It was a Friday and I had just finished my round. We were double clear and fast. I went to go sit in the grandstands to watch the rest of the class and as I watched, a bulldog came and sat down next to me. He proceeded to fall asleep in the sun, snoring as he sunbathed. It was a completely unremarkable, pleasant moment in time... which is why I was completely blindsided.
All of the sudden, my limbs locked and my chest felt like it was crushing my lungs. I couldn't breathe. The movie of my life flashed across my eyes at rapid speed, only showing the worst scenes.
As I gulped for air, I realized that I had no idea what was happening to me. My body was closing in around me. I would later learn that I was experiencing something that wasn’t even remotely on my radar: trigger-specific Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I remember thinking, I can’t possibly have PTSD, I haven't fought in a war, been in a car crash, or been sexually assaulted. However, I later learned that there are a wide range of experiences that the mind and body can perceive as trauma and can cause PTSD. In this case, I was triggered by the dog’s snoring, which sounded like the noises that my younger sister, Shelby, was making when I found her barely breathing after an overdose.
Over time I started to identify other triggers that would cause me to relive other traumatic memories. Just moving through everyday life, I would come across situations ranging from things like opening car glove boxes to seeing certain locations that would inevitably trigger these PTSD episodes.
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It always caught me off guard when I felt my body start to lock down and by the time it did, my entire being was already taken over by reliving various traumatic moments, feeling every ounce of raw fear and every drop of panic.
Eventually I would resurface and come back to reality, gasping for air, exhausted and emotionally drained. When I had one particularly bad attack, I realized that this wasn't something I could power through or wait on to go away. When I finally reached out to my doctor for help, she recommended that I see a clinical psychologist.
I was reluctant to go. At that point in my life, I'd been to therapy several times already, each time with a therapist who wasn't a good fit.
After Shelby was hospitalized for her overdose and eventually when we lost her to suicide, my mom recommended I work with a therapist. I went through three different therapists. One told me that there was nothing they could do for me because I didn’t blame myself for Shelby’s passing, the second was simultaneously treating my mom, which you are not supposed to do as a clinician as it presents a conflict of interest. She ended up accidentally sharing information with me that my mom did not want me to know. The third clinician did not have experience with PTSD but wanted to “try” anyways. As you can probably guess, that didn’t work out so well.
However my PTSD episodes were becoming such a drain on my energy that I was willing to do anything, even give therapy a fourth try. I will be forever grateful that I did because this fourth therapist changed my life.
After many (grueling) sessions of EMDR, most of my triggers went away. Six years later, I can thankfully say that I can count number of times I have been triggered since working with that therapist on one hand. Will I ever be trigger free? I don’t know the answer to that question yet but do know that if I were to be triggered in the future, I now have the tools to manage these triggers and reach out for the help I need.
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to live a very privileged life, but there have also been several times when it’s felt like the world has been ripped out from under my feet. Losing my sister Shelby was one of them. When life takes dark turns and I feel like I can’t see light at the end of the tunnel, I know that there are mental health professionals out there who can help me get through it. Therapy is a challenge, but every time I work through these seemingly impossible hurdles with a therapist, I can feel myself growing stronger and more equipped to handle future struggles.
I know that taking the first step towards finding a therapist can feel daunting--- sometimes, we don't even know what the end goal should look like. But just because you start therapy doesn’t mean you have to be in it forever. You can work on something for several months and then take a break and then start again when new things come up in your life. I have worked with many different therapists, and I have taken years off of therapy and then jumped back in when I need it.
Therapy can be difficult. Therapy can be painful. But therapy can also be life-changing. It's very understandable why there is stigma towards therapy. Just look at history—humans have always been afraid of what we don’t understand and oftentimes, mental illness is painfully invisible to others. Mental healthcare can be scary because most people have no idea what to expect, what to look for, or what they need.
Deciding to reach out for help is a sign of strength and bravery, but even after you take this important step of admitting to yourself that you're ready to seek mental healthcare, actually finding that care can be incredibly hard. When trying to find Shelby the right care, we felt so lucky that we came from a family of doctors and had such great connections. We could access treatment and lived in an area that had respected clinicians. We were so privileged in many ways. And despite all that, we were still completely ping-ponged around the mental health care system. We went to three different psychologists, three different psychiatrists. We were in and out of residential programs, in and out of the emergency rooms. We tried everything.
It didn’t make sense to me that Shelby’s care was so erratic when we were fortunate to have so many renowned clinicians helping us try to find the right approach to Shelby’s illness, and I know our family isn’t alone in our experience. I’ve heard this same story of countless people mustering up the courage to finally ask for help, only to be led down a grueling trek of bad therapeutic matches. There are nuances with the way the mental healthcare system currently works that make it incompatible with the healthcare system that most of us are used to accessing. The ways that we typically find doctors to treat our physical medical conditions don’t always work when it comes to finding a mental healthcare provider, which is why you see people searching and ending up frustrated, without getting the right care they need for their condition.
This is what we are striving to change at MiResource. After knowing what my family went through on top of talking to others about their experiences, I knew that I wanted to devote myself to building a program that could connect people to the right care so that no one had to experience the pain that Shelby felt. We are building a system that can help solve those complications, so all the first touch points into the mental health care system can be factored in. MiResource takes the burden off of you to figure out what all the complicated therapy and insurance terms mean, so that the process of finding care feels therapeutic in and of itself instead of traumatizing.
I have dedicated the rest of my life to creating a world where everyone who wants care has access to effective mental healthcare. In order to accomplish this we all need to work together, private and public sector, politicians and public health experts. But most importantly, you and me. There is so much each of us can do to make our local communities a safe and supportive place. We don’t have to understand everything someone is going through in order to be there for those we love. If someone is struggling, a great way to be helpful is just to say, I love you and I want to help you. What can I do? Don’t hesitate to check in on someone. Let the person tell you what they need, and always make sure they know that it is ok to seek help. Normalize seeing a therapist and taking care of mental health.
Stigma ends when conversation begins.
As told to Cheryl Witty-Castillo. Illustration by Shayla Bond.