The phone rang and I let it go to Voicemail. I was in the middle of playing Go Fish with the now-five-year old, but that’s not the real reason I didn’t answer. When I’m feeling low, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I barely have the mental energy to get the dishes done, let alone put on a smile and pretend life is peachy keen. My dear and trusted friend, who is SO much better at reaching out than I am, left a cheerful message as she always does and in my state of mind, I couldn’t even bring myself to listen to it.
The next day, I was at my computer trying to work on part four of the mental health series of articles I’d been writing. The project was an ambitious undertaking, and once I dug in, I realized I was way over my head. It’s a very serious and hugely complex topic that impacts people’s lives every day, and there I was, in all my naivety, trying to write something that would make a difference.
The only thing I had to start with is that I’ve been there.
Yep, I have mental health issues. I’ve written about it before, so I’m sorta over the embarrassment. Depression has been a dark and regular visitor for going on three decades now. No big whoop. Except it is a big whoop. Every. Single. Time.
Oh, and last fall, I had an honest-to-God anxiety attack. THAT was an experience entirely unlike anything I’ve ever been through. I didn’t know what it was until later. My partner had no clue how to help me, and when it was over, I laid down in his arms and quietly cried myself to sleep. I’m 42. It feels as if there should be shame attached, but surprisingly, writing this mental health series has opened my eyes in a lot of ways.
When I pitched the idea, I must have felt particularly motivated and positive. It didn’t last. Leading up to each interview, and there have been a lot of them – with executives, legislators, social workers, behavioral therapists, counselors, and even a regular joe – and leading up to the harder work of focusing enough to put it all into coherent sentences, I had to work through feelings of dread, insecurity and fear.
But the more I read and the more people I spoke with, the more I heard one message loud and clear: Reach out. Confide in a friend. You’re not alone. I had even written the words, “talk to someone you trust.”
So there I was…not answering the phone, not listening to the voicemail, pretty much avoiding contact with the world. I wasn’t heeding the advice every single mental health professional had given me in every single interview. I stopped my work on Part 4 of the series, picked up my phone and called my friend back.
She’s wonderful. She’s fully engaged in life, constantly busy and adventurous. She bubbled away about her full-time job, the side-business she’s starting, her art, their house-hunt and more. Then she asked what I knew she’d ask:
“How are you doing?”
I took a deep breath, and I told her the truth.
I’ve been having a rough time. Depression is nothing new. I watch it come. I watch it drown me for a few months, maybe less, maybe more. And then I watch it go. I’m aware, but I’m still soaked to the skin, shivering cold and stuck in the middle of it. I told her about accidentally diving in head first by writing this big mental health series, about my new focus on exercise and better nutrition, about my drive to start a big and personal writing project. I told her about my lingering grief, my anger, my isolation. How it impacts my parenting, my relationships. How it makes me want to hide and how easy that is to do here at The Angle.
I reached out.
And you know what? She listened. She heard me. She empathized. We ended up laughing, sharing stories, and talking about the tools she uses to feel better. She offered encouragement and even followed-up the next day with a relevant resource to my future goals.
After the fact, I don’t know why it felt so hard to reach out. But that’s what mental health issues do. They keep you trapped in your own loneliness. They make you feel like a bother to everyone around you. They dictate moods, choices, words, actions, sleep, everything! It’s like my mind has a cancer that morphs and grows and digests everything healthy around it. And I would consider my case fairly mild. I get by. I’m fine.
Fortunately, “getting by” and being “fine” isn’t good enough anymore. I feel more empowered. I want a better quality of life. We all deserve that. And if I can start the process of owning my self-care, reaching out for connection and help, and using the resources available to me, then so can anyone else.
It’s time to start picking up the phone.
(Published in the February 13, 2018 issue of the Warroad Pioneer)