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SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPENS TO JOANNA every time she sits down to write. As the words start spilling onto her notebook, her senses become dulled and her peripheral vision begins to blur. In a matter of minutes, the world around her fades into oblivion, and her existence is reduced to three basic things: pen, paper, and emotion.

By the time she snaps out of the trance – 10, 15, 100 minutes later – her notebook is a sea of words. Raw emotions swim through the pages, and Joanna is overcome with an immense feeling of relief.

“As I write, I feel like I release all of my tensions,” Joanna says. “When I’m done, my whole body feels weird—like all of my adrenaline was just zapped. I’m extremely calm and ready for a nap.”

JOANNA LOVES WRITING POETRY. She writes other things too – short stories, journal entries, loose thoughts – but poems are definitely her favourite. Over the years, they’ve come to occupy a very special place in her heart, like a trusted friend or a fond memory.

“I started writing poetry a few years ago, when I first began to struggle with my mental health,” Joanna says. “It became a really good outlet for my emotions, especially when I was really upset and struggling with anxiety and depression. Even in the worst days, I would just take from any little emotion I got and spill it into a poem.”

“I started writing poetry a few years ago, when I first began to struggle with my mental health,” Joanna says. “It became a really good outlet for my emotions, especially when I was really upset and struggling with anxiety and depression. Even in the worst days, I would just take from any little emotion I got and spill it into a poem.”

Today, the 17-year-old has dozens of notebooks filled with poems, which she stashes away in her house. If one were to look at them as a whole, they’d provide an accurate roadmap of Joanna’s struggle with depression, anxiety and trauma.

“Every once in a while I’ll re-read some of them, and relive some of the things that happened in the last few years. I skip some because I don’t necessarily want to go back to some of those emotions, but it is really cool to see how I was feeling at any given moment and how it translated into my art,” she says. 

IN HINDSIGHT, JOANNA BELIEVES THAT HER STRUGGLES WITH MENTAL HEALTH started around the time she was 13.

Not that anyone – including herself – would have been able to tell at the time: she was a good student, a beloved friend and a star athlete.

“I swam competitively for about seven years, and even got up to the national level, competing and beating people from around the country as well as from Mexico and the US,” she remembers.

But despite her success in the pool something inside of her just didn’t feel right. No matter how many medals she won, Joanna felt lonely and sad, and had secretly begun to despise the thing that had made her stand out from her peers.

“By the time I was 14, swimming had become a burden. It was swimming over school. Swimming over friends. Swimming over other relationships. Swimming over any other obligations I had,” she says. “My whole identity was compressed into this single thing: Joanna, The Swimmer.”

 

 

With time, these feelings snowballed into something completely different. The immense amount of pressure that Joanna felt to succeed as a swimmer was transformed into anxiety and self-doubt. She began developing severe body image issues, and was crippled with sadness and low self-esteem.

Before Joanna turned 15, she began exhibiting self-destructive behaviour: she quit swimming, dropped out of school, and even left her home. She desperately needed help, but her self-esteem was so low that she felt like she didn’t deserve it.

“I always felt like if it was such a big burden on myself, it would be even more for someone else.”

So she struggled in silence.

ONE OF JOANNA’S TEACHERS was the first person to reach out to her with a helping hand. Others followed suit: a school counsellor, a friend, her sister. Eventually Joanna herself realized that it was up to her to find wellness.

“All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t want to be dead at 15,” she says. “I didn’t want to not have graduated high school. To not have been to more countries. To not have seen what I’m capable of just because I was perpetually upset. I realized that I wanted so much more for myself.”

She started going to therapy and was eventually diagnosed with depression, anxiety and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). With the help of therapists and youth care workers, she started to rebuild her self-confidence and put her life back on track: she went back to school, graduated a year early from high school, and reconnected with her parents.

“I had to tell myself, that it wasn’t my fault that I was so upset and that it wasn’t anyone else’s fault either, that that’s just how life happened for me,” she says.

“I had to tell myself, that it wasn’t my fault that I was so upset and that it wasn’t anyone else’s fault either, that that’s just how life happened for me,” she says.

With a stronger support network and a new-found sense of confidence, Joanna began setting goals for herself. Today, she’s on track to become a child and youth care worker, and wants to help others who, like her, suffer with mental health challenges.

And in the meantime, she continues maintaining her wellness by focusing on her other true passion: poetry.

“I really want to feel as confident as I did when I was peaking in swimming and winning medals, so I’ve made goals for myself and am working hard to accomplish them,” she says. “And while I do that I keep writing to get back in touch with myself and how I’m feeling.”

She will always be special; no matter what they think. She is strong, unique and beautiful. She will never face defeat.

She will always be special; and in her past she surely shone, but she’s only seventeen and has a while til she’s grown.

She will always be special; she has known glory, love and pain. Despite her changing world, a special girl she will remain.

She will always be special; no matter where she goes. Where the world will take her, what she will do, only time knows.

She will always be special; and that will never be decided, by anyone but herself and those her soul has pactfully invited.

She will always be special; no matter the scale, diagnosis, or time. I will decide if I am special, the choice is mine and only mine.

—she will always be special

—by Joanna

This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard. 
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken

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