Updated: Apr 21, 2020
This week I had the absolute privilege of diving deeper into the life of an incredible person, who also happens to be my sister-in-law. Meet Brinley!
Before I tell you her story, I just want to say that I am so excited to be starting this blog. I would have loved to have something like this when I first started struggling with mental illness, and I truly hope it can be a source of hope for someone reading this.
If you have a story to share, visit the Contact Me tab and let’s set up a time to chat!
Trigger Warning: Self harm
Brinley was born in Provo, Utah, but moved to Youngsville, North Carolina at age 9 with her two parents and three younger siblings. As many of us probably did, Brinley grew up not knowing much about mental illness. Two of her siblings were diagnosed with ADHD, but that was the only labelled disorder she was aware of. At no fault of her parents, she didn’t know that depression existed and that her sadness was not normal. While she felt safe talking to her parents, she didn’t want to be a burden, which is a feeling that has followed Brinley throughout her life.
As the oldest sibling, she felt a responsibility that only oldest siblings do. She didn’t want to take up too much of her parents’ time and was well known in her community as the “happy, low maintenance child.” While this was only an observation, Brinley internalized it as an expectation for herself. She wanted to remain that easy-going person who wasn’t a burden on anyone.
She expressed to me that she was afraid to need help, afraid of taking time away from her siblings, and felt that she was responsible for her own well-being and should be able to take care of herself. The constant pressure she put on herself to be a perfect child led to a lot of anxiety, in addition to the anxiety she was already struggling to identify.
8th grade introduced depression. While Brinley realizes now that she felt the effects of depression at a much younger age, 13/14 is when she started calling it by its name. Well… Almost.
In the hours that I spent talking with Brinley and listening to her story, I noticed a few things about her. One was that she is a terrible advocate for herself! While she would never invalidate someone else’s feelings, it seems she’s been doing it to herself for years. Spoiler alert: When we talk about her healing process, you’ll learn that becoming a Brinley Helsel advocate is a big part of her future.
She recognized that she was “feeling depressed,” but there was no way she had depression when she was living a perfectly privileged life. As a white, middle-class citizen attending a private school, she felt that she didn’t have a hard enough life to have depression. Not when there are starving children in Africa. She also expressed that she didn’t want to have depression. That would strip away the identity she had created for herself - low maintenance, happy, easy-going… And unfortunately - some of you will relate to this more than others - she resorted to Tumblr to figure out her feelings.
If you’ve never used Tumblr, and I definitely don’t encourage you to, it’s a microblogging and social networking website. But there’s a very dark side to Tumblr where hurting teenagers post pictures and blog posts about their pain. There’s a lot of suicidal romanticization, pictures of self harm, poems about depression, etc. This side of Tumblr is like a giant online platform to vent to strangers with no consequences, and the danger is that no one is really there to help you - just to read the things you share so they can feel less alone in the scary feelings they’re experiencing.
“Depression on Tumblr resembled a death sentence, or a lifetime of being a burden. I was mainly worried about the people around me.” Brinley was in denial, but at the same time coping with her feelings in the ways Tumblr taught her to.
Word got around the school that Brinley had been harming herself, and rather than being concerned, the other students seemed to adopt this act as a ploy for attention. Brinley and I discussed the hard responsibility that parents have when it comes to deciding when to tell children about mental illness and the things associated with it. I think it’s different for every family, but I do know one thing… If the students at her school had known to tell an adult when one of their friends is experiencing self-harm, then some of the damage could have been avoided. Not to blame parents, but mental illness shouldn’t be a secret or a taboo topic anymore. Teenagers should know about warning signs in their friends and in themselves.
Luckily, there was one student who knew from her own experiences that Brinley was displaying red flags. She went to a teacher and Brinley’s mother was made aware of the situation at hand. And props to this mama for everything she has done since that moment! She took Brinley to a psychiatrist and did everything in her power to help her daughter. At such a fragile age, and with so many confusing emotions, Brinley was very angry with her mom. Again, she didn’t want to have depression, she didn’t want to be a burden, she felt a lot of guilt over what had happened at school, and in addition to all of that, she was embarrassed.
Brinley’s mother was a nurse at a school for troubled girls, and Brinley felt like a patient instead of a daughter. She recalls having to lift her tongue to prove she had swallowed her pills and strip down to her underwear to be checked for any evidence of self harm. As a teenage girl, she felt humiliated. As a daughter who already felt alone and misunderstood, she also felt dehumanized. And weaved through all of these feelings was guilt.
I mentioned before that I noticed a few things about Brinley as she spoke. She feels a lot of guilt. Guilt for having mental illness, guilt for feeling any kind of happiness, guilt for self harm and introducing others to it. At one point in her life, she even questioned if God was punishing her for her own existence and felt that harming herself was atonement for the things she had done wrong. It truly broke my heart to hear about all of the feelings of guilt she experienced. But things started to look up…
“Something needed to change.”
In the midst of feeling like she didn’t have a right to have depression, Brinley realized that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. In her own words, “Depression doesn’t care who you are. It strikes anyway.” The life you live doesn’t matter - race, gender, age, wealth, social status - Anyone can struggle with it.
When I asked Brinley what drove her to begin allowing herself to heal, her answer was remarkable - for several reasons. She accepted that she did have depression, anxiety, and even a sleep disorder piled on top of everything. She accepted that she needed to stop hurting herself, accept help, and begin the journey to healing. But she wasn’t doing it for herself. She was doing it for everyone around her.
“Looking back, I feel like there were a lot of reasons I struggled. I probably won’t understand all of them in this life, but the biggest one that I can come up with is so that I could relate to other people better, understand what they’re going through, and help them so that they don’t take the path that I took, or help them out of the path that I was on.”
So the picture I have painted for you of this angry, hurting teenager begins to shift. Her feelings of guilt and burden moved her to want to get better for others. Not just so that she wouldn’t be a burden on her parents, not just to stop taking time away from her siblings, but so that she could be someone for someone else. She wanted to live to be someone else’s light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on this thought. At the core of Brinley is this feeling of responsibility for others. When she is unhealthy, this manifests itself as guilt, feeling like a burden, and hiding her feelings to spare others. But in her healthy state of mind, this manifests itself as hope, the desire to help others, and actually being vulnerable in order to make others feel less alone. One personality trait - Two completely different outcomes.
So who is Brinley when she’s healing? She’s the same person, but instead of feelings of burden, guilt, and hopelessness, she works to turn it into responsibility, empathy, and hope for others around her. What does her healing process look like? One word: Balance.
Everyone’s healing process is going to look different in both time and strategy, but the root of all healing, in my opinion, is Balance. For Brinley, it’s balancing her treatments - finding the right medications and therapies. Balancing her work - finding the right job for her mental health. Balancing her thoughts - not dwelling on her pain, but also recognizing that it exists. Balancing her sleep schedule, accepting help while learning to trust herself, finding community, and even getting a dog are all parts of Brinley’s plan to continue healing.
With the concept of life being a balancing act comes the assumption that you’re never fully healed. Brinley agrees with this - she will most likely always struggle with her mental illness, but she has hope in the idea that it won’t always be as hard as it used to be, or even as hard as it is now. She wants to continue growing, continue learning to balance, continue getting stronger. She’ll lose her balance sometimes. Yes, she’ll fall down. But she’ll have learned how to let others help her up and not feel guilty about it. She’ll have learned the strength to keep moving forward.
From one of my favorite poems by Shayne Koyczan...
“But our lives will only ever always continue to be a balancing act that has less to do with pain and more to do with beauty.”
As hard as her life has been, Brinley believes that it has made her a better person. She knows how to recognize signs of struggle in others, she’s become a better listener, and has a better understanding of different kinds of people and how to help them.
I asked Brinley what she would want to say to others who are hurting in the ways that she has, and again she hit me with some beautiful words. So take a deep breath, and read these words of hope…
How you’re feeling now is not how it’s going to be forever. How your life is now is not how it’s going to be forever. Nothing lasts forever.
Be realistic. There is no magical cure, but things will get better. They will. Your mental illness isn’t going to go away, the things that have happened to you will still matter. But they won’t always have such a big impact on your life.
An excerpt from a poem I wrote a few years ago during a particularly trying time seemed to summarize this idea of a balancing act:
It’s okay to heal at your own pace. You don’t need to put time constraints on yourself. Don’t put pressure on yourself.
Tomorrow is a clean slate. It’s a new start. And tomorrow might suck too, but there will be a lot more tomorrows that won’t.
I AM A LIVING MANIFESTATION OF THE IDEA THAT THINGS DO GET BETTER. I AM LIVING PROOF THAT THERE’S A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. -BRINLEY HELSEL
Brinley has chosen a perfectly fitting sticker to discount for you guys this week. Use the code "YOURSTORY" for 25% off!