My Mental Health Journey: From dusty beginnings to giving back

By La Viola Ward

La Viola Ward is a mental health speaker and advocate. After obtaining her Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, she made it her mission to share her experience living with mental illness and hopes to help to reduce many of the stigmas associated with mental health — especially within communities of color through her work.

Content warning: mentions of substance abuse and sexual assault

Dusty Beginnings

I was born in a dusty little cowtown right in the heartland of California called Merced. Never heard of it? Trust me, I know. No one has. But that is the place I call home. When people who have never been here picture California in their heads, they usually have visions of movie stars, sunny beaches, and bikinis. Well — the central valley where I am from is no Hollywood. Merced County probably looks more like the Kansas dust bowl than swanky Beverly Hills. Rather than palm trees and Rodeo Drive, I grew up next to cow farms and a big onion dehydration plant that made the air smell like fresh armpits every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Fabulous origin story, right?

La Viola and her mother
La Viola and her mother

How was mental health talked about or considered within your family and community?

As if being a country bumpkin in the middle of nowhere wasn’t bad enough, I also grew up Apostolic. “What is Apostolic?” you might ask because you’re a heathen destined for hellfire and damnation. Well, my sinner friend, let me explain: Being Apostolic means essentially that you take all the fun things in society — alcohol, secular music, fashion, makeup, gambling; and you ban them ALL. Forbidden! Apostolicism is a type of evangelical Christianity and has very strict standards of living. I essentially grew up in a little protective bubble of holiness. We didn’t even have a television in our household until I was in junior high school. I wore skirts down to my ankles all year round, and I was not allowed to wear pants, makeup, or any other trace of worldly ornamentation. Further, our home was led by a strong, black single mother who worked her fingers to the bone and ran her home like a military outpost. At the age of 9, I probably had more domestic responsibilities than the average grown woman has today. She expected good behavior, piety, and obedience — and she got it.

In our household, mental health was not a thing. It was not even that it was ignored, rather it did not exist. If you were feeling sad or overwhelmed, you took it to the altar.

Nobody went to therapy — we went to church. Depression was not a word in my vocabulary — let alone a topic of discussion. If you had some sort of trouble, you just had to pray about it… and hope God heard you.

Were there any specific barriers to your understanding of mental health and getting support, that you faced?

In hindsight, my religious upbringing was probably the biggest obstacle to overcome later in life on my journey to mental wellness. It contributed to a reticence about mental health in general which prevented me from beginning my journey to wellness for decades. It perpetuated an ignorance about anything mental health related until I was in a state of emergency. Trauma was also an impactful mental health obstruction for me. When I was 12 years old I was raped. Following the assault, I started feeling symptoms of what I now know are PTSD, anxiety, and depression… but at the time, I did not have a name for what I felt. The whole experience was traumatic and riddled with shame and confusion for me. All I knew was something significant, changed in my brain. I couldn’t pinpoint it though. I just knew I was miserable. Meanwhile, I tried my best to be a “good girl” as I was expected to be and just hoped that eventually, enough prayer would calm the hurricane brewing in my head.

Was mental health a priority? If it was or wasn’t, why do you think that was?

In my younger years, I don’t think I even knew enough about mental health for it to be a priority for me. Whenever I talked to my mother about feeling down, the answer was always to take it to the Lord. (Although, she didn’t know the root of many of my symptoms until I finally told her about the assault over 20 years later). After a while, I figured the Lord must be busy because I was praying my heart out and he still wasn’t fixing me. I just never could seem to shake off the feeling of being defective. I was tall and awkward. Crippled with social anxiety. I was always smart, though. I got good grades and tried to remain as productive as possible to meet all the expectations that my mother had for me. When I was 17, I graduated high school a year early and went off to college. In college, I was away from home for the first time and away from the strict church life that I was used to. At this point, studying was the last thing on my list of priorities. I partied. Hard. I still had all sorts of unresolved trauma and emotional difficulties so I started to self-soothe in any way that I could: I smoked and drank profusely. In what was likely a subconscious attempt to regain control over my sexuality after my assault, I had a number of wild, promiscuous years where I was determined to retrieve what had been taken from me. Eating also made me feel better so I binge ate and put on weight, the spiral continued. Deep down I still had that empty pit that I was trying to fill. I spiraled deeper into depression. I was even suicidal at times. But we NEVER said the “S” word in our family. So… I eased my sorrow the only way I knew how.

La Viola and her parents
La Viola and her parents

Life went on, as it does. I moved to another city. Finished my Bachelor’s. Busied myself with adulting, and eventually gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Life was good… or so it seemed. I had a bout with postpartum depression after having my son but was subsequently medicated and figured that the problem would go away. I still couldn’t shake that gnawing anxiety or the occasional pit of despair, but I put on my strong black woman uniform and occupied myself past my problems.

What drove or inspired you to work on your mental well-being?

The first time I had any real mental health treatment was after work one day in my mid 20’s when I collapsed in my shower. I couldn’t breathe. I gasped for air and clawed at the shower curtain. I felt like bricks were on my chest. My throat was tightening. I felt like something invisible was choking me.

I thought I was having a heart attack. My family called 911 and paramedics rushed me to the Emergency Department, where I learned that my heart was actually fine — but I did suffer from panic disorder. I had my first panic attack.

After my first panic attack, I went to the doctor and they made some referrals for me to go and see a therapist for the first time. I finally sat down with a professional and poured out all the things that I’d been dealing with for all those years. In addition to medication for depression, they treated my anxiety and panic disorder simultaneously and put me on a course of treatment so that all my issues could be addressed. I began to go to regular therapy sessions and participate in support groups. I started to feel better.

What drove you to pursue a mental health profession?

After I started to feel relief in treatment, I was inspired to give back and relate my experiences to the world. Later, after lots of therapy, I came to understand that what I had lost in the assault could be regained by helping others who had experienced the same as I, and thus my passion for helping was born. I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. I figured that after having my own life saved by mental health treatment, it was necessary that I dedicate my life to the same path to help others. I started working with Stop Stigma Sacramento in 2017 and began work in the community speaking publicly about my path to try and motivate others into their own healing mental health journeys. This work invigorated me as I struggled to overcome my own rape trauma, anxiety, and depression. I became a fierce advocate for culturally adept mental health care. I found solace working with women of color — especially victims of rape and trauma who mirrored my own experiences. I understood them in a way that I do not believe I would have been able to, had I not had the traumatic memories of my past. It was during that time that I also fell in love with the art of public speaking. I was rejuvenated by standing on stage, speaking to groups of people about my own mental health journey, in order to teach and inspire others.

I guess you could consider me FIXED at this point? And then she lived happily ever after…right? Nah… not quite.

La Viola Ward
La Viola Ward

Even after obtaining a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and working tirelessly to help others deal with their own mental health issues, I wasn’t doing a great job of managing my own issues full-time. I still coped with stress, depression, and anxiety in unhealthy ways… I kept myself occupied with chronic multitasking. I took “comfort food” quite literally and packed on pounds soothing myself with snacks. I “drank like a fish”, as my old Uncle Gip would say. But by then, I had upgraded from my dorm room cheap vodka days to high-end cocktails and wine.

“I can stop anytime I want… it’s not even that bad. I am helping people!” I would reassure myself — then pour another shot.

In 2018, I hit that cliché rock bottom people always talk about. I had a toxic relationship that ended abruptly and was particularly traumatizing. In the end, my downward spiral was swift. So swift, in fact, that I woke up one day in a hospital. I had been depressed and lonely, reeling from my pain. So, I had gone to my hometown and went on a partying spree with my father (also an addict) and some hometown friends. In the midst of this wild weekend, I had driven drunk and ran into another vehicle. I nearly died — and worse, I could have hurt someone else in the process. This was a turning point in my life. No amount of schooling could have prepared me for the insights that almost dying brought to my perspective. It was at that point that I stopped being a Good Samaritan on paper and actually got myself together.

My life has changed drastically since that accident. I got married. I gave birth to my second child. I had a raging bout with postpartum depression and resumed the comprehensive approach to treating my mental illness that once saved my life. In addition, the world was turned upside down by the pandemic, and that came with its own share of mental health disturbances. But I have not given up.

These days, caring for my mental health and substance abuse issues are at the forefront of my mind ALWAYS. I am an alcoholic. I am a person living with depression and anxiety. I was once ashamed of all of this, but now I know that I have to, above all, be transparent if I am going to be of any assistance to anyone. I attend therapy regularly. I take full accountability for my actions — good, bad, and ugly. I am no longer in the business of saying bubbly, feel-good euphemisms to make you think that I am better than I am. I am a work in perpetual progress.If you can take anything from my story, let it be this:

No matter what you are going through, your life can get infinitely better if you are willing to do the work.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, either. You must put in the time and effort to determine what will best work for YOU. Please continue to rely on your faith, family, and loved ones for support if they are available to you. However, doing so is not mutually exclusive with obtaining professional help. Seek out mental health agencies within your community. Call 211 and find out where to go or who to call if you are in crisis. Mental illness does not discriminate and can affect anyone in any community or demographic. Even still, there is help for every single one of us.

Just know, that if you are struggling with your mental health, you are not alone, and there are brighter days ahead.

La Viola with her husband and children
La Viola with her husband and children


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