My story of healing - Courtney Kessenich
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
I’ve dealt with severe anxiety following multiple traumas during my childhood, including the loss of my mother and the unexpected death of my father following his struggle with PTSD, depression and alcoholism from years serving as a police officer. Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and also have suffered from significant social anxiety as well.
Learn more about my story of healing below:
How do you describe yourself? I’m a wife, friend, furmom, speechwriter, travel enthusiast, blogger, beauty queen, recovering political junkie, health food lover, front-row rider in spin class, PowerPoint extraordinaire, partial Vegan (yes that’s a thing) and advocate for mental wellness.
My story: Have you ever had a conversation not go as planned, so you run through it in your head a few times over. That’s my life all of the time, except I relive conversations from last year or five years ago on repeat. If you’ve talked to me once, I’ve talked to you 50 times! This is probably the strongest of my anxiety symptoms. It starts the spiraling that leads to the others, if I’m not taking care of myself, or my stress levels aren’t under control. This spinning even is why I named my blog “Spinning through Life!”
At just 24, I received a phone call that shook me to my core. I was sitting in my brand-new “big girl” apartment right after I graduated from graduate school and moved out into the “real world.” They said they had taken my dad – my only family, my only solid – to the emergency room. That’s when I found out he had a drinking problem. That’s when they told me he had two days to live. That’s when I had my first panic attack. That’s when the world crashed around me.
Through I dealing with the horrifying grief of losing my only parent, I was thrust me into full-blown anxiety disorder. I went from conversation spinning and “mild” symptoms that I thought were normal – they were not – to waking up in the middle of the night, pulse racing as if I was running a marathon, panic attacks out of nowhere, inability to function at work and loss of an ability to attend social functions with friends. My anxiety got to a point where I couldn’t even go to the gym, and I put on 30 pounds.
What is the history of your struggle? At the age of seven, I lost my mom to cancer after a two-year struggle through radiation and chemotherapy. After her death, my dad introduced multiple women into my life successively as “mother figures” and even married a few of them.
My first stepmother, at the age of nine, was emotionally and physically abusive to me. This is a very formative time in a child’s life. This went on from the time I was nine until I was 14. Growing up I never thought my dad loved me or cared that this was happening, but looking back I realize now that he was distracted with his own mental anguish from years of compound traumas as a police officer in New Orleans.
He was going through what we know now as PTSD and severe depression. I have memories of him grabbing my brother and holding him up in the air against the wall by the throat, or the time he went into an enraged state and demolished our wooden coffee table while I cowered in the corner and he had no idea I was there. He never sought care though – God forbid! He turned to the bottle. Drinking from morning until night to dull the pain. And ultimately, it took his life from cirrhosis.
What was the moment caused you to realize that you needed to seek care? I had an injury from playing flag football on my company’s intramural team. I had what I thought was a jammed middle finger on my left hand. When I woke up the next morning, it was giant, swollen and black. I attempted to see my doctor, who instantly turned me away by saying, “you need to go to the emergency room immediately.”
I freaked out. I went home and hid under the covers. I only called my aunt to tell her what was going on through tears and sobs. I realize how this sounds, but I could not function through this panic. She came over and took me to the ER, where I was triaged before patients who were bleeding and appeared to me to be in far worse states. Once they had reviewed everything, the physician said to me, “Thank God you arrived when you did. I thought you were going to lose your finger.”
I realized when he said that that I would have laid under those covers crying before I would have helped myself. That’s how bad my anxiety had taken over my life. That was a pivotal moment for me.
What does recovery look like for you? It’s what I like to refer to as a roller coaster. I am never going to be 100% better, but I’ve gotten to a place where I know what mentally healthy is for me and how to get there. For me, I have to do some sort of cardio workout on a regular basis. Staying active helps me burn off the anxiety and stressors from my day that could be triggers for me. I also changed my mindset. I focus on positive affirmations and changing negative thoughts into positive ones. No negative self-talk allowed anymore! If you don’t allow the negative thoughts, then you can’t fixate on the worst possible scenario. Which if you know anything about anxiety disorder, can be a debilitating symptom. I also maintain my medications and continue to meet with my physician. It’s important to keep regular contact with your doctor throughout the healing process.
Where are you now?
This year, I’ve gotten to a point with my mental wellness that I’ve finally felt comfortable and confident enough to get back into pageantry. After nearly 15 years, I competed in a state competition again! Standing there that night, I felt proud of myself for how far I’d come. Since that night, I’ve realized how my story can help others. I wasn’t able to walk into a workout class alone not that long ago, and here I was standing on a stage not alone. I was able to be strong knowing my dad was watching from somewhere with pride!
One piece of advice you would give someone in a situation like yours trying to decide whether or not to seek care:
I’ve actually had this conversation with people. I tell them about my first psychiatry appointment. I had a full-blown panic attack in the waiting room and cried my eyes out I was so terrified. But, upon going into his office, he opened a textbook from his bookshelf and showed me the definition of anxiety. He read it to me and said, “see you’re literally textbook. You’re normal.” They aren’t there to hurt you. They’re there to help you. I was literally crying I was so terrified and look at how far I’ve come. The worst thing that happens is you walk away and are in the same situation as you arrived. That can’t be so bad!
Here’s the thing: I’m not expecting someone else to enter a pageant. That’s just my path. What I’m hoping is that my story empowers others to understand that they can get the help that they need. So, they can find a way to do what they may need or want to do be it a presentation for work, going to that workout class or going to a grocery store for their family. I understand how hard all of those can be!
Mental Health Resources If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don’t suffer in silence! There are free and affordable resources to help you get through these times. Here are just few options for you below:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255): Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential, toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network.
Some federal agencies offer resources for identifying practitioners and assistance in finding low cost health services. These include:
Health Resources and Services Administration works to improve access to health care. The website has information on finding affordable healthcare, including health centers that offer care on a sliding fee scale.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has information on its website about benefits and eligibility for its programs and how to enroll.
Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers resources to help answer questions about insurance coverage for mental health care.
Service members and Veterans have unique needs. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/veterans provides for their specific needs.
National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) offers peer-to-peer support groups in most locations. This in-person group experience provides the opportunity for mutual support and positive impact. You can experience compassion and reinforcement from people who relate to your experiences.