Leslie Reflects On Her Struggles and Victories On World Mental Health Day
Today is World Mental Health Day. For most of my life, I have struggled with mental illness. In the past, I was ashamed of it and felt people would judge me, But, since I realized that my job and its platform could help others, I have been very vocal on the air and in my blogs, I have experienced many struggles and setbacks along with lots of victories. I am proud of my journey and I want to share it with you. Hopefully, through sharing my story, I can help you find hope and peace. I have posted it many times before, but if it can help you, even just a little bit, I will post it again and again.
Today and every day, we need to #breakthestigma because we've all had our moments of insanity. For most of my life, my moments were filled with excruciating anxiety. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety. Moments when, out of nowhere, I would be overcome with fear and dread. I would feel as if I couldn't breathe, my heart would race, my stomach would become nauseous and I would have the urge to run around screaming and yelling.
Let's start from the beginning...
My anxiety issues are part of my earliest memories. Starting at 3 or 4 years old, I have vague memories of dread and nervousness. Moments I can remember feeling like a couldn't breathe. At 5 years old, I started taking dance classes. Little did I know that one day dance and performance would save my life.
Yearly recitals would put me on stage in front of hundreds of people. In high school and college, I studied theatre and performed in several productions. I was ALWAYS the performer. When on stage, I could become someone else, not myself. For some reason, I felt more comfortable in someone else's skin than my own. I tried to escape my anxiety by throwing myself into a make-believe world and it worked. But, doing this was very dangerous. Trying to hide it and not dealing with the bully that was living inside me was only adding fuel to the growing fire.
After college, my days on stage came to an end when I married, in my mid-twenties, and became a mother to a beautiful baby girl. Soon after the birth of my daughter, a feeling that had plagued me even in childhood returned in full force. It stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't even take care of my baby. I'm talking 23 hrs of dread and fear a day. It was debilitating. I was afraid to leave my home. It was so bad I thought about ending it all by taking my own life. I once sat on my bed with a gun in my hand and another time I sat on the floor of my closet with a bottle of pills.
I HAD to get help. I found a great therapist and was diagnosed with a severe case of anxiety/panic disorder. At that moment, I started dealing with some serious issues in my life. One of the big issues for me was being sexually molested as a young child. I realized how ashamed I was and how much I hated myself. Although I felt good while going to therapy, I was a long way from leaving my demons behind me. I had to find the courage and strength to look my demons in the eye and stand strong to fight them.
All this time, no one around me knew how bad I was suffering. I could hide it VERY well. After all, I was an actress. I was so good at hiding it, during that time, I taught high school students about life, through theatre, and helped start a theatre company for their parents and others in the community. I even won awards for my impact on the community and my students. Nobody knew about my suffering, except my family and really close friends.
I didn't want anybody to know for fear that they would think I was crazy. My anxiety was like a vice grip, squeezing the life out of me. A huge victory in my battle came during my divorce. During that time, I WAS standing at the edge of the cliff of life...scared to death. What would I do? How could move forward while still in the clutches of my anxiety? I chose to use my fear to help in my healing.
Around that time, my theatre company was holding auditions for the musical, Chicago. I saw the musical as an opportunity to look anxiety directly in the face by doing something I had always feared, singing, by myself in front of an audience. It also offered a symbolic way of leaving my old life behind. So, I DID IT! I auditioned. The director gave me the role of Velma Kelly! What? She was the LEAD!!! I couldn't do that! Or could I? YES! I COULD!!
Opening night, before the show, I was nervous and shaking. I wanted to run but running meant going back to my former life. And, THAT was out of the question. So, I took a deep breath and walked up the steps of the set, stood behind the curtain ready to make my entrance. As I heard my cue, stepped out into the spotlight, started singing and dancing, it was at that moment, I got ME back. I owned that night...I finally owned my life, for the first time in my life.
I came out the other side, of Chicago, feeling victorious!! I was ready to start living again. Ready to move on from my past and step into a beautiful and loving future.
At almost 53, I feel happy, healthy, and stronger than ever. The last ten plus years have given me continued strength mixed with challenges, like the passing of my mom, my youngest son's accident that almost took his life, helping him with his own struggles with anxiety and depression, my daughter moving away, money issues and struggles within my marriage. But, I have remained strong.
At times though, simple daily struggles will sometimes throw me off. I realize that, even though I will always have Anxiety/Panic Disorder, but I CAN manage it. It's a part of me that has made me who I am. Weirdly, it has made me a better person.
Now, I focus on how blessed I am...
...and not the way's my mind tries to work against me. I practice deep focus techniques, deep breathing relaxation techniques and I'm even learning Transcendental Meditation.
But, all in all, I just take life one day at a time, focus on the positive and love the life I'm living. And, YOU can too! Don't give up, don't suffer alone. There IS help. Don't let the bully of anxiety rule your life. Find out ways to manage your Anxiety HERE!