As May draws to a close, so does mental health awareness month. Mental health has always been an important issue to me, as I have always had friends and family that struggled with mental illnesses and addictions. This year, it became much more personal, as I finally admitted to myself and my doctor that I needed help with my own depression and anxiety. A new day has dawned in my life and I am feeling more like ‘myself’ than I have in, what? Years? Decades? It’s hard to say, really, but I feel good enough to share more of my own story regarding mental health.
I know people that would find this next bit hard to believe: For most of my life, I’ve felt like I didn’t BELONG anywhere. Life felt really HARD all of the time. I was frequently angry without being able to explain why. Anger would quickly turn to tears, as I felt shame and embarrassment for not understanding myself. I regularly wondered how I could expect others to understand me, when I couldn’t even understand myself? To defend this vulnerable place in myself, I pretended I didn’t give a damn about people, save a few close friends. I felt like I was broken and thought there was most definitely something “wrong” with me.
I thought the way I felt was just the way I was. I accepted my suffering as a state of being that I only escaped in fleeting moments of joy and happiness or through altered states, the latter of which I pursued with zeal for the better part of 15 years.
Having spent most of my life without access to medical or mental health care, I didn’t have a lot of options. I wrote a lot. I talked to friends on the phone a lot, usually unproductive lamenting. Mostly, I pursued those altered states. This was a coping strategy that I understood.
In college, at age 24, I began therapy for the first time. It was free with my student fees and I used it as much as I could, working on building basic confidence and developing new coping strategies for my anxiety. I can say with certainty that this (and Anthropology*) saved my life. Whether or not I could have actually died from the things I was doing to myself is unknown, but my spirit was certainly in grave danger. I live in gratitude that I didn’t cause permanent damage to myself, although I suppose that could still turn out to be the case. Some things take time to know.
About ten years ago, I started interacting with people that were very different from any I had previously encountered. It was jarring and uncomfortable. They made direct eye contact. They asked questions and listened intently to the answers. They had genuine curiosity for who I was and where I came from. It scared the shit out of me. I chose minimal engagement, save for a few ‘safe’ people in the activism circle I was involved with at the time on campus. In 2009, I came across this same sort of folk – these intense people that seemed to have genuine care and curiosity about me, a person they had never met and may never see again. This sparked a new drive in me to challenge the way I was interacting with the world. I remember stating out loud to someone that I really wanted to find a way to NOT become a grumpy old man like my father.
In 2013, I went to a women’s leadership retreat in California. I was in a weird place in my life and really wanted something to jar me out of the rut I felt firmly stuck in. My depression was out of control and I wasn’t in therapy at the time. A friend had tagged me in a Facebook post about the retreat, and my initial thought was, “I wish,” immediately followed by a tsunami of reasons that I couldn’t do it or didn’t deserve it. One of the organizers convinced me that I was worth it and that I could ask others to help me fund the trip. Again, scary stuff! But I put myself out there in a way I never had, and my friends and family supported me to cross the country for a life changing weekend. For the first time, I began to see that I did not have to suffer, and that there are truly good people in the world.
The four years since then have been jam packed FULL of recovery. I have taken communication seminars and personal growth courses to learn new coping strategies and communication skills. I’ve had a nutrition/eating coach, a life coach, and a therapist (that I still see). I’ve also worked hard with my first primary care physician to unpack some complicated physical health issues. A few months ago, we switched our focus to my mental health. Despite a lot of support and emotional growth, I was still terribly depressed. In fact, I was more depressed than ever, having just lost my father. It was hard to see any light in the vacuum of the grief I felt. It was suffocating.
This next part may ruffle a few feathers, but hear me out. A lot of people have opinions about psychiatric medicine. Despite widespread use, there is a societal stigma regarding taking medication. I’ve heard judgement that a person is weak for relying on daily medication, and others that dismiss psychiatric medicine as unnatural. I’ve even heard theories that anti-depressants are all just a part of “Big Pharma’s” conspiracy to make us all robots. I wish I was kidding.
This type of thinking leaves many people afraid to pursue medicine as a treatment option, lest they be considered a failure at life. Or, maybe that was just me. I was definitely afraid of taking medication. My doctor recommended it two years ago, but I balked at the thought and cringed at the possibility that it might be necessary. Luckily, my doctor treats me like an equal partner in my health care decisions and he didn’t push me. When I was ready, I asked him for medication.
I was lucky to find a drug that worked well for me the first time. I do have some side effects, but currently they are much less detrimental to my life than my depression was. Many people are not so lucky and have a much more traumatic experience with these medications and their associated side effects. Their experience of medication NOT working is just as valid as my experience of it working. The fact that it works for me, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. The fact that it doesn’t work for others doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. These are decisions best left between you and your doctor, and not a place to let other people’s anecdotes and opinions interfere with your own discovery of a treatment path that works for you – which may or may not include medication. Exercise, being outside, connecting with people, and finding creative expression can help ANYone feel better in life, but that doesn’t mean these things will cure EVERYone who is suffering from mental illness.
Being on anti-depressants doesn’t mean I don’t feel things, and it doesn’t help me ‘hide’ from life or emotion. Rather, it lifts what I call the soggy wool blanket from my life, so that I can feel my feelings in the present, rather than drowning in traumas past or anxieties about potential problems of the future. I still cry and get angry, but it isn’t nearly as confusing. I have emotional space and mental clarity to process my feelings, rather than reacting to them and making messes in my relationships. I don’t always get it perfect, but I’m much more willing to admit when I haven’t gotten it right. I know that I don’t have to be perfect, and that it was never a realistic expectation to begin with.
If you are suffering daily from your thoughts and emotions, it is possible that you have a mental illness or mood disorder. If you have the resources, find someone to talk to in your area that specializes in your issues here. If you do not have access to mental health care, you can go to the NAMI website to find alternate support systems. If you are feeling suicidal or in crisis, find an appropriate hotline number here.
If you know someone that is suffering, offer to be with them. Listen non-judgmentally. Offer support instead of advice. Ask them what support they need. If they don’t know, just be there for them. Knowing that people will love you unconditionally goes a long way when someone might be feeling worthless.
*I might write more on this later, but learning about human agency in my introductory anthropology course really empowered me to create a different life for myself, and I did. I became an activist and an organizer, which really helped me realize that I have value and power to make a difference.