I was a senior in high school when my father disappeared. My younger sister and I waited 13 days before my mom got the call. How I felt waiting for answers, waiting for closure is something that I cannot accurately express.
My sister and I became suicide survivors at the ages of 15 and 17. My dad’s disappearance, my senior prom, my father’s funeral and my high school graduation all occurred in a 30-day period.
That summer, I went on with my life. I traveled with a friend, spent time with family and friends. In the fall I started college. Degree, career, husband, house, and kids all followed. I didn’t realize until much later in life, that I had been in survival mode for far too long. I never sought help to talk about the overwhelming trauma I experienced.
After 22 years, I finally began telling my story. I started on social media where friends I’d known for so long were surprised to hear what I shared. I had never talked about it before. I never told anyone. At the time of my father’s death, only a small group of people knew what had happened.
When I made that first post, I instantly wanted to delete it. I was scared. And then an amazing thing happened – supportive responses poured in. Once people knew, they would approach when they saw me. It was shocking because my first thought was “how do they know?” I had kept it a secret for so long and now so many people knew intimate details of my life. My goal with that first post (and others since), was to remove the stigma by talking about it; to get it out in the open.
A year after I shared my experience, I finally sought help when I began noticing changes in myself. I was finding it hard to focus. I was not motivated to work. I had little to no interest in doing the things I normally loved to do.
Even with the supportive responses from friends, I was still ashamed to tell anyone I was seeing a therapist. I slowly began telling those around me how I was feeling, that I had started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and that it was helping. My therapist and I discuss ways for me to cope with stress. I have tried several ways to make changes. If one doesn’t work, my therapist suggests another and I try that.
I started writing in a journal this fall. I didn’t like to write, didn’t know what to write. I started writing for just two minutes after lunch each day. What I began to find was that keeping a record of my thoughts was cathartic. I eventually increased my timer to three minutes. Now when the timer goes off, most days I keep writing. That’s only one example of the many ways therapy has helped me.
I still struggle with stigma and shame. I still find it hard to talk about my father’s suicide. Seeing (whether in person or virtually) my therapist each week over the past year has made a profound impact on the quality of my life and my relationships.
I can’t go back 24 years and tell the teenage version of myself what I know now. What I can do is share my experiences now hoping that someone is listening. I want them to know that care is available and that there is nothing wrong with reaching out and asking for help.
While great progress has been made, mental health still has stigma surrounding it. Working together we can remove the stigma surrounding mental health, but we have to get it out in the open.
Now I’m talking.
(Editor's Note: This article is cross-posted from Mental Health America of Lancaster County.)