Embracing Vulnerability: Liv’s Mental Health Journey

Olivia Llana
Registered nurse, diabetes educator, founder of DIABrutallyHonest, and part of the dead pancreas club since 4/27/2011. Wife, mom, diabreakdown enthusiast, and currently well medicated for depression, anxiety, and type 1 diabetes.
Mental health frequently gets overlooked when related to other physical medical conditions like diabetes. As a nurse and diabetes educator, I see this frequently. People who are not taking care of themselves and no matter what is recommended, it does not change. But there’s one thing I did not quite understand until I experienced it myself– you cannot be physically healthy if you are not mentally and emotionally healthy.

I thought my struggles with anxiety and depression began after I went off to college, but reflecting back, I realize my fight really began when I was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 16. My diagnosis was not a “traumatic” one. No DKA, no PICU visit, mostly just education since we caught it early. I recall taking selfies with my blackberry in the mirror at the hospital. I had the privilege of being able to take my diagnosis lightly because I had a great team of medical professionals behind me, very supportive parents, a best friend who had had diabetes since before I met her around the age of 5, and an athletic director/coach whose son was diagnosed a little more than a year before me. With all of this support, my diagnosis hardly caused me to flinch. It was later in life that things started to change.

Growing up a little quicker now that I had a chronic, life altering disease to take care of, as well as all the advanced placement classes, college credit, and extracurriculars I was involved with, things started to slowly become more difficult. At the time I thought, “this is just how it is, I’m having a hard time being happy because I am so busy and stressed all of the time, this is how it is for everyone”. It stayed this way through college, nursing school, and even as a nurse working nightshift. I continued to justify my feelings and not prioritize myself for two reasons. One, “I’m not really depressed, I’m just stressed and tired” and two, “even if I am depressed, I’ll be fine, I just need to get through this (day, week, month, year, etc.) and I’ll be fine.”

“There’s one thing I did not quite understand until I experienced it myself– you cannot be physically healthy if you are not mentally and emotionally healthy. ”
Then in 2019 I had a beautiful, healthy baby. Postpartum I was truly struggling, and the worst part was most people did not notice. Everyone did exactly what I did, which was to justify it as being a new, tired mom. But it was more. My depression was deeper than it had been before, coupled now with the guilt of feeling depressed while I had this little bundle who was made of pure joy at my side. “How could I be sad when I have this?” I continued to minimize what I was going through.

About a year after my daughter’s birth, I told my husband that I really thought I needed to see a doctor. I was tired all the time, I had no energy, I did not feel happy, and I was really struggling. The next week I went to my primary care physician who recommended an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication for my newly diagnosed depression and anxiety. Two weeks later my life was changed, I suddenly could play with my daughter after work. I could make meals for myself and everything seemed to be going great. During this time I also started seeing my therapist. I was finally mentally healthy and stable!… Until the side-effects kicked in and I had to switch to a different medication. This next one was fantastic!… Except about 3 months after being on it, I realized I was manic. I never truly understood what mania was until I was cleaning at 11pm asking my husband to take away the rag because I couldn’t physically stop moving.

Switching to my last and current medication took me for a big swing. I had severe depression. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t work. I didn’t know what to do. I reached out to a friend of mine who is a social worker and asked her about short-term disability and if she thought I would qualify. She explained to me that I would definitely qualify and that most people don’t realize this is an option when something like this is happening. She and my doctor’s office helped with the paperwork, I created a short-term disability claim, and took a month off of work (while still making some income with short-term disability), and I was able to rest my body, mind, and give myself much needed time to adjust to this new medication and find my way out of this depressive state. I explained everything to my coworkers, which is not a requirement, but I wanted to normalize speaking about these things in the workplace and challenge the narrative that struggling with mental health is taboo.I had everyone’s full support, it was uplifting to go through this entire process because it made me feel less alone, and more supported by my colleagues, family, and friends.

“There shouldn't be shame in taking care of your health–mental or physical– whatever that looks like for you.”
What I learned through my mental health journey is that depression doesn’t necessarily come from trauma, or anything “sad” or “‘bad” happening. Sometimes it is just an imbalance in your brain/body that can be corrected by medication. Just like diabetes. There shouldn’t be shame in taking care of your health–mental or physical– whatever that looks like for you. And going through the process of taking short-term disability, showed me that if more people were open about this, maybe I wouldn’t have had to ask so many questions, and spend so much time getting to where I am now. If mental health was more openly talked about and more care was offered in a non-stigmatized way, people would not have to wait for someone else to ask, or go years without treatment, or rationalize symptoms.

I’ve now made it a part of my life’s mission to normalize the mental health aspect of diabetes. I even started a business called DIABrutallyHonest, where my goal is to normalize the things that aren’t fun, the things that should be talked about, in a casual way, to invite more people in. To celebrate getting help rather than stigmatize it, and to let everyone out there know, you are not alone.

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