Accepting my story and making a conscious choice to create meaning in both the positive and negative chapters of my life has helped me move forward.
Since I was little I have loved books. I loved escaping and expanding my knowledge through story. Our stories have power, and, despite the vulnerability that accompanies writing about my own, I want to be part of the solution – part of breaking the stigma around mental illness. I survive by creating meaning around my experiences. Accepting (albeit not always liking) the chapters in my story have made me stronger.
The depression chapter: Depression reared its ugly head in Grade 6. I tear up when I think of that little girl, trying to end her life, feeling judged, like she never belonged and was never good enough. This cycle continued for years. Not until my late teens and early twenties did I receive the support I needed and start making sense out of my experiences.
Depression has ebbed and flowed through my life, most often in the background, like a dull hum, but other times roaring in, striking me down, inducing poor decisions, making my bones ache and incapacitating me with fatigue. However, through this, I have chosen to see that despite the dark days, I hold an inner light and an ability to seek out gratitude. I found an inner strength in my persistent struggle to claw myself out the dark. I am strong. I have purpose. I am alive.
The Anxiety chapter: Anxiety is a constant. Unlike depression, which rarely rears its head anymore, anxiety just is in my life. The worries seem endless – being good enough, others’ opinions, fears about random things, walking into a room of people, small talk and so on. A mental berating then follows: “Why are you so stupid? Why worry about that? Other people have it worse! Suck it up.” I am most proud of my anxiety management. Others are usually surprised to learn the depth of my anxiety – and while I have not tried to “hide” it, I have become adept at not only mimicking calm but also just truly managing my anxiety.
The chronic conditions chapter: I have often seen my body as an enemy. I have suffered from an assortment of chronic conditions, forever it seems- stomach/intestinal pain, recurring skin conditions and most recently chronic daily migraines. Each comes with its own set of demons, but, in particular, the skin conditions have fed into my feelings of worthlessness. This was particularly true in my early teens. Feeling ugly, thinking I was the object of disgusted stares, took a toll on an already fragile psyche.
When I received training in the mind-body connection, I discovered that much of the stomach /intestinal pain I was experiencing was due to “holding” internalized trauma. While, not all body pain is due to trauma, I have learned how to “listen” to my body and how stress, anxiety and negative experiences manifest physically. I am stronger because I see the power of the mind-body connection; I see mental and physical health from a holistic standpoint and help others manage their own stress and anxiety and work through past traumas.
The shame and social stigma chapter: Shame is so entrenched in mental illness. Even now, the fear and shame of people’s knowing terrifies me. Shame tells me that others will think I am incompetent. Shame tricks me into thinking I am an imposter in my own life. Shame tells me my story has nothing to offer.
Returning to school to pursue a PhD has been one of the most challenging and rewarding endeavours of my life. But the subsequent stress, demands and isolation have posed a threat to my mental health, even with years of established self-care. A strong stigma remains in graduate school regarding struggling with mental health conditions; students feel pressure to do more, be more and just power through. Joining the graduate mental health committee at the University of Calgary highlighted that others, like me, have struggled, fallen and persevered and want to make a difference in the mental health climate on campus.
The survival chapters: #NowImStronger because of self-care and finding life passions. I am lucky to love my professional, research and volunteer work. I could list many self-care strategies, but I want to highlight the single best stress reliever for me: spending time in nature with my family and dogs. Despite tough mornings, stressful work situations and demanding deadlines, dogs do not judge. They have truly taught me how to be present in the everyday.
I have changed my inner dialogue! Yes, I can be successful and still experience mental illness. Yes, I can help others because of, not in spite of, experiencing mental illness. My experiences are not shameful. I am worthy. I am perfectly imperfect. “…beautiful mosaics are made of broken pieces.” (Lori Jenessa Nelson)
I surround myself with supportive people, including my understanding husband, a mother who is creative and genuine and a brother, family and friends who are dependable and real. I am lucky to have a PhD supervisor who is one of one the best human beings I have been honored to meet. People matter – and as much as I want to sometimes crawl under the covers and isolate myself, I know the power in reaching out and connecting – even with just one person, with just a few words.
Everything we experience makes up the story of who we are.
This does not mean I am somehow “glad” to have experienced or somehow “needed” to go through the dark days. But nor do I want to negate or forget what I went through. Accepting my story and making a conscious choice to create meaning in both the positive and negative chapters of my life has helped me move forward.
I love the following quote by Camus: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
Jennifer is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary where her primary focus is on people who experience disability and their families and men’s mental health. In her work as a therapist, she works with children with disability diagnoses and individuals wanting to change problematic patterns in their life.
Photo credit: Fotomaras.com