Love Will Voices: Heather's Story

At LWF, it is important for us to share stories of those who are living with mental health issues and illnesses, as we know it offers not just awareness, but to provide hope and connection to those who need support. When we receive a new piece to share with you all, it's another reminder that we are not alone in these battles. Here is a beautifully written piece that was submitted to us and also featured on our website.

 

My name is Heather Butikofer and I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am an identical twin and we were both adopted together as infants. I have been married for 12 years and have three beautiful children. I have devoted my life to helping others, and have worked with the American Cancer Society and the Rape Revovery Center in Salt Lake City. I am an advocate for mental health as I have suffered with anxiety, depression, and OCD since I was a young girl. I love to tell my story so that I can help others know they’re not alone in their struggles.

heather

Photo credit: McKenzie McDonald Photography

My Mental Demons

I’ve probably had anxiety my entire life, but didn’t know quite what it was until I was in my twenties. In fact, looking back now at some of my earliest memories I know that I had anxiety. Perhaps not as bad as I do now, but it was there, lurking, like some evil creature that has continued to torture me. If I lost sight of my mom in any public space I would LOSE it, and not in a normal way, it was a very over-the-top spectacular meltdown. All because I thought my mom was gone and I was lost forever. Now knowing more about my anxiety and looking back on past memories I can recognize how much it was in my life. Unfortunately for me mental illness did not have as much awareness as it does today, so I suffered in silence. When I tried to explain to my parents what was happening to me, they told me to get more sleep, or to just “try and calm down”. I don’t blame them at all, because back then there was just not as much knowledge as there is now. I know for a fact that my anxiety would not have been as horrible of an issue now if back then I had some more help understanding it.

When I was 12, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and over the next year or so she was basically on her deathbed in a hospital. Because of this, a terrible OCD ensnared me. I was suddenly extremely aware and terrified of being sick and of death. Everything in the world became dangerous to me. I was in a constant state of panic, and wouldn’t want to touch certain things for fear of germs, and became a habitual hand washer. Sometimes it was to the point where my hands would bleed, and the water and blood would just mix in the sink as I watched in horror. I couldn’t stop until I had washed enough times to be satisfied.

I also had to tell the people I cared about that I loved them before we parted. If I didn’t, I was afraid they would die, or that I would, and our last words were not of love. These habits associated with my OCD would just increase my anxiety, so the two went hand-in-hand.

It was irrational, and the fact of the matter is that I KNEW it, but when you have an anxiety disorder, even if you know it’s “crazy”, you cannot stop it. That’s one of the hardest parts with anxiety, is that when it’s happening, and you say to yourself “Hey, it’s ok, this is not something that should be bugging you. Just calm down,” but your mind doesn’t seem to be listening to you, and your heart starts pounding, and head starts swimming and you feel like you’re losing control of your own mind. That’s when it gets scary and overwhelming, and you can spiral down into the abyss. Thankfully, I was able to control my OCD and these issues were able to be manageable and I could live a normal life, but for a few months it was complete hell.

My anxiety never became a bad problem again until I was a mom for the first time in 2008. When I was pregnant, I had my first real panic attack, and I had never had one in my life, so I naturally assumed I was dying. Some panic attacks can masquerade as a heart attack and have many of the same symptoms. After I was able to calm down, I had so many questions about what had just happened, as did my husband who witnessed it. A visit to my doctor gave us the answers we were looking for, and since then I have been trying to manage my anxiety.

It got increasingly worse though, as I had my second and then third children in 2010, and 2014. My mom passed away in 2015, I lost a baby six months after, and then had to watch my twin sister go through an abusive marriage and volatile divorce in 2016. These events and tragedies were the perfect storm for my anxiety to get out of control. It all came to a head in the summer of 2017.

At that point, I was in a constant state of panic. I felt fuzzy, and almost like I was moving in slow motion. None of my techniques I had learned over the years to calm myself down were working, and this put me into more of a panic as I felt control slipping from me. I was overwhelmed, and exhausted, and literally could not function normally. I needed help.

Thankfully, I was able to get into my doctor ASAP who prescribed me life-changing medication that leveled me out. I was also able to get into a therapist who taught me skills that I could do on my own to help talk myself through the anxiety, and eventually overcome it, and be able to stop it before it starts. I’m not saying it was an easy road, and I still have bad days (who doesn’t?) but the difference is that now I feel prepared and unafraid when the bouts of panic set in.

My anxiety demons will always be lurking in the shadows, but now I feel like I have the tools (or weapons), to defeat them should they choose to come out and fight. I am a strong believer that things happen for a reason, and because of my life-long battle with my mental issues, it has helped me help others. My 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with anxiety this year, and I have been able to help her so navigate through it which has helped her so much. I wish someone had been able to navigate me through it when I was young, because I believe that my anxiety would have never been this bad now had I been given these tools at a younger age.

 

I love to share my struggles because I don’t want others to feel alone like I did for so long. Let’s keep this conversation going and help others to feel safe enough to share their battles, and hopefully one day the stigma that surrounds mental health will be a thing of the past.

-Heather Butikofer

 

Love Will Voices is a new blog series featuring those who are or who have struggled with mental health. It is meant to bring awareness, understanding and support. If you would like to share your story with us, please email info@lovewillfoundation.org