Editor’s note: Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life is a public awareness campaign developed by McLean Hospital to spark conversation not only about behavioral and mental health but also about the stigma that surrounds it. The campaign features compelling stories from people across the United States who have been affected by mental illness, including Joe’s story below.
By Joe F.
Since elementary school, I have had trouble with something that comes so naturally to most people—sleep.
I would be up until two in the morning, rolling around in bed. At 3am, I would get up, get dressed for school, and go back to bed in my clothes for a few hours. That way, when my alarm went off, I could just run to the bus stop.
Despite my sleep patterns, good grades always came easily to me. I played music and was good at sports. Yet I frequently felt anxious. Just days after I started college, the 9/11 attacks happened and placed a cloud over daily life. One night, I felt unmotivated to do schoolwork, and a friend introduced me to the drug Adderall.
I finished a five-page paper in just a few hours. I went to the doctor and told him I had tried it. I walked out of there with a prescription for Adderall, along with a benzo for anxiety and an antidepressant.
It was the start of a decade-long love/hate relationship with medication. The drugs would help for a year or so, then the upper and downers would impact my sleep. I’d have major depressive episodes and wind up in detox and the hospital. The cycle would repeat again and again. Making matters worse, I began having psychotic episodes, talking to myself about spaceships and someone trying to kill me. Doctors prescribed more medication.
My insides were numb, melting. I wanted to kill myself every second.
It was 2013 when I decided there must be another way. I found a new doctor who taught me meditation techniques and proper nutrition and referred me to an herbalist to help manage my symptoms. I repaired relationships with friends and family. I wanted to give back and looked to the diary entries I made over the years as a possible way to help others.
When I was a mess, people were handing me 300-page self-help books. I wanted to write something short that described how I was feeling and what I learned.
I have since published three books of insight and poetry about my illness, with part of the proceeds going to mental health organizations. I still see a psychiatrist regularly. Someday, I want to work with kids with learning disabilities or mental health issues.
Writing helped me find some light and some peace. Hopefully, it can help others out there feel like they aren’t alone.
Joe is a 33-year-old author from New York. To read more about Deconstructing Stigma and to meet more people like him, visit DeconstructingStigma.org.
If you are concerned about your own well-being or that of a loved one, you can take an anonymous and confidential mental health screening online.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1.800.273.8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the US, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.