When I started my blog I said that it would be “ramblings and musings — on reading, education, mindfulness, mental health, kindness and whatever other things are tumbling through my mind.” Wow. Focus much? Kinda shows you what a pinball game it is tracking my thoughts! However, I really believed it would be mostly about books and reading, and if you go back you will certainly find many posts about my love of those two things. However, it became a bit more about mental health than I ever dreamed. And it became more personal than I would have ever predicted.
I said in a previous post that I was never very good at speaking about what goes on in my mind and my life with the depression that at times becomes debilitating. I’ve known since high school that I was depressed and suffering but said nothing to anyone. Not even a doctor. I just believed the lies my mind told me and never realized it was actually an illness. People didn’t talk about such things.
Eventually I opened up a bit. I finally talked to a doctor who prescribed an antidepressant. In time I was able mention the diagnosis and medications to a couple of my closest friends but to no family members. Those closest to me weren’t surprised, because it wasn’t as if it was unnoticeable! At the suggestion of a close friend I considered a counselor. Finally I hit a real crash and burn time that I couldn’t shake and I looked for one.
Finding a counselor is not easy. It involves some trial and error until you find a good fit and becomes disheartening easily. I tried one who told me, “Well, we’ve dealt with those feelings, and now we’re going to just put them up on a shelf.” This was our first meeting! If it was that easy, I’m sure I could have figured out how to do that on my own! I worked for awhile with another one and really didn’t feel like it helped. It was like scenes from an old movie where I talked and he sat there making uh-huh sounds. I stopped for awhile. Eventually I gave it another shot and found one who helped. He approached me with some reading and videos that would give me time to ponder which is part of how I learn. He gave me some strategies for pulling myself out of the self-talk and hopelessness. When I was unable to continue with him, I found the counselor I work with now. She gives me things to read and to think about, but she also prods deeper, questions my assumptions, and has really made a difference.
So now, in the privacy of my home, typing into my own little laptop where only I can read it, and taking the time to sort out the thoughts and put them into words I have been able to describe what happens a bit more. My words in writing are always more effective than they are when I am having a conversation. In conversation I become tongue-tied. I get embarrassed and feel too vulnerable to say what I am really feeling. While writing I get the time to think, rethink, edit, reread, reflect, and finally understand it myself and then get it right (or at least close). And what I know now is that sharing it is part of healing for depression, anxiety, trauma, and many other things. Singer Shiela E was a victim of trauma that led to depression and anxiety. In “Turning the Tables With Robin Roberts” she admitted, “Initially when I first started sharing, it was basically really hard, you know. But the more I did it, the more I felt confident. Again being transparent and truthful about who I am…you have to share that in order to grow and heal. You can’t heal if you don’t share the story.”* Burying fears, destructive thoughts, and struggles in the dark recesses of yourself will make them fester. They thrive in darkness. They don’t live well in the light.
It is scary to tell people that you have mental health issues. For generations having these issues yourself or within your family was something be ashamed of and to hide. People didn’t speak up about their own struggles or even mention if a family member was suffering. They didn’t have the same kind of sympathy for people suffering with mental illness as they did those with a physical illness. People get uncomfortable talking about it because they still feel that way on some level and because they can’t identify with what you’re experiencing. If you break a leg, everyone knows pain and can sympathize. A common cold? Everyone has been there and can sympathize. Lost a loved one? Everyone grieves. Not knowing what to say and not understanding, people often tell you to “snap out of it” or “you’re only as happy as you choose to be.” Really? Anyone really think people want to be depressed?
If you are lucky enough to not have a diagnosis of depression, imagine the lowest time in your life. Maybe you lost a close family member, a friend, a beloved pet. Maybe you were fired from a job and the future looked bleak. Whatever it was, think about how you felt in that moment. You didn’t want to do anything. You had trouble just getting out of bed. You took no joy in anything or anyone. You either had no interest in food or you ate and ate without really satiating the need you were trying to fill. Obviously it is natural to feel that way when you experience a tragedy or a traumatic event.
Now take that moment and imagine having it just show up at random times with no reason. You wake up one morning and it’s just there. Maybe you’re going through your day when some little thing happens — something that on another day would have maybe had you say “WTF?” as you shake your head and move on — but on this day, suddenly you’re there. One reason it is difficult to explain is that people ask, “What’s wrong” and you have no answer. Maybe nothing is wrong, but your brain is telling you there is nothing right and no reason to do anything, maybe no reason to go on. Your self-confidence is shot, you want to hide or just not be. I feel great today. I could feel this way for days or weeks. But one of the horrible things about depression is that I know I could get in bed tonight and have my mind spiral down keeping me from sleep or I could wake up tomorrow and be in the throes. I live knowing that the shoe could drop at any moment.
I don’t write about it for sympathy. I don’t do it for pity, attention, or anything else like that. I’m finding that there are benefits to doing this writing. On a personal level, writing about it forces me to think and reason so that I understand it better. Seeing the experience in writing allows me to stand back and look at the feelings with more objectivity. While in the bowels of the depression, reason goes out the window. Facts will tell me one thing. Logic will tell me one thing. And my mind and heart will tell me just the opposite. Doing the writing will allow me the chance to step back into the words at my lowest and reassess. It helps me to move through.
I’ve written out how I feel for years, but the real power came in putting it out into the world. Publishing the writing forces me into conversations that I wouldn’t have initiated. It forces me into those conversations because I can’t just say, “I’m fine.” It is still extremely hard and not as eloquent as it could be, but it is usually for the good too. Putting voice to the feelings, both in my written voice and my spoken voice, takes the power out of those feelings. I can go back to the words and realize the truth. I can see the expression on a loved one’s face when they become aware of what I had been feeling or experiencing in a situation. It has led to some very healing conversations.
It helps me understand, but I think it also helps others understand what this illness does to someone. By doing that, I can help others who haven’t been able to speak. I have had former students, friends, and even complete strangers contact me with the “you too?” message. It is sometimes heart breaking to hear from the students as they express how they wish they had known when they were in my class because they were going through it too and didn’t know that anyone else was! They felt like I did way back in high school — odd, alone, scared. I could have helped them so much by being vulnerable back then. But I wasn’t brave enough at that point.
Those people were afraid to admit to their suffering the same as I was. It leaves you in a very vulnerable place. It leaves you feeling fully naked. FULLY. You have bared not your body but your soul. You have given the ammo to hurt you to anyone who wants to use it. That is scary.
At the Tokyo Olympics Simone Biles faced acknowledging her inner turmoil and making a heartbreaking decision in the public eye. People took sides on her life and her decision. Many thought she should have “sucked it up” because she had a job to do, she owed it to the team and the country to keep going. Some didn’t understand at all and voiced confusion. Others identified with her. One athlete, a skater, who identified with the “twisties” as they were calling the disorientation that happens in the air, pointed out that it was extremely dangerous to her physically to go on. He pointed out that while he landed on the ice and from at the max a height to which he had jumped with no apparatus, she had obstacles and and reached loftier heights. She could be disabled or killed landing wrong with the apparatus, height, and the speed. She also could have cost the team a medal by competing under those circumstances.
In another conversation I had, someone said, “I understand what she was going through, but so many people were calling her brave or courageous. That had nothing to do with courage.” His thoughts about courage showed that he didn’t really understand fully. He understood the physical aspect of her not being able to compete. He saw courage as a fireman running into a burning building, a climber tackling a difficult peak, a soldier going into battle. That’s courage. But so is speaking her truth about mental health knowing the criticism and lack of understanding that would come at her. She knew that everyone would be talking about her and judging her. She knew the trolls would come out from under every rock mocking her, threatening her, and making all sorts of outrageous statements about her. Speaking up (especially with her visibility) is courage too. Being that vulnerable threatens the very essence of who you are and how you live. As the vulnerability guru Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
In speaking with Robin Roberts in a different episode of “Turning the Tables” than I cited before, Melissa Etheridge talked of the connection between vulnerability and courage*. Having dealt with many parts of her life in the spotlight from coming out to appearing on stage bald during chemo treatments, to the loss of her son, Etheridge is quite experienced with being very publicly vulnerable. “Vulnerability is courage, and you can’t have courage without vulnerability. A lot of people think, ‘no you have to be courageous, not vulnerable. You have to close it up.’ But my most courageous moments… [are] the moments when you’re like ‘Okay I have to be vulnerable and show myself.’ And I have so many people who say coming out was courageous, ending up bald, you know, going through cancer is courageous, but it’s just being yourself and in that vulnerability. I don’t know what it says about us as a society that being yourself is the most courageous thing…yet it’s where all the good juice in life is.”
I agree with those who commended Biles for her courage to speak up about what she has gone through — the training, the stress, the sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the mentality of the trainers and coaches Marta and Bela Karolyi — and the mental toll it has all taken. I believe that there are countless numbers of people who are looking at her and saying, “you too?” There are children, teens, and even adults who will be encouraged to speak their truth, to seek help, and to let go of the shame too many associate with mental health issues. I’m not Simone Biles. I haven’t accomplished what she has and don’t have anywhere near the platform she has. But I appreciate what she did, and I’m trying to be a small voice in the chorus that is saying the same things she did about self care, mental health, speaking truth, and becoming vulnerable. It’s important for my own self-care but it’s even more important to me that it might help someone coming after me.
*Robin Roberts hosts Turning the Tables With Robin Roberts on the Disney Plus streaming app. Each episode involves several women in a relaxed setting having a conversation around a topic. I highly recommend it.