From One Lifetime to Another
I recently bought a DVD player on Amazon so I could burn old home movies on DVD-Rs (ancient, I know) onto an external hard drive in more readable files. As I’ve combed through hours and hours of footage, one thing remains to me: I see myself as a child, and I see the distress in her eyes.
Let’s take a step into the future for a moment. I’m 20 years old, going into my last year of undergrad. If I were to sum up how my summer is going, I would say it’s going pretty well, all things considered. I’m getting through my summer courses (that I optionally took. Why? I continue to ask myself this), have a summer job I enjoy, and family and friends who care about me. It seems like my life is perfect – if not perfect, happy. And that’s true. I am happy. But sometimes I’m not, and that’s okay too.
I first saw a psychiatrist when I was 15 years old. I remember sitting in the out-patient mental health ward at the hospital with a doctor who asked (what felt like) invasive questions about my life: how I felt, what I thought… Most specifically, what distressing thoughts did I have. I squirmed uncomfortably in that plastic chair and thought to myself, this is a stranger.
When I was 15 (which most would consider the “blooming” of adolescence, whatever they mean by that), I landed myself in a psychiatrist’s office because I told my mom I felt anxious.
All the time.
Though, when I was 15, that was horribly hard to admit. Granted, it still is. But I remember sitting in that office with a lump in my throat, trying to explain to a doctor how I was feeling without giving too much of myself away. It was almost like hor d'oeuvres, a taste but not a meal. At this point in my life, no one really talked about mental health. I barely understood what I was feeling, talk about how scary it was to try explaining that to people.
I didn’t warrant feeling this way, I told myself all the time. I had a good life. I was a good girl; I got good grades, had lots of friends, participated in loads of extracurricular activities – all that good stuff you see in coming of age teen movies.
But I was so unhappy. I stayed up at night staring at my ceiling and the way the street light illuminated the room in this golden glow. My heart would race, and my brain would turn stone after stone, like I was looking for something. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, or why it was so important. It just was. I could stay up forever turning rocks over in my mind, feeling absolutely miserable. It bled into my everyday life. Before I knew it, everything else in my mind had washed away and it was just me – turning over rocks to find nothing underneath, but flipping it back around and trying again in a couple minutes to see if something had changed.
Let’s go back to the psychiatrist’s office. He hummed thoughtfully with everything that I said; jotting down notes every once in a while. When I was done, he leaned back in his chair and told me what he thought: “I think you have an anxiety disorder”.
When I really think about it, I had no idea what that meant, but it was liberating in a way. What I was going through was something real, life wasn’t supposed to be this way. That meant… there had to be a way to fix it.
I swallowed, giving a weak smile and nodded my head. From the little morsels of my life I had fed to the psychiatrist, he decided that I was in a well-enough headspace to go medicine free. He made some suggestions of what I could do (omega-3 supplements…? honestly, I was having trouble keeping up) and I was on my way.
My dad was in the waiting room. When I came out, he smiled and asked me how it went. Suddenly, I felt very embarrassed. How did I explain this new thing I had learned about myself? What if people thought I was weird or broken? Or worse, that I was any less of a person than I was before? I shrugged and said, “it was fine.”
Then we went to McDonalds for lunch and I swept all my woes under my metaphorical rug and started taking the supplements and other things the psychiatrist had recommended I try. Did it really help? Not particularly. It felt like weights had dropped into my stomach, and though less of them, there were still many mind stones to overturn again and again. But I can’t go back, I said to myself. I’m supposed to be fixed. If I go again, that means I’m still broken. People can’t think I’m broken.
Over everything else, what I felt most was shame. I kept my head down, stored all my feelings in my chest until my ribs were bursting at the seams. All because I was scared. I was terrified of what people thought of me, terrified of what they would think of me, if they knew.
And I felt this way because I felt all alone in how I was feeling. No one ever talked about mental health when I was growing up. It was one of those things that garnered gossip and whispering, and maybe was spoken about briefly if there was a suicide in the news. But it was only crazy people that had mental problems, that’s why we called people “mental” when they were being crazy, wasn’t it?
By the time I was 18, I’d finally had enough. It’d been 3 years since I’d first seen a psychiatrist. Nothing was better. If anything, it was worse. I woke up paralyzed in fear. I didn’t want to move, and there were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. And I thought to myself, I don’t want to live this way anymore. I took a leap of faith and decided that I was going to get the help I needed, even if I was scared, and even thought I didn’t know if it would work.
I had to advocate for myself and advocate hard. I had to insist on what I was feeling. I had to insist on the kind of care I wanted. I had to insist that I knew what would be best for me and what would help me. And I only knew how because I was older, and I knew so much more about mental health and myself than I had 3 years before.
And it started to work. I felt like I could feel sunshine again. I felt like I could actually see out of my eyes instead of watching everything from afar. It felt like I was me again, and that was when I realized, this is what life is supposed to feel like.
Don’t get me wrong. The story doesn’t end there. You don’t recover once and suddenly you’re cured for life. Getting yourself to that place takes consistent effort and strength, even setbacks. But the fact that a hopeful place of health and wellness even exists is so important – and I could finally see that.
And I thought to myself, everyone should see that.
So, I started to talk about it. And I haven’t stopped. To me, it is so important that people know about and understand mental health. Everyone has it, so why shouldn’t we all learn about it? When I look back at my life, what I want more than anything is for the younger me to know all that I know now.
I know about myself – how I feel and how to help myself.
I know about health – what that means for my body and my psyche.
And I know about hope – that there is healing beyond pain, and happiness beyond suffering.
I see myself in old home movies with subdued eyes, and I can see a girl turning rocks over in her head over and over again as her life passes her by. More than anything I want her to know that she’s not alone in how she feels and it’s okay to tell someone. It’s okay to talk about how you feel. You’re not crazy. You’re allowed to ask for help and insist that you get it. I want her to know about what kind of help was available to her. I want her to understand what she’s feeling, and for others around her to understand it too.
But I can’t go back in time and tell her. But I can tell you. I can tell everyone that comes after me these things, so no one needs to feel the way I did for so long. We’ve come such a long way in mental health discourse since I was a child. But there are still ways to go.
We need mental health education in schools, talked about in media, taught by parents to their children. In a mental health literate world, we understand each other. We empathize with each other. And we know how to help each other.
Little me could only dream of a world like that. But I can see that change starting in the world, and it’s up to us to make that dream a reality.