For one young woman, mental illness shapes but doesn’t define her life.

Mental illness and substance use have been a part of Emily’s life for as long as she can remember – they run in her family. She was placed in foster care when she was only 8 years old and spent her childhood in a string of foster homes where she says she experienced abuse, before returning to live with her mom when she was 16.

During those years, Emily began to face her own mental health issues. She’s been diagnosed with PTSD, ADHD, major depressive disorder and anxiety. She’s faced self-harm, suicide attempts and multiple hospitalizations.

But she’s been working on healing for a long time, too. She started therapy at Oaklawn when she was in one of her first foster homes. And she attended Camp Mariposa, a free weekend camp for 9- to 12-year-olds who have been impacted by the addiction of a loved one. Camp is one of her favorite childhood memories and a place she felt safe with kids like herself.

One of the most memorable things from camp was an exercise where campers would write a letter to addiction – and burn them. But most of all, it was the friendships she formed that made the camp so special.

“I loved it,” she said. “I met a lot of friends, and honestly, they were the best. I still miss it sometimes.”

Around the time she turned 18 – she’s now 22 – Emily transitioned from Oaklawn’s Child & Adolescent services to Adult services, where she sees a therapist, psychiatrist and case manager. She’s focused on building a future for herself and her son. She hopes one day to write a book about her experiences and have a career in the mental health field so she can help others. 

In the meantime, she embraces the way mental illness has shaped her life while knowing it doesn’t define her.

“My genes have a big play in my life but I’m not only my genes,” she said. “I’m myself. I’m Emily.”


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