Staff Stories: Jenny Klonowski – “My Journey to Choose Joy, and Keep Choosing It.”
“At some point in our lives, we all live in closets, and they may feel safe, or at least safer than what lies on the other side of that door. But I am here to tell you, no matter what your walls are made of, a closet is no place for a person to live.”
Those words echoed in my head for hours. A closet is no place for a person to live. They came from a powerful TED Talk that I watched online by equality advocate Ash Beckam. In her talk, she describes that everyone has a closet, and not specifically in the traditional sense of the phrase. “All a closet is, is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done.” Her words made me realize that it wasn’t until recently that I emerged from my metaphorical closet, and in all honesty, a part of me is still hovering by the door, afraid to fully be seen. In my case, my closet is mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental health disorders has kept me in my closet for most of my adult life, but I’m ready to speak out.
I was recently diagnosed with major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, a generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. This is scary, I hate it, but it needs to be said. Although, these diagnoses are not news to me. Even though I only recently sought out treatment, they are something I have been struggling with for the past 13 years.
Looking back on my life it is hard to pinpoint the moment that I realized I had a problem. My memory travels from being a blissfully happy, passionate, and imaginative young girl, to my first encounter with OCD when I was in 4th grade, being bullied in middle school, the first few times that my anxiety symptoms landed me at urgent care in high school, to this empty shell of myself. Void of meaning and purpose. I always thought that those feelings as a teenager were due to hormonal changes or “teenage angst.” From extreme body insecurities to a development of social anxiety, I thought that it was a common chapter in growing up. However, when it extended into my adult life, reprising in unrelenting waves of misery and fear that I could hardly stay afloat in, I began to realize that something more was going on.
When I moved to Tucson in 2011 to be with my husband who was stationed there at the time, I was 22 years old. Fresh out of college and newly married. I had everything that I had been dreaming of for the past 2 years since he first left for Basic Training. I was hoping that I would finally find happiness.
Up to this point, my depressive episodes and anxiety were “manageable.” I did not address them much with my family and friends because I didn’t want to worry them. I thought I had it all under control. However, looking back on it I realized that it was the start of a dark time in my life. As much as I tried I could not escape the sadness, fear, dread, and worry that constantly haunted my mind.
While living in Tucson, my symptoms from anxiety and depression persisted for years at a time, ranging from mild to severe. They worsened when my husband left for his first deployment. I began drinking a lot to pass the time. I was hardly eating, and spent most of my free time in bed. I may have been a walking, talking, breathing human being, but mentally I wasn’t there. I wasn’t present in my own life. When he returned home safely to me, I was filled with so much joy and gratitude, but my mind didn’t allow me to enjoy it for too long. My grandfather passed away a week after my husband’s return, and again my joy was replaced with grief and sadness. At a time when my husband needed me most, I wasn’t capable of providing that support.
Fast forward a few years, my husband separated from the Air Force in 2014, and we moved back to Michigan. I convinced myself that moving back home would cure my depression, not knowing at the time that my happiness could not be defined by a destination. Unfortunately, this new change spurred a severe depressive episode that seemed to welcome me with open arms. It took everything in my power to get out of bed each day and function as if nothing was wrong. I would make excuses not to leave the house and sit in my room and cry all day. Planning the ways in which I could take my own life. As my depression worsened so did my marriage. It took an enormous toll on my husband, and I can never thank him enough for never giving up on me. Even when I made it impossible to be around, he was there. He kept me alive.
I hid my condition for a long time because I didn’t want to dim the light of others, even though mine had been extinguished and I feared it would never come back. I also didn’t want to hurt my friends and family or get treated any differently. When I started openly sharing my feelings with my husband, I told him that I would change, that I would seek treatment. But in all honesty, I truly did not want to get help. I did not want it to go away. I was so lost in my illness, and it had become all that I had known for so long, that I couldn’t see my way out. I didn’t know who I was or what I was capable of without it.
Then I went through a major life change a few months ago that completely shifted my life. A good friend of mine introduced me to a series of wonderful personal development workshops called Gratitude Training, and I am forever grateful. I graduated the final part in September, and it helped me find myself again. After spending so much of my life tormented that I didn’t matter, and I was weak, I finally experienced peace and joy. The same kind of joy that I used to feel as a little girl. I now know that I am capable of those feelings every day if I choose them, they always reside within me. The training also taught me forgiveness and the true importance of loving myself, flaws and all. In addition to that, I am working at an amazing company that has embraced me for who I am. It is a wonderful environment that has taught me acceptance, vulnerability, and true connection. All of these experiences gave me the courage to have an open conversation with my family about my condition. For the first time in a long time, I felt liberated. Their compassion and support mean the world to me. I wouldn’t be here today without them, and I can never thank them enough for their unconditional love. After that conversation, I decided to finally seek professional treatment.
While I am still in the process of figuring out the right treatment plan for me, I am finding that therapy, meditation, practicing self-love, my animals, music, and an amazing support system are helping me rebuild my life and remember who I used to be. I don’t have to suffer in silence any longer, no one should have to. The more we speak out about mental illness, the more accepting and educated society will become, and the stigma surrounding it will slowly crumble away.
The truth is, mental illness can look like the student in school that works hard to maintain good grades and has many friends. It can be your co-worker that always has a kind smile on their face. It can be a friend, a family member. It does not discriminate, but there is always hope. If I could go back and talk to myself during the depths of my depression, or if I could talk to anyone that is currently suffering from depression or anxiety, I would tell them this: You are worthy beyond belief. You are an exceptional being full of love and joy. You are not your past or your mistakes. While our past shapes us into who we are today, we do not live there anymore. You are not the self-limiting beliefs that you make up about yourself, and you are certainly not the beliefs or judgments that others say about you. Be gentle and kind to yourself, because the greatest gift you can give to others is to love yourself. I know the road seems long and the darkness is all-encompassing, but keep going. There is no shame in mental illness. I see you, and I am here for you. I will fight this battle beside you and never let you give up.
As time passes, I am learning that caring for my mental health will be something that I have to work on every single day, but I am mindful that it does not have to define me. I do not have to live in the darkness of my closet anymore. If I want people to get to know me, then I want them to know all of me, because this is who I am. I am anxious, I am fearful, I worry constantly, I am introverted and tend to keep to myself, I suffer from depression and anxiety. But I am also powerful, I am creative, I am a good listener, I am kind, I am fun, I am courageous, and so are you. I find peace in the knowledge that in each new moment I can define who I am. I can define my life, and today I choose joy.