Growing up, I don’t remember months being anything other than months. May was simply May. June was just June. July was, well, July. You get the picture.
At some point, though, months were assigned special designations to raise the collective awareness about a variety of health conditions, diseases social causes, etc. October became Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Women’s History Month took up residence in March. In case you were wondering, April hosts Stress Awareness Month.
While there are only twelve months, there are countless causes clamoring for our attention in each of those months. Sometimes, it is hard to know where to turn our focus. For this month of May, and beyond, though, I ask that you focus on a topic near and dear to my heart. Mental Health Awareness Month.
Mental health matters to me, both as a licensed therapist and as a person who has struggled with, and learned to manage, bouts of anxiety and depression over the years. So, I look at this from two perspectives that are intertwined.
At the age of 18, I was hospitalized for depression at the conclusion of my first year of college. It was during this inpatient stay that I met a social worker, and my encounter with her inspired me to change my major from elementary education to social work when I returned for my sophomore year. More than an academic and career change, though, this first foray into mental health treatment changed the trajectory of my life.
In the safe confines of the hospital, I learned that it was safe to expose the emotional pain that I had learned to expertly hide behind my big smile. In this place, vulnerability was not only encouraged, but it was accepted unconditionally. More accurately, I was accepted unconditionally for who I was, invisible scars and all.
Upon discharge, I took what I learned with me out into the world and managed fairly well for myself. That’s not to say that everything went smoothly. In my 20s, I had a difficult time coping with being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, followed by five years of intensive infertility treatment. These were accompanied by the usual challenges and triumphs of getting married and launching my career. I navigated my 30s without too many hiccups, as I settled into parenthood, happily unaware what awaited me in my 40s.
Nine years ago, my world imploded, as I succumbed to a crippling combo of depression and anxiety. Appropriately, this implosion occurred during Mental Health Awareness Month. For the second time in my life, I was hospitalized for anxiety and depression. Only this time, I was there just long enough to keep me safe before being transferred to an Intensive Outpatient Program. This was followed by six more months of outpatient counseling.
I wish I could say that this time when I completed treatment that my issues were over, but they weren’t. In fact, they were far from over. Very far.
During the midst of this, my husband of eighteen years and I decided to divorce. I then had to cope with all of the emotional, social, and financial changes that this decision brought, along with the end of some significant friendships. It was an inordinately painful period, and it got even harder a few years later.
On October 20, 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was thrust into a whole new world that involved a whole new level of anxiety and depression. It felt like my body and mind were under siege, and I questioned whether I would survive and, at times, whether I wanted to survive.
Coming out on the other side of treatment, I continued to struggle to wrap my brain around everything that had transpired so far in my 40s, and I stumbled through the next few years on automatic pilot. When another significant relationship ended in 2017, I could feel the waves of anxiety and depression threaten to capsize my already fragile mental lifeboat.
As a therapist and as someone who had been in counseling previously, it may have seemed like an obvious choice to resume therapy at various points along the way. But it wasn’t, for a number of reasons, which is why I am sharing this now, in the hope that it may be helpful for someone else who is struggling. These are three of the factors that delayed me from seeking support.
Stigma. It’s mind boggling that there remains any stigma surrounding mental health, but there does. I would like to believe that it is changing, but it’s not changing fast enough. I delayed asking for help again, because I felt embarrassed that, in my eyes, I had failed myself and everyone around me. This was made worse by the harsh judgment of others about my prior attempts to get help. I also carried the self-imposed pressure of the therapist heal thyself belief. I shouldn’t have been concerned about what anyone else thought, but at first, I was.
Fear of failure. Because I had previously sought treatment and had not maintained the gains I made, I began to fear that there was something inherently wrong with me that would set me up for further setbacks. I feared that I was really good at offering support to others, but that some unseen force or hidden defect made it impossible for me to have my own back and to believe in myself. So, it seemed like a surefire way not to fail was not to try at all, but that was like throwing gasoline on a fire.
Being reactive. I am a stickler for preventative measures, such as exercising, eating a balanced diet, scheduling regular checkups, and doing whatever else I can to maintain my physical health. I wasn’t being proactive when it came to my emotional health and well-being, though, and it took its toll and perpetuated a vicious cycle of emotional turmoil.
I decided to salvage the final year of my 40s and asked for help. Again. And again. My situation is not unique, as there are millions of people around the world who are living with mental health issues, and we all cope differently. One size does not fit all when it comes to mental health, but these are some of the things that I found to be effective in restoring my mental health.
Seek help from a licensed mental health practitioner. Despite being in the business myself and having supportive family and friends, I still worked with a licensed therapist, who provided me with a safe, nonjudgmental space to unpack the thoughts, feelings, and actions that weighed me down. That support and guidance were invaluable in my recovery. If you need assistance in finding a trained counselor, there are a number of excellent resources available, such as these:
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Exercise. The mind-body connection is a powerful one, and exercise has been shown to be a very effective way to decrease feelings of anxiety and depression. I begin most of my days by working out, and throughout the day, I have found it helpful to incorporate movement to clear my mind and boost my mood. Consult with your healthcare provider about what is safe for you.
Get back to the basics. Like exercise, eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and staying hydrated benefit our minds as much as our bodies. Anxiety, stress, depression, etc. are exhausting physically and mentally, so, it is important to take good care of bodies and minds, so, that they can take good care of us.
Develop a mindfulness practice. We have over 60,000 thoughts each day, and sometimes, it can feel like a never-ending barrage of words that just won’t quit. So, it’s important to find ways to give our overactive minds a much needed break. Yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, tapping, and deep breathing are some of the many ways that we can rein in our thoughts and quiet our minds, even if only for a bit.
Be intentional. Develop a daily practice of setting at least one goal or intention, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant it may seem. When we live with intention, we are able to focus on the next best step, then the next best step after that, and the next best step after that, and so on and so forth. We cannot always control our circumstances, but we always can control our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Befriend feelings. Humans are hard wired to avoid pain and danger, so, it’s a natural response to want to avoid or resist feelings that we perceive as negative or bad. That said, when I began to look at my anxiety and depression as signs to guide me, instead of destructive forces to hurt me, I found that the intensity and duration of the feelings decreased significantly. Whenever I feel anxious or depressed, I acknowledge it and ask myself what I need to do in that present moment for myself.
Mental Health Awareness Month will end soon, but I hope that our awareness does not. We need to look out for our own emotional health and well-being and support the emotional health and well-being of others, not just for one month out of the year, but every day of every month of every year. Be well, my friends, because you matter.
That’s another story. . .
Categories: That's Another Story