It is Mental Illness Awareness Week in Manitoba. In the spirit of shedding light on the often invisible effects of such issues, I want to share with you about why I see a psychologist.
I never did until it seemed like I had no other option. Truthfully, for years I rejected it because the stigma of that notion was unbearable. Eventually, my emotions and their physical manifestations became intolerable.
The first time that I was offered the advice of a mental health professional was as a teen following my spinal cord injury. A stranger felt it was ok to come to my hospital room and try to talk to me about what was happening. I screamed at her to “get out, get out, get out!” until she did. I wasn’t ready.
In the years that followed, I experienced symptoms of what is described through words such as depression, panic attacks and anxiety. I was never diagnosed with these conditions and I wouldn’t necessarily fit all of the criteria – nor would I have accepted medication for them. But I recognized that life is harder to manage at some times more so than at others, and for some people more so than for others.
Art helps. Making it, preparing for it, participating in it – and writing, I love writing. I have always wished that my art was less self-involved but I don’t think that it can be. That’s an inseparable relationship and it’s partly how I really learned to see myself and to be myself.
By the time that I wanted to talk to someone about my emotions, I did not have benefits covered through work. I was employed on contracts that rarely had this perk. I pushed ahead. I distracted myself. I worked insanely hard. I hardly slept. I partied. I looked forward to the quiet of night.
The stories and difficulties that we try to run away from are a part of us and I had nowhere else to go. My story is partly about where I live and what makes me me. This includes the pressures about who and how I am supposed to be for my age, gender and ethnicity. Economics, history, politics, urban planning, social policy, and cultural norms (the list goes on) are some of those factors that bear upon my identity beyond much of my control. How I interpret those is partly up to me but is also largely dictated by my needs and resources.
The ballet of life is not so graceful when those pressures do not align so easily with our abilities to manage them. It feels unfair and shitty and spoiled that I can’t just be happy about who I am and all of the blessings in my life. It just isn’t easy to be open to those everyday; not when pain, worry and exhaustion override my intentions; not when what I’m supposed to do is nearly impossible given how I’m feeling; not when I feel unable to express those difficulties and especially not when I am ashamed of that struggle and choose to burrow deep in my thoughts. It’s paralyzing.
I finally found my psychologist, “M”, when I became a grad student and almost quit after my first semester. I had what would likely be called a nervous breakdown. I hadn’t eaten or slept for nearly two days. My now-boyfriend brought me food and encouraged that I rest. I used the very last bit of my energy and went to my parents. I told them about what I was experiencing – hives, breathlessness, loss of hearing. I felt entirely numb. I felt like all of me – my memories, my spirit, my hopes – had retracted into a marble that was rolling around an empty shell. My life was not in my body and bones anymore. I often want my body to be irrelevant but I know that it can’t be and in this instance I almost made it so. My parents just wanted me to be ok. They iterated that we would find a way. I was “turning 30″only days later.
Until I shared how difficult it’s all been, it was this heavy heavy heavy secret that seemed unapproachable in any circumstance. I had to reveal this to my professors, university administration, family and friends. I needed understanding, kindness and support. It’s made the conversations that have followed a heckuva lot more honest and helpful for me.
The university offers both a free life coaching program and counselling. I have taken up both services. I participated in each one once a week for the winter semester and then again the following year. I get to talk about what’s troubling me with one person and then I get to choose to do something really cool about it with another. It’s not always easy. Sometimes I dread it and sometimes I am so excited that I can hardly wait.
I do what I have done for years to feel at peace but I have taken up some new practices too. Mostly, I have adapted my ways of seeing and thinking. I make art. I use phrases to calm myself. I practice my breath. I stretch. I connect with yoga. I try to have sunlight cover me. I try to sit near windows for work and feel sunshine at the back of my eyes to warm my brain. It makes me feel fuzzy and happy in my spine. I also check in with myself over coffee on Saturday or Sunday. I work towards planning for success with a manageable schedule and budget. These are difficult but really important.
I feel pretty off my game lately and it’s taking a toll. Life feels too heavy and dark. Like, a big grey, folding curtain. So many amazing opportunities and things are happening but I don’t feel very well. It’s about time to reach out again.
I am fortunate to have friends, colleagues and family who love me, care for me and are super open to helping. But it’s straining to expect resolve about my own mental health through these sources. I am promising myself that I will call “M” this week. I like scheduled appointments with “M” because I can confidently table my concerns until the time comes to reflect about them and then to talk about them constructively.
The stigma and silence around the labels of mental illness diagnoses are unfair. I am thankful that I have never had to think of myself through these labels. But, I have been keenly aware that labels are all too commonly applied to people to neatly sum up the affects of societal pressures upon our lives. I certainly understand that there are biophysical conditions that need to be acknowledged and treated. But I think that many of us can recognize that our mental health isn’t always tops and that isn’t just because we may or may not have a diagnosable illness.
Life is really tough to manage sometimes! It’s great to have help with this. Suffering is the toughest. Let’s not suffer in silence, ok?
This was originally posted on the blogspot of Karina Cardona Claros where you can read more of her entries.