Samantha Mueller, 32, delivers mail as a rural carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in her hometown of Canonsburg.
She had what she described as a normal childhood. After her parents' divorce and the death of her paternal grandfather, Mueller lived with her mother and grandmother. The three were close. Baking, taking weekend trips to antique stores and playing games was pretty typical.
When her mother remarried, Mueller formed a strong relationship with her new stepfather, and her “normal childhood” continued.
After graduating from Canon-McMillan High School in 2002, Mueller went to business school, but figured out that “being in an office was not for me.
“I started at the post office in 2009 and been there ever since,” she said. “It's the best job I've ever had.”
A serious motor vehicle accident while working in 2015 changed everything. Suddenly, Mueller felt like her world was falling apart.
She was on Route 980, slowing to make a left turn into a driveway, when her vehicle was struck from behind. Though Mueller was wearing a seat belt, it failed and she was thrown through the opposite door.
“The next thing I remember was waking up with glass and mail all around me,” she said.
Mueller was rushed to Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh. She suffered a severe concussion and neck and shoulder injuries.
Over the next several months, Mueller felt like she was in a fog; she was dizzy and experienced nearly constant headaches. She went to specialists who helped her regain her strength and her memory. Slowly, she healed. Her mental health, however, was unravelling.
“From the beginning, I had nightmares,” she said. “I was anxious all of the time. I was seeing my accident in my daily routine. ”
The anxiety was so intrusive Mueller became depressed. She had never experienced anything similar and believed what she was going through would just go away.
After two days back on the job, though, she knew she had a problem.
“I lost it,” she said.
Mueller contemplated taking her own life.
“I'd rather just be dead than deal with it,” she recalled. “It was too much for my mind.”
With the encouragement of her mother, Mueller called her employee assistance program. One of the first questions she was asked was, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?”
Mueller admitted she was.
She was advised to immediately go to the emergency room. Her mother and stepfather took her to St. Clair Hospital, Mt. Lebanon, where she was admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit.
For five days, she and the other patients engaged in group therapy sessions, art therapy and games. When they had free time, they walked the halls together.
“I was really scared at first,” Mueller said. “I thought, 'I know I'm not crazy.' But I had a problem. I met a lot of wonderful people that were so welcoming.”
Those five days also led to a diagnosis.
Mueller had post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety. She was surprised to hear PTSD.
“I thought that was soldiers in a war zone,” she said.
With medication and regular therapy, the nightmares and anxiety started to diminish.
Mueller said during the worst moments, the only thing that stopped her from committing suicide was the thought of her mom.
“She would have been devastated,” she said. “If it's really bothering you, get help. Don't ignore it. It's not going to go away on its own. You don't want to kill yourself. You can't take that back.”
The antidepressant medication and therapy, with regular journaling and art therapy, have helped Mueller tremendously. The support of her family and friends and the constant companionship of her two dogs also bring her comfort.
Mueller returned to work in July. She's back to loving her job.
Her mental health goal is to be medication-free.
“It's nothing that comes easy,” said Mueller. “You have to put work into it. Listen to your (psychiatrist). You have to put in the work and apply it to your everyday life. It's not going to magically just go away.”
Now that she has a regular route, Mueller feels she's accomplished her career goals. She's looking for a house to purchase and wants to one day get married and have a family.
For now, she's enjoying right where she is.
“Mental illness isn't bad,” Mueller said. “It's just an illness that needs to be addressed.”