Acton-Boxborough United Way (ABUW) launched its Local Stories of Mental Health Resilience Project in the Fall of 2022 with the hopes of gathering stories from the A-B community to help dispel mental health stigma and highlight the unique experiences of our community members.
Each storyteller collaborated with members of ABUW's Mental Team to tell their story and produce the written products that appear on this page. Short versions of these stories have been shared as part of ABUW's 21-Day Resilience Challenge (content from the 2023 Resilience Challenge can be accessed here)!
We ask that you treat the stories and the storytellers with respect, acknowledging the courage it takes to share a part of yourself in this manner. And please enjoy this opportunity to learn more about our wonderful community members & storytellers!
In January of 1995, Amy’s first son was born. She and her husband had just moved to Acton the previous summer. Amy had left her consulting job, and was brand new to the community. It was the middle of winter, her husband had just embarked on his demanding career, and Amy had a family history of depression. Three to four months later, Amy was struggling with anxiety and deep sadness. One morning when not being able to get out of bed, Amy asked to be taken to the emergency room. At the hospital, Amy was told by the emergency room physicians that she was just having a bad day, and was sent home with a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. But after returning home, her symptoms continued. Despite daily doses of anti-anxiety medication and having extended family members nearby, Amy struggled to manage her symptoms and be the primary caretaker of a newborn. During this time, Amy was experiencing sadness, an inability to imagine taking care of a child, having trouble seeing that things would get better, and disturbances to her sleep schedule, all while feeling guilty that she did not feel the elation expected of new mothers. After expressing to her family that her symptoms were becoming overwhelming, her father recommended that she talk to his psychiatrist, who then referred her to a psychiatrist who specializes in postpartum depression.
Seeing the specialist turned out to be a lifesaving move. This specialist validated that Amy’s symptoms were real, not a case of brief and transient baby blues, and added that one in eight women experience postpartum depression. This revelation allowed Amy and her doctor to develop a treatment plan that fit Amy’s needs and made sure she and her infant son were supported. Amy left her appointments with the validation that she was neither a bad mother nor crazy. Nor was she at fault for what she was experiencing. Amy and the specialist agreed on a trial of antidepressant medication, and as the weather got warmer, was able to connect with a new mom’s group which acted as a support system for the first four years of her son’s life.
Amy identifies the key turning points in her recovery from postpartum depression to be her choice to see the specialist, beginning medication, having support from her family, and knowing that she would not be judged, which allowed her to speak openly and honestly about what she was experiencing. Although Amy never faced overtly negative stigma surrounding her mental health challenges, a neighbor commented about Amy’s choice to have a second child: “I thought you would never have another child!” Amy discussed her struggles with other new moms who were supportive but did not share their own experiences. In Amy’s words: “What wasn’t said was said pretty loudly.”
Amy identifies some of her key coping mechanisms as seeing a specialist and leaning on her familial support system. Having had a successful consulting career, she also had to accept that there were a lot of factors that she could not control in her life, including an infant. She tried to take things one day at a time. While Amy was struggling with her illness, there was greater societal recognition that new moms struggle, which inspired private support organizations to develop programs for new moms. Thankfully, Amy’s family knew of a Boston-based organization that offered hands-on support with the baby as well as information for families about how to support moms in their postpartum journey. Amy’s Jewish culture also played an essential role in the way she approached her depression. Amy, her husband, and her family firmly believe that when you get sick, you get help. Depression is an illness just like any other medical condition. The Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, which means Repair the World, permeates Amy’s beliefs, encouraging her to leave the world a better place for the next generation. Being able to discuss difficult topics like mental health challenges paves the way for dialogue and education, overcoming stigma, and empowers others to develop their own resilience.
In retrospect, Amy wishes she had known she was at risk for developing postpartum depression, given her family history and the psychosocial stressors present at and around the time her son was born. Additionally, having more centralized resources on the town website could have allowed her to connect better with the community during this difficult time, as well as increased her awareness of local agencies that could have supported her. One current effort is the Welcome Initiative offered by Acton-Boxborough United Way, which provides a number of local resources to new community members. From a medical perspective, Amy wishes that her son’s pediatrician had paid additional attention to her mood as well as her son’s development during routine appointments. And even before the birth of her son, it would have been beneficial to include the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression and resources in the childbirth classes she and her husband took before her son’s birth.
When reflecting on her experiences, Amy emphasizes the need to talk about mental health challenges, because, ultimately, that is how you get help. This is crucial to overcoming stigma and keeping everyone in the family safe. Asking for and receiving help builds resilience when approaching future challenges, regardless of what they are. Finally, as she sees in her own children, the next generation learns from our example of openly communicating about difficult subjects, empowering them to take on their own challenges and make the world a better place.
Dan’s story of anxiety and depression came to a head when he realized that his emotional stress was more than he could bear alone while living on his own in New York City, following his college graduation. During this time Dan realized his approach to coping with these feelings were no longer adequate. He discovered that not only was his emotional stress intensifying, but he was gradually isolating himself more and avoiding conflicts and new challenges. He too was struggling professionally – failing at multiple jobs. Eventually, this led Dan to a point where he looked through the Yellow Pages to find a psychologist, catalyzing a journey that continues to this day.
A common theme for Dan was the recurring state of feeling disconnected - from himself and the outside world. He often described these experiences as feeling emotionally vacant, cognitively stiff and mentally out of breath. Working with a psychologist allowed Dan to become more aware of his emotions and thinking patterns and gain a greater understanding into their actual nature. Dan likened this work to lifting weights and building muscles. The more familiar he became with his thoughts and emotions and linked them to outside conditions, the more empowered he became.
While gains were made through psychotherapy, this process also revealed the strength and persistence of these inner forces. Dan, a couple years in, supplemented his therapy with an SSRI and discovered new activities that helped him cope and grow such as creative writing classes, delivering rhyming poems at open mics, Zen buddhism and meditation. He credits the latter with helping him find the space within that allows one to view their emotions and thoughts more objectively and for what they aren’t, one’s personhood. During this period, Dan’s support system consisted mainly of his family, some good friends and colleagues and a couple of excellent psychologists.
As time has passed, Dan has realized that managing and transforming his mental health is an imperfect, evolving process with no finish line but along the way he has unequivocally experienced greater meaning and purpose. Although he contends there is no singular path, he does believe that persistent effort coupled with good support greatly increases one’s odds for positive transformation. When asked what else he would recommend to others, he encourages individuals to not overlook the fundamentals (i.e. exercise, breathing, diet and social routines) and to pursue deeply any activities they find fulfilling.
As a parent, Dan tries to give his kids the room to express their full range of emotions while also doing so himself. He too likes to periodically remind them to ‘find their style’ – advice that one of his psychologists often reminded him to do. Within Acton-Boxborough, Dan appreciates the support that NAMI offers to the community, the mindfulness activities embedded in the AB Regional School District’s curriculum, and the efforts of Acton-Boxborough United Way to encourage community conversations about mental health. In the future, Dan would like to see more spiritual and wellness centers made available, an expansion of emotional fitness topics in public school curricula, and more specific marketing from psychologists to help people find the right fit. According to Dan, “if [telling his story] helps one person to pick up the phone, that’s a wonderful thing!”
Elizabeth started her mental health story at age seventeen when a traumatic event took place, resulting in a diagnosis of general anxiety, depression, and insomnia. To cope with the challenges posed by this trauma, Elizabeth self medicated using alcohol and drugs. While Elizabeth did see therapists intermittently, the evaluations she received never included processing the traumatic events because her substance use masked the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorders and typical signs of trauma response. After spending time at McLean Hospital for rehabilitation, finally getting sober, working through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and receiving treatment for her depression, Elizabeth still felt that something was missing/unhealed.
It was not until Elizabeth was preparing for the birth of her son, roughly ten years into sobriety that she was matched with a therapist who eventually helped her begin to process the trauma from her childhood and subsequent drinking. At this point, Elizabeth was able to recognize the precipice of her drinking following the traumatic event and mental health challenges she experienced as a teenager. With the support of family, friends, and a few trusted co-workers, Elizabeth started trauma therapy to process and begin to heal from the traumatic events in her past. “An essential component of this process was the recognition that everyone has experienced some form of trauma and everyone has a unique response, and therefore requires a different approach to healing. This generally starts with an open and honest conversation about what one is feeling and experiencing, in a safe space.”
Today, Elizabeth serves as a sponsor for other women, encouraging them to speak openly about the mental challenges that play a role in their goals of attaining sobriety. Elizabeth encourages others to share openly, reach for support, and recognize when they need to get professional help. “By having open conversations about individual and societal challenges with mental health, we are better equipped to address the inequities and circumstances that play a role in the development of negative mental health outcomes. Prioritizing mental health in the same way that physical health is will promote overall healing to better provide positive coping skills for the next generation and eventually take the necessary steps towards healing generational trauma.” In telling her story, Elizabeth emphasizes that talking about our problems is actually healthier than pretending they don't exist.
According to Elizabeth, beginning the process to heal from past trauma has made her a stronger and more resilient person. “The admission of needing help and willingness to process uncomfortable and difficult emotions with someone else requires a considerable amount of strength and vulnerability. By normalizing conversations about mental health challenges and treatment, the stigma is depleted and people are more open to all the available resources.” Some coping skills that have aided Elizabeth during her healing process are intentional breathing and meditation, participating in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous especially in early sobriety, talking through uncomfortable emotions as they surface, and reframing expectations of what life and healing are supposed to look like. Today, Elizabeth is over twelve years sober, an advocate for others for their mental health and sobriety journeys, and a leading force in the destruction of stigma surrounding mental health challenges.
As a child and young adult, Melissa called Maryland, California, and Texas home, before she moved to New York for law school and later settled in Lexington, Massachusetts where she has lived for the past eleven years with her partner. During her early years, Melissa experienced depression, which first manifested itself as loneliness, despite having close friends, and consequently saw a psychiatrist for the first time at age fourteen, but was not diagnosed. Midway through high school, Melissa’s family moved to San Antonio, Texas to follow a job for her father, a very successful medical doctor, immunological disease researcher, medical school professor, and a man with diagnosed bipolar disorder. This transition was extremely difficult for Melissa and she continued to experience depression during the end of her high school years and throughout her time at the University of Texas, Austin, where she earned her bachelor's degree.
After her undergraduate degree, Melissa took one year off before starting law school. And it was at the end of Melissa’s first year of law school that she had her first episode of both bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. Despite being sick and frequently spending time in the hospital, Melissa continued to take graduate-level courses in Spanish, which she speaks fluently, played an active role in educational programs, and completed internships. During these years, Melissa also entered her first marriage and returned to Gould Farm, a mental health recovery center in Massachusetts, which helped her to learn job skills she would utilize later on in life, for the second time. From 1999 to 2013, Melissa struggled to find the right combinations of medications for her mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Throughout this time, Melissa lived on disability, worked at a movie theater, which allowed her to utilize her strengths as a people person, and met her partner.
In 2013, Melissa had her last hospitalization and with the help of a nurse practitioner, was able to find a combination of medications that worked for her. At this time, Melissa started volunteering with the Northeast Recovery Learning Community (RLC). Melissa then left the RLC to work at a Clubhouse, a center created to give individuals with serious medical illness the opportunity to experience work and work orientations, before returning to the RLC to work part-time as a group facilitator, and then Bridger during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a Bridger, Melissa helped individuals transition from state-psychiatric hospitals to the community by developing a state-wide Bridging initiative. Following her time as a Bridger, Melissa worked as a coordinator for the RLC and then as a case manager at Bay Cove Human Services before leaving the organizations in 2021 and July of 2022 respectively. Melissa also returned to school part-time to earn her master’s degree at Lesley College and then transitioned to Northeastern University in 2019 to finish her master’s degree in the Fall of 2022.
Currently, Melissa works at the International Institute of New England as a skills trainer in a refugee resettlement program in the city of Lowell, MA. When reflecting on her past and ongoing experiences with mental illness, Melissa emphasized the importance of finding the right medication, identifying a community of friends and supporters, and making a conscious effort to engage in soothing activities. Although Melissa’s “trajectory of success” has not been easy, she is extremely happy with the position she is at today both personally and professionally, and she believes that the timing of her past challenges made this reality possible. Melissa plans to use these past experiences as she becomes more involved in political engagement and begins her political career. Through her determination, resilience, and long-term goals, Melissa has overcome the challenges she faced in her past and encourages others “Follow your bliss and believe it will happen.”
Millie grew up in the Boston area and moved to Acton when her kids were small. Professionally, Millie studied data sciences and stopped working after her last child was born. She has been very involved in community life. As a result of a familial history of depression, Millie has always been keenly aware that she may also experience a mental illness in some capacity. To address this concern, Millie sought out a therapist proactively at different points in her life, starting in her early twenties and then periodically through her later life. Millie does not recall exactly when she realized she was experiencing anxiety. She has always been a somatizer, someone very focused on and concerned about the symptoms she experienced. Millie also recalls how this anxiety during her early life was uncomfortable and made it difficult to swallow during anxious episodes. Despite her discomfort, Millie went on to be an active member of community groups. She manages difficult trials of life through compartmentalization.
When Millie’s youngest child was looking at colleges, Millie went to a doctor to express concern about her rising anxiety levels and she was prescribed Klonopin, a benzodiazepine. During the subsequent eight months, Millie enjoyed the relaxation the medication provided her, but her family was concerned by the behavioral changes that resulted from the medication, so Millie decided to discontinue her use of Klonopin. Millie found the side effects of transitioning away from benzodiazepines very uncomfortable. She discovered the Ashton Manual online which presented the research results of a British doctor, Heather Ashton, based on Ashton’s twelve years of treating people withdrawing from benzodiazepines. Although Millie continued her doctor-advised rate of decreasing the dose rather than following Ashton’s recommendations exactly, she found the lessons presented in that manual very comforting and helpful.
Following her initial experience with medication, Millie’s doctor recommended that she try a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Millie was worried about potential side effects based on her experience with other medications and also in light of a family history of bipolar disorder, for which SSRIs are contraindicated. Millie was assured by her therapist and doctor that she did not appear to have bipolar disorder and eventually, Millie made the informed decision to try an SSRI and is very happy with the results. She has reduced social anxiety, enjoys one-on-one conversations that were previously stressful, and finds the minimal side effects manageable.
By taking an SSRI, Millie has been able to use the attention that had been devoted to her anxiety for so long, to other parts of her life. She feels more focused, more daring, and less scared. Millie believes that although coping via medication is not for everyone, it has been extremely helpful for her—and for other relatives—when addressing challenges with mental illness. In addition to medication, Millie relies on her skills as a writer, storyteller, and artist when faced with anxiety-inducing situations, sometimes posing the question in her mind, “How will I tell this story afterward?” Millie has always been deeply invested in her family and community, both of which she leans on when handling difficult emotions. And when Millie is experiencing a panic attack, she relies on breathing exercises, meditation, and remembering the lesson that “this is as bad as the anxiety will get.”
When reflecting on what advice she would give to others, Millie highlights the importance of being able to connect with a therapist or psychiatrist rather than relying solely on a primary care doctor; making sure to have outlets for self-care; focusing on gratitude for everything that is easier; taking care of another person’s needs who also feels anxiety; and being honest with the feelings that you are having with others, because the more you are vulnerable, the more others open up to you, which is comforting. Millie has found it helpful to focus on the sensory experiences of walking in nature and of cooking food.
Through her own coping mechanisms and self care, and of course through the tamping effect of being on an SSRI, Millie is now in a position where she believes that she can handle whatever comes her way with gratitude and resilience.
Susan’s mental health challenges started in childhood, where she grew up as an only child in China and she experienced her first episode of depression shortly after finishing her undergraduate degree. At this time, Susan had anticipated that big changes would occur in her life as a result of this new accomplishment, but instead she felt lost. Eventually, Susan's mother took her to see a psychologist who prescribed her medication. Susan reacted well to the medication, she was able to recover from her depression and return to her life.
After working diligently as a full-time preschool teacher for a decade, Susan applied and was the recipient of a prestigious Ford Foundation Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to De La Salle University in the Philippines to earn her master’s in counseling. This scholarship covered not only tuition, but lodging and food and Susan wholeheartedly believed that this was the best opportunity that she would ever have access to. Unfortunately the pressure of the program as well as internalized pressure Susan placed on herself made it difficult for her to cope with this new and challenging environment. At this time, Susan believed that the best course of action would be to end her life and even went as far as making plans for how she would do so. Susan shared these feelings with her friends, who took her to the medical facility on campus where she was held for a month before the Ford Foundation financed her trip back to Beijing to stay with her mom. During this time, Susan spent one year teaching Chinese as a second language in Mongolia, which gave her the confidence to pursue education.
To further her career in education, Susan applied and was accepted to a master’s in education in curriculum instruction program at Boston College. Susan completed her degree and met her husband, who embraces and accepts Susan throughout her journeys with depression. After Susan and her husband decided to start their family, Susan became a stay-at-home caregiver to their two children. And in 2017, Susan's mom immigrated to the United States. Living together with her mother brought back some negative emotions from childhood and Susan and her mother had a difficult time getting along. The following year, Susan started seeing a counselor but decided not to incorporate medication into her recovery journey because she was nursing her second child. During this difficult time, Susan found support through the local faith communities who provided in-home visits, exercise classes, Bible study opportunities, and human connection. First Connections and Minuteman Senior Services also helped immensely by providing outlets for Susan's family. Susan also learned how to drive, increasing her independence within the community, and developed a greater trust in herself and the environment around her. This trust allowed Susan to take off the armor that she had carried since childhood and expose her softness, trusting those around her.
Throughout her journey, Susan cites that self-confidence, belief in oneself, and having a strong support network are what assisted in her recovery from depression. By openly talking about her challenges with depression and resilience, Susan is able to break down the power stigma can have. For Susan, “each run of depression is a good opportunity to grow.” In the future, Susan plans to formalize her love of psychology by pursuing her PhD, which marries her interest in learning about the brain with her admiration of those who are highly educated.
Val’s story starts with her childhood in Acton. In her early years of high school, Val experienced a number of distressing social and interpersonal factors, creating an immensely difficult environment with no available means of coping. Eventually, Val turned to making small cuts in her skin, which she referred to as “papercuts” based on their appearance, as a means of addressing the challenging circumstances that surrounded her. And at some point during this period of time, suicide seemed like the only way to escape. When Val’s parents found out about her suicidality, she was taken to the emergency room where her knife, and only means of coping, was taken away and Val was referred to a therapist. While in therapy, Val’s clinician focused not on the root of the causes of what she was experiencing, but on the physical manifestations: the cuts on her skin and thoughts of suicide. By condemning the behaviors Val used at the time to cope, Val was made to feel ashamed for her thoughts and actions, which alienated Val from her only coping mechanism, causing further damage to her mental health.
At this time, the love and support of Val's family and friends was one of the few things that enabled her to keep going, but it was decided that she should be taken away from this and cared for in a hospital that limited her access to her loved ones. The clinicians at this facility continued to perpetuate the notion that Val’s thoughts and coping mechanism were shameful. At this time, Val was also forced to start taking medication, which had its own damaging side effects. It was not until Val turned eighteen that her clinician’s found a drug that “worked” in the sense that it caused sedation and allowed her to participate in the activities she was told were components of a “successful life”: not cutting, getting a job, going to college, getting an apartment, paying bills, and living independently. At this time, Val was not miserable, she enjoyed her job and had friends, but she was terrified of breaking the rules created by her parents and doctors, leaving her without a sense of control over her own life. However, in her thirties a medical event forced Val to stop the drug she had used since age eighteen cold turkey. This removal forced Val to face the reality that she had never learned to be a strong person inside herself, make her own choices, or trust herself about what is right for her because of the treatment she had received in the past. At this point “everything fell apart and changed [leaving Val] in a very dark place for a while, [which included] a suicide attempt.”
Val’s trajectory changed when she started a volunteer job with the Transformation Center, an organization that specialized in training Certified Peer Specialists, who use their lived experiences of mental health diagnoses, trauma, or history using substances to help support those who are facing similar challenges. At this point, Val was told, for the first time, that “there is nothing wrong with you.” Her work with this organization allowed Val to learn more about this movement of individuals who are returning power to those experiencing challenges with mental illness and providing support that acknowledges that clinicians do not always know what is best for each individual. This new knowledge empowered Val to recognize her own goals within her mental health journey and act on them, transitioning from a prescribed life to a life of individual autonomy. Currently, Val works as a Certified Peer Specialist for an organization called the Wildflower Alliance, which allows her to “model the way that I have gotten through my difficulties.” It also returns the power and choice to the individuals experiencing challenges to their mental health, which is an essential step because for Val, “it was only once it was my choice that I was able to make the decision to continue living.”