Two years ago, Kristin Rohman Rehkamp was at the height of her career, having held vice president and management positions at Target, Optum and Nelson. Her daughter, Anna, had lots of friends, was a competitive dancer and an A-student in accelerated classes. Kristin and her husband, Tom, were raising Anna and their two younger children in a nice house in a friendly and safe Lake Elmo neighborhood.
On September 16, 2020, at a routine 11-year-old well-child check, Anna suddenly experienced a panic attack that triggered acute anxiety and severe panic disorder. Her body never recovered from it. She showed no precursors for mental illness.
“From that point on, she was terrified of having another panic attack, and that terror created panic attacks since her body and sensory system went into this malfunction that she couldn’t get out of,” Rehkamp says.
Within two weeks, Anna was incapacitated—she could no longer do school or dance; she couldn’t leave her room, and she talked about wanting to die. “It wasn’t dying because, ‘I hate my life and want to end it,’ it was, ‘What is happening to my mind and body? I am so scared, and no one seems to be able to help me. I would rather die.’”
Since then, it’s been a cycle of rushing Anna to the ER, extended hospital stays, doctor appointments, counseling, medications, panic attacks, suicide watch, crying, screaming and desperation of a family being plunged into the terrifying unknowns and unpredictability of living with a mental illness.
“It is an illness,” Rehkamp says. “People don’t choose it. It’s not about a demographic or financial background.”
Sleeping with her daughter to prevent suicide, she says, “I pulled my laptop out one night and Googled, ‘How do we make sense of this? How do I make this beautiful? How do I find happy again?’ And I found la vie est belle, which means ‘life is beautiful’ in French. It’s about choosing your path to happiness and inspiring others.”
Pivoting from her corporate career to care for Anna and her other children, Rehkamp pulled herself from the low she was feeling by redirecting her interior design and retail expertise to open her online boutique, La Vie Est Belle, with a mission of inspired giving and beautiful living. Offering meaningful gifts, home décor, jewelry and complimentary local delivery and gift wrap, she donates 20 percent of net profits to PrairieCare Fund, a nonprofit that fosters mental health and well-being among youth and families.
Rehkamp moved to Lake Elmo from St. Louis Park three years ago. Next, she discovered writing as a therapeutic outlet, which eventually turned into blogging. “I’m a mom whose heart was breaking,” she says. “I started telling the story for others like me because I had wished there was a resource—just to not be alone.”
Wanting to change the paradigm for youth and families with mental illness, Rehkamp has started public speaking and authored a book titled Finding Us: A Memoir of Braving Mental Illness with Her Young Daughter, which will publish this fall. “[It’s about] how I had to find myself as a woman and a mom in the messiness of Anna’s mental illness, to give and show my daughter courage and tenacity—and yet she showed me just as much,” she says. “Together, we empower each other and hope to inspire change so badly needed for others that brave the same journey.”
Rehkamp hopes people lead with empathy and stop shaming children with mental illness. “They have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations as any child who might have a cold, broken leg or cancer,” she says.
“We tell our story to empower our daughter first,” she says. “Yes, we hope people find empowerment and inspiration from our story to get help, to not be ashamed but at the end of the day, the reason I do all of this is to keep my daughter alive. I do it to show her to be brave. I do it to empower her. I do it to give her a voice and purpose in this. And she does have purpose in this.”
The Rehkamps raised $15,000 through GoFundMe to design a stuffed bear for a Brooklyn Park hospital. Every child admitted to pediatric mental care receives a bear with a note from Anna attached. It starts by saying, “I walked in your shoes. Do not be afraid …”
A Message from Anna
Anna shares excerpts of a Q&A session between her and Rohman Rehkamp in Finding Us.
What has been the hardest thing to understand as it relates to your mental health?
I changed from “normal” (a word we no longer often use in our home) to someone with a severe panic disorder over the course of a few days. I am confused about why my body and mind will no longer let me do things I could easily do in the past. My panic disorder sometimes will not let me go to dance (for example). I love dance. I cannot always control my body’s reactions, which are often different than how I feel. It can be so frustrating and overwhelming. I literally cannot control my behavior or my body’s physical responses … I am often embarrassed and understand my behavior is not always OK. I often end up in tears. Not being able to control your body and your feelings is frightening. Most people do not understand or can’t relate to the irrational nature of it all.
Has it taught you to appreciate other things/people differently?
I now know what it feels like to feel “different” and have a disability or something that can be disabling in some situations. My tolerance for friends/family/people treating others unkindly or unfairly is low. My mom tells me this is one of my superpowers, and it makes me feel strong. I often will say something or step in to help. I am not shy because I know how it feels to have something you cannot control or choose to have. I know how those being unfairly mistreated feel. I want to be a voice for them.
And I guess … despite the really hard year … a year I never want to repeat … one year later … I do know I am a stronger version of me.
Mental Health Resources
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders each year and an estimated 13 percent of ages 8 to 15. The Surgeon General says early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental disorders.
- Washington County Sheriff’s Office Coordinated Response Team: Responds to active mental health crisis calls; 651.430.7824; firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Woodbury’s Community Support Team: Establishing connections with those teams while not in crisis can develop rapport, address needs and build service connections, trust and ongoing plans to improve outcomes during a crisis; email@example.com
- Washington County Crisis Response Unit: Mental health professionals respond 24/7 to crisis calls, and law enforcement responds if the situation involves a risk of safety to the person in crisis or family members; 651.275.7400
- Sexual Assault 24-Hour Crisis Number, Washington County: 651.777.1117
Crisis Text Line: Text “MN” to 741741
- National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline: Call, text or chat 988,
or call 1.800.273.TALK (8255).