Change I to We

by Taylor Wesley, Auburn University’s Miss Homecoming 2015 

What do you think when you hear the phrase “mental illness”? I always thought, growing up, that my mental illness was a weakness and something that I continuously needed to fix.

I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder at a very young age when I began having panic attacks after a serious car accident I was a part of. I couldn’t put what I was going through into words, and sometimes I still have a hard time describing it. I felt like I couldn’t get rid of thoughts in my head, and I constantly had a fight or flight experience that went all the way through my body to my toes.

Doctor after doctor, I was trying to figure out what could fix me. Medication wasn’t a quick enough relief. Then I found alcohol. Something about alcohol I fell in love with. I can remember the first time I ever felt its effects. It was like I was on top of the world. My anxiety went away instantly, I didn’t care about my looks, I didn’t care about what words were about to come out of my mouth.

On that day alcohol became my best friend. I drank every day. I drank until I blacked out. I drank alone. I drank to feel normal. I remember realizing that something was wrong one morning Sophomore year of college when I was going to class. I took a swig of vodka at 8:30 in the morning because I couldn’t bare to be sober in my own skin anymore.

My life changed forever on May 16th, 2014. I woke up in a white room, my parents both crying over my limp body. Was I in a dream? Was I dead? Reality struck when the doctors told me that I was .02 BAC from my body completely shutting down.

Next thing I knew I was pulled out of school and shipped away to rehab against my own will. There was no way that a 20-year-old in college could be an alcoholic. When I thought of an addict I thought of a someone doing drugs under a bridge. After trying to fake it for about 25 days of rehab, I decided to finally shut up and listen. I started to hear what others had to say and wanted to get to know them too. I started to listen to myself and began not hating being sober.

I learned that there were in fact millions of other people who struggled with mental health and addiction. Some like myself are lucky enough to get a second chance. I also learned that there was nothing to “fix”, that this was a part of who I am, and it’s what I did with it that mattered.  So instead I fought for my life, I embraced my brokenness, and lost my anonymity in the process.  I returned to school and made it a goal to start an open conversation about mental health. The more people I told I was an addict, the more people reciprocated and opened up about their personal connection to mental illness.

I started a campaign for Miss Homecoming at Auburn University called “Spread Wellness with Wesley”. When you take the “I’ out of Mental Illness and replace it with “We” it becomes Mental Wellness. The word “WE” is so powerful and inclusive. I knew that without the help of others, there was no way that I would be alive today. The goal of the campaign was to encourage community support surrounding mental wellness. Homecoming game, I held my very first sobriety chip in my pocket when I crossed the field with my dad by my side. It all hit me at once, walking across that field and looking up into the stands at all of the students that supported not me, but mental wellness and recovery.

22 million Americans are currently suffering with addiction and deaths due to overdose are rising. Many of us may not realize that we are surrounded by it daily. It could be you personally or someone that you know and care about that is suffering behind closed doors. People are afraid to admit that they need help because they think that it is a sign of weakness and there is a stigma attached to the word “addiction.” Stigma and those not accepting us is a fear (False Evidence Appearing Real) and it is something that we all have.  But the potential to save someone’s life through connecting and relating with them far surpasses this fear.

If we work together towards breaking this stigma each day by supporting mental health and addiction recovery, we will one by one start to hold our hands out for those that need one. The more that people realize how prevalent this issue is and that they aren’t alone in this, the more likely they are to grab those hands reached out.

This chain reaction is the solution to anything in life. Vulnerability breeds vulnerability, and connection creates community. I thought that there was no other option, and I almost let the disease of addiction take my life. The only way I was able to get out of it was to reach for those hands that were there for me to pull me out. We can’t do it alone. And that is why we need you, all of you, to help support recovery.