• Jeremy Larsen

You're Not Alone: How Do I Get Through Mental Illness

Trigger Warning: Suicide, PTSD, Sexual Assault, Addiction This will include some self disclosure of trauma and suicidal thoughts, as well as addiction, and if today you don’t feel like you can or should read further, it is ok to feel that way and come back later or not. I will be as general as I can about details, so as to minimize this, but there will be potential triggers. ‘December 7th, 1941; a day that will live in infamy.’ Those words could just as easily be applied to today on the twenty year anniversary of 9/11. Many, many things have happened in the years since then, but today I find myself looking back at my own life and what has happened as a consequence of it. It is appropo that September is also suicide awareness month, as both of these things are incredibly pertinent to my own life and my own story, and how I wound up working in and passionate about the field of mental health.

Twenty years ago I was eighteen years old and a budding alcoholic and addict, and was in the process of making a series of decisions that would lead me to some very dark places attempting to cope with trauma I had endured when I was younger. It was against this backdrop that 9/11 happened. Like it did for so many others, this event seared itself into my consciousness so much that I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I found out about it. I can remember thinking it was some sort of joke, or satire, or movie I hadn’t seen on TV, and then going about my business for a couple more hours until I heard enough things from enough sources to realize this was real. A couple of months later I found myself swearing in as an active duty Sailor in the US Navy. I had all kinds of reasons for this, though I pointed to what had happened in New York and to my desire to serve my country as the main ones. I didn’t even think about how this and many other things would affect my life in the years to come. I was eighteen years old, with little to no self insight. I didn’t realize at the time that I was running away from everything familiar, and trying to find safety in something bigger than me. The problem with this decision for me, is that it didn’t address the underlying traumas and mental health issues that had led me to wanting to escape in the first place. It didn’t address the rationalizations that allowed me to point to 9/11 and my own family’s history of U.S. Naval service as why I was doing it. So I left for bootcamp, I got lost in a world where every single thing I did and thought was told to me. I went to a place that took every sense of self I had going in and tried to break it out of me. All of the horrible things I had internalized about myself from my childhood trauma and subsequent years of depression and anxiety were repeated over and over by my RDCs (naval version of Drill Sergeants), by those in command, and by the other recruits around me. I had found a way to reenact and reinforce my childhood traumas, under the guise of patriotic service.

I almost didn’t make it through bootcamp. I have always been resistant to any kind of authority, see again the childhood trauma and what happened from ‘authority’ figures in my life. I almost got kicked out a number of times from bootcamp, and my subsequent years of service saw similar patterns. I was smart enough and talented enough to get by without getting in real trouble, but I spent the next few years drunk as often as I could manage it, and engaging in other high risk behaviors repeatedly, many of which were recreations of the trauma I had endured at a young age. I tell all of this as context to what happened during those few years, and the beginning of the downward spiral that consumed the next near decade of my life. In 2005, I was discharged honorably from the U.S. Navy. It was an honorable medical discharge, and it followed a suicide attempt, and then subsequent treatment and fighting with the Navy, to not get a less than honorable, or administrative discharge. While the Navy didn’t cause my initial trauma, and didn’t make me drink or consume legal drugs the way I did, it also didn’t support my getting help, or encourage me to be open and talk about the things that had happened to me. When I finally had my first adult suicide attempt, their first response was to attempt to discharge me with a medical administrative discharge, which is not the same as honorable, and would have not allowed me to use my G.I. bill later on in life. Not everyone fights as hard as I did for an honorable discharge, not everyone wins those fights even if they do fight. I was very fortunate, and in some ways the rebelliousness and stubbornness and resistance to authority that stemmed from my trauma and arose as a defense mechanism against the triggers in years to come helped me in this instance. What happened next was almost five years of decompensation. When I lost the structure the military had provided, and was free to wallow in my own self destruction, my trauma and depression and anxiety spiraled further and further out of control. During my time in the Navy, I became a ‘professional’ drunk. I was mostly able to function. Outside of the structured life, I lost that ability very quickly. I bounced from job to job, living situation to living situation, and was fortunate to have a loving, supportive and enabling family that kept me marginally alive. Not everyone has this luxury. I grew up in a family that was very supportive of mental health treatment, my mom is a therapist, my brother is now a medical doctor, later I would become a drug and alcohol counselor and then co-founder and part owner of a mental health practice. Even with this love and support, I never was able to admit to them, or anyone else, how much I was struggling. Even to this day, admitting weakness or being vulnerable can be a struggle. My second adult suicide attempt happened about a year after I left military service, and it was more of an uncaring subconscious attempt than an active one. I kept drinking and taking more and more drugs and alcohol, almost subconsciously hoping one time it would be too much. One night I had been intoxicated on a number of substances and I just kept going and going knowing that it could kill me, and wound up in the hospital. I felt so hopeless that I just didn’t care. My third attempt was actually about seven months after I got clean and sober in 2010. It was when I was confronted with a portion of my past that I hadn’t done any emotional work around, and it drove me into a spiral that almost ended my life. This time, I parked on train tracks and hoped. I waited quite a while and no train came, eventually I had to go to the bathroom so bad I left and went somewhere that I knew people would be, and I let them distract me. Even in the eleven and a half years since I got sober, the feelings of depression, anxiety, shame, the traumatic triggers persisted. I did all the right things, and many of the wrong things. What I will say is that without the drugs and alcohol I was forced to find other ways to cope with the feelings and triggers. Not all of those were healthy, but after enough pain and suffering, I was willing to seek real help on my own terms. I did years of therapy in sobriety, working on all kinds of things, and I still see my own therapist to this day. In 2014, after a very unhealthy relationship and near relapse coupled with intense ideation but no attempt, I ended up confronting the traumas that had been buried since childhood. I was able to confront the core beliefs that had led me to so many failed ways of coping. Even though the failed ways of coping may have saved my life once, eventually those methods became as toxic and damaging as the trauma itself. I found out why when I was in a room with men of a certain age, my skin crawled, and when they showed any kind of affection I wanted to run away. I came to understand why I drank and did drugs to oblivion. I came to understand why I sought out dangerous and risky situations, often reenacting the traumas I uncovered. I was fortunate to make it through all of this, but it was hard for me to learn to be open enough about it to even start the process of healing. I was taught by the society I grew up in, the military I chose to join, the people I hung out with, and so many others, that these things should be sources of shame. I was taught that to talk openly and honestly about them was an admission of weakness. I was taught that strong people don’t do the things I did, to cope with what happened to me. I was taught that opening up and being vulnerable was weakness. Even from a family that is loving and supporting, I still internalized messages about stoicism and maintaining a brave face. I had to work to overcome these things, for years and years and years. I still work today, and I still struggle today. I have and continue to have thoughts which plague me with self doubt, feelings of worthlessness, feelings of shame and guilt. Some days are awful, and some days are ok, and some are absolutely magical. Throughout my life I have had diagnoses of Bipolar, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, ADD, ADHD, Alcoholism, and probably a half dozen others I don’t remember. Some of those are still diagnoses today. Today I have a team of people that support me, I have a psychiatrist, I take medications, I go to therapy, I work in mental health, I have relationships with family and friends, and I have a romantic partner. Not all of these are good all the time, sometimes I fall into old habits, and have to be reminded of them. Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve what I have today. Sometimes waking up and getting out of bed is near impossible, sometimes falling asleep is an exercise in futility, sometimes being kind is hard. None of this is a failure. Today, I got up, I showered, I ate, I played with my puppy, I spent time with my girlfriend, and I wrote this article. I have more of these days than the others, many more in fact. The fact that I am here today, that I can disclose this without shame, that I can talk about this at all without breaking or shutting down, is one of my greatest accomplishments in life.

The hope that I have for every client we see in our office, and the empathy I have for them is a result of everything I have been through, and though I wouldn’t wish what I have been through on anyone, I also wouldn’t go back and change a thing.

If you or anyone else you know is struggling in any way, if you are worried about them or yourself, reach out to someone. We have a number of therapists on staff, all who understand trauma and are certified in EMDR Therapy, there are also hotlines out there for help. If you have insurance, you can call them to find doctors or therapists that can help. There are 12 step and non 12 step groups all over. There are NAMI meetings, there are support groups. Help is out there, relief is out there. I hope that you are able to reach out and find it in time. Namisandiego.org (619) 543-1434 National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255

San Diego AA

https://aasandiego.org/ (619)265-8762

North County AA Ncsandiegoaa.org (760) 758-2514 San Diego Access & Crisis Hotline

https://up2sd.org/hotline/ (888) 724-7240 Jeremy Larsen Business Development and Practice Manager Coherence Associates Inc.

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