Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities. Mental Health Month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives, and to celebrate recovery from mental illness. Mental health is essential for a person’s overall health. Prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can recover from mental disorders and live full and productive lives.
In numerous spaces online, you can find people sharing their stories with the hashtags #NotAlone #BraveDays or #BreakTheStigma.
For further information about National Mental Health Month and related resources and events, visit:
- Youth.gov’s Mental Health Youth Topic
- Office of Adolescent Health’s Adolescent Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s Caring for Every Child’s Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s Mental Health Services Locator
I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, and general poor mental health for most of my life. More to the point, I was really good at identifying it in other friends, family, and colleagues. I never took the time to think about my own mental health. That all changed a couple of years ago.
I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection, abuse, and depression as a child and through adolescence. There were numerous events that contributed, but if I tried to confide in adults to talk through these things, I was either told that it was “amazing how resilient I was”, or told that I was “using these events as excuses and to get over it.”
So that’s what I did. When faced with adversity, we have a response that is fight, flight, or freeze. My main response is to fight. My body is pumped with adrenaline and cortisol. My body prepares for battle. I conditioned my brain and body over the years to engage in conflict and win. In all honesty, I was very good at this. I had to help raise my brothers and sisters in high school. I dropped out of college and got back in. I earned my Masters, my PhD, got a job in academia, etc. Whether it was personal or professional, I encountered every event as a threat that I was determined to defeat it….and I did.
The challenge is that I needed to accept the negative side of this equation. I was never able to experience any real joy in life. With every success, I stopped to wait and see how it would ultimately all go to shit. Perceived threats would often haunt me, as I would look and prepare for something I considered to be dangerous.
I also paid no attention to the stress this placed on my body. I enjoyed the ability to have my blood run cold, focus my thinking, and go straight for the jugular in most situations. This ability to flip a switch became an exaggerated stress response. I was always on edge and always anxious. My blood would always run cold, my stomach would clench, my pulse quicken, and I’d tune out the outside world.
This also led me to the need to constantly feed my own ego. I was ambitious (still am), but it was never enough. With success came new obstacles, and new threats to be on the lookout for. Many times I lost…but I felt like I could maintain my own scorecard. Instead of calmly dealing with reality, I would make up events in my mind and replay those events over and over and over. I would play these tapes in my head looking for a better resolution.
The Breaking Point
During my first position in academia, things started to look like they were going well. I was married, had a child. Personally and professionally things seemed to be going well. I strangely even began to ask colleagues if there was something else out there…or if this was it. I slowly began to calm down and enjoy life. That’s when things went sideways again. My position and my entire department were being eliminated. I quickly went back to fight mode as I focused on my colleagues and students. I started to look for other jobs as our family was getting bigger with another child on the way. That resilience and grit paid off as I landed another job in academia and moved our family.
Not soon after we moved, I found that my anxiety was out of control. I couldn’t sleep at all. If I woke at any point during the night (which happens a lot with a newborn) I could feel the precise moment when my blood would begin to boil and my pulse quicken. I would often try and sleepwalk while helping the kids so I could try and get back to sleep. Most times this didn’t work and I stayed awake in bed.
I tried to combat this by waking early each day at 4:30 or 5:00. I would go meditate for a half-hour and then exercise for an hour. This coping mechanism helped by taking some time in the morning to calm my monkey mind while also taking time to get my blood pumping and tire me out.
This habit of meditation and exercise helped with some of the anxiety and depression, but only until an actual threat reared its head. Life soon brought that to me in the form of my third year review. All of a sudden I had numerous question marks about my work, my character, and identity as an educator and researcher.
On one day in particular, I came as close to a mental breakdown as possible. My pulse was very high and I paced around the house. My partner and children tried to calm me down, but I could not see or hear them. I felt like I was a video file that was sped up, and not in the same existence as my family.
I needed help. I felt like I was losing my mind. I went to go see a therapist.
A funny thing happened when I started going to therapy. I believed that I was special, in that I had these problems. I thought that my anxiety and depression was the result of my mother’s death and other events in my life. I figured that all of this was just my story, and I needed to just deal with it.
I slowly realized that other family members were also exhibiting the same symptoms as me. I also noticed that one of my children would also begin to show early signs of anxiety. I was like…”wait a minute…this is my thing.” I realized that my experiences growing up were just part of the problem. I recognized that there was something deeper happening. Something that I needed to address, especially as it was showing up in my children.
My therapist listened and indicated that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People with PTSD feel a heightened sense of danger. The natural fight-or-flight response is altered, causing them to feel stressed or fearful, even when they’re safe. PTSD can disrupt normal activities and the ability to function. Words, sounds, or situations that remind you of trauma can trigger your symptoms.
In addition, I had an external locus of control as opposed to an internal locus of control. The locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives. I felt that I could work hard, fight, and survive. But, with any success that may come…I needed to prepare for something else to come and ruin it.
In order to deal with these forces, I needed to cultivate humility, diligence, and self-awareness. I needed to recognize that I needed help. I needed to take time for self care and invest in my mental health. I needed to practice seeing myself from a distance. I needed to cultivate the ability to get out of my own head.
I also needed to listen. I listened to my therapist. I listened to my partner. I listened to my children. I try to not be a sponge. I try to not absorb what is going on around me, filter it, and latch on to what I can hold. I try to be a little less self-critical and self-motivated. I’m trying to not always move on to the next level, the next challenge.
My goal is to strive for purpose and realism. Purpose is like passion but with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
The work still continues. I continue to be humbled by the work in front of me and want to be more humbled and respectful of what I’ve already come through. I want to thank my mind and body for preparing me for these moments but also strive for harmony as we meet future circumstances.
Thank you for reading through this post. I wrote this post because I was seeing many around me suffering. I also will increasingly be more open and candid on this blog as I urge others to be more honest in sharing their narratives.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental health problem, please reach out for support. There is nothing wrong with going to talk to a therapist, or your primary care physician to get more information.
In addition, please take time for your own self care. I learned that our mental health, just like our physical health, is not a resilient as we would like to believe. Take time each day to laugh, cry, listen, and enjoy the ride. It’s really cool.
Photo by Michael Lai on Unsplash
Oh wow, Ian this is an incredible post – thanks so much for writing it. I recognise some of what you talk about, and it seems like you’ve been going through a lot over the last few years.
Really glad you’ve sought help and have such a supportive family 🙂
Thanks again for the support Doug. I felt like it was something that I needed to share. It seems like many feel the same tug in their own lives.