I don’t like the way we talk about mental health, mostly because the conversation is usually framed around “mental illness.” Mental health is so much more complex than that. There’s this entire other side to the equation, one we don’t talk about as much or often enough, and that is mental wellness. When we forget about wellness, we remove not only the element of hope that is so crucial when you are depressed or anxious or angry or lost, but also the opportunity for things to get better.
I’ve written a lot in my life, and on occasion I’ve even gathered up the courage to put something out there that is really personal. It is terrifying to admit to the world that you are flawed, that you have complexes, that sometimes the things you do or think are not normal. I’ve shied away from talking about my own battles with depression and anxiety because I too fall victim to the stigma. But I’m starting to care less about what people think these days. Depression and anxiety may be a part of my life, but they do not define it.
I started shifting my thinking about this late last year. I realized that I had a problem with how I viewed my own mental health. My perspective mirrored society’s. I too looked at my condition as a mental illness and I forgot about my own mental wellness.
It’s easy to do that when you are sick. But after a while, I became sick of being sick. I was sick of feeling sorry for myself, sick of being sad, sick of crying all the time, sick of feeling like nothing was ever going to get better, sick of talking to people, sick of taking pills, sick of drinking too much, sick of feeling the way I felt, sick of being tired all the time, sick of fighting it. I cycled through years of this and every time it felt just as bad as the last.It felt like things would never improve, like I was destined to live in this cloud of darkness.
I read memoirs about other people’s struggles with depression and even the ones I cherished, most notably Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, didn’t do much to make me feel better, even if I felt less alone. At some point, I accepted depression and anxiety as part of who I was, and that was a dangerous thing for me to do. With acceptance comes comfort and once you’re comfortable, what desire do you have to ever change things?
It’s not like I didn’t try. I spent a lot of time getting referred from one place to the next and listening to one person’s opinion then another. I worked hard on my career, determined not to let my sickness bring me down and even though it did at times, I was further determined not to let anyone know that this sickness existed. I got pretty good at it too. My reputation for being social and bubbly and hard working never faded. But it was not a very effective method for me because at the end of every day I still felt sad, this deep crushing sadness that made me question everything in my life, including my value and my worth. I wondered if people thought I was talented. I wondered if people loved me. I wondered, when they told me that they did, what they could possibly see in me, a shell of a girl.
Then I started thinking about it and I realized I was actually just sick of thinking of myself as mentally ill. How I hated that term. I’m not mentally ill! I shouted from the inside out. There’s so much more to me than that. I’m ambitious, I’m funny, I’m loving, I’m fun. I like to plan events and parties and talk to people and travel places and take pictures and document life and try new things and take chances. I realized it’s not that I was mentally ill, it’s that I wasn’t mentally well.
This idea of wellness seemed new to me. I hadn’t quite looked at things through that lens before and this changed things. I started to recognize that I really did need to learn how to shift my thinking patterns, and I realized this would take time and effort. I stopped thinking about the things that made me sick and instead concentrated on the things that could make me better. I sat down to write a list of 25 things that made me happy and before I knew it I had 47, then 60, then 82. I had a totally new perspective on my own mental wellbeing and I knew it was up to me to make some changes.
I decided to embrace mind over matter and I stopped looking at myself as sick and started looking at myself as someone who had the power to be well. I started embracing the very idea of wellness. All these things that were contributing to my depression and anxiety, I realized I could change them. And if I couldn’t change them, I realized I had to let them go. Maybe I’ll always struggle with my mental health to some extent, as I still do now, but I’ve realized I have a responsibility to myself to not make it any worse. I have a responsibility to myself to make it better.
Everything is going to be okay because what other option is there? ~ Me
In order to become okay, I had to put work into myself, a different kind of work than I was doing before. I had to be proactive and less passive. I had to decide what was worthy of occupying what I call my mental real estate, the places in your mind where all your thoughts, fears, and dreams live. I had to decide to be okay.
After so many years of feeling trapped and running in the big fat hamster wheel that is depression and anxiety, realizing I have the power to open the door was a huge discovery for me. And being ready to open that door was life changing.