How I Overcame 2 Brain Tumors, Low Self-Esteem and Depression

By Vanessa Gates Miller

My journey to overcoming low self-esteem and depression is a positive one. I conquered traumatic events to arrive at hope and happiness. When you read this, I hope you are inspired. I also want you to identify at least one tool to help you overcome your own struggles.

Sudden Goodbyes 

Vanessa in her childhoodVanessa in her childhood

I wasn’t born depressed. 

Everyone says I was a happy child with natural confidence. My earliest memories are of laughter and hope. 

But darkness settled in fast.  

I was raped at four, and suddenly life was no longer safe. I understood from that tender age about bad people, pain and fear.

Growing up, I was a “Daddy’s Girl”. My dad  spent time with me and  taught me to read when I was four. He showed me how to ride a bike. He helped me swim and said “Beauty fades, intelligence is forever.”  He always told me I was smart. In fact, he made me want to be smart - if only to please him. 

And then dad left me. 

Actually my parents got divorced, but the end result was the same.

I ran down the street as he sped away.

Struggling to Keep A “Best Friend”

I moved a lot when living with my mom. I had always clung to the idea of having a best friend because for me best friend = protection. But older I got, the more I struggled with social skills. I grew awkward around kids as depression consumed me. 

Each time I met a new best friend, I knew would end up having to say “goodbye.” By 8th grade, I’d attended 11 different schools throughout Western Washington, one school in California and one in Michigan.

Soon I saw myself as the plague. My self-esteem plummeted. I was forever the “new kid,” cursed with forcing others to befriend me. I felt like a sickness they pushed away. 

The First Brain Tumor

One day, during dance class, I flopped on the floor seizing violently. It turns out that I had a stupid brain tumor. Doctors chopped it out of course.

And my depression got worse.

This was after I finally found stability. I had chosen to live with my Dad and stepmom, Debi. They knew me as “smart girl.” If you’ve ever adopted the identity as a smart person you know how important that is deep down in your soul. The respect means everything. 

Dad saw me as a brainiac, destined for greatness. I was headed towards success with a talent for perfect scores. I had won a Spelling Bee in Michigan. I had earned A’s with a few B’s speckling my report cards. In a few months I would place in the top 10 for 8th grade. 

That all changed, and my self-image took a major dive after the brain tumor. 

My memory? I don’t remember what happened to it. 

My grades? Except for English and Writing, they each dropped a full letter. Kids stopped calling me “smartypants” and started calling me “airhead.”

I had learned to accept my poor social grace as long as I was geared towards success and achievement. 

All of a sudden, I was dumb too. That pressure was more than I could handle.

The Second Assault

At 16,  I was molested by someone in my family.

Therapists will tell you that a second sexual assault hits deep. Often people recover from a first one. But without counseling, a person can become more likely to be assaulted again and again. 

I was like a walking victim. I walked with my head down. I hated myself and  I didn’t know how to say “no”. 

My Escape: Alcohol

After being molested, I searched for escape from life. I found my escape in alcohol.

Dad and Debi set strict limits on my time. Dad gave me curfews and grounded me. He removed alcohol from the house. It didn’t matter. When Dad gave me permission to stay out until 12 am, I came home at 12 noon the next day. 

I snuck out most nights even when grounded.

Alcohol gave me a sense of power. I hated the stench and despised the taste. But after a few shots and downing a few beers, I finally relaxed and stopped caring. 

Vanessa as a TeenVanessa as a Teen

When I was drunk, life seemed simple. Everything was funny. And I was a sexy beast. That is until I became the blackout queen. I passed out anywhere -  including porches and parking lots. I even passed out in a closet with my head in kitty litter.

There were multiple times where I was half unconscious and guys would climb on top of me and touch me. They would leave marks on my neck as if marking their territory. Later they would blame me and call me the high school slut. I tried to let people know that I had been without the ability to accept the advances. But the guys always talked and told a different story. They were football players. I was a nobody compared to them.

A Terrible Memory

There was one time I will never forget. I was in a guy’s house who claimed to be my friend. I’ll call him Mike (not his real name). Mike let his buddy force me upstairs by grabbing my hair and pulling. I tried to break free but ended up clumsily following. Once upstairs, Mike’s buddy asked me if I wanted to have sex. I told him “no.” He touched me places he had no right to touch.

Mike opened the door and peeked in. I felt a huge rush of relief and called out to him. “Help!” I gasped. It was a feeble attempt. I was so scared that my cry for help sounded weak. Yet I trusted that my friend would march in there and rescue me. Instead Mike laughed and shut the door.

The guy on top of me was much stronger than I was. I pleaded with him to stop. He kept asking “Is this okay?” I just kept repeating “no, stop” as his disgusting hands had their way with my body. Finally he asked me one more time if I wanted to have sex. I changed my response because he was not hearing me. I yelled at him. The words that came out were desperate. I hollered, “No! And I’ve been saying no this whole time!”

He finally left me alone upstairs. I dressed myself.

I snuck home and cried. I didn’t tell my parents because I would have had to admit I snuck out. 

The next day in school I told no one. I felt ashamed. I already had a bad reputation. Who would believe me? I hadn’t even told my own parents. 

Mike, my “friend” spread a vicious rumor. This is what I heard: “If Vanessa reports anything, Mike is a witness that she is lying. He saw the whole thing. Mike’s friend is innocent.” Someone asked me what that was about but I refused to say a word.

Low self-esteem and depression hit me along with an intense case of deep shame.

Suicidal Misery

Finally, I got a boyfriend. Our relationship was doomed to fail right from the beginning. He needed popularity like I craved love. I was anything but cool. He criticized my clothes, my friends, my hair and my desire to write. He hated anything genuine about me. Whenever I tried something new, he called me “stupid.” His famous line was “Guys get a kind of point system for their girls. And baby I don’t get s**t for you.”

We lasted through Junior college together. When he cheated on me, I attempted suicide. At the time I saw no way out of my misery. When death did not come, low self-esteem and depression gripped me even tighter.

God … A Little Help?

I was at my lowest point and sinking further when I found hope.

It came in the form of a miracle.

Several years later, living with my parents, I prayed. The thought of God came to me rarely back then and only during times of need. That moment I thought I could never find someone who would love me. I only found men attractive who treated me cruelly and ignored me. The more forceful, the more I was attracted. 

I fell to my knees. “God help me find a man who will treat me with kindness who I am actually attracted to and…” Suddenly I thought of the martial arts. “Nevermind God,” I said. 

I searched for martial arts in the area. There was only one.

The minute I stepped in his classroom, the thought struck me. “I’m going to marry that man.”

Vanessa's husband performing martial artsVanessa's husband performing martial arts

He looked mean in his Tae Kwon Do outfit. He was strong and appeared to fly when he sparred. I was immediately attracted to this bad boy. I thought he was hardcore with his karate background and the fact that he was a fourth degree black belt.

Turned out, Mr. Heith Miller had only tried alcohol once when his grandfather gave him a sip. He’d never even had a traffic ticket. He called women “young ladies,” and he was not into me. 

The chase made it fun.

And we’ve been inseparable ever since. He has never laid a hand on me, unlike my other boyfriend. He is kind and respects me. He’s also calm and never forceful.

He helped me fight my low self-esteem and depression. In fact, he champions my self-worth.

Vanessa at her weddingVanessa at her wedding

With him, life became easier and happier. I started to recognize my value. I was also loved as much as I gave love. Whenever I say anything negative about myself, he says “My wife is amazing. I only want to hear good things about her.”

He also supports my needs. Not everyone who suffers from low self-esteem and depression needs medication. Many people are able to tackle it on their own, especially through positive support. 

My husband and special friends mean everything to me. Finding the love of my life changed my attitude about myself. There have been other people along the way who showed me unconditional love and support. I credit all of them with helping me become happier. 

Medication & The Dance With Death

I need medication. And it took a long time to find the right one. For me, medication was a huge part of feeling better. And it was a difficult process. But I refused to give up. 

For those who choose to take medication, it can help. Try other things first. There are many other ways to recover without the use of medications. I had struggled with depression since I was a young kid. I also tried many things before resorting to medication. But if you cannot take medication regularly or as it is prescribed, it is not for you.

When I worked as a Nursing Assistant, I tried my first type of antidepressant. For me, it was better than any alcohol. All of a sudden, I felt a sense of happiness and contentment. I could tell a difference quickly. But I was still moody, and depression returned with a vengeance. And the desire to kill myself took over again. 

I craved death from the time I was young. The first tumor made it much worse. Death became my dance. I circled it, kissed it and held hands with it. Any time I thought life was the pits, I would remind myself “there is always death.” I was never afraid of the nothingness.

Vanessa and husband at waterfallVanessa and husband at waterfall

The medications made the depression better. At first they did not take away the suicidal thoughts. Then one finally did. 

Before the suicidal thoughts left, I had used my logic. I informed myself that it was my brain telling me lies and thinking unhealthy thoughts. I had refused to hurt myself after my one time. But living with suicidal thoughts was like its own illness. I am lucky because my logical side works well. For me, igniting my logic and reasoning makes sense. I am able to understand when my thoughts are unreasonable and talk myself into good sense. Not everyone has that same ability.

If you suffer with suicidal thoughts, learning to use logic and sense and being able to talk yourself down can be a huge help. If this is something you are not capable of doing, be sure you have helpful people close by and reach out to a licensed mental health professional.

Life was Improving With Each Step

I was doing so much better. But life is a series of steps. Conflicts continue. And for many people, depression continues. For me it was like any other illness. 

I often compare depression to an illness that runs in my family: diabetes. Diabetes cannot be cured, at least not in my family. It is controlled at times and often you can go along for a while without thinking about it, and live a great life. Then if you stop eating right, exercising, sleeping well, and fostering supportive relationships, your insulin levels will drop. In other words, depression feeds off the mind of people who don’t take care of the body, mind and soul.

For me, depression often hit when I was at a low point. I could almost predict a depressive episode if I isolated or felt stressed out.

I also needed counseling.

The Benefits of Counseling

Many people, even those without depression, find counseling incredibly helpful. As a former counselor, I often helped those who had lost loved ones, even people needing to spice up their marriage. Counseling can help anyone. And the best counselors are the ones who you can connect with. Effective counselors are solid listeners and the ones who have experience. 

Getting counseling in sexual abuse helped me recover. I was able to process my feelings and recover from shame. I emerged victorious, a survivor rather than a victim. I even found myself interested in sex again for intimacy, something which had been stolen from me during childhood.

The depression was decreased a little bit more. And hope lifted my soul yet again.

Ultimately, tackling depression for good took a second brain tumor.

Vanessa fighting her brain tumorVanessa fighting her brain tumor

The Second Brain Tumor

The second brain tumor saved my life.

And I owe it all to God.

My husband knew what to do. We prayed for three months before brain surgery. We had not been Christians at the time, though we both believed in God. We had only prayed when there was a hard time. Battling a second brain tumor met the criteria for a hard time. My husband Heith suggested that we pray three times a day: morning, afternoon and night. We always prayed the same thing: that my brain surgery would be successful.

The day of the brain tumor operation, we again prayed three times. It turned out, my mom’s whole church was also praying for me.

How I Feel Today 

I’ve taken personality tests my whole life. Personality tests, mood tests and tests for depression. Before the surgery, I was a depressed introvert. 

One year and a half after surgery, I am a very happy, contented extravert. I have great friends, a fulfilling career and have not been depressed the entire time. This is the longest I have ever gone without a depressive episode. This is the longest I’ve gone feeling truly happy. And I am the happiest I have ever been. 

I also realize that I deserve to feel this way.

I believe in myself. I have positive feelings about who I am. And for the first time in my life, I love being me.

Now I go to church. I was baptized. And I thank God everyday for all his amazing miracles. 

Vaness and Husband Today

5 Lessons to Take Away from My Story

Here are five lessons you can take from my story and apply to your own life - especially if you have struggled (or are currently wrestling) with low self-esteem and depression.

  1. Remove yourself from negative people, poor influences and toxic environments. Surrounding yourself with positive environments, supportive people and true friends can make a world of difference when you are in a depression or suffering from feelings of low self-worth. 

  2. Seriously consider counseling. Remember that counseling helped me and has helped millions of people worldwide. (And I was a counselor.) Counseling can help you overcome challenges with depression and poor self-esteem. Even if you only have low levels of depression or are just feeling down, counselors can help. Mental health professionals work to find ways to cope with life’s struggles and identity positive coping strategies while tackling barriers to better ways of handling stress. They listen and provide plans and techniques for an improved way of life. 

  3. Keeping yourself healthy - it’s highly important. This means both the mind and body. Exercise and eat well. Make yourself laugh and do things that are fun. Share in activities and communicate or journal your feelings. Doing whatever you need to do to stay healthy, active and content is a key to remaining mentally balanced.

  4. If you find yourself isolating or getting stressed take time to stop and figure out why. Make it your goal to immediately identify the problem and get yourself back into a better place mentally and physically. For some people, it is a continuous journey, for others it may be one or two battles during particularly hard times in their lives. Believe in yourself and your ability to handle it.

  5. Pray. Prayer and spirituality can have an uplifting effect on your mood and behavior. My spirituality gave me hope and something to look forward to. I now know that I have a solid future in heaven and an end to pain. My religion and spirituality is a positive light in my life and can be for you as well.

I recovered from so much, including 2 brain tumors, low self-esteem and depression. And you can recover too.