Natashia joined the Army right after she graduated from high school. Joining the Army was her chance to start over in another city, to learn new skills, and to meet new people. She didn’t get letters from home like most of her fellow recruits, but she didn’t let that get her down. She was resilient, and she believed that made her strong.
During her training, she worked hard to overcome her obstacles. She became an Army medic and a sharp-shooter on the air assault team. She also got married and had a son. While exciting, all of this was exhausting and stressful. As a young, working mother, she experienced mood swings and often lost her temper, which she attributed to the stress and exhaustion of parenthood in the Army. Although she was proud of her Army service, when her company was deployed to Bosnia at the same time her husband was deployed to Panama, Natashia accepted a hardship discharge to raise her baby full-time. She hoped this would ease some of her stress.
Leaving the Army did not reduce Natashia’s drive. She took full advantage of the GI Bill to earn her Associate’s degree, eventually going on to earn her Bachelor’s, and then a Master’s Degree in Nursing and Informatics. She was pregnant with her second son when she started her nursing rotation. Unfortunately, Natashia’s marriage did not work out, and she found herself a divorced, single mother of two boys before she finished her Master’s program. Natashia’s career eventually took her to California where once again she tried to restart her life, just as she did when she joined the Army.
California provided a job, but not a support system, and Natashia’s moods were still not stable. Natashia found that she was tired and would lose her temper easily. After a long day at work, she’d yell at her sons about homework and dinner. Soon after they arrived in California, the boys asked to move in with their father in Virginia.
Reluctantly, she sent the boys to live with their father while she stayed in California. She knew she would miss them, but she wanted them to be happy and have a stable childhood. Natashia continued to work hard, but she missed her children and felt depressed. Her coworkers noticed changes in her behavior; her attitude towards work and her quality of work fell drastically. So, Natashia saw a doctor and was prescribed medication for depression, but this did little to help. Her boss encouraged her to take a leave of absence, and her therapist recommended an outpatient program for depression.
Natashia’s life was off-track and she felt desperate. She tried to kill herself the day before her outpatient program began. She blacked out for two days. When she awoke, she knew she needed help. She called the outpatient clinic and agreed to start the next day, but knowing she needed help immediately, they sent an ambulance to her door. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in California.
The hospital stay convinced Natashia that she needed to make additional changes in her life. She took positive steps towards healing, such as subleasing her apartment, restructuring her debt, applying for disability, and moving in with a friend. But when she was feeling ready to return to work, she learned her job was no longer available. This overwhelmed Natashia and she relapsed, once again trying to kill herself.
Natashia reached out to family even though her relationship with them had been strained in the past. Her family encouraged her to return to home to Baltimore to be closer to them. She moved into a cousin’s basement, but could not handle the stress and noise of young kids. She called the suicide hotline for help; an ambulance took her to the local hospital, and she was admitted to Sheppard Pratt. Making that call for help changed Natashia’s life.
When she was admitted to Sheppard Pratt, she was correctly diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. Bipolar disorder causes drastic shifts in mood and energy levels, and type II is characterized by numerous episodes of depression and mania, but the manic episodes are less severe than the depressive episodes.
Her doctors changed her medication to more accurately address her new diagnosis, and referred her to Mosaic Community Services, a community-based psychiatric rehabilitation program that’s part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System, for medication monitoring, therapy, and support services. Natashia also received housing support from Mosaic. Natashia started to feel better as she settled into a routine of therapy, art classes, and life with her new diagnoses and medications. She felt relieved to have a diagnosis that felt right, and medications that finally worked.
But, there was one more thing Natashia wanted to do. Since her family had been supportive since she moved back to Baltimore, she wanted them to know about her diagnosis. Natashia created a PowerPoint presentation that she emailed her family to educate them about bipolar disorder, and to help explain the behavior she’d exhibited for more than a decade.
The response she got was unexpected. Many relatives responded positively and shared that they also had bipolar disorder; it was the biggest secret in the family, since the fear of stigma had kept them silent. She was exasperated; bipolar disorder has genetic components, and if she had known it was so prevalent in her family, she could have informed her doctors and possibly gotten a correct diagnosis much earlier. Natashia felt let down by the stigma associated with mental illness, but also empowered that she helped others in her family open up.
Natashia feels grateful that she now has the right treatment and medications, but knows that it was a long journey to get there. With the enthusiasm and drive with which she tackled basic training, college, and a career, she is now an advocate for sharing stories, divulging family secrets, and telling the people the truth about mental illness. Natashia’s truth? That you do not need to keep mental illness a secret, but instead, that if you learn as much as you can and educate others, you can lead a full and meaningful life.
Today, we celebrate Natashia for her service and her mission to stamp out the stigma of mental illness.