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Andrea Arguello-Abramson

Rebellion, denial…and eventural acceptance

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It took years for Andrea Arguello-Abramson to take the advice she now gives others: “Take your medicine.”

When Andrea Arguello-Abramson thinks back to her childhood, she mostly comes up with a blank slate. She knows what she has been told by others, but even the few things she can bring to mind tend to conflict with others’ memories of the same events.

“I don’t really remember my childhood, or maybe more accurately, I think I choose not to remember it,” says Arguello-Abramson, 30, now a graduate student at the University of North Colorado studying to become a school psychologist. “I have realized I have some traumatic memories, so I remember them differently.”

Born in Washington, D. C., she moved as an infant to her father’s native Nicaragua and spent the first five years of her life there before her family – now expanded by the addition of her four-years-younger sister, Gabrielle – moved back to Maryland. Then there’s a long empty space in her recall. Her mother says those years were filled with angry outbursts and abnormal temper tantrums that made her suspect something was wrong with her oldest child. But Arguello-Abramson doesn’t remember her fury surging until her parents separated and eventually divorced when she was 12 or 13.

Even that seminal event has been clouded by the passage of time and the years of therapy that have altered her perception of it. As she remembers it, she was the one who discovered her father had an “alternate family” in Nicaragua and told her mother about it. Her father chose to return to Central America, leaving the girls to stay behind with their mother in the U.S. For years afterward, Arguello-Abramson had little contact with him; even today their relationship is sporadic and maintained largely through infrequent messages on What’s App.

“He abandoned us,” Arguello-Abramson says, “there’s no better way to say it. He had the choice to stay, but he chose the other family. I always joke I have Daddy issues, but it’s a real thing, it’s true. I have a lot of challenges due to that abandonment.”

Within two years of the divorce, her mother fell in love with and married a man who happened also to be her daughter’s middle school physical education teacher. He had a daughter the same age as Arguello-Abramson, as well as a son four years older, and they all moved in together. The memories of that period of her life are vivid because, as she puts it, “that’s when the problems began.” Rejected by her father, furious with her mother for creating yet another difficult family situation, she began acting out – “100 percent and in all the ways possible.”

“It was a lot that happened in a really short time,” she says, “and it affected a lot of the decisions I made as a teenager. At the time, I hated my Mom. I blamed her for my Dad leaving and I blamed her for marrying this man who acted like my Dad. We did not have a great relationship.”

She began drinking and using illegal drugs; at 14, she lost her virginity. Her mother, frantic with worry and predicting Andrea wouldn’t live to see her high school graduation, took her to therapists and psychologists and specialists seeking help, but Arguello-Abramson’s anger and resentment only grew. By the time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16, her rage fueled a rejection of her diagnosis and a refusal to take the medications prescribed by a psychiatrist.

“I was in denial for years,” she says. “I thought it was unfair and I was furious about it. I was prescribed medication but I didn’t regularly take it. And all of this was because I was so mad at my Mom. All my anger was directed at her.”

In fact, so eager was she to be free of her mother’s oversight, she precipitously decided to leave home for Nicaragua, despite her equally uneasy feelings toward her father. In her memory, it was because her mother kicked her out; her mother says she ran away. Whichever was the case, for the next six months, Arguello-Abramson lived with her father and his Nicaraguan family, finishing her high school education at the only school that met American standards, which was Catholic. (She is Jewish.) Though she developed a deep love for her younger stepbrother, she continued to feel the pain of her father’s betrayal and maintained a superficial relationship with her stepmother only in order to avoid making her living situation even more awkward than it already was.

While Arguello-Abramson was in Nicaragua, her mother turned to her local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maryland to understand better how to cope with her daughter’s illness and potentially salvage their relationship. After taking the organization’s Family-to-Family course — a free eight-session evidence-based educational program, taught by trained family members who have experienced a loved one’s mental illness first hand — she not only felt better equipped to problem solve, it had such an impact she became a Family-to-Family trainer herself. After moving to Florida several years later, she was instrumental in reviving a dormant NAMI chapter in Sarasota, joining its board and eventually becoming the chapter’s president.

Meanwhile, after earning her high school degree in Nicaragua, Arguello-Abramson returned to the U.S. and entered college in Maryland. But still drinking, using substances and resistant to taking her medication, she struggled academically and became increasingly manic. After her freshman year her mother enrolled her in a dual-diagnosis wilderness rehabilitation program in the mountains of North Carolina.

Not only were alcohol and drugs forbidden, Arguello-Abramson was forced to take her psychiatric medication (staff members checked under tongue to insure it was ingested), fend for herself outdoors and undergo intense daily therapy sessions. While every fiber of her body initially resisted, after several months of the regimen, she began to experience, for the first time, what it felt like to be stable.

“I hated it initially, I hated the dirt and the working out and the bugs and the heat,” she says. “But by the end I loved it. Because I was forced to take medication and stay away from drugs and alcohol, it was the first time my mind was clear. That is when I kind of saw the light and realized: ‘I have bipolar. Medicine is helping. I need medicine.’”

She had just turned 19. The program not only brought her to an acceptance of her illness, but instilled a love of the outdoors and camping that remains an integral part of her life today in Colorado. After graduation from the program but not yet ready to fly solo, she moved to a halfway house in Georgia. She could begin taking college classes, but would continue to be drug tested and breathalyzed daily, with ongoing monitoring of her medication. Living there opened her eyes to what can happen when mental illness goes unchecked.

“When I think about a halfway house, I think of drug addicts or people from prison, and it’s true this place was full of both of those,” she says. “But I also lived with people with more severe mental illness than me and that kind of made me appreciate that my illness was not as severe as other people’s or as it could be.”

She also began working on mending her relationship with her mother. Rehab therapy included receiving “impact” letters from loved ones, detailing how her behaviors and illness had affected them. Though she’d managed to remain close to her sister throughout her years of instability – despite the fact, she readily admits, that she was often cruel and sometimes physically aggressive – she’d never realized how much her own behaviors were responsible for the estrangement from her mother.

“I was finally able to see her side of it, that she loved me that she was not the bad guy, that she was just trying to help,” she says. “So we became closer. She and my sister are now my best friends. I know I traumatized them, for sure. But they have just stayed with me and loved me through it. I really think I would not be alive if it weren’t for them.”

Today, even with a regular medication, therapy and sleep schedule, Arguello-Abramson says she must still monitor her moods and behaviors daily. Though some of her friends partake, she stays away from hard drugs and errs on the side of “too much sleep, knowing that it’s better than not sleeping enough.” She does drink alcohol and use marijuana — which is legal in Colorado – “even though I know I shouldn’t,” but always in mindful moderation.

“I kind of see more clearly, I think about repercussions, I’m less impulsive,” she says. “But it takes a conscious effort every day to stay healthy. Every day when I wake up, I have to assess where I’m at: Do I feel grumpy, moody, depressed? Anytime I get irritable, I have to consider whether I’m becoming unstable or if it’s just normal irritability for whatever reason. So it’s a conscious effort every day, for sure.”

Though her moods still fluctuate, she no longer experiences the deep depression she first felt at 16, nor the high-flying mania that made her feel “cocky, sure of myself, invincible.” But, for the first time in her life she’s been able to form some lasting relationships (she has no friends from elementary, middle or high school) and, after two unhealthy romances, is now poised to move in with her partner, Greg, who is also training to become a school psychologist.

Like her mother, who has become a strong and outspoken mental health advocate, Arguello-Abramson now openly shares her personal history, and often her ongoing mental health challenges as well. In an effort to “reduce the stigma,” she has revealed her diagnosis not only to friends (“I’d rather have them ask questions than make assumptions”) and some of her teachers, and even her employer when she worked as a graduate assistant in her school’s disability resource center. She says she has no regrets about most of those disclosures, with the exception of the latter; when she became symptomatic due to the combined pressures of her schoolwork and the pandemic, instead of receiving support, her supervisor put her on probation. She chose to leave the position.

“It’s made me rethink disclosing in the work place,” she admits. “I don’t think I’d do it again. Because if a disability resource center discriminates against mental illness, then anywhere can.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology, Arguello-Abramson strategized how to combine her fascination with the brain and human behavior and her love for children. The possibility of becoming a school psychologist – with built-in mental health “breaks” for summer and school vacations – seemed like “the perfect career for me.”

She is currently doing a practicum in an elementary school, where she says she has seen up close the impact of the Covid pandemic on the mental health of young students. Knowing that teaching emotional regulation and calming skills is most effective at an early age, she is looking forward to implementing new trauma-informed practices to help pupils who are struggling before they reach a crisis stage.

She’s also considering writing a book with her once-nemesis, her mother. In alternating chapters, they plan to share the story of her mental health journey, from their differing perspectives.

As for advice to others dealing with a diagnosis, first on her list is this: ”Take your medicine.”

“I know it’s not that simple, that medication is not for everyone and it’s not always needed,” she says. “But when it is, it’s important to take it. It’s so easy. And it’s definitely life changing.”