My Story: From Darkness to Light
I remember it so vividly. Sitting there, at the front of the classroom, as my heart rate began to quicken and my palms grew sweaty. The world around me started fading away, while my teacher continued explaining the exam directions. But I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t listen. Her words washed over me like a tidal wave of emotions, slowly building until I felt sick to my stomach. I rushed to the bathroom. I don’t think I even asked if I could leave the room.
When I got to the bathroom, which was thankfully right across the hallway, I completely broke down. The golf ball of anxiety in my throat had worked its way out, and I was sobbing. A million thoughts rushed through my head–what’s going on? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I control myself right now? The immediate emotion that followed was fear. Fear that I had lost control of my physical body, and fear that someone would see me. I was terrified that my teacher would come to look for me or send another student. And I was even more terrified about the rumors that would spread–Nicole is going crazy. She had a complete mental breakdown at school. She needs help.
Naturally, this fear led to flight. I ran to my locker, grabbed my books, and rushed to the front office as the pressure in my chest intensified. I stormed through the door crying and pleading to the school secretary to let me leave. I had my license at that point, so I could drive myself home. Still, because I was a straight-A student who never skipped class, I asked for permission to leave school. While the secretary called my mother to verify that I could leave early, I crouched behind her desk in a ball on the floor. I literally hid myself so that no other students or teachers would see me.
The drive home was an equally terrifying experience because I could not stop crying. The tears clouded my vision and my racing thoughts bounced between, “should I drive faster to get home sooner?” or “should I slow down to not get myself killed?” The negative spiral of thoughts continued as I turned onto backroads to avoid other drivers–was this it for me? Was I dying? Was I going to turn schizophrenic like my great grandmother?
This was my first panic attacked. It happened during an 11th-grade PreCalculus exam. I was 16 years old.
When I arrived home, my mother was ready to do what she does best–comfort me, calm me down, and tell me everything was going to be ok. She then proceeded to explain to me what a panic attack was and acknowledged how uncontrollable they can feel.
I have since learned how to spot the warning signs of anxiety or panic attacks and have developed techniques to prevent them from getting out-of-control: breathing exercises, listening to my favorite music, cuddling my dog, and, most importantly, letting myself feel my feelings.
But this isn’t a story about some grand recovery of how I eradicated anxiety from my life–that would be lying. I am an empath. I feel fully and immensely, but I believe this quality is what makes me a compassionate educator. I also have an irritable digestive system, which directly influences my mental health (and vice versa) and is something I will always have to contend with.
This is my story about growth and discovery. These are the challenges and stigmas I have endured on my journey to understanding the relationship between mental health, the physical body, and the healthcare industry.
“You are bulimic.”
“You are anorexic.”
“You are making this up for attention.”
“Your pain is all in your head.”
“You should just go on antidepressants.”
These were the blaming-the-victim responses I received from doctors growing up because of my digestive issues. They were frustrated; I was frustrated.
I was born prematurely, a forced birth because the doctors *thought* there was a hole in my heart (spoiler alert, they were wrong). From the beginning, I had an underdeveloped nervous system and cried nonstop for the first 6 months of my life. I was angry.
At the ripe age of 12, I was diagnosed with IBS and Gerd. I had (and still have) frequent stomach pain and discomfort, often so bad that sometimes it is just easier to not eat. But all of the probing and testing to figure out what was “wrong” with me only led to more questions. I felt left in the dark and grew to develop a negative relationship with my body.
As I started to lose faith in western medicine and do my own research, something became vehemently more clear: my stomach and my mind are one. If I’m feeling anxious, say before a big test, I get sick to my stomach. If I get sick to my stomach from something I ate, I feel anxious. I now know this as the brain-gut connection, but it took setting aside my beliefs in western medicine to begin understanding the crucial link between the physical body and mental health.
Ironically, the experience that spearheaded my path to understanding this connection was attending a Shaman-led cacao ceremony. However, it was not the Shaman’s healing hands that rerouted my views toward medicine. After the ceremony, I was approached by a woman who recommended Ayurveda–the Indian practice of healthcare that entails a holistic approach to physical and mental health. A main belief of Ayurveda is that healing starts in the gut, including deep breathing and meditation to calm down the nervous system as well as preparing and eating certain foods that cater to my body’s individual needs.
After years of being in the darkness, I finally started to see the light and take an integrative approach to understanding the link between my anxiety and my digestive issues.
My journey toward healing my gut and understanding the mind-body connection hit a major challenge last year when my house was burglarized and I lost the majority of my belongings. My nervous system went into overdrive. I developed PTSD that manifested itself through insomnia, nightmares, and blood pressure fluctuations, as my brain signaled to my physical body that I was in danger of dying.
When my normal approaches to calming my nervous system proved useless, I reached out for help at my University’s counseling center. What surprised me the most, though, was the socially-ingrained stigmas I had against therapy. And just like my first panic attack, I did not want anyone to know what was going on.
The deepest fear undergirding my journey has been the fear of stigma. More specifically, the fear of how others will judge me if I share my story. This fear is rooted in learned social stigmas as well as my family’s history of privacy about mental illness. Specifically, I grew up knowing that I had a great grandmother, Rita, who was institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Throughout my adolescence, I feared that I, too, would develop schizophrenia because it may be genetically passed down. My therapist reminded me that medicine has advanced significantly since Rita’s time; it is possible schizophrenia was not even the correct diagnosis.
But this conversation has got me searching for Rita, longing to know her story. I have learned that she died in her early 50s and underwent electric shock therapy as well as spent time in a straight jacket while institutionalized. My heart swells every time I picture this–a woman crying in pain, experiencing delusions and hallucinations, and unable to break free of the stigma-induced restraints that labeled her “crazy.”
I cannot help but wonder what her story is. How did she perceive reality? Would therapy, lifestyle, and diet changes have helped her? What memories about her are being silenced because she had a mental illness?
I am forever grateful for the positive experience I have had going to therapy. I am grateful to have the ability to continue learning about my body and my mind, and to continue exploring the concept of “madness,” in literature and beyond. And I am grateful for the phases of darkness in my life, as they have been fruitful steps toward my own enlightenment.
I believe that sharing our stories is part of the healing process. If we cannot speak our truth, then we cannot be free. If we cannot challenge the definitions of “madness” and “normal behaviors,” then our stories will remain silenced or ignored.
I had a professor in college who used to say, “If you don’t speak for yourself, then others will speak for you.”
We must challenge those who speak for us. We must spread awareness about our struggles with the mental health industry by sharing our stories. So I ask you, what is your story? Will you be brave enough to share it?
I consider myself a madwoman. My research centers on social justice movements and literature, particularly regarding how larger social structures and systems (e.g., neoliberalism, the patriarchy, race) negatively impact women and minorities. Aligning with MITA’s mission, I strive to rise up against institutional injustices as an activist, educator, and writer. I seek to uncover female voices that have been ignored or silenced due to patriarchal systems and male-based ideologies.
The story I have shared is a deeply personal one. Reliving my first panic attack through this writing was difficult, but necessary. I believe that our stories are our truth, but we also have the power to write a new story for ourselves. Sharing our stories, through compassion and solidarity, will help combat the social stigmas against mental health. In that vein, I hope to continue uncovering my great grandmother’s story that has been silenced by stigma and trauma.
My experiences with western medicine were pretty traumatic growing up. I went from doctor to specialist, who conducted test after test, only to tell me they had no answers. They could not explain why every other thing I ate made me sick. Their frustrations were not well-managed, as they victimized me and taught me to disdain my own body. I have since learned to take matters into my own hands and to stick up for myself. I have cultivated self-love and have learned to listen to my body—tools that have brought increased awareness of my mind-body connection.
I hope that sharing my story will inspire others to speak up about their experiences, to stick up for themselves, and to continue fighting social stigmas against women and mental health.
Nicole Crevar (she/her) is a book lover, an adventure seeker, and a passionate educator. She currently resides in Tucson with her King Charles Cavalier pup, Libro (yes, his name is “book”).
Nicole is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Arizona studying English Literature. Her research interests include, Chicanx/Latinx literature, madwomen and mad theory, literature of resistance, and neoliberalism. Nicole has forthcoming publications with Vernon Press. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.