Unknown Strength

When I was asked to be a part of this project, I laughed because I never thought of myself as a strong person per se.  A strong mother, yes. A strong nurse, yes. A strong friend, yes. A strong person? Not so much! I was shy as a child (shocking, right?) and very, very insecure.  I had to wear a bulky back brace for scoliosis all through high school, had severe acne, and was very self-conscious all throughout my adolescent and young adult years. Looking back, I had many of the anxiety and depression issues that face teens today, although I was not able to articulate those feelings and dealt with them alone.

I graduated from college, moved 1,000 miles away to Charleston, SC with $500, my Ford Escort, and my dog, Bailey.  I instantly started to find my strength as a nurse. I was confident in that aspect of my life, and it showed. I was well respected, even as a “Northerner” or “Yankee girl” as they called me.  I sought out challenges, met them, and found another to conquer. Personally, I still struggled with self-esteem but the more I grew in my career strength, the more the insecurities in myself started to fade.

Charleston is where I met my husband, a tall handsome naval officer with strong faith and integrity evident at even the young age of 24.  We had much in common and although our relationship was mostly long distance (his ship left Charleston just a few months after we started dating to drydock in Virginia Beach), we wrote letters, visited monthly and started our plans for a future together.  We married in 1996 and our first child was born in September of 1998. This is the time where my real strength began. I loved motherhood instantly and fell into it quite naturally. Our daughter, Grace, was born 21 months later with a cleft lip and palate requiring multiple surgeries to correct.  Strength. It took quite a bit of it as a 28-year-old mother of two children under two years old, one requiring two surgeries in that first year of life. I found my strength as an advocate for Grace, finding the absolute best care, after researching every craniofacial plastic surgeon on the East Coast, interviewing them, and informing them of my criteria, “I do not want an intern or fellow to participate in any way other than observation in this procedure.” (and they did not!).

Elizabeth came along 3.5 yrs. later and our family was complete, we moved to Downingtown and lived a carefree life of summers at Pennypacker Swim Club, trips to the library, LYA sports, and school assemblies.

My strength was never so tested as it was in late spring of 2017 when we discovered that our son had been struggling in silence with depression, anxiety, and was in need of help.  Talk about strength? It took incredible strength for him to reach out to us and signal a need for help. Over the next 18 months, our strength as a family was tested many times as the process of finding adequate and reliable help proved extremely difficult.  In the midst of that, Grace faced a NINE-hour jaw reconstruction surgery that summer, and a long and difficult recovery. During the same time, the struggles my son faced started to intensify. It was a lot to deal with, and we did the best we could at the time.   We tried to find help for our son with no guidance, little information, and a lot of silence. Who can you walk up to and ask, “so, know a good therapist?” Not exactly a conversation starter…..but hopefully that has changed.

When things began to settle, and we had help in place, I was encouraged to “do something” and that’s all it took to start A Path To Hope, (a nonprofit to help guide and support people navigating the mental health system).  That is where I found the strength I never knew I had.  Strength to take a risk, strength to share our story, strength to publicly speak, strength to put on a resource fair, strength to take a stand, strength to DO SOMETHING.    

I was given this path to take for a reason, one that may never make sense to me, one that may seem unfair at times.  We were blessed with the gift of having our son reach out to us, and our being able to help him. In exchange for that, I will gladly use my acquired strength to build a path for others to walk on with a little less difficulty than we did, with a little less confusion, and hopefully, a lot more hope.

By Holly O’Connell, founder of A Path To Hope