‘A diagnosis I initially thought would destroy my life ended up saving it.’: Teacher overcomes childhood bullying to advocate for mental health

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of bullying, miscarriage, and abuse that may be triggering to some.

“Some phrases that have been used to describe me as an adult include: Wonder Woman, Super Mom, strong, fearless, bold, advocate, and fighter. I have done a tremendous amount of work on myself through personal reflection, counseling, and medical intervention. I deserve to feel like ‘Wonder Woman.’

There are days when I can honestly say I feel this way about myself; however, there are more days when I hear the voices in my head from my past that cause me to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ when it comes to my resiliency.

Early Teasing

I was born in 1987. As elder millennial women, we were always encouraged we could do anything and everything if we worked hard enough. We were taught nothing was out of reach for us if we just HUSTLED for it! Those goals could be physical or mental in terms of our accomplishments. While encouragement is so needed, especially for young girls, there is a fine line between what is realistic and what becomes unrealistic pressure.

young Kelsey
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

I still remember the first time someone ever called me fat. I was eight years old. I was always a kid who was much taller than all my peers. I was born with strong, broad shoulders, and my size often made me stand out. When you are eight years old, you don’t necessarily want to ‘stand out,’ and you don’t ever want to feel excluded from the status quo. I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood. We had corn fields across the street and directly behind our large, wooded backyard. Luckily, there were a few kids who lived close enough that we could walk or ride bikes to each other’s houses.

Unfortunately, there were a couple older girls, who often felt the need to remind us we were ‘weaker’ than them. While running in the backyard, those girls started chanting things at me about my weight. My personal favorite was ‘Run, Pumba, Run!’

I went home that afternoon, and I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom. I lifted up my shirt and stared at my stomach for a long time. It wasn’t flat and tight like most of the other girls my age. It had a softness and a roundness to it. That was the day I started to feel hatred for myself. It carried over into the classroom. I was identified as a ‘gifted’ student pretty early on. I was a ‘nerd.’ I had glasses and crooked teeth, and a second-grade teacher who was relentless.

young Kelsey
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

I never once remembered a day when I felt like she actually cared about me. If I made a mistake, she never hesitated to point it out—especially in math. I would sit at the kitchen table at night, trying to finish homework, and would end up in tears. I was never a black and white thinker—I somehow have always managed to live my life in the ‘gray space’ where you can find multiple ways to solve a problem. Where there was space for trial and error. Unfortunately, when it came to school and my body image, the gray area was unacceptable.

Cranking Up the Pressure

Over time, I got even taller, and I slimmed out. By 6th grade, I had the typical 90s teen girl movie experience. The braces came off and I got contacts. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to be popular. Little did I know, being seen by everyone, was way worse than being seen by no one.

The pressure I felt increased dramatically. The pressure to stay slim, the pressure to accelerate in classes, the pressure to maintain a spotless reputation…every day, my goal was to make ZERO mistakes. I appeared happy on the outside, but I was screaming on the inside. Every night before bed, I would do 500 crunches. I was terrified of gaining weight. I would go to bed with makeup on at sleepovers because Heaven forbid someone saw a pimple on my face. I would go to my teachers during lunch to get ‘extra practice’ with my school work because I didn’t want to be the least smart kid in the smart kid math classes.

Young Kelsey
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

By 7th grade, it all fell apart.

People started rumors about me, ridiculous rumors no one should have ever believed, let alone come up with. Instead of being described as ‘pretty, smart, and nice girl,’ the words changed to ‘sl**, b***h, and drama.’ My best friend since first grade and another girl I had become friends with in 6th grade did everything they could to tear me down. It started by being pushed out of my lunch table, getting left out of social gatherings, and seeing passive-aggressive away messages on AIM, but quickly became much more dangerous.

Someone smuggled out frog parts from our dissection lab in science and hid them in my spaghetti at lunch. I became very ill from the formaldehyde. Once, someone put gum in my ponytail, and I had to get my haircut. I constantly had things thrown at me in class. I then started receiving threats on our home phone voice mail and by anonymous screen names on AOL Instant Messenger. I was terrified to even leave my home. I had one friend through the whole experience who never left my side. Her mom was another support person for me, and I will never be able to repay them for their kindness.

At the peak of everything, I could tell it was starting to break my mother down as well. Being a parent and watching your child suffer is one of the most difficult things you can experience as an adult. As a mother, I now know this firsthand. I sat at the top of the stairs one night, way past bedtime, and listened to my mom cry on the phone to the mother of my only friend. She was terrified about what was happening to me, and felt like there wasn’t anything she could do. The school wasn’t helping, and they couldn’t afford to transfer me to a private school or to move to a new district. My only thought was, ‘Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t alive anymore.’ At thirteen years old, I felt my only solution would be to end my own life.

young Kelsey
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

Diagnosis and Healing

In the year 2000, suicide and mental health were not things that were openly discussed. It was something to hide and be ashamed of. I finally broke down one night to my only friend. Without any training or prompting, she knew to get her mom. After which, my mom was contacted, and she immediately went into mama bear mode. She made an appointment with my doctor. She encouraged me to tell her everything because ‘enough was enough.’ We weren’t waiting on anyone else to solve this problem, we would do it ourselves. My doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and depression and discussed different treatment options with the main ones being counseling, medication, a healthy diet, and exercise. I learned more about how my body and brain worked in one day than I had ever learned in my whole life. A diagnosis I initially thought would destroy my life ended up saving it.

I was careful about letting anyone know this information. Though the diagnosis was mostly a secret, it gave me the courage to start standing up for myself. It gave me the courage to use my voice and take up space. I would often talk to my former 6th grade Language Arts teacher. I admired her tremendously, and I still do. People started listening to me because I spoke with confidence instead of shame, and eventually, people stopped believing the rumors, and then they stopped spreading them.

By 8th grade, I felt whole again. I stopped putting unrealistic pressures on myself (for the time being). I asked my parents to remove me from advanced math classes and focused on my talents in reading and writing. I was careful about who I spent my time with and was okay with not being at every social gathering. Not only did I stand up for myself, but I also started standing up for others who felt voiceless like I once did. I called out bullying and encouraged my peers to do better. By 8th grade, I knew I was going to become a teacher. I was inspired by Mrs. Anderson, my 6th grade Language Arts teacher, and I knew I was going to make sure other kids didn’t have to feel the way I felt.

Woman with note in her hand
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

Childhood trauma changed my life and provided me with my life’s mission of helping those in need. Though it didn’t stop there, my will to survive was strengthened in adulthood, and I survived domestic abuse, physical and sexual assault, bullying in the workplace, infertility, miscarriage, postpartum depression, an autoimmune disease that is triggered by trauma and stress, and finally, secondary post traumatic stress from my work as an educator who often runs trauma triage for students and families in crisis.

In 2010, I became a 7-12th grade English teacher. In 2015, I graduated with my master’s in school counseling. I have been an educator for 12 years. During that time, I have been blessed with the gift of helping thousands of students and families. I have become outspoken and an advocate for mental health awareness and treatment. I shout from the rooftops that mental health matters, and we NEED to talk about it. I have spent time as a board member and volunteer for our local Suicide Prevention Coalition as well as The Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. I was present at the Ohio State House when HB 123 was being voted on to make Social Emotional Learning mandatory in schools.

teacher and student taking photo together
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

In essence, my trauma resume built my professional resume. Though I was fortunate enough to be raised by phenomenal parents who had the means and resources to help me and keep me safe, I recognize there are many families leading a much different path than my own. I became the adult I needed as a kid. Life doesn’t need to be black and white thinking. The gray space of uncertainty, the space where it’s okay and encouraged, to make mistakes and try again, to be different, is a pretty great space to live in.”

woman with her arm flexed
Courtesy of Kelsey DePompei

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kelsey DePompei.  Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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