Health Unit Coordinator, Carissa Dennery, on losing herself and making a fighting comeback

Carissa Dennery experienced mistreatment as a child and young adult. The experiences affected her physical and mental health. She experienced panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Then she decided she needed to make bold changes to take care of herself.

Childhood trauma

"I have felt like a failure since I was born," says Carissa, a health unit coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. As a kid, she was mistreated by a family member and bullied by others.

Then, she had to watch a close family member suffer from a devastating medical condition when she was just 10 years old. Consequently, Carissa shut her feelings off.

"I couldn't deal with them because they were just too painful," she says.  

By the time she was 13, she started self-harming and contemplating suicide. When she was 19, she started having grand mal or tonic-clonic seizures, developing epilepsy. As a young adult, she suffered additional mistreatment and, among other hurtful words, was told no one would love her because of her epilepsy.

She contemplated suicide again at 26 years old. That's when she hit a breaking point and decided to make some bold changes. 

Courageous changes

After a divorce, Carissa began experiencing more panic attacks. She became homeless and couldn't visit her daughter.

After contemplating suicide once more in 2011, Carissa met a man that helped her get back on her feet and focus on her mental health. She began taking medication for her epilepsy and taking natural supplements to help with her anxiety, while taking the step of seeing a therapist for her mental health.

She has continued therapy since 2014, and while it hasn't been easy, she has come a long way in improving her health and well-being.

"It has been four years since I self-harmed," she says. "I have techniques to help me with my anxiety, and I am able to feel happiness and joy."

Having the support of her current husband helped Carissa the most, she says. Coping techniques to alleviate her anxiety and finding the right anti-seizure medication created a whole new life for her — "one of happiness," she says.

Learning to love herself

When asked how she would characterize herself now compared to her darker days, Carissa says: "I would characterize myself as strong, a work in progress. I am still learning coping strategies and what medications are most effective for my condition. I am grateful I am able to talk with people about what I am going through. I was taught to hide feelings, and that my feelings do not matter. I know now that my feelings matter."

Carissa encourages those who are struggling to believe that there is happiness, even if it comes in small amounts.

"Change may be scary, but it is good and necessary," she says. "Things will get better. Take small steps, as each step makes a difference."

It helped her to journal about not only what happened during a given day, but how she felt throughout the day. She had to accept what she was feeling, good or bad, to move forward.

In Carissa's words: "It is important to speak with someone about what you are feeling. You and your feelings do matter. It is not a weakness; it takes courage to speak to someone. After all, aren’t we all a work in progress?"

To care for yourself and bring your best self to work each day, it is important to nurture your mental health. Mayo Clinic wants to foster a culture that encourages transparency, collegiality and support. It's not possible to consistently put the needs of the patient first if you don't address your own needs and support your colleagues to do the same.

If you want to share your mental health journey, you can do so using this link.