I’m not sure when it actually clicked with me that I had a choice when it came to the problems and injustices that seemed to be running so rampant in the world around me, but I eventually came to realize that when faced with these issues I could do one of two things: I could either be silent, or I could speak up and let others know how I felt. I began to gain my voice shortly after being diagnosed with and speaking out on my own behalf when it came to my struggles with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks in my sophomore year of high school.
In 1997, the discussion of mental health issues and their treatment in children and adolescents rarely went beyond ADHD and Learning Disorders. I was the first student in my high school to request any sort of accommodations for the issues that I was dealing with at the time. My mom worked with my teachers and the administration to keep them informed of what I was going through, but it was up to me to deal with the daily ramifications of these problems. I vividly remember the experience of trying to explain what a panic attack was to two of my friends, opening up with the hope that I could at least have some understanding and support from those I frequently hung out with. As we were leaving at the end of class, my best friend said “I couldn’t find my backpack for a second, and I almost panicked,” then turned to our other friend and laughed. I was overwhelmed with shame, and felt betrayed that I had shared a secret with him only to have him laugh about it not even five minutes later. I honestly believe this trigged something in me, and I was determined that I would no longer see my struggles as something to be ashamed of–I would instead try and do what I could to give voice to not only myself, but to others who were dealing with mental health issues of their own. I read everything I could get my hands on about OCD, depression, and panic disorder with a new-found purpose. I was doing this not only for myself, but also for all those who felt silenced by the stigma that so frequently surrounds mental illness.
My first “coming out” experience occurred during my health class, when we discussed the chapter on mental health in our textbook. I had talked to my teacher before hand, letting him know that I wanted to speak about what I was dealing with, and he let me know he was supportive of the idea as long as I was comfortable doing so. When it came time, the teacher called me up, and with shaky limbs I walked to the front of the class and began describing what it was like to live with OCD. To my surprise, everyone in class listened respectfully, and my voice got stronger as I continued to talk and to answer the questions they asked. I felt not only relieved that no one was laughing at me, but also realized that by simply sharing my story I was able to give a human face to what was so often an abstract idea. This feeling energized me, and since then I have continued to be vocal not only about mental illness, but also the many other issues that I am passionate about. While it was a painful experience to go through what I did, I am grateful that it gave me the ability to find my voice and understand that I had the power to make a difference.