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Courage to Face the Struggle to become Stronger By: Kaeli Abreu

Hi, my name is Kaeli, and I'm 24 yrs. old. I was born and raised in a relatively small town where there is a common misconception that it is safe and protected from all the issues in the world. In reality, these issues exist in my home town, but are ignored. I have two passions in life: helping others & music. I try to look at life the way I do music. I enjoy most music genres, and even what I'm not so fond of, I still appreciate. Talent and art are exactly that, regardless of my opinion. I love spending time with my friends and family, and being outdoors. I'm a pretty positive person even through hard times, but I haven't always been that way.

Ever since I can remember, I have dealt with what seemed like almost constant feelings of sadness, worry and fear. Sometimes, I would know the reason and others, I had no idea. There would be times when I felt my will to live was gone or as if I was being chased by a murderer, about to lose my life, and have absolutely no clue as to why. It wasn't until I was 14, that I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. This didn't come as a surprise to me because I knew something was wrong. I accepted it easily. What I didn't accept was that it could ever get better. "You've always been this way, and you'll always be this way", I thought. Because of this, I didn't continue to seek help. I was also worried of what people would think. I didn't want people to start treating me like I was fragile, crazy or to be scared of me. Even when I wasn't alone, I always felt alone.

When I was 15, I was hospitalized and almost died due to a physical health condition. I was put on pain killers, and continued to receive prescriptions once out of the hospital. When I was taken off of the medication I had been prescribed, I was switched to a non-narcotic without any warning, assistance or information on withdrawal. I confused withdrawal with past symptoms I had prior to ending up in the hospital. I began to self-medicate using whatever I could find on the street. I thought my solution was in the pills I had previously been taking because they were the only thing that had ever seemed to help. I didn’t realize I would only make my physical health, as well as everything else in my life, worse by doing so.

My senior year, I began to have panic attacks that were so great in severity and frequency that I couldn't stay at school and after the first couple weeks, stopped going altogether. I managed to graduate through an alternative program. After graduation, I wanted a change and to get away from my home town. I thought if I left, I’d leave all my problems behind me as well. I moved to Las Vegas because it was the only other place I had immediate family. Still self-medicating, I was not making the best decisions, and that’s when I was introduced to heroin.

For 9 years, I was stuck in the revolving door that was my addiction. For the last two years, I began using meth as well as heroin daily. I ended up in rehab twice. I completed each 30-day program, only to relapse both times. During the near decade I lived like this, I spent a lot of time in abusive relationships. I was falling deeper and deeper into my own personal abyss. My mental and physical state began deteriorating rapidly. My bad decisions put me in a lot of dangerous situations. Because of my past physical and sexual abuse, I began to have night terrors and reoccurring nightmares of things I went through. I would later be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I had never really liked or been happy with myself, and over time I began to hate myself. I felt as though I had never been good enough or worth anything. I also felt like the causes of my PTSD were solely my fault because I had allowed myself to be there in the first place. I began to believe that I had put a target on my own back by being such a weak and worthless person. Surely, my aggressors wouldn’t have targeted me if I had any value, I thought. At the time, I failed to realize that they were sick people, and their actions were not a reflection of me and my self-worth but a reflection of their mental state.

For the first couple months, I couldn't even leave my house. I felt like I was always on edge and my senses seemed to be heightened. Sudden movements, loud noises and the feeling of something touching me would, at the very least startle me, and at the worst send me into an episode of panic. I didn't try to seek help because I didn't want to talk about what I had gone through. I was scared, and I didn't want to relive these moments. I wanted them just to go away and for the past to be the past. It was easier for me to be open about my PTSD than it was with my anxiety and depression. This was mostly because I didn't feel I had a choice. I couldn't hide my symptoms, and I didn't want people to think I had lost my mind or was just in some sort of drug induced state. It was after, that wasn't so easy. Like other mental illnesses, not everyone understands PTSD, including some of my friends at the time. They would intentionally try to scare me because they thought it was funny how easily I was frightened. Trying to mask the emotional toll that was being taken on me, my drug use increased exponentially. By the end of my using days, I was homeless. My life consisted of one fellow friend or dealers house to the other. Some nights, I would just wander around the city. I was in worse physical and mental condition than ever before, even more than I realized. It took me a while, but one day I decided to do something. I didn't know what or if that "what" would even help, but I had to try. Drugs no longer provided the relief they once did. Not only was my physical and mental pain a constant, but I had come to realize that no amount of money or drugs could help or fix me, like I had previously thought.

I knew there had to be a better life than what I was living. Once I accepted that I would never be able to solve my issues on my own and that my solutions were only adding to my problems, I sought help. I began to see a therapist once a week and made sure that I was as open and honest as possible. Not disclosing the whole truth, would only hurt me. I began taking time for self-care (mental & physical), practicing mindfulness meditation (practicing awareness and being present in the moment), following a routine and making adjustments to it when necessary, and made sure I had a strong support group. I also began volunteering which helped me to get out of my own head and have a sense of fulfillment. I changed my sleeping and eating habits by making sure I was getting enough sleep, eating healthier and eating enough throughout the day.

Remembering/discovering my interests was very helpful to me. They were things I could use to clear my mind, or at least get it off of whatever I had been fixating on. Implementing these coping skills into my daily life and remembering to use them when symptoms or cravings arose was imperative. If I waited until I was in an episode, it would become much harder and seem almost impossible to focus or get out of the head space I was in. I realized that this was a learning process. I'm not always going to get it right, and that it is okay. Along with discovering interests, I also had to find and get to know myself again. My past trauma, mental illnesses and addiction, are not who I am. They are only something I live with, but I had lost myself in them somewhere along the way. As long as I didn't give up, things would continue to get better and easier. For me, it was crucial that I remembered to take it all in baby steps, and to accept my small victories as just that. Whether on their own or working towards a bigger goal, a victory is a victory, big or small.

I can't say that I no longer live with mental illnesses or that I am cured from addiction forever. What I can say, is that I no longer wake up not really wanting to live and not really wanting to die. Now, even in the worst of times, I have hope and know that it will pass. Most days, I wake up feeling confident in myself and the road ahead. The possibilities seem endless which is now a freeing feeling, as opposed to, overwhelming, fear inducing and completely out of reach.

Today, I am able to work with those suffering from addiction and/or mental illness, volunteer & help others through my own lived experience and advocacy. I have also started back to school so I can continue to help others even more effectively. Now, I look at myself in the mirror and love the person I see, actually truly enjoy things and can effectively communicate and have relationships with those closest to me. I no longer live in a constant state of fear or feel the need to mask my mental or physical pain. Both of which continue to decrease in severity with time and self-care.

When symptoms or episodes arise, I no longer feel completely helpless. I am finally in control of which direction in life I am going. I am proof that mental illness, addiction and abuse are not a lifelong sentence to the mind and a happy healthy life is still attainable. Most importantly, I wouldn’t change a single thing from my past, even if I could. It was only by finding the courage to face my issues head on that I was able to become a stronger and more successful person than I ever thought was possible. I may not know the path that lies ahead, but for once I welcome the stress and uncertainty because a future that’s worth looking forward to is a beautiful thing.

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