Mental health advocate Sonja Wasden owns her truth

Updated 2 years ago on October 17, 2022

On April 25, 2022, I sat in the Central California Women's Prison, the largest women's prison in the world, along with 60 inmates and my daughter Rachel. As mental health advocates, Rachel and I hold mental health book clubs at various women's prisons around the country. Leading up to Mental Health Awareness Month in May, we discussed Oprah Winfrey's best-selling book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing."

Now we were getting ready to shoot our book club discussion, and my heart was pounding in anticipation of the Zoom appearance of our special guest, Oprah. When she graciously accepted my invitation, she didn't know that she was a guiding force in my life - but not always welcome.

In 2011, while browsing YouTube, I clicked play and saw a clip of Oprah's Life Lessons. Her powerful words rang in my ears, "If you somehow keep a secret or pretend to be something you are not, you will never become the person you are meant to be.

My heart ached with heaviness, something inside me screaming that she might be right. I felt like she was calling me, like she knew my secret. My fingers trembled, and I felt that she had no right to utter such dangerous words. In panic and anger, I slammed the computer shut.

There were darker stories in my life behind closed doors.

For years, I continuedto be the perfect CEO wife and mother of three, attending charity events and living in my beautiful home. Behind closed doors, my life held darker plots.

Underneath it all, I was fighting a losing battle with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic anxiety disorder. I hid this truth, not wanting to risk the inevitable stigma and condemnation that I believed would surely follow.

This hell made me break one of my most sacred beliefs: that my life belonged to God. Unable to stop the falling dominoes, in 2015 I attempted suicide by ingesting hundreds of anti-psychotic pills. At that moment, suicide went from a whisper to a scream, and my heart wished it would go deaf.

Fortunately, my husband found me in time, and the paramedics were able to save my life. When I woke up in the ICU, it took almost a week before I could walk and talk again. A few days after I was discharged from the hospital, I was standing in my dining room looking out the window at my neighbors laughing with each other. I wish I could say I was suddenly brave and told my truth, but that's not how my secret was revealed. My neighbors now knew I had mental health problems because they saw the ambulance lights flashing in the driveway as paramedics carried my unconscious body out of the house on a stretcher? Nevertheless, after my return, only one neighbor stopped by to see if I was all right.

I took a deep breath and cautiously walked outside. When I approached my neighbors, their conversation was abruptly cut short. We stood in heartbreaking silence. Their awkwardness made me remember what the psychiatrist had said to my husband, who was the CEO of the hospital where I had recently been discharged: "Next time, take her to a hospital where no one knows you.

At 44, I didn't know how to use my own voice.

After a few awkward words, I wrapped my broken heart tightly in my coat and walked slowly back toward the house, feeling very small. I knew I needed to tell the truth, but I didn't know how. The sad reality was that in my 44 years, I didn't know how to use my own voice.

Four years later I found myself at the Golden Globe Awards. Oprah was accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award and during her speech stated: "Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I am especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories." Tears covered my eyes and my ears rang. Oprah's words penetrated my very soul again, and this time I was ready.

With the help of my daughter Rachel, I wrote a 2019 memoir, " The Impossible Life: An Inspiring True Story of a Woman's Struggle from the Inside Out. It won the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize in 2022. The mental health secrets I buried like cursed treasure were now on display: overeating that caused me to weigh 250 pounds, $150,000 in credit card debt due to a manic attack, countless ER visits, a stay in a psychiatric hospital, my broken marriage and a suicide attempt.

My illness has not changed a bit from what it was 30 years ago. What has changed is my ability to cope with it, and the power I have gained from speaking my truth.

My illness hasn't changed one bit from 30 years ago when I was first diagnosed. All that has changed is my ability to cope with it, and the strength I have gained from speaking my truth. I am no longer a victim, but a winner. I am no longer silent, but have joined the growing chorus of mental health advocates. I used to ask God, "Why me?" Now I ask, "Why, God, did You entrust me with this mental illness problem?" I am in awe that He trusts me and believes in me to take on this task and succeed.

When Oprah spoke on Zoom, I squeezed my daughter's hand. Many of the brave inmates stood and shared their heartbreaking and trauma-filled stories. As I listened to them, I thought of all the times I had sat and cried with them as they recounted their childhood experiences and how those experiences had affected their mental health. I watched as these women sat outside on cement surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers with my daughter, humming: "Light in the darkness, my God. That's who You are." The prisoner who played the guitar was featured on Forensic Files and 48 Hours. Many of them are murderers, and there is no excuse for their acts of violence, but I still love them, and their mental health is important too.

Oprah's healing words that day gave them hope that they could have a meaningful future. The point is that mental health problems do not discriminate and can happen to anyone. It doesn't depend on race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation or economic status. Every voice matters, even for women in prison.

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