Grace Estelle Balestracci submitted 2020-07-28

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Depression ii. Most days, I don’t have the strength to get out of bed in the morning, and the weight of the world made me feel like I’m drowning- but my family refused to accept it. My dad and his side of the family told me that I was okay and that I didn’t need the medication to just “smile.” My family is very concerned with self image, and the stigma of a mental illness tainting that image scared them. So, with that in mind, I put on a happy face and went off my medication. I smiled and made it seem like I was the happiest person in the world.

Eventually, I relapsed. I started slipping back into old habits and suddenly couldn’t remember how to get out of bed in the morning or remember to eat. I ended up going back on the medication but not before my GPA and high school transcript were affected . My grades went from As and Bs to Cs and Ds and I couldn’t stop it. I know I have control of it, and I know I can fix it, but somehow I convince myself I am unable to. It’s like drowning but everyone around me can breathe.

Most people in the recovery stages of depression often say they want to be themselves again. In my experience, that’s not possible. Depression affects you in ways that I have often found myself struggling to explain to my doctors, parents and even myself. There will always be an indifference where your enthusiasm fades away, a shame or guilt that is associated with certain memories or activities that never passes, a hopelessness that makes you feel like if things change it will be for the worse, and an anxiety that makes doing some things nearly impossible. Insomnia will romance me into thinking I’m better, yet I get drunk on my hopelessness.

However, not everything about depression is damaging. My struggle with this illness has left me with a drive that I have never felt before. It has shown me and given me ways to turn my melancholy into a passion for helping others. It has taught me a lesson in humility and made me more compassionate. I’ve learned to read the sadness in the room, and I am no longer bashful of making it a personal goal to help. One of the most important benefits, in my opinion, is I no longer fear death. Here’s the thing about depression–afterwards it forces you to live your life to the fullest every day.

When I started at Westerly Hospital as a CNA, I didn’t know what to expect. I was hoping for a path into nursing, but while I was here I discovered a passion for dental hygiene. While this is not an anticipated move from nursing to dental work, working alongside my coworkers in the Geriatric Psych unit I saw the amazing work they were doing to help people even when they do not want to be here. I have always had a passion for dental work, but helping people psychologically and helping them get through trauma showed me that even one person can make a difference in someone’s day. Most people hate the dentist, and I hope that I can be the light that this hospital has shown me that I can be for the patients that walk into the dentist.

As for where I am now, I do see a future for myself once again and I can see a way out of the darkness. I have taught myself how to smile again, and how to overcome obstacles rather than be sedentary in my life.

With this in mind, it hasn’t always remained on a stable uphill path. Starting in my second semester of high school, I couldn’t hold on to anyone and everyone in my life either disappeared like my grandparents, passed away, or became ill. I would keep going back to my doctors telling them the medication wasn’t working. I kept getting anxiety attacks which would cripple me into the corner of my room sobbing and leave me wanting to die. I eventually gave up the battle with my doctors and went off my medications so that I could go to a doctor in September when I was 18 and no longer a minor. My bed still holds me captive and I just can’t seem to muster the energy to move. While my mental illness has held me back over the last set of months, there is no doubt that college and the summer wont have their own set of challenges, but I’m confident I can adapt to these new changes.

After graduating high school, I received my Certified Nursing Assistant certification, as well as my Basic Life Support CPR certification, and my first aid certification. With these, I started at a local hospital in their Geriatric Psychology unit where I also work on the medical/surgical unit. This unfortunately was right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck our small, rural community. Working within mental health was already a challenge for me, but when patients come in voicing the same concerns I have with the pandemic and the outside world, it became more difficult. Going to work was always a struggle for me anyway, but when I am trying to help a patient work through the same mental disabilities that I have coinciding with the same anxiety about the world, it was more challenging than I was anticipating. I started as a nursing aid as a stepping stone in my pathway to become a registered nurse. However, now fighting my way through a pandemic has made me question my path. I do still know that I want to work in healthcare, which is something I have known since I was little. However, the journey my life has taken me in led me to reassess the environment in which I wanted to work, and spend my future. I have spent the past six months terrified about what I am bringing home to my mother who already has preexisting conditions, and have isolated myself from all of my remaining family in fear that I am a carrier or have been exposed to it while working 70+ hours a week.

With lots of careful planning, I chose a Dental Hygienist degree. It still allows me to work in healthcare, while allowing my mental health to not suffer as a consequence. I won’t have to worry about what I am bringing home to my family, and I won’t be physically and mentally exhausted from working sixteen hour shifts overnight. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is the importance of dedication and hard work. While I know I have helped countless people as a mental health worker, and working with COVID positive patients helping to treat and heal them, I have seen so much, and as a result I have changed as a person. Seeing so many people die from something so powerful makes your heart shatter in innumerable ways. When you are surrounded by death, the best thing you can do is band together with your coworkers and be a shoulder to cry on. However, the smile that you see when you discharge a patient who has fought tooth and nail to beat the virus who has now been declared negative, it is the best feeling in the world. I wish my days were filled with times like these, but unfortunately they’re not. I have found that nursing is not for me, but that my passion is creating the smiles that I wish I saw every moment of my job.

Thank you.