When I was a senior in high school, I penned a poem entitled “The Ladder.” Above the title, I drew a simple picture of a ladder with a disproportionately large question mark at the top. Boldly printed above the question mark was the word “HAPPINESS.” My empty, desolate teenage soul was desperate to understand what happiness felt like. Was it ever going to be possible for me to “be” happy? If I reached the top of this “ladder,” would I experience a glimmer of hope? Or would I remain forever stuck in the swamp of darkness that cemented me at the bottom, preventing me from taking that first step?
I don’t remember what the world looked like before the lens of depression colored my journey, my worldview. I always knew I experienced and interpreted the world on a deeper level, but I couldn’t understand why the sting of sadness wouldn’t leave. Why the pangs of anxiety and panic paralyzed me from pushing past the observation deck, scrolling through the feed of everyone else’s perceived happiness. My soul became saturated with an aching to be seen and understood but my distorted mind created a maze with no way out.
I fiercely showed up at school and in life with high energy and a smile, seeking out any role that would create purpose and meaning on the outside. Searching for purpose on the inside was marked by a deafening and self deprecatating soundtrack. I was not able to love myself or understand the power of vulnerability and repeatedly sabotaged potential friendships and meaningful opportunities. During some of the darker times, my hurting mind found relief through alcohol. Alcohol could soften the sting of the thoughts but I still yearned to control the hollow feelings that followed. Depriving my body of food was a dangerous game that I played in order to achieve harmony between my mind and body. Being thin was an obsessive, desperate way to be “seen” but ultimately heightened the panic, self-hatred &searing anxiety. I danced often and intimately with suicidal thoughts, begging God to please take away the aching pain that was throbbing in my mind.
The tapestry of my life was being intricately woven together by something much greater than me and despite the depth of darkness that suffocated my soul, there was immense beauty interlaced throughout. I got married, obtained a master’s degree, had four beautiful children, found success through work and volunteering. Each time depression & anxiety made their painful entrance into my arena, I would fight feverishly to come out the winner.
I stepped up that ladder, faster and stronger with each milestone. New job, new baby, new house, new friends, new project, the list went on and on. The ladder was impeccably set out for me and yet I found myself back at start, sinking in the quicksand of mental anguish.
Wherever you go, there you are.
About two years ago, our family came face to face with a series of mental health challenges, and we made the terrifying decision to push through fears and shame and pull back the curtain on my/our struggles. It was time to treat my mental health like more than just a boxing match. Thus began the process of co-producing This is My Brave: Baltimore, and cracking open the path to deep and profound healing. It was through this experience that I met Jordan and learned of his story and the powerful mission of the Ed Lally Foundation.
Walking an unpredictable and sometimes lonely path with my family inspires me to fight for increased awareness and understanding of mental health. I am hopeful and passionate about the work that the Ed Lally Foundation is doing to de-stigmatize mental illness while shedding a light on the power of honest expression.
I have learned that happiness is not “found” at the top of the ladder, or anywhere outside myself. When I do find my way to that space that I previously perceived as the “top,” I seize the opportunity to be still and know. Know that depression and anxiety may be waiting for me on the way up or down, and I may still find myself struggling to take that first step again. Know that working with a kind and empathetic therapist will help me practice self-compassion and move gracefully towards joy. Know that through the practice of meditation and mindfulness, the stream of negative thoughts can be gently observed and not entrenched. Know that if the mind is healthy, then the heart can be open to receive the blessings that God has bestowed upon my life.
My middle schooler recently chose to write an essay about reducing the stigma of mental health for his Language Arts class and listed the Ed Lally Foundation as one of the organizations that is making an impact in the field. His ability to have an open conversation about mental health and courageously begin to wipe away the shame and fear is the engine that will drive us out of darkness and ignite the light in each of us. Together, we can be free to take that first step on our own ladder. #togetherweheal