I’m a mental health advocate.
For the uninitiated, that means I endeavour for reduced stigma, increased mental health awareness, and for more accessible and effective treatment options–among other things. As a mental health advocate I invariably have come into contact with and have become acquainted with many other health advocates due to common interests and goals. And while we all share a passion for creating an easier to navigate mental health landscape and legitimizing our experiences, another very significant thing we all seem to have in common with each other is that at some point in our lives we’ve all been or felt alone.
I remember when I was in the midst of my depression and anxiety, one of the worst aspects about the suffering is that it seemed like I was suffering on my own. Part of that was because I was not openly sharing how I felt and what I was going through with anyone. But whenever I did try to open up and share what I was going through I was very frequently and routinely provided with suggestions and possible solutions before I was able to even fully articulate what I was feeling. I was told to “get over it” or to “man up” or that it “wasn’t so bad” or that I just needed to “get out there.” In saying these kinds of things my feelings were minimized or outright negated. I was misunderstood. I was dismissed. I was voiceless.
I was alone.
Then, after years of unsuccessful attempts at manning up, getting over it, and getting out there, I finally committed to treatment. I saw a therapist. I was in recovery. And then after a lot of time and collaboration and work I started to feel better. Depression and anxiety no longer acted as the straitjacket for my happiness and my hope. I finally started feeling healthy.
But I was still alone.
Though I was successfully engaging in recovery–fostering meaningful relationships, beginning a good career, and finding meaning in my day to day life–I still felt alone. I didn’t know anybody who had an experience quite like mine. I didn’t know anybody to talk to about my frustration in finding a therapist, or about the reality that even when recovery from a mental illness is successful you still end up having lost years of your life to it, leaving you with a lot of catching up to do socially, academically, and professionally. I didn’t have anybody in my life who understood these things. I didn’t have anyone in my life with which I could relate.
Then I became an advocate.
I began as an advocate by telling my story to high school students, which led me to attending various mental health related events, which led to me meeting others like me.
Now I was finally talking to people who understood that depression feels like the worst day of your life almost everyday. Now I was finally talking to people who understood that anxiety feels like drowning except you never die. Now I was finally talking to people who understood why medications sometimes suck even when they work because the side effects can be embarrassing.
Now I wasn’t alone.
And this made me feel like a person for the first time since I was 13 years old, when I was first developing symptoms of a mental illness. So then I felt safe enough to open up, to be vulnerable, to make friends and form relationships. Then I started to feel worthy of being liked and appreciated. I started to feel like I belonged. I started to feel like I was worth it.
As a mental health advocate I have made terrific friends from all walks of life who all share one thing in common–we want to end mental and emotional suffering. These friends have helped me develop the social skills I missed out on developing in my formative years due to the debilitating effects of my mental illness that made it impossible for me to engage with anybody else or the world. I learned how to develop bonds. I regained my self esteem. I learned that I could be liked and loved.
In becoming a mental health advocate I regained my personhood and I found community. I learned that there were other people like me, who laughed like me and who had been wounded like me. In becoming a mental health advocate I learned that this was the power of community. I wasn’t alone.
I had family.