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We Don’t Have To Do It Alone: My Story & Fight with Mental Illness

Kristen Garzone October 08, 2020

Lately, I’ve been reminded how truly special it is to be able to share so much; to be transparent and extremely vulnerable in talking about the ins and the outs of real life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I haven’t always been so open with my struggles, but I really do believe that by choosing to bravely open-up and show my weaknesses, it has made me that much stronger while helping others. I may suffer from depression and anxiety, but I refuse to let it define me.  And honestly, I feel stronger for it, like an underdog – refusing to ever give up and relentless in my ways; built upon hustle and heart and the belief that anyone can overcome any type of adversity. Because of my mental illnesses, I know I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to, no matter how hard, tough, soul shaking, or painful it may be. Even on the good days, my mental illnesses seem to empower me. But it took me a long time to get to where I am today….

I feel as if people often talk about their college years as the best time of their life. For me, it was… until it wasn’t. I know now that I was undiagnosed with severe depression (and had been since my teenage years), but at the time, I honestly thought I was just crazy. Over 13 years has passed and I still don’t know how to put it all into words but what I do know is that about a month before turning 21, I was at my absolute lowest point, not even knowing why I was acting or feeling the way I was. I was unable to control myself and my emotions, in a toxic relationship that made me feel absolutely worthless, unable to trust anyone around me, and the most alone I’d ever felt.

 

"I kept showing up, no matter how ashamed or embarrassed I was for how I had felt or acted. I continued to show up. That got me through some of the hardest months." 

Playing collegiate soccer helped. I put all my ill feelings and suffocating emotions into the game and had my best season that year. I knew some didn’t want me there, but I kept showing up, no matter how ashamed or embarrassed I was for how I had felt or acted. I continued to show up. That got me through some of the hardest months. But when November hit and the season was over, I had nothing left. Nothing to mask the awful and scary feelings. I didn’t want to live another day, feeling absolutely defeated. I did what I thought was my only option at the time and attempted suicide, my one and only attempt. (My first time even sharing that publicly was about a month ago. It’s something that will never get easier to share.) The thing I’ve learned about suicide is that it seems to come at times of extreme desperation to make the pain end; to finally obtain some inner peace and not feel like you’re constantly crawling out of your own skin. I view it as a last resort to make it go away and to not be such a burden anymore. That was the ultimate rock bottom for me but still, I never told anyone. I was ashamed and so deeply confused.

About 2 months after that, I hit the lowest of lows. After having a major (and quite embarrassing) fall out with my ex and college, I transferred home for my final semester. And you know what? I have felt ashamed of this for so long. But why? I still have that College degree hanging up proudly and I got through it all… so why still be ashamed? Well, I know now it’s because there is a heavy, heavy stigma that surrounds mental health and at the time, back in 2008, it wasn’t exactly the “cool thing” to deal with (and something that anyone rarely talked about). Yet sadly, we still live in a world where people think it’s OK to put someone down or use their struggles against them. The most heartbreaking part was that I was surrounded by people that I constantly wanted to like/love me but for all the wrong reasons. I constantly sought out approval while trying to hide my battles behind fake “perfection”, leading to one big mess after another.

When I finally came home, I was forced to seek help and (finally) diagnosed with depression and anxiety. For over a year, biweekly therapy helped me claw my way back with the big help of (much needed) medication, but I was still so broken and ashamed. I look back as I write this and realize how lost I really was. When I “graduated” from therapy, I put it behind me, tried to forget it all, and acted as if it never had happened. I didn’t take my diagnosis seriously. I also didn’t realize it would be a lifelong battle. I desperately wanted a second change to recreate myself and avoid the lingering post-traumatic stress of that final college year.

I have a lot of good memories and experiences from my 20s after that. I met my husband, got engaged, bought a house, started running (and ran 5+ marathons), got married, went on some great trips, spent a lot of time with friends, and even got pregnant! But amidst all the happiness and good, a lot of bad happened too.

Outbursts, always on edge, depression surrounding me once again, and the worst episodes of it all: anxiety rage. The thing about certain symptoms stemming from mental illness is that they all come with varying severity and for me, anxiety rage has been (and may always be) my greatest struggle. It may very well be the thing I am most ashamed of on most days. I think it has caused the most hardship as well, bringing back some awful and traumatic memories. And those memories still haunt me; PTSD that bring on nightmares that feel almost too real. These episodes always leave me feeling so broken down, almost like I’m drowning, and filled with so much guilt as well as believing I am undeserving of any type of love. I often question how my husband could ever love me despite all of this. In turn, I often wondered well before I was pregnant how I could ever be a mom when I couldn’t even seem to handle myself.

Truthfully, I had never wanted to be a mom because I was always afraid of becoming a mom. Of course, when I found out in February of 2016 that I was pregnant, I couldn’t help but be excited! But with my history, how could I possibly raise a “normal” child?  This was something I worried and stressed about constantly throughout my 41 weeks of pregnancy. And at the time, I didn’t even know postpartum depression existed or that I was at extreme risk for it.

About a month into maternity leave, I remember a post popping up on Facebook where a new mom of a 6-month-old had taken her life and thinking, “how could that happen?” It didn’t even cross my mind that I as I read that article, I was going through severe PPD myself and would never in a million years imagine that I would lose one of my best friends from the very same thing months later.

The thing is pregnancy and motherhood are portrayed as this wonderful, beautiful thing. Don’t get me wrong – it is indeed a blessing… But it is certainly not all rainbows and butterflies. When I think back on the newborn stage, it isn’t filled with constant smiles and cuddling this new, beautiful baby. All I remember is constantly crying hysterically, Ellie screaming at the top of her lungs and Troy (our golden retriever) howling at it all which led to so much rage (and a lot of screaming) plus even more tears. I felt like I was losing my mind.

I became angrier and angrier each day it seemed, which my husband did not and could not understand. It was an awful chain reaction with growing anger leading to more and more guilt plus lingering (and once again) undiagnosed depression, which, of course, then lead to an even bigger disconnect from my family. I felt useless, like I had no purpose. I felt like I was failing as a new mom and that my family would be much better off without me. Worst of all, I felt like I was the only one to ever feel this way. I was afraid people would judge me for these feelings so I once again tried to hide it from everyone.

 

"On June 2, 2017, when Ellie was about 7 months old, my life changed forever. My dear friend, Kristin, (who felt more like a sister) had taken her own life at 10 months postpartum."

 

On June 2, 2017, when Ellie was about 7 months old, my life changed forever. My dear friend, Kristin, (who felt more like a sister) had taken her own life at 10 months postpartum. I can’t even begin to explain the uncontrollable grief that took over me (and still does on some days).  My “episodes” got longer and more frequent. Nights of uncontrollable crying, mood changes like no other, constant fighting with my husband, extreme disconnect from my daughter, days of lying flat on the ground and not being able to move for hours, and so many days feeling stuck and never believing that it would ever get better. “Why her and not me?” became more of an everyday thought, and when I felt like that, I would get even more upset for the fact that Kristin and I were more alike than I had ever realized. It still brings on so much guilt. If I could’ve been brave enough to openly share my own struggles or reach out a little bit more then, maybe I could have saved her.

After Kristin’s passing, I threw myself into training for the Chicago marathon, my 6th marathon and 1st marathon back postpartum. I have said this before, and I’ll say it again – thank god for running. If it wasn’t for all that time spent training and being able to succeed and accomplish those workouts every day, I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten through it all. I was so far removed from my family at the time but I was so fixated on my running not only because I had set a big goal for myself but because it was the only thing that truly helped me stay afloat in the extreme postpartum depression I was drowning in.

That is when I really started to embrace my struggles and share openly.  My (almost now) 4 year journey with postpartum depression has been a rollercoaster: it has found ways to humble me, break me, and re-grow me. It also has brought me the strength to share my struggles with depression, postpartum depression, and anxiety and most importantly: no longer feeling ashamed to fight in the open to help end the stigma of mental illness.

Sadly enough, losing Kristin ultimately saved my life. It broke my heart but forced me to realize how serious my condition really was. It also helped my husband realize how severe postpartum depression really was. In honor of her, I PROUDLY share my story and some of hers). Kristin always put others first and her love, kindness, selflessness, and friendships were admired by all who knew her. I share so that others will not suffer this pain alone and in hopes that they never have to go through a tragic loss like the one we have endured. There is never a day that I don’t think of her and miss her. She truly saved me.

As you can see, all the sharing and openness didn’t happen overnight. It has been years of darkness in the making. At the beginning, I was consumed with fear that I would be judged or laughed out. But with darkness comes light. With all the support and love on my candid posts, it constantly reminds me that I’m not alone in this fight nor the only one to feel this way. There are still times I fear others (especially new acquaintances) will judge or look at me differently when they see the real glimpse into my life. But I’ve come to the realization that I have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Social media can often be a constant "highlight reel" so it's even more refreshing to be able to share my truth.

Truth be told: I used to worry about how my daughter may view me for all the posts, episodes, and constant struggles but I know now that (I think) I’m doing it right by helping her understand and immersing her in mental health early on. Honestly, I think it’s made her an even more amazing (almost 4-year-old) girl. She has SO much compassion, which I am truly proud of! There was one night, a couple weeks back, where she, out of nowhere, said: “Mommy, you do a good job taking care of me, especially on your own when daddy golfs” and it absolutely melted my heart. She knew she had to give me that reassurance and where that used to make me feel awful, it made my heart smile.

 

"All the sharing and openness didn’t happen overnight. It has been years of darkness in the making."

 

I really do hope one day we will live in a society where everyone feels safe enough to talk about their own struggles. Unfortunately, there is a lack of overall care (especially postpartum care for new moms) when it comes to mental health, even though great strides have been made since the late 2000s.  I truly believe that the more resources readily made available with more affordable options and an emphasis put on the importance of mental health, the better off our world and social well-being will be. And in turn, we will all live in an overall better world. We are all in this together.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of days where I feel helpless, on pins and needles, fixating on past failures or self-blame, and not able to “snap out of it”. Some days you feel as if life isn't worth living while other days, you laugh at the fact that you ever felt so low. This is one of the most frustrating parts of depression: it’s a constant rollercoaster.

The truth is it will always be my struggle. This past February, suicidal thoughts came back. After a very scary “episode”, I knew I needed professional help once again. That’s when I broke down and did what I should’ve done a long time ago: 3+ years of dealing with heavy postpartum depression (and only one therapy session through it all) and I finally MADE myself call my therapist again to seek the treatment I so badly needed. I’ve been going ever since – and found out the hard way that I had been severely undermedicated for years. It’s always a work in progress living with a mental illness and at the end of the day, you always have to do what’s best for you.

If I can leave you with one thing to take from this all, it’s that I never, ever helped myself by trying to hide my fight with mental illness. And although it may take A LONG TIME to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, embracing the need for professional help, and opening up, I have found so much purpose in being able to share my crazy, far-from-perfect, messy, depression and anxiety filled life for anyone to read. Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace and own who I am despite all my insecurities and ugly traits.

Sharing my story has also been extremely therapeutic. I found that the more I started to openly share my struggles of everyday life and my past, the more people chose to share their own stories with me. Those messages continue to give me the courage and bravery to keep on sharing. It has also helped me find even more amazing ways to honor Kristin through spreading awareness and raising funds while running with Every Mother Counts. As a member of Run Team EMC, I was able to team up with a fellow ambassador to host an annual Virtual Run (Run to Believe 5K) starting back in 2018, to help celebrate Kristin on her birthday weekend, which is also Mother’s Day Weekend.

2 years ago, I became an ambassador for #StillIRun – an amazing group/community where people can share their experiences of dealing with mental illness through running or any other type of physical activity. Last Fall, I ran a half marathon for the Jordan Porco Foundation, which holds a powerful mission. This foundation was created to help prevent suicide, promote mental health, and create a message of hope for young adults. The best part? They help challenge the stigma by attending college fairs and encourage students to talk openly about mental health issues. Running for JPF helped me come full circle from those shameful college memories by supporting a foundation helping struggling college students (who may feel lost and confused just like I was) find ways to navigate their mental health. I still am SO thankful I was able to thank Jordan’s mom, Marisa, for all she has done with the creation of this foundation. To be able to tell her that a program such as hers was exactly what my college experience was missing and that if there was a program around like that at the time, it might have helped save me from years and years of turmoil and PTSD was everything. I am forever grateful for findings ways to get involved and help be (and support) the change I so badly want to see.

 

"I’ve learned to embrace and own who I am despite all my insecurities and ugly traits."

 

At the end of the day, your story is just that – YOURS. But I hope my words remind you that your hardships can most definitely help someone else out there and being vulnerable can help others that may be suffering and aid in breaking down the stigma. Maybe if I would have read someone else’s story when I was at some of my lowest points, I would’ve taken comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone. Maybe I would have gotten help a lot sooner.

 

With World Mental Health day this Saturday, October 10th, I welcome you to celebrate with me because our growing self-awareness and sensitivity towards the importance of mental health has really changed things for the better. If you want to get involved, get involved. If you want to share your story, SHARE IT! If we support each other and choose to respond to others’ struggles with empathy, compassion, and understanding, shame cannot survive. And please, never, ever be ashamed because the reality is life is ridiculously hard, especially during this pandemic, and no one is perfect. What makes us Mental Health warriors so strong is the fact that day after day, regardless of all the pain endured, we continue to show up, getting through the hard days and celebrating the good ones, all while refusing to give up. Just as a true underdog would do.

Own who you are because our illnesses will not and does not define us.  Dig deep and be brave, embrace that vulnerability, and when in doubt, remind yourself that you are so much stronger than you think you are, and most importantly: you are not alone.

It’s OK to not be OK. Keep fighting. Never give up. You got this.

“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” -- Brene Brown

Run To Believe KNT: https://www.moremilesraces.com/runtobelieve

Run with us for the 4th Annual #RuntoBelieveKNT!

Save the date: Saturday, May 8, 2021

Every Mother Counts: https://everymothercounts.org/

Still I Run: https://www.stilliruncommunity.com

Jordon Porco Foundation: https://www.rememberingjordan.org/

Share your story on Mental Health day!

FRÉ would love for you to share your story and your tips for resilience about mental health and fitness. FRÉ will be donating $1 for every product sold on October 10th to Minding Your Mind. Be sure to use the hashtags #MindingYourMind and #FrendsForMentalHealth

Get Immediate Help

People often don’t get the mental health services they need because they don’t know where to start. Talk to your primary care doctor or another health professional about mental health problems. Ask them to connect you with the right mental health services.

If you do not have a health professional who is able to assist you, use these resources to find help for yourself, your friends, and/or your family:

Emergency Medical Services—911

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK

If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline, 1-877-SAMHSA7

Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741

The Crisis Text hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the U.S. The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.

Other Mental Health Organizations/ Support:

Love Land Foundation: committed to showing up for communities of color in unique and powerful ways, with a particular focus on Black women and girls.

https://thelovelandfoundation.org/ 

United for Global Mental Health: dedicated to creating a world that enables good mental health for all. We focus on what will make the most difference to global mental health, and we build whatever it takes to make that happen.

https://unitedgmh.org/ 

Postpartum Support Internal: dedicated to helping families suffering from postpartum depression, anxiety, and distress.

https://www.postpartum.net 

Minding Your Mind: dedicated to ending stigma and destructive behaviors associated with mental health issues, moving away from a crisis-based response to prevention through education.

https://mindingyourmind.org

 


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