A young survivor’s message of strength from the Hampton Roads Morning of Hope

Isabelle Kessler at the Hampton Roads Morning of Hope, Help and Healing at Mount Trashmore Park on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

VIRGINIA BEACH — Sharing a story of hope is something I never thought I would be able to do. That is exactly the reason why I write – to share with you the uphill battle it took for me to become the young woman capable of proudly pronouncing her heart that I am now.   

At 16, I was the poster child of depression. It hurt to stand – to walk, talk, breathe, to look someone in the eyes. Each morning I awoke in disappointment that I had not died in the night. 

I wore my dad’s blue and gold ski jacket with puffy sleeves and a giant hood to hide in at school. I hid in my geometry classroom during lunchtime so no one would see me. At home, I retreated into my room without a word uttered to my parents. I sat and stared at the walls in silent suffering and choking loneliness. I lived alone in the world. 

Some adolescents may cut themselves. Others may burn. My form of self-harm was self-loathing. I berated myself for existing. “Weak,” I scolded myself. “Wrong. … Mentally retarded. … Everybody hates you.”  This was the soundtrack of my life-threatening depression. 

I probably would not be standing here today had I not let my school counselor see the countless tears streaming down my face under the hood of my ski-jacket. I can still feel in my hand the suicide note I wrote, which spoke of the happiness in death. 

It felt like I lived years within the time I spent at Riverside Behavioral Health Center. I met Ms. Sonia, my dear mentor throughout the process of my recovery. I consider that time to be when I dared to tinker with the impossibility of happiness. 

I was crippled by sadness when I began therapy. I could not concentrate, and I found no joy in activities I previously enjoyed. My body was fatigued, without motivation to live. 

The poet Anaïs Nin once wrote,  “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Piece by piece, I learned to love myself. I labored to identify and validate my emotions. The first time I looked in the mirror and saw a beautiful flower, I begged the mental voice of self-compassion not to leave my side. “Stay,” I whispered. Tears streamed down my face. “Please stay.” 

I committed myself to learning the skill set of effective communication. I remember the first time I spoke to my parents again – this time candidly – after seven long months. I reached out to my peers. I practiced mindfulness. I began to look for the small moments of goodness. I taught myself to walk again on broken legs and to give love again from a broken heart.

It is not just anyone that is given the chance to become a hero. I walked the walk of the emotional warrior until I was empowered to save myself. 

Those who suffer from mental health issues deserve no stigma. They deserve praise. Psychological suffering is as real a wound as any physical scar, and it deserves a cultural validation that it so rarely gets. 

The heart that it takes to go on is brave, but it is not just brave. A certain kind of brave. The kind of bravery defined by the ability to fall in love with the unfamiliar, the unknown, alien uncharted terrain. 

Those who have suffered know what I am talking about. I speak of the kind of bravery that fights for not a cause but a concept. A cause is too much when someone is fighting depression. How could I have fought for happiness when I did not know what happiness was? I could not recollect what happiness was, and therefore it was not a cause that I was fighting for, because that would have required me to have experienced it. It took a deeper kind of bravery, the kind of bravery that fights for a concept unbeknownst to her and yet chooses to believe in it nevertheless. I was fighting for the very existence of happiness, because I did not know if it was real. 

You may feel alone. You may feel hopeless, but there is an opportunity to become a hero in that hopelessness. Without hopelessness, there comes no opportunity to become the glorious torch-bearer of hope that you are destined to be. Come as you are. Reach out. Ask for help. Hang on for the night. 

To the ear of someone who is suffering, the language that surrounds you may seem incoherent, incomprehensible. Words of joy. Expressions of life. It may seem like describing color to the blind. But like any language, it is learnable. I am living proof that it is. 

There is hope in the most hopeless of situations. If I can do it, you can. You are a beautiful flower worth watering, and so am I. Wherever faith is planted, something beautiful can bloom. Don’t quit before the miracle happens.

Kessler, 19, is from Bristow, Va. She is studying social work to make a difference in the lives of those who suffer from mental illness. This is adapted from remarks during the Morning of Hope, Help and Healing on Saturday, Sept. 9, at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach. The event seeks to raise awareness about depression and suicide. Learn more online via hamptonroadssos-hope.org/moh/.

Photo © 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC/ Text used with permission

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