Feature Friday: Julie

I found Julie through watching her on a Hi-Five Live with Ganel-Lyn Condie and then was lucky enough to meet her at a launch party in May. We have become close friends since and she has been a huge blessing to me in my life, I don’t know what I would do without her. Her story is one that I believe many can relate to.
Julie Bristow is originally from Holladay, Utah, but has resided in Orem, Utah for the past 13 years with her husband and 3 young children (including boy/girl twins). She graduated from the University of Utah in Human Development and Family Studies. She is passionate about people and making meaningful connections. She worked in health administration at various clinics and hospitals for over a decade after college graduation. She met her husband, Jared, when they were both working as “Especially For Youth” counselors in Rexburg, Idaho. Currently, she is a full-time stay at home mom. She is incredibly passionate about being a mental health advocate. She aims to break the stigma associated with mental health in hopes to pave the way for open conversation of such critical matters. Mental health struggles, mainly in the form of chronic depression and anxiety, have been a part of her life since she was a teenager. She is determined to live a life full of joy despite any darkness trying to pull her down. Some of her other passions include: time spent with family, interior design and decor, writing, photography, dancing in the kitchen with her family, and naps.

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Photo by Michelle Cluff Photography.

“Joy Amidst the Sorrow”

I am not depression and anxiety. I am Julie. Just a regular person. My circumstances and hardships do not define me. Your circumstances and hardships do not define you. They are a part of our earthly experience. Twenty-one years of suffering from chronic depression and anxiety are part of my story. I have to accept that. Remembering that along the way our trials help shape and mold us in the refiner’s fire so that we may someday reach our Divine potential. To that end, I endure. To that end, I find joy, hope, and fulfillment despite the darkness, pain, and loneliness.

In my personal experience, I am taught that joy and pain can coexist. That even though I often feel wrapped up in darkness, somehow a knowledge of hope somewhere deep inside of me gets me through one day at a time. I am living, breathing, walking proof of daily struggle and daily joy.

Teenage years/Onset

I first felt of depression and anxiety when I was 17-years-old. Between my Junior and Senior years of high school.

I had no reason to be depressed. No trauma, no unpleasant situations or experiences. No environmental factors. Nothing. In fact, my life had been pretty golden. Why, one day, could I not get out of bed? I still don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that a medical history of depression and anxiety run heavily in my family. At this time, I was the Junior Class president in my high school, a nearly straight-A student, surrounded with a good family, amazing friends, a joyful countenance, and a testimony of Jesus Christ.

I then went to not being able to get out of bed by my Senior year of high school. I remember missing my morning classes and sometimes full days. My friends teased me that I had “senioritis”. I laughed with them, while simultaneously feeling hurt and confused inside. I didn’t know how to explain to them what was going on because I myself didn’t know what was going on. I was just reacting to this strange, new way of being as it came creeping in day by day.

My dear mom eventually dragged me to see some sort of mental health specialist. I don’t remember who because I was too busy throwing an epic fit of protest.  I screamed, cried, and yelled at her. I didn’t want to be different from my peers. I didn’t want to have problems. I told her I didn’t need medicine and that if I just had enough faith and believed in Jesus Christ enough, that He could heal me. I really thought I could pray it away. Spoiler alert: I couldn’t pray my depression and anxiety away. I ended up starting on some medication and counseling, which is what I personally needed.

High school graduation came and I did graduate from high school, although not with the grades I had kept up my whole schooling and really hoped to graduate with. But I did graduate. That was the beginning of many miracles that the Lord would provide for me as I continued and tried my hardest to be faithful to what I believed to be true despite feeling awful inside due to depression and anxiety plaguing me.

College

After high school, I attended college and graduated by another God-given miracle. Part of that particular miracle was the American with Disabilities Act. After missing so many classes and finding it nearly impossible to focus and study with the raging depression and anxiety I went to the disabilities office on campus and asked what I needed to do to qualify. I needed a note from both my counselor and psychiatrist. I turned in the notes with my diagnosis and recommendations from my doctors and now I was on the “disabled” list which in effect meant I had extra time to get my homework in and extra time to take tests or turn in projects. I don’t know that I would have graduated college without that.

But I did, I graduated college with a Major in Human Development and Family Studies. I cannot deny God’s hand in the achievement of yet another milestone of my life. It was another life line He threw out to help me achieve my dreams to live the kind of life I so desperately wanted despite my limitations and challenges.

Full-time work

Entering the full-time workforce after college graduation was no easy task. I have had a job ever since I was fifteen years old. After the depression and anxiety kicked in, there wasn’t one job or employer that I held where I didn’t get reprimanded for tardiness. Tardiness usually because getting out of bed felt next to impossible.  It was always so humiliating. But, for the most part, employers were understanding, compassionate, and gave me second chances as long as our communication remained open. I found it was so important to speak up about my struggles when it was needed. To give people a chance to give me a chance.

Dating/Marriage

I had good dating experiences throughout high school and college.

I met my now husband, Jared, in my early twenties while we were both working as counselors at Especially For Youth up at BYU Idaho. We started dating and fell in love fairly quickly. I think Jared a little more quickly than me. 🙂

I told him two months after we started dating about my struggles with depression and anxiety. He stayed with me and he supported me. He saw me at my best of times and at my worst of times.

Our dating life and engagement was not easy. Satan used my already established illness of anxiety and depression and messed with my mind big time as I tried to make a decision as big as choosing an eternal companion. I would have these moments of distinct clarity and felt like I was making the right decision, a righteous one to choose and accept Jared as a potential husband. But then, when the anxiety and depression were dialed up, my doubt crept back in and became unbearable at times. To make a long story short, Jared and I endured through the hard times and continued to fight for each other.

We dated a little over a year and were married and sealed in the Salt Lake City temple in 2005.

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Photo by Michelle Cluff Photography.

Children

We decided a few years after we are married that we were ready to try for children. We went on to struggle with the heartbreak of infertility and other health issues.  Eventually, we were blessed with three miracle children.

Our firstborn a daughter,  and a few years later we welcomed boy/girl twins into the world.

When the twins were born, we went from one child to three overnight. Three children 3 and under.

I wish I could say it has been bliss ever since because we got what we pleaded and prayed for.  But it would be dishonest to say that. It was and has been hard… really hard. However, through this process, especially of having twins, I was sent earthly angels in the form of family, friends, and neighbors who buoyed us up and kept us going that first year or two. Earthly angels. Life was even harder, but I desperately wanted my children. I fought hard for them and I will never forget that fight.

Family life

It used to be that taking care of only myself, waking up, and showering was considered a “good day” for me… a feat to be overcome. Heck, if I brushed my teeth it was a GREAT day. A reality of living with depression and anxiety is that sometimes the simplest of tasks seem DAUNTING.

I now had four people who depended on me. I was a mother and a wife of a family of five. Often I still feel inadequate to take care of myself, let alone my home and my family. The feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, shame, and guilt are there and are very real.

But I’m here and I’m doing it. I have a good husband by my side. I have the support of family and friends when I need it. We are a happy family, despite all the struggles, we truly have so much joy in our home.

And I really don’t know how, but by the grace of God, I am plugging along one day at a time. Another miracle.

Medication

Twenty-one years later after that first encounter of this illness, I still take medication. I see my psychiatrist every 2-3 months. We often change things around. Adding this, taking away that, or trying something entirely new. I’ve tried going off medicine as well, and that is not an option right now. I crash every time and I really cannot function. I am thankful for modern-day medicine to take the edge off even if it doesn’t fully take away my symptoms. No single treatment has ever really worked for me. Medication may not be the answer for everyone. There are many things out there to help, but it is there for those who need it, like me.  I still go to counseling intermittently and I still need all the support and help I can get. My particular diagnosis is called “Treatment Refractory Depression and Anxiety” which means that conventional methods of treating depression and anxiety don’t work for me.

Anxiety

As of late, anxiety has been more prominent in my life lately than straight depression, even though they go hand in hand in a vicious cycle.

Stress and anxiety are part of life, no matter who we are.

Stress (and even anxiety) provide motivation to get something done or to overcome an obstacle. However, sometimes it turns into more negative forms and the very things that can propel us in life can cripple us. My particular anxiety is categorized under “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” which more or less means I often feel intense anxiety or panic about nothing in particular. It simply is just there.

The only way I’ve been able to explain my experience with it to those who are not familiar with the feeling is this:

Imagine you have just received a phone call from the hospital that your child, your parent, or a sibling has just been in a terrible accident and they are in the operating room. You get to the hospital waiting room and all you can do is pace back-and-forth not knowing whether that person is going to live or die. Essentially, you are in a state of panic for fear of the worst.

Now take those same feelings of fear and panic of something horrible happening, and imagine feeling that way, but for NO APPARENT REASON. And with this, I  try so hard to figure the WHY of you feeling this way, but simply cannot.

Sometimes these episodes lead to debilitation. Sometimes all I can do is maybe curl up in a ball underneath the covers and ride out the storm.

Many times the discomfort of anxiety has been so bad, I’ve barely been able to bring food to the table for my kids. I’ve barely been able to cope and function throughout the day.

Periodically, when Jared arrives home from work, I literally see no way out of the pain, than to just go to my room and “check-out” by trying to fall asleep. Exhausted with the mental and physical battle that has been raging in my body all day long, I escape again to the unconscious mind. You could say that sleep is my “drug” of choice.

I have felt like I wanted to die because of the deep, uncomfortable pain. I, myself, have not been truly suicidal, but suicide is real. I have lost loved ones to this due to mental illness. I have witnessed that they felt like they were a burden to the ones they loved,  and they honestly felt that the world around them would be better if they were gone.

When I personally go through periods of deep darkness and hopelessness, I logically know I’ll make it through even though it feels like I won’t. I consider that knowledge of hope one of the greatest blessings of my life even when I can’t feel hope. It’s a perspective that has taken many, many years with lots of therapy to fully grasp.

Endurance

For me, after enduring the darkness, I know the Heavenly promises come and that there are joys on the other side of that dark tunnel, even when the dark seemed impenetrable. I have felt that dark. I have felt the light. Little by little I sense that I will see the sun rise again, no matter how many days I  have missed it and I vow to never stop fighting.

In Alma Chapter 26 we read about the prophet Ammon who led his brethren who were seeking to do missionary work among the Lamanites against much opposition. At one point in their journey, they were so overcome with defeat they were ready to turn back. In verse 27 it says: Now when our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, behold, the Lord comforted us, and said: Go amongst thy brethren, the Lamanites, and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success.

Patience

I myself, am still learning to bear with patience mine afflictions. I have not always done it with grace, but I have seen time and time again the success that the Lord has given unto me as I continue to endure. I am still fighting. The battle of this illness continues every single day.

I know that I am not alone. I am not broken, even though I may feel otherwise. As with any physical illness, I continue to seek treatment for my brain. I don’t know why it stopped functioning optimally. It wasn’t caused by anyone else’s actions, or by any fault of my own. I’m not sure why the serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in my brain isn’t balanced. I don’t know why the synapses and neurotransmitters are not doing their job correctly. What I do know is how I feel. I do know how it feels to be severely depressed, to have chronic debilitating, paralyzing anxiety on a daily basis. I do know what it feels like to want to be in bed all day,

Humility

My struggles, my illness are not a punishment from God. In fact, I feel that they help keep me headed towards God and focused on my Savior, for through His Atonement is the ONLY way I can make it through this.  The Book of Mormon teaches us in the book of Jacob: “Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.” And so it is by my weakness, my human struggle that I am reminded of my great dependence on my Savior.

Hope

President Russell M. Nelson said:

“The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives…..if we focus on the joy that will come to us, or to those we love, what can we endure that presently seems overwhelming, painful, scary, unfair, or simply impossible?”

When I reflect about this principle of truth and the different trials we go through as well as times of reprieve, I realize that sometimes we get to stand in the sun, enjoy its rays, feel of its warmth and light. Other times in life, we have to rely on our memories of that warmth and sunshine. In either situation, there is always room for the light to enter our souls and permeate us with joy.

Obedience

I want to reemphasize that as much as I talk about hope and joy, a lot of the time I do not always feel hope and joy. I often don’t have the relationship with the Holy Ghost that I wish I did, because sometimes the very faculties to reach my Father in Heaven are the ones that are crippled. That is where obedience comes in. Remaining true to my covenants and having faith in Heavenly Father’s promises. So, at times it is my knowledge of hope and joy that carry me through on my darkest of days when feeling anything like joy just isn’t possible.

Testimony

That knowledge that carries me through is my testimony of Jesus Christ and this gift of endurance is given only in and through Him. So I have hope. Not necessarily hope that this trial will be taken away from me permanently, but hope that I can continue to endure, endure it well, and find joy amidst the pain. Ultimately becoming the person Heavenly Father intended me to be.

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