My First Encounter with Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Last week, I found myself reflecting back to my earliest memories of mental illness. The first instance that came to mind probably occurred when I was around 11-years-old.

My mother was dating the man that would later become her husband. Brian had a son a few years younger than me and I remember my mom, Brian, his son, and I were in the car driving back from an outing.

As couples do, my mom and Brian had gotten into a disagreement about something. I’m sure it was something petty. We were all adjusting to becoming a blended family. Anyway, I remember tuning it out because I knew to stay out of grown folks’ business.

All of a sudden, Brian, who was riding shotgun said, “I need to go to the emergency room! I think I’m having a heart attack!” My mother drove straight to the ER.

At eleven, I had no understanding or experiences with mental illness. My 11-year-old mind surely thought, “This man is faking a heart attack to get out of this argument!”

In the ER, the doctor performed an EKG and confirmed that Brian was not having a heart attack. Come to find out, Brian had an extensive mental health history that included Bipolar II disorder, PTSD, and panic attacks.

Panic attacks?

I learned at that moment that there was a condition where a person can get so overwhelmed that they feel like they are having a heart attack!

Years later, when I was in undergrad, I began to experience several panic attacks daily. I underwent my own mental health treatment, which included medication and therapy to manage the symptoms. That pivotal season in my life was what inspired me to continue my education in graduate school to earn my counseling degree.

A few years ago, I had a number of great conversations with Brian when I was in grad school and as I went through my counseling residency. It truly felt like the aforementioned experiences had come full-circle when I was able to use my insights gained to talk with him about mental health.

This Saturday would have been Brian’s 46th birthday. On July 4th, 2017, Brian ironically suffered from a major heart attack which took his life. Due to his mental health history and the psychotropic medications that he was taking, the examiners initially thought that this was a suicide or overdose attempt. Months later, the autopsy confirmed that those assumptions were incorrect.

I’m sharing this story to normalize common misunderstandings and stigma about mental illness. I also wanted to honor Brian during Mental Health Awareness Month and on the week of his birthday.

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