Written By: Leah DeMarest
Growing up in the 1980s, mental illness wasn’t something we talked about in our homes and in our schools. It was taboo and very much unknown to the general public. As a young child, I had developed depression and anxiety after my parents got divorced when I was just 5 years old. However, even though I showed signs and symptoms, no one knew that I was struggling with depression and anxiety; everyone just played my symptoms off as behaviors related to my parents’ divorce and the changes in my life the divorce had caused. I lived with my dad after the divorce. As time progressed, my mom was distant and failed to form a bond with me. This paid a toll on my mental health. I felt unwanted and unloved by her. My dad later remarried, and I loved this woman prior to the wedding; however, after the wedding it seemed she had changed. I was verbally and emotionally abused by this woman from age 12 to present time. This is where my mental health began to plummet. I isolated myself in my bedroom the majority of the time, (if I wasn’t in school or at my various extracurricular activities), so that I didn’t have to be around my step-mom. While in my room, I cried at the drop of a hat, sometimes so much that I exhausted myself and would fall asleep only to wake up to self-harm. I spent so much time in my room crying, sleeping, and self-harming. My body ached with headaches and muscle tension. I made my first suicide attempt at age 14, I made two attempts that year by swallowing a bunch of pills, and no one even knew that I did it. Age 16 I made another attempt, in the same manner. Also at age 16, I began dating my high school sweetheart. He knew I had problems at home and knew I went to therapy, but he was completely unaware of my self-harm and suicide attempts.
When I was 18 years old, my boyfriend and I broke up. He was a great support for me, so this was the straw the broke the camel’s back. I just didn’t know how I would deal with all of my family drama and pain without his support. I then took a bottle of pain pills with a bottle of wine, lay in my bed to go to sleep and prayed to God that he would not wake me up. But I did wake up. I woke up with force. I violently vomited for several hours that next morning. My dad took my temperature and I didn’t have one; so he consistently asked me if I knew why I would be getting sick like this and not have a temperature. I felt like he knew, but I was too afraid to tell him what I had done because I didn’t want to let him down. My dad is an incredible dad. The best. All I want to do is to make him proud, and this would crush him. Finally, I decided to tell him. He instantly rushed me to the hospital. I spent the next week in ICU and the following week in the children’s mental health unit.
My week at the children’s mental health unit did nothing for me. The following fall I started college. My high school sweetheart came back in the picture and we started dating again. However, it was different, HE was different. He was controlling, and emotionally, verbally and physically abusive. Because of my anxieties from failed relationships with my mom and step-mom and my low self-esteem related to my depression, I stayed with him hoping things would get better. I because of these past relationships with my mom and step mom, I was a people pleaser. I would do anything to please anyone, to do what they wanted me to do for them even if it meant I had to go out of my way, if it meant it was inconvenient for me, if it meant I exhausted myself, and even if it meant I lowered my standards for my life and my relationships. I began to cope with my mental illness and the things going on in my life with alcohol. Eventually my boyfriend left me; he got another girl pregnant while dating me and ended up moving in with her. Though, I continued on a path of reckless behavior. I drank to my hearts content. I participated in reckless, adrenaline-seeking activities. And I made all around poor choices.
Eventually, I became tired of living the way I was living. I quit drinking. Found new friends. And began to focus on my college education. I was beginning to feel good again. Then I met Dustin, my now husband. I wasn’t interested in dating anyone at the time, so he had to try really hard to get me to commit. Eventually, I gave in. There was just no denying our connection. However, during the early years of our relationship we argued quite often. I didn’t understand it then, but my mental illness was getting in the way of being happy in a relationship. I was overly emotional about things, but when I became emotional and he would question me I would either get defensive or shut down and not talk at all. At times, I felt like I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t get the words to come out of my mouth. He took it as me being stubborn and not wanting to talk. I would shut myself in my bedroom, like when I was young trying to stay away from my step-mom, and tell him to leave because I just couldn’t talk to him right now. It was hard for him to understand my emotions and behaviors and this frustrated him. It frustrated me because it was hard for me to tell him. He knew about my past with my mom, step-mom, and high school sweetheart, and that when I was 18 years old I was diagnosed with depression due to the suicide attempt that put me in the mental health unit. But he didn’t link any of these behaviors or emotions with my past. He also felt like everyone has a past and that it is important to not dwell on it and let it affect you in your future; therefore, he felt like I was just dwelling on my past and should just get over it and grow up. He didn’t understand mental illness and was kind of under the impression that people who say they have a mental illness are using it as an excuse to be lazy or as an excuse for poor behaviors. He did try to be empathetic, but didn’t know how to talk to me when my symptoms were high.
Eventually, after a couple of years our communication in our relationship began to improve; and I attribute this to Dustin as he was patient with me and gave me space when I was emotional or angry and let me come talk to him when I calmed down. I also think it helped that we formed a very strong trust in our relationship and this made my symptoms lessen. However, a few more years down the road, after everything had been going well for those years, I was physically assaulted at work. I sustained a concussion, a cracked lip, one of my eyes was swollen shut, bruised muscles around my rib cage, and several bumps and bruises. At first, I didn’t think that it had any effect on me. But after a month or so I started noticing my mood changing. I was overly fatigued, would get angry over small things, would cry myself to sleep, and even had suicidal thoughts. Finally, we realized the assault had put me into a downward spiral back into my depression and anxiety. I even regressed on my communication skills and started bottling up again. I went to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed me with major depression, generalized anxiety, and C-PTSD. She believed I had depression and anxiety since my parents’ divorce, that it worsened after the abuse from my step-mom, worsened again after the abuse from my ex-boyfriend, and then I developed C-PTSD as an adult and because I didn’t seek therapy as an adult, it all came back after the most recent assault.
After receiving this diagnosis, I tried to educate my dad and husband about my diagnosis. It was hard for my baby boomer dad to grasp his head around mental illness, but he was supportive and would ask me how I was doing with it from time to time. My husband seemed interested and supportive at first, but after a while, it seemed he went back to his belief that mental illness is not real and it is just an excuse for bad behavior. This hurt me to be living with and in love with someone who is unable to understand and support this part of me. This is the part of me that needs the most support, and he is not able to give that to me. After, I finished my masters in clinical psychology was the turning point in this struggle. My husband was able to read some of my college books. I shared my assignments with him. Everything I was learning we discussed how it relates to our life and my ‘behaviors’ (symptoms) and it was like it especially if there hasn’t been an official diagnosis-like me when I was a child. The general public don’t even typically know the signs and symptoms of mental illness, so they wouldn’t know what to look for or even how to help. This is why education is key. We need to educate others on mental illness/health. Without this education, we cannot expect our loved ones to understand or know how to help us or others who are struggling.
Leah DeMarest is a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor in Iowa. She is the founder and therapist at Flourishing Engagements in Urbandale, Iowa; CEO of Ed Ease Iowa; and a public speaker who speaks on mental health topics, mental illness stigma, bullying, and domestic violence.