I have the word hope tattooed on my wrist. When I got it 5 years ago it was more of a plea than anything else. My life had become devastated by mental illness and drug addiction, and I was floundering. Even though I have spent much of my adult life depressed, anxious and addicted, it hadn’t always been that way.
I was born in Rockford, Illinois in 1982, the oldest of three children. My childhood was happy and healthy- proof that mental illness and addiction can affect anyone. I was mostly bubbly and outgoing, but even as a kid there were times that I remember feeling “weird.” I didn’t have a name for it, but I remember whispering “feelings go away, please go away.” By the time I got to middle school my anxiety had become a real problem- I couldn’t spend more than one night away from home and I would get sick with nerves before every swim meet. I was in honors classes throughout school, but I never felt truly comfortable outside of my small classes.
When I was 16, we moved from New York to Virginia and my anxiety and depression increased. I missed my friends and family, with whom I had grown up. I eventually settled in, but by my senior year my depression had returned and I was being tutored at home, going to therapy, and taking anti-depressants. Even though I was the treasurer of the National Honor Society, captain of the tennis team, and a straight “A” student I felt empty. I had it all, but I couldn’t go more than 6 months without a depressive episode that left me stuck in my bed. I went away to college, and I was shocked to see that the girls in my dorm went days, weeks, even months without crying. When I found out my parents were getting divorced I started coming home every weekend, and hated being away at school. I threw up every time I left, cried all the time, and my anxiety was worse than it ever had been. I vacillated between depression and numbness throughout most of my time at college, and I started withdrawing from my classes every semester until I eventually gave up and dropped out.
By the time I met my boyfriend Jake at 22, I had tried at least 10 different anti-depressant medications, but nothing truly worked. Our long-distance relationship caused a whole new level of anxiety, and I fell apart every time we said goodbye. Eventually, I called my doctor and asked for Valium. He gave me a similar drug called Ativan, and when Jake and I broke up after 2 years I began taking it every day. A few months later, I still couldn’t function and checked myself into a hospital in Northern Virginia. The hospital was the most terrifying experience in my life, and I was surrounded by people talking to themselves and having violent outbursts. In some ways, however, it was comforting; I felt protected from myself and safe from everything going on outside the hospital walls.
After I was discharged, I returned home and began seeing Dr. Loren Council at Colonial Behavioral Health. My weekly appointments were the only times I left the house. I spent the rest of the time in my room either crying or sleeping. I saw my siblings’ and friends’ accomplishments as reminders of my failures, and I knew that if I didn’t do something my depression was going to kill me. In desperation, I made the serious decision to have electro-shock therapy. While it was much different than how it is portrayed in the movies, it was still stressful. I asked my doctor to increase my Ativan, and all of a sudden I found myself on an even darker path. Any benefits I received from the shock treatments were overshadowed by my worsening drug addiction. I started going to two doctors since no one would give me the number of pills I needed. Toward the end I was taking over 14 times the amount that is safe for the average person. I was doing things that no sane person would do to get my drugs and was ashamed and embarrassed about the person I had become. My mom told me that she stopped outside my room to make sure I was still breathing and Dr. Council told me he was afraid I was going to die if I didn’t get help. I know that without his concern, the support of my mom and grandmother, and my love for my brother and sister I would not have survived. Once I finally asked for help Dr. Cindy Levy and Colonial Behavioral Health got me into a detox center. After 11 days I came home more miserable than ever. I had the support of the crisis and nursing staff at Colonial Behavioral Health, and they tried their best to help me. It can take up to 6 months to fully detox from drugs like Ativan and Valium, and I wasn’t making any other healthy changes to my life. Eventually, on the advice of Dr. Council and one of the CBH nurses, I begrudgingly started the Intensive Outpatient Program.
The group and the therapist, Diane Green, helped me build a life that I never thought would be mine. Not only am I am in recovery from my drug addiction, but it has been almost 2 years since I have had a major depressive episode. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my life could be the way it is now. I had never aspired to happiness; I just didn’t want to be sad any more. My relationships with my family are better than ever, I have fantastic friends, and I was just accepted into a very competitive nursing school program. Not only do I currently work as a Certified Nurse Aide, but I volunteer as a peer mentor in the same outpatient program that I graduated from at CBH. My life is amazing, and I look at my tattoo now and realize that there must have been some spark of hope within me all along. I am certain though that without my wonderful family and friends, as well as the mental health and addiction resources offered at Colonial Behavioral Health I would still be lost.
Kristen is 30 years old and lives in Yorktown with her family and rescue dog, Lily. She has been a client of Colonial Behavioral Health since 2006, and graduated from the Intensive Outpatient Program in April 2011. Currently, she volunteers in the program as a peer mentor. She also works as a Certified Nurse’s Aide, and looks forward to continuing her education and becoming a substance abuse/psychiatric nurse. Her sober date is May 17th, 2010.