Returning to my southern roots helped me cope with mental illness

Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.

By Laura Watts

I was 21, and it was summer in Alabama.

That April, a tornado outbreak devastated the state. My hometown of Birmingham had been shaken to its very core, and me along with it.

A large oak tree had fallen through my former bedroom directly into my parents’ room moments after they’d fled to the basement to escape the storm raging outside. Had I not been away at school, I most likely would have been killed by the fallen tree. This was my first brush with death, and the first time I’d nearly lost people I loved.

Seeing my childhood home stripped to its studs made me feel empty in a way that surprised me. This was a place I’d wanted to leave so badly, a place I’d snuck out from in the middle of the night only a few years earlier. This was a place where I felt suffocated.

That fall, I would return to school in Indiana for my senior year, only to suffer from heartache and hopelessness. I went through a bad breakup with my college boyfriend who I was living with at the time, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was lost.

I spent holidays at home wrapped up in an unhealthy relationship with a guy I went to high school with. I partied. I did everything I could to distract myself from what was really going on in my life.

When I graduated and got offered a job even farther from home, I took it without a second thought. This was my chance to start over. To escape the mess I’d made in Indiana and leave behind the wreckage in Birmingham.

I was 23, and it was winter in Cleveland, and I was right in the middle of losing my damn mind.

Even though I’d grown up in Alabama, I had experienced winter before. I’d spent the last four years living in a Midwestern town that was blanketed in snow three months out of the year. But this time it was different. This was the kind of cold you felt inside your bones. This was the kind of cold you couldn’t shake even after hours inside.

And just like the cold, the darkness began to strangle me, slowly but surely choking the life out of me. I stayed in bed all day, often without eating. I was prescribed heavy drugs, and I stopped hanging out with friends. At night I’d wake up, shaking, gasping for air as waves of panic shot through me. These were anxiety attacks, I was later told. I had them often.

But no one seemed to understand where these episodes came from. Depression is for people with abusive pasts and addicted children. One look at my perfect life, and even I knew that my mental illness looked like a characteristic I’d developed out of boredom.

After that, everything spiraled. I looked forward to death the way some people looked forward to a long weekend or the end of a visit with their in-laws. I daydreamed about stepping off my sixth floor balcony, but it was too cold to go outside, even for sudden death. After months of feeling helpless, I knew it was time to go home.

I was 24, and it was spring this time.

I moved back into my childhood home, sick and exhausted from my six-year stint in the Midwest. My parents did my laundry, cooked my food, and made sure I got out of bed. It was the comforts of home that I so craved, and the only thing that kept me alive in those early days.

Moving back to Birmingham forced me to face my past in a way I didn’t realize I needed. I’d told myself I’d never come back when I left after high school. I wanted to escape the dark days that I’d experienced since I was a child, and I thought I could leave all that behind by simply…leaving. But when the deterioration of my mental health only accelerated living in the Midwest, it became clear to me that I was running from the wrong thing.

I cried most days. I missed my friends. I missed my life from before. But I knew that things would never be the same.

This is not a story with a happy ending. They say it gets better, and it does. But some days there is only darkness. Some days I’m fighting for my life.

Every six weeks, it’s a new pill that will either make you stronger or crazier. And sometimes not knowing what’s going to happen is the worst part. Not knowing whether or not you are going to be dependent on antidepressants for the rest of your life. Not knowing if tomorrow will be worse. Not knowing what mental illness will take from you next.

Although as a society, we’re talking about it more than ever, mental illness still comes with a stigma. And growing up in the South, that stigma seemed magnified to me. It seemed like everyone I knew was getting married and having children in their early twenties. Everyone seemed happy. They had the white picket fence and I had an anxiety disorder. I wanted a partner, but I had to learn to love myself first. I wanted children, but I didn’t know if postpartum depression would take me to my darkest place yet.

And after years of therapy and hours of listening to unsolicited advice, I’ve learned that I can’t solve my illness with yoga or happy thoughts. But reconnecting with my roots has become an important part of recovery. By coming home, I finally wasn’t running anymore.

Laura Watts is a Birmingham, Alabama, native who works in user experience design, but her first love was telling people’s stories. She has called Indiana and Ohio home over the years, but nothing compares to the Magic City. 

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