“Despite My Diagnosis…” Stigma Story by CCM Student Matthew Bristol

The Youngtown Edition (the school newspaper of the County College of Morris) is working with two other CCM clubs this semester, Active Minds and Writers Club, on a series about students in the process of recovery. This series is called “Despite My Diagnosis.” Read one of these stories, by Matthew Bristol:

Matthew Bristol holding a sign saying Despite my diagnosis, I still find ways to laugh.
Matthew Bristol

I’ve spent my entire life using humor as my go-to way of dealing with adversity. It’s given me a pretty good sense of humor, at least in my opinion, although some of my professors may disagree. No matter how bad things get I still find ways to laugh. My family often says, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can always laugh at your enemies!” From my earliest years, I’ve done comedy writing with my family, and one of my greatest passions in life is not just cheering myself up but getting others to smile and laugh.

Even at my lowest points during my time in the hospital I still remember drawing cat faces on medical masks because it gave me a laugh and made others smile. Later in life, this would include such things as wearing a full suit ensemble and a box cut to be a knight’s helmet on my head, to deliver the newspapers.

I sometimes like to joke that my life started at its lowest point, so it’s only up from there. At times that can be debated, but despite all of this, it’s still an upward climb. I was born unable to breathe and extremely ill, and my doctor found that I had encephalitis, swelling of the brain due to infection. Seizures soon followed that has lasted my entire life. Now begins the debate if that was the lowest point of my life. When I was three, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a blood cancer that affects both blood cells and bone marrow. While I went into remission after many years of chemotherapy, I was left with mental and physical scars that haunt my life to this day. Some of them, such as those on my chest, is more literal than figurative. I dealt with this along with some general problems that arose as I grew up. Because of the chemotherapy, I developed Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis which caused depression and weight gain. I haven’t always been this impressively sleek and aerodynamic.

One of my earliest memories of my mothers sometimes alternative sense of humor was at Disneyland when I was on vacation thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation. A very rude woman approached my mother at the pool where I was swimming and pointed at the hole in my chest and bellowed out “What happened to him!” My dear mother, never at a loss for words simply said back “He was shot.” She didn’t have a response to that.

As I grew older anxiety and depression ruled my life and dictated much of my decisions. One of my biggest struggles in life has always been my Neuropathy that impairs my ability to write or work with my hands. Neuropathy leads to intermittent pain all throughout my body. This on top of one of the other symptoms that are often reported in those in remission from chemotherapy, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, memory loss, and memory loss. Cancer does not only impact you as you go through it but continues afterward, leaving lasting impacts on your body, varying differently from cancers and treatments. The side effects or “late effects” are especially prominent in young children. Lucky me.

Throughout my entire life, I’ve struggled through my classes, and I’ve struggled through my writing. Whether for fun or for classes, I’ve always struggled to keep myself on task. I can’t count the number of times in my life I’ve stopped and simply said to myself “It may not be perfect. But I’m doing it. I will do my best.” I just keep on as a mantra, and no matter how it turns out. I will do it. Even as I write this now, my anxiety hinders me. I stop to rethink every word I say. I think and rethink everything I do.

During my time at CCM, I’ve joined in on many different clubs and taken many different roles. Despite all my troubles, I’ve found myself at home here. I’ve been the vice-president of the SGA and worked for and I run many other clubs and organizations on campus. Despite all my troubles in life, I’ve come to a point where I can get out of bed each morning and know there are people out there, I can’t wait to see and do stuff with.

“Despite My Diagnosis…” Stigma Story by CCM Student Catrina Bennett

The Youngtown Edition (the school newspaper of the County College of Morris) is working with two other CCM clubs this semester, Active Minds and Writers Club, on a series about students in the process of recovery. This series is called “Despite My Diagnosis.” Read one of these stories, by Catrina Bennett:

Catrina Bennett holds up a sign saying Despite my diagnosis, I refuse to be a statistic
Catrina Bennett

Despite my diagnosis, I refuse to be a statistic. I refuse to be just a warning story about depression, a vague message on an anti-anxiety poster, or part of a number on a graph. I know that, despite my flaws, I am strong enough to change not just my life but also the lives of those around me. My story isn’t perfect or pretty, but it certainly isn’t over.

Even as a child, my fears ran rampant in my mind and were nearly debilitating. When I brushed death in a near drowning, I was more afraid of non-existent sharks in the water than the waves suffocating me. I had few friends and everyone else made fun of the awkward, chubby girl who cried when she failed a math question. No one, not even myself, saw it, but I was crumbling under the pressure of self-invented expectations. Everything was too much, too overwhelming, and too scary.

Then, my parents got a divorce. I was glad to be rid of the late nights listening to screaming matches through thin walls while attempting to stifle my sobs with a pillow. Now, I was terrified that everything I had worked for was now restricted to a simple statistic. More likely to do poorly in school, more likely to be depressed, more likely to commit suicide, more likely (I thought) to fail. I denied my sexuality and nearly lost my best friend in the process. I stopped going to school and dropped from an AP student to a near drop-out. I stopped seeing the point in living. I was becoming a number to everyone around me: number of absences, number of panic attacks, number of medications.

The people in my life were fighting just as hard as I was to keep me afloat. My friends, family, and even teachers banded together and forced me to begin to focus on where I had succeeded in life rather than where I had failed. I began to participate in classes again. The moments when I would answer a question wrong were still devastating, but each joke and nudge in the right direction from my friends increased my determination that tomorrow I would do better. And I did. I graduated in the top 15% of my class. I started talking to my father again. I took up drawing and other hobbies to fill the time between school and work.

Most importantly, I decided that it was my duty to help others who were struggling as well. Before leaving my high school, I made sure that the GSA (gay-straight alliance) was well supported and able to provide a safe space for struggling kids. I started reading more about mental illnesses and coping mechanisms in an effort to make myself better suited to give advice or resources to others. Upon arriving at CCM, I immediately joined our Active Minds chapter. Its members both helped to restore my faith in myself and allowed me to direct others towards the help that they needed.

Today, I am no longer just a number on a chart in a therapist’s office. I may still struggle with and fall prey to the effects of my depression and anxiety. But now, I refuse to let those facts be the only ones which define me. I know that I have the ability to help myself and others. I know that I can change the statistics.

If you are struggling, please know there is help. Some resources you can utilize are the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255, the Crisis Text Line if you text HOME to 741741, and the Counseling Center in the Student Community Center, Room 118.