Bella, age 12
“We are all different. Different maladies. Different things that go right and wrong, but you always have to try to understand others, because maybe one day it might happen to you.”
Bella is an articulate and mesmerizing teenager. I've known her mom for a long time, and she was present when I interviewed Bella.
Bella remembers anxious feelings during kindergarten in response to her teacher overreacting when she'd answer a question incorrectly. She had a lot of stomach aches during 2nd grade. By 4th grade, symptoms had escalated: visions of cutting herself, actually cutting and biting herself, and rubbing an eraser on her skin so it hurt—all to temporarily help the feelings of emptiness go away and feel more whole. She even thought about hurting other people, particularly her brother. It was at this point that Bella told her parents because she “knew things weren't right or healthy.”
Bella's parents have always been very supportive. Her mom’s advice to other parents is “stay calm. Keep your cool, cause you won't help your kids if you overreact. Be their biggest advocate. If it doesn't feel right [referring to an early misdiagnosis of schizoaffective disorder depressive type], keep searching for the answers.” Bella was eventually diagnosed with and is receiving treatment for severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
How does Bella's mental illness feel? “Kind of like static or moving pixels. A sense of strangeness or something wrong. Like fuzzy and confusing, nothing seems real. I go to my own mind and sometimes get trapped there.” She says one of the hardest things to explain is when it feels like something or someone is out to get her, even though no one is.
The worst point for Bella came when she had extreme thoughts of hurting and killing herself. She sent a message to a friend's mom, saying goodbye. That parent called Bella's parents. It was a heart-wrenching experience for her parents to see her admitted to the hospital. Bella was “nervous about it, partly caring, partly freaking out, part not caring.”
Bella says things are easier now, and didn't think she'd be in a good place this young. She's on medication that helps, and sees a therapist and psychiatrist. “I'm a lot better at dealing with emotions.” Drawing to express her feelings, plus listening to music and talking to her mom also helps her.
To other kids and adults Bella says, “Mental illness can happen at any age. No matter your experiences, race, no matter what you look like. You're still human, and brains are complex with plenty of room for things to go wrong, where mental illness steps in. But just like a machine might not be completely fixed, you can still work on it. Your mental illness is like that.”