told by the people living them.
I did not begin to develop a core belief of my inherent worth and dignity until I came out on the other side of my first mental health crisis.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with perfectionism and social anxiety that bred overwhelming envy towards others and hatred towards myself. The intensity of these afflictions undermined my functioning in virtually all aspects of my life.
How I wish I could reach out to my younger self as the person I am today and tell her that she is loved for exactly who she is in each moment, that she can grow in any way she wants and that her life will be beautiful and meaningful beyond what she can imagine. I like to think that all of the recovery work I do now has the power to heal the Jamie who did not understand what it meant to have a mental illness, nor how powerful her self-deprecating voice could become.
At 23, I found myself in a graduate program that I did not truly want to be in, in classes with impressive young women who were all pursuing occupational therapy, living with a roommate I envied. Furthermore, I did not have my support system there to help me. My friends remained in Austin, Texas, where I completed my undergraduate degree, my parents had just moved back to their hometown in Pittsburgh and I moved to Galveston Island, off the coast of Texas. Life had sent me a perfect storm of triggers at a time when my coping skills were akin to a tiny, broken umbrella. As my self-deprecating voice grew stronger, I grew weaker. I lost weight, sleep, focus, confidence and social skills. I began to make strange associations between outside occurrences and my inner self. After two months of functional decline, I surged into my professors’ office in a panic. As three of them desperately tried to calm me down, psychosis settled in and shattered my sense of reality. Guilt and shame gripped my guts, and my inner voice became so hateful that there was not a moment in which I was not saying something like this to myself:
Oh, you poor thing! You’ve been loved your entire life by your family, your friends — you’ve been given everything you need, and yet…You’re a real piece of work, you worthless creature! Any thoughts on exiting this life? I think it may be your best option considering the fact that you will never change because you’ve always been this way. No one who loves you really knows who you are. But I do. You’re nothing!
This self-talk was accompanied by a near-constant stream of ruminations in which I reviewed my entire life to intensely focus on every wrong I had ever done. I determined that I was made of nothing but the character traits I struggled with: envy, laziness, greed. That every seemingly good characteristic or thing I had ever done was fake. And that I was damn good at faking it. So good that I had even fooled myself.
While my professors tried to help me understand that I was probably depressed and needed to make a plan to stay safe, I sat bewildered and unable to make decisions. They decided to call my parents who orchestrated a plan to bring me to Pittsburgh where I began outpatient therapy and psychiatry. My psychiatrist diagnosed me with major depressive disorder with a feature of psychotic guilt and prescribed me an antidepressant and an antipsychotic. My psychotic-depressed mind diagnosed me as inherently evil, an imposter of a good human, helpless and destined for Hell.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Hopelessness was my greatest barrier to recovery. Without hope that I could change, I had no reason to try.
Although both of my parents have experience with their own mental illnesses, it was difficult for them to understand the severity of mine, especially my psychosis. At times, my ill logic and unwillingness to do things infuriated my mother, but it mostly brought her pain. She later told me that her job served as the only time she could feel normal. Thankfully, my dad had recently retired and was able to take on the position of my main caretaker. From the perspective of someone who had taken care of his mother and my mother when they were depressed, he was better able to handle my idiosyncrasies. Initially, my parents tried to get me to work part time or volunteer. With shame, I confined myself to hiking, reading, watching TV, cooking, running errands with my dad and helping my grandparents.
My illness kept me from engaging in all of the things that make my life meaningful. I could no longer bring myself to talk to my friends because I believed that they were better off without me. They eventually stopped reaching out, though I later learned that they never stopped hoping for me. When I had to interact with extended family, I only spoke when spoken to, and endured the constant fear that they would realize who I truly was. I felt no connection or joy for the things I once loved: singing and songwriting, performing, dancing, making visual art, spending time in nature and helping others. From the moment I awoke each morning, I longed for sleep. It was my only relief from pain. I contemplated suicide everyday. My main protective factor was the fear of a failed attempt.
If you do not have a mental illness, it may be difficult for you to imagine the suffering that my peers and I experience. People with mental illnesses are too often misunderstood, and it is a life goal of mine to help you understand us. Although no two stories are the same, all individuals who have mental illnesses share a kindred pain. It is easy to detail the events, name the feelings and describe the thoughts associated with my crisis. In order to communicate the visceral depth of my suffering, I found it necessary to write you a poem.
The whole world is happening around me, but I am not a part of it
Perpetually wincing in emotional pain
My energy in knots
Twisting and turning and tightening around my broken heart
An endless stream of nonsensical ramblings
Looping back and feeding one another
Drowning my sanity
Crawling in my skin
As if there is something inside me
Desperate to erupt
LET IT OUT!!!!
But I must hold it in
Hold it in my guts and my chest
Stuck in my breath
Breathing in life
If you try to hold the essence of this poem in your heart and imagine yourself living through a day, I hope that it helps you to understand how debilitating mental illnesses can be.
After three months of suffering without progress, my providers felt that I needed more intensive help than they could provide. They advised my parents to take me to the emergency room where I was analyzed by another psychiatrist and sent to partial hospitalization. It was during this time that a spark of hope shone, ever so unexpectedly.
Partial hospitalization is an intensive outpatient program in which you attend group therapy six hours a day, five days a week while living at home. Even in a supportive room of my peers also struggling with mental illnesses, I felt like an evil alien and feared being “found out.” It was not until the end of my second week that something clicked.
My individual therapist from the partial program, who I still see to this day, proposed a simple idea after giving up on weaving me out of my delusional diatribes: “Try to feel your emotions in your body.” Noticing the physical sensations of my painful emotions allowed me to take ownership of them and I felt a sense of accomplishment in implementing my therapist’s guidance. That same day, I went to a dance class that my mother set up for me. This class stole my attention, produced energizing endorphins and motivated me to learn something new. After practicing the dance routine at home after class and a day of sensing my emotions, I sat alone at our kitchen table for my mother’s first round of winter gumbo as hope weaved its way into my being.
Suddenly, I wanted to live more deeply and fully than I ever had before. I felt as if I had woken up to my true core beliefs: Every person has inherent worth and dignity, and every person is deserving of unconditional love, including me. My food and water felt nourishing and my thoughts became daydreams of wonderful possibilities. I had never felt so alive! After living without hope for three months, it felt miraculous to ascend into such an extraordinary state of being. I detailed the baffling change as best I could in a journal entry titled “Breakthrough” so that I could prove to myself that I had hope in case I lost it again.
My mother broke down in tears when I told her. My father and brothers responded with loving excitement. My friends took me back in as if I had never left. I walked into the partial program the next morning in a dramatically different spirit. I was ready for recovery.
The first thing I knew I needed to do for myself was to go to an open mic. In time, I admitted to myself and my parents that I wanted to pursue music as a significant part of my career. Since then, I have written many songs about recovery, won the WYEP singer-songwriter competition of 2018, collaborated with multiple musicians in the Pittsburgh music scene and played in many shows. I even took my music into the hospitals as a volunteer. This is where my passion for helping others revitalized.
Many of my conversations with patients were about mental health, and when I learned about the career of a peer specialist, I knew I had to pursue it. Peer specialists are individuals who have lived experience with mental illnesses who have come to a place in their own recovery in which they are willing and able to use their experience to help others through the recovery process. After six months of hard work, I was in that place and took on a position at an inpatient hospital. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I love my job. Peers serve such a needed purpose in the mental health field as they are often the people who patients feel most comfortable talking with. I often wonder how different my early days of recovery would have been if I had the help of a peer.
In addition to gaining meaningful work, it has been important for me to improve my wellness in the dimensions of spirituality and social relationships.
My relationship with spirituality was so unstable that it was easy for my psychotic mind to take me to the dark places I described above. I now attend a Unitarian Universalist church where I have been able to explore my spirituality with freedom and encouragement from my congregation. My newfound connection with the Spirit of Life brings me peace everyday.
My anxiety associated with social relationships has the power to prevent me from fully expressing myself around others. In the past, I was ashamed of this tendency, which only served to make me feel worse. I now practice acceptance of myself in situations that trigger my social anxiety and engage in positive self-talk in order to build myself up so that I can be more present. I have had many relapses of symptoms associated with various triggers that have given me opportunities to hone my coping skills, build my wellness toolbox and strengthen my recovery.
My progress has been supported by a vast network of people. My family and good friends love me unconditionally and have been happy to learn how they can best help me when I am struggling with my mental illnesses. My therapist is a brilliant woman with a knack for challenging my unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving. She helps me to apply the dialectic of accepting myself in each moment while simultaneously working towards change. My community of peers inspire me to continue working hard at my recovery.
Diagnoses present or not, I believe that we can all benefit from recovery. Recovery requires us to explore ourselves and our lives from a holistic perspective to reach a loving understanding of our past, present and hopeful future. It consistently asks us to learn from our experiences, through painful setbacks and delightful triumphs. It guides us to balance our lives in all dimensions of wellness. It is a lifelong journey aided by a vast network of people and modalities. It is my hope that the recovery principles will someday be taught in school, along with wellness tools and coping skills, so that our future generations will know far more about how to take care of themselves before it is too late.
My first mental health crisis almost took my life.
Recovery gave me an opportunity to build my life worth living. It breaks my heart to know that the world has lost so many of my peers. Each of them with inherent worth and dignity. Each of them deserving of life and love. If you are a peer, please hold onto hope, get the help that you need and keep trying to take steps in your recovery. For even in your darkest hour, the “sun still shines on your heavy head.”
Jamie Kunning is a peer specialist and singer-songwriter. You can find her music, including her song Sun Still Shines, at jamiekunning.com. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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