We Need to Talk About Mental Health.

I have anxiety and depression.

People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.

In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.

There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.

And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.

So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.

My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.

Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.

Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.

And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down. 

Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.

Some things that have helped me:

  • COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
  • Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
  • As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!

Some things you can do to help:

  • Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
  • Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
  • Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.

Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.

Photo by Burst, of what is clearly my spirit animal, downloaded from Pexels

Enough.

It’s been a while since my last post — which was somewhat intentional. It wasn’t that time slipped by quickly or that I forgot about blogging; in fact, it was rather the opposite: I’ve thought a lot about what I might post next. But nothing seemed good enough — not important enough, not informed enough — to follow the weight and personal significance of that first post.

And then I realized that that self-dialogue was, in itself, the post I needed to write.

I realized how much of my inner monologue (which, heaven help me, is always on) centers around that word, “enough” — or, rather, what I perceive as a lack of enough, a mark I haven’t met: I haven’t written enough lately, this writing isn’t good enough, I didn’t get enough done today, I haven’t lost enough weight yet, we haven’t gotten enough done on our home renovations, I haven’t saved up enough money…

Enough, enough, enough.

I’m hearing these sentiments from a lot of friends and family lately, too, especially those trying to balance parenting, homeschooling, and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. They feel they aren’t able to devote enough time, attention, or effort to any one of those elements, let alone the combination.

But who defines what’s “enough”? How are we each defining it for ourselves? By comparing our situations to our perceptions of other people’s lives? By notions we had in the past about what our present would look like? I tend more toward the latter — whether that’s what teenage Val thought thirtysomething Val would be like or what when-I-woke-up-this-morning Val envisioned for her day.

I don’t think it’s fair for us to hold ourselves too inflexibly to any sort of past or outside concept of what we’re supposed to have achieved. It’s great to have goals, of course, but so much unfolds in any given day that we never could have anticipated. Whether it’s a small interruption (or ten) or a major, life-altering moment, the unexpected has a tendency to waltz in and command our attention.

And some days it’s not about too much else happening but about the need for very little to happen — days we decide it is enough to have gotten out of bed, maybe taken a shower (maybe not!), maybe put on pants (maybe not!), and been present in whatever form the day takes. Even if that’s just watching TV or reading or goofing around with loved ones. For me, those can be such helpful ways to recharge that I’m then all the more productive the next day. Refocused, realigned, renewed.

Professional writers often advise that, when you find yourself stuck, you simply need to start writing — something, anything — without worrying about how it sounds or where it will end up (ie, whether or not it’s good enough), because you never know what might come out of it. I’ve seen that advice prove true many times in my own writing. Sometimes I only keep a sentence or a key word or a vague idea; sometimes I suddenly find the solution for something I’d been stuck on for months or discover an entirely new idea that I love. Sometimes, of course, I end up with nothing worth keeping. But, even in those instances, maybe having made the effort is enough.

And maybe this unique time we’re in right now is an opportunity to shift our way of thinking. It’s certainly forced us to slow down in many ways, and it’s brought out so much kindness and generosity and creativity that might not have come about otherwise. Personally, I’m trying to apply that kindness, generosity, and creative energy toward myself as well. I want to use this time to reassess my measure of what’s enough. Some days, “enough” is just about doing what I can and continuing to move forward, knowing there are challenges and wonders that await around corners yet to be seen.

enough
A couple years ago, when I was going through a tough time, my counselor recommended I get myself a MantraBand® bracelet that would keep my focus on a positive affirmation. Looking through the many options, we both knew right away that “I am enough” was what I needed to hear. I’ve come a long way since that time, so I no longer feel compelled to wear it, but I keep it displayed prominently above my dresser as a continued reminder.