034: In Spite of it All

Content warning: This post contains information about depression and/or anxiety, which may be triggering to some survivors.

“In Spite of it All,” Kayla Lemay

Looking back on my life, I realize that the signs of mental health were there as early as being a toddler. Around age 5, my parents left me with a babysitter to go out to dinner. I was put to bed by the sitter, and after they closed my door, I proceeded to gather up all of my stuffed animals and put them on my bed, surrounding myself with them. My grandmother’s house had just burned down, and I was convinced our house was next – so I piled my stuffed animals on my bed so I could get them out if the house caught fire.

When I was 8, my parents got divorced. It had been amicable, at least from what was in front of me. All I knew was that my life was being upheaved and I was being passed around. It didn’t seem so bad, but things were never the same.

When I was around 10, my dad told me I wouldn’t be a good driver because I was too much of a worrywart.

At age 12, the depression kicked in. I struggled with suicidal thoughts regularly… but I kept it quiet. I knew that telling my parents that I wasn’t okay mentally wouldn’t go well. People in my life often said that mental illness and learning disabilities were all fake problems. I didn’t want to tell my parents because I was afraid I would scare them, or that they wouldn’t believe me, and call me a liar and say I just wanted attention.

At 15, I started having panic attacks. September 11th, my sophomore year of high school, my mom is driving me to high school and all I can think about is sitting through the annual school assembly about 9/11. I didn’t know anybody affected by the attacks, but I suffered from guilt. I was 8 when the attacks happened, and I remember that I was only angry I couldn’t listen to any music on the radio or watch anything on TV. Sitting through the assembly horrified me that year.

After a school year full of hidden panic attacks, I finally asked my mom to take me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with a mental illness (Panic Disorder). I conveniently did not mention the depression, because my mother was in the room as the doctor asked me questions. Again – afraid to scare my parents. I kept the diagnosis secret from nearly everyone. My mom was the only one that knew, and my closest friends.

At 19, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder as well. The Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner I had started seeing had me fill out some scale, and I remember that I scored so highly, she was shocked that I hadn’t been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. 

My early time in college sucked. My anxiety and fear of rejection has made it very difficult for me to form friendships and hold on to them. I hated living on campus. I stayed in my room, ordering food or walking to the nearby CVS and buying tons of junk food, avoiding having to eat alone in a dining hall.

At 21, I was diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder, and started my first relatively successful run of therapy to try to combat this (along with PD and MDD).

I’m 23 now. I’ve been on about 8 different medications. I’ve gained 70 pounds since age 15 – which is a lot because I haven’t grown any taller since. My BED is linked to my depression and anxiety – it’s my self-harm.

That’s the thing about mental illness and self-harm – it isn’t always cutting, or starving yourself, or taking a cocktail of drugs, or drinking. It can be crossing the street without looking in the hopes that you’ll get hit, or calling out of work repeatedly so you get fired and have less of a reason to live. It’s eating constantly in the hopes that you’ll get so fat that everyone you love leaves you, and you die from a heart attack.

My struggle with mental illness has ruined my life in many, many ways… but it has also given me a reason to keep going. It’s given me a bigger heart. As I struggled with mental illness, I realized that I wanted to do whatever I can to help others avoid mental illness, or at least get control of it and live a fuller, happier life.

I was directed towards the field of Student Affairs. I may have hated my early college career, but after joining my sorority in the spring of my junior year, I realized how enjoyable college can be once you find your niche. Greek life helped me find my niche. I wanted to help other students find theirs.

I’m now in Grad school. I don’t hide my mental illness anymore. I’m very open on a wide variety of my struggles. If you saw me on the street, you probably wouldn’t think I had any of these problems. I’m a dog mom to an amazing one-year-old rescue pup, and I just got engaged to my high school sweetheart. I’m a relatively privileged white woman – I live in an apartment, I drive a pretty nice car, I have a job, I have a Bachelor’s degree… what the hell do I have to be depressed about? Anxious about?!

Mental illness is stupid. It’s completely, ridiculously illogical. It will never make sense. You could have every reason in the world to be happy, and yet some part of your brain, some stupid chemical or something, decides that you can’t be happy. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are – your brain decides happiness isn’t allowed. Talk about a dumb organ (that’s my poor attempt at humor, please laugh. At least laugh at me trying to be funny, that usually works). 

I often have days where I wake up and just the idea of leaving my bed is a frightening thought. I’ll wake up and feel like I didn’t sleep at all, even if I got a full night’s sleep. The sunlight shining through my bedroom window feels like it burns, and any responsibilities I might have that day feel like I’m standing at the foot of a steep mountain, being forced to climb to the top. My chest will feel like it’s being sat on. My head will pound; my stomach will hurt.

Some days, I can get up and go after a small fight. Other days, the farthest I can make it is the couch (or the back door of my apartment building to let my dog outside). 

I have few friends, at least in my own mind. I probably have more friends than I realize – but I’m so bad at making friends and keeping in touch with them because I continue to stay afraid. Afraid I’m annoying them, afraid that they don’t like me, afraid that they’re just pretending to be a friend because I’m pathetic and hopelessly socially awkward.

Out of all my struggles, that is my biggest. I want nothing more than to feel loved and accepted, like SO many other people – but I’m so bad at friendships because I convince myself that nobody wants to be my friend. I just got engaged, and my biggest worry is that I don’t have anybody I feel could be a maid/matron/man of honor.

Student Affairs has given me a large network, but I still find myself afraid to get close to anyone purely because I’m afraid they’ll only see me as a young and inexperienced grad student. I don’t want to be “that person.” I’m afraid to put myself out there to find and make deeper connections.
Even discounting the idea of making friends in the field, I’m just afraid of being the young and inexperienced one. I have less experience and less education than every other professional right now, and I often worry that my opinions and ideas mean absolutely nothing. Imposter syndrome sucks.

I’ve learned that if I’m honest about my struggles, others will feel more comfortable. That is my goal in life – no matter where I go, no matter who I meet, I want others to know that they have someone they can talk to. I want people to come to me with their problems, because I know what it feels like to not have anyone.

I fight daily to combat my fears. I lose more than I win, but I’ve found that over time, I’ve started to win more and more. Sometimes I slip, and have a bad day – but everyone does, mental illness or not. One day, I hope I’ll break even. Maybe I’ll even win more than lose.

All I know is that I have to keep going. I have to stay strong, because one day, someone out there in the world is going to need me.

And if you’re reading this, and you can relate – whatever the reason – please keep going, too. You’ll be needed, even if you don’t believe it. “Sure,” I bet you’re thinking, “Easy for some stranger on the internet to say.” Maybe it is easy for me to say, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Stay strong, friend.

About the art:

When Kayla told me what she wanted painted for her piece, I was pretty excited because it was inspired by a song. I love doing song pieces because incorporating all of the lyrics of a song in the background of a piece is one of my favorite things to do. I've done it many times and I always take great care in making sure all of the lyrics fit so that they can show through in the final product.

Kayla chose a brilliant track from My Chemical Romance, right before the band blew up with commercial fame. "Vampires Will Never Hurt You" is a song Kayla chose because as she says, "I was one of those "MCR saved my life" kids and, in my mind, mental health is a vampire in a way. I feel like the idea of protecting others from that struggle goes along with my story." This is a song from an album that I remember listening to A LOT while in high school, so it's nice to know that the band meant a lot to Kayla as well.

Hearing Kayla's take on the track really helped me get into the mindset of how I wanted to present the piece. I toyed with having Katy put a vampire on the piece, or merely some imagery of the like. But I decided to go with using colors that mirrored those from the album art from the album in which this song appears, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. So after all the words were on the painting, I covered the piece in paint, did my bleaching process, and them splattered the piece a bunch! And topped it off with the line that Kayla requested to be in the front of the piece!

Lots of fun to do this piece for Kayla, and I'm so glad it represents something powerful for her! That makes it all the more awesome for having been able to make it for someone so kickass.

Thanks for sharing your story, Kayla!

- Craig.