May is National Mental Health Awareness month and it wasn’t so long ago when those words would have gone unnoticed by me. I was honestly more likely to notice National Ice Cream month.
We all have stuff. We all have baggage and struggle in some way. If this is not you, kindly jump on your unicorn and return to Oz.
Some “stuff” is bigger/harder/more serious than other stuff. But I don’t think anyone gets through life without experiencing some mental health struggles due to the above mentioned stuff.
I am embarrassed to say that when I was a younger, I thought mental health was you know, an excuse for those who couldn’t handle their “stuff.” I would often think, “get your shit together” or “just stop drinking/gambling/drugging” or even, “is depression even real”?
And although I now know how foolish, uneducated and immature that perspective was, I held a hint of it until about 10 years ago when I was driving over a large suspension bridge and had a heart attack.
Well, not exactly a heart attack. In fact, after a night in the hospital it was exactly what I had always brushed off—one of those panic attack things. I had driven over that bridge dozens of times prior without a second thought, had no “real” problems in my life to speak of, was happily married with a great family and job. What did I have to be panicky about?
“It can’t be that,” I told my doctor. I don’t have these things I thought and I SO have my shit together. I am the one people come TO with their stuff. I give advice to other people on THEIR stuff. I am not them and I do not have that.
He gave me a prescription that I threw in the trash as I walked out office. “He doesn’t know me”, I thought.
That summer was pretty terrible. The panic attacks kept coming and I started to worry about having one while driving the kids, or at work (both of which happened). The fear of having one kept me from wanting to leave the house. I did, of course, but felt as if I was on the edge nearly every moment, gritting my teeth through each hour until I could crawl back into bed where it felt safe. I could not believe this was happening to me. Denial is a tremendous identity protector, even though it lies.
There was no climactic moment when I decided to listen to my doctor, get a therapist and take the medication he prescribed. I just got scared of what my life was turning into and the dark thoughts that would creep in and sometimes stay for a while. When I finally did it—filled that prescription, it was another few weeks before I started to feel a glimmer of my old self.
I haven’t had a single panic attack since, and I am grateful. Although I still very much struggle with bouts of depression and anxiety. I suppose in some way, I am grateful to my body for sounding the alarm (in the form of a panic attack) when I was driving over that bridge. I realize now that I was suffering from anxiety for years believing it was normal.
Mental illness is sometimes still jarring to say especially when describing myself. What I used to believe was weakness or not trying hard enough, or not being grateful, optimistic or appreciative enough slapped me square across the face and I am better for it.
So for me, Mental Health Awareness Month takes on new meaning. I am part of a community of so many who are struggling (and many, far worse than I) and I stand with them to speak out and normalize mental health as equally as physical health, with no stigma in tow. The more we share our truths and be vulnerable, the more others might do the same. And isn't that what we are here for? To be there for one another and help each other through life?
I heard this song recently by Matthew West. I hope you will give it a listen. Truth be told, it’s freeing to be yourself – even with all your stuff.
If you are feeling suicidal or need to talk to someone, please call this number: 800-273-8255.
If you are struggling with addiction (or love someone who is) reach out to The Herren Project (herrenproject.org) an organization which we enthusiastically support by donating proceeds from our Herren Collection.
Don’t ever, ever give up. And for God’s sake, please don’t listen to those voices in your head that say you are not enough. You are more than enough. Just the way you are.