3 Lessons Learned in Rehab

Before I get started, let me clarify: I went to rehab for depression, anxiety, and trauma. I did not go because I needed to kick my heroin addiction. I have never taken any sort of drugs in my life besides the ones approved by my doctors. Now, some people at my treatment center were in fact there for their drug issues; however, when it comes down to it, we were all there for the same reasons. We just used different coping mechanisms.

Okay, now I can start. When going to rehab, one does not leave the facility without learning something (so long they put in the work). I for one, learned many things, such as how to sneak tweezers into your room so that you didn’t have to get it from staff every morning, and how to slide bad tasting food off your plate in a way that didn’t offend the cook; however, I also learned some more important things that have helped me tremendously in my recovery. Here are three of them.

1. My feelings are valid


I wrote this phrase on the side of my arm for about a month straight. So far I haven’t gotten cancer from the ink.

While I was growing up, I got this idea in my head that I should only feel “good” emotions, like happiness, love, and hope. Because of this, I repressed a lot of feelings, from sadness to anger,  fear to grief. This idea probably came about subconsciously through a multitude of experiences that I could talk about for daaaaaayyys, but one realization really solidified this idea.

When I was maybe 7 or 8, I started to realize just how different my brother, Mason, was from the other kids. I was told many times as a child that he had “moderate to severe autism,” so I knew something was off, but I didn’t really understand the magnitude of this until it started to affect me and my relationship with him: My friends and their siblings could talk to each other, we couldn’t; my friends could tell their siblings their secrets that they didn’t want their parents to know, we couldn’t; my friends would fight and get into arguments with their siblings, we couldn’t. It was also around this time that I started to realize that he wasn’t going to get better. I guess it was here where I started to grieve the loss of a “typical” sibling. I say “I guess” because I didn’t ever complete the grieving process. I got stuck in the first step of grief — denial. The grief that comes with having a sibling with autism or any similar disability is very complicated. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like having a close friend die, but my brother is alive and well, so the feeling lingers and comes back in waves. Grief that large is waaaaaay too much emotion for a seven or eight year old to handle, so to cope, I stuffed it down. Deny, deny, deny.

Unpacking all these emotions, especially the grief and loss, was extremely hard, and I experienced hurt like I never felt before. An analogy that we were told ALL. THE .TIME. while in rehab was that emotions are like a volcano (cue the rolling of the eyes of everyone that was in treatment with me): If you put a cork on it, it’ll work for some time, but eventually the pressure is too large for the cork to work anymore, and the volcano erupts with more velocity and destruction than if you just let the steam out as it came.

Long story short, my volcano erupted. Big time. For the 45 days that I was in treatment, I wrote the affirmation, “MY FEELINGS ARE VALID” on my arm to remind me to let myself feel. If you asked me, “What the scariest thing you’ve done?” I’d first say signing up for drivers’ ed (cause let’s be real, a car is a massive moving weapon that I have zero confidence in being able to stay alive in). After that, I’d say facing my emotions. The first one took a scripture (1 John 4:18) and a 10 minute prayer, the second one will take a lifetime, and each day I’m becoming more okay with that.

2. Journaling saves lives


This is the journal that my rehab facility gave me on my first day of treatment. During my “welcome group,” multiple clients gave me the advice of journaling. I thought they were crazy…

Before my stint in rehab, I thought journaling was for people who were too sentimental and had too much time on their hands, because let’s be real: Who has the time to write about their feelings everyday? Plus, I hated writing. If I was Harry Potter, writing was Voldemort and Umbridge put together. My worst panic attacks were ones where I had to write something, so the idea of journaling and writing willingly sounded ridiculous. Well, little did I know, I would journal every day, if fact, multiple times a day, while I was away. I wrote day and night in my journal like my life depended on it. I’d say I wrote at a pace comparable to Alexander Hamilton during that month and a half.

Why the change of heart? On the day my family pulled into the driveway of my temporary home, the clients and staff held a “welcome group” for me. A welcome group is exactly what it sounds like. It is when a new client is welcomed into the group. *gAsP*!!! Everyone went around the circle and introduced themselves, then we asked each other questions. I asked the group if they had any advice for me, and to my surprise, multiple people recommended to journal because it helped them process their thoughts and find clarity. I was skeptical, but at this point, I would have done almost anything to start feeling better, so I figured writing in a journal every day wouldn’t hurt.

The strange thing was, I actually felt better. The thing about trying to avoid anger, grief, and guilt all my life is that when I finally let myself feel it without resisting, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I would literally spend hours laying on the ground outside the front door of the rehab facility, staring up at the sky with my headphones on contemplating how strange and awful it was to be feeling emotions. So emo, I know. It was almost like the five year old me had to have her screaming and crying fits before I could move on. Now it is not exactly appropriate for a sixteen year old to have temper tantrums, so I would let myself have them, but on paper. I would write until my hand would cramp and then write some more. I actually gained a lot of hand strength by the end of the 45 days. By writing everything out, I could process all my thoughts and experience them in a way that was healthy.

Added bonus: If, for whatever reason, someone needs to clone me, I’m pretty sure they could just mash my journal into someone else’s brain. That’s how much I wrote in it.

3. It’s okay if I think about dying sometimes


During this rough time in my life, I marked scriptures in my Bible that encouraged me to keep trusting God. I still use these tabs from time to time even today.

This by far was the most surprising thing I learned. Let me be real for a hot second: 5 months ago I wanted to die. If you’re sensitive to this topic, skip the rest of this paragraph. I don’t mean I wanted to die in the “I have a test next period and I haven’t studied, kill me now” sense. I mean in the sense that I looked longingly down the edges of balconies, eyed at busy streets full of fast and oblivious drivers, and had staring contests with bottles of expired medication. I never acted on my impulses because I knew that God didn’t want me to cut my life short, but still. I prayed that God would let me go to sleep and just not wake up.

I thought that being suicidal meant that I was a bad Christian and that I wasn’t trusting God enough, when even Jesus went through a point in his life where he didn’t want to feel pain and wanted to escape. When Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, knowing that in just a few hours he would be betrayed and abandoned by his friends, be put through emotional and physical abuse, and die on a cross, he said to his friends, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He then prayed three times that God would prevent these events from happening.

I forgot who shared this with me, but this dramatically changed how I approached God with my struggles and scary thoughts. It didn’t matter in terms of my spirituality that I felt like giving up. When I read Jesus’ words, I can’t help but see his desperation and hopelessness. If Jesus struggled to continue on with God’s will, then it was okay for me to struggle too. All that mattered was if, in the end, I surrendered all my fears to God and let Him be in control of my life.

There are sooooo many more lessons I wish I could share with y’all, but I think these three are the big ones.

I don’t exactly know how to end this, so I guess I’ll just leave these words from a wise woman:

“There’s always gonna be another mountain,
I’m always gonna wanna make it move,
Always gonna be an uphill battle,
Somebody’s gonna have to lose,
Ain’t about how fast I get there,
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side,
It’s the climb”
Miley Cyrus

With love,


8 thoughts on “3 Lessons Learned in Rehab

  1. Raymond Tam says:

    I’m very moved by what you wrote. Since having you in Sunday School, I have always thought that you had a great future ahead of you because of your character. After reading this post, I’m even more convinced of that.


  2. Joan Mar says:

    Wow, Emma, that was powerful. Thank you for being so open and vulnerable! God has great plans for you and I’m sure that your experiences have shaped you into the women he wants you to be.
    Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.


  3. Nancy McLellan says:

    Best wishes on your journey to discover the secrets of your heart. ❤ As another girl who’s favorite river in Egypt is also the Nile (denial), kudos to you for having the courage to push through.


  4. Beatriz Yolanda O'Brien says:

    Dear Emma, I know how you feel. My baby brother (64 yrs old) has severe autism. My cork blew when my youngest was diagnosed with Autism. I’m still on meds, still depressed, still have anxiety attacks, still see a psychiatrist and an MFT. Joseph is now 27 and very high functioning. Your mom and dad were on the board of foothill autism alliance when I was. I never told anyone about my 9 months in rehab except Yudi and Sue Brooks. Now I give it to God, walk his passion with him, get angry with him, happy with him, and enjoy life with him.


    B. Yolanda O’Brien


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