Joey

Joey
My PSDit Joey

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Bring it on 2017

On New Year's Eve 2015, I remember saying, “Bring it on 2016.” I had no idea at the time that 2016 would be the most incredible year of my life. In no way would I like to use this post to brag, but I would like to use my experiences to provide hope to others and to let people know that each day provides new opportunities.

After sharing my story through the TMI Project in Dec. 2015, I began writing and sharing more about my battle with mental illness. I started writing more about my personal struggles on the Facebook page I had for my psychiatric service dog in training, Joey, and it now has over 3,200 followers. Then I felt comfortable enough to start my own mental health blog where I discuss issues people with mental illness face. I also opened up about some of the more difficult parts of my journey like my hospitalizations. Letting people into my life in this way opened the doors to my future.

I quickly fell in love with writing, and it built my confidence knowing that I could educate people and fight stigma. I had my first piece published in April by MTV Founders then I began submitting work to The Mighty who has published 4 of my articles about life with mental illness.

Throughout the year, I continued to do work with the TMI Project by reading my story for different audiences and speaking with groups about my experience with writing and having a psychiatric disorder. In May, I traveled with them to Buffalo, NY to help with a day-long narrative writing workshop for groups like AmeriCorps. Going to TMI performances and seeing people's’ lives change by sharing their stories has further inspired me to be an advocate and activist for mental health issues.

My biggest surprise came in July when I found out that I would be the recipient of the YWCA of Ulster County’s Next Generation Award at their 2016 Tribute to Women Gala in October. I couldn’t believe that the work I was doing was really making a difference in the community. Amazing connections were made with the women of the YWCA who encouraged me to do more work for my community. I participated in a fundraiser for service dogs and made a speech about how my psychiatric service dog, Joey, has changed my life. In December, my friends and I organized a project to make encouraging holiday cards for people in Ulster County who are struggling with mental health issues during this holiday season. I’m looking forward to further working with my community in 2017.

Although I was happy with where my life was going, two subjects I had written about were not finishing college and being single at 24-years-old. By October, I was ready to make some decisions in my life that scared me a little… maybe a lot. I applied to go back to school to finish my degree and signed up for a dating site (thanks for the push mom). Taking both of those chances definitely paid off. In January, I will be beginning classes at SUNY Empire State College, working toward a B.A. in Community and Human Services, and I feel ready and excited. When it comes to the dating site, I hit the jackpot and met the most amazing man on the very first night. Ethan is supportive, caring, and the man I’ve always dreamed of finding. I feel so blessed to be celebrating the new year with him tonight.
There is no denying that 2016 was a very hard and devastating year for so many. I’ve realized though that I can still make a difference in my life and my community, and so can you. Find your cause and find your passion. I want those with mental illness to know that their lives are far from over. They can overcome their obstacles and aren’t defined by their past struggles. In 2013, I was so sick that I could barely sit down to read or write without my brain feeling so overwhelmed. In the end, it was writing that made me realize that I can do great things in this world. So again I will say, “Bring it on 2017.” And this year I want others to discover the same hope that I have found.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Our holiday card project. Your voice can make a difference.

During the periods of my life when I have struggled the most with my mental illness, I've always had a strong and devoted support system who have been there to encourage me and remind me that I'm loved and that I will get through the difficult times. Not everyone dealing with mental illness has that same level of support, and the holiday season can make them feel more isolated.
This year, The Cassie Cares Project (made up of me and my friends) wants to give the community and people online the chance to provide some much needed kindness to some people in Ulster County in NY who are battling mental illness.

We will be making holiday cards with encouraging messages inside to distribute to the people involved with MHA of Ulster County. We want these messages to come from the community or anyone who has some kind words to share. This is a way you can directly brighten someone's holiday.
Below are some starters you can use (as many as you choose) to share a nice message of any length you'd like. You can also email in a message that doesn't use the prompts. Any kind words of support or encouragement will be greatly appreciated.

Your life matters because…
You are strong because…
I support you because…
We care for you because…
You deserve to have a happy holiday because…

You can send us your message through a direct message on Facebook (either on the Joey's Journey or The Cassie Cares Project pages), my personal Facebook account if we are friends, or by emailing cassiecaresproject@gmail.com. You can choose to keep it anonymous or let us know if you'd like your first name included at the end. Please let me know if you have any questions!

Statistics estimate that 20-25% of US adults will face a mental health issue within their lifetimes. I'm sure you can think of someone who has been touched by mental illness; if you can't, there is a good chance that someone you know is struggling in silence. Here is your chance to show support this holiday season. People don't choose to develop a mental illness, but we can all choose to be kind.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Happy holidays,
The Cassie Cares Project

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Mental illness and the holiday season and how you can help


I love November because I get to see and hear about what people are thankful for in their lives. The few weeks leading up to Thanksgiving remind people what is truly important to them. This encourages me to reflect on what and who I have in my life rather than dwell on my illness.

I’m thankful for many things: I have a place to live, clean water to drink, and food in the fridge. But what I’m most thankful for is my amazing support system. There is no material possession that compares to love and encouragement from those who care about you. I have my service dog Joey, my family, my friends, my mental health workers, and my community. I also have an extended support system of  people I’ve met through social media pages. Even on my difficult days, I know that there are people who believe in me and will be there for me.

Many people with mental illness don’t have strong support systems; they often have to fight the battle on their own. I've seen people in the hospital with no visitors and have heard my peers say that their families shamed them for taking prescribed psychiatric medications or wanting to see a therapist. Having an invisible illness is difficult because there is no blood test, x-ray, or scan to “prove” the illness. Not as many people come to see them if they are hospitalized, fewer flowers and cards are sent, are people are more reluctant to offer their help. It’s a sad reality for those with psychiatric disorders. Without feeling supported, it’s common for these people to isolate themselves or avoid seeking the help they need.

The holiday season can be a very difficult time for those with mental illness. We can all take actions to show support and to promote mental heath.
You can check in on friends, family, and neighbors to make sure they are feeling well and stable.
You can send a card or call someone you know who is struggling with mental illness to let them know that you are thinking of him or her.
You can also reach out to parents, children, siblings, or caregivers of someone with mental illness, and let them know that they aren’t alone.
Remember to never minimize someone’s struggles, and always encourage people to seek the help they need.

People don’t choose to develop a mental illness. It’s not a decision; it’s a disorder. We all can choose to be kind, generous, and open-minded. Your support during difficult times could save a life. People with invisible illness shouldn’t have to feel invisible.

-Allie


Monday, October 24, 2016

Next Generation Award Speech 10/21/16

This post includes the text and video of the speech I gave at the 2016 YWCA Tribute to Women Gala where I was honored with the Next Generation Award. Enjoy!
Speech given: 10/21/16


I feel so honored to be celebrating with such an outstanding group of people tonight. I'd like to thank the women of the YWCA for all they do to empower women and girls to be the best they can be and to work hard to make a difference. Thank you for organizing this inspiring evening and bringing the community together. 

Today I've been reflecting on how I got to this point, where I feel comfortable sharing my obstacles to encourage others. I've realized that it's the people in my life and what they've taught me about giving, courage, and loving unconditionally that has shaped who I am and what I hope for the future.

Some of the most caring and dedicated individuals I've met on my journey are the mental health specialists who have been helping me heal and cope with my struggles. They have truly gone out of their way to get to know me as a person, not me as a diagnosis, and they make sure I'm getting the best treatment possible. Thank you to all who have worked with me and shown me that I can live with mental illness but still pursue my dreams.

I truly wouldn't be standing in this spot tonight if it weren't for Eva, Sari, Julie, and all those involved with the TMI Project. Sharing my story with the group of strangers in my workshop was the most liberating experience I had ever had. I finally understood that everyone has something in their past that they feel afraid to talk about, and I wasn't alone. Knowing that I could help others by sharing my experience made me feel like I could make a difference in the world, and that was a feeling I never thought I would have again. They've taught me that every person has a voice. And many times, the strongest voices come from those who believe they should remain silent.

Thank you to my beautiful friends. They have been there to support me on my best and worst days, and have never made me feel like having a mental illness makes me a different person. When I was in the hospital, they would send flowers and cards, but when they'd call or visit me, our conversations were no different than if we had been out to lunch. All my friends have played a part in making sure I stay true to who I am.

I've been blessed with the most supportive and accepting family who has shown me so much loyalty and love. My younger brother and sister, both teenagers, have been so strong over these past few years, and they probably don't know how much their older sister actually looks up to them. Tonight I have my Uncle Cappy and Aunt Donna here, as well as my Grandma, who also happens to be my stunning guest. I was close with them all far before my mental illness, and when things did become difficult, they stayed by my side and offered their help without a second thought. I also have extended family like my cousins Ellen and Laurel who came into my life after hearing about my struggles because they genuinely cared about me and wanted to offer support. Thank you to everyone in my family. You've all stepped up when most people would step out.

I know that I had someone watching over me last year when I met my psychiatric service dog, Joey. He has been able to restore so much that I had lost when I developed my illness. I can go out in public by myself now, stay home alone, and drive at night. Things I wasn't sure I'd ever get back. He's inspired me to educate about service dogs and advocate for myself and others. I know that with Joey by my side, I can accomplish anything. Thank you, my sweet, slightly lazy, ice cream loving best friend.

Above all, my parents have had the biggest impact on where I am today. They are the examples of the person I strive be and display the qualities I'd like to help bring out in others: understanding, selflessness, courage, and perseverance. They've taught me the most valuable lesson I know. My past and present struggles don't define who I am and shouldn't stop me from being generous, determined, and the best woman I can be. What matters most is the kindness I show to myself and the kindness I show to others. Thank you Mom and Dad, you are both my heroes.

When I first became ill and for over 2 years after, I would lay in bed at night and think, "Why is this is happening to me." Now with the support, encouragement, and acceptance I've received from others, I've been able to take control over my life and embrace my journey. Now, when I lay in bed at night I think about how grateful I am that my life has turned out this way. Everyone deserves that kind of transformation. Everyone deserves to find their strength. And everyone deserves to be heard. I have found my hope, and now I want to give it to others.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Service dog speech 10/9/16

In May of 2013, right after I turned 21, I suddenly developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it almost impossible for me to go out in public, drive, or stay home alone. By December of that year, I had spent almost 3 months total in different psychiatric hospitals. I had gained nearly 40 pounds, watched my long term relationship end, and had to painfully withdraw from my senior year at SUNY New Paltz. 
For more than a year after my last hospital stay, I spent my days in big sweatshirts and doctors appointments. When I went out, I'd have to be so medicated that I would sometimes fall asleep in restaurants or at my little sister's basketball games. I watched as my friends got engaged as graduated college. I would think over and over about why this happened to me. Why were my dreams for my future ripped away from me?
My life completely changed the day my mom learned about psychiatric service dogs. They could learn tasks to help people with anxiety disorders like mine live more fulfilling lives. In February 2015, our research led us to find Joey, a 5 month old Collie. His trainer is working with him to learn specific tasks that will help me become more independent whether out in public and at home. Even though he's still learning, he has already helped me in so many ways. I'm more focused and energized because I don't need to be so medicated. I'm more active and outgoing because I feel comfortable going out in public when he's with me. Within the past few weeks I've even felt confident enough to apply to finish my degree. When I got him, my goal was to live like I had before my mental illness. Joey has already exceeded that goal. I am a better person than I was before, and I know I can be an advocate and change the world with him right by my side. 
Other people with mental illness should be able to have the same opportunity as myself to have a psychiatric service dog. These incredible dogs vastly improve the lives of those who have already been through so much. By being here today, you're not only helping raise money, but you're also showing people with psychiatric disorders that they have support from their communities. Knowing that I have a strong support system has been crucial to my recovery. Thank you for being here and for showing that people with invisible illness don't have to be invisible.

Speech given: 10/9/16 at Rockin' 4 Ryan fundraising concert

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

5 things I've learned about dating with a mental illness


No amount of coming of age books, romantic comedies, or magazine articles about dating and relationships could have prepared me for how my life as a 20-something would actually turn out. At 21, I developed a severe anxiety disorder. Within 6 months, I was hospitalized 5 times, faced countless medication changes and misdiagnoses, and gained 40 pounds. As 2013 ended, so did my long-term relationship.

For over 2 years, I healed my mind and body with therapy, medication, and the gym. Every second I spent working on my mental and physical health was paying off, and each day I realized my inner-strength and what kind of woman I wanted to be. By the time I turned 24 this year, I knew that I was finally in a place where a relationship would add to my happiness instead of having my happiness depend on a relationship. I was ready to date again, and I didn’t know what to expect.

Here are the 5 things I have learned so far about dating with a mental illness:

1. Love yourself first:

Admittedly, it took me a long time to fully accept that my mom was right when she told me that I needed to take time to work on my health and learn to love myself again. I felt insecure and jumped into a new relationship almost immediately after my last hospital stay. During a time when I should’ve been deeply focused on healing and restoring my self-esteem, I was relying on someone else to make me feel confident. When the relationship ended, I realized that I didn’t have the skills to generate my own happiness. My attention then shifted to discovering who I was as a woman and figuring out how to manage my mental illness. Learning to love myself was a crucial part of my recovery.

2. Mental health is still a priority:

I don’t let my anxiety disorder dictate my life, but it does play a part in how I approach different circumstances, like meeting new people. Friends and family encourage me to try some of the more popular methods of meeting a potential boyfriend like online dating or being set up on blind dates. Talking to an unfamiliar person online, meeting up with someone alone who I don’t know, or feeling nervous at night in a crowded bar are all situations that are anxiety triggers for me. Even though they are convenient and work for many people, I know that my mental health is more important. I’ve had to discover ways to “put myself out there” while still respecting my comfort zone.

3. When to discuss an illness is a personal choice:

I’ve contemplated when to open up to a date about my mental health issues, but I couldn’t decide if I thought it was a first date conversation or not. I know I have nothing to hide, but I also knew that I shouldn’t need to explain my disorder right away. After being in that position several times, I’ve learned that when to discuss my illness is my decision, and each situation is different. While I won’t go into major details while at a movie on a first date or second date, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring my psychiatric service dog and explain why I have him with me. Mental health is a personal topic, and there is no right or wrong answer.

4. Mental illness can change what is important to you and what you look for in a partner:

I have become a public advocate for mental illness and discovered that what I desire in a significant other has transformed along with me. How does he view topics about mental health, disability, and inclusion? Would he ever mock those receiving therapy or shame people who take psychiatric medications? Is he someone that can stand by my side and advocate with me? My journey with mental illness has made these topics extremely important to me. I’ve learned that, above all, a person with empathy and integrity is the soulmate I’m searching for.

5. Never settle for less than what you deserve:

A line that has stuck with me is, “It’s better to be single than to be in the wrong relationship.” It isn’t always easy for me to see other people in happy relationships. I could be with someone if I wanted, but I know that being with the wrong person isn’t what’s best for me. It’s not the best answer for anyone. Even on the loneliest nights, I’m content knowing that waiting for the right person is what I deserve. On my good days and my anxious days, I am deserving of the best love.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

To those who think anxiety isn't real...


After a year and a half of hospitalizations, misdiagnoses, countless medication changes, and many unanswered questions, I was fortunate enough to get an evaluation appointment with one of the best mental health specialists in the country. My parents and I drove 6 hours south to meet this doctor to hear his opinions on my diagnosis and future treatment. The evaluation process took more than 5 hours. At the end of the day, the doctor said, “There is no need for her to be on antipsychotic medication because she actually has a severe anxiety disorder.”

My parents were so happy to hear this prognosis, and everything the doctor explained about the onset, symptoms, and reactions I had to medications made sense. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I had an anxiety disorder because I didn’t understand how the severity of what I was going through was a term I heard people say every day. Many times people use the word anxiety when they are describing feeling stressed or nervous about something. When I heard the doctor say “anxiety disorder,” I thought he meant that I was just a nervous person. After learning more about anxiety disorders, I realized that they are real psychiatric disorders that can consume and change someone’s life and future.

An issue I’ve seen many times for people with anxiety disorders is others’ belief that anxiety isn’t real. When people are dealing with anxiety, one of the most damaging statements they can hear is that they are making it up or exaggerating their feelings. Some common examples are phrases like:

“Everyone gets stressed.”

“All students go through this at the end of the semester.”

“You just need more sleep.”

“She’s just trying to get attention.”

As a woman with an anxiety disorder who also has friends and family with anxiety, I’ve heard countless versions of these statements from peers as well as respected adults. I usually don’t dwell on the limitations I’ve had to deal with due to my disorder, but what I’ve faced over the past few years illustrates that anxiety is real, and it should not be taken lightly. For those who think I’m “doing it for attention,” consider this:

I gave up my privilege to drive at night because I became afraid of driving in the dark. I had to change the career path that I wanted since the 7th grade because I knew the job environment would trigger my anxiety. Why would I want to leave the part time job I had loved for 5 years? Why would I throw away three years of college after being so close to getting my teaching degree? Why would I want to spend 3 months in the hospital away from my friends, family, and brand new kitten? Why would I spend Thanksgiving in a hospital over 3 hours away from my family? Why would I want to take medications after living my whole life drug and alcohol free? Why would I stay home from my best friend’s bachelorette party in Atlantic City? Why would I want to face mental health stigma? I have to see people graduate college, get their dream jobs, buy their first houses, and take spontaneous trips just because they want to. Why wouldn’t I want to experience those things too?

This is how anxiety has impacted my life. I’m not using anxiety as an excuse to skip school, get out of a test I forgot to study for, get extra time on a paper I put off doing, leave work early, or avoid my adult responsibilities. When people use the word anxiety as an excuse, it essentially tells the world that people with diagnosed anxiety disorders can turn it on and off and are just exaggerating their symptoms. Nobody would want to go through a battle with mental illness if they had the choice. We are not doing it for attention. Anxiety is a disorder, not a decision.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Question

As someone who writes and speaks openly about serious mental health issues and my experience, I do get asked many questions. Some of the questions are constructive, like how to find help or support and other questions are asked about how I deal with mental illness. Occassionally, I get asked very personal questions, and I try my best to keep boundries. I understand that answering questions will lead to a better understanding about mental illness which will end the stigma.

Of the hundreds of questions I've been asked, one situation stands out that gave me clarity to how a lot of people view mental illness. I was away at a workshop where I had read my story and helped the audience learn the storytelling process. At the end of the day, after speaking with many people interested in mental health, a man came up to me as I was getting my things together to head back to the hotel. I assumed it was just someone saying that he liked the workshop or the piece I read. Instead, he came up and explained that he knew someone with a certain personality disorder and wanted know more about it. I had to answer honestly that I didn't know too much about personality disorders and didn't want to give him any false information. He asked if I knew any statistics about the personality disorder, and again, I said I didn't but there is a ton of great information online. What he said next was so surprising to me that I stood there speechless for at least a minute...

"Well, do you know like approximitly how many people with this disorder actually end up being successful in life? Like a percentage?"

Of course I didn't know a percentage about a disorder I wasn't familiar with, especially a percentage about a question I found offensive. I thought for a minute about how to put all my racing thoughts and responses into an answer that would make sense to someone who didn't understand the concept that I write about everyday: A person with mental illness is still a person, and a diagnosis doesn't determine who he or she is as an individual. I answered by saying, "I don't live my life based on statistics. Even with a mental illness, she still has the potential and ability to be who she wants in life. She can define her own meaning of success."

One of the most heartbreaking days of my life was when I had to withdraw from my senior year of college. I thought that made me a failure. Once I began writing, I realized that this is my future, and this will be my "success story." Mental illness may have changed my plan, but I believe I'm where I'm meant to be. Society may think that people with mental illness won't have a meaningful and happy life, but they are wrong. We don't have to live our lives with limitations. Work hard and never give up and prove to the world that you are stronger than mental illness. Dream big, always.

-Allie

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The 8 most important lessons I learned as a 23-year-old

Last week, I celebrated my 24th birthday! I have spent a lot of time over the past few days reflecting on the past year. At this time last year, I was having a difficult time accepting myself. Going back to school didn't go as I had planned, I was 20 pounds heavier, it was the first birthday being single since I was in high school, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. I dreaded going to local stores and restaurants because I was afraid I would run into someone I knew from the past, and I wouldn't know what to say if they asked what I've been up to. I'm glad that I stayed hopeful, because 23 ended up being the most exciting and transforming year of my life. It was the year that I took the most chances, and learned the most about myself and the world around me.

Here are the 8 most important lessons I learned as a 23-year-old:
(Warning: Some of these are extremely cliché but still very true.)

1. I would much rather be single than be in the wrong relationship.
I used to base my confidence on my relationship status or the amount of dates I go on. I realize now that I need to be true to myself, and I will find the right man at the right time.

2. Someone's occupation, degree, or certification doesn't necessarily reflect who they are as a person.
Whether you are a doctor, waitress, educator, maintenance person, police officer, truck driver, or cashier, how you treat others is how I determine your character.

3. Drink more water and less Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi.
I've made major dietary changes this year, and the difference in my energy and confidence has been incredible.

4. No amount of guilt can change the past.
Don't dwell on your mistakes, learn from them.

5. Everyone has a story and a struggle that most people know nothing about.
I learned this through the TMI Project. Hearing peoples' stories made me more understanding and open-minded. The person you think is rude might have social anxiety, or the girl you think is perfect might have had a traumatic childhood. Be kind, you never know what someone is going through.

6. Go for it.
The successes I've had this year have come from pushing myself. From taking on an internship to publically reading my writing to submitting an article to MTV to traveling to Buffalo, I was terrified. I thought I would be judged or make a mistake. I'm so happy I found the courage to reach for my dreams.

7. Speak up for yourself, even if your voice shakes.
I was the girl who would confront professors about a grade I was given or state my opinion on lowering the drinking age, even if I was the only one in the class who opposed it (true story). Since I developed my psychiatric disorder, I became afraid to stand up for myself or others when I knew something wasn't fair. I'm finally starting to "feel the fire again" and I'm not going to let anxiety keep me from doing what's right.

8. I am strong, I am smart, I am beautiful, and I am powerful.

Bring it on, 24.

-Allie


Friday, May 6, 2016

TMI in Buffalo


I'm sitting in my hotel room in Buffalo and trying to process all that has happened on my short trip. Several weeks ago, I had been asked by Eva and Sari, the directors of the TMI Project, to join them on a trip to Buffalo to read my piece about my journey with mental illness at their writing workshop. Getting the chance to travel AND discuss mental illness? I responded "yes" just nanoseconds after I got the email.

My mom and I took the nearly 7-hour train ride, and I got to see Western New York for the first time. Buffalo has been even more amazing than I thought it would be. This morning, I met up with the two TMI Project directors and the other readers, Ray and Valerie. We were picked up by members of The Service Collaborative of Western New York (Thank you Hannah!) and all headed to the University at Buffalo for the workshop. This specific TMI workshop was for several groups, including AmeriCorps. In all, there were approximately 150 people, mostly young adults, of diverse backgrounds and life experiences. They sat at round tables with 8 or 9 people per table. Some were already friends, and others were meeting for the first time today. By the end of the workshop, these 150 individuals would form an open and accepting place for people to open up about things they had thought they could never talk about.

We began with some examples of the polished pieces that were formed through different TMI workshops and events. The directors, Ray, Valerie, and I all stood at the front of the room and read our pieces. The participants were exposed to our stories about subjects like mental illness, marriage, sexuality, war, drug abuse, prison, failed relationships, and successful relationships. Each story brought both smiles and some tears. We wanted to let those participants know that everyone has a story that they think is "too much information," but in reality, these are the stories that people can relate to and be inspired by; in many cases, sharing these stories will bring the reader relief, clarity, and empowerment.

We answered some questions about our stories, the writing process, and publically reading our work. After they got a sense of how the TMI Project functions, they were given a choice of writing prompts and were asked to write for 15 minutes about one of the prompts or whatever they were feeling compelled to write. After the time was up, some people stood at the microphone to read what they had written. What happened next will stay with me forever.

The true and personal stories the participants were sharing took my breath away. They were opening up about difficult times in their lives in a natural, unfiltered, and emotional way. Some of them revealed things about their lives that they had never told anyone or had a hard time accepting themselves. Just the process of writing down their feelings and thoughts opened doors that weren't open when they sat at the round tables just two hours earlier.

The process of giving prompts or exercises followed by writing then reading continued throughout the workshop. As the day progressed, I saw a change in many of the participants. Some of the stories were light, and other stories were difficult for the reader to get out. Whether the audience response was happy or sad, everyone showed respect, encouragement, and a sense of support. All of the stories were thought-provoking, and I believe everyone in the room could relate to at least one other person's story.

From a quiet room to an open and accepting place, there was a transformation within the room today; I could see it and feel it. In all, everyone shared in small groups, and over 75% of the people shared at least some of their writing to the rest of the room. We laughed together, cried together, and made a beautiful bond. I hope every person learned the power and the value in writing and sharing their stories and had an opportunity to practice compassion and acceptance.

I received many many hugs today, and have never applauded more in my whole life. I can honestly say that this was one of the best and most inspiring days of my life. For me, it wasn't just reading at a workshop, it was my chance to learn that everyone has a story inside of them that they feel might be "too much information" that needs to be told. When we can tell those stories, we heal ourselves and can provide relief to someone else. We are powerful, and we are limitless. 

Goodbye for now Buffalo,
Allie

Monday, April 25, 2016

Hospitalization: Part 1

A major part of my mental health journey occurred between June and December of 2013. During this time, I was hospitalized 5 times, spending nearly 3 months total in the hospital. Since my psychiatric disorder was so sudden and severe, I had to have multiple tests done, medication adjustments, and diagnostic evaluations. For a long time, I kept that part of my story private. Only my close friends, close family, and therapists knew. I thought if people found out, they would make judgments, avoid speaking to me, or change their minds about the kind of person I am.

I joined a writing group in the fall of 2015 called the TMI Project where we wrote about the stories in our lives that we were afraid to tell. It was the first time I was opening up to people about the subject. The night before the public reading of our pieces, I got really nervous. I said to my mom, "People might think I'm a loser." She replied, "Allie, people will think you're a hero." From that moment, I knew that my story could help others.

So many are afraid to seek help because they are ashamed, scared, or afraid of what people might think of them. I have been in many hospital settings, and I can promise that it is not what most would think of when they picture a mental hospital. I was once writing a piece about my experience and Google image searched "mental hospital," and the images that came up were terrifying; they looked like they were from a nightmare. I thought back to the months I was inpatient and couldn't think of a single time that I witnessed anything like I saw in these pictures. When people think of a mental hospital, most of the aspects they would describe are either from a horror movie or the methods practiced 100 years ago or across the world. It's now 2016, and we need to update our ideas and opinions about mental hospitals.

I've been a patient in several hospital environments. I have been in an outpatient program, spent a week at a small private mental hospital, stayed at a local hospital in the psychiatric unit, and even at the best mental hospital in the country on the most secured and monitored floor. These experiences changed the way I thought about mental illness. These people are there because they need help, just like someone would be in a hospital for help with a physical illness. As a person who went through it, I feel like I can tell the truth, dispel the myths, and open peoples' mind about mental hospitals. It could end up helping those afraid to seek help and those looking for acceptance and support during a difficult time.

I will be writing about different parts of my experience in separate posts. The subject is vast, and there are many topics and events that I'd like to share and provide insight about. Please stay tuned!

Mental illness doesn't discriminate. Neither should you.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Feeling the fire again

Before mental illness, I had no problem speaking up for myself or for a loved one if I felt we were being mistreated. For the past couple years, I had lost that confidence. Last Friday, I surprised myself when I felt some of that fire coming back.

My service dog Joey and I had just left therapy and were meeting my cousin Ellen for lunch at a fast food restaurant that we go to often. Fast food restaurants tend to be a triggering place for me. Joey had been there before, more than 5 times, and he knew exactly what to do; when we picked out our table, he quietly tucked under the table at my feet.

As I was taking out my wallet, the manager of the restaurant approached us. I wasn't alarmed or suspicious because people come up to compliment Joey whenever we are out. To my surprise, he asked if he could see Joey's service dog certification. I was taken off guard but explained that service dogs don't have a certification. Service dogs are trained to do tasks catered to their handlers, so there isn't a certain test they have to pass because they all have unique jobs. There are actually many website that charge a fee to "register" your dog as a service dog, but the paper isn't an actual legal document.

The manager was persistent and said everyone with a service dog shows him a registration card. I repeated myself that service dogs don't require paperwork. He disagreed and told me that at his training, he learned the handlers MUST show a certification. I tried to stay calm as two couples eating their lunches looked at us. Instead of just correcting him again, I told him that under The Americans with Disabilities Act, he could only legally ask me 2 questions:  (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

He didn't bother to actually ask me these questions. He could see that my cousin and I were extremely frustrated, and he said, "I'll let it slide this time." I was shocked. Let what slide? I wasn't doing anything wrong; HE was wrong. At that point, Ellen calmly asked if she could speak with him outside. I honestly don't know what she told that manager, but he came back in avoiding contact with me and the other customers. Thank you for the back-up Ellen! He did later apologize and said he was only doing what he was taught.

I stayed calm in the restaurant and enjoyed my salad with my cousin. As soon as I got in the car, I called my mom, and several friends, to explain what happened. My mom later called the restaurant's corporate office to report the situation and make sure they knew the law, so it wouldn't happen to anyone else. The office quickly responded and apologized, and said the manager wasn't trained through them. They are aware of the law and promised to make sure every manager knows exactly what to do when a service dog comes into the restaurant. I've chosen not to disclose which restaurant it was because of their thoughtful response.

Rather than become angry either in the restaurant or on social media, I want to make this an opportunity for education. People, especially those in leadership positions, need to know the laws about service dogs. I was fortunate that I was in a good mental state that day and had someone there to support me. Had it happened several months ago, or even now on a difficult day, I wouldn't have known what to do, and it could've triggered a horrible and long-lasting feeling for me. I think of those who are in that position and wouldn't be able to stand up for themselves. Having an "invisible illness" and a service dog can draw a lot of stares, questions, and skeptics. We need to make the world a more understanding and compassionate place.

-Allie (and Joey)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lick Stigma!



The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stigma as, “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” For those living with mental illness, stigma is a part of everyday life.  The myths and stereotypes associated with mental health issues are harmful and create barriers in virtually every aspect of society. Stigma generates problems for one’s social life, education, professional life, medical treatment, and finances. This discrimination is based on false beliefs society has about those with psychiatric disorders. When people become more educated about mental illness, stigma will diminish.

Throughout my battle with mental illness, I’ve received some alarming comments and questions, sadly some even from medical professionals:

“You don’t look like someone with mental illness.”

“Are you just hormonal?”

 “Is it boyfriend problems?”

“Just stop worrying so much.”

“Do you have an addiction problem?”

“I’d never go to therapy. People would think I’m crazy.”

“You were in a mental hospital? Were people tied to beds?”

“Why do you have a service dog if you don’t have a real disability?”

“You’ll get over it eventually.”

Stigma is not just an excuse people with mental illness use when they don’t get what they want or feel something isn’t fair. It’s a real issue. I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed when people ask why I couldn’t just finish college. I shouldn’t have to be embarrassed to tell people that I’m not able to work right now. I shouldn’t have to worry that I will never get married. I shouldn’t be afraid that I might get denied a job, medical attention, housing, or fair treatment under the law because of what other people think about the state of my mental health. There needs to be a change.

Why Lick Stigma?

Two things I’m passionate about are the quest to end mental health stigma and my psychiatric service dog, Joey. I wanted to combine these two passions and create a way to educate about service dogs AND end stigma. To lick means to “beat” or to “defeat,” and of course, what word is better for a dog than lick? So Lick Stigma represents my mission to spread awareness and defeat mental health stigma.

I will use it as a slogan for some Joey-related products, as a hashtag on social media pages, and on his new Twitter account @LickStigma. A way you can support the cause is by using the hashtag #LickStigma on social media!

Joey and I thank you for joining us on this journey. We can change how the world thinks about mental health issues and create better lives for everyone touched by mental illness. Lick Stigma!
Please check out my newest video if you haven't already: Allie's Story
-Allie

Monday, April 11, 2016

Empathy

"Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another." -Alfred Adler

One of the most valuable traits a person can have is empathy. Being able to share and understand in another's feelings can have powerful effects. When you can feel what he or she feels, it leads to a having a better grasp on what that person is going through. This makes it easier to help, support, or encourage a person going through a hard time or a person who is sharing their happiness.

If you have ever watched a movie with me, you'd know that 99% of the time, I cry at the end. Whether they are tears of sorrow after Titanic or tears of joy at the end of Babe, movies always make me emotional. My ability to empathize has made me who I am. I'm a person my friends go to with problems or conflicts. I don't just listen to what they are saying; I give advice because I can feel their pain or anger. In college, I had a job as a writing tutor. My empathy helped me because I was able to feed off of their feelings of either joy or frustration. I would never change this quality about myself.

Although my empathy has helped me, it has also made life more difficult. Sometimes I feel things so deeply that it fuels my anxiety. I have a hard time watching the news because even an event that happened across the world can feel like it happened to me. Sad stories touch me to a point that I can't think about my own life. I feel fear when I hear that others are in danger. When I see someone being embarrassed, I feel embarrassed, and that memory will stay with me for years. These issues are exhausting when I can't go online, listen to the radio, or read an article without being exposed to negativity. Sometimes "ignorance is bliss" is better for my mental health.

-Allie




Monday, April 4, 2016

Stepping out of my comfort zone

"A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there." -Unknown

I found this quote yesterday and immediately loved it. Right now, my life is about pushing myself and working hard to achieve my dreams. Since my mental health has been in a good state recently, I feel that I'm able to venture outside my comfort zone.

On the other hand, when my mental health isn't as stable, it is best for me to stay inside my comfort zone and put my health over my work. I instead need to avoid stressful or triggering situations. I feel that people with mental health issues need to have days when they can recover and recharge. It's important to be able to identify these days because taking a break when they need it will help them in the long-run: mentally, emotionally, and physically.

I reflected on March, when my mental health was generally stable and in a good state. I worked hard and really pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, and it resulted in being offered some amazing opportunities, which I am proud to finally announce. In May, I will be travelling to Buffalo with the TMI Project to read a piece about my mental health journey in front of a couple hundred people and assist in a writing workshop. I also recently found out that a different piece I wrote about my story will be a part of a major publication. I feel so honored to be a contributor to both of these inspiring projects.

When my college degree was put on hold when I developed my psychiatric disorder, my heart was broken. I thought that I would never be able to accomplish what I wanted in life. I'm finally realizing that my worth does not depend on a degree. My dreams are bigger now than they ever were. Never let someone tell you that you can't reach your goals. Never stop believing in yourself. Never give up. You are powerful!

-Allie

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

World Bipolar Day

Although I don't have bipolar disorder, I still feel a strong connection to World Bipolar Day. Some of the most incredible people I've met on my journey with mental health issues are fighting bipolar disorder. When I was hospitalized in Boston, I had never been so far away from family and friends. The wing of the hospital I was placed on specialized in treating bipolar disorder, so most of the people I associated with were bipolar. Whether they were in a manic or depressive state, they were kind, caring, and comforting. From having deep conversations about life to just playing cards, they became my friends. They were the ones who helped me realize that having a mental illness didn't have to change who I was as a person, and they taught me that I had nothing to be ashamed of. Today, I'm thinking of them and all they did for me.

My experiences living with mental illness have been eye-opening. I've learned so much about myself, others with mental illness, and how people and society view mental health issues. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is to look beyond the diagnosis and get to know the individual. When people begin to practice this, mental health stigma will no longer be. We can be the change.

-Allie

Friday, March 25, 2016

A fresh coat of paint and a fresh start

My family has lived in our old farm house for 13 years, since I was 10. Since then, I've had the same pink walls with a butterfly border and the same hot pink furniture. My bulletin board was filled with old pictures, and I still had all of the books I needed in college. A few days ago, I realized that I was finally feeling mentally strong enough to take on the project of transforming my bedroom.

A big motivator for me was seeing my close friends moving into houses and apartments. I have accepted that I'm not ready to live on my own yet, but I was inspired to make a change. My bedroom can serve different purposes: a place for sleeping, an area I could relax and unwind, and somewhere I could use as an "office" for writing and corresponding. I could create a space where I would feel more independent, but I would also be able to have the support from my family.

Once I began organizing and going through my old things, I realized how far I've come. When I was struggling the most, even carrying downstairs the cup I used for water was too overwhelming for me. I couldn't make my bed or clean up my clothes. I would have never imagined I'd be able to completely overhaul my room in just a couple of days.

Right now, the new paint is drying and my closet is organized for the first time. I've parted with clothes that I kept saying I'd wear someday, packed away my cheerleading bows from high school, and laughed over the papers I still had from college. Although I'm physically exhausted, I've never felt so mentally strong. If I could take on 13 years of memories, I can accomplish anything.

-Allie


Monday, March 21, 2016

Letting go and moving on

"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us."
- Joseph Campbell

When I came across this quote, I wished that I had heard it earlier. I was one year away from completing my teaching degree to be a high school social studies teacher. When I became mentally ill, I was admitted to a hospital. I remember sitting with a therapist and crying the day I had to withdraw from the classes I had scheduled for the first semester of my Senior year. It was devastating for me, knowing that I wouldn't be graduating with my friends. When I was in a better mental state, I tried going back to college. I got through two classes, but I didn't have the same passion for school, focus, or ability to juggle different assignments. I went back for a third class, but I knew that it would be extremely difficult to maintain my mental health and handle the demands of the class. I accepted that my mental health is more important than a degree, but it was heartbreaking to put a pause on my education.

Soon after I decided to take a break from college, opportunities began popping up. I learned about psychiatric service dogs and found my Joey. Having him in my life drastically improved my mental health. Since I was feeling better, I was offered the chance to assist a family member prepare for her show in NY Fashion Week. I began feeling more confident in myself, and it was becoming noticeable. I was then offered a spot in a writing workshop where participants wrote about personal stories from their lives. Surprisingly, I found comfort in expressing my thoughts through writing. At the end of the 10-week workshop, we read our pieces to a large audience. That performance was a turning point in my life. I was asked to read at other events, and I realized that I was meant to be a mental health advocate.

My life is at a great point right now. I'm blogging about my journey with mental health, documenting my service dog's life online, and educating people about mental health issues and stigma fighting. I would also like to expand into more public readings and speaking events. Your dreams and goals may change, but know that what's meant to be is waiting for you. Letting go of the past will lead you to a brighter future. Never give up on yourself.

-Allie

Friday, March 18, 2016

It can happen to anyone.


Mental health issues do not discriminate. They are seen in any gender, ethnicity, religion, age, socioeconomic status, or any other life category. The media tends to portray people with mental illness as either homeless and/or having an extremely high IQ. This is not the case. Throughout my journey with mental illness, I have encountered people from all walks of life. While I have met some who would fit society’s perception of someone with a psychiatric disorder, the majority of people break the stereotype. It can happen to anyone, and I believe that I am a good example.

I had always been a slightly nervous person, but it never got in the way of being able to function or live the way I wanted. I didn’t have a traumatic experience, and had never touched drugs or alcohol. Music and performance were important parts of my life; I had been singing and dancing for as long as I could remember. High school was a great experience for me. I was a varsity cheerleader, the lead in my school play, and an honors student. College was going very well too. I was on the Dean’s List and one year away from receiving a degree in Secondary Education with a concentration in social studies. I had always been a trusted employee at my part-time job and an active part of my community. Relationships with my family and friends had always been strong.  

Up until May 2013, having a mental illness had never crossed my mind. I and the people in my life were shocked when I suddenly developed a crippling psychiatric disorder. We quickly learned that the stereotypes and judgements people have about those with mental illness are not true. Mental health issues can happen to anyone. When people learn and accept this, the topic won’t be so taboo to discuss. There is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of; now is the time to end the stigma.

-Allie

Monday, March 7, 2016

Physical illness and mental health

I have been pretty sick for the past few days, and it is really taking a toll on my mental health. When the body is hard at work fighting a physical illness, it becomes more difficult to keep psychiatric illness in check. For me, my anxiety goes through the roof. I have serious anxiety issues when it comes to my health, so when I'm not feeling well, I tend to think that I have every illness. If I see or hear about a certain illness, I'm sure that is what is wrong with me. That leads me to develop more tension and stress in my body, which makes me feel sicker, which ends up making me more nervous. It is a horrible vicious cycle.

People throw around the term hypochondria all the time, but unless you have to deal with it on a personal level, you wouldn't understand how detrimental it is. Hypochondria is not the same as being over-dramatic. Be more understanding instead of critical.

-Allie

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Struggles and strength

I often get told that mental illness doesn't change who I am... but I disagree. Mental illness has made me more caring, understanding, open-minded, selfless, compassionate, and enlightened. It has put things into perspective for me. I can now see what is important in life. My goals are now aimed at directly helping others. I've learned about the world and those around me. I would've never known my strength if I hadn't been through my struggles.

Mental illness did change me. It made me a better person, and put me on the path I was meant to be on. Don't let a diagnosis ruin your life, you never know what you will learn about yourself.

"Where there is no struggle, there is no strength..."
-Oprah Winfrey



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Diagnosis or No Diagnosis

Personally, I have felt uncomfortable whenever the topic of my diagnosis comes up in conversation. People ask me, "What do you have?" I honestly don't have a definite diagnosis. I've received mixed opinions from even the most qualified mental health professionals in the country. They seem to agree that I have traits from different disorders, but I don't show all the symptoms for one specific disorder.

Unfortunately, this is something I have struggled with; I've wanted so desperately to have a definition of what was going on with me and to feel like I had a place and a voice in the realm of mental health. I thought that I would be able to identify myself if I could identify my mental illness. I am now learning to accept the fact that I don't have a distinct diagnosis. It does not invalidate my psychiatric disorder, and it doesn't mean that I don't have a voice.

Some people have symptoms that fit the "textbook definition" of a specific mental illness, and others don't have a clear answer. Just because someone is undiagnosed, it doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously. We all feel things differently.

"You never know what someone is going through. Be kind, always..."

-Allie


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The rest is still unwritten..."

I'm not a mental health professional, but I'm a mental health warrior. Those who live with mental illness are warriors. I know what it is like to fight everyday. I created this page, and other social media pages, to bring awareness to what it is like living with a psychiatric disorder. Whether I'm giving some insight to issues, sharing a quote or picture that touched me, or telling parts of my personal journey, everything will be honest and open.

Some future topics will include: my experience with mental illness, hospitals and hospitalizations, therapeutic writing, public speaking, psychiatric service dogs, medications, portrayals of mental illness in the media, and many more...


Right now, I am in a place where I feel as if I can help people grasp the realities of what life is like for a person living with mental illness. I have good days and bad days, but I'm never giving up. Please join me on my journey toward wellness and fighting stigma!

"Life is tough, but I'm tougher."

-Allie