By Laura Bartolomei-Hill
All photos by Austin Bartolomei-Hill
It’s mental health awareness month! In December 2017, I hit a pretty big milestone: the 10-year anniversary with my seroquel, a medication I take for depression. I thought, I take seroquel everywhere with me everyday – what if I did it in a more visible way for a day? I asked my brother, a professional photographer and videographer, and my friends, coworkers, and cat (and my favorite hat, since lost) to help me capture a Day in My Life to honor – and celebrate – my 10+ year mental health journey.
I was first prescribed medication for depression when I was 15 or 16. I’ve tried a bunch of them! Prozac, zoloft, wellbutrin, lithium, xanax, celexa, desipramine. Sometimes it takes a long time to find a medication or combination of medications that works right for you. Some of the medications had side effects I didn’t care for. And sometimes it’s about timing, about being ready for a medication to work. I was pretty determined to keep depression as a part of my identity for a long time. Eventually, I found the possibility of meaning in other things and was ready to cling to it a little bit less intensely.
I stopped taking meds for a little bit in college. My depression and mood swings got worse after a pair of concussions in the fall of 2007 and my brain injury doctor started me on seroquel. He also introduced me to a great therapist and a support group.
I have had some really amazing doctors and therapists. I’ve also had some mental health care providers who made me feel pretty terrible. My 6th grade therapist predicted I would be a violent teen because I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My first psychiatrist discharged me in front of everyone in the waiting room when I was 15 because I tried an adderall that wasn’t prescribed to me and it was the first time in awhile I’d felt some relief from depression so I asked him about it. Currently, my primary care doctor prescribes my seroquel. Last year, she accused me of “abusing” it because I was getting increasingly desperate on the phone as my multiple calls requesting refills went unanswered. I know I should get a new doctor, but that sounds exhausting and I’m happily in the middle of a year’s worth of refills, so I’ll deal with it later.
In 2014, I moved back to Maryland for social work school. I wanted to be a provider who is affirming and accepting, helps you see the future while loving yourself in the present, and is there to help you navigate the messy, complicated behavioral health system. This picture is outside the clinic where I work as a therapist. I have felt so shaped and changed by the experience of working there.
My own experiences motivated me to provide direct services, but also to advocate and work with behavioral health policy organizations to increase quality of and access to mental health services. There have been times in the last ten years when I did not have insurance and begged my old doctors (the nice ones!!) for extra refills over the phone and paid for my medications out-of-pocket. Personally, I deeply hate insurance and think all of this stuff should just be free.
Taking medication has helped me feel less depressed. But what most helps me feel whatever the opposite of depression is, is feeling connected to other people in meaningful ways. I loved getting to share this photo shoot with my brother and with my friends, and I’m so grateful to them for participating and for supporting me!
What does harm reduction mean in terms of mental health? To me, harm reduction is about embracing our own humanity and really seeing it in other people. There is a lot of shame associated with mental illness. Some of this comes from the way we treat each other and ourselves. A lot of it comes from social policies and institutional practices. Being depressed is hard. Being depressed in a capitalist system that measures your worth by your productivity? That’s dehumanizing. And no medication can fix that.
If you, too, care about celebrating individual journeys and breaking down systemic barriers to quality, non-stigmatizing mental health services, and are able to, please consider making a donation to the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. Personally, I am a monthly donor and I really enjoy that!
Laura is a social worker in Baltimore City and is a member of the BHRC Advisory Board.