May is Mental Health Awareness Month and to shed a light on something that silently affects so many of us, I want to share some of my favorite books on the topic and tools and strategies I use to manage my mental health.
It is incredible to see how society is acknowledging and becoming more accepting of mental health. I began therapy four years ago and have never looked back. For the first year, I battled silently and was ashamed to admit I met with a therapist almost weekly. I had to force myself to go to the first few visits and the only reason I did not cancel them was because the receptionist warned me that I would still be charged for the sessions. I carried the stigma with me.
I initially started therapy when my oldest son was six months old. I was at my lowest point. Crying in the shower and staring at my son, thinking about how much I hated him were the norm for me. It pains me to even put that into writing, but that was how I felt. I hated him, I hated myself, I hated my husband, I hated everyone and everything around me. I mourned my pre-baby life and reached a darkness inside myself that I did not know existed. Everyone around me seemed to be thriving and I could barely take care of myself, let alone this baby.
I scheduled the appointment and told the stranger sitting across from me that I thought I had postpartum depression. What began as a discussion about myself and the troubles I was having adjusting to motherhood, slowly evolved into something bigger than I initially imagined. My therapist diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. She told me I have probably suffered with this my entire life. I uncovered parts of my past that I thought I had made peace with. And by “make peace” I mean completely tucked down into the deepest, darkest corner, let it collect dust, and never looked back. My therapist pulled that dusty box from its hiding spot, brushed it off, and held my hand as I opened it and looked inside.
It was hard. It was painful. Hell, it still is hard and painful, but nothing good ever comes easy. I continue to attend therapy and go less frequently as I did in the first couple of years, but I think I will attend sessions for the rest of my life. Along with therapy, other tools have helped me manage my depression and anxiety. They might not all work for you because mental health is not “one size fits all,” but they worked for me and I am open and willing to talk and answer any questions you may have. Here is what helped me deal with my past demons and become stronger:
1. Regular therapy appointments
Find the right therapist for you. I was lucky that I hit it off with the first therapist I met, but that is not the same for everyone. If you are not feeling connected, try someone new. Keep trying until you find the therapist that is right for you. When you do, schedule out appointments on your calendar so you stick with it until it becomes a routine. I dreaded going and now I count the days until I can go. It is time for myself, no one else, and I cherish it.
I resisted medication my entire life. I am that person who will complain about a headache for days but refuse to take Tylenol or Ibuprofen. I am that person who will look towards natural alternatives before I opt for medication. Elderberry syrup and peppermint oil? I am down. Theraflu and Vick’s VapoRub? No thinks. After two years of regular therapy, I was feeling better, but still found myself falling down dark holes and having anxiety that was triggered by various things. I brought up the medication discussion with my therapist, who fully supported it. I made an appointment with my primary care doctor and shared all my therapist had told me about her recommendation. I have been on a low dose of Fluoxetine for two years now and I feel amazing. I was scared it would “change” me, but it has helped my mood stabilize and when I have bouts of anxiety and depression, they do not drag me down as deep as they used to and I am able to bounce back from them faster. I am still “me,” just better and less manic.
I used to journal as a kid and stopped as I grew older, for fear that my parents would find them and read them (which did happen on occasion.) If I did journal, I held back and censored myself. As an adult, I started journaling again and found myself doing the same thing. I held back and censored myself, for worry that someone would read it and know my deepest darkest thoughts. One day, I looked at my husband and asked him if he ever would read my journal. He responded, “No, Mel. That is your journal. I would never read that and violate your privacy.” I felt a relief come over me and since then, have used my journal to purge my thoughts when I feel anxious and write down childhood memories that flood back to me. Writing is a release for me and there is something about putting pen to paper that is incredibly cathartic.
4. Self care
This term seems to be a buzz word these days, but self care is whatever you can do for yourself that helps you recover, recharge, and be the best version of yourself. For me that is exercising: specifically running and walking outside, reading (obviously!), alone time, writing/journaling, gardening, and spending time with my closest friends. For you it may be more tailored towards pampering: massages, hair appointments, and getting your nails done. For others it may be more extroverted, like hanging out with family and friends. Whatever it is that fills your cup, make time for it and do just that.
5. Find your people and don’t hold back
Most of my mental health journey has been admitting to myself what I also did not want to believe or confront. Part of that has been being more open and honest with those around me. I suffered in silence for almost 30 years. Once I started opening up to people I trusted (and trust is the key) I realized that I was not the only one who felt the way I did. If there is one thing you take away from reading this, it is that you are not alone. Someone out there feels the same way you do, went through the same horrible experience you did, and can relate to you on a cellular level. You will never find that person if you keep everything to yourself. And when you do find that person, hold onto them. As a child, I suffered from a very specific kind of emotional abuse and neglect. I have found others and have read books from people who have had the same experiences I did. I went from a person who thought I was all alone with my feelings, to realizing there is an entire community out there who can validate me. That is powerful and that is something you find by opening up and sharing your story with others.
I am also open to talking and answering any questions you may have. Do not hesitate to reach out and I hope you took something away from my story that can help you with your journey. My hope is that one day we do not have a mental health awareness month because mental health should be just as important, if not more important than our physical health. Not all wounds are visible.