Why I Can’t Be the Mental Health Champion I Wanted To

Friday, May 1, 2020

Three years and a few odd months ago, I had my mental illness coming out moment. In front of a packed house of perhaps 200, I chronicled my lifetime struggles with depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts. While my college friends and peers listened in, I vividly spun a piece of that story—my story of struggle, patient maintenance, and triumph, at least. It was a powerful moment for me and for nearly everyone who listened in that day; there weren’t many dry eyes in that oversized classroom. I told nuanced stories of challenge but also those of hope, finishing my presentation with particular inspirational words by Kendrick Lamar. “I’m gonna be alright…. And you will be, too.”

Looking back, I feel great pride for this moment. Knowing what I know now, I’d hold back on some of the details I shared then. But of course, that’s water under the bridge now. I did what I did, and here I am today. In fact, I mostly feel glad for what I did. At the time (January 2017), at least as far as I am aware, I was one of the first people to openly and publicly discuss mental health and mental illness on my campus. And for this, I feel truly proud and grateful.

Still, in the time since this presentation—and perhaps what one could call my “activism”—I have come to realize how unsustainable and unhealthy being a champion of mental health can be. As I labored to share my story and help other people share theirs, it became impossible to separate the reality between my lived experience and the thoughts in my head. Put another way, my story of mental illness became a self-fulfilling prophecy: as I viewed my life through the lens of depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts, I began to live that life as well. Unconsciously, I sought to diagnose myself with specific maladies, conditions that explained what I was thinking and how I was feeling. I quickly became a detective hungry to sniff out any sense of internal irregularity. I felt that I needed to find something wrong with me.

We commonly call this phenomenon “confirmation bias…the tendency to interpret new evidence as a confirmation of one’s beliefs or theories” (dictionary.com). Ironically, despite my earnest efforts to regulate my mood and lead a better life, I often experienced the opposite effect. Heightened awareness of my mood kept me believing that I lived in a world largely governed by mental illness, a world in which I had little agency to shape the end result. Hope was a silver lining, to be sure, but often not much of one

***

As I write these words, much has changed. Mentally, I feel stronger than ever. Though I still experience challenges (We all do) I am a much better practitioner of sound mental health. Time, mindfulness, therapy, the support of loved ones, and routine have all helped me to be where I am today, where I am working to lead my best life. Of course, living through a pandemic isn’t easy, but I continue to practice gratitude, afford self-grace; experience emotions for prescribed amounts of time, as they come; and assert feelings of hope in the future, even if I don’t always feel this way.

Parts of me still wishes that I became the mental health champion I once aspired to be. “I am strong enough, right? Surely, I can write about this and give passion-charged presentations to lots of people” I often think to myself. Of course, I know that I have made the healthiest choice for me. Although I’d love to be a hero for others, I fully realize that is not my role. If I aim to be a hero, I must do so, first, by filling that role for myself.

So, as I continue to take care of myself during this pandemic and this Mental Health Awareness month, please know that I am cheering you on. Wherever you are or whatever you are feeling, I hope you are well—that you are not confining yourself to the box I once used to. Amidst the scariness and uncertainty of this time, I hope you are leaving plenty of room for yourself to hope, to love, and to be loved. Because you certainly deserve this!

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