Seeking Joy: A mental health journey – CHOC

Content warning: The following article references experiences of suicidal ideation and self-harm. If you or someone you know is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 immediately.

Joy, a bubbly and confident 18-year-old, describes a tattoo they received to cover up the self-harm scars on their arm. It’s an illustration of a Luna moth, which represents growth and spiritual change.

“Some think that moths are bothersome,” Joy says, “but, they’re so beautiful. You see moths with beautiful, intricate designs under their wings. They head towards the light, and they do not stop until they get there.”

A Luna moth’s journey to the light is much like Joy’s. Over 11 years, they have persevered through severe mental health challenges like depression, anxiety and suicidal attempts. But because of the expert and compassionate care at CHOC, they can recognize their symptoms, use coping skills and access the help they need to heal.

Depression at 7 years old    

As a 5-year-old living in Southern California, Joy was happy; they enjoyed running around and exploring their world.   

But at age 7, their family’s sudden cross-country relocation caused Joy to have a traumatic experience, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In their new state, Joy attended many different schools, preventing them from making a stable group of friends. They were also bullied and sexually assaulted.

Joy’s tattoo of a Luna moth on their arm

Because of these experiences, Joy began to think the world was bad and unsafe for them. They were religious and remember praying for God to take their life. Over the next few years, Joy’s mental health worsened.

Soon, they began attempting suicide and self-harming. Joy cut their wrists and face to feel a physical — rather than mental — sense of pain, but lied to their family about the cause of their cuts and scars. 

Self-harm and suicide attempts

By age 14, Joy’s family had returned to Southern California, where Joy started experiencing what they believed to be symptoms of psychosis. After exhibiting strange behaviors at school, their teachers took notice, and they were taken to the hospital.

For months, Joy would be in and out of an adult-focused hospital’s psychiatric unit for week-long stays. Upon release, when school became stressful and they felt overwhelmed, they would revert to self-harm and suicide attempts.

A new beginning in mental health at CHOC

After one suicide attempt, Joy was taken to the Julia & George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC, from where they were admitted to the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center. This is an inpatient psychiatric center exclusively dedicated to the treatment of children ages 3 to 17 years with mental illness who are in immediate risk of hurting themselves or others. It is the only inpatient facility in Orange County that can treat patients younger than 12. CHOC’s doctors and care teams are specially trained to stabilize children and transition them to outpatient care.  

Joy was anxious and hyper vigilant when they arrived at CHOC. But when the staff explained the program to Joy and their mom, they knew that CHOC would be a safe place for them.

Get suicide prevention resources from CHOC.

Joys says, “Everyone cared. They were attentive to what I did.” 

Joy loved the staff at the inpatient center, especially the unit’s resident therapy dog, Odessa.

Joy and Odessa, CHOC’s resident therapy dog

During my stay, I grew immensely, Joy says. Upon discharge, Joy was happy to move on but would miss all the friends they made at CHOC.

Feeling emotional from saying their goodbyes, Joy was crying when Odessa gave them a soulful look, jumped into their lap and comforted them.  

“It was like Odessa was saying, ‘Hey, it’s OK. You’re on your next journey and I’ll be here with you,’” says Joy.

Now, Joy often looks at pictures of Odessa on the CHOC resident dogs’ Instagram account when they need a pick-me-up. 

Moving forward with coping tools for recovery

While at CHOC, Joy and their family learned the coping skills vital to their healing.

“Two weeks ago, I had a mini depressive episode because I accidentally forgot to take my medication and was having a rough day. I managed to use the coping skills that I learned at CHOC, and the next day I was perfectly fine,” says Joy.   

Joy and Odessa enjoying a surprise reunion at CHOC Hospital in Orange

Joy’s parents also learned how to best support them. Since Joy was able to hide their depressive symptoms growing up, their mom didn’t have the language to tell the doctors how Joy was feeling — she could just tell Joy was sad. Now, she can easily list off all of Joy’s symptoms and know when to get them help.

“She knows exactly what to do when I am having a hard time,” says Joy.

Growing and healing

Looking forward, Joy has hope for their mental health journey. Although they still have tough days, they have the tools they need to prioritize their mental health and seek help.

Joy just walked across the stage to receive their diploma at their high school graduation ceremony. It was a momentous occasion for both Joy and their family; they feared that they might not live long enough to reach that accomplishment.

Joy now works at a retirement center, where they assist patients with dementia. They look forward to pursuing a career in social work, allowing them to help patients just as the CHOC staff helped them.  

Joy celebrating at their high school graduation

On this mental health journey, Joy has gained a wealth of wisdom, inspiration and encouragement for others. They hope their story helps other kids with mental health challenges — to whom they give the following advice:  

“I’m kind of blunt person, so I would say it gets worse, but then eventually it gets better. The harder road you go down, the better perspective you will have on life. You will enjoy little things and little moments in life. You will learn how to help others and learn how to help yourself.”

As for Joy’s future, they plan to be just like a Luna moth — continuing to grow and seek the light.   

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