is a garden;
What we decide
to grow there will
determine our prosperity
Mental Health Awareness Month
May is Mental Health Awareness month. Mental Health is a topic near and dear to my heart for multiple reasons, but the catalyst to all of them began when I was 10 years old. A loved one of mine has mental illnesses that go beyond the benign, and instead dictate their entire existence. If you are someone who struggles with mental illness and/or loves someone else who does, the experience is understood only by living it.
Close to 50 million adults in the U.S. ages 18 or older suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. Almost 50% of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. 1 in 5 adults live with mental illness.
Moving My Body
This week, on Tuesday, three days into my period (hormones… gotta shed light on them hormones, y’all), my alarm went off as it always does at 6:00 AM. Before my eyes even opened, my mind started racing. My chest felt instantaneously crushed by invisible weight, and the last desire I had was to rouse myself from the safe, warm, removed haven of my bed.
I got up anyway. I turned off my alarm, exchanged my cozy pajamas for my athletic wear, and pulled my hair back in a ponytail. Then, I grabbed my 40 oz Stanley water bottle, took a long sip from the straw, and headed to my basement to move my body. Step 1 of controlling my mind, quieting its threat to control me.
Remembering to Breathe
After getting my three kiddos fed, their lunches made and off to school, I let the dogs out of the back of my vehicle on our dirt road and called for them to follow my car up the hill. It was cold, and while they needed exercise, I needed warmth. As I watched them run in the side view mirror, I whistled to cheer them along. My thoughts drifted, and I noted the effort required to remember to breathe.
How would I describe this feeling? I thought. The physical symptoms brought on by a chemical reaction inside my brain + ruminating thought patterns = an inner landscape of a foggy battlefield, awaiting chaos and destruction. But even that is too obtuse. I pondered again what I could possibly say to another person to help them visualize the invisible.
Bounce Housing with Your Siamese Twin
Have you ever seen those HUGE bounce houses? You know the kind you can fit way too many kids on, and they have giant slides and exist at fairs and overly extra birthday parties? I can say that because I rented one for my daughter’s birthday last month and I assisted the owner in the set-up process. 50-pound sandbags anchor the massive rubber structure to the ground, and when it’s deflated, to adjust its positioning is to heave with your entire body. I worked up a sweat!
If you can, imagine lying beneath a deflated bounce house, with just your eyes, nose, and mouth free from its cover. The sheer density of the weight sitting on your body would make breathing a chore, and everything in you would want to throw that rubber off and scramble out from underneath it, gasping for breath as you escaped. This is what depression can feel like…but it’s as though you’re trapped there, held captive by invisible restraints.
Now, imagine you have a Siamese twin. This twin is insufferable. They never.stop.talking and what they talk about is dictated by negativity. Doubt, worry, personal put downs… constant hyperactive chatter that makes you want to duct tape their mouth shut for several minutes, granting a moment of peace for your mind and body. This is what anxiety can feel like.
So…picture you and your Siamese twin stuck under a deflated bounce house, and you my friend, have a small window into depression and anxiety. Sounds fun, right? Goddamn circus up in this bitch.
Numb and Wired, All at Once
Personally, I don’t have it all figured out. Half the time, I don’t even know what brings me joy or what I like doing for myself. My mental health depends on a daily workout routine, podcasts that teach me something and occupy my thoughts so I can successfully complete tasks around my house, getting outside, reading books, drinking lots of water and being as diligent as I can about what I eat. These simple additives to my daily life are the ingredients to making it possible for me to put one foot in front of the other. Because the truth is, I feel buried sometimes, like my body is functioning but I’m not really inside it. I’m somewhere else, deep below the surface of what you see, numb and wired all at once.
This is not my state of being 100% of the time. As aforementioned, it usually strikes me hardest during that special time of the month. When I do get bulldozed, I find myself overcome with empathy for those who suffer daily and may not be able to muster the strength in one moment or another to get out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, and combat their symptoms. And while I do believe there is more collective awareness surrounding these issues, it never hurts to talk about it and bring the subject further into the light.
How to Connect
As a person who may not struggle with a mental health disorder, how does one connect with and support a loved one who does? A few tips I think are helpful (based on my own experience as well as some research):
- Calling out a loved one’s distant behavior isn’t helpful. Try expressing concern instead, and ask if they feel supported by someone or something that could aid in their suffering.
- Offering suggestions for what you do when you’re bummed might seem like a solution, but often that can make the sufferer feel misunderstood. Depression has a complexity that gets carried around through activities. Just telling your loved one that you’re there for them and asking how you can help is often more uplifting and certainly more validating.
- Don’t suggest substances (like drugs and alcohol) to relax them or get their mind off of what they are facing. Try to offer simple activities to get them out of the house, instead. Like taking a walk, or going to eat some lunch together. Even asking if you can stop by to say hello is heartwarming and goes a long way. Remove pressure by assuring them it is ok if they just don’t have the energy for it at this time.
- Saying “It could be worse” or “ you have so much to be grateful for” are true statements, but to a person looking through the lens of their mental fog—those words may add fuel to their self-deprecating fire. Acknowledging their feelings and simply offering your awareness that what they are going through is hard, lets them know you’re listening, and that you’re taking what they share with you seriously.
This Stuff is Human
Remember to offer these kindnesses to yourself, too. Nobody is perfect, and honestly, I think we all feel trapped beneath a bounce house with our asshole Siamese twin sometimes. I want to keep the conversation going, because this stuff is human, and it matters. While I don’t have any real solutions per se, I hope to keep working toward self-mastery, and sharing my struggles to help others feel seen within their own.
Here’s to cultivating a garden of beautiful thoughts, removing the pests one step at a time.