empowered and oppressed by the intricate ways in which parts of their identities connect."
Amanda Retzer (she/her), who holds a BAS in Health and Physical Education/Fitness, joins the conversation today. Amanda is a Health and Physical Education Teacher at Plainfield North High School and a former NAMI KDK Intern. Amanda is pursuing a Master of Social Work in the Substance Use/Addictions concentration and will soon start an internship at the Gateway Foundation. Spiritual and deeply committed to the greater good, Amanda was raised nominally Lutheran. Amanda brings lived experience with anxiety and panic attacks and passionate mental health advocacy to our conversation.
While Amanda enjoys teaching, she finds herself with less of an ability to advocate than she would like, as she refers many students to social workers. In social work, she seeks advocacy to take a more important place in her professional life.
Her mother raised her to call herself Lutheran, but she did not attend church services or confirmation. Amanda says she never "got into, found, or understood religion." So, Amanda self-describes as spiritual and not religious. This spirituality, for Amanda, includes practicing gratitude and doing her best to help people feel they "have a sense of belonging" wherever they are. She is spiritual in another sense in her liking and use of mindfulness and yoga practices. Here, she finds meditation as developing not an understanding of religion but an "understanding of the inner me."
In the spiritual practice of meditation, Amanda develops an "understanding of the inner me."
Her journey with the symptoms of a mental health condition began with a frightening panic attack aboard a plane, which she described in a blog post. Amanda says the recent loss of her father and being unable to get medical help for body palpitations she was unknowingly experiencing due to anxiety mid-air contributed to a sense of being helplessly unable to escape and control her symptoms.
In time, Amanda began taking medication for her panic attacks, though she went through periods of taking and not taking the drug. She says this relates to her coming to terms with the need to cope and not focus on "why did this happen to me?" Amanda takes a lot of comfort from a supportive family, including her husband, who is a nurse.
"It's when I notice signs of 'weakness' that my self-confidence comes out."
Looking back, Amanda acknowledges that when she had her first panic attack, she was a good advocate for others but less for herself. Now, she focuses on controlling what she does with her thoughts. Some reflections and tips Amanda shares:
"As a procrastinator, I can be hard on myself
and focus on regrets instead of being grateful."
"But it is when I notice myself having unhelpful thoughts
that I'll start saying to myself, 'you've got this; you'll get through this,'
and my self-confidence is best."
"It's like I have someone cheering me on,
except my inner voice becomes my cheerleader!
This helps reset my brain and is a practice I know is very effective for me."
However, she highlights that "what you see is not always correct - that you don't always see what's going on inside." Amanda emphasizes how fulfilling it is to work with people and how helpful it is to have shared lived experiences. Sharing experiences with others can help us become comfortable exploring difficult emotions and the possibility of trying out coping skills outside when we are not in crisis.
Amanda remarks on the barriers people she works face to accessing care. Many people are uninsured or underinsured. Even among those with insurance, many must wait for covered beds, appointments, or procedures. Some may live an unmanageable distance from the closest providers. While virtual programs and services can increase accessibility for some, not everyone has the necessary knowledge and equipment to participate, and technological restraints may hinder the formation of personal connections. It is also challenging to get the word out about nonprofit services.
Mindfulness is central to both Amanda's mental health journey and spirituality. After a diagnosis, she researched different mindfulness practices and found a book with 74 exercises. When anxious, she will take a mindfulness practice from her toolbox, pair it with gratitude, and say, "where am I? Things are going well. You're getting from A to B. You've improved so much."
Even in her spiritual yoga practice, Amanda says she mindfully focuses on the present and feels gratitude in her body. Here, she says, is a feeling of connection to the strength of the inner self, which strives to impact not only itself but the people around it positively. Initially beginning yoga for physical strength and flexibility, she gradually learned this. When teaching yoga to her students, she asks students to notice what is happening mentally, emotionally, and physically before, during, and after the practice.
To Amanda, yoga is a holistic practice. Amanda says one of her biggest mantras is repeating 'you are okay' to ground herself in the present moment. When there is no actual danger, this repetition is extremely helpful in relieving symptoms, shifting her focus away from the "what if I have a panic attack?"
At this point in our conversation, I wonder out loud if she is making a connection between what are, for her, spiritual and mental health aspects of yoga. Amanda explains that while for some, "spiritual is heard as religious" and related to a higher power, for her, spirituality is very connected to "belonging." This belonging, she says, is integral to her mental and physical health, she notes, which mindfulness practice has been shown to improve.
Amanda shares that this "sense of belonging" guides much of what she does. She values humanity and believes humans deserve respect, empathy, and connection. Amanda reflects that her values focus on kindness and helping the greater good. Her experience with mental health enables her to form stronger bonds with friends and give back to the community.
"Everyone I can help, I'm going to do that. I will gladly sacrifice something I don't need for someone who needs it.
My mental health - not my anxiety - seems much stronger when doing something that can help others and build relationships. I'm thinking about the impact I can have on their life and the impact they can have on mine."
As we close our conversation, Amanda emphasizes the importance of understanding that mental health is "not a phase" or the new hot topic. She also stresses the importance of keeping an open mind and perspective that the world is not only how we experience it. Just because you have not experienced something does not mean it does not exist.
This is part of ending the stigma, Amanda says. We are all multi-dimensional. So much goes into who we are, including our mental health. We need to do better thanking people for their stories, which are not about attention-seeking but about making a difference, of which you may never know the full impact.
Check out Amanda Retzer's Story to read more.
NAMI KDK helps fill the mental health resource gap in Illinois's Kane-south, DeKalb, and Kendall counties. We provide free support groups, education, a resource guide, advocacy opportunities, and community presentations. We recruit staff and interns that look like and represent our community. NAMI KDK has support groups for those experiencing symptoms (Connections) and those who support those experiencing symptoms (Family and Loved Ones). We have Spanish-speaking Connection and Family support groups and programs and support groups specifically for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.
The views and opinions expressed in these conversations are those of the guests and host and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of NAMI KDK, Interfaith America, or any entities they represent or with which they are associated.