I was in middle school when my mental health started deteriorating. Every day I would hide under tables, cover my ears, or hit my head. I would lash out at anyone who tried to help me. I was anxious 24/7. But I kept denying what was happening. I told myself that I was fine, that I was just going through a rough couple of days. Then days turned into weeks, and weeks into months.
Going into my eighth grade trip to Washington D.C., I was not doing great. I couldn’t sleep on that trip and would scratch my hands and arms raw every night. I was supposed to fly back with my class, but after getting a bloody nose in the airport, I lost it. The little control I was keeping over my brain broke and a full-fledged panic attack came on. I had to go to the hospital with my teachers and stay an extra night. But I recovered quickly and was able to fly back to Seattle the next day.
My freshman year, my brain couldn’t take any more pressure. On January 10, 2013, I broke again, much like the time in D.C., but this time I wasn’t able to bounce back. I was taken to the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU) at Seattle Children’s (now called the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit, or PBMU). When I was first admitted, I couldn’t perform basic functions such as reading, eating or walking. My brain had decided to take a vacation and leave me hanging. It felt like every week I had a new diagnosis and a new treatment plan.
For the IPU, a “long stay” was considered two weeks. Yet after three months of being on the unit, I wasn’t getting better, I was getting worse.
My care team decided to transfer me to a long term residential behavioral treatment center in Tacoma. I spent the next year-and-a-half there. It took a long time, 612 days to be exact, before I was finally able to go home. But it wasn’t all peachy when I got home. I had a couple shorter stays at the IPU, but each time I got stronger, and each time I found something new to fight for.
My mental health mission
Mental health is something that affects everyone. Whether it is a bad mental health day or a mental health disorder, it is something we all will have to face at some point in our life. Mental health disorders and illness do not discriminate. It is an open door that any of us could walk through at any point in life. I know when I walked through that door, it felt like a train hitting me at full speed.
Throughout the years I have learned many things, but I think the most important has been that at the end of the day material things don’t matter. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive, what house you live in, or how many digits your bank account reaches. What matters is the relationships we have and the bonds we’ve worked so hard to build. We have to take care of each other.
And that is why I have decided to fight, not just for myself, but for all of those who have had similar stories. This past June, on behalf of Seattle Children’s and the Children’s Hospital Association, I went back to Washington D.C. for the first time since that episode in eighth grade. However, this time I was on a mission. I met with members of Congress to share my story and the story of so many others, while proposing recommendations on how we can improve access to mental health care, in the hopes to inspire them to help make a change so that others wouldn’t have to go through what I and so many others have gone through. My recommendations included prioritizing mental health in early childhood, funding for schools to implement mental health programs, and requiring states to establish response services for children experiencing mental health crises.
I went to show them that while my anxiety and Asperger syndrome are a part of me, I am so much more than my diagnosis. They didn’t define me in the hospital, they don’t define me now, and they will never define me.
At Seattle Children’s, a staff member taught me an acronym one day. HOPE. It got me through some of my darkest days and because of everyone who believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself, I am able to share it with you today.
Hold On, Pain Ends