Our Community Champion's Initiative recognizes individuals who already wear their label, regardless of our clothing. They're passionate students, teachers, entrepreneurs, community leaders and mental health advocates. And we're sharing their stories. This is Julissa's.
I don't remember when it all started, but I will never forget the first time I had a panic attack. At the age of eleven years old, I struggled with falling asleep on a daily basis. The idea of going to a friends’ house to sleep over for the night was the most exciting thing for all of the kids my age, except for the fact that I could not bear to make it through an entire night. I would become physically sick to the point where I would be fighting back tears, and the nauseous feeling in my stomach would completely consume my joy. The night I had my first panic attack was the night that I had finally, and peacefully, fell into a state of relaxation… Sleep.
It was so calming for the time that it had lasted, until the next moment where I was suddenly gasping for air that I could not seem to inhale. The pain in my chest was so sharp and I could not speak, and at that very moment, I feared that my life was ending. It wasn't that uncommon for eleven-year-olds to die from a heart attack… Was it?!
After the chaotic rush to the emergency room and an overnight stay later, I was shortly diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. This didn't mean much to me at the time other than it being a reason as to why I could not sleep like a “normal” kid, but little did I know, this diagnoses was going to completely change the way I live my life.
I was always a very outgoing and social individual, and with mental illness being hereditary in my family, I have always had long lasting and loving support in my life. The only issue was that I did not know how much I had truly needed it. Shortly after this horrific experience, a close family member of mine that had been struggling with depression had died by suicide. The confusion swept over my pre-adolescent mind as I could not comprehend that an illness that consumes your mentality could possibly make one want to end their life. I needed to learn more about this illness because I wanted nothing more but to understand.
While I thought I had learnt all that I could possibly know about depression, I was so naive to the fact that I was slowly being engulfed by that very shadow of darkness. I began developing feelings of hopelessness and numbness that slowly but progressively started to embody my soul, yet I was so convinced that this was a doing that I had forced upon myself.
"You don't seem yourself lately"… "You look tired"... These statements were repetitively thrown at me by almost everyone that I was close with. Looking back, I can now see how obvious these words were in an attempt to reach out to my suffering, yet I still was so naïve that I could not possibly reach my arms out far enough to grab on. I had overpowering lethargy and an extreme lack of motivation and confidence. It was attacking my ability to do well in school, which had never been a problem in the past. I was also losing my ability to socialize with my peers, be present at events, and be excited for things that people my age were supposed to be excited for.
"Depression"… How could I possibly be given a diagnoses that took away the life of my family member?! That doesn't apply to me! I'm not suicidal. They are wrong. The stigma produced feelings of shame which had forced me to close myself off from others, and I began to push away from the ones that I loved, in hopes that they would not ask me what's wrong anymore, or so that I wouldn't have to try to explain the things that I couldn't even understand myself. I was miserable - angry at the professionals trying to help me, as I could not accept myself and could not defer the diagnoses from my identity. I would not accept the help that was right in front of me because I didn't think I needed it. I didn't want it. My worst enemy became my best friend; I didn't need anybody else and that way I didn't need to explain how I felt to anyone.
The consumption of darkness became so overpowering that I was fled into a crisis mode. The pivotal moment for me was driving down the highway realizing that even though I was completely in control of the steering wheel, some other force was trying to make me let go. I didn't intentionally want to hurt myself, but at the same time, I didn't care if anything were to happen to me. At that moment I knew I needed help, but when I tried to reach out to the same people that I shut myself off from, I couldn't receive it in the same way that I once had. I was so lost at this moment that I was almost looking for sign to turn my life around. That sign came to me in a university class that I was barely passing. I was barely paying attention to the lecture until a quote that the professor announced completely caught my full guarded attention: “If you do not like the situation you are in, then change the situation. If you cannot change the situation, then you must change your attitude”
This was the moment that I decided I didn't want to be miserable anymore. I didn't want to be unhappy and live my life alone with depression sitting on my shoulders. The constant anxiety held me back and cut me down so small that I was letting depression control my life. I needed help. Within the same week, a friend of mine had sent me an application for Unleash the Noise (Jack Summit), a national youth innovation summit transforming the way we think about mental health. A strange yet rare serge of motivation strung through me that encouraged me to apply. After receiving acceptance to attend the conference, I decided to open up about my mental health and share with friends that I had been living with mental illness for quite some time. I felt like I had nothing left to lose, so I didn’t care or think much of this act. I surprisingly began receiving positive remarks and support through many family members, friends and even acquaintances. This completely opened my eyes, as I had no idea so many people could feel anything similar to what I had been feeling. I didn't realize how many others were suffering in silence and I didn’t know how much of an impact my voice could have on others. I took this opportunity to shift my life from a negative filled mess to a positive, inspiring journey.
Speaking up about my mental health has allowed me to connect with so many others who are fighting to make a difference toward ending the stigma, and to also learn more about how I can help myself. Education was the most important thing that I could have done to help myself. I thought I had known more than enough prior to my diagnoses, yet I really knew nothing but statistics and symptoms. I'm still learning through my journey each and every day.
What used to be considered as my 'good' days I now consider to be my 'bad' days. Basically, I had no idea what happiness had felt like for the longest time, because I was settling with the misery that I thought I deserved. I didn't understand that I was suffering from an illness, and the self-stigma that I had faced was the hardest, most excruciating, battle that I've had to deal with. Learning to accept myself for who I am and to justify and validate my feelings was the most difficult but most wonderful thing that I have ever learned to do. I found my passion for mental health awareness through the loss of myself and for that I am okay with the fight I have fought. This passion keeps me striving to help others, but I now know that I cannot do so without helping myself too.
"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." This quote has helped me to get through my tough times and still continues to do so. Recovery is an amazing thing. I still have bad days, but I know that they will pass, and that I have already overcome 100% of the other bad days in my life. I will still fall throughout my lifetime, but I will also continue to rise.
Wear Your Label has helped me by reminding myself that my diagnoses does not define me - I define me. I am a loving daughter, a sister, a student, and a friend. I have a passion. I am not my mental illness. I wear my label with pride because I am so much more to that. And I promise to anyone reading this that if you feel in any way helpless, or not worthy of love of support, that you will find what you are missing. You can overcome your fight, even though it feels like the hardest thing in the world to do. Being able to get out of bed on a day where you want to do nothing more but hide underneath the covers is the bravest thing that you can do. You are already so much stronger than you let yourself to believe, and if you can get through one more day, than you can overcome this illness.
If someone had asked me where I thought I'd be in ten years at the age of eleven, I definitely wouldn't have said entering my third year of university, working two jobs and living on my own. I wouldn't even consider having a passion and I definitely wouldn't have said happy. But a lot can change in ten years, five years, one year, and even in a day. If I had let go of that steering wheel, I wouldn't have been able to grow into the person that I am now.
- Julissa Stewart, Community Champion