Allyson McAndrews shares her how after years of struggling with her mental illness a story of drug addiction changed her outlook on life and mental health.
From the viewpoint of anyone else on this planet, I had the world. I was a Villanova cheerleader, had a master’s degree, countless friends, family, and a vacation home on the Vineyard. The list goes on. While it may seem to many people that the most difficult question I would face every day would be what I was going to wear. For me the real question was, How in the world am I going to get out of bed today and pretend to be happy?
My mother is a nurse practitioner. My father was a district attorney for 17 years and currently, owns his own law firm. They specialize in advocating for children with disabilities and mental illness and their families. Unlike many, I have parents who have a real grasp and understanding for mental illness. They’ve seen it all. Without this, I have no idea where or what I’d be doing today. They accepted the fact with open arms that I needed help. And got me into therapy with one of the most remarkable psychologists in the world. The one I still see over 15 years later.
The summer I started therapy was one of the darkest points of my life. I remember day camp and not being able to walk from one side of the playground to the next without feeling the need to turn around and repeat this process. Because if I didn’t, my brain told me something horrible would happen.
I engaged in these awful, annoying and embarrassing rituals because I was trying to save myself, but most importantly, I felt like I had to engage in these rituals to save my family.
Once in therapy, I was quickly diagnosed with OCD and depression. And from that point on I accepted that mental illness is not something that goes away. It is something you work on every day and would for the rest of my life. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. And like any disease, if you don’t treat it, don’t work at it, or take the measures to stay healthy, you won’t get better. Many times, you get worse.
From then on, I experienced both ups and downs, beautiful and dark periods. During one of the days at an Intensive Outpatient Program, I was in group therapy listening to a young man speaking about his addiction to crack cocaine. While (thankfully) I cannot relate to him on the drug level, something he said that day clicked in my brain.
As he was describing his personal battles with addiction, the ups and downs, the people he let down, he began to describe the need for crack—his addiction. He wanted it and he wanted it now. However, a part of him wanted sobriety and he wanted sobriety now. This is a prime example of how people with mental illness are wired—they want immediate results. He went on to explain how he hoped his personal addiction can help with our own individual issues.
It saved me in a way he’ll never know. While I will probably never see this man again, I made a point to tell him that he brought me back to life. I realized that, although I am not a drug addict, I am an addict for happiness. I truly believe I had exhausted my brain throughout my entire life, trying to find this “immediate happiness” when in reality… “it is a process and not an event.” Happiness doesn’t happen overnight.
Happiness doesn’t happen overnight
Reflecting back on my 28 years on this earth, I am not naïve to the fact that there will be tough phases. But now, I at least have the tools to help me through the roller coaster moments of life. On top of this, I have the ability to trust my family, friends and loved ones the words of encouragement that comes out of their mouths. This trust can be very hard to see and understand, especially when you are young and in pain and feeling lost in your own mind.
No one gets out of bed in the morning and says “My goal today is to be as sad as possible”. So if I could teach anyone anything, it would be that depression and mental illness is not a choice. Mental illness sees no color. It is not for the lazy, the weak, the poor or the unmotivated. If anything, it has made me want to work harder. I know many people do not understand it, nor should they have to. But progress starts with voice. As a universal community, we need to start somewhere. And if that “somewhere” is simply talking about mental illness in a non-taboo way, then that is an enormous improvement. I hope one day I can be a part of breaking the stereotype and stigma. There needs to be a global understanding and acceptance of this disease.
Original version of this story first portrayed in The Mighty in April 2015. Story has since been revised to this version.