Reclaiming My Voice


I cried in front of my supervisor for the first time today.

It was bound to happen, with the high levels of stress and responsibility that come with my job. He knew something was up, so he paused in front of my office after staffing. He asked if everything was okay because I’d looked a little down in the meeting that afternoon.

Everything was not okay, but how could I possibly explain? That I don’t belong here. That I am a phony, a fraud. That I am damaged beyond repair and unsuitable for this work. That if he knew the person I truly was, he would have me fired straight away. I felt it happening again: the pressure building in my chest and the tears burning my throat at the prospect of someone discovering my deepest, darkest secret. The precursor to my entire life falling apart.

I told him, unconvincingly, that everything was fine.

We sat in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. I trained my eyes on my shoelaces, unable to look him directly in the face. Part of me wanted to tell him everything, but the rest of me knew that it was impossible.

He caught the hint and let out a soft chuckle. Rising to his feet, he reminded me that I could talk with him about anything bothering me. As soon as he was gone I fled to the restroom, sweating and shaking, trying to make it stop. I thought again about his offer to talk. Did he suspect what I knew to be true? I bent over the toilet bowl and prepared to hurl.

* * * * *

Life has often felt like more than I could handle. I was a sensitive, worried child and cried “at the drop of a hat,” as my mom likes to say. I was twelve years old the first time I thought seriously about killing myself. In high school I got pegged early on as the lonely girl who self-harmed and was routinely called in to see the school counselor. It was a lot of things: family conflict, poor academic performance, interpersonal challenges. Mostly it was an overly emotional response to everyday situations. An inability to cope with stress the way other kids could.

The worst of it came in college. Although initially energized by a fresh start and the free creativity of a music major, that all-too-familiar emotional instability eventually crept back in. I knew things were back to baseline late in my first year when I overheard my roommate whisper to our mutual friend, “I don’t know! She’s like, bipolar, I think,” as explanation for why I had snapped over something trivial and spent the rest of the day alone in my room, sobbing.

By the end of my sophomore year, I was skipping all of my classes except for choir. I lived in a state of deep, unabating sadness punctuated by piercing episodes of anxiety. Tufts of my hair fell out in the shower and I stopped eating regularly. I spent entire afternoons wandering the streets of my small college town in a withdrawn daze, battling the internal demons and picking at my self-injury scabs in the hot sun. The panic came almost nightly – heart thumping, palms sweating, thoughts racing – until I would collapse in a tearful heap on the bed. My unflappable boyfriend would spoon me and stroke my hair for hours, saying everything he could in an attempt to soothe me, but I was perpetually inconsolable. In time, I became too much for him, just as the rest of my social network had disappeared before my eyes.

When it became evident that I would not pass the majority of my semester credits, I moved back home with Mom and Dad over the summer. I felt like a complete failure. I knew no one there, as most of my high school acquaintances had relocated by then. I floated numbly through community college coursework while working an assortment of odd jobs: making ice cream, cleaning houses, and caring for pets, children and adults with disabilities. Filing papers and ordering supplies. Living enveloped in the dark, heavy fog of depression.

I tried every antidote I knew. I eliminated sugar from my diet. I ran a mile for the first time. I tried to make new friends and be more outgoing. I saw therapists at the urging of my parents. Derrence had kind eyes and taught me how to manage my day to avoid the panic attacks. Tony was calm and reassuring when I wept in his small office, but I could only see him for eight sessions, per the community college counseling center policy. Elizabeth told me medication would probably help, since nothing else really had, so my mom’s primary care doctor prescribed Ativan as needed. When that didn’t make enough of a difference, Dr. S added Prozac, shortly followed by trials of Celexa, Lexapro, and Wellbutrin. At first she said I would only need this support until I got “back on track.” In time, it became clear to her that my neurochemical makeup would necessitate medication for the rest of my life. “Some people just need a little help balancing things out, Emily. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I didn’t believe her.

Angela was next, because life continued to spiral out of control. Angela tried to teach me how to “ride the wave of negative emotions” on a metaphorical surfboard, but I never did get the hang of it. I frequently called her crying, spun out in a whirlwind of frantic thoughts and feelings. She would try to talk me through the hysteria as I described desperate visions of swerving my car off the highway or darting into traffic at a busy intersection. “Emily, you know I can help you set up a stay in a psychiatric hospital…” The mere mention of this option terrified me as I replayed scenes from Girl, Interrupted in my head. From then on, I learned to only share half the story with Angela so she wouldn’t be ethically obligated to act during a crisis.

The days somehow trudged onward. Behind the plexiglass front desk window at the optometry practice where I worked, I spent the long hours of afternoon receptionist shifts choking back tears and trying to justify my death in Google documents. I wrote for hours. It’s not like anyone would miss me. It’s not as though I’m actually contributing anything meaningful to the world. Maybe some people just aren’t meant to be happy. Maybe life just isn’t for me. I am worthless. I am a failure. I will never get better. I was doing everything they asked of me, but it was not enough to address the immensity of my pain. I could not imagine a reality in which things might ever improve, so I made a plan and tucked it away for the right moment. No one could know.

Three weeks after my 22nd birthday, the time came to enact my plan. Looking back it seems impulsive, but on that particular Thursday it felt as though years and years of buildup were all pointing to that moment. I wanted out, once and for all. On the way home from work, I pulled into a Walmart parking lot and took an overdose of pills.

Gagging on the chalky lump at the back of my throat, I panicked and dialed my best (and only) friend. He came and got me safely to his apartment, then eventually coaxed me into going to the hospital “just to get checked out.” I was sure it would be over quickly, but as the nurse led me by the hand through the locked entrance of the psych emergency department, I learned that I was in for much more than I had bargained.

That night is mostly a blur now, but several things stand out in my memory. Being asked to strip naked and be searched by a tech followed by a quiet ambulance transfer to the medical hospital. The five doses of saccharine charcoal and the sour taste of vomit in my mouth. IVs and catheters. Sweating, shaking, and losing touch with reality, and the crescendo of a shrill ringing in my ears. The terror of being held down against the bed, of being told to calm down and get myself together. Safety precautions: the grid of bars over my window, the “sitter” at my bedside, security officers, plastic silverware, and a lack of privacy at all times. The task of calling out sick to work, devising a fake stomach bug so my manager wouldn’t ask any questions. The dread and shame of seeing my parents for the first time. I stayed in the hospital for five days over an extra-long St. Patty’s Day weekend. When I was reevaluated on Monday, I knew exactly what the social worker needed to hear in order to move forward with discharge.

After I was released, I still wished I was dead, and now had the added trauma of hospitalization which gave me nightmares for months afterwards. I felt conflicted. Based on the reactions of family and hospital staff, it seemed that people would rather I stay silent about how awful I was feeling. At the same time, I wanted more than anything to talk openly with someone about what was going on without the threat of judgment or involuntary commitment.

Things continued in a negative trend. Back at school there was an incident during which campus police escorted me out of a lecture hall full of classmates when someone dropped a tip that I had expressed a desire to harm myself. A few months later, Angela let me know that she couldn’t see me anymore because I was so challenging to work with. She believed I might have borderline personality disorder, and since this was out of her scope of practice she referred me to DBT group with Christy. My new psychiatrist forced me onto different, stronger combinations of medications (adding Geodon, then Abilify) by threatening to call the police if I refused to sign her treatment plan. The mood stabilizers made me gain weight and feel nauseated all the time, but somehow life kept moving forward.

Near the end of my undergraduate coursework, I had the idea to pursue a master’s degree in social work. I held onto a furtive hope that I might be able to vindicate myself from all this psychiatric mistreatment and prevent others from going through what I did to get help. To my astonishment, I was accepted into the MSW program to which I applied, despite a substandard transcript and no concrete plan for my future.

Having finally achieved something entirely for myself, I decided it was time to take ownership of my recovery. The summer before I started classes, I intentionally tapered off all my meds, carefully and secretly. I threw myself into graduate school with full force, making up for all the years of underachievement and missed opportunity. Miraculously, I thrived! For the first time, I learned that I was not alone on my journey. I discovered that all the best healers have been through things – whether it be personal experience with the child welfare system, homelessness, or addictions – which draw them to this work. A lot of us were the “different” kids who served in-school suspensions or required the regular intervention of a counselor. These connections with other survivors are what ultimately gave me new reasons to keep going. They drowned out the voices in my head telling me that nothing mattered and that I didn’t deserve to live. They gave me hope.

I graduated last May, was named Student of the Year, and landed an incredible job shortly thereafter. I am now living the dream I never knew was inside me.

* * * * *

Back in the bathroom stall at work, I roll up my sleeves and trace the thin, pale scars on my forearms. I doubt anyone even notices them anymore. I unlock the door and step into the fluorescent light. I splash water on my face as I clean myself up and lean in close to examine my reflection. She has bloodshot eyes, but this girl in the mirror will pass for a professional.

I turn on my heel and march back to my supervisor’s office. He invites me in and I start to explain. I don’t share all the details, but I tell him what I know for sure:

I have come to understand that there is something different about me, some quality that makes it harder to cope. I feel the sensation of things more deeply than most. When I am content, I fly higher and laugh louder. When confronted with adversity, my body is swiftly wracked with insurmountable heartache and fear. And when I fall into that negative tailspin of emotions, I am more likely than others to act impulsively and hurt myself.

Framing it as strength is more helpful than viewing it as illness, because I have come to believe that these struggles will always be part of my life. Call it bipolar, or borderline, or the up-down spirit of the tortured artist – I am tired of living on someone else’s terms. I know now that these experiences make me the person I am today. They are not events of which I should feel ashamed or attempt to hide from others. Instead, they are gifts which allow me to empathize and connect deeply with the people I serve. I am truly privileged to have a second chance at life. I am fortunate to come to work each day with an opportunity to alleviate even the smallest bit of human suffering and to advocate for broader social change.

It occurs to me in this moment that I am not an imposter. I was meant to be here.

The tears fall, and I let them. It feels so liberating to finally speak my truth.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Emily,

    I am full of admiration for you. I just wish I had had somebody like you to talk to many years ago when I was struggling with what most pros would have diagnosed as psychosis. instead I had to deal with an ignoramus who had no idea what I was coping with and had absolutely no listening skills. Don’t change, and keep up the good work!

    Bless you,
    Mary Newton

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  2. Beautiful sense of self articulated here. Thank you for sharing your truth, and for embracing yourself fully, light and shadow. I believe that when we are able to achieve this level of self-acceptance, then we are more understanding of others, because we are embracing our own inner diversity, so in turn, we can better embrace diversity in our communities and world. We are not only of different genders, races, ethnicities, and cultures, we are also all of various temperaments, coping strategies, and beliefs. You’re an excellent example to your co-workers and clients.

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  3. Thank you very much Emily – Your experiences must have been excruciating but very worthwhile for me to hear.

    If a pliers were used it still would not be possible to get me to say what I am (and I’m not too special) – but in a mutual support group I can probably talk about anything.

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  4. Anxiety > the “meds” > the hospital > more stronger pills

    Anxiety sucks, I had it bad but I never found a pill to get rid of it at least not for long till I was dependent then in the end I get the addict label. I guess I was one at that point depending how you define it.

    I can’t even count or remember the number of times I was in the hospital but I talked to enough people to notice very few people ever get hospitalized BEFORE they get “a little help balancing things out”.

    Clonopin and Remeron then either Adderal and Zyprexa came next till it was all 4 ! Then more ‘episodes’ and hospitals. D/C this pill add those ones…

    I had my problems for sure but I was never even close to the inside of a psychiatric facility till I got “a little help balancing things out” and became severely unbalanced and then got more ‘help’.

    Anyway I do a similar sort of thing now but I volunteer at a recovery center informing them my survivor knowledge of how psychiatric “keep you sick” works. I can listen to a client and very often I know the psychiatric mistreatment story that brought them to the place before they are done telling me. Then comes real informed consent they never got before with my epic fact filled anti psychiatry rant and my story. I call it paying it forward cause a survivor I met along the way explained it and saved me.

    Thanks Emily ! Great recovery story and keep paying it forward.

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      • Of course anti-anxiety drugs promote anxiety. They’re all addictive, so if you’re on them any length of time you’ll start suffering withdrawal symptoms- drug-induced anxiety being the initial “tell” that you’re going into withdrawal. The Orthomolecular Health website promotes a combination of nutrients to use for anxiety reactions instead of drugs, featuring B vitamins, especially niacinamide, magnesium salts and Omega-3’s, a program much preferable to the addictive benzos, which require months of withdrawal, being fat-soluble.

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  5. Great story Emily. And very nice to hear that you are now helping other people as a social worker. From experience I know how suffering oneself gives a great attunement and perceptiveness to what other people in crises / in psychotic or borderline mental states are going through, and how to respond to them.

    Even though I’ve read about it so many times, I continue to be surprised every time I read about how poorly and inadequately our mental health system responds to people’s crises. Even many outpatient therapists are so poorly educated that they believe there is a disease called BPD that people either “have” or “don’t have.”

    I would like to invite you to check out my story, “How Risk-Taking Promotes Recovery from BPD”… I wouldn’t write about it in the same way now, since I believe less in the validity of labels like BPD, seeing it more as a developmental metaphor or meaningless label than an illness. But the risks I took in my getting well sound similar to some things you did:

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  6. My take: It might be interesting to explore Emily’s childhood … but only if Emily thinks it’s interesting. Let’s stop and listen to her take on why her life took the path it did.

    Emily, I was really captivated by your essay, and I think you have come by some hard-earned wisdom. Although about twice your age, I am just getting there myself. What makes us who we are, for better or for worse? Are there “constitutional” factors that are hard-wired somehow, or is it childhood experience? We don’t know. I had some childhood traumas of my own — but I shared them all with my sister, who nonetheless grew up utterly unlike me. And long before the traumas came along, I knew in my bones: Many things that came naturally to my sister would always be a struggle for me.

    Either way, I’ve decided to rebel against the goal of Total Remission, currently so beloved by psychiatry. I don’t know if Total Remission exists, but I do know the search for it leads to dangerous excesses. Especially drug excesses — but “psychotherapeutic” excesses can be demoralizing and debilitating as well. At a certain point I gotta say: Screw Remission. Like Popeye, “I yam what I yam,” and I just need to find a way to be the best me I can be.

    Abe Lincoln never mastered the Power of Positive Thinking either — he endured spells of deep melancholy all the days of his life. Could any modern mental-health professional have helped him? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m grateful, at any rate, that they were not around to convince us all that he was too sick to be President.

    Thanks, Emily.

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    • This is a seriously beautiful and heartfelt comment, Johanna. I know I appreciated taking it in, especially when I got to, “Like Popeye, ‘I yam what I yam,’ and I just need to find a way to be the best me I can be.” I call that masterful permission to be. And what an utter relief that is!

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    • “Total Remission” would imply there is some mysterious disease process that needs to be “cured” in people who have life problems… this ridiculous, simplistic concept is totally nonapplicable to the complexity and interpenetrating, interpersonal nature of people’s relational/functional problems.

      As Gerald Adler once said to me in Boston, “No one gets completely better, but we can get better enough to live well.”

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    • Good comment. I think there is a subtle but important message that we need to get from parents or from others, which is “you’re just as human as I am, and you’re a real person just like me.” We really need to be “one of” and “ourselves.”

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  7. Why label yourself as anything else but you, a one of a kind and unique individual who knows from experience what it is to experience distress and pain. I see no need to label yourself as borderline or bi-polar or any of those other less than helpful diagnoses.

    You are a social worker who has expertise by experience rather than expertise by theory. And you have discovered one of the oldest and most important things to be found in medicine and that is, only the wounded healer heals. By being open to being vulnerable for others and by your willingness to use your fragility as a human being, you can reach out to others as you walk with them in their journey of healing. You might find a book by a Dutch priest named Henri Nouwen to be helpful. The title is The Wounded Healer.

    Thank you for sharing your story. There are many parts of it that I can identify very deeply and strongly with. I too always thought of myself as a person who had very little to give to the world. Strange as it sounds, it was my time in the state “hospital” that enabled me to realize that this was far from the truth. This discovery is one of the reasons that I became a peer worker. Thank you again for sharing your story. And always remember that you can be an infinite well of healing for yourself and others as you go about your daily work. You will find your won healing the more that you allow yourself to open to others and walk with them in their healing.

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  8. Emily,
    Your story reminds me of my own, having spent most of my 20s & 30s in & out of hospitals, struggling with severe clinical/suicidal depression, being tried on various medications, gaining weight from meds, weaning off meds, having a severe psychotic reaction doing so (but of course was just told “I was getting sick again”). So many difficult years. I also experienced the loneliness & isolation after dropping out of college, feelling shame and a failure until I came to acceptance of myself, which was slow & gradual. I found myself comforted by my gift for singing & playing guitar. It brought me much serenity & happy times with friends. Then I became a Peer Specialist for many years, working with others to offer help in their struggle & discovered strength & purpose in being a “wounded healer”. I am so glad that you have found a calling in helping others. Sometimes the passage of time heals or we go through something for a reason. It’s fortunate when we come out of it on the other side. I feel for those that do not have that outcome, but if we can make a difference while we’re on our small journey, it’s a beautiful thing. Thank you for sharing your story.
    Camille S.

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  9. Hi Emily, if you could magically talk to a younger version of yourself what would you tell her?

    I don’t believe in drugging away your problems and I think you don’t either. What would you recommend to someone else having extreme ups and downs?

    I seem to be numb most of the time, till I start to taper my effexor. Then I alternate between numb, rotten, and really suicidal. It’s like all the bad stuff I used to feel comes back as bad or worse than ever with none of the good feelings. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel good again.

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