“I was always a happy child. Even though my parents divorced when I was four months old and my mother and I were basically on our own, I was always so happy. When my father remarried, I was quite young. I don’t even remember meeting his wife before they were married. I guess I never thought anything of it, but now I find it a little odd. They had my brother when I was five and my sister when I was seven.
My mother remarried when I was six, and I remember very well the events leading up to that. In all honesty, I was devastated. I sobbed uncontrollably at the wedding, telling my mother it was because I was just so happy when, in truth, I was very upset. I didn’t get along with my stepdad then, and I still don’t get along with him now. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say all of these factors played a role in my struggle with anxiety and depression, but I didn’t understand it at the time.
When I was in 7th grade, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD and was put on a rather large dose of medication. And while my ability to focus on school and get my work done improved, my mood only worsened. My mother has made a comment later in my life that I was like a zombie. I don’t think I really noticed it then, but I’m sure she is correct. When I was 16, entering my junior year of high school, I decided I needed a change. I asked my dad, who lived in Colorado Springs, if I could finish out high school with him. He seemed happy I wanted to permanently join his family, and I was very excited. The summer was fine, and the school year started well, but then my dad’s health began to decline.
For reference, a few years prior, my father was struck by an IED (improvised explosive device) when he was deployed in Afghanistan. The damage was intense, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury, but he recovered quickly and carried on with life as usual.
Back to 2010, my dad began experiencing severe stomach pains. After some tests, they discovered copious amounts of scar tissue in his small intestine, more than likely from the IED. From here, he had to be hospitalized for a while, and life at home changed. My stepmother was bitter, and she only became more bitter without my dad there. She lost her patience so quickly with my younger siblings and often had outbursts of anger and even rage.
I tried my best to be as unproblematic as possible, but that didn’t stop her from taking her anger out on me as well. I remember one time she told me she had a terrible relationship with her first husband’s daughter, so therefore she would have a terrible relationship with me. That kind of set the stage for how things would go from there. One time, she lost her wedding ring and was convinced I stole them. She contacted her insurance and wanted me to take a lie detector test to prove my innocence. Even though that never happened, I began to dread coming home.
The best time of day was when I would be dropped off at school. And when I was in the car headed home (my best friend’s mother would drop me off), I would start having mild anxiety attacks. My chest would tighten, and I would fight back tears, pretending everything was okay. My brother began making up lies about things I had done to further pit my stepmother against me. He had a pimple on his chin, for example, and my dad popped it, leaving a little scab. He told my stepmother I had pushed him down causing the mark, and she began screaming at me, in the middle of the hospital parking lot, to never touch her son ever again.
But it wasn’t just my own treatment that hurt me. It was the way she screamed and cursed at her own children. My sister was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and my brother had ADHD, and they were rowdy kids. They struggled with math just as I had, and my stepmother was not well equipped to handle them. Looking back, I feel for her, as I am now a mother, but I also know she could have controlled her anger a bit better.
Anyway, by the end of the semester, I knew I couldn’t stay there any longer. The last straw was Christmas. I had tried so hard to find her a meaningful gift, and I was so proud of what I found. Her gift to me was a self-help book on how to not lie. I was so hurt. That was when I decided to go back to my mom. I remember taking my withdrawal sheet to all my teachers and having them sign it. It was an emotional time because I’d developed great relationships with all my teachers and with many of the students. I still have a couple of really great friends from that year, and I miss them dearly.
My mom and stepdad drove from Texas to Colorado to bring me home, and I cried the whole drive. I felt like I’d given up, but I knew I needed to get away from that toxic situation. Flash forward to my senior year, 2011-2012, and my dad suffered a massive stroke while he was training for his next deployment. This was not an injury from which he would easily recover. This time, the damage was permanent.
I went with my mom to visit him in the hospital over Thanksgiving break, and it was heartbreaking. They had to remove half of his skull to relieve the swelling in his brain. Regardless, my dad was in high spirits. He was joking and laughing, mostly coherent. After this, he was transferred to a residential rehab facility. My mom and I made a trip after graduation to see him, and it was a really wonderful visit. That was the last time I saw him. In July 2022, it will have been 10 years.
The next step in my life was college. The first half of the first semester went fairly smoothly. Until my boyfriend and I broke up. That was my first big breakup, and I was utterly heartbroken. I became severely depressed and completely lost myself. I couldn’t eat, I slept all the time, I started skipping classes. I lost 13 pounds in two weeks. I had a few friends who tried really hard to bring me out of my shell, and that did help. I slowly began to come back to life, and eventually, I was back to ‘normal.’
By my second year, I was starting to feel down again. I couldn’t exactly say why, I just felt sad. The counseling center on my campus had a depression screening available during mental health week, and I decided to see what it was all about. My screening came back ‘mild to severe depression.’ I wasn’t surprised, but I really didn’t know what to do with that information. So, I just continued on the path.
In 2013, my grandfather unexpectedly passed, and that was hard. I’d never lost anyone close to me. I tried to lean on my boyfriend at the time for support, but he was largely apathetic. Eventually, I dropped out of school. I got a couple of jobs and worked myself to the bone. It was a good distraction, but I was still depressed. I quit one of the jobs and started full time at the other and still nothing changed. I tried going back to school, but I couldn’t focus, so I withdrew again. I worked fast food and hated it. I worked retail and hated it. I went back to fast food.
My mom became so worried that, when I was 22, she enrolled me in a phlebotomy program. I was working at a gas station part-time, so I had a full plate, but I was beginning to enjoy it. And after my final certification exam, which I passed, I found out I was pregnant. I was scared, but I was excited. My boyfriend was also excited. We kept working and started saving and moved into a house on our own. When I told my family, my mother was disappointed, and my stepdad completely cut me off. I was mostly understanding since they are very conservative and disapproved of my boyfriend and me being unmarried. My boyfriend tried to get in my stepdad’s good graces, but he would only speak down to him.
Eventually, we did get married, and two weeks later, we welcomed our beautiful baby boy. My now husband was encouraged to go back to school, so he did that. He worked and went to school while I stayed home with our newborn. I was suddenly very alone and very sad. I loved my baby, but I couldn’t shake this feeling. I was only on pregnancy Medicaid, so I didn’t feel like I could seek help, and my doctor was pretty dismissive of me when I was pregnant, so that only discouraged me from trusting her. So, I suffered in silence.
Then, when my son turned one, I put him in part-time daycare and started taking classes again. I was very undecided, so I was taking a hodgepodge of courses, but one stuck out the most. That course was what lead me to my passion for criminal justice. That fall, I put my son in full-time daycare and began taking classes on campus, and I felt revived. I even got a job on campus. That lasted until spring break of 2020. The pandemic hit, and I was stuck at home again. And this time I didn’t have the ability to get two days free. My son and I were cooped up all day every day, and I still had classes. That was a struggle, but I did it, and I got my associate’s degree that August.
In January of 2021, I was able to send my son to a daycare close by, and I also started school online at Sam Houston State University. I felt good again. But I knew I couldn’t keep going back and forth with this feeling of absolute dread to whatever this good feeling was. In March, my dad and stepmom found out about my son. I felt awful for not telling them, but I could never bring myself to reach out to her since she was the ultimate gatekeeper of my relationship with my disabled father.
I sucked it up and I called her. She immediately attacked me and made me out to be the villain. And yes, I know I kept an entire life a secret, but I was protecting myself from further pain. She and I had a long talk (that turned into a yelling match) about how her treatment of me impacted me for the rest of my life, and she refused to take any responsibility, instead blaming 16-year-old me. I spoke to my dad after for about 5 minutes, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even remember he’s a grandpa.
The next thing that pushed me to seek professional help was when I’d finally had enough of my stepdad’s blatant disrespect of me. He takes immense joy in criticizing everything about me, from the fact I’m in school to the way my hair looks. He’s even made comments about my 3-year-old’s weight. My son is very healthy and is roughly 35 pounds, but my stepdad likes to tell him he’s fat. That brings up terrible memories of when he would tell me I was fat, even after I’d lost weight during my biggest depressive episode. The last time he commented on my son’s weight, I had the courage to say something, but I still hadn’t found the strength to stand up for myself. After speaking with my mother about it, I finally decided to seek help from counseling.
On April 8, 2021, I had my first counseling appointment. It was cathartic, to say the least. I finally felt like I was being heard. I was able to unload on someone who was trained to listen to and understand me. I’ve been seeing her regularly ever since, and it’s been a wonderful experience. But as the beginning of this new semester drew closer, I knew I needed a little more.
Having untreated ADHD, keeping a schedule is hard. And I upped my course load this semester because I’m anxious to graduate. I made another couple of appointments through another mental health app, and the next morning I met with a nurse practitioner who prescribed me Wellbutrin. I’ve been taking it for 3 weeks now, and while it’s still early, I can feel a difference being made. There are still days that are hard, but that’s to be expected.
I am still trying to find my voice when it comes to standing up for myself, but with time and practice, I know I’ll get there. I’m grateful to have a partner who supports me in my journey to better myself, for the sake of our child and for my own sake. Nothing is more important to me than my son’s future, and I want to contribute happiness and stability to that. And these are the first steps. I’m incredibly fortunate to be in a place now that I can afford mental health care, and that’s something I will never take for granted.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anja Schroeder from Lufkin, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more stories like this:
Do you know someone who can benefit from this story? SHARE this story on Facebook with family and friends.