I've never been one to shy away from being a fierce defender of the underdog, often breaking through barriers on behalf of those who couldn't find a voice for themselves. Whether it's standing up to bullies, or supporting LGBTQ rights as a straight person (long before doing so was mainstream), you name it, I've done it. But no cause has ever been closer to my heart than breaking the stigma around mental health, especially since it's something with which I have a personal and deeply painful history. This is one of the reasons why I feel that the Bell Let's Talk campaign is such an important one. For one day out of every year, many people are offered a safe space in which they can come out of the mental health closet, share their challenges with the world, and realize that they are not alone. If only every day could be #BellLet'sTalk Day!
I see many clients in my counselling practice who struggle daily with symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or other mental health challenges. For many, picking up the phone to make their initial contact with me was a mountain they had to climb; after all, we live in a society which makes it hard for us to 1) admit we have a problem, and 2) ask for help with said problem. I always commend my clients for taking the initiative to seek professional help. It takes a lot of courage to own up to your difficulties, to open up to a complete stranger, and most importantly, to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do the inner work needed to heal. It's not a walk in the park, by any stretch of the imagination.
Opening up old emotional wounds that have been holding you back is tantamount to picking at scabs. Here's the thing though; it's important to go through the process so that you can let those hurts go. As best-selling author Elizabeth Lesser wrote in her deeply insightful book Broken Open: as spiritual beings having a human experience, we each will experience many challenges in our lifetime, be they illness, divorce, unemployment, or bereavement. Yes, these moments will test us deeply; but the question becomes whether we will be broken down and defeated by them, or whether we will use them as opportunities to be broken open and emerge from the ashes transformed and stronger as a result of them. I don't know about you, but given a choice, I would prefer to live wiser and stronger rather than broken down and defeated.
As I said earlier, I speak about this topic not just from the perspective of a clinical mental health counsellor, but as someone who has been broken open. Everybody's got a story. Years ago, I struggled painfully with treatment-resistant depression and a decades-long battle with an eating disorder. Broken open? More like broken into a million little pieces! I went through some very dark days which I thought would never end. In fact, some days were so bleak and hopeless, I considered ending my life. I remember barging into my family doctor's office one morning after a particularly rough, sleepless night, throwing all the bottles of medications she had prescribed to me onto her desk, and pleading with her: "You need to babysit these, because I was going to swallow them all last night to end my life." You would think that would be the darkest moment in my life, but it was just one of many. For two full years, I was unable to work, to concentrate, or to even walk ten steps without feeling completely winded. My depression was so severe that it affected both my physical body and cognitive abilities.
My mind was so deeply affected that I often couldn't remember where I had parked my car. I remember trying to take up knitting as a hobby on the suggestion of someone on my healthcare team, but couldn't make sense of the simple diagram instructions that came with my newly purchased knitting needles. It literally felt as though I had lost my mind and couldn't breathe. Add to this the fact I couldn't stop crying every single day for two years straight. That's 730 days of tears! The darkness of depression manifests itself differently in each individual. Some people might feel anger or guilt, loss of interest in things that used to bring joy, and others may feel sad or even emotionally flat, too tired to feel anything at all. The symptoms and severity vary with everyone, but this was how depression showed up in my life.
The way I saw my predicament, I was faced with three choices back then. Going through with my suicidal plan would have no doubt ended my physical and emotional suffering, but it also would have devastated everyone I love. Essentially, I would be dumping my darkness onto my loved ones. Since I couldn't handle having that guilt hanging over my head, I was then left with two options. I could either continue to suffer in silence and wallow in despair, knowing my future would continue to be bleak as a result, or I could use this life test as the stepping stone toward a healing transformation.
As someone who has always appreciated Buddhist wisdom on suffering and self-compassion, I opted to embrace one of its most well-known metaphors: just as a lotus flower grows out of mud and blossoms above the muddy water's surface, we too have the ability to rise above our sufferings. Sure, life can be messy, dirty and muddy at times. But it can also be beautiful. We have to accept the delicate yin and yang balance between mud and beauty. Between darkness and light. What we resist will persist. So, rather than trying to resist the mud, it's better for us to accept that its purpose is to nourish the lotus bud, to nurture it until it can break open toward the sun's rays.
If you tend to your inner garden and break through the inevitable mud that gets slung your way, you will find your way back toward the brilliant sunshine. As in spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's simple teachings: "no mud, no lotus." You can't have one without the other. In other words, the sooner we can face our suffering head-on, be present with it, and tend to it, the closer we will be on the path toward happiness. There really is something to be said about taking the path to least resistance.
And so I chose to use those two years of darkness to diligently tend to my muddy garden. I may not have always had faith that my nursery would one day blossom with lotus flowers; but I trusted that my healthcare team -- especially my psychotherapist, psychiatrist and family doctor -- were expert gardeners who could equip me with the right tools to cultivate my barren flowerbed into the beautiful oasis that it is today. All these years later, I can now pay it forward by helping my own clients along their paths toward a brighter tomorrow. This is one way that I choose to bust the stigma every day around mental health. Another is by sharing my personal story here, to let anyone out there who is struggling right now know that you are not alone, and that there is a way out from the darkness. All you need to do is take the first step and seek out professional help. Develop a strong mental health care team and apply the techniques they recommend.
If your physician recommends a course of anti-depressants or other medication, keep an open mind and ask questions. If your counsellor introduces new behavioural exercises and coping strategies that seem foreign to you or difficult to apply at first, discuss your apprehension with him or her so that s/he can help tweak the tools to best work for you. Understand that your professional team is made up of subject matter experts in the field with years of clinical experience between them, but that only you are the subject matter expert on you. And then work together with them to find a customized treatment plan that makes the most sense for your situation. Above all, do the work. Face the mud. Allow yourself to break open and ultimately flourish.
And if you too have a history with mental illness, I encourage you to share your story with others in order to break the stigma. Speaking out about mental health is the first step towards meaningful and lasting change; it fosters awareness and leads to acceptance. Given that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their life, chances are somebody in your inner circle is currently deep in the mud right now. According to the Canadian Medical Association, 2 in 3 people suffer in silence, fearing judgment and rejection. Nobody should have to suffer in silence. Let them know they matter, and help them find their way out of the mud. Not just today, but in the days ahead too. Every day should be Bell Let's Talk Day.
On January 27, join the #BellLetsTalk conversation to help end the stigma around mental illness. Bell will donate 5¢ to mental health initiatives for every text message sent, mobile & long distance call made, Tweet using #BellLetsTalk, and Facebook image share. Add your voice to the conversation and let's get talking about mental health.
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