I was fourteen when the flames licked the ceiling of the one-story house my family lived in, one morning after a burner mishap. My siblings and I, homeschooled at the time, were getting our day started right after our parents left for work. We lived in a white house with a picture window and blue, concrete steps that narrowed the further up the steps you walked. I was sitting at my dad’s gray, metal desk working on schoolwork while my sister made tea and my brother took a shower.
All was going well until I heard my sister exclaim and yell, “Amanda, get in here!”
I hopped up and swung around the corner of the white-tiled kitchen and watched as a flame was quickly building off a cast-iron skillet. The burner with the tea was cold, Abby accidentally having turned on the burner with leftover grease from that morning’s sausage.
After a minute of yelling, my brother came around the corner in a towel, his blue eyes wide. “What did you guys do?” he asked, sharply, looking from me to my sister and back. We briefly explained the situation and he left the kitchen, reappearing a minute later in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. I searched the cabinets for baking soda and tried sprinkling some over the pan before snatching my hand away at the last second, out of the way of the flame. The fire was climbing higher and higher and I knew that I had to stay in the house, but I also knew it was no longer safe for my brother and sister to stay.
“Go get Mr. Heaton,” I told them. Mr. Heaton was our next-door-neighbor at the time and worked nights, so oftentimes he was around during the day. They ran for the door and were across the yard in a minute. I remember watching them leave and staring up at the flame that had stretched from the burner all the way up to the ceiling and feeling the inexplicable emotion that I had to take on the danger on my own.
Something in me felt an unshakeable responsibility to not leave the house until the last possible moment that day. I was the oldest, the responsible one, the one who had to keep my siblings safe no matter the cost to me. Dramatic, maybe, but that was my firm belief system growing up and it played out into so many areas of my life. It played out when I started sneaking food, when I started pulling hair, when I started having panic attacks, when I started numbing myself to my reality, when I started surviving in the only ways I knew how. The message was always the same: be the strong one; they’re all counting on you.
Be strong. Keep quiet. Keep muscling through. Don’t look at the flames.
The day with the fire was miraculous in that I used the hose from the sink to put out the fire, which typically wouldn’t work on a grease fire, and called my siblings back inside. I was shaking, but the message of, “Be strong; they’re all counting on you,” was solidified even more.
I lived off that message until I broke. I lived off that message until I couldn’t leave a room without checking my bag at least three times. I lived off that message until I was finding places to hole away and pull hair. I lived off that message until I was 21, staring down at the rubble of my life and wondering what was wrong with me. I lived off that message until the intrusive thoughts and depressive spells and anxiety attacks were too much for me. I lived off that message until I started fantasizing about how I’d end my life, wishing I could just not exist anymore.
While I’d gotten pretty good at helping others, I didn’t know the first thing about raising a white flag of surrender for myself. I didn’t know the first thing about asking for something so vulnerable as help.
Twelve years after that fire I started sitting in the pale blue office that belongs to my therapist, a flamingo-decorated cup of hot coffee in my hand like clockwork every session. Everything I come from shouts against therapy and points to the Bible as the cure-all, but when I walked in that door for the first time I just felt permission to be.
For the first time in my life, I was allowed to be hurt. For the first time in my life, I was allowed to walk into a room and just let it go. I talked about everything that had ever hurt me–the unfair expectations placed on me, trying to be good, For the first time in my life, I heard someone say, “You have permission to pull your hair. You have permission to make mistakes.” It was like a waterfall of grace washing over me–allowed to make mistakes. Allowed to be human. Allowed to be imperfect. No agenda and no manipulation. No shame. God, no shame. Just working through the stuff, one story at a time. I unpacked my suitcase full of hurt and laid each thing out, one by one.
After over two years of sessions, I finally thought to tell her about the fire. I hadn’t thought about it in awhile, but looking back it was more formative than I’d thought at the time.
She listened to me carefully, before asking, “If the adult version of you walked into that same situation, what would she do differently?”
I looked her in the eye and said, indefinitely, “I would ask for help.”
That’s really it, reader. Out of all the fancy things I can tell you about mental health and out of all the stories I could unpack here, the one lesson that I’ve carried with me since getting better is simply: ask for help when you need it. There is no shame, no race to get better, no list of expectations. Just ask for help when you need it. Take the steps to get help because you owe it to yourself and your body to take care of you.
Maybe one day the stigma will be a paragraph in a history book about the world we live in currently, rather than reality. Maybe one day, society will look at a mental illness diagnosis the way they look at any other diagnosis: with respect. But for right now, keep fighting and keep asking for what you need. You are too important to take the chance of not getting help.
To conclude, I want to say that if anyone out there needs help, especially during this time, please feel free to reach out. My inbox is always open and I’m here to root you on, friend. There are resources there to help you; you are not a lost cause. Things might be at a stand still but your mental health is not.
National suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255