Mental illness is such a tough topic to discuss- so much so that I’m not even exactly sure how to start this post. When people experience a physical ailment like diabetes or ALS, they are encouraged to share about their experiences openly and generally we flood them with support and understanding and encouragement. But struggles with mental illness are typically kept under wraps often because people are scared about how they will be perceived. The problem with the silence surrounding mental health is that it leaves our understanding of mental illness limited to images from dramatic Lifetime movies or news reports of mass shooters. But that’s not what most mental illness looks like.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 25% of the American adult population (61.5 million people) experiences mental illness in any given year, many of them struggling with depression and anxiety. I was shocked when I read that statistic because when I think about all the people I interact with throughout the year, I couldn’t name even 5 other people struggling with mental illness. I think that’s mostly because very few people are sharing their experiences.
I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to this. For many years, my depression and anxiety have been things I keep locked away deep inside of me, even hiding them from the people closest to me. The reality is- I’ve spent a lot of the last few years desperately trying to cover up what’s actually going on in my life because I worried that if people knew, they would write me off based on their stereotype of mental illness without actually seeing me. But the hiding is exhausting, and has only made things so much worse for me.
I’m ready to talk more openly about it now. I’m ready because I know I’m not alone. I know there is a mom sitting behind a computer or a phone reading this and thinking I get it. I’m writing this post for that woman. You are not alone. You are not any less important or valuable because of the way your brain is wired. You should not spend your life in hiding or isolation because you are scared of how people might react to your complete self. You should feel the freedom to make yourself and your overall well-being a priority. You deserve it. You are worth it. I hope that in sharing a part of my story, I am in some small way enabling another woman to let down some of her walls and be honest with herself about where she’s at and maybe even let others support her in her journey. I believe the first step to moving forward is to own where you are.
The earliest I can remember struggling with depression is back in my early teens. I remember feeling like nothing really mattered…I wasn’t sad- I was just numb. When I was in my mid-teen years, I began cutting and I had suicidal ideations, but I thought that was just normal teen angst stuff. At 17 I had a really traumatic experience and developed PTSD and a full blown case of bulimia. In the year or so following that experience I knew that what I was dealing with wasn’t normal. I made some vague and soft cries for help, telling roommates and friends that I thought something was wrong with me, but they figured I was okay because I didn’t (and still don’t) look like the stereotype of mental illness. I was living independently, I was acing all of my classes, I was working part-time, I was developing and maintaining relationships. I was still accomplishing my every day tasks. If anything, I was over-achieving in an effort to make people think everything was okay. On paper my life looked like it was going well, but nobody really knew what was going on behind the walls I had built.
After getting married my eating disorder subsided because I knew it wasn’t okay to purge, and I didn’t want my husband to see that part of my life. My motivation to appear “normal” was more compelling to me than anything else. I was able to hold it together for the next few years, and to any outsider I probably looked pretty healthy and normal. I was getting promoted at work, I was keeping up with my day to day, and I finished college with a 4.0. When we moved to Baton Rouge for me to attend graduate school I felt like it was my chance to reset and start fresh. But the stress of graduate school and the chaos of being a foster parent piled on top of the years of junk I had locked away. It all pushed me to the edge. For the first time in my life I reached out for professional help and started seeing a therapist. I didn’t really want to do it and I was scared to death, but my desire to be the best mother I could be outweighed my desire to continue hiding. I knew my son deserved the best version of me that I could offer and even if that meant some initial shame and embarrassment and tough conversations, it would be worth it.
That first round of therapy helped me process some of my previous life experiences, but similar to how I was living the rest of my life, I went into the therapeutic process with a lot of walls up. I wasn’t ready to be honest with anyone (including my therapist) about what was really going on because I wasn’t ready to be honest with myself yet. Just like everyone else in my life, I gave my therapist pieces of me- the pieces that felt the easiest to deal with and that felt the most “acceptable.” By avoiding dealing with my whole self, I wasn’t able to conquer the depression and anxiety that seemed to loom over me. That started a 3 year journey to where I am today. When I finally decided that I was tired of trying to keep it all together by myself I sat down with a mental health professional confessing that I was ready to be honest. Honest with her, but also honest with myself. It was the first time in my life I approached the therapeutic process with a willingness to just let it be whatever it is. There is so much freedom in that.
For me motherhood has triggered some of my mental health issues, but it has also pushed me to seek appropriate help. I want to be the best version of myself for my kiddo that I can be and that means being honest about who I am and being willing to be vulnerable enough to seek out help. It also means being honest enough with the people close to me so that they can support me in my journey. The first few times I shared my mental health experience with the people close to me I worried that I had forever altered their perception of me. But luckily everyone I have chosen to be open with has been nothing but completely loving and supportive. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to get a text or phone call from a friend asking how I am and knowing they really care about all of the parts of me, not just the parts I’ve been willing to show them. I feel more whole than I have ever felt in my entire life because I am free to be myself and recognize that the messy parts of who I am do not define me. They are just a part of me. I know that being a great mom means being a whole mom, and I’m grateful to be living in that space now.
I hope somebody reading this feels a small step toward freedom. I hope there is encouragement here that you are not alone. I hope that we can all have the courage to be vulnerable in the areas we need to open up about. You don’t have to try to hold it all together all by yourself. Let people in. Seek out the help you need. It’s going to be okay.
To read more about my mental health journey and tools I use to cope, visit my personal blog called “Captivating Bliss“.