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Opinion: Mental illness education essential during suicide prevention week

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Aliah Detwiler

Aliah Detwiler is a staff columnist at The Daily.

Editor's note: This column discusses self harm, eating disorders and suicide.

My mom left after my 4th birthday. I can clearly remember when that happened. I can’t remember when my mental illnesses began, but I do remember growing up with them.

My childhood wasn’t exactly the ideal 90s kid lifestyle I wanted to have. Aside from my mental health being a completely unknown enemy in my day-to-day life, I had to learn how to grow up much earlier than I should have.

When I was 4 years old, and for the rest of my childhood, I dealt with the blowback from my mom’s absence. I had to cope with the sea of troubles she left in her wake as she went on to find a new life, one I thought was better without me. As I grew older, I thought that all the waves of pain left behind were my fault. I thought my dad’s anger toward my mom was supposed to be taken out on me, beat into me until I questioned my own worth.

Those are the moments when I remember my mental illnesses tagging along for the fun. I remember feeling long bouts of sadness, my concentration fading in school, developing eating disorders and seeing myself as worthless — seeing myself as the way I was, because to those around me, I was broken. To them, I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I told myself it wasn’t their fault for abusing me or abandoning me, it was my fault for being broken. So I started self-harming.

My mother started to become more involved in my life when she saw that her youngest daughter couldn’t even find value in herself. It’s sad to think that it took me hurting myself — delivering a punishment to a victim who didn’t deserve it — for me to feel like my mother was once again a part of my life. It hurt to think that the 10 years I spent driving 268.5 miles every other weekend to see her didn’t mean anything until then.

Her first instinct was to tell me it was all in my head and that it was simply something I’d grow out of. She moved home to be closer to me as my struggles continued. She thought she had to “fix” me, make me better by alienating my problems. But when I saw how badly my pain and my mental illnesses hurt her, I kept them to myself.

She didn’t understand anyway, and she wouldn't begin to until my senior year of high school.

I remember standing in my driveway, screaming at my mother that I wanted to kill myself. I wanted more than anything for my mother, the woman who was a stranger to me for the longest time, to understand what I was going through.

After being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, I decided to attempt medication and take the leap to try to change my mom’s worldview on mental illnesses. I knew this scared my mother, and she tried to encourage me in trying more “natural” methods like exercising. While those activities helped, they weren’t the complete remedy I needed. What I needed was for my mom to see me and my healing process from a different perspective.

It hurt her to see how painful my life was, so her retaliations were understandable, but I needed something different. I needed her to see my mental illnesses as I saw them, as something to live with, not something to hide or pretend didn’t exist. I needed my mom to be my friend, not my adversary.

It took sending my mom article after article, YouTube slam poetry video after another, night after night crying and being honest with her about what I was feeling, to eventually open my mom’s eyes to a new view on my mental illnesses.

As time passed, my mom became more open and understanding about not only my mental illnesses, but also the illnesses and issues of others.

I was proud of my mom for seeing me as more than a symptom, to see her learn to love me completely, not just the healable parts of me.

A couple of weeks ago, I received surprising text from my mom. The text was a thank you — for teaching her to open her mind and heart to those struggling with mental illnesses. Her text showed me that her newfound knowledge and perspective has made her a more empathetic, loving and caring person.

My mother went from a woman who was only a weekend face to me, to my best friend. I went from feeling alone and abandoned, to feeling like I finally had a mom.

What do I get from all of this? What do I earn for making it this far? Do all of my illnesses disappear now that they’re out there in the open? Mental illnesses are not something that earn a reward or stop because you confronted them. They are ever-present battles — some days are better than others, and some days it feels like you’ll never heal, and they need to be talked about. This week, we have the chance to talk about the battle.

Every year, suicide prevention week gives us the perfect opportunity to learn about the importance of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. During this week, it’s encouraged to share information on the warning signs of suicide and how to help those struggling with mental illnesses. While I was struggling, I felt as if I didn’t have anyone on my side. By having widespread community of support through events like this, we can take that fear away from those who do feel alone. Having suicide prevention week gives us the opportunity to be more educated on mental health and provide ways to help those suffering.

It took education on mental illnesses for me to finally feel like I had a mom — imagine what it could do to help others.

This is my testimony, my declaration to not be afraid of mental illnesses but instead learn about them, and lend a helping hand to those struggling now. If there is something I could tell those coping with a mental illness, it would be to reach out to those around you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t give up. Healing takes time, but it will come. You are not alone, and there is a community of people who want to help you.

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