What I might have been

It’s a terrible thing to feel alone and misunderstood, to feel like you’re the only one in the world who suffers the way you do. It’s like you’re looking at everyone else from inside an airless glass box, waiting to either break free and join the rest of the normal, happy people out there or fade away and become a lifeless nothing. Growing up with mental illness, I know I felt this way. I’m going to hazard a guess that Adam Lanza did too.

I am not Adam Lanza, but that’s not to say that I couldn’t have been. I was shy, quiet and awkward, maybe even seemingly weird to those who didn’t know me. I also dealt with mounting mental health issues that had some doctors believing I’d need long term psychiatric care.  I wasn’t outwardly violent or explosive, choosing instead to harm only myself, and like every other teenager in existence, I gave my parents a hard time–maybe even a harder time than most parents experience. Why is it then that I turned out the way I did, more stable than I’d ever imagined possible and Adam Lanza is now dead by his own hand after going on a rampage? It all comes down to one thing: support.

I was not an easy teenager to deal with by any means. On top of puberty, I was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, severe anxiety, crippling depression and suicidal ideation. I was also a cutter, using that as a coping method to deal with the pain and frustration I had. My parents had to confiscate and hide every sharp object in the house so I couldn’t use them to self-harm.  I was out of control in the sense that my parents felt that they couldn’t protect me from myself, and they lived in fear, not for their own lives, but for mine. They had no choice but to admit me to psychiatric care when I became a danger to myself. It was the only way to keep me safe.

We all felt helpless. I was confused and felt so isolated, like no one could possibly understand the hell I was living in. My parents were just as alone as I felt, but in a different sense. They had essentially lost their daughter, and even more, had no one to talk or relate to. They didn’t want to be judged because their daughter was “crazy” but mostly, they wanted to protect me.

In the 9th grade, I stopped going to school. All the meds I was taking at the time made me gain about 80 lbs. and I felt too insecure about my image to want to go out in public. As my parents tried to force me to go, I became more unsettled and in the end, I threatened to kill myself for the hundredth time. I think that’s when my parents admitted that we all needed more support than just my outpatient therapist. They had already educated themselves on mental health, more specifically my diagnosis and medications, but they decided to look into local resources for parents who had teens with mental illness. As luck would have it, there was such a support group in our town, and my parents began attending regularly.

Through the parent support group, my parents learned about alternative high schools, a smaller school setting with clinicians for students with emotional, behavioral and mental health needs. With a lot of persuasion and maybe even a tad bit of bribery, I decided to give it a shot and to this day, I don’t regret it. Instead of having to deal with 1500-plus students, there were only about 70 of us in the school, and only 10 students per classroom. I received support from teachers and clinicians alike from the day I started there and it made my school days less overwhelming. After a while, I actually looked forward to going.

My parents also learned about a local youth group, supported by the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, for youth like me–and it changed everything. I finally found a place where I fit in, where no one judged me. It was a place where we could all get together and talk openly about our experiences. Everyone in the room got it because they had gone through the same thing. Just as I was making friends and coming out of my shell, my parents were too. They had finally found other parents and caretakers who understood. Things began looking up. My parents were learning new things about caring for a mentally ill youth every day, and I began letting people, myself included, help me. We became stronger together.

The three of us also became advocates together. My parents had learned so much from our experience, and wanted to be able to help other parents who were having a hard time finding information and support for their kids. I was becoming more and more stable and level headed every day, and felt the need to share my story in the hopes that other youth would know that they weren’t alone. The more I shared my story, and the more my parents fought for other parents, the better I felt. I was finally happy, doing great in therapy, and knew that I was going to be okay. I wasn’t wrong. I haven’t been hospitalized since I was 17 and I am now 25.

Those who know me and have heard my story know that I credit my parents for my success. If it weren’t for them bending over backwards to get me the support and treatment I needed, not only would I not be the person I am now, but I most likely wouldn’t have survived those trying years of desolation. However, the credit extends much farther than just my parents. I had, and still have, a vast support system that continues to push and inspire me.

Unfortunately, Adam Lanza and his family weren’t so lucky. It’s been said that Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, did not talk about her own or her son’s struggles. Can you blame her? People who have a mental health diagnosis or Asperger’s or autism are seen as lesser beings, often stigmatized for what’s beyond their control, and Nancy was probably afraid of being scrutinized for having a son who needed help. It also seems that she and Adam didn’t have access to the right kind of care, and even if they did have access to it, they definitely didn’t know about it.

What happened at that elementary school last December was a tragedy, and I cannot fathom what the victim’s families must be going through. My heart goes out to them all, but I want it known that my heart also goes out to Adam Lanza as well as his family. He was not a monster, and for anyone to sit there and say that is also calling me monster for having a mental illness. The only difference is that I received all the help in the world whereas he did not, and that is in no way his fault. Am I condoning what he did? Of course not, but this could have been avoided.

I believe whole heartedly that with the combined support from family and peers and effective treatment, youth (or anyone, really) dealing with mental health needs, Asperger’s or other disabilities can overcome their struggles and become a stable, happy human being. It’s time to come forward and talk openly about mental health because clearly it’s affecting more people than you could imagine. It’s only a matter of time before we forget what happened last month only to see it happen again in another small town to another young man or woman who was suffering in silence. It’s time to end the stigma so others will no longer be afraid to admit they need help. It’s time to stop saying we’re going to make a change and actually do something about it.

Chandra Watts is our guest blogger.  She is a young adult who draws on her own life to change how the world sees mental illness.  She is one of the founding members of Youth MOVE Massachusetts.

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15 Responses to What I might have been

  1. Johanna Bergan says:

    Bravo Chandra! Thank you for your personal insights and for being willing to share this message. Your story combined with the identification of a need – community support for families AND youth – is powerful!

  2. Deborah Fauntleroy says:

    Chandra, Thank you so much for sharing your journey, inspiring hope and just plain telling it the way it is! Since the tragedy in Connecticut I have made attempts to write out my thoughts about stigma, mental health treatment, and the importance of family and youth support but you ablely captured it all. Thank you again.

  3. Dalene Basden says:

    Well said Chandra, As a parent and advocate, I sometimes feel the struggle against stigma is a mental health condition in and of itself.

  4. MARY ANN TUFTS says:

    Chandra- You are a brilliant star!Thank you for your insight and words. They will help others understand, cope and and give hope for better times and stability.

  5. Inspiration comes again each time I hear about the effectiveness of team effort of youth, parents, clinical and community support. Your experiences demonstrate that good health care as directed by informed family members (including the youth!) does work. All the time spent in identifying and adapting the goals of the services AND support wanted by the youth moves the whole family toward wellness. It worked for our family. Someday, all youth will have access to effective clinical services and youth peer support and parents will have a Certified Parent Support Provider to mentor them through the family journey. Keep reminding and teaching us,Chandra!

  6. Sandra says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your story. I think if more people like yourself shared their innermost thoughts and feelings this World would be a more compassionate and tolerant place. I love the timing of the Universe…I just received this email at the perfect time: I just came from court with my 13 year old daughter whom has had a CHINS on her for almost a year. She too suffers from major depression disorder and did not want to go to school (missing 30 days last year and has improved to missing 12 this year–I have also put her on celexa to raise her moods). It clearly is a stigma just being in the courthouse…there are plenty of people out there, unfortunately, that continue to judge. After listening to other’s tumultuous stories today in court my daughter’s case does not seem so bad, however, it is our reality, journey, and lessons to be learned. And we too are succeeding beause of such support from family, friends, and the school now (after they put the CHINS on her to begin with) and most importantly, me, as her mother, being her number 1 advocate (believe me I have my days of wanting to take the easy path and just tell my daughter “fine, stay home”, but I am working on being stronger and getting a “backbone”. It has been a long, emotionally draining, frustrating, sometimes even debilitating path, but I know it can only get better. I ,too, hope to help those going through similar situations to let them know they are not alone and there are many services available. I have faith and I know I will hopefully laugh about this later in life, but living it now is extremely difficult and challenging–to say the least! Continue to love and support your children and if you don’t think they want you near them, they most certainly do –they just like knowing you are in the house and they are safe. Keep open communication with your children and if you are not judgemental and open-minded they will come and talk with you. I am grateful that my 15 year old son still comes to talk with me (he also had a very rough time in middle school with bullying all while struggling with ADHD, but as soon as he faced those bullies in 8th grade anger management group, with a therapist, it all started to improve.) He is doing a fabulous job in High School and am so proud of him to have come this far. So, yes, mental illness is horrible and I hope it contiues to get the positive recognition it needs, so more people can feel free with sharing and get the help they need to live the best life they can possibly live.

  7. Dede says:

    Words of wisdom from one who knows and has the courage to share – how generous and well done. Thank you. I am passing this on to parents I know who need and will want to read this.

  8. Kathy says:

    Chandra, Thank for not being afraid to say what needs to be said. I agree with your assessment of this tragedy whole heartily. Way to go!!! You are a true inspiration for youth and adults alike.

  9. Anne Sullivan says:

    I have forwarded “What I Might Have Been” to several friends since there have not been many articles explaining the realities described by the author, nor demonstrating the compassion needed. Thank you for posting it Lisa and thank you to the author for taking the time to write this.

  10. Rob Walker says:

    As I was sitting in Panera reading this, tears started rolling down my face. Someone asked me if I was alright. I said I had just read the most amazing and inspiringpiece of writing from the most amazing and inspiring woman. Thanks, Chandra!!

  11. Michaela I. Fissel says:

    Dear Chandra,

    I can relate on so many levels. Thank you so much for sharing your story with the world through this blog, and I am grateful to know that I am not along. I am now 26, and I struggled for years with a severe symptoms of mental illness, however now I have maintained recovery for the past 5 years. I am very interested in connecting with you. I am part of a network of youth/young adults who are in recovery from mental health and substance related diagnosis. Our network is called Join Rise Be. If there is any way that you could find me on facebook under Michaela Fryxell, or through Join Rise Be, I would greatly appreciate it!!!! Thank you again for posting this.

    Michaela

  12. Chandra Watts says:

    I just want to thank you all for your wonderful comments and overwhelming support! It’s positive reactions like yours that gives me confidence to share my experiences!

  13. Valerie Hammond says:

    beautiful. brave. very, very well done. Thank you, Chandra, Chandra’s parents & PPAL.

  14. Cristin Lind says:

    Great job, Chandra. You really helped me understand the role of support. Thanks so much for sharing your story–it’s important.

  15. Ann Capoccia says:

    Dear Chandra – I cannot thank you enough for saying what so many would want to say about Adam Lanza. This has been a great tragedy on many levels but I am so glad to hear you voice what helped you and your family – for those who feel they are so alone with their mental illness – and their families are alone too. Thank you – thank you – thank you. We are so lucky here in Massachusetts to have you and to have PPAL – but mostly to have people who reach out and give and care for each other. You have done so much by speaking out – and helped so many others. I feel so proud and honored to know you and to have had you so involved with the STAY Together Planning Grant. You have a lot to share with others and you are doing it – and it really works – BRAVO Chandra – keep at it !!!! Ann