Hope for Healing – Mental Illness – Lavi Chimata

(upbeat music) – Hi, everybody. (audience greeting) You guys are awesome. (laughs) So today, I’m going to be talking about something that’s
very close to my heart, and is also quite difficult to discuss, and it’s mental illness. Mental illness as
probably, most of you know, is a complex subject. And it gets compounded by the
stigma associated with it. And that’s why I know that there are a whole bunch of you out there who are suffering in silence. You put on a brave face and
try to make it seem like, that you are calm and collected, but I know you’re suffering inside. And I wanna tell you my story. The story of how I silently suffered, and how I emerged on the other side. So, this is a picture
of me at ten years old. I was in fifth grade. This was also the year I
let my sister cut my hair, which is why one side
is… (audience laughing) shorter than the other side. Those things happen when
you’re little, you know? But, yeah. So, that’s ten year old Lavi. And this was also the year
I found a suicide note written by someone very close to me. This person never ended
up taking their life, but I spent the next
twenty-something years thinking it might happen. I ended up burying this event in my mind. I kept going on with my life. Went to school, spent time
with family and friends. Just regular life stuff. But at the same time it was infecting me. Infecting my brain and causing me to have significant anxiety symptoms. I was constantly worried that something terrible was about to happen. There were all these “what if” questions. What if this happened,
what if that happened? Just, I always jumped to the
worst possible conclusions. I was always catastrophizing
every situation. Was always on edge. But I kept it inside, and
I only really let it out when I was alone. So, there are these rituals
I had at night time. Like I would make sure the
door is locked, like ten times. Make sure, open and close, open and close, that it was locked, and
then I would go back to bed. And then I didn’t trust that
it was opened and closed, and I would open and
close, and open and close. And that’s because I had this idea that someone was gonna break
into the house and abduct me, or like, take me away
or hurt me in some way. It was just, the way that my mind went. That I was just, I had just
always went to that bad place. After I left home and went
to college, things got worse. My symptoms began
manifesting as physical ones. And they just became worse,
and worse, and worse. They began with acid
reflux, and ended with unexplained fainting and panic attacks. After I had fainted a couple of times, I had a bunch of medical tests done, because that’s what one
does when you faint a lot. But they couldn’t find
anything wrong with me. I had every test done
that could cause fainting, nothing was medically wrong with me. I wouldn’t connect this to
my anxiety until years later. Until I actually started studying it. This was also the time I
started having panic attacks. They were the typical
ones that you think of when someone says panic attacks. Feeling like you can’t breathe. Feeling like you’re gonna
have a heart attack. Feeling like the world’s
closing in on you. And because of all
these physical symptoms, my family took me to see a psychiatrist. He put me on anti-anxiety medication to help with the panic attacks. And the medication helped, it really did. It made the symptoms not as frequent, but the underlying anxiety was still there and I could still feel it lurking around. But I put on a brave
face through all of this. I looked like that. All dressed up, ready to
go out for New Year’s Eve. And I looked like this. Doing my job as a secretary of the organization at my college. I just kept going, had a smile on my face, did what I needed to do. So nobody would notice that
there was anything going on. I’m not really sure if
anyone outside of my family really knew what was going on with me. If anything happened to escape
me that was really unruly, I would blame it on my college stress and all that kind of stuff. I never would tell anybody the truth. Around this time, at the insistence of one of my family members, I began seeing a counselor for talk therapy. I went for a little while, but I had a lot of resistance to
it because this person wanted me to be honest with my feelings, and that wasn’t something I was gonna do. There was just too much
responsibility I had to take on too much adulting that I had to do, and I just wasn’t ready to do any of that. But this counselor was just
the beginning of my journey. I kept going on with my life. The panic attacks were mostly gone. Still fainted a couple times. The acid reflux was still unbearable. At this time too, I fell in love. And I thought I was gonna marry this man. But we broke up, and after that I fell into a deep depression, because anxiety and
depression live together. So, they’re a couple. (laughs) This time I began talk therapy again, and I made a little progress. And my focus with this counselor
was to focus on my mood. And at that time, I was pursuing a career that I did not like. So I tied my mood to changing my career. Looking back at this
experience now, knowing what I now know, I can say that the counselor wanted me to dig deeper and work on the root of my issues, which was the suicide note. But I wasn’t ready to go there. So she worked with me at
the level where I was at, which was to be as
functional as I could be. So, I decided to change
careers, and that happened to be a field where I
needed another degree. So, went back to graduate school. Went to Pittsburgh. It was fine at first,
but I was away from home. And I tried to make friends. And I did spend time with people, but I didn’t really
feel connected to them. And I, looking back now, I realize I had always had a problem
really connecting with people because I always held this
wall up to protect myself because I didn’t wanna let anybody know what was really going on with me. So I really couldn’t make
those deep connections because I always had
to keep myself removed. Just worried people were gonna
find out about my problems. So, I ended up isolating myself, and I became depressed again. But I somehow managed to finish school, and when I look back
at this time right now, it feels really slow in my mind. Really fuzzy. So in 2011 at the end of graduate school, I found Brave Girls Club. I took the Soul Restoration course online, which we heard about. Which is as amazing as
everyone says it is. And I loved it so much that I ended up going to camp that year. And it was a life-changing
experience for me. I was surrounded by women
who were compassionate and empathetic, and who didn’t judge me, and who understood me. And I was really able
to connect with others, I think for the very first time. I celebrated my birthday
at camp that year. And I’m quite peaceful. They made sure to celebrate my birthday even though I tried to hide it. They brought out a cake
with candles and everything. And whenever I talk about my journey now, I always say that Soul Restoration and camp were the
beginning of my awakening, because they really were. I was sleeping through life before them. After I got home from camp,
I started talk therapy again. Because all this stuff came out, and I really wanted to work on it then. And, this time it was incredible. I was just so much more open and receptive to doing the work, which is, unfortunately you need to be there
in order to do the work ’cause the counselor
can’t do the work for you. I worked on my thoughts and my feelings around finding the suicide note, and everything that happened after that. I had to go to really
dark places inside myself, and I had to shine the light
there which is really scary. And I had to own my part for
all of the decisions I made. And I had to set up boundaries. And I had to realize that all of this was really, really hard,
and I was gonna fail a lot. Which I still do. Because it’s an ongoing process and that’s just the way it is. But, I also learned that there’s always a new day to try again. So, there’s always hope,
even if you fail one day that the next day you
can get up and try again. I also had to work with my
thoughts about the trauma that I experienced about the suicide note, because it didn’t seem as big in my mind as other people’s traumas. I mean, I wasn’t the one
whose life was in danger, it was the person who wrote the note. And there seemed to be so many people who were suffering more than I was. And I felt like that. I didn’t feel like I deserved to get help for what happened to me,
’cause it didn’t feel like it was as big as other people’s. And I didn’t, I felt
shame around the fact that I had all those symptoms, and it didn’t really feel like it was it didn’t feel like it
equaled what happened. So I had to work on that. And some of you might feel the same way about things that have
happened in your life, that you don’t feel like it’s big enough. But, I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as the trauma Olympics. (audience laughing) There’s no leaderboard,
there’s no one ranking you, there’s no European judge. So, and why are we
comparing traumas anyway? If whatever happened
caused us to have symptoms that negatively affected
us, then that’s enough. All of this was tough,
but necessary because I realized I wanted to show up in my life with the best version of myself. I wanted to be genuine. I wanted to feel joy. I wanted to feel love. I wanted to connect deeply with others. And I wanted to better be able to serve. I wanted to play and have
fun, and look like this. I also wanted to show up for my family, because their love saved me. These are my parents, whose support over the years, I can never repay. Who never gave up on me,
continuously supported me, and made sure I got the help I needed. They showed me that nothing I would do would break their love for me. And these boys are my nephews. They deserve for me to
be present with them when I’m with them. To be mentally and physically
well enough to play with them, and teach them, and help them. And be there when they need me, because they are beautiful humans. After I made a lot of
progress in counseling, one of the things I
realized was that I kept pursuing careers that I
wasn’t passionate about. So once again decided to change my career, but this was a much more well
thought-out change of plan because it aligned with my genuine self. I decided to become a counselor, and to give back the way that I was served by my counselor. Becoming a counselor again required me to go back to graduate school which I will complete this December. (audience applauding and cheering) Thank you. Through this education, I
learned so much about counseling. I knew it worked,
because it worked for me, but I didn’t really get
how it worked, you know? So first, we’re taught to
really connect with our clients, because the relationship is
the most important thing. And we need to provide
empathy and compassion and active listening skills. For me, that means if
you come into my office, I will hold that space for you. I won’t judge you, because I don’t think you’re gonna say anything
to me that’s gonna shock me. We have gone, like,
that’s just the way it is. And, I will focus on you, and I won’t be focused on anything else. And that time is sacred and special, because you are sacred and special and you deserve that from me. So that’s what I do when
someone comes into my office. And then when clients feel safe enough, then we’ll try to work with them on what they want to work with…work on. We help them create goals
and achieve those goals. But this is all on the client’s terms. We take into account the
client’s values and beliefs, and we come up with
strategies that best fit them. Which is why what works for one client, may not work for another. It’s gotta be tailored to you. Because if I say I like to go
to the beach and sit there, you might think that’s
awful, and then you’re like, oh, well she’s a terrible counselor. So, it’s just, we have to
really get to know our clients, and make sure that we
do what’s best for them. And of course we wanna
work on the hard stuff, but sometimes we’re
just there to help with the current stressors. And we’re just a stop
on the client’s journey, just like that second
counselor was with me. We’re there to help clients learn tools, so they can deal with future
stressors on their own. In fact, I want you to
do so well in therapy, that you don’t come back. I want you to be able to
handle things on your own. That may or may not
happen, but that’s my goal. I’m looking to be unemployed. That’s what I want, I don’t
want you to come back. (audience applauding) I also learned that the
mind can only take so much, and if you don’t take
care of your stressors, they will overwhelm your
mind and express themselves as physical symptoms, like my
fainting and my panic attacks. And often people don’t come in to get help until it’s so bad that it’s unmanageable, and they don’t have anything
else that they can do. Which is what I did, and unfortunately, I suffered longer than necessary. Another, just quickly,
I’m running out of time. I just wanna talk about
something that blew my mind when I started studying and that was about inaccurate thinking patterns
called cognitive distortions. I can’t go through all of them right now, but I want you to know
that that catastrophizing I talked about, the what-ifs. This is gonna happen, this is
gonna happen, this is gonna… that’s one of those. And that blew my mind, because I thought I was the only one that did that. But apparently a lot of people do that, and it’s in a textbook. (audience laughing) And there’s another one
that I would do too, which, where I went back and then find the negative parts and I’d filter out all the positive parts, and only
focus on the negative thing, yeah I did that too. That’s called filtering. That’s in there too, apparently
other people do that. So, yeah, so all these
negative thinking patterns, they build upon our negative experiences. And they just reinforce in our brain that we should believe
all that negative stuff. And that’s not true. And there are ways that
a counselor can help you challenge those, and
reframe those, and test those. And show you that those
thoughts aren’t true, and that there’s another way to think. So, I wanna talk a little bit
about Soul Restoration here. And that even though I was learning all of these great things, I still came and got certified for Soul Restoration, because I’m gonna teach
that to my clients. Like, it’s so good, it deserves to be in a textbook too, next to all these… (audience applauding) It’s that good, it’s that good. That it should be up there with Freud, and learning my psychodynamic
theory and all that. So, yeah. He might be mad that I
said that, but, oh well. (laughs) And just a little side
note about medication, that’s also a tricky subject
for a lot of people to discuss. And whether or not someone
takes medication is a personal choice. I can only tell you my experience, and that it definitely
helped me to get over the physical symptoms. But it also brought me to
a place where I was able to really receive and understand what the counselor was trying to tell me. Because I wouldn’t have been able, at the level of depression that I was, I wouldn’t have been able to do that. So that’s what the medication did for me. And the combination of
medication, and counseling, and Soul Restoration, and
going to other retreats, circling with women. That’s what worked for me. It may not work for you, but
that’s what worked for me. And I don’t, if anything,
I don’t want anyone to feel shame around
the fact that they have to take medication in order to feel balanced and able to function. So I’m gonna end, I promise. (laughs) I know a lot of us grow up with the notion that we should not discuss
mental health issues, but I’m here to tell
you there’s another way. I want you to know that
your story matters, and there are people who wanna hear it. Talk therapy provides hope and tools that can help you to live your best life. Your troubles are not
a burden to counselors. In fact, they want to
listen, and are often called to this profession like I was. I’d like to end by saying if
you are suffering in silence, I want you to know that
there’s another way to live. I hope that if you feel the need, you will seek out resources
that can help you. And I hope that you
know that you are loved, and worthy of living your best life. Well, there was the last
line, but…thank you. (audience applauding)
Thanks for your time. Thank you. (audience cheering)

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