When Annika Thomas, the 20 years young daughter of Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, learned her family was going to the be the honorary chairs of the Buffalo Superhero Race and Wellness Walk, she was excited as she knew this would be an opportunity for them to advocate against the horrible stigma of mental illness.
Annika is an amazing young lady whose family is even more amazing when you consider the superstar her dad was on the gridiron during the glory days of the Buffalo Bills, and the strength of her mom as a successful athlete in her own right. Her mom is also a business owner who grew up in Western New York – she taught Annika the importance of “family” from a young age.
Annika is in the midst of a life-long battle with depression and anxiety. While it is under control to the point she can work full time and enjoy her pit bull Hendrix and her family, her co-workers at The Restoration Society, came up with the idea that she would be wonderful as “The Wellness Warrior.”
Checking the extensive roster of superheroes, there is no Wellness Warrior, so exactly what is it, Annika?
“Being The Wellness Warrior at this year’s Superhero Race is incredible. It’s going to give me the chance to show parents that even though their child might be suffering from a mental illness, it does not mean they have to hide it or struggle their whole lives,” Annika says during an interview in her parent’s 3480 Group at 500 Seneca Street.
“I want to show kids they don’t have to be alone in their feelings. By coming together and talking about our struggles, we turn our perceived weaknesses into strengths. People try so hard to appear perfect, but no one is perfect. There is beauty in coming together and learning what it really is all about to be human,” explains Annika who worked with DC Theatrix owner Lyn DeJac on designing an appropriate outfit.
“Being an Honorary Chair alongside my family has been so amazing,” she continues. “The event has not even been held and it has opened so many doors once word got out. People have been asking if I could sit with them for media interviews and tell my story, friends of friends have been reaching out and talking about their own children and their mental illnesses and even strangers have opened up to me.
“It has been almost overwhelming. It’s incredible how ready so many people are to talk about ending the stigma associated with mental illness, and how many people are willing to talk about their own struggles just to have others feel confident enough to do the same thing.”
To hear Annika today, it’s almost overwhelming for her parents and siblings, considering the state she was in a few short years ago.
During the interview, tears come to the eyes of Thurman and Patti Thomas when they recall the 2014 spring evening they feared the worst for their then teen-aged daughter. Her car was not in the driveway of their Colden home and immediately chills went down their backs because of her episodes with anxiety and depression. They checked the house and called her before notifying authorities. Annika finally called, saying she had an anxiety attack and would be home shortly.
“When she walked through the door, she was white as a ghost and did not look like our Annika. We knew she needed help and she agreed,” Patti recalls.
They immediately brought her to the Erie County Medical Center where she was admitted for a five-day inpatient treatment.
“When I was depressed, I did not want to exist,” Annika says. “I did not want to commit suicide but if I had the option to hit a button and cease to live, I would have.”
“Being depressed was feeling like my whole body was full of sand and physically impossible to move,” she continues as her voice lowers as thoughts of those days race through her head.
Annika has always loved animals – the family had six dogs at one point running through the house, sharing the love of this very close-knit family. If the anxiety and depression was not enough to knock her down as a teenager (struggling to become motivated to attend classes at Orchard Park High School), Annika suffered the death of four of their dogs within one year. She watched her two favorites suffer painful deaths.
“All I wanted to do was just hold her so tight,” Patti recalls with a vivid, painful memory. “At times the anxiety got so bad she would come into our bed and sleep between Thurman and I. One night, I heard him get up. He was in the bathroom crying. When I got to him, he said, ‘That’s our baby. What can we do for her? She is lying in bed sleeping but she is still shaking and crying.’
“Every day is a learning experience for us on what we should be doing to support her through this challenging journey,” Patti says. “We now know if she is having a bad day it is not about me or Thurman. We know she has no control over it.”
“This has been a constant learning experience for our entire family,” Thurman adds.
Patti and Thurman thought they could help their daughter with a trip away, snuggling, advice, parental support and unconditional love. “Looking back, that was us being uneducated about what depression and anxiety really is,” Patti explains.
“The day we admitted Annika into ECMC was an awaking for us,” the former Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame running back says. “First and foremost we were scared for the daughter we love and scared she would hurt herself.”
One of the problems society has with those suffering from mental illness is the stigma surrounding it, mostly because there are no real outward signs of suffering. That was the irony of them admitting her to ECMC. Two floors above was Thurman’s former Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly.
“When Jill (Jim’s wife) came to visit me I was upset because he was here with a serious disease like a cancer and you are visiting me with depression,” Annika recalls. “Maybe I was just being dramatic and there really was no reason why I should be feeling this way.
“But Jill and my mom agreed that Jim has no control over his disease the same way I have no control over mine and both illnesses must be dealt with professionally and medically.”
After ECMC, Annika’s depression and anxiety continued and she left school months before graduation. “We could have said, you are not dropping out because of what people would say,” Patti explains. “For us, was a diploma more important than her life? I could care less who knew why we took her out of school.
“I do know so many families would have made her go to school or go to some after school activity while ignoring how really their child sick is,” she adds.
Thurman and Patti say it was that realization that the stigma against those suffering from mental illness is so great that they decided to go public with their challenging ride for one reason—“For us, we are doing this to let other parents know that when things do not seem right with their children or they seem to be sleeping way too much or have lost their desire to do anything, get them help or treatment immediately or you might not have your child much longer.”
Thurman and Patti, also proud parents of Olivia, Angel, Thurman III, and legal guardian of Miri, realize it’s an educational journey for the family. They are excited to be the honorary chairs of the annual Buffalo Superhero Race and Wellness Walk on June 9 at Delaware Park (www.buffalosuperherorace.com) with Annika dressed as “The Wellness Warrior.”
Patti says, “I have significant concerns that parents or caregivers out there may not be listening to their children or noticing the signs of mental illness. Is is so easy, as a parent, to assume your child is looking for attention and not really suffering. The scary repercussions of not stepping in truly haunt me.
“I imagine even more frightening situations where a parent or caregiver insist their child, who is sick, continues on with activities that may be contributing to their struggles such as school, athletic commitments, etc.,” she adds.
Another reason Thurman and Patti have become public advocates of ending the stigma of mental illness are the number of people not taking this illness seriously because they cannot see the physical injury or a sickness. The Thomas family has come to understand that mental illness is just as debilitating, just as scary, and it requires just as much attention as any other illness.
“I attach misunderstanding to mental illness while others attach shame to it. I have no problem talking to anyone who would listen about my illness. That usually allows friends with similar feelings to open up. I can understand what they were feeling because I lived it,” explains Annika, who credits an adopted pit bull, Hendrix, for helping her cope.
Patti and Annika truly believe a pet is perfect therapy for a young person to help cope with a mental illness. “For her and us, Hendrix was a Godsend.”
Another turning point occurred when Annika attended the justtellone.org kickoff on November 22, 2016 in the WNED studios. She was introduced to many in the treatment field as “Annika” with no mention of who her famous father was.
“When I met Anni (Annika), despite her quiet and shy demeanor, I was drawn to her,” explains Nancy Singh, President and CEO of the Restoration Society, Inc., with great pride. “Anni emanates this aura of passion and connectedness. Maybe it is the way she softly makes eye contact, or perhaps her attentive listening skills, or the sense of humility she exudes, but she has something very magical about her and she definitely wants to use that magic to help others.”
Restoration Society, Inc is a peer operated, community based mental health agency; meaning it values the unique relationships only someone with lived with the experience can offer in a helping role. Over 50 percent of its employees and Board of Directors are those who have life learning experiences with mental health conditions.
Annika now works full time at the Empowerment Academy as a Rehabilitation Practitioner. Singh explains, “When I first told her about our philosophy of hiring peers, she reflected on how that would have been helpful when she was going through her tough times, not feeling understood by clinicians. She is using her experiences to encourage others to reach out for help if they need it. She is always finding amazing stories of recovery on social media, and sharing them with customers and staff, bringing a normalcy to mental health issues, fighting stigma, and allowing others who may not have experienced these issues, a glimpse into the life of someone who has. The relationships she establishes with others are “real”. Since she is a peer, people immediately feel understood and trust her.
“Working at Restoration Society appears to have been a game changer for Anni. She holds her head high, shows her beaming smile, and has an air of self-confidence she wasn’t able to see the first time I met her. What a win-win!”
Annika has been equally impressed with the reality of actually waking up in the morning with a purpose and a place to go to earn a living while helping others, which for her has no price tag.
“I never knew recovery from mental illness was possible until I began interning at Restoration Society and the peer classes I took on-line. I truly thought there was no hope of feeling better. Now I see people can recover with the proper tools and assistance,” says Annika, who still has bad days but they are now manageable.
“This job is important to me because there are so many people who want to get back into the community in some way and all they need is just a little help,” she continues. “Everybody deserves help and everybody deserves to be understood.
“People who still stigmatize mental illness just need to look around them,” Annika says quietly. “We are all human. We all experience different things, but that doesn’t have to separate us. Instead it can make us more empathetic, make us connect. Look at the facts and statistics. Recovery is possible for mental illness. People are going through life not only managing their symptoms, but living full, satisfying, normal lives.
“There is always hope. We just need to come together,” Annika concludes as she rushes off to watch her brother’s baseball game for the Canisius High School junior varsity, and then home to walk Hendrix.
Annika is just like any other young professional, except this special young lady has changed the way she looks and approaches life’s daily challenges.