You Are Not Alone in Mental Illness


claire colvin -youre not alone in mental illness-3

I was bullied, from Grade 6 through to the middle of Grade 11. There was a group of guys who made it their mission to make my life hell. They told me I was ugly and stupid and that no one liked me, and no one would ever love me. They said it every single day. I believed them. I took their words on as my identity. I saw myself the way they saw me, and it was devastating.

I didn’t know back then that depression and anxiety ran in my family. Every family has stories they don’t tell. In my family the thing we didn’t talk about was mental health. I was an adult before I found out that my mom had ever dealt with anxiety or that her dad had at times been paralyzed by it.

The main thing I wish I had known back then is this: I am not alone. I felt alone, but I wasn’t. I felt like I didn’t have any options, but I did have options. I just couldn’t see them. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help. It took me years, but when I finally did ask, help came rushing in. It changed everything.

There’s an author named Jenny Lawson who writes a lot about her journey with depression. She said something I remind myself about all the time:

Depression lies.

Depression says we are alone. It tells us we have no value. It says things will always be as bad as they are now and nothing will ever get better. Depression tries to convince us things actually are as bad as we feel they are. It tells us we are trapped and unworthy and we have less value than other people who seem to always do and say the right things.

None of this is true, but when your brain is lying to you, it feels like the truth. As a teen I didn’t have a vocabulary for mental health. I didn’t recognize the signs in myself and I didn’t see them when they showed up in a loved one. I was “quiet and moody” and he was “too emotional.” We know better now and as a family we do better. We talk about mental health now, but we didn’t then.

In literature there’s a concept called the unreliable narrator. It’s what happens when the person telling the story doesn’t tell the truth, or doesn’t tell all of the truth. It gives the reader a false view of what is happening and changes the way they feel about the characters in the story. I’m learning that sometimes my brain is an unreliable narrator. It gives me a false view of myself and a distorted idea of what is happening in my story.

The great privilege of age is that we learn about ourselves. We learn to recognize our own patterns and habits and along with that, we discover what works and what doesn’t. These days I am able to see the storms on my own horizons much faster. I know how to ask for help and I know both what helps and what is dangerous for me. I am healthier for it.

Recently I had a chance to write a letter to a 14-year-old girl who is dealing with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. It was so freeing to be able to tell my story boldly and know the words to say for what I needed her to hear. I told her how I felt when I was going through it and what I know for sure now that I’m an adult. I reminded her that we are made of stardust. We are beautiful and valuable and necessary. I reminded her that we are both part of what Tennyson called the “equal temper of heroic hearts.” I shared some of the tools I use to keep myself healthy and reminded her over and over that she is not alone.

Writing to this girl felt like coming full circle. My mom taught me what she knew about mental health as soon as she learned it. She was in her 50s when she found the words to tell her story. That meant I heard it in my late 20s. The girl I wrote to heard it in her early teens. Perhaps she will talk to her own future daughter about mental health right from the beginning.

I am so thankful my mom had the courage to tell me her story. I know she wishes she could have told it sooner. I am absolutely convinced she told it the first chance she got. The echoes of her courage have rippled out to me, and to this 14-year-old and far beyond that. Depression lies and tells us we are alone, but when we tell our stories, when we’re open and vulnerable in safe places, the truth wins every time.

Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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  1. Megan Gahan says:

    Jenny Lawson’s books saved me when I was in the midst of postpartum depression. They gave me language for what I was experiencing and made me LAUGH, which was honestly a miracle. I wish I received that language and knowledge earlier than when I was a year into it, but I am still profoundly grateful. You and I come from similar family backgrounds, so I relate to much of your experience growing up. I am beyond thrilled that you and your parents have made such progress in discussing mental health.

    Thank you for bravely sharing your story, my friend. I am so sorry for what you went through as a teenager. But you are turning that terrible experience into something beautiful and strong and profound; something that will go on to impact so many more than you know. Much love <3

    • Finding the language to recognize, describe and express our experiences is transformational. There was a grieving process for me in mourning the idea that things could have been different if I had known sooner, but after that I’m just grateful that I know now.

      I was listening to a story on NPR the other day that involved two brothers who were being abused my their stepfather. One of the brothers finally managed to tell their Dad what was happening and he takes immediate action. He calls the police. He calls Child Protective Services and the stepdad never has the opportunity to touch the boys again. It was something the older brother said that stays with me. “All I had to do was speak up. But I did not know how to form the words.” I know that that is not always the case. Some victims speak up and no one stands up for them. (It breaks my heart just to think of that.) But the older brother was telling this story years afterward, and his voice still cracked at the thought that he did not have the words. I wish I could tell him that it was not his fault. He was a child. Where in the world was he supposed to find them?

  2. Have I told you lately how wonderful you are? (I think I do it every month.) Thank you for opening up your life, so the generations that follow can walk in more and more and more Freedom. THIS.

  3. Taylor Phillips says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. How beautiful and freeing it is to simply know that you are not alone. I can’t wait to see the chains that fall off of those who battle this, just from your story. Blessings.

  4. Lynn Morrissey says:

    Thank you for telling your story. There is such strength in testimonies of victory. I wasn’t exactly bullied, but I was teased a lot as a young girl for being different…. for wearing my hair in a long braid down to my waist, not wearing the most fashionable clothes, wearing ugly brown Girl Scout shoes because my well-meaning father thought they were good for my feet, etc. Maybe teasing really is a form of bullying as I think about it. I came out of my awkward shyness, and became more confident. Just learning who we are helps. Just living out our gifts and talents helps (and we all have them from a young age). Having parents who lifted me up with constant encouragement and teachers did helped. I would go on to do well in school, garner leads in school musicals, grow out of tween gaucheness. All that helped. But for reasons unknown to me, I became suidically depressed in my late teens through early twenties. It was a dark, awful time. Rather than seek help (likely because depression was never spoken of), I went inward. It is only by the grace of God that I did not take my life. In His mercy, He reached out to me and gave me the gift of salvation, and so much changed in my life from that time forward through Christ’s strength and hope. As I spent time in His Word and journaled, He used these things to free me. But all that said, I think it would have helped tremendously to have understood, as I was later to discover, that depression was a part of my family’s history and that there might have been help we could have sought to help me understand this affliction, rather than hate myself for it (which I assuredly did). It would have helped me later to help my poor brother who went undiagnosed with a couple forms of mental illness for most of his adult life. A personal emergency in his life forced us to seek help for him at any cost. With proper counseling and medication, he is a new person. It wasn’t that we purposely neglected him; we just didn’t understand. What you are doing, Claire, is wonderful–telling your testimony and offering a helping hand to those who now suffer similarly in the way that you once did, to give hope and to show them that healing is real and possible. I’m so glad you reached out to that young girl! And I have found the power of words, whether through personal journaling or writing about your experiences in letters and essays also to be a key to overcoming depression. Writing is immensely cathartic. Thank you for reading my rambling words today. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi Lynn,

      Teasing is absolutely a form of bullying. it often gets passed off as “just making fun” but words matter and their effects can last a lifetime. I’m glad that your brother was able to get the help he needed. I know several people who sought out help as adults, and were finally accurately diagnosed and prescribed and the medications have been literally life-changing. (And in some cases, life-saving.)

      I wish that the church as a whole could do a better job of talking about mental health. About a decade ago the lead pastor of the church I was attending at the time spoke about his own struggles with mental health from the pulpit. I barely remembered to breathe the whole time he spoke. It was such a game changer to see someone who was a man of profound faith, scholarly, kind, and strong also say that he dealt with depression and talk about how his faith and his doctors worked together to keep him healthy. It was the first time I had ever seen a pastor do that and I’ve never forgotten it.

      I hope that we can be part of moving that conversation forward and making the church a safe place for all of our stories, as Jesus himself is surely a safe place for them.

  5. Justine Hwang says:

    I remember the day my mom finally named the depression she had felt for several years… a couple of decades after the fact. I’d heard her describe those years prior as very hard times, but I had never heard her use the word “depression.” And what a life giving conversation that was for her to name it — it was a gift to me because that conversation came when I was in a fog and didn’t have words to name it for myself. Thank you Claire for continuing the conversation.

    • There’s such a strong undercurrent of negativity – “not trying hard enough” or “weak” or “lazy” – that can run under depression when the depression itself is not named. I think about my Granddad sometimes, who lived his whole life without the words to describe his experience. What a difference it would have made for him to know that he wasn’t weak, his brain just needed some help. I’m so glad it’s a conversation we’re able to have now.

      • Justine Hwang says:

        Yes indeed… i can’t imagine the additional layers of pain from not having the words or the safe people to share it with. It pains me there is still so much stigma. I have several friends who won’t speak of it because of the stigma and fear of repercussions. And so, we keep talking about it and bringing the Light to it. Thanks again.

  6. I remember the day my oldest granddaughter finally had the words. She was 15. My husband thought she shouldn’t be talking about it to everyone, especially social media. We are from the generation that our lives /careers could have been effected by EVERYTHING. Praise God…No More. No more silence; no more hiding. Thank you Claire. xoxo

    • There’s wisdom in being selective in where we share of stories, but I am so glad that we CAN share them. I remember thinking that no one else was going through what I was going through. I look back at that now and realize that there were 1500 kids at my high school. There is NO WAY I was the only one.

  7. And what a beautiful full circle this is Claire. I am grateful for the safe places to share our stories. Yes, depression lies but truth wins!

  8. Thanks be to God that we are finally learning the health and strength that lies in truth telling. Generational secrets do nothing but muzzle grief and drive sin underground. What a blessing you are to that young woman who needed your story in order to live her own.

    • Generational secrets <– now there's the words for it. The letter I wrote is part of a project the girl's father is putting together. He's going to print them all out into a little book to give her to show her that she is not alone and that there are people who understand. What a beautiful thing to do.

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