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What It Would Sound Like to Talk About Mental Illness With No Shame

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Anxiety. Obsessive compulsive disorder. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Self-harm. Depression. Post traumatic stress disorder.

If we talk about these topics at all, we lower our voices. Our tone often becomes apologetic, entreating others to understand we know. We acknowledge this great personal failure of having a mental illness or a mental health issue is entirely ours, our lack of optimism, strength or faith, our weakness. We may even whisper we’re sorry. We’re trying to get better.

If we are not talking about ourselves but instead, a loved one, a friend or even a child, we may feel the vague shame of it seeping into our words, as though somehow this is a reflection of us, of something we did or didn’t do. We may not speak of it at all. How would it look? What might someone think of us if they knew?

Oftentimes, these are the things we try to hide. The things we work hard, so hard, to not acknowledge because of the stigma still attached to issues of mental health. So much of what we experience remains in the shadows. The light that would penetrate the darkest and loneliest corners of our lives, the light of connection and honesty that would flood the soul with brilliance, reflecting like pure sunlight off gleaming wooden floors, remains hidden. The stigma attached with mental health issues has such a strong hold over society that it almost can’t be broken.

These are the things we whisper into the darkness. I struggle. I struggle with depression. I struggle with anxiety. I have OCD. I experienced postpartum depression. Or post-adoption depression. I have trouble getting out of bed some days. I have panic attacks. I can’t sleep at night. I have extreme social anxiety. I binge eat.

What might we say if there was no stigma? No shame? No accusations of weakness? People who have mental health issues do not have these issues because they are weak or because they lack faith or strength. People can struggle, can positively wrestle with anxiety, an eating disorder or bipolar disorder and still be incredibly strong.

They can be stronger because of their challenges.

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What if we could show compassion for others who struggle with mental health issues? What if we could meet them where they are? Allow them to step into the light without the weight of judgement? What if we could convey their health too is a precious thing? That their struggle, rather than something to be hushed up and ashamed of, is a brilliant and brave thing.

What if we could say: I hear you. I see you. I think you’re brave, strong and very good. I am so proud of you. I always will be. I will stand with you, stand behind you or beside you or in front of you, whatever you prefer and I will hold your hand and you won’t do this alone.

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To the People Who Have a Difficult Time on Their Birthdays

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There’s an expectation of birthdays. Numbers one through 39 are all great celebrations. They’re the best day of the year. Once you hit the 40th, you are expected to have low-key dinners with a few close friends so you aren’t reminded too heavily of the years that lay behind. While this may be true for some people, it is certainly not the norm.

I remember the last birthday I enjoyed. February 14, 1999. It wasn’t even my own birthday. My eldest brother, Nick, turned 16 on that day. It was a wonderful party at my church with biological family as well as church family. I was a child then, and I acted like one. There were no worries. There was no depression, no sense of loss.

On June 22 of that year, I turned 9 years old. My two eldest siblings were gone with the church youth group, and I was eight days away from surgery for my cleft lip and pallet, which would require five incisions on my head, each leaving scars which are still noticeable today. I was scared and felt alone. It was certainly no day for celebration.

Less than a month later, Nick was killed in a car accident. Come October, we’d leave behind the mountains and only home I’d ever known to move to a different part of the state. Since the loss of my brother, I had felt isolated and scared. Now I was in a strange city, a strange school. Of course, the sense of isolation only increased. The next three birthdays were spent in this hostile city, with no friends and always a hole in my heart, a longing for the brother who had been my best friend for those nine years I’d known him. It was during these years that I realized I didn’t want to have birthdays any longer.

My 15th birthday was spent on a trip with Upward Bound. I didn’t say a word, hoping no one would know. But the staff had been warned and made a big deal of it before we even had breakfast. When they saw me crying later, I was no longer allowed to eat, and told I needed to grow up and be respectful. And so on June 22, 2005, I had my first suicide attempt.

In the years since, I have not celebrated many birthdays. And the few I did, I’d elect to have a few friends over for burgers, trying not to mention the significance of that date. Birthdays are now a reminder of loss. A reminder of loneliness. A reminder of my mental illness.

But the truth is, that’s OK. You don’t have to enjoy your birthday. It can be just another day of the year. You can be one of those people who have to check your ID when someone asks your age because you don’t keep track. It’s OK to close yourself off from the world for that day. It’s also OK to take a walk or go to dinner by yourself.

For me, birthdays are like the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Why should I be expected to celebrate it? For you, maybe you’ve had trouble making friends and birthdays are a reminder of a lifetime of party invitations sent without reply. Maybe you spent your childhood caring for younger siblings, never celebrating, and you don’t see the point in starting now. Frankly, there are any number of reasons why you might want to forget about your birthday. And they’re all valid.

So take some time to yourself. Forget what day it is. Forget your own age. When someone tells you it’s weird, tell them not to worry. Being “normal” is impossible. But you’re great at always being you. And I think that’s pretty awesome. Be yourself. Do what’s right for you. After all, there’s no one who knows you better.

On your birthday, when you have never felt so alone, remind yourself that this weird dude named Jesse Mann loves you. Because you are so amazing, I didn’t even have to meet you to care about you. When you are treating it as any other day, remind yourself that you are resilient. Remind yourself that your spirit drives the ocean tides and your soul holds up the heavens. It’s OK that you have a difficult time on your birthday. But remember that you are fantastic every day.

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The 2 Shows That Portrayed Therapy the Right Way

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Out of all of the things I have read and watched in the last few years that address mental health, I feel two shows handle it in a way that showcases the struggle, and breaks down the stigma of seeking help.

The first is Chris Traeger’s journey on “Parks and Recreation.” I love that therapy for him is a clear place of healing. His sessions and his work show how helpful therapy can be when you’re dealing with a mental health issue. For Chris, therapy is the thing that helps him process and come back from a series of really intense episodes. It mirrors my own experience, and it’s so nice to be represented. While they do kind of poke fun at how emotional he is during this time, it’s not mean-spirited. It’s actually super helpful to be able to laugh at how overwhelming and irrational anxiety can make you feel (best quote: “I’m so happy. And so sad.”), and it gives the other characters the opportunity to be encouraging and supportive about his choice to seek help. That last bit is so important; rarely do we see characters congratulating someone on going to therapy and that is such a wonderful way to break down the stigma.

I also really love season 2 of “Unbreakable Kimmy Scmidt,” because, for Kimmy, there’s not a clear breaking point. Kimmy goes to therapy because she’s a normal person dealing with her experiences (yes, I know, not everyone is kidnapped and kept in a bunker for 15 years, but hear me out). She does the same thing we all do: she pushes down her feelings and hides them from others in an attempt to look well-adjusted and emotionally stable.

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It’s a coping mechanism that works well for her in the bunker, so she sees no issue with applying it to life after while she’s trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her emotions find another way to surface. She starts hitting a guy that wants to kiss her. She denies she’s angry. She burps every time she starts talking about her past. She is all of us — not because of the PTSD, but because of the way she tries to hide and avoid confronting it.

Kimmy’s journey in therapy is so groundbreaking and wonderful because she’s the everyman. She’s someone who has a clear sense of who she is and is capable and independent and she still benefits from therapy because it helps her realize a lot of things about herself and gives her a new way to process not just her trauma, but her emotions.

Her therapist Andrea lays down the most amazing truths, like this exchange:

Kimmy: “I guess I just did it ‘cause I’m nice.”

Andrea: “And that makes you happy?”

Kimmy: “Yeah! Happy as a clam.”

Andrea: “So, like, clenched up tight, full of grit, and if you get pried open you’ll die?”

This is who I was for a long time underneath all of the anxiety stuff, and it really hit home for me. This is hilarious, but it’s also super true: so many of us are like this, so fiercely protective of ourselves that we think we don’t need therapy because the thing we need it for is the thing we see as a strength. We think holding it in, keeping it together, whatever you want to call it, shows we are mature and adult and in control. The ironic thing is we want other people to be vulnerable; we just don’t want to be vulnerable. The first time I had a similar realization in therapy, it blew my mind.

Equally awesome is the moment when Andrea tells Kimmy she’s entitled to her anger. I spend so much time trying to tamp mine down that watching this scene was like a revelation. In the same way I’m entitled to my joy, my sadness and my panic, I’m entitled to my anger. I’m allowed to feel it, and I’m allowed to be mad at people. I rarely allow myself to be angry because, for me, it has to do with control. I don’t want to be angry because I know how intense my temper is and I worry I will say something unforgivable. So rather than learn how to channel and process my anger and use it to build better relationships, I spent a long time pretending it didn’t exist. Like my anxiety, I felt my anger was something that didn’t belong in my world; it was something I needed to get rid of, to stop feeling. But really, it’s not. And that’s the beauty of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” It normalizes therapy because Kimmy uses it to help her with “normal” issues. It showcases therapy’s wide range of uses and breaks down the stigma because Kimmy is just like all of us: she’s learning how to process her emotions and her experiences and that there are some things she’s been using as coping mechanisms that actually aren’t such great strategies.

I also really love how Andrea is a mess. Some people are critical of that aspect of her nature: she’s super healthy with strong boundaries during the day, and she’s a promiscuous alcoholic at night. But that’s what I love about her. She’s a real person with issues. She’s not some unattainable, intimidating ideal of what a people think a therapist should be — completely put together with everything figured out. She’s human. She’s messed up. And I think that actually makes her better at her job; she can empathize with Kimmy because she knows what it feels like to be trying to cope and not be able to. She knows what it feels like to feel out of control.

We still have a lot of work to do to break down the stigmas around mental health and treatment. But what is progressive and awesome about Chris and Kimmy is that, in both cases, they were encouraged to go to therapy by the people closest to them and supported in their work. They weren’t treated like something was wrong with them. The suggestion for therapy came out of love and friendship in Chris’ case, and, for Kimmy, Andrea’s recognizing that Kimmy wasn’t OK. These two characters are a huge step forward in eliminating the stigma surrounding therapy and seeking help, and I hope that — now that characters on network TV and streaming services have done this — we will start to see not just more characters getting the help they need, but a variety of them, too.

I feel represented because Kimmy and Chris are both dealing with issues similar to my own, but there are other people whose mental health struggles are still not represented — or represented positively — in main stream culture. And people who struggle with their mental health come in all colors, shapes and ages. We need to see characters in therapy who are kids, adults, South American, black, LGBTQ, plus size, you name it. Everyone deserves to be represented in this battle because it touches all of us. We need to talk about it.  And we need to show it: art imitates life, and we cannot act like this is not a part of life.

Speaking as someone who has benefited from therapy and who knows multiple people who have likewise done so, this is perhaps one of the most important parts of life. I will never not be proud of going to therapy. I will always be glad I did. And we need to see more characters who are like that, too.

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The Questions That Haunt Someone With Anxiety and Depression

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Anxiety and depression are hard to endure. Sometimes, you start asking the bittersweet question, “Am I good enough?”

Am I a good enough friend, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister? Am I good enough at my job, hobbies and passions? Am I good enough to be loved, respected and helped?

Am I good enough to be alive?

This question has plagued me for most of my life, though it’s become more prevalent in the past 16 years. I always had to have something to prove. I wanted to show I was good enough to family and friends, whether through excelling in school or with weight loss. I needed to feel like people had a reason to be proud of me because, regardless of what anyone told me, in my mind I thought, “Surely no one will love me for the person I am.”

I felt so alone when I went through these episodes. If I received a B on a test, I cried because it meant I wasn’t good enough for an A. When I struggled with student teaching, I convinced myself I was worthless and no one could possibly learn from me. Worse, I started to associate my worth with my weight. Each pound I lost meant I was worth more. Each pound I gained meant I was worthless.

I beat myself up constantly, which made the depression and anxiety even worse. I honestly thought there was something wrong with me. There were days the stress of those emotions were so strong I didn’t want to be alive, and that’s when I knew I needed help.

I started therapy much too late in my life. I waited until I broke emotionally and physically before I finally sought help. Even then it was about two years before I found someone who connected with me. One of our greatest challenges is helping me develop a sense of self-worth and realize that, yes, I am enough. I’m enough because I breathe, think and live. No one has a right to tell me I’m worthless, including myself.

It’s so easy to beat yourself down when you’re depressed or anxiety-ridden. In the darkest moments, your mind insists, “You shouldn’t feel this way. You should be stronger. You should be able to handle it without help. You don’t deserve help, love or friendship.”

Those are all lies. Your mind is belittling you and taking away your self-worth. I’ve tried to teach myself to focus on the good, to remind myself I’m someone and deserve happiness.

I’m worthy of love.

I’m worthy of help.

I’m worthy enough to be alive.

It’s difficult to convince yourself of this at times because those voices in the back of your mind may never seem to go away. One thing that may help is to think, “Would I say these things to my friends? Would I say they’re unworthy of love and help if they’re struggling?” No. You’d encourage them to take care of themselves. Why not accept self-care for yourself?

If you ever have these doubts or fears, then, please, find someone to support and love you because you don’t have to do this alone. You aren’t alone. There are plenty of people out there who feel the same way, me being one of them. You are enough. You are more than enough.

You are worthy of love.

You are worthy of help.

You are worthy enough to be alive.

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Why I Seek Out Things That Will Make Me Cry

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Weddings, graduations and animals being adopted all make me cry. Sometimes I watch videos of soldiers coming home to their families because I know the tears will flow like water from a faucet. You may think it’s odd that I actually want to cry. You may think I’m trying to make myself sad, but not all tears come from sadness. I cry happy, relieving and comforting tears, and I do it because ultimately, it makes me feel better.

Crying reminds me I’m human when I feel like a medicated robot. It shows me I am capable of emotional expression when I think my mental illness controls my emotions. It reminds me I am not my illness, and I am in control of myself. Crying also assures my close friends and family that I am not a robot, because I know they worry that the medication I take makes me that way.

When I cry, I release everything. All of my bad thoughts and unpleasant feelings empty out through my tears onto the floor, and stay there.

When I cry, I feel lighter, and less burdened by my stressors. It feels so good to let go of everything that has been plaguing me.

Crying ends my suffering, if only temporarily. And then, when I feel my suffering return, I know it’s time for a good cry.

Being unafraid of a good cry shows me my strength and pushes me to move forward. Crying reminds me I don’t need to be afraid of my emotions. It prevents me from holding them in and letting them settle deep in my gut.

Crying is a pure and healthy response to physical and emotional triggers. Not all of those triggers are sad; in fact, I cry better when I’m over-the-moon happy. Happy tears are my favorite and make me feel so much better when I’m struggling.

It sounds silly, crying on purpose. But crying has a purpose. It relieves me, purifies me and reminds me I am human.

Crying is not a sign of weakness. Crying is my way of letting go and gaining strength I’d thought I’d lost. Crying for a moment allows me to use my strength to get up and keep fighting my mental illness. And so I will continue to cry, and I will continue to feel better when I do.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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I See a Color Most People Cannot See

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I can see a color. I can see a color most people cannot. I can see a color that has no name.

The color I can see is deep and intense yet whimsical and fun.

The color I can see is so dark that I need a flashlight yet so bright that I need sunglasses.
The color I can see is brightly present yet absently fading.

It’s like a bright yellow raincoat when I’m standing in the rain.

It’s like an upside down umbrella in a hail storm.

It’s like a nice breeze when I’m standing in a field on a hot day.

It’s like an onslaught of bees when I’m standing on a trail drinking Gatorade.

It’s like a warm fuzzy scarf when I’m standing in the falling snow.

It’s like a pair of not good enough gloves when the temperature drops below zero.

It’s everything beautiful and ugly combined into one.

The color I can see is my life lens, it defines my views, perceptions, ideas and actions.
My color doesn’t have a label. My color is not a mental health disorder or a diagnosis.

My color is just that, my color.

My color is shaped by many things. It is shaped by my brain, by my medications, it is shaped by my diet and my sleep. It is shaped by my experiences. But my color is mostly shaped by people. Some people can see the color, some people emit the color, and some people can only try to find the color in a box of crayons.

And it’s OK if you can’t see my color. It’s OK if you don’t understand my color relationships. It’s OK if my color is so deep in that crayon box that you never find it. It’s OK.

Instead, let’s talk about your color. Maybe our colors can meet in the middle.

Because that’s really what life is, mixing colors.

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