“Letting Go and Speaking Out”

By Imani McCalla, WESPAC intern

Race, religion, and socioeconomic status are some issues that still affect Americans today. Nearly one in five adults of any classification suffer from a mental illness each year. Members of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) presented “In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness” at the WESPAC office on Thursday, May 26 to educate the audience on mental illness and how to learn to live with and manage a mental illness.

The presentation was broken down into six sections: Dark Days, Acceptance, Treatment, Coping Skills, Successes, Hopes and Dreams. Sadie, a Masters of Arts in Teaching candidate from Manhattanville College, described how she overcame depression.

Sadie was diagnosed with depression during her sophomore year at the University of Hartford after seeing a therapist at the university’s counseling center. As she described in her Dark Days, depression developed during her childhood due to her parents spending a lot of time working. “My parents have always been very passionate about their careers,” she said.

Sadie’s father works as a dermatologist and recently discovered a new type of cancer and developed a treatment for it. He mainly focuses on diseases that severely affect the skin. Her mother is a chemistry Ph.D who is currently an oncology nurse. She has also done research on drugs for obesity, cancer, and metabolic syndromes.

Sadie spent most of her childhood with her nanny, Maureen, or Mo, for short. “I would even call her Mom-mo because she was like a second mother to me,” Sadie said.

When she thought Sadie was old enough to care for herself, Maureen left to find another job, leaving a toll on her. “I would cry for hours every day after school,” Sadie said. She added she was not only sad, but bored and lonely. As a way of avoiding these feelings, she would comfort herself with junk food, zone out in front of the television, and procrastinate with homework.

Sadie’s struggle with overcoming depression affected her ability to communicate interpersonally. “I had superficial relationships with everyone: family, friends and teachers,” she said. “I wasn’t even close with my immediate family and had a somewhat explosive relationship with my parents. I didn’t know how to connect with people.” She also had trouble reaching out to someone about her low self-esteem: “I definitely didn’t talk about how negatively I thought about myself.”

Throughout her teenage years, Sadie thought of herself as “fat, stupid, slow, ugly and awkward,” but “acted normal.” The fact that she attended an expensive private school and compared herself to other girls did not help: “My classes were extremely competitive and in my head, my classmates were skinny, smart, beautiful and extremely wealthy.”

As Sadie’s pain grew stronger, she began doing self-harm and having suicidal thoughts. “I would hit myself,” she said. “I wished that I had never existed.” Anti-depressants did not ease the pain, however, and they also affected her sleep, so she did not use them for long. To worsen the feeling, Sadie would binge drink.

Years after college, she could not handle more than she could bare. Her grandfather died, her mother was unemployed, Sadie was going to get laid off from her job and had gotten into a car accident. “I cried all the time and it was difficult to get out of bed,” she said.

A few months later, her grandmother died and Sadie had broken up with her boyfriend after being with him for four years. He had also suffered from mild depression and was able to relate to Sadie well. “He was my best friend,” she said. “It was really hard to lose that support.” She said this was the first time she had experienced severe anxiety. “My world had flipped upside-down,” she stated. “My experiences caused me to feel vulnerable and afraid all the time. Sometimes, I was unable to sleep three nights in a row.”

Sadie’s anxiety increased when she began overworking and not getting enough rest. Personal matters had also interfered with her decision-making. “A bunch of issues kept piling up,” she said. She tried planning a trip to South America to volunteer for three months. After visiting her brother in Seattle, she returned home on an overnight flight and worked eighty hours that week. “I ended up not sleeping for six nights straight,” she said.

Because sleep deprivation was affecting her physically and mentally, she figured she needed psychiatric help. “I was having hallucinations of killing myself,” she said. “I knew I needed intensive care, so I decided to go to a hospital.”

Sadie has several members in her family who struggle with mental illness as well and they refuse to accept it or seek treatment, which made it difficult for her to accept hers. “Their attitude towards it has continually served as a barrier to me,” she said. However, in college and throughout her 20’s, her friends have been very supportive. She realized discussing any issue ranging from her illness or hospitalization with them built a stronger relationship. “The more I opened up, the closer we became,” she said. Her friends would refer to her as “sister.”

Although difficult, Sadie has come a long way from her experiences. “Acceptance has been a life-long journey,” she said. “I’ve had to accept new challenges with my illness at different times of my life, but every time I got the help I needed, it was the right decision.”

Sadie is currently on an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication and a sleep aid, which she says is very helpful and has no side-effects. She has also learned a new kind of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which she says “helps her shut down negative and distortive thoughts.”

Once a week, Sadie sees her therapist, whom she said she is thankful for. Another psychiatrist who she trusts as a trained medical professional, she sees every two months.

Other than visiting her psychiatrist and taking her medication daily, Sadie has found better defense mechanisms. She now avoids alcohol and excessive caffeine. To stay well mentally and physically, she exercises often, does meditation and yoga, spends time outdoors and with friends, eats healthy balanced meals, listens to music, and shares her story with others.

After battling with body image, Sadie has learned how to accept her inner and outer being. “I feel a completely different way about myself now; I love myself.” she said. “You’re never going to be anybody else, so you might as well enjoy being you.” Having a mother who also struggled with loving her own body, Sadie said rather than focusing on what your body looks like, focus on what it can do. “Your body allows you to explore the world,” she said. Sadie snowboards, goes on hikes and enjoys rock climbing. Moreover, being proud of her accomplishments and socializing with others built her self-esteem. She came to the realization that she is “a very likeable person.”

Sadie has found spiritual growth as well. This past Easter, she joined a local church family that offers support and community.

Other than earning a high school, undergrad, and masters degree despite her depression, she is also proud of the volunteer work she does on the food justice committee for WESPAC which currently includes running a community garden plot. Besides volunteering, she said she loves her job as a teacher for preschool and elementary students running ten-week courses in science at Curious-on-Hudson in Dobbs Ferry.

When facing life challenges, Sadie has taught her students how to practice defense mechanisms. Sadie used exam preparation as an example. “When students feel stressed out, I try to be very understanding and make them feel okay about any extreme feeling they are having,” she said. Moreover, she helps students see the brighter side of situations. “Young people are constantly developing perception,” she maintained. Another strategy that Sadie does is make a diagram with her hands. “I try to allow students to understand life,” she explained. “I show them that it is not healthy to get stressed out about one small thing because we all face many ups and downs over the course of our life.”

Sadie also worked as a camp counselor at ARC of Westchester, where she developed a strong relationship with children with intellectual and emotional disabilities. “Every time I connected with a student who has lost faith in the adults in their life, I felt elated,” she said.

According to the adults in Sadie’s life, she now has a ‘”good, caring relationship with her mother” and “healthy and functional relationship with her father.” She also stays in touch with Mom-mo. Although broken up, Sadie says she and her ex-boyfriend are still close friends, but not as close as they used to be now that he lives in Illinois.

With her whole life still ahead of her, Sadie has more goals to achieve. She dreams of adopting children and raising a family in a healthy environment where they can grow into emotionally competent adults.

When asked what advice she would give to those suffering from a mental illness, she said “Mental illness is not a fault. It is nothing to be embarrassed about. Try to share your struggles or successes with someone you feel comfortable with. The more you talk about it, the more normal it becomes. Reach out to friends and family.” Along with this, Sadie encourages those to write a list of things to do like breathing exercises or calling a friend and keep it in their wallet or phone so they can look at it when they are not feeling well.

“Mental illness is such a complicated topic to discuss,” said Nicole, a long-time friend of Sadie. “It’s very clear that she has drawn the audience of her presentations to her attention,” Nicole refers to her presentations at NAMI and WESPAC. There were many opportunities that she took advantage of in working with people who had similar experiences, which is positive.”

“She learned how to be a more self-loving and selfless person,” said David, her ex-boyfriend and long-time friend. He went on to say that she has the ability to be honest with herself and others and puts others’ needs before hers. She has been positively impacted in many ways from getting treatment.

NAMI Westchester is an affiliate of NAMI NYS and NAMI National. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illness and their families.

We provide education, support, and resources. We do presentations throughout the community. We have provided school and college presentation programs to students and staff. Our helpline operates Monday through Friday from 9 am to 2 pm and the number is in the brochure. In addition, we hold a Walk every May to raise funds and awareness. For more information on NAMI Westchester, please call our office or visit our website at namiwestchester.org. Please email us with any questions at [email protected]