The battle against mental illness

The most important lessons I’ve learned living with depression and anxiety 

Mental health is something that touches us all.

The writer’s name was omitted due to the sensitivity of the content.    

I can’t remember a time when mental illness wasn’t a part of my life. From a young age, depression and anxiety permeated almost every aspect of it. 

My play dates with friends regularly turned into crying fits; my younger sister was frequently tasked with entertaining my friends while my mom did her best to calm me down.

Little unexpected changes to plans would trigger a wildly emotional and disproportionate response. I was immensely anxious of social situations — even asking a server at Wendy’s for another dipping sauce was daunting. 

At only four years old, my mom became concerned that I was depressed. I first told my mom that I wanted to die at this age. I remember asking her if this thought was normal, if she’d considered it before, if other people felt this way too. 

This broke my mom’s heart, and she spoke to a social worker about her concerns. 

“She’s just a kid,” the worker said. “She’s trying to manipulate you. Don’t take it too seriously.”

Despite the social worker’s words, my mom knew there was more to it. She could sense my distress, and knew that I wasn’t saying this lightly. I think I already understood death as an escape from the pain I was experiencing. 

When I was 12 years old, I began seeing a psychiatrist at my parents’ request. Following a few months of unsuccessful therapy, the topic of medication was raised. I was absolutely horrified. I pictured asylums and patients in white gowns, strapped down to tables. I wish I were kidding. At the time, I thought for certain this meant I’d never be normal again. 

Throughout the years to come I’d attend therapy and take medication to manage my anxiety. Recognizing my challenges, being more cognizant of my own tendencies, and accessing resources were first steps towards my recovery, but I still had a ways to go. 

Despite the obvious impact that my mental health was having on my life, I struggled to conceptualize it as an illness that was separate from myself. I attributed my anxiety, low mood, suicidal thoughts and insecurities to my own shortcomings. 

This was simply the way I had always been — an anxious ‘Debbie Downer’. I couldn’t grasp that these negative thoughts and moods didn’t define me as a person, because I’d never known life without it. I felt that other people had real mental illnesses and real struggles, not me. Who was I to complain? 

What I failed to realize then was even if I hadn’t suffered from a mental illness, my challenges would have been just as valid. Regardless of whether we have a diagnosis or not, we all struggle with our mental health at times, and the ascription of a label doesn’t make us any more or less to blame for this. 

Needing to take care of our mental health doesn’t make us selfish, nor does it make us weak. It makes us human — humans who get overwhelmed and feel sad, stressed or happy. Humans who can all benefit from developing stress management tools and practicing self-care.

Humans who can all benefit from learning what helps them feel well, and what doesn’t.  

In my second year of university, my mental health reached an all time low. I interpreted a difficult breakup with my then-boyfriend as a confirmation of all my negative thoughts about myself. I felt unlovable and worthless. I struggled with persistent and unshakeable thoughts of suicide. The experience culminated in a trip to the emergency room one evening. 

I don’t remember much of  that night, but I do remember something a resident said: He said he was rooting for me. I don’t know what it was about the way he said it that made me want to prove him right, but I left the hospital that night knowing that I had to try my hardest to be okay. 

Mental illness isn’t like any other illness because it impairs your desire to want to get better. It’s extremely difficult to be driven to get help when you brain keeps telling you that you don’t deserve it. Something that night — maybe it was the residents’ words, or maybe it was the harsh reality of ending up in the emergency room after struggling for so long — made me realize I deserved to get better and feel well. 

Before I leave you, I wanted to briefly share some of the insight I’ve developed over my short 19 years. Many others have already said it more eloquently than I ever could, so I hope you forgive me as I borrow their quotes to illustrate three of the many important lessons I’ve learned:

Firstly,  “You are not your thoughts. You are the observer of your thoughts.” 

What’s very challenging about mental illness is that since the illness is in our head, it’s extremely difficult to disentangle which thoughts and emotions define the illness and which thoughts and emotions define us.  

What I’ve learned is that we’re not the emotion-driven, automatic thoughts that surface without warning. Rather, we’re the souls that are experiencing those emotions. 

Our awareness of our thoughts passing means there’s a space that exists between those thoughts and the being that’s conscious of them. Learning to cope with mental illness, for me, is about learning to harness that space that exists between our instinctual thoughts and emotions, and our consciousness of their progression, in order to achieve some distance from the difficult ones.

Secondly, the Stephen Chbosky quote — “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

A cliché, I know. But Chbosky nailed it. In my case, the love I thought I deserved was almost none. I didn’t see what I had to offer, and didn’t understand how anyone could possibly love me when I didn’t even love myself. 

Love grows from the inside out. Romantic relationships can be great, but you can’t outsource your sense of worth and value; it must originate from within. We’re often tempted to fill our void with another person’s love and approval, but it’s a dangerous way to cope.

It makes for an unhealthy relationship and one that can be dangerously damaging should it end. Right now, I’m spending some time getting to know myself, and learning to love myself. 

Finally, “Telling someone they can’t be sad because others have it worse is like saying someone can’t be happy because others have it better.”

Depression isn’t caused solely by external factors. While external circumstances can definitely impact our mental health and sometimes trigger the onset of mental illness, it’s important to recognize that there’s also an intrinsic component to our mental health. It’s possible to struggle with depression independently of circumstance, and sometimes even in spite of the objectively positive events that occur. 

When I’ve received this comment in the past, it made me feel alienated, alone and guilty for my emotions. Instead, we should try to understand that we’re all allowed to feel sad for no apparent reason, even when good things happen. Feelings don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. We can feel whatever we need to feel. 

Stigma is a big buzzword right now, and there’s a lot of talk about eliminating the stigma society has towards mental illness and mental health. What we sometimes neglect to address though is our own self-stigma; not only is the above quote one that we often hear from others, but it’s also something that we often tell ourselves. 

Addressing self-stigma is important because if we want to change the world, we need to start with ourselves. This means acknowledging and validating our own feelings too. 

I realize I’ve been writing in past tense a lot throughout this article, so I want to clarify one thing: my journey isn’t over. Mental health isn’t an end goal; rather, it’s something I continue to manage and maintain with little (and big) actions every day. Our mental health journeys are unique and never-ending. 

If you’re struggling, please reach out to friends, family or professional services for support. We’re all worthy and deserve support, even if it’s difficult to see in the moment. I highly encourage you to check out some of the resources below — they’re for everyone to make use of.

If you feel that you’re in a life-threatening situation, please contact 911. 

Student Wellness Services
LaSalle Building, 146 Stuart Street
http://www.queensu.ca/studentwellness/
(613) 533 - 6000 ext. 78264

AMS Peer Support Centre
JDUC, Room 34
amspeersupport.com
(613) 533 - 6000 ext. 75111
12 p.m. to 10 p.m., 7 days a week

Talk Aid Line Kingston (TALK)
telephoneaidlinekingston.com
7 p.m. to 3 a.m., 7 days a week
Crisis: (613) 544 - 1771
Office: (613) 531 - 7529

Addiction & Mental Health Services – Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington (AMHS – KFLA)
24-hour crisis line and emergency response
(613) 544 - 4229

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