Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is one woman’s story about her journey with mental illness.
JENNINGS — Being open about her struggles isn’t something that came naturally to Sheila Smith.
She said it’s one reason her mental illness went untreated for many years. It wasn’t until she met someone with similar symptoms that she began to face the truth.
Twenty years later, the 35-year-old Jennings woman now attends weekly therapy sessions and takes a medication regimen that she said helps her feel like a normal person.
The early years
Smith’s symptoms began around age 12.
“I was going through puberty; a lot of stuff was going on in my family,” she said. “My family started having financial problems. It was just a really tough time.”
She started experiencing anxiety and mood swings.
“Even when things cleared up, around seventh grade, I started thinking about suicide,” she said.
Smith began having dark thoughts and didn’t want to live at times.
“I would mention things to my friends. They would say ‘Oh, you say that. You’ll be fine,’” she said. “I didn’t really reach out. Nobody talked about it. I was closed off. I didn’t like to discuss emotions or what was on my mind.”
Once in high school, she still experienced thoughts of suicide but learned how to hide them.
“I kept those thoughts to myself for years,” she said. “It was probably not until I was in my 20s that I would open up to certain people about wanting to die.”
When she was 17, Smith was prescribed an antidepressant.
“It worked for a while, but then my family lost the insurance they had,” she said. “So I stopped taking it. Then I started partying and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.”
At 19, Smith became friends with someone who also struggled with depression and mental illness.
“We had very similar personalities,” she said. “He experienced mood swings a lot. In our circle of friends, we were the only two who really experienced mood swings and severe depression. We were the only two who understood how difficult that was.”
That friend committed suicide two years later. His death was both devastating and eye-opening for Smith.
“When that happened, it made it a reality that this could also happen to me,” she said. “This was something I could end up doing. It made things very real for me. Still, I didn’t use that experience to get help. I got further into self-medicating and making bad decisions in my life.”
She recognized that if she didn’t take care of herself, she could die. She now fights for her life.
“I take my medication. I go to therapy regularly. I do fight. Because if I don’t, a bad ending is the alternative,” she said.
In 2009, Smith’s mother was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer.
“I needed to help my parents. I needed to help take care of her,” she said. “So I wasn’t able to go out as much or be gone as much. That definitely cut down on the partying.”
Her mother passed away 14 months after being diagnosed. “For a few years I struggled with her death and how much it changed our family,” Smith said.
Three years later, she realized how desperately she needed help.
“I was falling apart,” she said. “I was truly ready to go out and jump off a bridge.”
Smith reached out to her older sister.
“I texted my sister and said, ‘My brain isn’t working,’” she said. “She wrote back and asked, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to explain it. I just need help. My brain isn’t working.’”
Smith and her sister saw a doctor the next day. He considered admitting her into a mental health facility, but her sister promised to keep a close watch on Smith.
The doctor also connected her with a therapist.
Understanding mental illness
Though she sought help, it was only in 2017 that Smith said she began actively taking control of her mental health.
It was an encounter at work that got her attention. Smith is the editor at the Jennings Daily News.
“I interviewed the mother of a 14-year-old boy who died of suicide,” she said. “She shared his story of how he struggled with depression. She said she wished she had recognized all the signs.
“That boy had so much life ahead of him. He was so overwhelmed that he ended it. He stopped his pain the only way he knew how,” Smith said. “The day I interviewed his mother, I left the office crying. I thought, ‘If I don’t do something right now, I’m going to die.’”
She immediately called her therapist.
“He set me up with a doctor he has worked with for a while,” she said. “The doctor is a family practitioner who is very knowledgeable with what medications work best for people living with symptoms of mental illness.”
She sees her therapist weekly now, even though she didn’t always like going.
“I didn’t like opening up,” she said. “I don’t like to be perceived as weak. I learned and accepted that by not saying anything, I was being weak by hiding from the truth.”
She learned how to reach out to people she trusted.
“I also learned how to be honest with my therapist about what was going on in my mind,” she said.
She admits that she was afraid to start therapy.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Though it can be intimidating, therapy is sort of like releasing pressure from a tank. Once you let all that hot air out, the threat is over. You don’t have to worry about exploding,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much I was holding in, how poorly I was handling things.”
Therapy is just one way Smith maintains good mental health.
“If you can keep up with your mental health — monitor it no matter what is going on — you can keep it on a stable path. I’m on a regimen now that works really well for me.”
It’s not just mental
Smith said she has often experienced physical symptoms as part of her mental illness.
“Sometimes it was hard to be in my own skin. Every emotion that you experience also becomes physical and weighs you down so much,” she said.
She said extreme fatigue would lead her to sleep most of the day.
“If it’s a day when I was working, I’d get out of bed at the very last minute, and I’d be back in bed before the sun went down,” she said. “There have been times when I couldn’t even come to work because I truly couldn’t get myself out of my house.”
If angry, she often felt like she wanted to hit or break something to release her energy, even when she had no reason to feel irritated.
Anxiety caused stomach issues, and sometimes Smith would experience uncontrollable crying spells.
“It was almost like a type of grief I was feeling, but there was nothing that I was grieving.”
Smith said her sister is one of the people who are most supportive in her life.
“Most of my life, she really just thought I had a bad attitude and bad temper,” Smith explained. “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that she saw the mood swings and how they didn’t make sense. She saw how I’d go from sleeping for days to being super energetic and happy.
“After I reached out to her, she started researching mental illness and Bipolar. I always knew she cared. But to know she was trying to educate herself to understand what I’m going through meant a lot.”
Smith’s cousin, also her lifelong best friend, is a therapist.
“Not only does she know me like the back of her hand, but she’s a therapist. She never freaks out when I open up about the tough stuff.”
One reason Smith had struggled to be honest in the past was because she worried about burdening her loved ones. “The average person is going to panic if someone tells them they’re thinking about suicide,” she said. “To be able to talk to people who know me and don’t panic the minute I mention suicidal thoughts and depression is important. You want to talk to somebody, but you don’t want to burden them.”
The first time Smith publicly acknowledged her struggles with mental illness, she was terrified. After already struggling to open up to her loved ones and therapist, the thought of putting her struggle in print was difficult to stomach.
“Especially when you are in a position where you’re working with elected officials, school administrators, law enforcement, the general public and community leaders, it makes you reconsider what you write,” she explains of her job as a newspaper editor. “Most people expect you not to talk about the nitty gritty side of your own life.”
In September 2018, she wrote about mental illness for her weekly column in the Jennings Daily News’ Sunday edition.
She shared her history with mental illness, how she self-medicated, losing a friend to suicide, her journey with therapy and dealing with her own thoughts of suicide.
“I put it all out there,” she said. “I really thought people wouldn’t want to work with me again or would think that I’m weak or seeking attention.”
Instead, she was blown away by the reaction.
“Nobody treated me differently,” she said. “Many were complimenting me or saying, ‘I deal with that,’ or ‘My spouse deals with that or my child deals with that.’ Strangers called crying, saying, ‘Nobody else understands.’
“One lady said she had trouble explaining how she felt to her family. She cut the column out of the newspaper and gave it to her family to explain it to them.”
Her bravery changed her life.
“It made me more willing to talk about what I’m going through,” she said. “Not for myself necessarily, but for people out there struggling to open up. They’re ashamed that they’re struggling when they shouldn’t be.”
Fighting the stigma
“There’s still that stigma about mental illness,” Smith said. “People think you’re either being overly dramatic, that you caused your problems in some way or that you can’t be helped.”
She encourages anyone struggling to find the right doctor.
“You need to be able to trust you doctor and know they are listening to you,” she said. “ If you feel something is wrong, but your doctor isn’t listening, you should find another doctor.”
Over a year, her doctor helped her find the right medication regimen.
“It did take a little while,” Smith said. “There were times when every few weeks, I was having a lot of symptoms, and I’d call him. He’d adjust the dosage or change different medications. He had me go in regularly to make sure I was improving.”
Finding the right medication has changed her life. “I feel normal. For the first time in my life, I feel normal,” she said.
Advice for others
Smith has advice for those struggling with depression and anxiety, as well as their loved ones.
“For the people who have a loved one struggling, I know from personal experience that it’s very hard to help someone struggling with mental illness,” she said. “If somebody that you love has the flu, it’s easy to give them medication, and things will get better. But when you’re dealing with mental illness, when it seems they are taking this out on you or that you can’t help them, you take it personally.
“For those of us living with mental illness, you just can’t stop yourself from crying or being angry or numb. It doesn’t excuse the way any person acts out to someone else. But for us to be able to just not be sad or not be angry, we can’t necessarily do that.”
Smith said support is important for the personal struggling with mental illness.
“Support them however you can. Ask questions,” she said. “It was really important for me to hear, ‘When you do this, this is how it makes me feel or how I worry.’ Somebody with a mental illness needs to be held accountable for their health. They need to understand that people who love them are suffering right alongside them.”
Smith stresses that there is no reason to be ashamed of seeking help.
“To me, it really is like any type of chronic illness,” she said. “Something in our brain is not working like it should. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. You just need to address it. For some people, you might only need low dose of one medication. For some people, diet and exercise help. Some people need medication and therapy. Whatever you need to do to positively address what you’re going through, do it.”
Smith said that although finances can sometimes seem like a hindrance when a person wants to seek help, “There are a lot of resources in SW La. for people who have limited income to be able to access health care and therapy.”
She also discourages self-medicating.
“If you’re struggling with mental illness and you’re self-medicating — either through drugs, alcohol, food or whatever else — or you’re already on antidepressants and you’re self-medicating in other ways, you’re making it worse,” she said. “You might think you’re numbing the problem or distracting yourself, but you’re really making it worse. You’ll realize you could heal if you just walk away from the self-medicating.”