Content Warning: This piece mentions a suicide attempt, which some people might find disturbing. If you or someone you know may be showing symptoms of suicidal ideation, please, contact your physician or go to your local ER.
Nicole Gerges, Lundbeck account manager, psychiatry, grew up in Pennsylvania, as one of four siblings. Her younger sister, Julie, was a sweet, playful, curious girl who loved animals and being outside. Nicole recalls, “her smile would light up a room.” Nicole and her siblings had a strong bond, plenty of friends, and a great neighborhood full of kids playing outside on summer nights. Things started to change, and Julie was diagnosed with depression at the age of 12. The following life events that Nicole experienced inspired her to search for a career where she could impact the lives of those living with brain diseases.
After her diagnosis, Julie started on a path that would impact the entire family for years to come. Nicole recalls, “She started to exhibit behaviors that we had never seen before. She was acting out and was erratic at times. She became explosive and angry and unable to control her emotions.”
Nicole was a young college student figuring out her own life, focused on following in her mom’s footsteps studying nursing to help people and make them feel better. But during the initial Nursing 101 class, she realized it wasn’t the right fit for her. After speaking with her college counselor, Nicole decided to transfer colleges and change her major to Pharmaceutical Marketing which combined her interest in business and marketing with the passion she had for the medical field. Nicole was focused on finding her career path and “not really focused on anyone else, which included Julie.” It was a time when Julie needed Nicole the most.
One night, Julie attempted to take her own life and ended up in a behavioral health unit under suicide watch.
“I still remember seeing her there. She looked so sad and completely lost. It broke my heart, and in that moment, I just wanted to take her pain away. To this day, I just want to take her pain away.”
After Julie was released, she turned to drugs and alcohol attempting to numb her pain. This made her mental health worse and caused serious and scary consequences for her and her family. The family did their best to support Julie, but they weren’t equipped to help her in the way she needed. Family meetings and interventions, although well-intentioned, often turned to war zones filled with blame and shame. Rather than healing and forging a path forward, the meetings often ended in chaotic arguments with painful words spoken in anger.
For years, the family would run to Julie’s aid when the consequences of her behavior caught up to her. Things would eventually subside, and everyone would resume their day to day, but it would all repeat in an endless cycle.
Along the way, Nicole’s family made many attempts to connect with Julie, but help can only be received when someone is ready for it. Julie’s situation was difficult because she had ultimately been diagnosed with many mental health conditions and was struggling to find the right care.
Brain diseases often impact more than just the person living with them, and this was the case for Julie’s family. Her mom felt powerless to offer the right help and was impacted by her own depression and anxiety. Her father was heartbroken and blamed himself. Their older brother tried to stay out of it and limited his involvement. Their youngest sister bore the brunt of so much anger and frustration; she had to grow up fast in the face of her family falling apart. And Nicole felt resentful and hardened to her own family. She grew frustrated after nearly 20 years of dealing with the situation, sharing that she “did and said things that I know came across as hurtful, blunt, and not supportive, even though I know they came from a genuine desire for my family to be happy again, to be whole again.”
The birth of Nicole’s first child ushered in a new mindset and period of reflection for Nicole. She reevaluated her role in the family’s dynamic and, putting her daughter first, set boundaries for how she wanted to raise her family.
Nicole was determined to heal her family and recognized that the first person she needed to heal was herself. She found a therapist with whom she connected and trusted.
“My decision to begin therapy was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made…I went by myself for nearly two years…a lot of soul searching, a lot of crying, and most importantly, a lot of processing the negative thoughts that were eating away at me.”
Nicole eventually asked others in her family to join her. Her mom and Julie both agreed, and they feel it has made an enormous difference. Julie attributes her progress and new path forward to that moment when Nicole reached out to bring her in. For the last two years, the three of them have continued to attend regular sessions together and are dedicated to their healing journey.
“We’re still undoing a lot of the damage that has been done to Julie all these years…she’s learning and understanding her mental health conditions so she can become empowered. Remarkably, she recently celebrated three years sober.”
Nicole can now be present for her sister, and Julie knows she has someone she can reach out to and can ask for help if she needs it. Nicole says it’s beautiful to watch the transformation and change she has witnessed in her sister and her family. No matter which side of a mental health crisis someone may be on, she encourages people to ask for help and reach out to others – don’t give up.
Nicole believes that her professional and personal lives have been connected from the beginning – her personal story has inspired her desire to help as many people and families as she can through her work at Lundbeck. And Nicole’s own understanding of the mental healthcare ecosystem, learned through her professional experiences, gave her knowledge, insights and resources to better support her sister.
“It’s powerful to me that what I now do professionally lives so close to my own story. I always tell people how passionate I am about what I do. And I know it’s people like Julie who I think about when I hear Lundbeck’s Purpose of being tirelessly dedicated to brain health so everyone can be their best.”
This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have questions or for more information.
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