Caitlin: Learning To Live A New Life

The views and opinions expressed in the following story are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Mental Health Colorado.

By: Caitlin Hackett

My mental health journey began at a very young age. When I was about 3, my older sister, Maggie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Sanfilippo Syndrome.  A few years later, my brother, Keegan was born and given the same diagnosis. It’s a complicated disorder but essentially, their bodies began shutting down at a very young age, and ultimately, they would never make it to their teenage years.  Maggie died at the age of 10 (I was 9) and my brother died at the age of 12 (I was 14). When Maggie died, I don’t think I completely grasped everything I was feeling.  Hell, I went to school the day after it happened.  I was so young, and I think I bottled it all up to try and protect myself.  We also still had Keegan to take care of so it felt as if there was no time to grieve.  But when he died, it hit me hard. Unlike most children, I grew up in a house with hospital beds, feeding tubes, changing tables, and medications.  I didn’t know any different. Now that both Maggie and Keegan were gone, so was everything that came with them.  The house looked and felt different and I had to learn how to live this new life without medical equipment or doctor’s appointments and worst of all, without my brother and sister.

The grief I had bottled up when my sister died combined with the grief of my brother’s death overcame me.  The fall after Keegan died, I started high school and the transition did not go smoothly.  The first school I attended did not give me the mental health support I needed so I transferred to a different school.  While this school WAS supportive, it felt too late.  I woke up every morning either too depressed to move or uncontrollably crying and shaking due to a panic attack.  I ended up having to be homeschooled for two months and I couldn’t even function enough for that some days. Luckily, I was privileged enough to be able to see a psychiatrist who helped me immensely but it took time. She put me on antidepressants and an anxiety/sleeping pill which helped a lot.  However, I thought about suicide a lot and took about 4 of my sleeping pills one night with the initial intention of killing myself but got too scared after the 4th one.

With a lot of support from friends and family, I was able to return to school for second semester and flourished.  I ran cross country and found my people.  I had counselors and teachers that cared about me. I was surrounded by love and support and felt like I had conquered my mental health.  Then came college.

Due to the struggles I had during my freshmen year of high school, my GPA was lower than I would have liked and was waitlisted at my first choice school.  I went to my second choice school in the fall and was miserable.  I was hospitalized one night due to suicidal ideation and my parents drove 4 hours to come get me so I wouldn’t be placed on a 72-hour hold.  My depression and anxiety felt worse than ever. The support system I had built in high school was gone and I realized I couldn’t always rely on other people to get me through my mental health.  I had to be strong enough to support myself as well.  I grew so much that semester and discovered what coping skills worked for me.  I went running as much as I could.  I read Harry Potter every night.  I called my mom and my friends frequently.  I listened to music and practiced deep breathing when I felt a panic attack coming on.  Then, one day, I decided to apply to transfer to my first-choice school that semester with the expectation that I wouldn’t get in.  I got an acceptance letter 2 weeks later.  That was the first time I ever cried tears of joy.  Not only because I finally got into my first choice school but because I realized I did it.  I made it to the “it gets better” part of life.  I learned to live this new life.  This new, imperfect life in which I had to accept the pain of losing my siblings and come out stronger.  My pain turned into something beautiful.  I graduated with a degree in psychology and went onto graduate school for school psychology. I’m now a school psychologist and get to teach students what I learned through my mental health journey.

Losing my brother and sister has been the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.  It always will be.  But I feel so incredibly grateful to have been their sister and to have ended up where I am today.  There were so many times where I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I didn’t think it was possible to survive so much pain.  I didn’t think I could ever learn to live this new life without my siblings.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t still have my moments of vulnerability and feel that pain again.  This is just the surface of my journey with mental health and I’m sure my story will continue to evolve throughout my lifetime.  And I can’t wait to continue to share my story, listen to other’s stories, and advocate for change to make getting to the light at the end of the tunnel a little easier.