The 2016 Out of the Darkness Overnight Walks will be in San Francisco on May 21 and New York City on June 4.
Growing up in a loving household with a mix of Puerto Rican flavors and American ideals, there was an innate belief that there wasn’t anything that love and protection from home couldn’t cure. Now that I’m on the other side of some very adult experiences — marriage, divorce, and learning to live with my mental health condition — I find that I can no longer rely on the safety or expectations of yesteryear.
I made my first attempt to leave the safety of my home by choosing to attend an out of state college. I was enthusiastic about all the freedom and opportunities that being away from home could afford. The separation from my support system left me vulnerable to my negative thoughts and low self-worth. I started abusing alcohol, food, men, and began to self-harm. My grades dropped, and I had to return home cloaked in shame.
This set the stage for all my choices for years to come, stunting my growth and leading me towards living a life that was within my comfort zone, fearing change and risks.
I found professional success but couldn’t manage to make healthy choices for my personal life. When I would find the courage to admit my struggles to others, my mental health was never in question. After all, I was just another 20 something figuring out life.
After being sexually assaulted in college I realized that just because I could hold a job and do well academically didn’t mean I didn’t need more help. A world of triggers opened up and I needed new ways to manage my thoughts and actions.
It took several years and events to peel back the layers of ingrained denial. I thought that I needed to do this alone and that I was destined to stay at home because it was my only safe space. Resisting this assumption I left home once again, packing up my denial and my hope and fell in love with a man from New York.
My downward spiral happened slowly over years, allowing me to develop a tolerance towards self-harming and suicidal ideation as a method to cope with my intense emotions. I sought relief in theater, but also in alcohol, cutting, superficial relationships with men, and in denial. Eventually I thought in marriage I could find someone who could love me so fully it would fill in the gaps of love that I couldn’t feel for myself.
Reaching outwards for love and acceptance while trying to fill other people’s expectations of me as a happy wife, loyal daughter, consistent friend, successful graduate student, and new teacher all became too much, and my slow spiral accelerated. I withdrew from those I loved, using my distance from home and New York as an excuse. I denied myself pleasures if it meant compromising my husband’s calm nature.
Within a year of my move from home, I had gained a lot of weight, stopped drinking, and was seeking therapy. I thought I was on a path to recovery. I thought my plan to find a love to save me was working.
My new found hope and joy were temporary. I worked extremely hard to maintain appearances. It was becoming clear that I was in an incompatible and interfering relationship with oodles of romantic love.
I couldn’t understand my discontent, and if anyone dared to bring it up I would politely rage until the topic was changed. My negative thoughts became amplified, and my self-worth plummeted.
I believed I was a burden to those I loved because I couldn’t figure myself out and that my inability to maintain appearances meant that I no longer had value in this life. I often hid in my kitchen from my husband, I wouldn’t visit my family or friends from home, and I self-isolated in my New York life, creating no new relationships.
When my hope for change and betterment disappeared, it became all too easy to no longer feel worthy of life or love. I felt I was a failure and a loser; my lack of worth permeated my thoughts and distorted my world view until I thought the world would be better without me in it.
I was hospitalized twice and I left my job, no longer able to keep up appearances. Since then, every day has been a choice. There is always the voice that whispers or screams trying to regain control, oh so eager to remind me of my shortcomings and how I am a disappointment to those I love.
After a year of diligent work, a change of environment, and a revision of personal goals and expectations, I now have a host of positive distractions and tools to use as I cope through the inevitable distress and challenge the negative thoughts.
I always wish I could be “normal,” but now I know that wishing for love and change will never make it real: only hard work and asking for help as I face the facts are the magic ingredients for the healthy life that eluded me for so many years of my life.
Now that I’ve done a lot of the soul-searching and life-resetting work that dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) guides you through, I’m finally ready to start participating in my life instead of observing it, and accepting a life with unchallenged expectations. It’s an incredible rush to be able to learn how to cope with my anxiety, tolerate distress, and challenge my insecurities.
It took years to get over my skepticism that therapy could help me manage my condition. My world view and perspective of mental health was loaded with assumptions and expectations that I was never comfortable engaging with.
A wise friend told me that one thing he learned from playing video games is that when you are going in the right direction you will encounter a lot obstacles. Today is an obstacle, as was yesterday and will be tomorrow. By coping, being mindful, and forgiving myself I am now on a different path.
I am seeking to build my social support system here in New York, and manage my support system back home. I am challenging my assumptions, redefining expectations, and accepting myself and my condition.
My only choice was to radically accept myself and make every breath and action a decision towards creating a life worth living.
All of my experiences have led me to join the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk because I wanted to confront my shame. I wanted to confront the stigma attached to mental health conditions and my fear of being judged as a lesser person because of my experiences. This walk is my way to embrace and recover from my fear.
I believe that it is important to talk loudly and often about mental health, especially if it can help others ask for help and break through the isolation that negative thoughts create. Through walking we can heal ourselves and others, and collectively remember to have hope.
It is my wholehearted wish that all those who are in the struggle can cope and breathe through the difficult moments, tolerate their distress, and practice forgiveness. There is a life waiting for you to create, and shape it for your own joy.