when i read and write about mental illness there is often an emphasis on the people who don’t understand. we want to fight stigma and raise awareness to ensure that nobody is mistreated due to a mental health condition. i sometimes find myself focusing on those who don’t get it, feeling frustrated at the lack of awareness about and insensitivity towards people like me who live with depression, anxiety and ptsd. in the spirit of practicing gratitude, today i choose to stop and express my appreciation for some of the individuals in my life who do understand. because there are people out there who really get it and i am fortunate enough to know and love some of them.
first and foremost, my family. when i fell they caught me and held me. and held me. and held me. while they weren’t the ones having the health crisis they lived it right along with me. they did everything possible to get me the help i so desperately needed and sat with me in my darkest hours. my mom would wake up early with me as i plunged into yet another panic attack, reading bible passages and poetry out loud as i shook, curled into a ball. my sister would call me over her lunch break every day to talk and soothe me as i cried, out of my mind with fear. my husband hand-wrote me a letter while i was inpatient, telling me how much he loved me and that he would be right there waiting for me to come home. and when recovery crawled along at a snail’s pace they were there, day in and day out, telling me over and over and over again that life would get better. that i indeed was not a burden. that yes, they still loved me. not everybody dealing with a mental health crisis finds a place of refuge in his or her family, and i consider myself so fortunate to have been loved and supported in such a non-judgemental way.
my closest friends. when i was hospitalized i was deeply ashamed of myself. while i know now that having a mental illness is nothing to be embarrassed about, i didn’t know it then. admitting that i had been in a psych hospital, that i had to resign from my job, that i could barely take a shower – these were painful confessions to make. i pulled away from all but a very few close friends. and those three women gave me a safe place to fall apart and supported me as i recovered. maura took me on walks and sat with me in the sun, reminding me that i had a real illness that wasn’t my fault. she told me that i was her hero for hanging on and helped me to see how brave i really was. susan listened as a i grappled with tough questions about my work and my self. she managed to find positive nuggets to offer back to me, allowing me to acknowledge that i was actually making progress. ashley battled hellish beltway traffic every single thursday to have dinner with me – my one and only social outing of the week for almost a year. for those two hours i felt just a tiny bit like a real person. at some point during each meal she would look at me, smile and say “i know you can do this. it’s getting better every week. keep going.”
my boss. until just before i was hospitalized in may 2014, i did not share anything with my colleagues about having depression. i feared that i would be judged and possibly denied opportunities if anyone i worked with knew that i had a mental illness. but by january 2014, my depression was becoming so severe that i had to tell my boss. terrified that i was making an irrevocable mistake, i walked into mark’s office and told him that we needed to talk. from that very first conversation i found nothing but respect and compassion from him. he immediately told me that mental illnesses are no different from physical illnesses and that i had nothing to be ashamed of – something that i myself did not yet believe. as i plunged into my year of crisis, mark was there every step of the way. he frequently called my husband to check in. he held my job for far longer than he needed to, never giving up on the possibility of my return. he honored my privacy when colleagues and professional contacts asked him about my absence. and when i finally did resign, he jokingly refused my resignation and seriously told me that we would always be friends. and to this day, we still are.
my pastor. when i was first released from the hospital, kathleen came to visit me. she held my hand as i told her how black my world had become, how i had trouble seeing any purpose for my life. she didn’t feed me any religious cliches about god’s plan for my life or counting my blessings. and she didn’t suggest that prayer could erase my pain or solve all of my problems. what she did was sit with me in my suffering, asking for god to simply comfort me and strengthen me to fight through another day. her words validated my struggle and helped me hold on to the hope of a better tomorrow.
my husband, my mom, my sister. maura, susan and ashley. mark and kathleen. when i start to feel like nobody else understands, i stop and think of them. eight people whose words and actions helped me to own the truth that i am not ashamed. eight people who never blamed, judged or dismissed me for having a mental illness. their support and understanding flickered like candles along the darkness of my path. and now their spirits celebrate with me as i have danced back into the light. the world needs more people like them. namaste, my friends. my heart will be forever grateful.