Every Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to write something, and don’t. Part of that is depressive thinking—“why does it matter what I say?”—and the other part is that I feared that I’d just be seen as feeling sorry for myself. But I am moved to write this now, in the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde, because while certain unnamed politicians are wrong—it is a gun problem—they are right that America has a mental health problem, too. Most kids aren’t taught mindfulness and how to deal with their emotions in school, and this should be part of the basic curriculum. And, of course, we should have universal health care so that all people can get help when they need it. But, barring that, there are things you can do if you are struggling. Maybe that’s another reason that I’m writing this now, because I finally feel like I’ve found some solutions.
I have struggled with my mental health since puberty. Most people in my life know this. Some have discounted—or even mocked—my struggles, because, on the outside, I had achieved some measure of success. It’s a lesson that “success” doesn’t always lead to happiness. In fact, it can be deeply unsettling when you’ve always struggled.
My depression has almost destroyed me more than once. Indeed, it ate most of my 30s. And I didn’t realize that, in a way, I was in love with my sadness. It’s shocking, because it’s such an uncomfortable feeling, however, when it’s all you know, feeling sorry for yourself can be a sort of escape. But I want to share that there is hope.
I’ve done therapy. I’ve been hospitalized… more than once. I dismissed self-help books as trite pablum. I was given tools that I promptly ignored, in hopes that some magical enlightenment would take hold of me. Here’s the thing, though… getting better takes work.
Over the last few years, I finally got tired of feeling miserable. My environment was toxic to me, so I changed it by moving. I realize my privilege in being able to make such a change, but there are more easily attainable steps you can take, too. I started taking free self-help workshops (there’s a ton!) I forced myself to get things done and exercise every day, even when I didn’t want to. Some days, I cried through entire yoga classes. Believe me, I understand “when I feel that way, I can’t do those things.” This time, I made myself. That was the work. Feeling better is worth it.
All the things that people talk about—having gratitude, meditation, hot baths—well, I’ll be damned, but they actually work. And they’re free! Unless you count the water bill.
Another necessity is taking the focus off yourself. Be interested in others. Learn something new (free Coursera classes are my Jesus.) Donate your time to a cause you believe in. I know, you’re still saying, “I CAN’T.” Guess what? You can. And if you are feeling too bad to do any of that right now, give yourself a deadline. “I will feel like garbage for two days.” Then, when those two days are up, your ass better be too.
I have also found hypnotherapy to be especially helpful, and you can actually do this for yourself. Make recordings of you saying nice things about yourself and play them every morning and night. There are also great free hypnosis videos on YouTube you can use if you are sick of or don’t believe your own voice (I totally get that.) You also have to catch yourself when you are cycling automatic negative thoughts, stopping them by saying the opposite. DBT therapy calls this “turning the mind,” hypnotherapy calls it “pattern interrupts.” So, for example, if that inner voice says, “I am worthless,” make yourself repeat, “I am worthy.”
At first, you won’t believe the positive thoughts—they may even make you more upset. But eventually, the good stuff takes hold, and you really will start to feel better. Nowadays, the thought shift happens for me naturally, without effort. It is a shock and a delight! Additionally, it should be noted that when your mind thinks negatively, you call more negativity to yourself. It’s self-perpetuating. Breaking this pattern is the only way to move out of that space.
Sitting in your sadness is much like being an addict, only you’re addicted to your emotions. Like an addict, you have to be ready to make the changes. Also like an addict, I know my darkness could come back at any time. But just for today, I can work toward contentment. I honestly feel myself completely transformed, and am so grateful. Beyond grateful, I am also proud, because I know how hard I have worked to give myself this peace of mind.
I want this for you too. I want this for us all. And I truly believe if we all take the time to look inward, listen to what we need, and pay at least as much attention to our mental health as we do to our physical, the world as a whole would be much better for it.