Currently, I have 10 blog drafts saved. Ten times I’ve started writing, and ten times I haven’t finished a post. When it comes to writing about my family, especially my children, it’s really not hard. The words to describe them and my experiences with them come to mind easily and it doesn’t take much for me to type them out. When it comes to writing about myself, on the other hand, it’s hard. It’s hard to get my thoughts straight in my head, and it’s even harder to type them. Sometimes I find myself thinking that if it’s so hard, maybe it’s a sign that I shouldn’t write a post about myself. But then I think of why I started this blog in the first place – to not only help myself, but to hopefully somehow help others through my experiences.
Then there’s the issue of where to start. I know I could stick to writing about my experiences as a mother, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being a parent is hard and I know I can use all the support I can get when it comes to raising my children. The thing is, I’m not just a mom. I’m a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a school counselor. Sure, I could write about my experiences as being any one of those things. But there is one thing that has been weighing on me to write about for several months.
I know mental health has been getting more attention lately because of shootings and suicides, and I am thankful for it. It’s a topic that I’ve become increasingly interested in and passionate about. However, mental health still has such a negative cloud surrounding it that most people are very hesitant to talk about it on a personal level – including myself. When it comes down to it, mental health is a topic that people seem to be willing to talk about when it is applicable to other people, but it is because of that that I think that there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding. For me, mental health is deeply personal because of my work as a school counselor but more because of my experiences. So before I write any other of my thoughts about mental health outside of myself, I feel that it is important to share my own story, as hard as it may be.
So here goes nothing:
This past spring I started going to a counselor. I had thought about going to a counselor a couple of different times over the past decade or so but never did, and after a while, the things that were bothering me and the hard feelings I was having seemed to get resolved.
This time it was different. I knew that I needed professional help. It’s like the difference between a summer cold and a sinus infection – when the over-the-counter medication isn’t enough and you know it’s time to go see a doctor to really take care of the problem.
Before I continue, let me be clear on one thing: My life is wonderful. I have been blessed with amazing people whom I love and I know love me. I have a strong Christian faith, go to church as regularly as I can, and pray daily for myself and others. I have a loving, supportive husband and two healthy children. I have a strong circle of family and friends that love and support me. I have the best dog in the world. I have a career that is fulfilling in so many different ways and also provides financial support for my family’s needs and wants. I have the security of a safe home and reliable vehicles. I have an almost-full wine rack. I have a lot of great things in my life. Aren’t all of these things enough? Shouldn’t all of this be enough for me to be happy? Why did I need to go see a counselor?
Because life is hard. It’s busy and stressful and overwhelming. Over time, I found myself feeling like I was drowning in the sea of being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and counselor. I love all of the roles I play in this life, but to fulfill them well takes time and energy – mostly mental and emotional energy.
And because I have depression. It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. It’s no one’s fault, just like it’s not my fault that Moses has an extra chromosome. Just like someone who exercises regularly and eats healthy foods might still have a body that doesn’t produce the correct level of insulin her body needs. I’m not a bad person because of it no more than a diabetic is a bad person. Even with all of the blessings in my life, my brain doesn’t just “do” happy easily. It doesn’t mean that I need to be committed to a mental hospital because of it just like Moses doesn’t need to be institutionalized because he has Down syndrome. It just means that I have to do things differently so that I can feel and be happy and fully enjoy my life.
I was first diagnosed with depression when I was around 21. I can remember going to the student health center at college and telling the nurse practitioner that I wasn’t feeling okay. After telling her about how I had been feeling and filling out a questionnaire, I was told that I had depression. I was scared, sad, and relieved. Scared because I didn’t quite know what that meant for me. Sad because there was something “wrong” with me. Relieved because I was finally going to get help to feel better.
I was prescribed an antidepressant and left with an appointment to see a counselor. The medication worked like it was supposed to. The appointment with the counselor did not. Part of my depression was low self-esteem and body image issues that I had been battling for many years. The first counselor I went to was beautiful and thin and proceeded to tell me about how either she or her daughter had been models. The next counselor I went to gave me some worksheets. I’m not sure I even talked much to him that day, and I never went back. I was done with talking to counselors. Besides, the medication seemed to do the trick to help me feel mentally healthy. I didn’t know it then, but I still had a long way to go.
Fast-forward almost ten years to when I started the counseling program. In the decade before starting the program, I had been through A LOT of ups and downs (I’m talking mountains and valleys). During my time in the program, I was not only learning how to help others, I was also able to learn more about myself and work through many of the issues that I struggled with. I learned so much about mental health and even more about how counseling works, especially that there are different approaches to counseling. That’s when I realized that the counselors I had seen previously used approaches that just weren’t a good fit for me. I learned how to talk about and work through some of the issues that had been haunting me. It was also during this time that I met a person that provided me with the sense of love and security I had been searching for since leaving my parents’ care.
For a while, my depression seemed to be in remission. I was able to stop taking medication and was able to maintain a healthy mental state. After Josie was born, it was as though she was my antidepressant. Watching her grow and find excitement and happiness in the little things of everyday life was every bit as good as Zoloft.
When I went back for my 6-week check-up after having Moses, I already knew I had postpartum depression. No, it was not because he had Down syndrome. If anything, my new little baby boy was just another light in my days. It wasn’t even because of the fiery pain of having mastitis multiple times within a 3-week period. I had postpartum depression because that’s how my brain reacted after having a baby.
It wasn’t until this past spring that I knew I needed more than medication this time. Yes, medication helped me be able to function like a more or less normal human being. What medication doesn’t do is get rid of the daily stressors of my hectic life. It doesn’t solve problems for me. It doesn’t listen to me and then help me figure out changes I can make to actually get rid of sources of stress or solve problems.
Unfortunately, saying, “I’m going to a counselor” is almost like saying, “I’m crazy”, and not in the fun, adventurous way. I know that mental health is a very real thing, just like physical health. However, it’s also often dismissed or minimalized or stigmatized in such a negative light that many people do not fully address it, perhaps out of fear of being labeled for going to see a counselor or psychiatrist, or maybe because they don’t know how to go about improving their mental health. If I tell someone I went to see the doctor, there’s little to no reaction outside of asking if I’m feeling okay. When I say I went to see my counselor, there’s a very different reaction – it’s almost like people panic because they don’t know what to say although they could respond with the same question of if I’m doing okay. That in and of itself actually put more stress on me, but in the end, I knew I had to go talk to a mental health professional.
As much as I love my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my friends, they couldn’t help me with those things, either. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they aren’t counselors. They aren’t trained to listen to me ramble on with unconditional positive regard. They listen with unconditional love, but that’s not the same thing. Listening with unconditional positive regard means that no judgment is cast about what I’m saying or feeling. It means that I don’t have to censor my words out of fear of hurting the person listening. It means that I don’t have to cut out certain parts of the story out of fear of disappointing the person listening.
Talking to a counselor is also different because she doesn’t say anything to intentionally or unintentionally minimize my experiences or feelings. She doesn’t tell me that I should just accept things as that’s how they are or tell me what works for her which should also work for me. She doesn’t get uncomfortable when I talk about very personal issues and try to change the subject.
She listens. She points out things I say repeatedly or inconsistency in my thoughts. She reframes what I say in a way that helps me to understand how I really feel but couldn’t (or didn’t want to) pinpoint it on my own. She helps me as I start to figure out what I could do to get myself back on track. She doesn’t solve my problems for me, but she helps me figure out how to find the solutions that will work for me.
I think what helped me as much as talking to my counselor was knowing that I was taking an active responsibility and role in helping myself get better. No one else can do it for me. No one else can “make” me happy. That’s all on me, and I’m working on it every day. I think that’s where mental health takes such a personal turn – it really is up to the individual to make improvements whether by taking medication as directed by a doctor, talking to a counselor/therapist, exercising regularly, meditating, praying, getting enough sleep, or a combination of multiple things.
I hope that mental health will become more understood and positively accepted as part of a person’s whole health in the coming years. I’m not saying that everyone who has a mental health issue broadcast it for the world to know. I do hope that anyone who is having a hard time mentally or emotionally look to get professional help and know that it’s no different than going to a medical professional for a physical health issue. If someone you know is taking steps to improve his or her mental health, give that person all the love, support and encouragement you can.
Finally, I didn’t write this so that anyone will feel sorry for me any more than I wrote it so that anyone would label me as crazy. My genuine hope is that it might help to normalize and prioritize the subject for mental health for more people. If you want to feel sorry for me or call me crazy, I obviously can’t stop you, but I will ask that you pray for me while you’re at it. 😘