This is my first post on the blog. Hi. It's nice to be here. I find writing, or mostly starting to write, terrifying. There’s this adorable viral video floating around featuring this miniature horse preparing to step out of a barn. It nervously stamps its hooves, inches closer to the step and then turns back. Finally, courage seems to overtake the wee pony, and it leaps into the air, landing with ease and grace. The proud little horse prances in the snow and then, in the absolute best part of the video in my opinion, it lets out a victorious kick of joy.
I am the wee horse. Writing is the barn.
Lots of other things are the barn too, if I’m going to be accurate in this metaphor. Over the course of my life, I have faced many barn steps, some I’ve gracefully leapt over, others loomed so terrifyingly I long refused to overcome them. We all encounter barn steps, and we all perceive the depth and distance differently. To make the leap, one must be of sound body and sound mind. Physical and mental health both play a necessary role in the ultimate barn step leaping success of an animal – humans included.
Physical health is relatively easy to talk about. A broken arm or a chronic illness is, while absolutely sucky and challenging in its own right, not typically considered a personal flaw or self-induced, what some people choose to believe about mental health. Mental wellness challenges, particularly what we deem mental illness, are still consistently stigmatized, despite attempts to understand causes (spoiler alert: it’s not our fault) and educate the general public about mental health and wellness. There’s a bit of a weirdness that comes with talking about mental health. A weirdness that we need to get over because it causes harm. Suicide, which could be framed as dying of mental illness, is still one of the main causes of death among young Canadians, second only to accidents.
It’s time to embrace the weirdness. It’s time to make mental health part of our everyday conversation with our loved ones, our children, our friends, our co-workers, our students. In a time when death due to untreated mental illness outweighs death by cancer in teens/young adults almost threefold, learning how to potentially avoid, manage, and thrive with a mental illness deserves a conversation or two.
So let’s do this. Let’s talk about mental health.
I’ll share you with my story, not because it’s particularly interesting or notable, simply because I find that hearing others’ stories makes it easier to share your own. And all of our stories deserve to be told and need to be heard.
I was born second in a family with four kids. My dad was cozy in his mother’s womb when his family emigrated from Germany to Canada. He would lose both of his parents before he became an adult. My mom was the middle daughter of an Evangelical Mennonite Conference missionary couple, who was born and spent her children in the West Indies where her parents erected churches and ministered.
I was a highly-sensitive middle child. Initially shy, anxious, easy to upset and prone to “explode”, I warmed up quickly around people I connected with. I excelled in school and made friends fairly easily. I demonstrated early signs of perfectionism. As a toddler, I would demand a clean shirt if my current one became soiled or smudged up in the least. In school, I expected my grades to be within the top two percent of the class. I did well in athletics, until a debilitating and misdiagnosed knee injury at age eleven ended my hopes of a future in able-bodied sports.
I was called a “high-achiever” by some, and I turned to this desire to achieve to overcome difficulties in my life; the grade-school injury that turned permanent disability, the constant societal pressure to conform to impossible body standards faced by nearly every adolescent girl, our family's move from a small town to a big city at fifteen - the fifth move of my life. It was this massive transition that first initiated the life-halting mental wellness challenges that have been with me for more of my life than they haven’t.
In my town school, I had been at the top of my class for all three years of junior high school. I won academic trophies. I even won athletic trophies despite my funky knee. My high school population was the same size of my entire former town, and the urban culture I found myself in was different and intimidating. I enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (advanced placement) program, and tried out for the volleyball team. When I failed to make the varsity team and the intensity and quantity of schoolwork and the internal and school-placed pressure to excel overwhelmed my brain and soul entirely, I broke. Being new to the city, I had few friends and my family was having their own challenges with transitioning to this new place and life so my support system was shaky. I decided that if only I could lose a bit of weight, I was heavy for my height after all, I could jump higher, run faster, feel better, have more energy, and generally be better all around. That’s how it works, right? Skinny = happy?
My brain turned on me and I spent the next four years actively battling an eating disorder that relentlessly persisted at a functional level until my mid twenties. Once in treatment I was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive traits. I was hospitalized on several occasions, in and out of outpatient hospital treatment programs frequently, and unable to continue institutionalized schooling. I dropped out of high school after one and a half semesters of grade 10.
Since the age of sixteen, I have been on and off many different types of psychiatric medication. My brain has convinced me at times that I’m not crazy enough to need drugs, I can treat myself naturally. Or my environment improves and I decide that my condition is environment-dependent (which is arguably true but environment is super hard to control). Each time I've gone off, I've found myself in need of medical treatment not far down the road. I currently take two daily pharmaceutical medications to manage my anxiety and chronic pain caused by that decades old knee injury.
I have seen a number of counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors; how many in total I couldn’t tell you. I have done group therapy and marriage counselling, workbooks and self-therapy. My psychiatrist recently told me my anxiety disorder is “in remission,” which is both relieving and frightening. This is contingent on taking my meds, which I realize are necessary now and possibly for the rest of my life.
And there we are. My mental heath struggle story so far. It’s admittedly weird to write, but freeing too. I don’t feel like less of a person or unworthy of love or anything. It feels good sharing your truth.
We’ve chatted about challenges and illnesses, let’s move on to successes. Because as I’ve matured and learned more about my brain and the human brain in general and how we can keep our brains well, I’ve realized that I’ve had just as many successes in my mental health life as struggles.
I’ve practically mastered the art of self-care. My functionality goes out the window if my self-care is neglected. I am getting better and better at saying no and stepping back when my brain or body needs a break. I no longer feel guilt when I have a hot soak in the bathtub at 11pm, head home early from a night out with friends so I can have a full night’s sleep, or eat chocolate in my bed pretty much nightly. I am improving on meeting my own needs and feel more emotionally secure as a result.
My resilience is rising. With each scary leap I take, I feel stronger and braver. As I keep going and growing I become more flexible and adaptable. As I acknowledge my limitations I am empowered to push myself knowing that I will let up when I need to.
I am highly tuned in to my own mental state as well as those of others. I have learned to find the gifts in my sensitivity and am now at the age that I can turn inward without fear or hesitation and can look outward with compassion and love. Being receptive to humanity has its advantages.
This aptitude for understanding brains and minds and mental health and people along with my never-ceasing desire to learn, grow, and achieve has led me to seek re-admittance into the institutionalized education world, and I am now working towards a degree in psychology with the intention of pursuing grad school and ultimately a career as a practicing or research psychologist. Given my sketchy mental health background with academic pressure and over-achievement leading to mental crash, part of me is cautious to plan too far ahead in the future, while another part of me is yelling, you got this, girl!
Got this, I do. Sort of. Like the little horse, that step looms dauntingly. And it probably always will. I may never feel fully comfortable with taking those leaps, especially if it’s a new leap I’ve never encountered which is, unfortunately for people like me, what real life is almost entirely composed of. But I’m starting to get it, to appreciate it even. These days, I’m enjoying being alive.
Take heed, little horsies. We’re all in this barn together, and we’re going to take that step eventually. Knowing we’re not alone makes it at least a tiny bit easier.
And after we’ve garnered the courage to do that scary thing that may not actually be that big to the rest of the world but is monstrous to us and we’ve made that albeit overly-dramatic leap (which admittedly, I sometimes do too), remember what comes next.
The kick of joy.
The knowledge that you did it, you survived it, and are done it. And could do it again if you had. That feeling of pride is worth kicking about.
What role does mental health play in your life? How to you work towards your own mental wellness?
Featured image is by Ann_Sarkisyan via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Mel is an avid tree watcher and bath taker. She enjoys coconut candy and listening to her daughters giggle. She is a writer, student, shepherd's pie making master, and happiest when she's outside.