Imagine this, you’re 15 years old and you can’t get out of bed. You feel physically weighed down. You feel an intense sadness putting pressure on your body pinning you to your bed. You don’t know what’s wrong and you feel terrified to even tell anyone what’s happening to you. You feel so afraid and alone that you decide to take your own life.
This is how Cassandra’s story starts, but it does not end there. Mental illness knows no bounds. It can affect anyone at any time, especially if there’s a family history. It is very hard to fight through mental illness alone and sometimes takes a team of people to help a person suffering. For Cassandra it was severe major depressive disorder that derailed her dreams and a team of people at A-SPAN and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to help her get back on track.
While growing up in Arlington, Cassandra was very involved in extra-curricular activities. From cheerleading to the track team Cassandra always excelled, but her particular strength was in academics. However, at age 15 she had her first hospitalization and was diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder.
That experience in the hospital forever changed her. She decided then and there that she wanted to become a mental health counselor to change the standards of treatment and how counselors interact with clients. Following high school Cassandra attended James Madison University (JMU) and graduated with a degree in psychology. After finishing her undergraduate degree she knew if she wanted to effect true change she needed to continue school and pursue her master’s in mental health counseling.
A Dangerous Pattern
She chose to enroll in JMU’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Throughout undergrad Cassandra had developed a dangerous pattern. She would fall into severe depression, hiding her illness, not leaving her apartment or talking to people for weeks, and then end up hospitalized again.
“Each time I was hospitalized I would get medication and as soon as I started feeling a bit better I would stop the medicine,” said Cassandra.
The cycle continued throughout her graduate education. Understanding professors allowed her to make up any missed work or class time so her grades never slipped. In her final year of graduate school everything became too much to handle. The intensiveness of her program and the two jobs she had to work in order to attend sparked another major depressive episode, but this time it was harder to break free from the depression.
No Place to Heal
She was hospitalized again and released to her mother. Staying with her mother didn’t help. She was forced to drop out of her program, lost her jobs and could no longer afford her apartment. On top of a complicated family dynamic, she didn’t have a room there or a place where she could feel completely comfortable. From her mother’s home she bounced around a bit from couch to couch never having space of her own, hardly eating or interacting with people. Her family tried in their own way to help, but Cassandra needed more.
“I could not be at home and be happy and safe and thrive,” said Cassandra.
After her final hospitalization and suicide attempt she was released into a group home. Her time in the group home allowed her to get back into day to day activities. Simple things like having the energy or the desire to get up and wash her clothes or cook dinner was making a huge difference for Cassandra. Unfortunately, the group home was only meant to be transition housing and all the progress she made there was lost when she returned to her mother’s.
Connecting with A-SPAN
After some time and deep in depression, she forced herself to attend a counseling session at Arlington’s Department of Human Services. Her counselor helped connect her with A-SPAN. At A-SPAN she met with Ayana, A-SPAN’s Senior Housing Case Manager, who performed an intake interview and determined that she would be a good fit for the housing program. For the first time in months things seemed to be looking up for Cassandra. She was assigned a case manager, Rachel, and approved by an apartment building.
Following her move in and meeting with her A-SPAN Case Manager, Rachel, on a weekly basis, Cassandra slowly started getting back into things. She started by just going to the food bank and this meant she had to cook, an activity she previously enjoyed doing. Starting to cook again and having her own space led her to reflect on some things she had learned in her master’s program. She began thinking about how nutrition, fitness and mental health are all related. She became intentional with the foods she ate and along with medication and consistent exercise she began to notice a difference with herself and her mood.
“When we first met I could barely get her on the phone to check in, she would always be sleeping and didn’t want to do much. I have noticed a distinct change in her, she’s happier and more talkative,” spoke Rachel.
This self-improvement reminded Cassandra what it is that she always wanted to do with her life. She always wanted to help people and she is determined to do that now. Cassandra has created her own ministry that combines fitness with mental health and God. Through her ministry she has learned and is teaching others to take time with recovery, to take time with healing, because when you rush recovery things fall apart.
Cassandra no longer hides her illness which was a large part of her stress and eventual break downs. She uses her story to combat the stigma of mental health and help people from all over through her website and Youtube videos. Cassandra’s story is one of triumph, of beating the odds, and learning how to ask for help.
“I lost everything and now thanks to being housed by A-SPAN I have time to think, time to breathe and I’m taking steps to better my life and the lives of others,” remarked Cassandra.