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Amid the specter of mental illness, FFA helped me find my way


This is the story of how FFA stopped me from losing myself.

Mental illness is a tricky subject. It looks different on everyone. Mental illness is a dangerous monster that is usually invisible, only to rear its ugly head at the most unpredictable times.

If you have never had a panic attack, it can be likened to having a vice grip put on your chest, only to be slowly tightened with no hint of it stopping. Some have said it is similar to a dream where you think you are running as fast as you can but are actually staying only in one place. For me, it is comparable to drowning; being held just below the surface, with zero power to swim up, and the ocean is full of thoughts that are not only self-deprecating, but harmful and maniacal.

“You’re not good enough.” “You can’t even do this one thing right! How are you supposed to lead a chapter?” “Everyone would be better off without you here. All you do is screw everything up.” “People are mad at you. You can see it in their eyes.” “Forget it. You’re not even worth being here. You’re a terrible student, daughter, sister, friend, and leader.”

There is no end to the swirl of negative energy, and once you think you’ve reached the end, it restarts all over again.

This is the face of my mental illness.

There are many ways people can cope with mental illness. My way just so happened to be the National FFA Organization. In four years, I learned more about myself and the people around me than any other experience could have. For that time, I slept, ate, breathed, and lived FFA. Nothing else mattered. Every week and weekend was filled to the brim with CDE practices, contests, SAE project development, volunteering, and planning. It kept me busy and my mind occupied, not allowing self-destructive thoughts to enter. Without the FFA, I would not be here to tell this story today, and it is a story that needs to be told.

FFA was a refuge in my life from a myriad of things, but mostly my own mental health. As a kid I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which made sense at the time. I had no idea how to relax and had trouble coping in certain situations. Later into my teen years, that diagnosis was expanded to include depression, bringing on more resources and medication. It wasn’t until I was 16 and experienced trauma that the full force of my mental illnesses hit me like a ton of bricks.

That trauma was a personal one, but suffice it to say that all of my power and sense of self was taken from me. Though at the time, I didn’t realize what had actually happened, I thought it was my fault and I was deserving of whatever the consequences were. I told no one, bottled the emotions and kept them under lock and key.

Of course, this only leads to more problems. It wasn’t long before the negative thoughts crept back in. Though they were slow, they were not silent. The monsters slinked through my defenses, hissing their words into my mind’s ear. At some point, I began to listen to them.

At the age of 16, I was standing in the wooded acres behind my joyous family home where I used to play hide and seek in the trees. That is where I contemplated the ways I could end the thoughts. Counseling didn’t help. The medication limit was reached. No one could understand what was happening inside of my head; not even I could comprehend it. Why not just end it now?

I’ll tell you why not. There were freshmen students counting on me to be there in class the next morning to teach them the FFA Creed. To say those two powerful words over and over again: I believe.

Whether it be in the future of agriculture, the ability to live and work on a good farm, leadership and respect, my own ability, bargaining or American agriculture, I believe. I. Believe.

I believe.

If it hadn’t been for the responsibility I felt for my chapter, peers, and community, there is no guarantee I would have survived my mental illness. It would have swallowed me whole. FFA saved me from myself, and I did not appreciate it as much as I do now. It gave me a purpose and a goal to work toward. It gave me stressful situations, but also taught me to deal with those moments in healthy, constructive ways. My advisors pushed me to be more, do more, give more. They saw my need for empowerment and ran with it.

My chapter was an energy source to draw from. It pulsed with life and vivacity that I fed on every day. New challenges were exciting, not overwhelming. They had a meaning, and by extension, gave me a meaning.

After graduating from high school in 2015 in the top 10 percent of my class, I began studying agricultural sciences at The Ohio State University. There, I used skills and connections gained through FFA to make friends and find my place in a large university.

Freshmen year of college, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Ultimately surprising, but not at all shocking. It explained a great deal of the issues I faced in daily life, as well as issues I encountered as an FFA member. Over time it became clearer that the anxiety and depression were merely symptoms of the bigger problem: OCD.

Over the years I have found that I always need one major topic to focus on. In high school, FFA provided that for me. In college, I found that same passion in an agricultural sorority. Having a goal that is shared with a larger group of people to focus on and dedicate my time to is how I cope with OCD. For lack of a better term, it gives me something powerful to do.
Moral of the story: Mental illness is not the last chapter in your life. No matter what you think or feel, there is help. There is a way to handle it. Never think you are too far gone to be saved.

You are worth the effort. You are valuable. You matter. You have no idea what kind of adventures are waiting just around the corner. Why stop your story before it is truly over? Don’t you want to see what happens next?

Find your version of what FFA did for me. Throw yourself into something greater. Reach out. Ask for help. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Today, I am a senior at Ohio State, interviewing for jobs after graduation, working, volunteering and loving life. Yes, it is possible, and very, very worth it.

If the FFA wasn’t a part of my life, you would not have been here, reading this confession.

You can learn more about various conditions at the National Institute of Mental Health’s website here. Find help locally through Psychology Today here. If you need to talk to someone urgently, use mentalhealth.gov here. For emergency mental health situations, go to the hospital.

Jessy Woodworth is a senior at The Ohio State University studying agricultural communication and animal sciences. She would like to acknowledge as thanks the FFAmily that supported her through her struggles with mental illness: FFA advisors Joshua Bluck, Aaron Hanselman, and Matthew Griffith; friends Katlyn Tolliver, Katelyn Hanneman, and Austin Brill; and family Audrey (Woodworth) Cooper and Monica and Barry Woodworth. Your love and care were appreciated then, and still are today. 

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