“I still struggle,” 26-year-old Bryana Mendez says, “It's like a game of mental tug-of-war at times, but it's not actually fun.”
Mendez considers herself to be a private person and somewhat of an introvert. She’d never dreamed of sharing her mental health story publicly before. Even with a family history of mental illness, Mendez says those close to her still don’t know she’s had a hard time with anxiety, depression, self-harming and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, she hopes sharing her experience now might help someone else.
Besides, it was confiding in someone during some of Mendez’s darkest days that likely saved her life.
Dark Days of Mental Health
After talking to a family member who also experiences anxiety, it was suggested Mendez work with her primary care doctor to get some help. Although Mendez says her doctor was helpful, the medication she was prescribed didn’t work as well as she’d hoped. Being too afraid to go back, she says things got worse.
“I started having anxiety and panic attacks. I used to work overnight and, after work, I would walk along the highway to get exercise. During those walks, I started having thoughts to walk in front of a car or train. Those thoughts kept coming more often, so I knew it was time to get help,” Mendez says.
Ongoing thoughts of harming herself eventually brought Mendez to the emergency room twice. Each visit to the ER was followed by an inpatient stay at a hospital mental health unit. Only 24 hours, she admits her first inpatient stay at the hospital didn’t help much.
“In the ER the first time, I went to inpatient, and I panicked because I felt like I was in jail. I admitted myself, and I had self-harmed, so I knew I was going up there. Then, I panicked because I couldn’t leave,” she says.
However, her second inpatient stay of four days finally allowed Mendez to take the first steps toward healing. During this visit to the hospital, she met two people who made a lasting impact on her recovery. The first was a police officer who took her to the ER and stayed with her. Mendez says she’ll never forget how safe he made her feel during such an uncertain time. She also met Megan Simpson, licensed social worker, in the mental health unit.
“She came to my first appointment. At first, I was terrified of her. But Megan kept me safe when I couldn’t keep myself safe,” Mendez says.
Simpson recalls Mendez being distant and distracted when she first met her.
“She wouldn’t make eye contact with me, would barely speak to me and when I pushed, she pushed back 10 times as hard. I knew this would be a hard shell to break, but I could see it in her. She wanted help, and I wanted to provide that.”
Finding Help, Healing and Hope
Simpson knew several trips to the ER meant Mendez wasn’t getting the support she needed outside of the hospital. So, she helped Mendez enroll in an outpatient therapy program through UnityPoint Health called New Beginnings. On the first day of therapy, Mendez met Brianna Sommervold, another licensed social worker.
“When I met Bryana, she would sit on the floor, facing the other direction to avoid any possibility of eye contact. Her trust level was basically non-existent, and she would attempt to push you away in fear of the possibility of you pushing her away first,” Sommervold says.
Months of being in the program soon turned into years—years of learning about herself and adopting new tools to start living life on her own.
Living & Thriving with Mental Illness
“Once Bri said she had a personal fear if she didn’t discharge me, I would rely on them too much, and I wouldn’t succeed in life. In the past, I would hold myself back, so I could keep them in my life,” Mendez says.
“I remember that conversation,” Sommervold says. “When it came time to set a discharge date, Bryana was nervous to not have the program as a constant in her life. To help her understand, I expressed why our program isn’t meant to last forever. She needed to prove to herself she could do it on her own. She had the skills, she knew her symptoms and understood her resources.”
With the help of her care team, the right medication and plenty of self-reflection and patience, Mendez says she’s in a good place now. She’s stopped self-harming and is living and thriving with her mental illness.
“One thing Brianna and Megan taught me is how to advocate for myself, to be assertive even though it's not easy. And just because life looks dark at certain moments, it doesn’t mean light isn’t coming,” Mendez adds.
Even though she doesn’t see Sommervold and Simpson for therapy anymore, she stays in touch to share when good things happen, including her recent college graduation and joining an animal psychology program, which will give her the opportunity to continue learning and developing her love for horses.
“She’s one of the best success stories of my entire career. There were so many ups and downs, so many barriers to her success that were outside of her control, and she kept going. She kept appointments, she kept in contact, she made plans to keep herself safe in case things got overwhelming and she volunteered. I could name a million things. But overall, SHE did the work, and SHE deserves all the credit. Every step she takes is another reason I smile,” Simpson says.
Mendez hopes sharing her story will inspire others to get the help they need, and that living with mental illness is possible with support.
She shares one last piece of advice for anyone out there who might need it.
“Keep trying. If you can’t find help one place, go to another. I found help in some unexpected places. A lady from Barnes and Noble helped me get a phone number for UnityPoint Heath once. And, when I started volunteering at a non-profit, the director helped me connect with horses, which turned out to be very healing for me. There’s support out there, you just need to take the first step to ask,” Mendez says.