Being a mental health advocate while living with mental health challenges is sometimes a tricky prospect. The nature of a chronic mental health diagnosis(es) is that there will be times during which you are more symptomatic than others. Advocating for wellness while you are ill is particularly draining. Doing anything while you’re ill is draining. Sometimes, doing things while you’re well is draining. LIFE is just downright draining sometimes.
It takes an awful lot of energy to raise a child, go to work, maintain friendships, make dinner, clean the house, and, yes, to advocate. To write.
In reality, we all have a limited amount of energy to dedicate to tasks each day. When you’re living with mental illness, that energy fluctuates a little bit more between the days and weeks and months. We all know this. And it’s true.
I wish I could simply say that energy and motivation have been scarce commodities these past few months, and that that lack of energy is the main culprit in my silence. In my outward life, I have a lot more going on now. I’m employed full-time at an elementary school as a behavior interventionist, I’ve been putting more effort into maintaining friendships and avoiding the isolation trap that is so easy to fall into, I’ve been preparing for the holidays. I’m dedicated to attending therapy weekly, and we’ve been digging into some pretty heavy topics there recently. It’s been a lot. Almost all positive, but requiring an awful lot of energy nevertheless. If you’re familiar with my blog, you know that I am a big fan of what I like to call Radical Honesty.
And here it is:
I could easily say that, with everything going on, I simply haven’t had the time or energy to keep this project going. And many of you would likely express understanding and acceptance of that. And, while it would be easy to use that as a scapegoat, it would not be honest.
When I blog, I tend to do one of two things. I either reflect on the skills and techniques I’ve learned, or, I share my own personal struggles in hopes that they may help someone else feel a little less alone and a little less “crazy.”
Writing out specific skills allows me to review them and encourages me to apply them in my own life – an external, public system of checks and balances, if you will. Resource posts like those take a lot of thought and planning. And, honestly, I tell myself that I need to write them from a place of “wellness.” I feel compelled hold the perspective of “This has helped me, and I think it may help you” rather than “This is something that is currently helping me, or something that I hope will help, and I wanted to share it with you as well.” Which, I realize now, is a big part of my struggle with keeping this space up and running.
I have an easier time writing posts that relate to sharing personal thoughts and experiences. It’s a little less homework on my end. (See, honesty!) And it helps me process. Personally, though, sharing only feels possible up to a certain point. If I’m at or below a 6 on the 10 scale of emotional pain, I’m your gal. I’ll share my thoughts and feelings with honesty and happily reflect on my own experiences. These are the posts that lead to messages in my inbox saying, “Oh my god! I didn’t think anyone else felt that way.” Eliciting that response is a core goal of this blog. (Not for the messages, not for ego, but to know that I’m helping someone else by sharing my own journey.) To make sure that someone who reads this knows that someone else feels similar feelings and faces similar struggles.
I’ll be honest again, though. Once I top a 7 or 8 on that 10 scale, my go-to defense mechanism is complete shut down. I start to pretend everything is fine. I reject my own belief in radical honesty as a way to combat stigma. I start to think that I need to make sure everyone thinks I’m “good”, or else no one will take anything helpful from my words and I’ll be a complete failure.
These feelings are a major contributing factor to the fact that the blog I posted on the day of my suicide attempt was a rather uninspired piece on the DBT Skill of Interpersonal Effectiveness. It was a safe topic. Something concrete. Something far less personal, even compared to other DBT skills.
I wanted nothing to do with radical honesty. Not to myself, and certainly not to anyone else. I was simply too far “in it” to care to reach out. I was solidly in “white knuckling it” mode – that “siddown, shuddup, grit your teeth and push through” mentality that is so dangerous. I was trying to pretend that everything was OK, trying to fake it until I was truly feeling better.
This mentality nearly cost me my life. I see that now, and I am doing much better in my personal life in reaching out for support when I need it. But, that doesn’t answer the question, does it? Why has the blog been so radio silent? Why haven’t I returned to share more stories, more skills, more recovery realism and radical honesty? I certainly have plenty of stories, new and old, left to tell, and many more skills and insights to share. So, where have I been?
It’s simple, actually. I’ve been incredibly ashamed and I’ve been avoiding posting anything because of it.
How could I possibly come back here, to this space, dedicated to recovery and strength, after a suicide attempt? How could I possibly show my face to you all again? How could I advocate for wellness while ill? I felt doing so would make me a dishonest hypocrite and, frankly, that the mental health community deserves much better than someone so tenuous and young in the recovery process that a small slip could start an avalanche.
Actually me these past three months thinking about how I could possibly continue this blog.
Personally, I have a pretty incessant internal narrative about myself. Sometimes it’s positive, but more often than not, it focuses on everything I’ve “screwed up.” It replays memories, from horrific, traumatic moments down to conversations I wish I’d handled differently. I have an obnoxiously good memory, so pretty much anything in my life is right there, ready to be inserted into this endless spew of self-judgement.
This narrative and, more specifically, my inability to ignore it, has been responsible for many bad choices and many of my struggles throughout the years. In relation to recovery, it’s “I can’t possibly get better, I’ve had this crap going on my entire life. What’s therapy going to change?” (For anyone thinking that – a LOT. A lot, a lot. For one, I am now getting better at ignoring this annoying strand of self-judgement and self-loathing.) In relation to friendships, it’s “How could this person possibly like me?” In relation to regrets, it’s “Oh, if I had only done that differently, I wouldn’t have lost x,y,z.” In relation to this blog, it was “How can I possibly be a mental health advocate after struggling as much as I was in August? How can I return to this space after promising consistency in posting and then going radio silent? How can I show my face in the mental health community after attempting suicide?”
Like this, Sheila. Just like this. (This is my face, and I’m showing it.)
Many of you have reached out in one way or another, even more of you have expressed that you miss the blog. I miss the blog, too. And, frankly, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my mental illness stop me from advocating mental wellness.
We’ve all heard the airplane and mask metaphor. It’s so worn out, I kind of don’t like it, no matter how true it is. But, the fact is, for the past few months, I’ve been beating myself up for not being able to get my mask on right 100% of the time. I’ve been thinking that, unless my mask is on perfectly, I can’t possibly share any of the mask-putting-on steps I’ve learned. I’ve told myself that I’m completely useless until I have a PhD in the science of putting on a mask. My internal stigma has told me, again and again, that I cannot advocate for mental health education or help anyone else unless I am “better.” That my illness prevents me from being able to take part in the conversation.
This, of course, is bullshit. Many of the most impactful advocates I know struggle. Most of the people I admire in the mental health community live with diagnoses of their own. It’s a part of what makes them such effective advocates.
Honestly, I’m not sure if my mask is on just right, yet, but what I am sure of is that I’m on the damn plane. And being on the plane allows me the opportunity to potentially help someone else actually get their mask on. When the plane lands, I’ll be one of the people qualified to call out any misconceptions of what being on a crashing plane is like. If I wasn’t on the plane, I’d actually have very little to contribute to this conversation.
Yes, being a mental health advocate while also navigating my own mental health journey is difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. But each of us in the advocacy arena are in the plane. And we have the power to share the things we’ve learned about putting on the mask, even if we sometimes fail to do it ourselves. I’ve had so many messages from people over the course of this project. People who have shared with me parts of their own journey and told me that, by sharing my story, I’ve helped them feel less alone and more empowered to reach out for help when needed. That’s something worth continuing.
That’s the power each and every one of us has when we speak out, challenge stigma, and share our journeys with radical honesty. None of us are perfect. None of us are “cured”. When living with a chronic mental health condition, the truth is that none of us will ever be “cured.” We can learn to manage symptoms, though. And we can share that knowledge with others. We can live our full lives, knowing that our diagnoses do not define all of what makes us “us”. In sharing those stories, we can challenge stigma.
In my mind, mental health advocacy is a multi-pronged approach. It involves sharing our struggles as well as our triumphs, it involves building community and sharing coping mechanisms and tactics that can actually help others in the community improve overall quality of life. It involves engaging with each other in a way that can benefit all of us, as well as engaging with those who do not live with diagnoses to help educate and raise awareness that the stereotypes around mental health issues are misleading and dangerous.
But there is another important component to mental health advocacy, and it’s being willing to advocate for yourself. I don’t mean with doctors or therapists (that’s important, too), but advocating for yourself, to yourself. The fact is, I would never say any of the things that I say to myself to anyone else, fellow advocate or not, and if I heard someone speaking to someone in the way I speak to myself, I would say something.
Our internal narrative can really mess with us sometimes. If you’re anything like me, you have immense empathy for others, but struggle finding it for yourself, especially when things are hard.
The movie isn’t worth your time or money if it’s tearing you down. Walk out.
I’ve been working hard on dismantling the internal stigma I hold that tells me I need to be “stronger”, to “snap out of it”, to “white knuckle it”, to “keep quiet”, to “be ashamed”, and that I’m “too fragile” to share my experiences. That voice that tells me I’m a “hypocrite” for advocating mental wellness while struggling from time to time. Stigma tries to tell me what I “can” and “can’t” do. This blog was solidly in the “I can’t” section. “I can’t because I’m too weak.”
Would I look at anyone else who survived a suicide attempt and tell them that they are weak? Would I tell someone else who’d survived that they were pathetic and had no right to speak about mental health and wellness? Of course I wouldn’t! As I said earlier, the voices of those struggling are often the most poignant and valuable voices society can hope to hear to find a true understanding of what it actually means to live with a mental illness.
If you’ve followed from the beginning, you’ve watched this space shift and grow over time. Sometimes, it hasn’t had much direction at all, other times, it’s been more resource and technique based. I think that the best components of Parallel Dichotomy are found somewhere in a marriage of everything it’s been in the past.
That’s the goal moving forward. I can’t change the past, I can’t go back to August. I can’t “snap out” of my own struggles, but I am actively working on coping skills and healing. And I firmly believe that, by sharing the things I learn, I may be able to help others along the way. I also believe that opening conversations on these topics and inviting other perspectives allows all of us to learn.
Parallel Dichotomy is back. I appreciate all the patience. The blog is still accepting guest post submissions, should you feel so inclined. As for the schedule of postings, I need to be realistic with myself. I guarantee you a post once a week. Every Friday at 5 PM EST, there will be new content covering tools and tricks we can all use to cope with our symptoms, or resources those of you in a care taking position may find helpful. There may be occasional bonus posts.
In the spirit of the holiday season, next week’s post will be on “Beating the Winter Blues.” I hope you’ll keep an eye out for it as it’s shaping up to be a good one!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, and I’d love for you to join the conversation! Please feel free to drop a comment! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter! I hope you have a wonderful weekend!