Story by Trong Mai

Photos by Rayce Luke

“I was in a coma for four days.”

Early in 2018, Alyssa Cook wanted to end it all. She struggled with anxiety and depression while working full time to try to make ends meet. Cook attended McLennan Community College and juggled her classwork, job, as well as her new life as an adult. Since she was 15 years old, the only person Cook could depend on was herself.

The pressure of trying to stay financially afloat with no car to get to school or work, combined with the stress of not knowing how to cope with her internal feelings, resulted in an attempt to take her own life.

It was a failed attempt. After waking up, Cook knew she had been given a second chance. She needed to make a change, and so she began her journey with self-love.

Cook had come to Waco at 15 and lived in a group home until she graduated high school.

“When I was living at the group home, it was very lonely. I was sad, very angry and they couldn’t control me,” Cook said.

Growing up in the group home was an emotional experience, but over time, the rage quelled and Cook was able to mend friendships and bond with the other girls. Although her anger had calmed, a new foe appeared: mental illness.

“When I dealt with an eating disorder, I moved to San Marcos to go to a treatment center, and there were two bathrooms for 24 of us,” Cook said.

Through the treatment and an optimistic mindset, Cook was able to conquer her eating disorder. In addition to the treatment, she began surrounding herself with positive role models such as self-care social media pages, plus-sized models that looked like her, motivational speakers and authors.

“My body has gotten me through a lot of things, and I should appreciate that,” Cook said.

Despite her newfound positivity, her relationship with her parents was strained. After graduating high school, Cook worked at a local Chinese restaurant while attending classes at McLennan Community College. Originally majoring in forensic science, Cook was forced to withdraw due to financial troubles. She knew she had to go back eventually, but with no car and her shifts at the restaurant, she decided to take life one step at a time.

“Growing up the way I did, I have a fear of being broke, of having nothing,” Cook said.

Using her previous experience as motivation, Cook took as many shifts as she could to try to make ends meet. At 20 years old, Cook lived alone in her apartment and was dating her then-boyfriend whom she had met in high school. Things took a turn for the worse when they broke up. Her relationship of three years was gone, and she was shattered. Looking back, Cook realized it was for the best.

“I feel like I tried to make him my ‘fixer’ — someone who would heal me, love me, adore me, but also be my parent, counselor and best friend. Now, I realize that all those roles are too much for one person,” Cook said.

Cook spent most of her teenage years alone and had no one to guide her financially, mentally or emotionally. Exhausted from her years of battling anxiety, depression and her constantly having to juggle adult responsibilities as a teen, Cook wanted it all to stop.

In 2018, Cook attempted to overdose on antidepressants and slipped into a coma. Cook considers herself lucky to be alive, but she’s not the only one. The doctors told her that there have been cases of patients not surviving taking only half a dose of what she had ingested.

It was a wakeup call.

“I’ve really started caring about my health. Going to my doctor appointments and making sure I’m not overwhelming myself,” Cook said.

She had no one to lean on and it made her stronger. She decided to quit her job at a restaurant and aim for a job that would make covering the bills a little easier. Opportunity struck when Cook landed a job at the Mars Wrigley Confectionery. She started as part of the cleaning crew and is slowly working her way up.

“I can’t change things that already happened. I’ll just go from there because I’ve already been through so much,” Cook said. She aims to help other women deal with the same issues she dealt with.

Adhering to her newfound perspective on life, Cook has not let conflicts at work derail her. One specific event caused her great anxiety. 

“I almost lost my job because I was missing so much work because my anxiety was so bad,” Cook described. “It’s not my fault, but I have to figure out a way to help myself.”

Determined to overcome her mental battle, Cook started therapy in May of 2019. She describes the process as a healthy way to cope with her emotions. 

“That doesn’t mean I have to stop living my life and stay mad or sad. I have to focus on healing,” Cook said.

She refuses to let her mental illness take control of her life and has been taking steps to calm herself when she feels like she’s spiraling. Through meeting with a counselor, Cook was able to put an end to her unresolved feelings. 

“Alyssa was open to everything and anything I could provide to her,” said Dr. Colby Walters, mental health counselor at the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children. “Alyssa pushes through everything life throws at her. I have watched her grow so much and flourish into a thriving, successful woman.”

She has made the most of opportunities, including managing some production machines. Thanks to therapy and a positive mindset, Alyssa has become comfortable enough to be more involved in the issues at work. 

“I met Alyssa in the summer of 2016 back when she was going through a rough time. She’s grown into a very strong and independent woman,” said Angie Solis, close friend of four years. Solis has been with Cook through her difficulties with work, school and relationships and describes Cook’s journey as transformative. 

She planned on resuming her education at McLennan Community College the summer of 2020. With her passion to change Mars Wrigley Confectionary, she has shifted her focus from forensic science to food science and safety. 

Each day is a chance for her to better herself and Cook is proud of how much she has matured. The group home she once hated currently houses her siblings and when Cook visits she doesn’t harbor any resentment. Instead, she says it feels like home and feels nostalgia for the place she grew up.

“It’s still a process, but I am slowly learning to love myself fully. Every day is a different day, but I think what makes me love myself more is that I’ve been through so much,” Cook said.