I used to take pride in the fact that I was generally a positive person with no real experiences of depression. Any events that caused sadness in my life I would quickly bounce back from. It was around the time that I started questioning the idea that I was blessed with perfect mental health - that things came crashing down. Man, I'm glad they did.
The unique little negative parts of my personality started really coming up from the depths. I think this was partly due to falling in love. If there's one thing that's gonna jump start your brain and plunge out all that gunk, it's committing to another human being - one that you have deep respect for and isn't afraid to call you on your crap (even when it feels like the worst thing they could ever do).
I wasn't aware of how bad my anxiety was getting either - which is one of its sneakiest tricks; working both in very subtle and very obvious ways. Every other day I would be on the floor crying, then get over it, get happy again... and the cycle would repeat. Obviously love isn't confined to "romantic" relationships but that's where things culminated for me.
Anyway, I'm less interested in talking about my experience with anxiety and more in the lessons I learned from it. A person’s experience with mental health is unique to them. It's the larger ideas, the constants - like growth, love, beauty and freedom that propel this message. Also, I've written and listened to enough sad songs to know there is no lack of hurting people in the world to feel solidarity with. What I feel our current culture lacks are the voices of reason to penetrate those emotions.
The moment I realised that I am not special because of my pain and confusion - rather, that it's a normal part of human growth - I began to feel less pity for myself. Then through four years of psychotherapy I was amazed to see how consciousness really is like a ball of wires that can be untangled. My pain was happening for actual reasons! I hadn't been cursed!
Avoiding pain just means that one day you will crack even harder than if you deal with the issue now. Or worse - you'll make it to the end of your life without ever experiencing real freedom. So, in that sense the arrival of depression is a blessing. A chance to agonisingly sort out your issues in preparation for a deeper, fuller, more joyful understanding on life. What can be tragic when it comes to these extreme lows is one's ability to deal with it.
M. Scott Peck says, and I paraphrase, although pursuing good mental health deals with seemingly uncontrollable issues of the subconscious, it's more so an issue of our conscious mind. Our ability to deliberately face the neglected areas of our past, big or small. Something we DO have control over.
I'm not trying to make depression sound all flowery and light. It's taken me a very long time to be aware of how anxiety creeps in and affects different parts of my life, robbing me of my ability to enjoy. The total loss and confusion I felt in my depressive state was very powerful...
My wife - then girlfriend, who I consider to be a very strong and patient person - I was slowly wearing her down. She was always stepping on eggshells around me and having to deal with my outbursts to the point she couldn't take it anymore and walked out. Instead of letting things completely disintegrate some grace came upon me and told me I should change.
I’m grateful for her courage to break the cycle our relationship was in. I'm grateful that in the midst of my anxiety and depression, it was revealed to me that on some level I valued being a responsible person. That when I was underneath the table crying or unable to leave the house - I was actually giving in. I was taking the easy way out. Crying in a ball was becoming a comfort because it meant I didn't have to do anything. Now, I'm no poster boy for always making the most responsible choices in life, but not actively taking care of how my own brain took in the information of the world around me seemed like the ultimate irresponsible thing to do. That should be square one to living! We spend a lot of time in our brain!
Mental health affects everyone. People who suffer mental illness don't need to feel alone. Conversely, people who overcome their problems don't need to feel a sense of entitlement. Entering periods of depression should just be normal and seen as an opportunity for growth. Seeing a therapist should have as much stigma attached to it as seeing a dentist and taking meds should not be seen as a weakness but as a conscious decision for steps in the right direction. Also, if you never experience depression, that doesn't exempt you from having to be responsible for how your emotions affect you and the world around you. We want to own our decisions and not just be coasting on the thought patterns of our past. It's just harder to make those changes when everything seems to be going well.
It's not easy. Humans are inherently lazy in the consciousness department, which is something we have to keep fighting. If we can start moving into a healthy relationship with pain, then we can start to unlock the parts of ourselves that naturally lag and hold us back. The parts of us that will fight very hard to make sure we do nothing to change. Lately I've noticed that when I've been hit with a negative feeling big or small, I've taken it as a challenge. On some level I've actually been grateful that I've been given a new bit of information about myself to chew on. Over time that can become a positive feeling in itself.
When it comes to talking about mental health, one of the trends I hear people saying at the moment is that "this is who I am". The line between personality and mental health begins to blur. I think it's important to accept the things we can't change but I also think it takes a lifetime of work to even be certain of what those things are. Or it could, if you want it to. I don't want to be defined by my tendency to be overly anxious or sensitive so I can use it as an excuse. I want to keep getting stronger in the areas that I am weak. I don't want people to have to walk on eggshells around me or let my issues stop others from enjoying themselves. I want to be constantly open and learning - constantly throwing out the old thought patterns and learning new ones. Happy to embrace what I know and what I don't know just the same.
To end on M. Scott Peck again:
"Mental health is the ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs."
People at their core want to be in line with truth, but you have to make sacrifices along the way - like a river that twists and turns through the stubborn landscape carving out its own unique path. It could be a job, a relationship, a belief system, an addiction, or even your own pride that needs to be sacrificed.
I've often found when I'm in a period of mental weakness that the hardest decisions to make are usually the ones best for my mental health as they often entail going against my own grain. Even the very small decisions, like stepping out of the house.
As cheesy as it sounds, if those things that you give up are really meant to be - they will come back in due time. Just don't get ahead of yourself or lost in your own narrative. Break down those walls one step at a time and take solace in the fact that being in good mental health is always on-going. The challenges don't stop but the tools can get stronger and yes, a deep joy becomes attainable.