I was born into this world crying for months and months during a frigid Wyoming winter. I was sent to a psychologist when I was 8 when my parents didn’t know how to handle my big feelings, my fears, and my insomnia. I felt alone in a small town where I felt alien, ashamed, and alone. I found some connection and a sense of belonging in swimming. When I was a teenager, that swimming world caused great trauma and I became so anguished that I almost died from starvation.
When my parents finally realized I was dying, I was locked in a hospital which created more despair and amplified the shame about who I was. It made me feel aberrant and criminal for my pain and how I coped with it. It did nothing to help me cope with my recent loss and trauma. It did nothing to help me accept my queerness in a culture that shamed queer identities (when it was even talked about). Finally, it did nothing to help me understand my neurodivergence in a world that overwhelmed me.
I headed to college with great hope. Within a month, I was raped. During this horrible time, I found my soul friend, Heidi, who held space for me and helped me survive this horrific trauma and helped me find my anger towards him and towards the roommates that shamed me, rather than the person who raped me.
I soon fell in love with a man who lived in paranoid and psychotic states in addition to being abusive and manipulative. When I became pregnant, he abused me throughout my pregnancy. She was born and she saved me. She gave me a reason to keep living. We have both never fully recovered from this traumatic abuse both before and after her birth. I had a second daughter with him 6 years later, and I knew I couldn’t continue to subject them to this ongoing trauma. I escaped with the help of peer support from Crossroads and my family.
Although we were physically separate from him, he still abused us from afar. All of us were deeply affected by this experience and each of our nervous systems is forever changed by it. I fought hard to get help for us to cope with our extreme pain, but hit roadblocks everywhere I turned, and when I lost my soul friend and my dad, things got even harder in our family due to my intense grief. My youngest survived this, in part, by finding a creative outlet with dance and an artistic community outside of our family. My oldest survived through music, books, writing, and connections with people. The system failed all three of us. It is not accessible for our neurodivergent brains and burned-out nervous systems, and we still struggle to cope with this overwhelming world.
In the past several years, my grief over my physical disabilities, chronic pain, and isolation triggered a descent into worsening daily suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and anguish. Because I was desperate, I tried medication and was unable to find relief. Medications caused horrific side effects for me both mentally and physically. I could not find a therapist that worked for me. One therapist cut me off, saying I was ‘too depressed’ for therapy. Another did not seem to understand the anguish I felt from my inability to participate in the outside world or my great despair over political issues. My despair was in large part due to the world causing me great distress with its lack of a safety net and terrifying political atmosphere. I also found no understanding of how difficult it is to be unable to work in a society that values productivity over everything.
I survived all these experiences by connecting to communities of people who had been there. It wasn’t until I found a community of psychiatric survivors that I began to understand that hospitalization is extremely traumatic to MANY people, and I began to feel less ashamed and more empowered. My best friend helped me stay alive after my rape and subsequent gaslighting from my roommates. When I found a community of peers at Crossroads, I was finally able to leave my abuser. And recently, I was only able to feel some light in my darkness by finding a community of folks with lived experience both online and in my local community. Peer-to-peer connections helped me connect to my anger, and my voice, and to feel less alone in a world that wants us to bury our madness, our otherness, our grief, and our trauma.
When I hit brick walls in the traditional system, I had to find new ways to cope with my ongoing intense distress. When I attended in-person and online peer support trainings and Alternatives to Suicide groups, I connected with others with lived experience and found safe places to talk about things like self-harm and suicidal thinking without fear of psychiatric incarceration. In a world where I felt I had to hide these things, finding these safe places has been truly life-affirming. The so-called ‘little’ things like dogs, music, poetry, being outdoors, books, and social media also help keep me alive. I still struggle every day with suicidal thinking and sometimes with self-harm, but I’m learning to accept that space inside myself and know that nothing is permanent. Finally, finding acceptance of my neurodivergence and knowing that I am not alone; that I’m connected to the disabled and MAD movements, both past and present moves me forward day by day.
During the past two years, I have worked with a group of people who also want to build an alternative to our current mental health system. My personal and professional experiences have shown me that mental health providers often neglect to help people find their sparks and things that give life meaning. They focus on pathology and compliance and often make us feel like we will be sick forever. Working to transform our system with this small group of incredible folks has given my life meaning and shown me I don’t necessarily need ‘the traditional system’ and that I can help create alternatives that also help others find hope.
We need a system that has mutual care and communities. We need a system that sees ALL people as valuable members of society no matter how productive we are. We need workplaces that are accessible, flexible, and accommodating. We need a system that values the lived experience of others who have gone through these challenges and builds networks so that we can support each other as we are the experts on ourselves. We need a system that has peer-run initiatives as CENTRAL to the hub of the system rather than a peripheral afterthought. We need housing, healthcare, and universal basic income for everyone. We need a system where people experiencing extreme states are treated with dignity and respect. A system that thinks outside the box and acknowledges that sometimes mental health distress is also a response to things like oppression, discrimination, and lack of safety nets. Finally, we need a system that mobilizes folks to change our outside conditions so that folks don’t want to leave this world but want to live and thrive here.