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You Have What? Miss Columbia Shares Struggle with Mental Illness

A tattoo. Yes, I have a tattoo. The first thing people usually say to me when they realize I do is: “You don’t seem like the type of person to have one.” Now I know I’m not the most adventurous person in the room, but having a tattoo doesn’t make you this ultimate rebel. In fact, most tattoos aren’t there to send a “don’t mess with me” message, they are there to tell a story. And that’s exactly what mine does.

syd tattooI was asked in my Miss South Carolina interview: “You seem pretty close to perfect. You are smart and you are beautiful, but what would you say to someone who says you are perfect?” I’m assuming the judge thought I would give a story about how I would change my height, how I have an annoying laugh or how I really wish my hair had more volume. But I didn’t.

I told the judges about how my life hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies. How I lost my dad at ten years old and it changed me. How I’ve lost seven immediate family members, a woman who was basically an honorary grandmother, and several friends. All that loss and I’m only 21. But I also shared with them that the pain I have experienced in my life is what has made me who I am. I let them know that it hasn’t been easy; in fact, sometimes it’s been a huge struggle, but I’ve fought to get to where I am today.

And that is exactly what my tattoo represents, my fight and my escape.

If you don’t know me well (and not many people do) then you wouldn’t know that I have generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Everyone in the world seems to shiver when you use the term mental illness, and they automatically assume you are crazy. But that’s what it is, and it took me a while to realize what was happening to me and how to fight it.

When I lost my dad at 10 years old I thought I grieved just like I was supposed to. I went through denial, I was angry and I cried. I didn’t really talk to anyone about my emotions because let’s be honest, how does a 10-year-old child communicate the loss of one member of their small family of three? So I mostly kept it bottled in and went about my life, slowly moving on from the worst thing I had ever experienced.

quote-on-stigma-health-86-healthyplaceI can remember the first time my panic attack became something I just couldn’t ignore. I know looking back now that I had panic attacks when I was younger, before my dad even died, but it seemed that his death had hit a trigger. A trigger that made it so my anxiety didn’t truly hit me until my senior year of high school, when I was driving home from a tumbling class. I remember merging onto the interstate, and then suddenly couldn’t breathe. I was surrounded by cars. I couldn’t get off any time soon. I thought I was going to wreck and die.

I would like to say that I knew immediately what was happening to me, and that it got better. But it didn’t. In fact it got worse. Much worse. After that one panic attack, they seemed to magnify. I would typically have five or so panic attacks a day. One would always hit me in AP Calculus and I would sit there and try to breathe or distract myself. Another around lunch time when I sat in a crowded cafeteria. Usually one or two throughout the afternoon either in the hallway or in a class. And there was always one after school and at night when I realized how much my life was falling apart.

It’s hard when you are a perfectionist and one who is determined to achieve her dreams, and you begin to experience something you don’t understand. Something that could ruin it all. Most days I thought I was dying, and slowly but surely a thought crept into my head. What if I could never make this go away? How could I have the career I wanted? Nobody would ever want to marry me or be my friend. I couldn’t have a family, I couldn’t chase my dreams and I would never live through this. I wish I could say there weren’t times when I wanted to die, but there were. It wasn’t going away and it wasn’t getting better.

I continued applying to the college I wanted to go to, the University of South Carolina, even though I thought how could I ever leave home when I can’t go out in public without being able to breathe? I was certain there was no way I could survive college, but the overachiever in me was going to push myself do it anyway. I fell into a depression and never really left my home except for school and dance. I actually ended up quitting a few dance classes, and if you know me you know this would never happen if I wasn’t just so sick. But I was.

I drug through life for months. Crying, sleeping as much as possible, not being able to breathe and worrying every second of my life. One day, my mom sat me down and said something so simple, yet so profound. “I’ve raised you right,” she said. “But it’s time for you to leave the nest. Go and spread your wings.”

birdcage_iconAt the time I thought, “Oh, how I wish I could. How I wish I could break free of this cage that I feel like I am in.”

I was going to therapy, like everyone suggests, and I was trying to talk through what was going on in my head. I could feel myself slowly accepting why I was feeling this way, and this would sometimes lessen the effects of my panic for just a few days. Despite all of my inner turmoil, I managed to graduate third in my class, get accepted early decision to USC and join the Capstone Scholars program there. I fought through my summer of continuous panic and packed my bags to head to Columbia.

For the most part my anxiety seemed to fade my first semester. I was excited to meet new people and start a new adventure. I would have panic attacks in some classes, but this was something I was used to at this point, so I would just try to distract myself and make it through the lecture. I joined a sorority and other organizations where I earned higher positions, I got a 4.0 and I made friends along with becoming close with some of my professors. I didn’t get punched in the gut until I returned second semester, right after Christmas break.

The night I returned to Capstone Hall for my second semester of my freshman year of college was a night I will never forget. I was in my friend Miranda’s room and my panic became so bad I hit the floor. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think and all I knew was that it was back, worse than ever. Terror consumed my body and I couldn’t identify what it was I was afraid of. I wanted to die. It’s hard to hear and it’s hard to say, but at that point I would rather my life have ended than to have to deal with suffering through it every day, all over again.

I called my mom, and she was terrified. What mother wouldn’t be when their child says she wants to die? I went back home that weekend, and we went to the doctor. I had prayed every day for the past two years for a miracle. Dropped to my knees (literally) and cried, begging God to make it go away. I wondered why He was taking so long to answer my prayers. Why wasn’t He helping me? But a miracle came in the form of Dr. Egge.

When a doctor walks into a room to a bawling teenage girl and her mother, he probably wonders what he has done in life to deserve this. But Dr. Egge never flinched. You see, Dr. Egge’s brother committed suicide when he was younger, and after that he spent his life studying medicine for patients with anxiety and depression. He had an idea of something he thought would work, and said the one thing I needed to hear, “If this doesn’t work then we will try something else. If that doesn’t, then we will try another thing. We will find an answer, just don’t give up.” That was all I needed to hear. There were options, we could find something to make this go away.

My honors cords and my tattoo, a symbol of the fight I endured in high school and college, but a fight I won.

My honors cords and my tattoo, a symbol of the fight I endured in high school and college, but a fight I won.

I wish I could say I took one pill and it all magically disappeared. But we all know it doesn’t work quite like that. I do know that at some point I looked back and I hadn’t had a panic attack in a few days. A few days became a few weeks. And a few weeks became a few months. There were still days where I could feel it bubbling beneath the surface, but my medicine gave me the ability to feel it coming and put a stop to it before it erupted.

It was the beginning of my junior year in college  (which also happened to be my senior year because somehow I magically was able to graduate a year early while dealing with all of this) and I realized I had done it. I had spread my wings, and finally I was soaring. I had a 4.0 GPA and was applying to law school. I had survived leaving home and knew that next year I would be going to a new city, but I wasn’t afraid. I had fought my way through something I thought would destroy me, and I made it out on top. I was flying.

My tattoo shows just that. It’s a daily reminder that I can do anything I set my mind to, despite the overwhelming obstacles. So yes, I have a tattoo, and maybe that makes me a heathen. But to me, it’s a battle scar. A symbol of pain, but also a symbol of courage, bravery and determination. I know I am a fighter. And I know I am a survivor.

As for the reason I have three birds instead of just one, it’s for my little family. Me, my mom, and my dad. I was able to escape the cage that held me back, but I learned from watching the best fight their own obstacles and fly. While one flew to heaven (the reason the top one is turned in a different direction than the other two), the other is still behind me, pushing me to do my best and keep going (the bottom one). And the middle one, the one that has its wings out wide. That’s me. Ready to fly as high as I can and take on anything that comes my way.

If you know someone suffering with a mental illness I encourage you to check out https://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/friends-family-members/.

I want to thank the people who loved me through my struggle and those who aren’t afraid to fight the stigma behind mental illness.

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