Mental health is much more than how we feel--it’s the deep beliefs that we run on autopilot that create feelings of anxiety or depression. Those thoughts were put in there sometime, somewhere. And just like exercising the body, it takes a little (or a lot) of practice and training to strengthen new beliefs to be run on mental autopilot.
Shame is another form of control.
Mental health is so important that culturally, we have shamed the hell out of it. Shame is another form of control. Shame feels so bad, and is so debilitating, that we will do anything to avoid it. Including stuff, closet, avoid, react, or defend in the face of any feelings.
I understand this intimately. As a child, I was controlled through shame, manipulation, and narcissism. Needless to say, this was very confusing. What to do with these conflicting feelings inside, vs what I was being told by a parent? Deny my truth. Deny myself. Deny deny deny. Or stuff, closet, and hide.
My family appeared one way to the world and quite differently at home.
Things also needed to be controlled in a certain way at home--and nothing else fit into that hyper-intense mold. A coping mechanism I had was I farmed myself out to my friends families. Especially in grade school and high school. I would adopt myself to my best girlfriends and thankfully, I had a string of lovely boyfriends in high school who I connected with their families too. But even though I was in these healthy environments, seeing how others live their lives in a respectful and loving manner, a part of me could never believe it. And it’s because in my family of origin, everything always looked good on the outside, but was a total shit show when we were alone.
As a teen, my deep traumas began manifesting themselves as anxiety and depression. It didn’t help that I was put on the pill--due to intense dysmenorrhea--which severely messes with a woman’s ability to mindfully regulate and hold space for her emotions. Added on top of that never being modeled how to or allowed to express feelings. Again, more denial, more self-hate. My brother’s mental illness took a turn for the worse and my parents started beating him. They would use any method available to keep him “under control”. Witnessing these beatings, feeling powerless and so afraid to do anything, shut me down even further. What was worse was seeing how very shortly afterwards, my parents would be acting as if nothing had happened. It was no big deal.
From a very young age, I lived in an environment where I was repeatedly invalidated. Not only just with directly being told so, but huge disconnects with what I was seeing and witnessing, and then the story spun afterwards about why things have to be this way. Anytime I’d authentically show up, respond, or express anything, it was immediately denied or shamed. As a child (or someone under the age of 25), things are seen in blk and white. So it made sense that I came to the conclusion: it must be me. I’m the crazy one. Something is deeply and inherently wrong with me.
I carried this with me until I couldn’t any longer.
At 20, I checked myself into a hospital because I woke up one day with such debilitating anxiety it was beyond a panic attack. I simply couldn’t move. My body was in such a state of revolt from all the repressed trauma that it wasn’t going to let me take one more inauthentic step in my life. Not without major protest. And protesting it was.
In the hospital, I was a shell. I felt myself looking out of my eyes, and moving a body, but none of it was “mine”.
My roommate Pia was a force. Like a living Frida Khalo, she had waist-length, jet black hair. And scars up and down her arms from trying to kill herself. She was angry to be there and angry to still be alive. I wasn’t talking much, so I never asked her why she wanted to kill herself, but I wish I had. She was so beautiful and misunderstood. Like so many people with mental illness. Trying to live out a life being forced on them, but never able to make that work.
The staff were all wondering what I was doing there. I was sent home in 36 hours.
The lack of understanding--both in the mental form of reason and functional science behind our brains, moods, emotions and external world affect our behaviors; and understanding in the sense of empathy and compassion for others--is still very real in our culture today. It’s certainly come a long way from 15-20 years ago. But honestly, not that much.
We have the power to change the course of our own mental health trajectory.
Let me repeat that: we have the power to change the course of our own mental health trajectory. But we must know this, deep down. We must know it, own it, and most importantly, believe it.
I muddled through the next six years on a variety of drugs feeling hollow and not here. And thank god for those drugs. They kept my anxiety at bay and me alive. They allowed me to still be walking in my life, slowly but surely stepping into more and more autonomy.
And then, at 27, I woke up. It was like something came through me--some other force. I began telling everyone who would listen that “enough is enough”. I moved across the country by myself. Got into art school on a scholarship. I stopped speaking to my parents. I began seeing a therapist, Jim, who gave me real-life tools to use well beyond “just talking about it”. I, for the first time in my life, began to see myself as I was: Whole. Deep. Trustworthy. Real. Deserving. Jim died after only working together for a few years and he is still one of my most pivotal teachers.
It was that moment at 27 when I felt what it meant to take ownership of my life. No longer accepting that I am just a number, my life is something that just gets blown in the wind and what happens to me is beyond my control. I had a real adversity to control because of being controlled my entire childhood, so taking ownership of myself was a huge deal.
Taking ownership meant I first had to see myself as worthy. I had to love myself enough to do small acts of self-love, like: following through with something I said I was going to do. Honoring boundaries of myself and others. Listening to another. Listening to myself. Feeding my body well. Resting.
Then, to also have someone reflect back these newfound superpowers (in my case, in the form of my first therapist Jim) was profoundly healing. My mirror neurons were firing like never before soaking in this new information like the desert does after a long awaited rain.
But that’s precisely why I think it can take a while for someone who’s grown up in abuse to start accepting new ideas of love and self worth. They’re so thirsty for it, that just like a desert who hasn’t had rain in five years, the water first washes over the hard ground not penetrating because it literally can’t. It takes a little while--and a lot of rain--for the ground to soften, to finally let the nourishing water in. That’s how those six years between my hospitalization and my awakening felt.
Mental health is everything. If we don’t think we can do something, we can’t. We won’t even attempt it. Even if the body is strong and capable.
And mostly, what my mental health journey has taught me is compassion. People struggling with depression or anxiety, people trying to kill themselves, this to me feels like a failure on our part as a society. Let’s use the fuel of others’ struggles to help us find the compassion within to reach out and help, to hold space for another, to do a small act of kindness. Those saved me after my hospital experience from friends who all they did were a few acts of kindness for me. It gave me hope in myself and the world, that not everything is so bad, even me.
The next ten years for me have been about integration. Integration of these traumas, my past, my choices, my present and owning them in a way that feels empowering. I don’t blame my parents at all. I know how hard it is when you’re in that unconscious space of survival. I also know how hard it is to be a parent.
Most recently though, my process has been focused on letting go. Surrender. Forgiveness. I couldn’t do that before—and rightly so because we literally cannot when you have unprocessed, or unfaced emotions still lurking in our shadow.
The more I stick with my practice, the more I strengthen those muscles of mindfulness, responding, and compassion, the more I’m able to look at old feelings coming up and literally let them go. That happened. That’s done. I forgive them. I forgive myself. I accept forgiveness.
But this took a long time for me to get to. It took years of holding onto the hurt and pain—mostly because that’s the only way I knew how to be in the world. And I still trip up and find myself in a tailspin every now and then. But it’s less often. So when those moments of deep trigger happen, I know to pay attention. A new layer has been revealed for me to look at and let go of. And if I don’t look at it, well, I know the painful consequences of that all too well.
May we pause the urge to immediately judge another and see them as they are in truth: struggling. May we step in with kindness. May we hold space for others to express themselves. May we approach each other with curiosity rather than defensiveness. May we honor one another, even in our addictions, even in our depression, even in our habitual ways of hurting others, as doing the best we can because we literally don’t know any better at that moment. May we know that we are love. May we know that we are loved. May all beings be happy and free.