Instead of scrolling through social media or hitting the snooze button on her alarm, Angie Johnson spends the first 10 minutes of each day talking to her mirror.
It’s a technique she learned in therapy, a regimen to remind herself life is worth living.
“You are good enough. You are strong. You are loved,” Angie repeats to herself.
That positive encouragement is echoed by her peers at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Rock County, where today Angie is the volunteer coordinator for the second annual Paint the Town Yellow 5K fun run/walk on Sept. 30.
But a year ago, Angie’s life was dramatically different.
“I’m too fat. I’m too ugly. I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” Those words were a drumbeat in her head for more than a decade.
They weren’t just words. The 28-year-old Janesville woman stopped counting her suicide attempts and self-inflicted harm incidents when she hit 75.
‘Walking on eggshells’
Angie was diagnosed with depression at age 9 and borderline personality disorder at age 11.
At 14, she tried to commit suicide for the first time.
For most of her life, Angie shared a home with the man she blames for her mental health challenges: her father, Randal Johnson.
“Growing up, we were all walking on eggshells,” Angie said. “(We) felt like we had to keep everything inside because we were taught that no one wants to know how you’re feeling.”
Angie was physically and sexually abused by her father most of her life, she said.
She internalized her anger toward her father, building an intense rage of self-loathing and disdain for life.
Angie was 8 when depression crept into her life. Her first experience with a mental health professional came a year later, after she told her mom “things would be better off without me.”
Her family doctor prescribed anti-depressants, but she said they didn’t help.
“Deep down, I wanted to talk, but I knew if I talked my family would get in trouble, my dad would get in trouble, and my dad would cause more pain and resentment toward us,” Angie said.
School was the only place she could escape her father, but she was regularly bullied there.
“School should have been my safe haven from my dad, but in turn, it was like no escape. I went from one evil to another evil,” Angie said.
She started seeing a therapist after a 72-hour stint in the hospital when she was 14. Angie saw eight therapists before meeting a doctor she connected with.
Even after becoming a legal adult, Angie said she continued to live at home with her abuser. She feared if she left, her father would abuse her younger sister, Brittany.
For that reason, Angie never went to sleepovers or out with friends as a teenager. She willingly stepped into the role as her sister’s bodyguard.
‘I need help’
Angie’s chance at freedom came May 8, 2012. Her father was arrested on charges of misdemeanor battery after a physical dispute with her.
Randal struck Angie in the back of her head and in her stomach during an argument, according to the criminal complaint.
He was later found guilty on the charges.
A year and a month later, the court granted Angie, Brittany and her mother, Karen, a restraining order against Randal Johnson, according to Rock County Court records.
Separating from her father did not end Angie’s troubles. Depression and anxiety continued to weigh her down. She was in and out of hospitals until last year.
Angie said she wasn’t ready to ask for help outside of therapy when she started attending support groups through NAMI.
But after her last attempt at suicide in winter, the group helped her say the three hardest words: “I need help.”
Angie found solace with her peers at NAMI, all of whom struggle with mental health challenges. She slowly started volunteering with the organization and attended the first Paint the Town Yellow 5K fun run/walk last fall.
Afterward, someone read aloud the names of Rock County residents who had died by suicide.
That was an awakening for Angie.
“One of my friends whispered in my ear, ‘You know, your name could have been on this list.’ I lost it. I was done,” Angie said.
This year, Angie is more involved in planning the Paint the Town Yellow 5K. Her mental health is stable for the time being.
Time to heal
Patty Slatter, president of NAMI and a suicide survivor, said the event is a day of healing for those with mental health challenges and their families.
“We need to reduce the stigma” around mental health, Slatter said. “The only way we can do that is by talking about it. We know that suicide is a tough subject, so we encourage people to have fun with it.”
Last year, about 400 people participated in the fun run/walk, Slatter said. Proceeds helped start a suicide grief support group that meets from 6 to 7 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of every month at the NAMI- Rock County office.
This year after the 5K, NAMI will release 25 balloons—one for each person who died from suicide in Rock County in 2016, Slatter said.
Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have mental illnesses, Slatter said.
“It takes so much courage to say those words, ‘I need help,’ that we have to put ourselves in those shoes,” Slatter said. “That phone is a two-ton weight when you’re at that point.”
Participants can register for the 5K online at namirock5Kcom. Adults and children are eligible to participate.
Part of Angie’s healing process has involved stepping out of her comfort zone.
She plans to sprint out of that comfort zone at the beginning of the 5K walk/run in her new yellow tutu.
From there, Angie said she will keep working to preserve her mental stability.
If she stays on track, January will mark her first full year without being hospitalized in 14 years.
For many years, Angie kept her hair short because brushing it required more effort than she could muster when she was depressed.
Now her hair reaches her shoulders.
“My hair is growing just as I am mentally growing and spiritually growing. It’s all growing,” she said with a smile.