Mental Health Journey
Grab a cup of tea... this is a long one.
It would probably surprise most people to know that I have struggled with my own mental health in a deep & serious way. I do know the darkness and uncertainty of not knowing whether I would ever be "happy", or live without this cloud of depression looming over my life. Or knowing if I'd ever be able to cope with stress or sadness in a healthy way. I do know the pain and frustration that can dwell inside, that can be hard to articulate & seems so lonely.
I also do know, that our mental health diagnosis or struggle is not a life sentence. I do know that for me, it began with a choice and a lot of work after that. I do know that everything begins with a mindset & that we can heal.
The intention in sharing my story is to give hope to those that are currently struggling, despite how nervous and uncomfortable it may be for me to bring it all back up. I hadn't quite made the connection of the significance that my mental health struggle played in my drive toward a healthy & fit life, until recently.
I was speaking to a friend & colleague and she asked where my passion & interest in living an optimal life began. So I routinely reflected upon my postpartum fitness journey, but then quickly realized - no, it had started before then. So I recalled, moving out at a young age and beginning to cook for myself & the desire to eat healthy after watching a few documentaries on the health implications of GMO's, but no, it had started before then too. Before I knew it, I was peeling back all of these layers, (years, really) of steps that led me to this deep seeded desire to feel well & to be the best version of myself and there it was: Staring at me like a lost little child. A dark time in my life that seems so long ago, give or take 15 years, almost forgotten about - but that's been woven throughout my entire life ever since. The desire to be healthy was born out of my unhealthy behaviours around my mental health.
Keep in mind, that as I share this, it may be triggering for some. I do not share these stories for pity, or for anyone to feel badly. It has been a monumental lesson in many ways for me and is a part of how I got to the place I am now.
Within the first week of starting high school, I started to hear through the hallway whispers that girls from the grade above me wanted to "fight" me. And so it began.
My high school experience started with bullying that lasted until I graduated. It started with whispers between girls loud enough that you're meant to hear, fierce glances that induced so much fear it made my stomach turn. It escalated to being pushed down the stairs a few times and once, intensely crowded around my locker by students yelling "girl fight" with the other girl's adrenaline pumping, giving her the courage to hit me. She did, I walked away and then walked home with my nose bleeding that day because my parents were out of town and my Grandma was taking care of my brother & I. I had to explain to my Grandma why I needed to go to get xrays, I was so embarrassed. My self esteem at this point was so low, I didn't even want to go to school (and I loved the academics of school but I skipped more classes than I attended by the end).
While groups of people at school were unkind to me, often the individuals of that group were decent on a one-on-one basis. But you see, the issue with bullying is that it's not black and white. It's all actions & reactions of insecure, immature individuals that often have their own unresolved trauma, multiplied over and over. I know this now, but I didn't know this then, while living in it. I had friends and was friendly & cordial to most groups. In fact, I would actually stand up for others, but never for myself.
In grade 9 or 10, my guidance counsellor (who I had gotten to know quite well by this time) asked if I wanted to be a part of this group to become student mediators - learning how to dissolve conflict and help others move through it to resolve issues. We went on a short retreat with other students who had signed up (or been volun-told). It was like camp but with conversations around anti-violence. From this, I learned "violence is never the answer" but this almost a disservice to me because I never defended myself and this fueled the bullying. I felt powerless - I didn't want to continue the cycle but I didn't know how to break it either.
Teenagers are very careless with their words & don't realize how deep they go & I'm sure I was not exempt from that notion & used a careless tongue as well. Words are one thing, actions are another. I have been spit on, socially humiliated at the first party I ever attended, physically threatened & encouraged to commit suicide over fake email accounts - I could go on about the other cringeworthy experiences from high school, but I don't want to stray too far from my point of this post.
I lost my Grandma when I was 16. The loss of her compounded the darkness that was storming inside me. It was the first loss I had experienced and she & I were very close.
Going to school each day, walking the halls in fear or discomfort had started to take it's toll - I was depressed. I didn't want to tell my parents because I didn't want them to worry about me, but I also didn't have the tools to help myself. Eventually my Mom discovered I had been harming myself. I don't remember how long it had been going on but I do remember coming home one day feeling so much stress, anger, sadness & frustration all wrapped up into one big ball that I wanted to take it out on myself physically. It became a regular reliever of my pain. When my parents realized I had been cutting myself, they told me in the morning I would be going to our family doctor & to therapy. In my difficult, somewhat rebellious nature, I refused. Some times when you're in that state, you feel like nothing can help you. When you feel so low, you don't even WANT help. But I went, didn't have much choice. The doctor medicated me with a low dose serotonin boosting anti-depressant.
The first therapy session, my Mom drove me to, was at the therapists home. I walked into her office, looked around at the seating and in my head thought: She probably expects me to sit on this comfortable couch and tell her all my secrets but I wont!
I stubbornly sat on her most uncomfortable chair in the room for the session.
And I continued to go regularly for about 8 months. Slowly, I started to open up to her and she listened with an unbiased, neutral ear. It felt very liberating to talk about it and get it out. She also gave me a great piece of advice when it came to the self-harm that really helped me, "it doesn't change anything".
It doesn't change anything.
It was really an "ah-ha" moment for me at the time because she was right. It didn't change anything, but it certainly wasn't helping or healing me. Needless to say, from that day on - it was no longer a method of coping.
My last appointment started with me sitting on the comfortable couch and without prompt going on about whatever had been on my mind. While we were talking we both came to a long pause. She said, "I think you're done." and I replied with a smile, "I think I am too." I knew I would be graduating not long after, and even still, I lived the majority of my last year of school knowing I could get through it. I actually weaned off my antidepressants before I was finished school as well. Did they help me? They may have, but I actually didn't like the feeling they gave me. I never cried while I was on them and I don't think that's healthy. However I feel like it's a personal decision between you and your doctor & that they do help many people!
What I learned while reflecting on this experience is that often 'removing the thorn' is very effective - but sometimes it's easier said than done. Sometimes the thorn needs to be reframed in a way that we are better able to handle it - if the thorn can't be changed - maybe we need to change. Or maybe we need to seek the tools to cause us to change. There is no shame in seeking help - life is hard, and can be at any stage.
I think people assume that if you're struggling with anxiety or depression, that you can't or don't feel happiness. I strived for a long time to be happy but, really I was always happy, even when I was depressed I had happy moments.
Life is not always happy. Life is for living and feeling all of the emotions. I am no longer depressed but I have down days, emotional ups & downs are bound to happen, but we get the choice on how to handle whatever is dealt to us. This is life. And I'm so grateful to be living it.