A teen’s experience with a mental health crisis
Reprinted from "Families and Crisis" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 12 (4), p. 15
For many people my age, summer vacation is a time to relax, hang out with friends and just let go. At least, that’s what I always thought summer vacation should be.
But it was never like that for me. I always hoped the next summer would be different. I’d think to myself that maybe next summer I would actually have friends to hang out with. Maybe next summer my sleep patterns would stay the same and I wouldn’t get day/night reversal—or, at the very least, the nightmares would stop. Maybe next summer the absence of school and the loss of structure it had provided wouldn’t have a devastating impact on my mental health.
Unfortunately, this summer was no different from all the others. Actually, it was a bit different: it was one of the hardest summers I’ve ever experienced.
To start, I was still recovering from the explosive break-up of my first relationship. The relationship itself hadn’t lasted long—barely two months. And I don’t regret that it ended. But I do regret the way it ended. I think I could have handled it better and maybe we would have left on amicable terms, like she had wanted to. Instead, it ended with both of us saying things that perhaps we shouldn’t have, and I haven’t heard from her since.
Then, school ended—something I’ve never taken well. I thrive when my physical environment is structured and routine, and I wilt when it’s as chaotic as my mind. I tried to manage the chaos. I made a list of things to do and tried to stick to it. I caught up on all the reading I hadn’t had time for during the year. I tried to make plans with friends. I wrote fan fiction1 and watched an unhealthy amount of Netflix. I tried to relearn the piano. I enrolled in a social justice course that got my mind working and spoke to my political side, which I’m always trying to strengthen.
But it wasn’t enough.
Sleep started to evade me, like it always does in the summer. When it did come, the nightmares came with it. I would stay awake as long as physically possible. As you can imagine, this did nothing to slow the steady decline in my mental health.
Not surprisingly, I soon fell back into my bittersweet habit of self-harm. I had started cutting when I was 13 years old, but I had managed to stop and had been “clean” for a year and a half.
Logically, I knew that cutting was an addicting, dangerous behaviour that would provide only short-lived relief from my emotional pain—not to mention that cutting only ever gave me the illusion of control.
But that feeling of control was what I so desperately craved. I could control how deep I cut. I could control how often I did it. Finally, I could control how much pain I felt, instead of my mind deciding for me.
But I didn’t really have control.
Soon, the cuts started getting deeper, and I started to cover a larger area of my body. I had started with the tops of my thighs, but eventually I moved to my right leg, which, now, is about as scarred as my forearms.
It continued like that, slowly getting worse, until one unfortunate, memorable day when I had a bad panic attack and, once again, attacked my right leg. After cleaning up, I left my room feeling shameful, guilty and scared. My dad was in the hallway when I came out of my room and noticed that I looked off. Both of my parents have known about my mental health struggles for many years, and my dad is pretty good at reading me. He asked me if I was okay, and I said no. Because, well, I really wasn’t.
I sat down on his bed, and he asked me what was up. I just remember breaking down; all of a sudden I was shaking and couldn’t sit still. I started crying, and he came and sat down beside me. He knows that I don’t like physical contact, especially when I’m in an emotional state, so he just sat there with me while I cried.
To distract me, he asked if I wanted to watch an episode of The Last Ship (great show, by the way), and we did. I was still coming down from the events of the day and ended up falling asleep. He put the show on pause, turned on the news, and let me sleep. It was soothing, and the nap was very much needed.
After that day, for the next few weeks (while my mother was away for a month at a summer French program), that became our thing. He was always up late working on his photography or finishing work, so he had no problem staying up with me to watch a couple of episodes of a show. We started with The Last Ship and eventually moved to Battlestar Galactica (another great show). After a few episodes, I would be tired enough to actually sleep. Plus, watching something distracted me from the dark thoughts that usually haunted me at night.
So, yes, last summer was really hard. But my dad really helped me through it. I hope he knows that all of those nights spent watching TV, or talking, and all of those dinners out when we’d get my favourite foods (sushi or Thai)—all of those things made me happy. They made that first month of the summer livable and I’m beyond grateful to him for that.
Living with mental illness makes life a little (okay, a lot) trickier. This upcoming summer (if it follows tradition) is probably not going to be all that easy to deal with, but I have two very strong and supportive parents who, I know, will be there to catch me when I fall. Trust me when I say that living with a mental illness is a little bit easier when you have a strong support system of people who actually care.
About the author
Jess, 17, lives in Ladner, BC. She’s in her last year of high school and hoping to go to Kwantlen Polytechnic University next year. She’s bisexual and an aspiring artist and writer. She loves politics, dogs, Starbucks and Netflix. She hopes to one day become an activist, advocate and author