What my mental health issue(s) teach me about myself
I have - over the course of 2017 - written about my encounters with mental health as I’ve known and lived it; both on my blog and on Instagram - albeit sporadically, even though I’ve been meaning to do much more. What’s held me back hasn’t been self-censorship or even shame but plain ignorance on not knowing where to begin furthering the conversation I’d like more of us to keep having on this ‘epidemic’.
Here’s a humble attempt at sharing what I’ve learned since 2015, when the forces of the Underworld (AKA mental health illness) came knocking at my door and for the most part, overstayed many a visit!
i] No two mental health experiences are ever going to be the same
I did not open up (in the public domain) about my mental health until a year after I had terminated therapy because I did not consider it to be severe enough to deserve a mention! Yes, I had an Imposter Syndrome lurking around, evaluating whether what I was going through was worthy enough to be talked about.
It took me some time and a lot of working with myself i.e. validating my thoughts and emotions to myself.
I would realise later that this was the illness making me believe untrue things to be true. I trained myself to rewrite my inner narratives that my illness did not need to be measurable on a Richter scale to merit a mention anywhere.
ii] Reaching out is not a sign of weakness
I struggled for a long time with learning how to reach out to folks in my near immediate environment: both, offline and online.
I would hear myself say that I didn’t want to burden somebody else with what I was going through. I had, after all, been that strong independent girl (now woman) who could always take care of herself. I had, after all, been the bulwark of support and the voice of reason when others around me required it. So what if I was now being reduced to a puddle of tears and illogical thoughts!
Gradually, I trained myself to unlearn the need to place myself on a pedestal. Reaching out was not a sign of weakness in just the same way that I couldn’t expect anybody, no matter how close, to read my mind and show up for me without my asking them to do so!
iii] Reaching out does not guarantee support
That not everyone would understand my need for support was one bitter pill to swallow.
That the responses I would receive would do more damage than good – even though not ill-intentioned – kept sending me further into darker places.
Of course, I resorted to blame.
And of course, I played the victim card.
All of course only in my head – because that’s where the forces of the Underworld had any control over me.
Yes, it hurt.
And yes, I had to train myself to understand that this wasn’t a failure on anyone’s part.
Over time, I would come to understand why this would be the reason why I'd want to open up the conversation on mental health. And for that to happen, I would have to find alternatives to receive the support I was seeking. So I cast the net wider and surprised myself by reaching out to folks I hadn’t previously considered. And who on their part were doing more than I’d imagined.
iv] Talk therapy can work
I knew zilch about therapy.
I didn’t know I needed therapy.
I only recall how one-day things got so out of hand that a voice in my head said: Houston, we have a problem! And just like that, without consulting a single soul, I dialled the number of the one therapist I’d had.
In six one-hour sessions over a period of six months, I, along with my therapist, began to walk the halls of the Underworld. It was easy to see myself as a victim. It was easy to see how I’d been wronged.
Then, I learnt-by-doing that therapy was about reframing the narrative!
That you don’t take sides but you can redeem yourself from the stronghold of your inner-storytelling. That sometimes what I truly needed was to be heard – to have that hurt, I had unknowingly offered a house inside my soul, be voiced!
Talk therapy was instrumental in understanding how little I knew about myself and how I had also unknowingly played the role of the antagonist in my own story.
P.S.: While my therapist and I discussed medication, I haven’t been prescribed any till date.
v] Emotions are neither good or bad
My journey into understanding myself - partially through therapy and partially through my training in counselling (yes, I am trained and have been able to take better care of myself since I terminated therapy in 2016 – but more on that later) – helped me see how I was treating myself like a machine. I started seeing how my responses to incidents as well as people would break down into binaries such as good or bad and right or wrong and this or that. I had internalized what I had seen around me. And that was the flaw.
Over time I have been shedding this binary outlook, especially when it comes to my emotions. If I am not feeling upbeat one morning, it is okay. If I am not excited about something I was initially excited about, it is okay. I am not a machine. I am not programmed to feel only in a certain way.
It is okay to not feel okay all the time. And as long as I communicate where I am at, in the moment, to the involved parties who might get affected if say I decide to withdraw my participation, situations can be managed.
To not shame myself for not being productive on certain days as a "self-employed + freelancing being" has taken a lot of working with myself!
vi] Healing is not linear
First binaries, now linearities!
The period between 2015 and 2017 has given a new meaning to the word ‘topsy-turvy’. Less than three months after my therapist and I had terminated therapy, I was back to feeling like a puddle of tears and a bundle of illogical thoughts. It took some time for the initial shock to wear off and objectivity to take control before I could begin helping myself out – on my own.
This would happen a few more times in the months to come but instead of asking myself ‘why is this happening again to me’, I gradually learnt to be more accepting of the illness and what it brought with it. Not as a sign of resignation but as an attempt to understand what it was indicative of. I have run around in many circles, chased my own tail trying to make things less difficult for myself - also known as, unlearning unhealthy coping strategies.
Turns out, self-awareness has been the by-product of managing my mental health issues.
vii] Self-care is not overrated
Just like mindfulness (which BTW has been working for me) has now been reduced to yet another hashtag-worthy term, self-care too seems to evoke side-eye glances particularly from folks who struggle with their mental health issues.
I would know …I was one of them too, not too long ago.
But like with many other aspects, I had to learn about self-care the long-and- windy way.
To make better sense of what self-care meant and why I needed it, I began to observe the ways in which I was causing myself harm – not necessarily in the physical sense.
The words I used
The habits I’d developed
Just the way I treated myself in general… would inevitably point towards something unhealthy, at the very least, or harmful, at its worst!
That’s where I began to flip the then dominant narrative in favour of learning as well as getting better at self-care. And no, it’s not chocolate cake, window shopping, mud-spas and one-way tickets!
viii] Find a medium to express yourself to yourself first
Yes, I’ve been journaling since I’ve been 15 and in hindsight, it was mostly to rant or get something (mostly painful) off my chest. Over the past three years (and counting), the importance and the relevance of writing to express as well as to hear myself above all the noise has led to significant shifts.
Writing is my meditation and writing has also helped me articulate the stories I’d been telling myself. It’s helped me detect when I assume accusatory tones and when I’m lacking in empathy: both, towards myself just as much towards others.
It has enabled me to get better at recognizing the faulty stories I was feeding myself, causing me to trip over my own feet like shoelaces left undone!
In turn, I am finding that it’s helping me express myself out aloud, even verbally, and more constructively to the folks around me.
ix] May is Mental Health month
There are many things our education and our qualifications haven’t endowed us with. And it is up to us in our individual capacities to reclaim ourselves for ourselves. Or at least that's where I'm coming at it from. This is something I’d posted on Instagram some time ago:
“It's OK to not be OK
It's OK to not know what's making you feel 'not OK'
Not every reason or trigger has an identity
You don't have to figure it out on your own
It's NOT OK to normalise what you're going through
If it's persistent and affecting your ability to function, reach out
Just like you would if you had a physical ache or pain
Therapy is an option
It's the equivalent of having someone listen to you, non-judgmentally
Therapy does not always include medication. Mine didn't
Therapy can have an end date. Mine did
Therapy can enable you to cope constructively. I have, in spite of the other curve balls, even after terminating therapy”
This isn’t just another #MentalHealthAwareness post. My posts are also motivated from having observed folks around me silently going through difficult times. My effort is to reduce the shame and stigma associated with speaking up, reaching out and receiving support.
Let's talk about the things that matter
Let's bring the 'network' back in 'social media'