Ten piles of 10 pills

At 15, Annelise Adams felt like she didn't belong in this world. Sixteen years later, she's found her place and her purpose.

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When she entered high school at Sarasota Military Academy in Sarasota, Florida, Annelise Adams was, by all outward appearances, a smart, active, flourishing teen with a wealth of interests and a bright future. She was a straight A student, involved in a plethora of activities, had a circle of close friends and was excitedly training to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail on a school trip.

But that glowing picture was a mask, Adams says now, one she donned to cover the anger, pain and confusion of her troubled life at home and the anxiety of believing she played a role in it. Her father’s suck-it-up-and-tough-it out attitude clashed with her mother’s pray-it-away Christian background to fuel constant tension and fighting. Her older brother, who has a different father and was diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder, fought continually, sometimes violently, with his stepfather. Her 10-years-younger sister represented nothing more to Adams than a responsibility she wasn’t interested in shouldering.

Worst of all, none of the dysfunction and disharmony that ruled the household was ever addressed or even acknowledged within the family.

“My father had a very ‘rub some dirt in it,’ kind of mentality,” says Adams, whose gap-toothed smile and lean and lanky good looks are reminiscent of the model Lauren Hutton. “My mother just went to church and prayed all the time, trying to keep her family together. And I just tried to continue on with life outside the home and pretend that, essentially, it wasn’t happening.”

Trying to control what she could of her environment, Adams poured herself into hobbies that kept her away from home – soccer, drill team, skateboarding, music – and developed obsessions like doing her own laundry so she could make sure it was precisely folded. She spent more and more time with her friends, longing for the kind of life she saw they had with their families. Yet, rather than anyone seeing her compulsive drive as a potential warning signal of a mental health issue, she was instead praised for her maturity and initiative.

“I just thought if I was doing something constantly, I wouldn’t have to deal with all this,” she says. “But you can’t escape your own mind and it can take over before you realize how deep in you are. No one realized how big of a tornado I was essentially creating within myself.”

Things did not improve when her parents divorced shortly after her younger sister’s birth. Her mother, working multiple jobs to keep the family intact, was seldom home and Adams was often responsible for her younger sister’s care. She couldn’t understand her daughter’s rejection of her religious beliefs, nor condone her interest in witchcraft and paganism, which appealed to Adams because of the connection with nature.  Both Adams and brother attempted to run away on multiple occasions; once when she returned home after some time away, she was devastated to discover her mother, who had watched her walk out the door, hadn’t even realized she’d been gone.

With her friends and at school, Adams could play the role of a strong and confident teen with a great life, giving the illusion that she had it all together.  But inside, she constantly felt like a stranger in a strange land, uncomfortable in her skin, ill-suited for the world she lived in.  She wrote dark and probing poetry that, instead of serving as a red flags,  often earned her praise for being “ahead of my age.” Though she never actively planned a way to end her life, she often fantasized about “accidents” that would have the same end result, feeling “things would definitely be better if I weren’t here.”

On May 4, 2005 – she remembers the date because when an ambulance was speeding her to a hospital after midnight, an EMT casually remarked that it was “Cinco de Mayo” – she broke up with her boyfriend and came home from school to an empty house except for her mother, who was in bed, nursing one of her frequent migraine headaches. Adams remembers going to the medicine cabinet, pulling out an industrial size bottle of aspirin and “in my meticulous, organized fashion, counting out 10 piles of 10 pills and staring at them.”

“I thought, ‘My parents take these when they’re in pain and I am in a lot of pain,’” she remembers. “Then I swallowed them in handfuls.”

Because she had no idea how to manage the consequences of what she’d done, she “put on my mask again” and woke her mother to ask to be taken to a friend’s house. Once there, she quickly confessed to what she’d done. Her friend’s attempts to get her to vomit were unsuccessful, so the family rushed her to a local hospital. When her toxicity levels continued to climb, she was transferred by ambulance to a children’s hospital an hour away and admitted to the ICU.

“I remember just wanting all the chaos to end,” Adams remembers. “And I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t successful that I thought, ‘Oh crap, I made a mistake,’ or if I had some kind of turning point as I was fading in and out. Something definitely had shifted. I just wanted to get myself together, go home and act right.”

Instead, once she was medically stabilized, she was booked on a Baker Act (an involuntary 72-hour hold for psychiatric evaluation of someone feared to be a danger to themselves or others) and taken to a behavioral health facility in Sarasota. Looking at the patients around her, many of them psychotic, catatonic or incoherent, she was terrified, thinking “I’m not like these people at all.”

“I was so confused about everything and so upset with where I had ended up,” Adams says. “Both my Mom and I denied that I was depressed or angry or anxious. We threw everything but the kitchen sink to say, ‘She’s fine, she can go home.’ But fortunately there were doctors there who realized I had something deeper going on.”

It was during one of the therapy sessions she was required to attend at the facility, that a social worker told a story about Buddha that remains with Adams today.

“It was about how anger is a gift that people carry around and try to pass on to other people,” she recalls, “and you don’t have to accept it and you don’t have to receive it. And that when you refuse it, that anger stays with them and doesn’t belong to you or get passed on.”

It would be years before Adams – who at the time knew nothing of Buddhist philosophy – would truly understand the meaning behind the story. But the little Buddha statuette her mother presented her with when she returned home has served as a reminder ever since. And one she has needed, because the wake up call of her suicide attempt was but the beginning of her pursuit of greater self acceptance and mental well being.

When she returned home -- after her friends told her how much they loved her; after her father denied his anger was in any way be responsible; after her grandparents told her what a selfish thing she’d done, and after everyone “walked on eggshells” around her for a bit – Adams “just kind of fell back into my life.” She went to a few private therapy sessions, which she hated, begging to be allowed to discontinue them. When her mother suddenly agreed, she was surprised – until she learned that the real reason was that the family could no longer afford  treatment after Adams’ father lost his job and with it, the family’s health insurance.

So how did the family deal with the aftermath of her moment of crisis?

“We didn’t,” she says simply. “When they all got their grievances out, we just stopped talking about it. It was like a little blip on the radar – I got sick and now I’m better. So after I stopped therapy and everyone stopped guilt tripping me, it was really just swept under the rug.”

Adams continued to feel out of sorts and out of place often, confessing to her mother that she felt “pulled by some other energy” to be somewhere else. In her early 20s she moved to California, where she was embraced by a group of women who not only supported her, but opened her up to the world of social justice, political movements and activism. In addition, still drawn to explore other worlds and foreign experiences, she traveled to Australia and Bali.'

“I discovered that I began feeling more comfortable connecting with strangers than with my own inner circle,” she says.

Five years ago Adams returned to Sarasota, determined to “show the people who knew the Annelise I was back then that I am a completely different person.” She worked for several nonprofits, including Selah Freedom, which aids women who have been sexually trafficked, and the nonprofit Center for Religious Tolerance, founded by Andrea Blanch, which works on a variety of social justice fronts. Three years ago, when Blanch became one of the founding members of SRQ Strong, a grassroots group with a mission to make Sarasota a trauma-informed community, she invited Adams to become the group’s administrative director.

Blanch also introduced Adams to an astrologist, who at last helped her come to terms with her enduring feelings of being at odds with the world.

“I have never felt more understood by a stranger in my life,” she says. “She helped me realize why I feel like I don’t belong here. She helped me piece it all together.”

Moving along her own spiritual path, she found the affinities she’d been searching for. It was a long and gradual process, she says, but one she eventually became more comfortable sharing with her family and her inner circle. In time and in turn, she began to see changes in them that reflected her own growth,  a ripple reaction of being more open and authentic about their shared experiences.   Her mother left her church and found a new direction for her faith; her sister earned a psychology degree and expressed interested in getting involved in the trauma-informed movement.

One day last year Adams was chatting with an old friend from school who asked, “Have you ever considered going back to talk therapy?” That’s when she decided to request all the medical records from her suicide attempt 16 years earlier. Reading through the records, acknowledging her growth and being involved with SRQ Strong in encouraging others to heal from their past traumas, led her to decide the time was right to begin sharing her past experience with others — including with her boyfriend of five years, to whom she’d never disclosed the attempt.

“I carried a lot of shame about it, but the timing just felt right,” Adams says. “It did happen a long time ago, but I remember everything from that time, everything I was going through. It was a difficult thing to come to terms with, but I knew I wanted to be a part of that change as far as the stigma around talking about it.”

Recently, she shared her story at one of SRQ Strong’s monthly Zoom forums. She was surprised at the degree of emotion she felt as she spoke, but said speaking her truth aloud was both “cathartic” and gave her a sense of closure. The wealth of positive feedback she received encouraged her to continue being “a change agent,” much as she has been within her own family.

Adams says she can’t begin to imagine the increased pressures for teens today, with the anxieties of the political world, the Covid pandemic and the constant and often destructive nature of social media. But the flip side, she says, is that today’s teens have great accessibility to mental health information and treatment than ever before, and are operating with a much greater degree of knowledge and proactivity.

“There is a glimmer of hope I see not only in their awareness, but their push back and resistance to people who continue to try to say mental health isn’t something we need to focus on,” Adams says. “There are a lot of really smart young people out there who aren’t letting things slide, who realize that there is generational trauma passed down over the years. And they’re saying, we’re done with this. It stops with me. I feel like I was able to be that cutoff point within my family.”

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