This morning my husband forwarded to me an email subscription he receives on Mondays from a long-time friend. The weekly message is typically a mix of poignant observations, thought provoking commentary, and spectacular pictures. Today’s dispatch is about mental health. It’s about a documentary he has co-created that will be screened on World Mental Health Day – Oct. 10th/21. It seems to me that he, like other courageous casualties, is challenging the conspiracy of silence around mental illness. He Is candidly offering suggestions to create a personalized “toolbox” for mental wellness.
I have been part of a recovery community for 15 years. It is one founded eight decades ago. While the language, insistence upon anonymity and gender identification are considered by some to be outdated, the message of connection is timeless. And foundational.
I have heard innumerable times from those in recovery that they used substances, activities, and rituals to cut the circuitry to their feelings. To blot out, sweat out, or “busy” out unpleasant inner sensations. To disengage from themselves. That’s what I did. Add layers of judgement, stigma and shame. Then create two beings. Or create a web of denial. Or create a story of rationalization. That’s what I did.
Therapists, recovery groups, and intimate friendships work by opening communication channels, uncovering secrets and shame, and demonstrating acceptance. It’s the keystone to health. It’s often said that we are only as sick as our darkest secrets. I have a friend who recently shared that when she is deep within her thoughts, she is behind enemy lines. Me too.
I have had the opportunity to participate in recovery groups, work with a therapist, and learn how to build and nurture safe, open and genuine relationships. The essential for my tool kit is meaningful and honest communication. With myself and with others.
When I finally surrendered to my demons, I believed I was alone. Unique in my challenges. Use your first name only. Sequester yourselves in church basements. Pledge to do service and support others, when you find them. Over time and deeper conversations I have learned that mental illness is part of our lives. My father used to say that if you lived long enough, you would get cancer. I believe if we are honest enough, we will discover vulnerabilities in just about everyone. In just about every family. In just about every neighbourhood.
There is no quick fix or magic remedy for mental illness. Through my own experience, friends sharing candidly, and the internet blowing the lid off of anonymity and dark secrets, we know differently. Health professionals, medications, treatment centres, therapeutic modalities, caring communities, and holistic regimens are all avenues to wellness. Only if we declare and connect.
When I attended my first recovery group meeting I parked several streets away from the church. I was afraid someone would see my car and know I was an alcoholic. I snuck across the busy street, heart pounding, ears ringing, shame oozing out of every pore as I slid through the door. About a year later I spied a fellow bookclub attendee sitting across the room. She was a guest attending a meeting to celebrate a sober anniversary. Almost dizzy with panic, I leaned to my friend beside me and told her I had to leave – now. Holding me down on my chair, rubbing my back, she whispered that whoever I saw was there because a loved one was “one of us”. I stayed and went over to say hello at the end of the meeting.
I’ve travelled a difficult and inspiring path to frankness and transparency around my mental health. Thankfully, stigma and secrets rarely withstand honesty and light.
At least, that is my experience.