trusted — my mom, my friends, my family doctor, and therapists I was referred to. Recovery was maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, and being open and honest when I felt the most anxiety. I also had to be honest when it came to medications. At times it felt like I was taking a sugar-pill, and at other times it felt like I was taking too much medicine, so that I felt like a zombie. Medications aren’t perfect, but I found that working with your doctor and being active in your treatment is the most helpful thing to do in the long run.
Success for me was overcoming the six months when I had to take a leave from college, and then returning, graduating, and being a contributing member of a poetry journal. I continued to fight, and to work through another year and a half of “free teaching” while living on my own. Success was when I received a first-year Teacher of the Year award in Florida. Success was also reaching out to and working with at-risk youth. Today, success is working with those with mental illness and finding the good in every day, and helping them find the good in every day as well.
During this time of Covid-19, it has been difficult, although I do Skype or video chat with people to retain some normalcy. I miss being able to hug my family, and give handshakes or high fives, but this is where we are right now. I’ve learned that my technical skills are adaptable to various formats. I previously utilized Skype and now Zoom, and I’m assisting others in building online classrooms. Every day, I walk my dog, I hear the birds chirping, and I appreciate nature. I hope my story finds you well, and you can utilize it somehow in your life.