I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. Then I studied English and Women’s Studies at Duke University. During my junior year there, I had my first major depressive episode. I felt like an “imposter,” that my whole life had been a charade and that I did not deserve to be a student there. I began taking an antidepressant before the start of my senior year and then experienced four happy, stable years in which I lived on a farm and had various jobs, including a brief stint at an apple orchard. I also wrote a “dual” memoir about my life and that of my maternal grandfather. I thought that writing about my experience with depression would mean that it would never come back. I was wrong.
One day, I called up my psychiatrist and told him I wanted to stop taking the antidepressant. He gave me a schedule to taper off of it, and I followed it exactly. A month later, I moved to Washington, DC and started a master’s in journalism program at American University. As the program became more stressful, I began to have anxiety attacks, and the depression returned. I had daily suicidal ideations, which led to an episode of self-harm. I left graduate school and felt like my life was over.
For the next year and a half, I would see over 20 different mental health professionals, try 15 different medications, and cycle in and out of seven different psychiatric facilities in five different states. Finally, I ended up on a therapy farm in Asheville, North Carolina, where I met the most compassionate and progressive psychiatrist of all I had seen. He performed genetic testing and informed me that I had two genes that resulted in a lower level of serotonin production than most healthy brains. He prescribed a new antidepressant based on these genetic deficits, and two weeks later my suicidal ideations subsided. I could focus on the future again, so I started taking online classes in the field of speech-language pathology.
Now I know that I need to manage my brain chemistry like a diabetic manages her insulin and that, most importantly, there is no shame in that. My illness is a part of who I am, but it does not define me.
In May 2018, I will graduate from The George Washington University with a master’s in speech-language pathology. Now I enjoy working with people recovering from brain injuries, high school students with literacy issues, and transgender people who want to achieve a voice that is more congruent with their gender identity. Outside of school, I have been writing and speaking about my experience as a person with mental illness in our country’s health system. I have appeared on Dr. Oz, spoken at the NAMI conference in South Carolina, and published articles on Huffington Post and PsychCentral.com.
My life is full of passion and purpose, and I hope that my story can help others suffering from mental illness get the compassionate, effective care that they deserve. No one deserves to be discriminated against for a chemical imbalance in any organ of the body–including the brain! I believe that the conversation about mental health care in this country needs to include the progressive technology of genetic testing, which has the potential to lead many others toward recovery. I’m currently working on a memoir about my experience discovering the root of my depression, so check back for updates!
If you or a loved one is suffering from mental illness, please see Get Help for action steps you can take.