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Terrah Short on Mental Health, Resilience, and Coping

2022-12-08

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Personal)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/11/22

Terrah Short earned a Bachelor’s in Philosophy (Analytic) with a Minor in Disaster Risk Reduction from Western Washington University in March 2017. She is a product of a working single father and the Puget Sound area of Western Washington in the United States of America. We met briefly through some model united nations work. Here we talk about her views, background, and work.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your background in brief?

Terrah Short: I am a first-generation college graduate with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy (Analytic) and a minor in Disaster Risk Reduction from Western Washington University in March of 2017. I’ve grown up in the Puget Sound area of Western Washington, raised by a working single father.

Jacobsen: In reflection on early upbringing and background, what early intellectual interests and difficulties in pursuing them?

Short: I learned to read from an early age and I was always encouraged to read. Reading and writing became my passion early on, and it became both something I enjoyed but also something that allowed me to escape. I enjoyed reading mostly fiction, but even in elementary school, I was fascinated by the way the world worked. I checked out as many books on as many scientific topics as I could. However, though I did not struggle with my reading and writing skills, my science and math skills were hindered by my ability to pay attention to details, grasp mathematical concepts, and follow instructions as in-depth as were required to be precise and successful in science. Music became the third area, besides reading and writing, that I was truly able to completely wrap my mind around and immerse myself into.

Jacobsen: How were those interests reflected in academic studies? How are those difficulties reflected in potential hiccups in academic studies?

Short: My high school allowed me to branch out to the beginnings of the topics that really interested me, which expanded more so in college. I was able to participate in essentially all the musical courses I wanted: concert band, jazz band, and concert choir. I was able to excel in English courses by testing out of freshman English and being able to move forward with higher level courses. Being around the right teachers got me connected with journalism and other styles of writing, such as taking my poetry seriously. At university, I was able to take a variety of courses to explore my interests, which were across the board, but I found myself gravitating towards philosophy courses as well as courses that helped me look in-depth into humanity, how we interact, such as social justice focused courses, anthropology, and other humanities.

Jacobsen: You have taken a role in leading and Model United Nations. How has this helped with intellectual development?

Short: The great thing about Model United Nations is that it did not have to stop once I graduated from college. I found MUN my sophomore year and I had no idea something like it had existed. It is something I wish had been at my high school, though I am not sure it would’ve had the same impact it did finding this community in college. MUN provided me with a place to develop my interpersonal skills, research skills, my ability to create meaningful arguments, to take a position that might not be my own for the sake of simulation, and one of my largest areas of growth was in my public speaking. Though there is still constantly room for me to grow, my writing and research skills in the style of MUN have improved conference by conference, and though I consider writing in general a strong suit, that is not always the case for MUN. So, it is very good for me to continue to have this challenge to meet head on conference after conference, especially as I work to figure out what my next steps academically are.

Jacobsen: How has mental illness manifested in your own life? You only have to divulge as much as you feel comfortable with at this time.

Short: Mental illness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was a terribly anxious child who also lived with undiagnosed ADHD, and later on, depression. Though the anxiety is what I remember most vividly as a child. Being afraid to sleep, terrified of death and loss. It often felt like I was going through an existential crisis every week because of how deeply I felt the dread of death, of an eternity of nothingness. I was raised Catholic, but I was never satisfied with the explanations provided, especially surrounding death, the afterlife, things that differed from the scientific facts I learned and read about in school, and so on. I’d experienced loss early on, my paternal great-grandfather had died in front of myself and many of my family members unexpectedly at the age of 5. Fairly consistently from then on death was a major part of my life, as were major bouts of uncertainty with my mother, who was a heroin addict who lived with her own mental illnesses as well as Crohn’s disease. Her diseases often exacerbated one another.

So, starting around age 12, my depression began to manifest through severe isolation, numbness, hopelessness and using escapism and self-harm to manage what I was going through while still maintaining my grades as best I could. My anxiety and depression fed off one another, as did the undiagnosed ADHD, that was not diagnosed until college.

Against what was best for me, I was quite good at masking or hiding how bad things got for me, and it almost made it worse how hyper-aware I was of the logical and emotional side of what I was experiencing. I could understand that I was going to be okay, that my brain wasn’t healthy and that I needed other kinds of support, but it often frustrated me that I couldn’t make the pain of the mental illnesses resolve with simply knowing I was illogically feeling like the world was ending or that everyone hated me and I was an absolute failure.

Off and on I was able to advocate for myself that I needed more support than just talking to my dad or my grandmother, and this was something they often didn’t understand. Why would I need someone other than them to talk to? Why did I need to take medication or pay someone to listen to me? I pushed and pushed because it’s what I wanted and eventually I was able to start my journey of finding the right combination of medications to help support me as I went through life and therapies to help me manage what I was going through.

More recently, physical health, as well as an injury, have resulted in a large relapse into a major depressive episode that has been quite consuming, challenging my ability to function, participate in the things I love, feel like a person worth interacting with, and so on.

Jacobsen: Are there any other associated disabilities alongside the mental illness? How does this impact functioning in life? How does this seem to impact other people’s perspective of you?

Short: I live with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that can affect all areas of the digestive tract that can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, weight loss, malnutrition, increased risks of colon and related cancers , and also manifests in extraintestinal symptoms such as joint pain, fatigue, skin problems, eye problems, kidney and liver damage, and other issues related to complications from treatments. There is no cure for Crohn’s disease.

My life is severely impacted by Crohn’s, affecting what I can eat, my energy levels (which are also severely affected by my depression when it’s at its worst), and the fact that often my life must revolve around my medications. Primarily, every six weeks I have an infusion of an immunosuppressive biologic called Remicade that has its own plethora of risks and is very expensive.

I feel that because my disability is invisible and chronic, and because it varies in its severity based on the success of my current treatment and other variables in life, that I am often perceived as unreliable, flaky, and often fundamentally misunderstood. There are days that I can pass and function as a normal person my age would, but that could lead to a large setback and require a longer recovery time from a simple night out at the bars with friends. I never truly know how my next day is going to be, but there are many factors that allow me to predict which direction I’m headed and how to best mitigate the more severe end of my symptoms.

Jacobsen: What should people say to those meant to mental illness and with disabilities? What should they, certainly, not say to those same people?

Short: Honestly, there is not one thing someone can say to an individual with a mental illness, disability, or both. Just as folks not living with mental illness or disability have days when they’re down, struggling, or sick would not all need to hear the same thing, neither do those who are not able-bodied or living with mental illness. I think there are definitely some things not to say, such as: You don’t look sick! You’re too put together to have an x mental illness or x disability. But you have it so good, why are you depressed? You’re too young to be in that much pain or to be that sick. You’re just self-diagnosing. But you have so many friends, you shouldn’t feel alone. People have it so much worse.

There are so many things, some that seem so innocuous, that can have such a deep, painful impact on those living with mental illness or disability.

Jacobsen: What are some myths about mental illness? What are some myths about disabilities? What truths dispel those myths in either case?

Short: We will get better and not need medicine or talk therapy for the rest of our lives. We’ll grow out of it. Some do, some are able to get through what has been causing them so much pain, whether it be resolving a deeply seeded issue, getting through a bout of situational depression, which differs from the major depressive disorder. Similarly, with a disability, some disabilities and illnesses are temporary, but many are not. Wishing us well or to get better soon is sometimes quite painful to hear when we know for a fact there is no cure or that better is never permanent nor is it ever much past the threshold of our norm.

Some painful myths that I have noticed for myself and my friends who also live with mental illness and/or a disability is that we cannot truly have meaningful, fulfilling romantic relationships, can’t or don’t have sex, we are a drain on the system, we don’t work, that we just want pity, or that we don’t have the same aspirations and dreams that folks not living with mental illness or disability do. It seems silly to think that there are people who believe these sorts of things about those of us living with these conditions, but there are people out there like that. People who believe we should not be allowed to reproduce, make our own decisions about our bodies, and its that sort of ignorance and sometimes straight up hatred that can cause the most pain. Though at this moment I am speaking mostly for myself and how I perceive the world around me, I cannot say with complete certainty what others with mental illness or disability are feeling, I do have some consensus from my friends from conversations we’ve had. I honestly could go on and on about this topic because right now in society, so much is working against folks living with mental illness or disability, especially if they are not cis-white heterosexual middle-class men and women.

Jacobsen: Have you lost anyone to suicide? What was the event? What was your relation to them? What was the personal and social reaction to it? How do you cope? How do you move forward after the loss?

Short: Yes, I have lost two people in my life. The first was one of my best friend’s older brother’s in high school. He disappeared and was found in his car. He was the big brother and we were the annoying kid sister and her friend when we were at the house. We were all confused, not knowing something was so wrong that he was suicidal.

The one that had a more profound impact was my mother’s suicide. As I stated partly in an answer to a previous question, my mother was a heroin addict who was constantly between being clean and relapse, as many addicts are. She also had lived with depression; her life was not an easy one. She was born with a lazy eye, which was with her through her life and caused her anxiety and confidence issues. She was a brilliant young woman, with a lot of potentials, but her mother, my namesake Terri, suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction. It was not a cycle she was able to break. She also lived with Crohn’s disease, which was made much worse by her inability to take care of herself, her cigarette habit, as well as her heroin addiction. She was constantly in and out of the hospital, and this made me both numb to her telling us she was dying as well as made me severely anxious to be anywhere near a hospital.

The beginning of the end for her was after she had become severely ill in August of 2009 and had to be admitted to the hospital. She stayed in the hospital for 99 days. I visited her one time, and it was a traumatizing experience because she was a 35-year-old woman who looked like she was in her fifties, bed bound, and extremely ill. Things began to improve for her, she began to heal but was on dialysis, unable to walk, and soon enough “too well” to be kept in the hospital. She called my dad and me, asking if she could stay with us, and though ultimately it was not my decision, I told her no, I was in high school and wanted to not be held down by her anymore, I needed my space and could not imagine her living with my dad and I. I do know now that regardless of what I had decided, my dad would not have let her live with us. But she had nowhere to go, she’d worn out every family member over the years, so in the end, she was released from the hospital and went to stay with a friend. Twelve hours later, on November 3, 2009, she’d be found dead.

I got a call from my dad after school, I had gone to my boyfriend at the time’s house, and I was annoyed my dad was calling because he had given me permission to go to my boyfriend’s house. He told me I had to come home, and I told him I was given permission to go out that day. Well, the next thing he said made my heart stop and I was unable to process anything nor do anything but sob for ten minutes. “Your mom is with the angels now.”

Once I calmed down enough to tell my boyfriend what happened, he took me home, my grandma and my dad were both home and I sat there with them. I don’t remember much of that time processing it.

Now, we found out later on when I ordered the autopsy report from the coroner’s office that she died by an overdose of Benadryl and OxyContin that she had crushed and put into her dialysis catheter. She was not a dumb person, she knew what she was doing, but maybe she was just in pain and wanted to get some sleep… That’s something we’ll never know. She was alone. She left no note. She just left questions and a relationship that would stay one sided and painful.

Most often reactions to this are sympathy and an inability to quite understand what to do or say in response. My reaction was anger, immense sorrow, numbness, and overwhelming pain. Coping has not been consistent. It has been writing, music, crying, spending time with animals, drowning myself in sleep, in books, in video games. I have continued to take medication to manage my depression, anxiety, and grief. In the end, there has never been one thing that helps all of the time, nine years later, most often it just is not having to focus on it.

I move forward by being an advocate for mental health awareness, by trying to be as honest as I can about my mental illness and my experiences, to help others feel like they’re not alone, that there are others who experience similar pains and loss. I try to move forward by learning to accept, however, I have not made that much headway in that respect.

There will never be a recovery from this, similarly, as there is no cure for my depression, my anxiety, my Crohn’s; my mother’s suicide will always be a part of my life, but I am capable of turning all this pain and grief into something that will help others.

In the end, one of the things that help me the most with everything that I live with, that challenges me, is my ability to use my own experiences and pain to advocate for and help others on a personal, and hopefully on a systemic and institutional, level so we can be a healthier society.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Terrah.

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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