It’s been an “interesting” year so far. Yeah, in quotes because it’s been “interesting” in hard ways – not cool, fun, wonderful ways. Work challenges. Personal issues. Kids needing lots of supports. Trying to just make it month to month, feeding kids and paying rent. All three kids coming to live with me full time. Health issues. Too much going on and no breaks!
I’m not saying it’s been bad – I can see that the struggle is worthwhile and I’m working through issues and dysfunctional patterns. I’m getting better and growing. So I appreciate that. But it hasn’t been easy either. And the line between “struggling” and “overwhelmed” has been a fine one – sometimes I tip one way or the other at the slightest provocation. Sometimes I’m both all in one day. Or from one moment to the next.
And once in a while, something happens that provides a wake up call for me – a jolt of recognition smacks me upside the head, and I’m shocked. This summer, Facebook provided a few of those. And dinner at a friend’s house gave me another.
Facebook was a gradual thing. I’ve seen the studies that say things like Facebook and Instagram contribute to or aggravate feelings of depression and anxiety. And I can see how that happens now. I watched my friends posting pictures from vacations and adventures, and found myself realizing that I couldn’t even consider doing any of these things. Even really “normal” things like heading to the beach, having a picnic with friends or kids going on play-dates seemed out of reach this summer.
Why? Just being stretched too far – financially, emotionally, mentally, physically. When you have to think about how much gas in in your vehicle and being able to get to the appointments or activities that are mandatory – knowing there’s no money to fill the tank until some later date – then the “extra” trips to drop kids off or meet friends at the park just aren’t an option. When your energy is consumed by working, looking for work, worrying about bills and money, trying to stretch the food budget to feed your kids with the creativity needed so they’ll like the food you have, etc… Well, then there’s not much left over at the end of the day.
Somehow, amidst the everyday pressures and focusing on just getting through one day at a time, I lost sight of the longer term, the bigger picture. Life is about more than just “getting through.” Being reminded of what “normal” life looks like was a shock. Being in constant crisis sucks…
Dinner at my friends’ house was similar. As I sat and watched them work together, one sitting while the other put their littlest one to bed. Or the way they shared the kitchen, working together to prepare and cook the food we enjoyed. I found myself wondering “What is it like, having someone to share the work with? To know you don’t have to do it all alone?” I had forgotten.
What keeps going through my head is how far my life has strayed from being “normal”…
I’ve been learning to let go of trying to “fit in” or be “normal.” It’s still lonely sometimes, to feel different all the time. To always have to explain myself. Or feel like I should. And there’s still a part of me that wishes it wasn’t so hard. But that’s not the kind of “normal” I’m thinking about.
There are things that most people take for granted. Or have come to expect. As much as I had forgotten and suddenly realized I’d become unaware of how my expectation had changed to match my situation, the same thing happens in the opposite direction – people just assume that everyone can do and expect many of the same things they can.
Even worse, beyond assumptions, there are judgements made all the time about people who are somehow different. We say we want to end stigmas around mental illness or poverty. We organize events and special awareness days to end bullying. But it’s the day to day that wears you down – and a special ribbon on your social media avatar doesn’t even begin to deliver a true awareness of what it’s like to be different. It takes enormous courage, energy and determination to not be normal, day after day, year after year…
All of us struggle at times. But I think it’s how close you are to that line between struggle and overwhelm (or how far over it you’ve moved) that determines your mental health. When you spend more time overwhelmed and dysfunctional than you do struggling and moving forward/growing – then it’s something to pay attention to and address.
But there’s a whole “grey zone” that we need to see differently – the space where you’re not so far along that you’re ready to commit suicide (or already have), but you’re far enough that you need help.
I notice that after any highly publicized suicide, everyone cries out how people need to reach out and ask for help sooner. Or that they would have done things differently, if only they’d known!
The thing is, the signs are all there. But mental illness, overwhelm and struggle can all look a lot like annoying behaviours. You know – that person who always cancels at the last minute. The one who becomes unreliable. Never returns your phone calls. Or emails. Or text messages. The person who reacts and gets all snappy or rude for unknown reasons. She always needs reassurance. He always jumps down your throat for the smallest things. Whatever it is, you notice that behaviours don’t make sense – you find yourself going “what the heck??” and gradually (or abruptly) you start avoiding them.
We make assumptions and judgements about these people. I know I used to. They’re rude. She doesn’t like me. He doesn’t want to be my friend. He’s a jerk. She’s a b*tch. He’s so arrogant. She’s so conceited. You find yourself annoyed. Or maybe drained – like there’s nothing you can do right, according to that person.
The end result is further alienation. And immense, crippling shame. Withdrawal. All the stuff that make things worse, not better! Too easily, it becomes a downward spiral. Or a cesspool that you just go round and round and round – and hope drains away as you lose the energy to keep trying.
The many shades of mental illness produce annoying, alienating and exhausting behaviours. The question is – do you see these behaviours as calls for help? Or as signs of weakness, flaws of personality, or attacks?
The stigma of mental illness (and even just plain old struggle) won’t go away easily, because it’s the day to day that needs to change the most. The support that we all need most in order to change, grow and move forward is closely linked to being accepted and valued as human beings, often in spite of our behaviours. Not to be “fixed” but to have someone believe in us and our ability to figure things out, in our own way, in our own time. To have someone call and check in on us, even if we don’t reply. To ask questions without telling us the answers. To just be there, without judgement. To offer hope when we’re not sure there is any.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you have no hope, please reach out to someone.
Ask for help.
Talk with a doctor. Talk with a friend.
Call a helpline.
In Canada: http://crisiscentre.bc.ca/get-help/
In the USA: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Know the warning signs: http://www.afsp.org/preventing-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs