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 can’t find a voice for themselves. Whether it’s standing up to bullies or supporting LGBTQ rights as a straight person, 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 I have a personal and deeply painful history with it. This is one of the reasons I feel 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 where 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 counseling 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 that first makes it hard for us to admit we have a problem and secondly 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, open up to a complete stranger and most importantly, 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 like picking at scabs. Here’s the thing though. It’s important to go through the process so you can let those hurts go. 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 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 this was the darkest moment in my life, but it was just one of many. For two full years, I was unable to work, concentrate or even walk 10 steps without feeling completely winded. My depression was so severe it affected both my physical body and cognitive abilities.
My mind was so deeply affected 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 this to 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 while 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.
In the midst of my struggle, I felt like I was faced with three choices: going through with my suicidal plan, suffering in silence or using this life test as a stepping stone toward a healing transformation. Suicide 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. 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, I believe it’s better for us to accept its purpose to nourish the lotus bud until it can break open toward the sun’s rays.
I believe 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. Just like in Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple teaching “no mud, no lotus,” you can’t have one without the other. In other words, the sooner we can face our suffering head-on, are 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 my nursery would one day blossom with lotus flowers, but I trusted my healthcare team were expert gardeners who could equip me with the right tools to cultivate my barren flowerbed into the beautiful oasis 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 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 they are not alone and that there is a way out from the darkness. I believe 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 antidepressants or other medication, keep an open mind and ask questions. If your counselor introduces new behavioral 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 your professional team is made up of subject matter experts in the field with years of clinical experience between them, but remember only you are the subject matter expert on you. Work 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.
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 the fact one in five 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, two out of three people struggle 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.
This January 25, let’s talk to raise awareness and help end the stigma around mental health. On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell will donate 5¢ more towards mental health initiatives in Canada by counting every text, call, tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video view and Snapchat geofilter.
This post originally appeared on Huffpost Living Canada.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Image via Bell Let’s Talk Facebook page