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‘I Needed Help’: A Young Woman’s Story of Battling Anxiety

  • Penelope Heller in an undated photograph. Courtesy photograph

Published: 11/3/2017 11:56:42 AM
Modified: 11/3/2017 1:30:54 PM

At the age of 16, Penelope Heller entered Mountain Valley Treatment Center in Pike, N.H., for severe anxiety. Now 21, Penelope, who lives in Manhattan, reflects on her experience.

I experienced a severe trauma when I was 7 years old. For all of my childhood and early adolescence, I kept the trauma to myself and never discussed the swarm of mental and physical problems that followed the trauma.

When I reached adolescence, my obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and overall anxiety got worse and were simply too much for me to deal with all on my own.

Throughout elementary school, middle school and the beginning of high school, I was able to function, but in late October of my sophomore year I couldn’t face getting out of bed. The feelings of extreme hopelessness and helplessness were too overwhelming and I needed help.

I did not refuse to go to school, but upon explaining my feelings to my parents, we all decided that I needed to leave school and seek treatment.

I entered a partial hospitalization program in New York City, where I received a diagnosis of depression and began my treatment. Since I was still not discussing my trauma and was being quite vague about the roots of my depression and anxiety, it was difficult for my treatment team to come up with a concrete treatment plan. It took me a few months to explain what I was experiencing in greater detail, and by early winter I started describing obsessive thought patterns and compulsions, which gave my psychiatrist a better idea of what I needed. With the help of a social worker and an educational consultant, we found Mountain Valley Treatment Center.

In February, after several months of nonspecific treatment with little to no direction, I went to Mountain Valley Treatment Center to target my OCD head on. At that point, my OCD and depression were quite severe, but after several weeks of therapy, I was able to talk about the trauma that had taken place. Addressing my anxiety, which included OCD, helped clear a path for me to talk about my childhood trauma.

I spent so much of my time and mental energy on compulsions — including compulsive folding, water-drinking, hand washing and various forms of counting — that performing daily tasks like getting out of bed and brushing my teeth were simply too daunting. I remember having to fight with myself to such a degree to take a shower that I ended up writing a list of pros and cons to help me decide whether I was actually capable of taking a shower.

Doing the work to address that, and to decrease the time I spent in a day on compulsions, increased the time and energy I could use on therapeutic activities such as exposure therapy, equine therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Exposure therapy (in which an individual is deliberately exposed to anxiety triggers) was incredibly difficult and painful. I could wrap my head around it intellectually, but it was really hard to make myself anxious, to deal with the anxiety, and to talk about it afterward. Doing the exercises repeatedly yielded a dramatic decrease in my symptoms, which encouraged me to forge ahead.

I continued working with my treatment team to focus on my OCD and four months later, I was ready to graduate from Mountain Valley Treatment Center.

I still had a great deal of work ahead of me, but I was relieved and excited to go home to my family. Once home, I attended a customized homeschooling and therapeutic program for just over a year, and then applied to get myself back to high school.

I decided to attend a new school to get a fresh start and move forward. I graduated from high school, took a gap year, and plan to attend the University of Vermont in January.

My work on my OCD continues, but my compulsions are mostly managed and now are limited to counting and pattern-making in my head. Most of my focus is on my post-traumatic stress disorder, which requires maturity, resilience and the ability to self-soothe. …

I no longer experience the extreme anxiety and depression that would keep me in bed and prevent me from socializing and enjoying my life.

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