When I Spoke Up as a Mental Health Advocate and Got the Most Amazing Response

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Recently I was asked to go a community mental health training since I had signed up to volunteer with a mental health organization. During the training, things kept being said by the participants or leaders that I felt perpetuated stigma or a stereotype about mental illness. I became extremely anxious and angry. I kept raising my hand to respond to things or give a different opinion. Activities triggered me as well. Several times I even shared in front of these strangers about my personal experience with mental illness, since I knew it would be helpful. I felt pretty exposed after sharing but reminded myself it was a safe place to do so.

Leaving the training, I felt overwhelming emotions and anxiety. I decided I needed to write to my contact at the volunteer organization about how I felt. I wrote her a long angry email correcting things said at the training — things I felt perpetuated a stigma or stereotype — and shared my general emotions about the day.

After I clicked “send,” I panicked about how she was going to respond. I’m new as a volunteer and I want her to think well of me. Writing an angry email probably wouldn’t help! At the same time, I keep caring more about being an advocate and speaking out against stigma and stereotypes regarding mental illness. People don’t always like advocates, but it’s important to keep speaking out. So, I think I did the right thing?

Two days later, I was incredibly relieved to see an email from her in my inbox. Finally, I could stop stressing about what she thought of my email. I read,

“Hi [Anna],

Thank you for the time you have spent on this email… it is a treasure — for offering your knowledge, not only for correcting symptoms to describe illnesses, but also for the conviction and passion you feel for how stigmas are perpetuated.

If it’s OK with you, I will pass on your email to the [leaders of the training] for discussion of the material and how it is presented.

I acknowledge that Saturday was a stressful, triggering day, not only for you, but also for others that spoke to me. I, too, felt very sad. The exercise that you participated in was highly emotional for most. I was worried about you. It was courageous of you to give a follow-up of your experience doing the exercise, and I felt eased.

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via NoStigmas

I look forward to working with you. You will bring all of who you are and that … will be a blessing to others.

B.”

I was amazed by her response. I felt affirmed and validated. I kept repeating the last line to myself: “You will bring all of who you are and that will be a blessing to others.” At the training and in my email to her, I was many things — a prospective volunteer, a person with mental illnesses, a mental health advocate and a counseling student. Often I feel like I am “too much,” but in that moment I felt like I was OK.

After receiving that email, I was strengthened in my resolve to be an advocate, to break stereotypes and stigma. Not everyone will like what I say and how I say it, but responses like hers encourage me to keep speaking up.

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Thinkstock photo via undrey

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8 Ways Life Is Better With an Equally Anxious Friend

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You know what is better than having a “best friend?” Having a “best mental health friend” — someone who can relate to all the ups and downs (and lefts and rights) of navigating life with depression and anxiety.

1. Nothing you say is weird, nothing.

“Phone phobia?” That one usually gets some strange looks, but not when you say it to someone who feels exactly the same way. In almost 20 years I have never talked to my friend on the phone – and we are both completely OK with that. Actually, it would be super awkward and probably only happen in an emergency. In fact, if my phone rings and it is her caller ID, I will immediately get over my phone phobia and answer, because I know it must be important.

2. They will never hold it against you.

If I behave like a complete jerk, it’s OK. She knows there is more to it, like medication changes. She doesn’t take it personally if I act like I’m actually terrified of her because my anxiety medication just isn’t working today. Or if I literally won’t stop talking because I didn’t take my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medicine. It’s all good. There is no running tally of what you do wrong when the other person knows tomorrow it might be them “acting out.”

3. You don’t have to maintain the relationship for it to be there.

It’s OK if we don’t communicate for six months, it doesn’t change anything. Introverted, anxious, depressed or just plain busy. The most refreshing thing about having a friend with mental illness is that they completely understand “maintenance” should be left for cars, not relationships. We are too busy trying to keep our heads in order to worry that the other person might be “offended” if we don’t make some half-hearted effort to ask “how’s it going” at least once a week. I know she is there. She knows I am here. Always.

4. Medication side effects are never TMI.

There is nothing we don’t share when it comes to medication side effects. Hair falling out, peeing yourself, zero interest in sex, weight gain, fatigue, paranoia, anything. We talk about side effects like people talk about the weather. It’s just part of our respective lives, and there aren’t that many people you can have an honest discussion about constipation with except maybe your doctor (and even then, awkward). And the casual way we discuss things actually makes it that much easier to deal with. It takes away the sense of isolation, and makes it relatable.

5. Frustration is real and acceptable.

Neither of us has just one condition, or a straightforward treatment. We both have to change meds, try therapy and generally spend a lot of time keeping our mental health in check. It’s a frustrating process that we aren’t inclined to complain to anyone about. Except each other. When I was on a 6 times per day medication schedule I spent an hour whining about how ridiculous and unfair it was, and how the meds made me have to go to the bathroom all time. She could completely relate. She understood, and there was no pity, just support.

6. Silence is always awesome

We both struggle with the concept of small talk and socialization. She’s much better at it than I am, but luckily she is equally uncomfortable with it. So even if we chat non-stop for an hour, there is nothing wrong with 20 minutes of dead silence. We can lay by the pool with our iPods and not say a word – and it is still a great bonding experience. Anxious introverts bond over silence.

7. Your flaws make you fabulous.

The very things society defines as “wrong” with us make us so uniquely suited to be buddies. I’m not entirely sure what “normal” women talk about with their friends, but whatever it is it can’t be nearly as entertaining as our chats about whether or not to wear a diaper to your wedding if your mood stabilizer is causing incontinence. Seriously, everything that is “wrong” with us is the reason we are so awesome.

8. You will find your true family.

You are born to relatives. Your family is who you chose. If you are related to a group of people who make you question your own sanity sometimes, you are in good company. So why not chose to surround yourself with people who support you and love you exactly the way you are. Better yet, find someone who is in equal need of unconditional love, and turn them into the family you always wanted.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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How I Found Mental Health Support in an Unlikely Place

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One of the most difficult things I have found about having a mental health condition is the loneliness. For years, I have hidden behind a mask, behind good humor and smiles. I have always been the person to offer support and advice to others, the person who seemed to have my life together. In reality, I was breaking down behind closed doors. The difficult thing for me was knowing who to reach out to and what to say, where to start, but back in September, I found support in a way I had never expected to.

On September 27th, 2016, the mask finally slipped and I had one of the worst panic attacks I have ever experienced at work. I was upset, exhausted and embarrassed. My workplace ordered me a taxi and sent me home, but whilst I was waiting for my taxi to arrive, a colleague from the office on the floor below mine (we’ll call her K) came up to see me. She took me somewhere quiet and reminded me that this, like everything else, would pass. She gave me some self-care tips for when I got home and gave me her number. She waited with me and kept me calm enough so I could make it home without any major difficulties. After that, I took a few days off work to collect myself and evaluate what had happened.

When I got back to work, there was an email waiting for me from K – it was an invitation to dinner with her and another colleague, H. There was no pressure to attend — she had made that clear — but both K and H wanted to reach out and make sure I was OK. I accepted the invitation and a few days later we met after work and had dinner.

The experience was amazing. There were no airs and graces or boundaries. They, like me, have mental health conditions that they deal with daily. On the first dinner, we talked bluntly about our challenges, the therapies we were receiving and our past experiences. We shared wine and food and laughed and cried and by the time I got home, I felt a little lighter — that kind of post-counseling feeling when your shoulders feel a little lighter and your head is a little clearer.

This quickly became a fairly regular meeting, but more importantly than this, it became a support network open to all. We are now a group of five — me, K, H, E and J. Four of us have a mental health illness, whilst one of us is the partner to someone with mental health issues. Our meetings aren’t solely about mental health though – we talk about food, music, theater, TV, work, cats, family and home, holidays – if you can name it, we’ll discuss it.

We support each other in and out of work – we have grown to know each other in such a way that we can tell from a look if one person isn’t feeling too great. We support each other with simple words of encouragement during working hours and in-depth conversations and advice outside of work. To most of you, this might just sound like a group of friends, but to me, it offers so much more. Every dinner reservation offers me a safe space to confide in people who can fully empathize with me and the benefit of a support network inside the office, who may well spot when I need to take a break before I acknowledge it myself.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need this reinforcing to us time and time again, but it is so important to reach out and to look after each other. Our lives are busy and hectic, we all have worries and concerns, but it doesn’t take much to invite a work colleague, a fellow gym goer, a neighbor or a classmate out for coffee or lunch, and you might not know how much they need that right now.

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To the Friends I've Pushed Away While Working Through My Mental Illness

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Lately, I’ve been feeling guilty. I wish I didn’t feel that way. I wish I could easily believe I’m taking care of myself, and that I’m not responsible for how other people feel, what other people are doing or how they react to me. But I can’t. Not yet, anyway. I’m working on my ability to separate my own feelings and the feelings of others’, and as someone who’s internalized others’ feelings my entire life, it isn’t an easy process.

The truth is, the past few months have been very difficult for me. Talking about it is, at times, even more difficult. I value transparency and storytelling, but I also value privacy. Most people know me as a reserved person. I don’t feel like people need to know the personal details of my life. I’ve been struggling so much the past couple months and I’ve become more withdrawn than usual. People who care about me haven’t heard from me. I haven’t really left my house, except to go to medical appointments and therapy groups.

I feel an unyielding need to explain myself to my friends, and even acquaintances. I feel like I should apologize, like I should justify my behavior, like I’ve done something wrong. I don’t want to feel that way. So I want to share what I’ve been dealing with — to pour it all out and let it sit in the open, so that it’s not inside me anymore, and so that people know. But my stronger inclination is to keep it to myself. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not ready to share everything going on in my mind, heart and body — so I won’t. Because I don’t owe that to anyone. This is my story, and I’ll tell it when I’m ready and able.

But I do want my friends to know some things:

I love you. I haven’t stopped thinking about you. Our happy memories together and thinking of future memories are what keep me going. I wish I could reach out and be with you and be social and “normal.” But my depression, anxiety, trauma and illness prevents me from doing so. Some of my aversion to sharing comes from shame. I’m not too big to admit I fall victim to stigma and fear of judgment. Some of my isolation comes from a genuine inability to explain the deep, complex and very real feelings, thoughts and sensations that consume me every day. Most of all, I want you to know my withdrawal is because I’m taking care of myself right now. I’m not ready to share with anyone. I wish I were. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel neglected, or unappreciated. My behavior has nothing to do with you. You have done absolutely nothing wrong, I promise.

As for what you can do for me: check in with me sometime soon with a simple text or message of support. I will be honest. If I can’t spend time with you, I won’t make up an excuse for why. I’ll say I’m feeling depressed or anxious and need time alone, but I won’t expand on that. I need this part of my story to be mine right now. I’ll share it when I’m ready. I really appreciate your respect for my mental, emotional and physical space. Thank you so much for your patience when I seem detached or unavailable or frustrated right now. My biggest fear is that you will give up on me. I know you won’t, but it’s something I worry about. I promise I’m just going through something right now. I haven’t given up on you. I won’t give up. Like I said, I love you. Very much.

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How Mental Illness Can Sometimes Make a Relationship Feel 'Wrong' When It's Not

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Finally, happily, wonderfully, you’re in a healthy relationship. This might be after a long string of bad ones, that toxic one that lasted too long or no relationship at all.  While a healthy relationship is good, and can often be helpful to someone struggling with a mental illness, it sometimes can still feel “wrong.” Not the kind of wrong that bad relationships can feel like, but still wrong.

These feelings of wrongness can bring on guilt, insecurity, agonizing over what might be wrong with you that you’re having this feeling in the first place. Sometimes these feelings can arise from not understanding or maybe mental illness snuck in and is doing its part to amplify those feelings. It can be hard to understand during the relationship and may even damage it. It’s a feeling that can hold you back from embracing something you deserve.

It sounds strange. How could “right” feel “wrong”? Where are these feelings coming from?  The thing is, if you’ve been in all the unhealthy relationships over your life, a healthy relationship can feel foreign.

When a mental illness seems to strip away the ability to make good choices, it can leaving you feeling vulnerable. Sometimes it can feel like you won’t ever find anyone better than people who took advantage of you in the past. However, there are still paths to healthy relationships. 

Once you are in a healthy relationship, it can feel quite the opposite of “normal,” or of reality as you know it. Unfamiliar like the raisins being removed from those chocolate cookies you’d love so much more without them.  It tastes better, it smells better, it’s simply exactly what you want. But change is hard, even if it’s good. Biting into that cookie and not feeling that raisin texture or small distaste you’ve just gotten used to. It is weird at first, but then once you take a few more bites, then bake another batch without those raisins, then it becomes the new familiar.

When someone doesn’t cheat on you, doesn’t hurt you and when you communicate and thrive together, it can be strange if you’ve had poor relationship experiences in the past. But I believe good relationships can help individuals with mental illness navigate their condition and manage it. It’s in relationships like these where the word “toxic” can stay in a barrel where it belongs. Then, healthy relationship can be the key phrase. 

I believe everyone deserves a healthy relationship, and it can be achieved. But the problem of it feeling wrong when it’s right still needs to be acknowledged. Understood, not shamed. Most importantly it can be worked on, and healthy will feel right.

Communication is important in a healthy relationship. Communication about mental illness is essential for understanding and trust. I hope this can help couples go hand in hand happily towards a bright future together.

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Thinkstock photo via KristinaJovanovic.

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What to Do and Not Do as a Parent With a Mental Illness

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Editor’s note: If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Anxiety and depression began around puberty for me — at least, that’s the first time I remember having symptoms of both. The abusive home environment I lived in was no doubt the catalyst for my mental health issues, and it is what solidified those problems so they would just grow and become more complex over the next decade. As I near six months in my mental health journey using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)anxiety, situational depression and binge eating disorder, I am analyzing the root cause of these issues. While many experiences combined to create my mental health cocktail, the overall theme of why I struggle to overcome these issues is my self-worth.

For example, two weeks ago I started my 2-year-old son in daycare. I began working out with a trainer at a gym three days a week, I have more dedicated work time so that my work/life balance is less stressful and I have more time to focus on therapy and meditation and healing. Each of these things is an overwhelmingly positive change in my life — or at least, it should be. So, why am I noticing signs of my brain falling into depression? Why do I seem to be self-sabotaging these positive changes? My theory? I think my brain is reacting this way because at the deepest of levels I don’t believe I’m worth better. I don’t believe I’m worth my time, energy, and love. I don’t believe I’m worth self-care. I don’t believe I’m worth the effort to better myself.

That’s a hard thing to admit to yourself, let alone to other people, but there it is. In analyzing how my self-worth got this low, and how it got concrete poured over it to make sure it never moved, it seems to come back to many things I witnessed and experienced in those teen years when my mental health problems began. I want to share some dos and don’ts for parents that would have made a huge difference in my mental health journey, my body image issues and my personal self-worth.

DO: Reassure your child that the changes their body is experiencing are normal and all of them are beautiful all the time because their beauty is more than physical.

DON’T: Say conflicting things about your child’s appearance, even jokingly. Don’t tell them they’re beautiful, then make a joke about eating a second slice of cheesecake “for the other cheek.”

DO: Take care with how you speak to and about other people around your child, making sure you are respecting all other human experiences.

DON’T: Insult and belittle other humans in front of your child (or at all). We notice when you tell us we’re pretty and then call the curvy woman on TV “a fat ass.”

DO: Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms for stress, and use those mechanisms yourself so they can see it in action.

DON’T: Lose control of your emotions, blame others for your stress, use unhealthy coping mechanisms yourself (like substance abuse and binge eating).

DO: Encourage your child to talk to you and truly listen to their truth. Assure them that their stress and feelings are valid, and help them to find healthy ways of coping.

DON’T: Share your personal problems and stress with your child. They are not responsible for your stress level and should not be made to absorb your problems in addition to their own.

DO: Honor your child’s stress, even if the problem seems trivial to you. Encourage them to feel their emotions and work through them in a healthy and rational way.

DON’T: Belittle your child’s stress or force them to put their emotions in a box. Even if you are in public and feel embarrassed by your child’s tears, do not push your stress of being embarrassed onto your child. If they are going to learn to take care of themselves and not care what other’s think of them they are going to have to see you exemplifying how to do that.

DO: Respect your child’s experience.

DON’T: Try to control your child’s experience.

Those of us with mental health issues will most likely unintentionally pass them onto our children. I can already see anxiety in my two-year-old. The important thing is that we teach them how to cope. We teach them how to handle stress in a healthy way. We show them through example that every person’s experience deserves to be respected. It wasn’t just the abuse I endured that shaped my miswired brain — it was also the abuse that I witnessed. It was the casual hatred for other people, the subtle and not so subtle ways I was taught that only perfection is worthy and perfection is unattainable so I am not worthy. Let us be the generation who ends the cycle of abuse, who ends the cycle of hate and who begins respecting people simply because they are people.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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Thinkstock photo via evgenyatamanenko

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