Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole Again

I suddenly feel surrounded with talk of mental health, mostly in impersonal forms, like Buzzfeed charts and other brief lists of how to recognize signs of depression. Then today, all the tributes to Robin Williams, a year after his suicide. All of this is conversation, which is good.

But the charts and the top-five lists feel like only part of a conversation, one told loudly to cover up the quiet, serious talk happening in the corner between people that you know. And while Robin Williams' tragic death opened a door to some frankness about depression, as often happens when celebrities have public struggles, I feel that the piece still missing in all of this is a willingness to be open, unembarrassed, and thoughtful about the mental health issues that affect a significant part of the population, including our neighbors and loved ones. If any silver lining is to be found after the powerful sadness of Robin Williams' death, it is that we can begin to see that depression exists where we didn't think possible.

It exists everywhere. We are startled at the suicides of people who are outwardly cohesive, and shocked at the mental illness of friends who are always smiling. There are so many people who feel crushed under depression and feel completely alone in their sadness; no one around them or in their social media feed seems to struggle with their mental health. Humanity seems absent, and the stigma is present, so there is silence. We don't want to be complainers. We don't want pity. We don't want to cause angst. We don't want to admit to what feels like weakness. We are strong and thus feel we can overcome anything. And so we are silent.

But silence feeds the darkness, so in the interest of the light, here's a story. Last year at this time, I wrote a blog post about my depression and overcoming it in my early twenties, something of which I've always been very proud. In the last few months, I have relapsed and am battling not only depression but a hyperactive anxiety that is often nothing short of crippling.

If you looked at me, what might you see? A mother to four beautiful kids, a wife to a wonderful man, a child of a loving home, an educator in a dream job. Happy, healthy, stable. But this is precisely the point. Depression doesn't always live where you expect it. For me, it crawled in, stealthy and disguised as exhaustion, and spilled out into the words that I say to my kids and the self-disgust that I could no longer control. It saw me, overwhelmed by life and doubting my abilities, and made its move, yelling words like "worthless" and "burden" and "nothing."

The anxiety rose at the same time my self-worth fell. If I'm in a social situation with you, I most likely had to talk myself into it, feel overwhelmed and nervous while it's happening, and in the days afterward, obsessively agonize over every ridiculous thing I said. Sometimes at work I can't breathe. Small talk makes me panic. That ugly combination of "I hate myself" and "You probably hate me too" has become a battleground in my head.

Here's the disconnect. To some people, what I'm describing sounds like over-sensitivity. Get happy, they say. Talk about the weather, they say. I say: You try to tell someone with the flu to stop throwing up.

Why is there shame attached to mental illness? Why am I reluctant to take medication to help me feel balanced and try to erase those scary whispers that promise a way out? Why am I sitting here writing this, worrying about the people who read it who might think, "boy, she just needs some attention"?

Because to admit to mental illness is to admit to failure. I know I'm not the only one out there who feels this. We read about people who call suicide "selfish" and hear people talk about anxiety like it's a bad mood. If you've never experienced depression, and your reaction is to say that people need to "get over it" or "try to think about your family," please go sit down and talk with someone you know who is struggling. Ask me. I'll tell you that sometimes the hole is so deep and dark, climbing out of it feels impossible, even when you can see your beloved family at the top.

Please can we talk about this? With each other, the people that we see every day, so we can normalize the conversation. So we can begin to see that depression doesn't always look like the methamphetamines "after" picture. I don't need sympathy or platitudes, just an assurance that what I'm battling is nothing to be ashamed of and that people won't think less of me for how little I think of myself.

I am getting help, but there are many more who need it and are scared to ask. Let's create a culture that offers help without judgment, help that always comes with the words, "I am here for you," and means it.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

If I Were King of the Forest

There's been a lot of talk in the media lately about courage and what that word actually means. When in doubt, I say, the bloggers and Tweeters and news outlets of the world should just consult the dictionary. One definition is simply "bravery," which just about covers all manner of courageous action the media worlds have been hurling at each other.

A discussion of courage is particularly meaningful today, as the 71st anniversary of D-Day. I always imagine those young men, sitting in airplanes and boats, waiting to jump into the air or slosh onto a beach and knowing full well that they or their buddies might not see the dawn of June 7. I wonder if they were terrified, or numb, or excited. I wonder if they thought about their mothers. I wonder if they realized the implications of their actions or were just trying to make it to the next minute.

That, I think we can agree, was courage. But what is significant about courage -- just like love and fear and sadness and joy -- is that it is largely in the eye of the beholder. We can debate endlessly about the courageousness of someone's actions, and whether one person is braver than the next. Yet I think it is far more important to consider what that courageous act meant to the person performing it.

From the outside, you could say that the scale is off, that some things aren't inspirational or note-worthy or impressive or world-changing, but each of us has our own understanding of what we fear and exactly what it takes to look that fear in the eye. Recently, I've been trying to pay attention to the courage around me, and once I began to actively notice, I saw it everywhere.

My first-grader pulled her own teeth. The thought makes me squirm a little, deliberately yanking on something attached (albeit just barely) to my body. But she closed the bathroom door, firmly rejected my offers of help, and pulled until it came out. She was glowing with pride when she emerged, tooth in hand, fear dissolving visibly in the air behind her. It may not seem like much, but she's only seven, and I sure don't think I could have done it.

My brother did stand-up comedy for the first time a few weeks ago. I watched the live feed on my phone and absolutely couldn't believe his courage. I've heard from other funny people that doing stand-up can be frightening, that you're putting your whole self out there to an audience that is inclined to be critical. He did his set, got some little laughs and some big laughs, and left the stage with what can only be described as a strut.

Courage can mean so many things, and I think we need to be careful not to dismiss someone's bravery, especially when we would consider the act at hand to be terribly easy or no big deal. We don't know what's in someone's heart and head. We don't know how long they had to self-talk, or how many times they got to the edge and had to back up again, or what kind of outside support they were getting. I'm certainly guilty of looking sideways at someone's bravery and need to be better at embracing their courage; if they say it took guts, then it did.

I did something recently that took a lot of courage, for me. Although I won't go into the details here, I can say that it was certainly nothing that will inspire world peace or clever memes. But for me, it was a big deal, and I walked a little taller. If we pause and pay attention, we see small and large acts of courage every day. Whether someone is coming out to their family and friends, or starting school again after many years, or speaking in front of a crowd, or applying for a new job, or taking a school bus for the first time, or serving in a war zone, we need to appreciate the hill, or mountain, or Everest, they had to climb to get there.

I just asked my brave little tooth-puller when she thought she was courageous, and she said that she will be when she starts baseball next week. I asked her why, and she said; "Well, I don't know if they're going to throw the ball at me and hit me with it, but I'm just going to get up there and try to hit it anyway." As usual, the seven-year-old is succinct and wise. Here's a boost of confidence to all of us who are going to go up there and try to hit it anyway. May we all be King of the Forest.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I Am From

Yesterday at work, as part of an institutional initiative to strengthen our inclusion and community engagement, I watched a performance about race and identity and the small and large ways we hurt each other. I felt uncomfortable, which was the point. It's so hard for us to see outside of our little circle, to truly walk in someone else's perspective. It's much easier to judge.

I bring this up because the conversation is everywhere, and it often feels destructive and one-sided, as if we were all having an angry justification argument with ourselves. We have difficulty engaging and listening to those who think differently.

But yesterday, something became very clear, and I can't believe I didn't see it before. As a historian, I'm always considering other perspectives and trying to understand people's stories, because I will never meet the people I study. I have to step back and try to see the world through the lens of an immigrant farmer or a radical suffragette or a black man facing Northern segregation.

At one point in the performance, the actors delivered "I Am From" poems, sharing personal details about their own stories as if their background and experiences were geographic locations. I was struck by their perspectives, laid bare with such honesty. We all have a story to tell, and we all want to be heard and acknowledged and respected for that story. And if I can invest time in understanding people long dead, I should also invest time in listening to those sharing the world with me today.

I wrote my own "I Am From" poem, not because my life has been particularly interesting, but because I wanted to see what it would look like. My story doesn't feel very important, nor my impact on the world very meaningful, but that's not the point. If we are to start constructive conversations and replace anger with respect, let's start with what makes us unique, and then listen to how everyone else defines themselves. It's a place to begin, anyway.

I am from love and truthfulness.

I am from motivation, rolled in hard work, dipped in privilege.

I am from Catholic faith, conservative politics, a liberal education, and all the dissonance that creates.

I am from the past, where people I know and people I don’t live as if in Middle-Earth, a place familiar and strange, many languages and traditions existing in fragile alliances that matter more with every person who says it just doesn’t matter anymore.

I am from water, where I can be still and alone beneath and part of something bigger than myself on the surface.

I am from self-loathing and despair that can’t overpower me anymore but sometimes gets close.

I am from motherhood, blue eyes and brown eyes and little hands on my face, babies gone in a whisper while I always wonder if we should have had more.

I am from pride in my country, the granddaughter of those who served on ships and in jungles and at home.

I am from books, worlds that often seem so much better than my own, so I reach for Avonlea on summer mornings and Hogwarts on wintry afternoons and Austenland all other times.

I am from a family that is everything, they who made me and they who I made and he who I cannot live without.

Write one of your own; it's a little therapeutic to lay out the dots that connect you. Keep it to yourself, or better still, share it and then listen with an open heart to someone else's, especially someone not like you. We may still disagree, but at least we can do so in a spirit of wanting to understand.