Trigger warning: suicide attempt.
Belonging is such an innate human desire that we often forget what a large impact it has on our
overall mental health and wellbeing. Newborns need acceptance from their parents/caregivers, children and young adults seek acceptance from peer groups, and adults seek acceptance through partnerships, both romantic and platonic, because it makes us feel connected and fulfilled, bringing purpose to our time on earth. So, what happens when belonging seems to belong to everyone but you?
WITH UNDIAGNOSED ADHD AND SUSPECTED AUTISM, I NEVER FELT I BELONGED ANYWHERE
With almost 8 billion people in the world, it seems like it would not be that hard for everyone to find a sense of belonging somewhere with relative ease. I can tell you that was not the case for me, and if you are neurodiverse maybe it was not the case for you either. I spent the first 33 years of my life with undiagnosed ADHD and suspected autism. As far back as I can remember I have been “weird”.
Other than with my twin sister – who is my forever best friend and the one human on earth who understands and accepts me completely – I have never felt like I belonged anywhere. Always a bit of an outsider, I never held onto friends for very long and have never been in a relationship for longer than 2 and 1/2 years. To say that I struggled in academic, social, and professional settings for over three decades of existence would be a gross understatement.
My neurodiversity dictates how I perceive and interact with the world around me but for most of my life I had no idea I was neurodiverse so most of my energy was spent on trying to force myself to function like my neurotypical peers. After all, that’s the ideal, right? Societal, social, and professional norms are built on the premise that we all “should” think, behave, and communicate in a similar (i.e., neurotypical) fashion.
NO ONE UNDERSTOOD ME. NOT EVEN ME.
When you fall outside of that very small and limiting box of expectations, your reality may be very lonely. I could never quite grasp why it seemed so easy for others to make and keep friends, to move in and out of relationships, to know just what to say and how to act so that people wanted to be around you. I tried so hard to fake it and be like everyone else, but the real me always came out and it always meant losing friends and partners because they didn’t understand me. I didn’t even understand me. I knew there was something different and I spent a very long time trying to find out what that was.
For as long as I can remember, I have been searching for answers about why I was, well, me. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 8 years old, sitting in front of licensed clinical therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, primary care physicians, teachers, and really anyone who would listen, trying to find myself. Because I knew I was not like everyone else but could not figure out how to “fix” myself, I suffered from profound anxiety and depression with suicidal ideation developing in my teenage years. I was misdiagnosed multiple times and put on so many medications for anxiety and depression with nothing really working, which only added to my despair.
UNDULATING BETWEEN F**K THE WORLD ATTITUDE AND CHILD-LIKE DESPERATION FOR ACCEPTANCE AND LOVE
The root of my challenges came from my neurodiversity and because that had not been identified, nothing improved. As a result, I undulated between hyper independence with a f**k the world attitude and child-like desperation for acceptance and love. Without an understanding of the why behind my feelings, perceptions, and behaviors, I spent my youth adrift in dangerous waters.
In an effort to cope with my very loud brain and my incredibly deep emotions, I turned to alcohol, tobacco, occasional marijuana, and toxic relationships. Not only did these things give me a pseudo escape from a reality where I did not belong and did not know why, it gave me an excuse to lean into the rough edges of myself. After all:
“Everyone gets rowdy when they drink so it won’t seem weird that I’m loud and hyper and over the top.”
“Smoking will show everyone that I am damaged and tough. Besides, what do I care if it hurts me?”
“Weed helps my brain take a break from the never-ending stream of consciousness pulling me in 10 different directions at once.”
“Love is supposed to be chaotic. Screaming at each other and getting into fights is a show of passion. I have to process my strong emotions somehow and toxic relationships give me an outlet to do that with the false sense of security that comes with being with someone, even if they’re wrong for me.”
MY DOWNWARD SPIRAL DOWN INTO DARKNESS AND SUICIDE ATTEMPTS
Shocking no one, these tactics only furthered my downward spiral. The first time I tried to take my life I was 19 years old, just a few weeks shy of finishing my freshman year in college. I had gone through a bad breakup from my first serious relationship. The breakup was a result of a mistake I made, coupled with my unhealthy coping mechanisms and general lack of knowledge about my brain wiring, I descended into a very dark place.
Research shows us that those with ADHD are more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substances and have a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder than those without ADHD. Never in my life had this statistic fit me more accurately than during this time. I was drinking to excess back then and engaging in dangerous habits like reckless driving and other thrill-seeking activities. None of these things made me feel better and no matter how hard I tried to fit in and find that sense of belonging, I still felt deeply alone.
One night sitting in my dorm room, it all became too much and I made the decision to end my life. I texted all of my “friends” to say I loved them and took an entire bottle of pills with a liter of vodka. One of the people I texted was suspicious of my wording in the message and found me on the floor when she came to my room to check up on me. She called for help, and I was taken to the ER, and given charcoal to neutralize and expel the poison in my stomach. I spent a night in the telemetry unit to make sure my heart was not damaged, evaluated by a psychiatrist, and sent home with my mom and sister, who had driven almost 6 hours to get to me when they received the news.
At first I felt like a failure and the feeling of “I don’t belong here” and wanting to end all the pain did not recede immediately. Most days it was a fight to find a reason to stay, but I kept fighting. As time passed, the reasons to stay became more and more powerful. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it has absolutely been worth it.
INTERPLAY BETWEEN MY EXPERIENCES AND MY NEURODIVERSE MIND
I did not know it at the time, but my experiences are directly reflective of the neurodiverse mind. I have an extremely hyperactive brain, so I talk a lot. I also have a tendency to be impulsive, and constantly struggle with executive functioning like task initiation and working memory challenges. I always seek out dopamine and get bored easily when there is not enough novelty or excitement. I am plagued by rejection sensitivity dysphoria and ruminating negative thoughts, and have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with romantic partners, finances, food, and physical activity.
Despite fitting the picture of a combined-type ADHDer perfectly, I did not receive an accurate diagnosis until I sought one out myself after my young nephew was diagnosed. At that time, I also dove into researching neurodiversity and was blown away by how much I related to the experiences of those with ADHD and autism. I found a local professional who diagnoses adults and made an appointment with her for assessment and on-going care management.
CORRECT DIAGNOSIS ENABLES ME TO LOVE ALL THE PARTS OF ME I TRIED TO EXTINGUISH FOR SO LONG
The diagnosis changed my life because I was finally able to put a name and a frame around my
experiences. It helped me to stop feeling broken and start feeling unique in a powerful and profound way. It has allowed me to find answers and explanations for so many of the things that made me hate myself.
I can now lean into my strengths and find ways to love all of the parts of me that I have tried to hide or extinguish for so long. Having undiagnosed ADHD and suspected autism meant that I walked through so much of my life trying to force myself to be anyone other than me. Wearing a mask every day and feeling like the real me would never be good enough was depressing and defeating. The lack of belonging led me to a point where I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, I was not successful. “Failing” at that has allowed me to flourish in my purpose of creating a sense of belonging for so many others who have spent their lives feeling alone.
For me, life changed when I stopped trying to be everyone else and figured out how to work towards being the best version of me. Next time you feel like you don’t belong here, make sure you are seeking belonging in your “here” and not someone else’s.
Our heartfelt gratitude to our guest author this week, Gwendolyn Janssen MHA, MSN, RN, for courageously sharing her story with such vulnerability and bravery. In the words of California's former Surgeon General, Devika Bhushan, who thrives with a bipolar diagnosis, "stigma festers in the darkness and scatters in the light." By sharing our stories, we humanize our struggles, removing bricks from the wall of stigma and letting light shine through. Those struggling step out from the shame and silence and reach out for help; and, are empowered to come into their own surrounded by their inner lights, self worth and self love. We all deserve to be seen, heard and valued. Thank you for this reminder Gwen. You will always belong. Shine on mighty warrior, shine on.
I always knew I was different. A little too sensitive, a little too anxious, a little too much. As a child, I struggled with social anxiety and an obsessive need to please others. And, although I
appeared to be a very happy child, something was starting to change in me.
As a teenager I began to struggle with suicidal thoughts but was too afraid to tell anyone. I had been placed in therapy, but I was too scared to tell my therapist just how sad I was for fear of what would happen to me.
my facade crumbles and my mental health along with it
I once heard Jim Carey say that “depression” means “deep rest” and that a depressed mind is your body’s way of saying, “I need a break, I don’t want to play this character anymore.” That is exactly how I felt. I was physically and emotionally exhausted from trying to be happy all the time, trying to please others, and wearing a mask so that no one could see the real me and how much I was hurting.
By the time I reached college, the façade that I had been holding up for so long came crumbling down and I had a full mental breakdown. I was forced to drop out of school and was eventually placed into McLean hospital as my behaviors became increasingly dangerous. I felt like I had failed everyone in my life and had failed myself. I no longer saw a bright future. I didn’t care anymore about anything, especially myself.
Borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression diagnoses help me make sense of myself and my life
I was hospitalized at 19 years of age and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression. Once I came to understand my diagnoses, the distorted way that I thought started to all make sense. I finally understood why I was such a people pleaser, why I was so terrified of being abandoned by my loved ones, why I was so afraid of anger, and why I had reached my breaking point.
I started to realize that these illnesses had dictated so much of my thought processes that I didn’t even really know who I was. I lived in such paralyzing fear for most of my life, afraid to upset people and afraid to fail. I was exhausted.
BEGINNING REAL WORK OF UNDERSTANDING WHERE MY ILLNESSES END AND I BEGin
But now the real work has begun: learning to understand where the illnesses end and where Dina begins. After spending ten years in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities, I was able to slowly
reintegrate into mainstream society. I was able to go back to community college and then finish my Bachelor’s degree at Boston College while I worked a full-time job. The more I learned about myself, the more I began to realize just how smart I was, how kind I was, and what a great laugh I had.
FULLY EMBRACING MY LIFE’S DREAMS, I Go for it
With a lot of grit and hard work, I was able to finally pursue the career path that I always envisioned for myself, landing internships and eventually a full time position working in television. I have achieved things that many thought were not possible for me and, even now, I need to constantly remind myself to be grateful for that.
However, as we age and mature sometimes our dreams change and now, I am beginning to
envision a whole new career path as a mental health empowerment keynote speaker. And once again, I plan to achieve that because I know that I can.
my journey to recovery is a medal of honor
I used to want to sweep the fact that I had endured a life-altering mental illness under the rug and just move on. I was ashamed and embarrassed of my past but now, I realize that I should NOT be ashamed of this. Rather, I should wear my journey to recovery like a medal of honor. I should be proud, and I should remind myself of that every day.
A mental illness that alters your life never truly goes away but rather it lies dormant and
reappears when life gets tough. I often try to control all aspects of my life because I have somehow convinced myself that if I can control life then it can’t throw me off the tracks. It can’t derail me and make me sick again. But that is not how life works.
my light is A Beacon Reminding me We ARE All Perfectly Imperfect
I am still learning to let go of the reins every once in a while, embracing the knowledge that even if life breaks me, I won’t stay broken forever. I am still actively in therapy and on a daily medication regimen. I fully support this because it allows me to lead a “normal” life. I still have issues that I struggle with daily, and I continue to work on myself every single day.
Do I wish I was not an anxious person? Yes, of course! Do I wish I had not lost ten years of
my life? Absolutely! But am I proud of the person I became? Undoubtedly!
please heed my advice to you
I once heard a quote, “when you go into the storm, you don’t come out the same person … you aren’t supposed to.” Mental illness is a storm but, like the quote says, you can come out of a storm, you just aren’t the same person who went into it. You are stronger and more resilient.
My advice to you is this: don’t allow your mental illness to dictate what you are capable of. Only you can determine that. And remember, you are not flawed. You are not unlovable. You are not unworthy. You are perfectly imperfect. Go chase your dreams. You got this!
fighting through Hell as a child to emerge an empowered woman: the grit and resilience of a true mental health superhero, Meagan CopelinRead Now
[TRIGGER WARNING: SH, SA, R*PE, ED]
i have to fight through hell to become the EMPOWERED WOMAN i am today.
BEING BORN WITH GRIT, DETERMINATION AND FIGHT DOESN'T MATTER WHEN YOU'RE BORN TO TEENAGE DRUG ADDICTS
As a young girl, growing up in the city of New Orleans, I was always determined to be the very best and to never give up despite my obstacles. In fact, my aunts and uncles nicknamed me “Maybe Tomorrow” as they saw determination and grit from the moment I was born.
My great-grandmother, Anna Copelin, who we called Mother Anna, holds a special place in my heart. Mother Anna passed away when I was 3 years of age, and although I do not remember much about her, I do know she still guides me and watches over me daily. She has truly been my guardian angel.
My mom and dad were teenagers when I was born. I was primarily raised the first 3 years of my life by Mother Anna and my great grand-father, Daniel Copelin (Granddaddy Copelin), not because they wanted to but because they needed to.
Even born as a premature baby, I had so much fight in me. I was a very small baby, with a big forehead (LOL).
My great grandparents were full of love. The greatest memories I shared with Granddaddy Copelin was us sitting at the kitchen table eating stale ginger snaps and cold hot dog links. For some reason, my granddaddy loved giving us grandkids stale snacks.
I still smile thinking about how my granddaddy enjoyed a snack that I found very unpleasant, but I still enjoyed spending time with my love. He was the first man that I ever loved, and he showed me love as I didn’t grow up with my dad in my life, so my granddaddy and certain uncles were there for me.
My birth mom was in and out of my life and was extremely unstable. I remember when I was around 6 years old, she was involved in an unstable relationship with a man, and he got so mad at her that he hit her in the head with a car jack. She needed over 200 stitches. That was very scary to watch.
I really think I started to experience mental health issues around that time or maybe earlier, starting around the age of 5.
My dad disappeared when I was around 7 years old. I didn’t remember him and never cared to find him. I did start asking about him later but remembered that the other men in my life made sure I was good. (I am happy. I never had daddy issues thank goodness.)
My mom and dad were both crack heads. I mean call it like you see it. They abused drugs heavily. I saw my mom take drugs, snort crack, and sell her body. I was young seeing all of this. WTF.
No child should ever have to live through this hell.
My mental health was spiraling out of control. I was starting to act out and cut myself. I was a child. Why was I seeing this shit?
At the time, I never realized this was a sickness she possessed and for years I did not like her. I hated her. I didn’t want a relationship with her. I even told people she had died.
I was angry so anything I said at that time I meant it. She was fucking up my mental health.
I was depressed, had PTSD, was wetting the damn bed, experiencing an eating disorder, etc.
I was a child. No child should ever have to experience this, no matter what. I WAS MAD at that time.
My mom had lots of men in her life, and I mean LOTS of men. She would meet a man on Wednesday, and we would be living with him on Friday. I watched my mom experience lots of pain from men, from being abused to assaulted.
She was on drugs and gone for days. There were times I didn’t see my mom for days, even weeks. This was traumatizing for myself as well as my brother and sister.
My mental health was spiraling out of control. I was cutting myself and biting my nails down to the skin. I was going through hell.
getting held down, raped and pimped out by your mother when eight seriously fucks with your mental health
At the age of 8 years old, I was raped multiple times by my mom’s boyfriend. I think he was boyfriend number 500 of that year. I loved school and would go right to school after being raped by that ugly old ass monster. He smelled like grease and molded bread. He was a PIMP and would have sex with prostitutes before and after he raped me.
My mom was aware of this but when drugs take over your life, that is typically the focus and not anything else around you. He told me not to tell anyone, and he even told me that he would tell her and that she wouldn’t do anything. The nerve.
And he was right: I told her and nothing was done. These two were really messing with my PTSD. Severe depression was kicking in. Crack and cocaine are truly a hell of a drug.
at age of 12, diagnosed with clinical depression, ptsd, anxiety, eating disorder, ocd, and behavioral and emotional disorder. thanks mom.
School was my safe haven and even though I was bullied daily, I still went with dirty ass clothes and cuts on my body. I should have been playing with barbie dolls and eating dinner at the table with a normal family, but I was facing severe trauma at 8 and 9 years old.
I eventually moved in with an abusive aunt, who would beat me with a broom and make me sleep in my own urine as I was still wetting the bed from severe trauma. I was suffering and going downhill. After two years or so, I had an opportunity to move with another aunt who changed my life.
That aunt saw that I needed help and sent me to see a licensed psychiatrist. At the age of 12, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, PTSD, anxiety, an eating disorder, a behavioral and emotional disorder, and OCD. I was provided a prescription for mental health medication as well.
learning to forgive, not for her, but for me.
For years, I did not like my mom and didn’t see her again until I was 20 years old. I had to really learn forgiveness and it was hard. I sought counseling and joined a church to help me learn how to forgive my mom. I finally forgave her about 7 years ago. I am now 40.
I realized that forgiving her was not about her but about me. And about freeing me. To move on and succeed in life, I had to learn the power of forgiveness. That was truly a process for me. I had to be open and understanding. I had to place myself in her shoes in order to understand her struggles.
I didn’t have to have a relationship with her to forgive her. It felt good to rid that baggage that was holding me back for years. The act that hurt me will always be with me as I have that right, but forgiveness has lessened its grip on me. Forgiveness has allowed me to led with understanding in my personal life, as well as show empathy and compassion for my parents, as well as others around me.
How can you improve your child's mental health? your child deserves it.
One of the best things you can do to keep your child mentally healthy is to take care of your own mental health. As a parent, it is important that you protect your child and never allow them to be placed in situations that may harm them and scar them for life. A child needs to be a child and do things that children do, such as playing with dolls and car toys.
Children are innocent.
Parents should also have a basic understanding and answers to questions such as what mental illnesses are, who can get them, what causes them if that is known, how diagnoses are made, and what treatments are available. Do your homework.
Your child deserves it.
i was put on this earth for a reason. speaking up about stigma is my gift. It is my calling.
When I share my story with others, I always say that I am happy I have been through the things I have been through. My reason is because I believe GOD knew I could handle this. I am not my parents and never inherited any of their traits or habits. I was placed on this earth to help young girls and women all over the world share their story. Speaking up regarding the stigma of mental health is my gift. I was meant to do this.
If you're thinking about hurting yourself, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Dr. Meagan T. Copelin is the Supporting US Chair of Accelerating Mental Wellness, a social-justice campaign to co-create stigma free workplaces built on a foundation of empathy with needed mental health supports and programs.