“Is it possible I’m unlikeable? Perhaps it’s my personality and behavior that causes no one to want to share my company.” That was a nagging thought during my times of loneliness. Yet I came to find out that wasn’t the case. What I was feeling was the stigma often associated with loneliness rather than the reality of the situation.
The reality was that I was having a hard time connecting with others. And that was because I didn’t know how to go about making connections.
Today it seems as though people are more willing to admit to a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety than they are that they are lonely. The judgment I had toward myself when I was lonely kept me from reaching out to others for fear of stigmatization. The fact that I couldn’t reach out to others for help out of a fear of judgment made me feel worse. I believed I should be able to get free of the feelings of loneliness I had.
This inability to free myself of loneliness goes back to feelings of self-sufficiency that many of us carry in Western culture. It’s based on an idea of pulling one’s self up by their boot straps and working things out on our own. This idea of self-sufficiency is that it's seen as weakness to need help. Indeed, as the late Professor John Cacioppo said in an article from a 2016 story from The New York Times: “The very word 'lonely' carries a negative connotation…signaling social weakness, or an inability to stand on one’s own.”
So what can we do about this stigma? As with most issues, it’s important that people who are suffering from this issue speak up. If we share that we are experiencing loneliness, it's easier for others to feel comfortable sharing their troubles. It’s one of the reasons I talk about this through my speaking and writing.
Also, bringing attention to the issue as a society is helpful. Directing funds to research and public programs can be of great help in showing individuals how to break free from the grips of loneliness. Education on methods by which one can find connections would go a long way to break down the stigma.
At the close of my talk on loneliness I say the same thing: “You’re not alone in feeling lonely.” It’s so important to remind others of that in the hopes that those few words can make a difference to break down stigma. It's a stigma that keeps so many from receiving the help they need to find connections.
“Just get out there.”
If you’re a depressed or lonely person, I’m sure you’ve heard these kinds of statements. It sounds simple enough. But for those in the depths of loneliness or suffering from mental illness, acting on such statements seems like an insurmountable challenge.
On the face of it, socializing with others sounds like a good suggestion. It can (and most often does) make us feel better to interact with others. If we are feeling down, socialization can help us take our minds off of whatever is bothering us at the time.
Yet, with the depressed person, it seems as though the feeling of escape from one’s problems doesn’t come with much relief afterward. When the conversation ends and both parties go their own way, thoughts of worthlessness and self-doubt can return.
A study by the University of Michigan revealed that people with depression don’t get as much long-term comfort from social interactions as those who aren’t depressed.
So, socialization is important! It’s part of who we are as human beings. And it’s something we should include in our lives for better mental health.
But if it’s so hard for depressed people to get together with others, how can one make it easier for one’s self?
What’s key to feeling comfortable with socialization and having it create joy in your life is receiving treatment. This can take many different forms including medication, therapy, or positive psychology techniques.
Treatment is critical when one is handling mental health issues. As one would seek physical therapy for back issues, mental health treatment can lead to improvements in mood. By taking medication and going to therapy, I’ve learned to learn to be more comfortable with social settings. It’s not easy in large group settings, but it has gotten better over the years.
Thanks to the time and work I’ve put in, I am now in a place where socialization is more meaningful and appreciated. And in that way, my times of socialization have helped me with the times that depression affected me. Those connections get me in tune with that part of me that needs to be around my peers and to feel accepted by part of a group. It’s a lot of effort but one that has helped me greatly in dealing with my depression.
I’ve always lived in cities or suburban areas. It’s not been intentional, but it's where the jobs are or my friends live.
I’ve lived in big cities since 2006 and enjoy the realm of opportunities. I’ve often thought about residing in rural settings, though.
There’s something desirous about living amongst nature and with few neighbors. I've always had an emotional connection to rural settings and enjoy the solitude (not to be confused with loneliness).
My grandparents lived on a farm in rural Indiana all their lives and there were times I contemplated buying their house when they passed on. I thought it would be great to live amongst rows of corn and soybeans, have time to write, and practice some hobby.
I spent time in their nearby town, though, and realized the attitudes of people weren’t quite the same as mine. Confederate flags were flown and life focused on farming, something of which I have no understanding. I'd be hard pressed to find a good vegetarian meal. Still, there was something to this idea of living apart and away from others.
I currently live in Boston and today I gravitate to the idea of moving to rural New England. I’d still like to work on my writing and develop some hobby, maybe have a kid and be a stay-at-home dad. Rural New England could be a nice mixture of my values, a connection to the environment, and an occasional vegetarian meal at a restaurant.
I think about what my loneliness would do if I didn’t live near others, though. That might spur me to become closer with the few neighbors who were within a mile of me. It's also likely I'd take part in activities in the town nearest to where I lived. It may be that living in a rural setting would be all I needed to develop those relationships I lack. From research I’ve seen, it appears loneliness affects everyone, whether we’re in the city or the country.
I’ve had many opportunities to make connections with people in the city. Yet, given the plethora of folks to choose from, I tend to find myself more picky than I would be if I was in a rural setting. And if I found myself in a place where I had no one else from which to choose to connect.
So it's possible I would find connections easier if I moved to rural New England or my grandparents’ farm. Or perhaps it’s more important I work at building community, no matter where I am. I love both rural and urban settings in equal amounts.
Thus, it’s a trade off of the simplicity and quiet of the rural areas with the number of opportunities available in the city. We don’t always get to choose but both can provide experiences of loneliness and social isolation. Yet both are also capable of building connections. In the end, I suppose it's important for me to always be making an effort no matter where I find myself.
In high school I was a conflicted person. I found myself torn apart by a desire to do good and be a well-behaved kid, one who pleased his parents and teachers. At the same time I was angry and irritable. I grew frustrated with others often. Amongst the students at my school and my church I was a black sheep. I was into punk rock and the lifestyle it led, minus the drinking and drugs. But I dressed the part. I acted tough and indifferent.
I found myself not in any huge trouble, but got kicked out of my fair share of classes due to speaking back to the teachers. At first I felt guilty for my actions but suppressed those feelings because I was so angry at everyone and everything.
I didn’t realize at the time that my anger and frustration was in part a result of being a teenager. It was also in part from my depression and irritability. I didn’t know how to express myself and everything I felt. I didn’t feel as though there was anyone I could speak with about what I was going through.
In my college years I stuck out like a sore thumb. I went to a conservative, Christian college. Although I identified myself as a Christian at that time, my sense of humor, style of dress, and attitude aligned with punk values caused me to stick out.
The story of everything that occurred between then and now is long. And I can’t point to only one or two experiences which changed my way of being. I now dress like a lot of other people, although I eschew trends and high fashion. I’m as comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt as anything else.
What I’ve discovered is the best way to stick out and set yourself apart as a radical is to show kindness and empathy. So many people are drowning in hate, frustration, and anger. Loving others who frustrate you is a radical notion.
Especially in the age in which we live, taking time to listen to others will set you apart. It will cause you to draw attention more than someone with a pink mohawk that is a foot tall or if you have piercings all over your face. It takes physical strength to endure a tattoo or piercing. But putting one’s self out there for sustained periods of emotional challenges is fierce and not easy.
So why do I go this route? Because the payoff is remarkable. And because I’ve learned that being rude and talking back to people feeds on itself. It solves nothing and leads to no progress. It strikes with the fist and crushes others. But showing dedication and love to others can make lives better and cause others to smile, hope, and live to their fullest.
Some aim to live in power, lording themselves over others. My goal is to show humility. It’s a wonderful path to take to be this kind of black sheep, and something far better than any type of outcast I may have been in high school.
In my presentation on loneliness that I give to college students, I share how throughout my darkest times there was a theme of having no one to talk to. I was on my own with handling my depression and anxiety. There was so much stigma and I felt embarrassed to bring up what I felt were weaknesses.
In the years since college I’ve learned that mental illness has this incredible ability to make us feel alone. It causes us to feel as though we’re the only one dealing with what we’re going through. It warps our sense of reality. Mental illness causes us to feel very lonely.
I already felt out of place in college. I was a punk kid at a school where most everyone was preppy. I chose my college because my sister went there and I felt scared of going to school somewhere that I didn’t know anyone. I thought a large state school would swallow me up. I worried I’d get lost there and matter even less than I felt I already did.
Music was my life at the time and it troubled me so much to realize that there wasn’t anyone else at my school who had the same deep interest in punk music as me. This already left me feeling lonely. The added burden of depression and anxiety only increased the disconnect I felt toward others.
I began to ask myself, "Why would I want to speak up about my mental health concerns if they left me feeling guilt and shame? Not to mention, how can I explain what is going on in my mind if I can’t even understand what it is? It seemed easier to not even try."
But not starting that process of speaking up on our mental health issues doesn’t help us. In fact, it only sets us back from being the happier people we want to be. (Even at my most negative and lowest points I had to admit I did want to get better. But I didn’t know how.) So we need to make those initial steps to speak about our mental health. In doing so, it enables us to not only work toward recovery, but break free of the loneliness that so often accompanies mental health issues.
I write a lot about connections, loneliness, and belonging. It’s important to have community in our lives. It makes us healthier, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And even though I’m not yet forty, I’ve been fortunate to have some friendships for over twenty or even thirty years. I find those friendships rewarding. We do our best to keep in touch via email and social media. I also try and visit these friends once or twice a year. Our brief times together provide me with much encouragement.
But there’s a flipside to this: how do you know when it’s time to end a friendship? As an article on friendship pointed out: “When getting together feels like an obligation, you dread seeing someone or you walk away from dinner feeling angry, frustrated or dissatisfied, it may signal that the friendship is faltering and the end is near.”
It’s possible we have a toxic friendship. There are people that abuse our time and sympathy (I call them emotional vampires because they suck our emotions and give nothing back). It’s often the case that we wish to do what we can to save the friendship—especially if it’s one we’ve maintained for many years. Yet, for the sake of our own mental health it can sometimes be best to end that relationship.
When I have found a friendship to be overwhelming me emotionally, what I often do is first try and confront the friend in an honest manner. I let them know what they’re doing and that while I still care for them, they way in which they’re approaching our friendship is difficult for me.
If that gentle reminder doesn’t help, it is good to speak again with them. But if repeated discussions don’t change the person’s behavior, it can be best to extract one’s self from the relationship.
In doing so there might be feelings of remorse and sadness from letting go of something that you may have once held dear. But keep in mind that your mental health is what is most important in this situation. It can be key to look after yourself, especially if the relationship is causing mental or emotional distress for you.
When it comes to the actual extraction, lessening the frequency of communication is the best means to do so. It doesn’t mean to stop speaking with them cold turkey, but it can mean instead of your monthly call or email, make it every other month. If you’re in their city or town for another reason, don’t reach out to let them know you’re there. If they find out later you were around, assure them you were busy the entire time you were there and didn’t have a moment to spare.
If the friend confronts you on your behavior, be honest with them. Explain that you spoke with them about changing their behavior to make the friendship more equal and that s/he didn’t adjust. Tell them that you have to watch out for relationships that are difficult for your mental health. There is no reason to feel shame—your mental health is more important than any of your friendships.
The relationship may find a rekindling. That is the ideal situation. Your friend sees how their actions caused problems with your relationship and then changes their behavior. Barring that, though, you may have to make a clean break with that friend. It can be difficult and there will likely be feelings of remorse and as though part of you has died. And it’s okay to feel that way, because when we lose something important in our lives, it’s natural to grieve.
At moments such as that, turn to other friends and family. Give yourself time to feel your feelings. And then continue to build new relationships. Leave the past in the past knowing that you did your best to save the friendship and had to look after yourself. And when dealing with the precious area of mental health, you can never be too safe.
My brain has gotten me to the hospital emergency room more than the rest of my body. I’ve been twice, both in 2011. I read an article about people who had bad experiences in the ER with their mental health so I thought it might be good to share what’s happened to me. I wrote about my first experience in the ER in the last blog entry. You can find that here.
The content below is an excerpt from my memoir, Fiercely Lonely, which will be released at some future date.
The second time I was in the emergency room it was as though I was another person. This time was for an actual suicide attempt, as opposed to the first experience, which was for suicidal thoughts. After my attempt to take my life I became dead inside, but somehow still functioning. It was as though my mind kicked into a role it knew how to perform, but one which I was unaware of until that moment.
I went to a different ER than the first occasion, one closer to my apartment. In fact, I walked through Harvard’s Arboretum on a sunny, warm June morning. I listened to the birds chirp and saw the squirrels play and then proceeded to stroll into the hospital. I carried with me my gym bag packed with clothing and items I knew I would need for a week at a psychiatric facility.
At the hospital nurses and doctors asked me questions and with no shame I answered them in a blunt manner. I told them exactly what I did and spared no detail. The staff acted cool and calm and casual. Sometimes they were friendly. At other moments alienating, their conversations mechanical and detached. A suicide experience heightened their senses, though. I understood they took it seriously by the questions they asked and the way they approached me. The questions were the same as the first time I’d been in the hospital: “What did you try to do?” “Why did you try to do it?” And down the line it went.
I didn’t have to spend the night at the hospital the second time. Once again, through this new survival role that my brain possessed, I advocated for myself. I made sure to speak up for what I believed to be the best option for me.
The first time I was in the psych ward, people who could talk and were coherent shared everything related to their mental health experiences. They rated meds and doctors and other hospitals. They told me the best hospitals to go to, and while in the hospital the second time around I still remembered their words. “Can you see if there is room at Lochstead for me?” I asked the ER doctor. “I want to go to Lochstead.” Time stopped and I exited. Lochstead it was.
My brain has gotten me to the hospital emergency room more than the rest of my body. I’ve been twice, both in 2011. I read an article about people who had bad experiences in the ER with their mental health so I thought it might be good to share what’s happened to me. There is a range of experiences in emergency rooms for those with mental health issues. You never know what might happen, so it’s always good to go if you’re feeling as though you may harm yourself.
At the end of 2010 my psychiatrist and I changed up my medication and things weren’t going so well. I had intense suicidal ideation and didn’t feel safe so in February 2011 I went to the ER at a local hospital in Boston that also had a mental health ward. My insurance provider’s website directed me there. I had no context to know whether it would be a good fit so it was pretty much like throwing a dart at a list.
The content below is an excerpt from my memoir, Fiercely Lonely, which will be released at some future date.
The entry to the emergency room was smooth and the wait time non-existent. I felt calm and casual with my conversation with the nurse and intake worker. As I went through the check-in process and found my way into a bed in the emergency room, I actually felt pretty good, all things considered. I received my own room with my own bed within the ER. There was a nurse’s station outside that watched over all the rooms. Once ensconced I changed into a gown and received a blanket and lay down while Valerie (my girlfriend) sat in a chair next to me. A nurse came in and asked what I had planned to do to kill myself. At first I thought that was none of her business, but I realized that she was asking so that she could keep an eye on me.
There was a window where a woman sat and looked at me every few seconds but otherwise kept her head down in a book or crossword puzzle. I didn’t understand why she kept looking at me, as I thought she was a nurse. But I soon realized she was the person making sure I didn’t kill myself. That was her only job: making sure I stayed alive.
Throughout the evening a psych doctor came to ask me questions. She was very calm and gentle in her presentation and with the manner in which she queried about my condition. The typical questions were: Do you want to kill yourself? Do you have a history of mental illness? Have you tried to kill yourself before? She spoke without belying a sense of happiness or sadness. Her manner was direct. I felt uncomfortable with her because she appeared embarrassed to be around me. Was it because she wasn’t used to handling mentally ill patients? Or was I being too sensitive?
The psych doctor didn’t have many answers at that time; they were looking to see if there would be an opening in the ward for me the next day. If not, I would spend the day in the ER once again. I couldn’t imagine sleeping on that bed for more than one night. It wasn’t made for any sense of comfort, cushioned but without much depth, the vinyl feeling unnatural against my skin. I didn’t want to get up too much and worry the nurse and the woman watching me. I was, even at my worst, more concerned with others instead of my own sense of well-being.
With my future placement in question, I did the best I could to make myself comfortable. My clothes and other items went into a locker. My sense of suicide and depression was still hovering in the background. It was waiting for an opportunity to make itself known once the newness of my situation had worn off.
I tried to sleep as my guardian peered into my living space to make sure I still existed. I received water, and nurses checked my blood pressure and vitals throughout the night. I felt as comfortable as one could in that situation. It was the best they could do, all things considered. I wondered if everyone I had so far encountered deemed my rather cheery albeit somewhat tempered disposition confusing.
I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of times to go to the bathroom (located down the hall). Both times I exited my room I noticed that the woman set to watch me had fallen asleep. One time, as I left the room, she woke up, startled, and stared at me, mouth agape with a surprised look on her face. It was as though she was looking at an angelic apparition and yet at that moment I was far from any sense of perfection.
Outside my room, the nurse at the ER station looked up from reading her magazine and asked me, “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just need to go to the bathroom,” I replied with an upbeat tone in my voice.
“Okay honey,” she said and went back to her magazine.
When I got up the next morning, I turned on the TV encased behind Plexiglas. I kept track of what was occurring with the latest round of riots in the Middle East. My sense of self-destruction failed to silence my curiosity with what was going on in the world.
The same doctor from the previous evening was still on duty the following morning. After the routine blood pressure check by the nurse, staff told me there was a room for me in the psych ward. This hospital was a preferred provider by my insurance, a perk in my situation. I learned later that at other hospitals people often spent two or three days in the ER before receiving a transfer to a psych ward. People were falling apart all over the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
I’ve been going through many changes in my life with not only a new job but also a redirection for my future. I’m desiring to do something that will have a bigger impact on those around me through mental health writing and speaking. These are all positive things and yet they stress me out a great deal. Change is never easy, but as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I learned a few things that are of some help during such times.
1. Keep your routine as much as possible
This isn’t always easy for everyone in times of change, especially if you have a longer commute or work a different shift. But, it’s important to establish a routine in that new schedule sooner rather than later. Many of us find a routine to be comforting as the general chaos of our lives can be stressful over long periods of time. We have heightened awareness and are on edge if we don’t have a regular schedule.
Lifting weights, stretching, and doing yoga have all helped me with my stress. I try to build in time at the gym or at home to be physically fit. In doing so I can best fight off negative feelings and exert some of the stress that creeps up on me when I’m going through a transitional period.
If you are starting a different work shift, make it a priority to establish a regular sleep schedule if you can. While not all jobs allow for that, do your best to find a time in the day when you can get 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. While I tend to be okay with getting by on less sleep, it’s important we have that set period to rejuvenate and rest. Getting enough sleep is key in keeping us healthy.
4. Eating right
It’s so tempting when you’re in a rush and starting a big change in your life to rely on fast food options that are often unhealthy. Take the time to make yourself some meals that are nourishing for both the mind and the body. A simple internet search will pull up many options for recipes for such meals. I find that when I eat food that is high in sugar or heavily processed it can lead me to feel gross about myself and my body, which isn’t something I need.
5. Make time for yourself
After you’ve taken care of work, eating right, exercising, and sleep, set aside some time for you. Do the things that you know make you happy. For me this includes writing, watching movies, going on a walk or hike, and traveling. But whatever it is, make sure you schedule in an hour or two every so often to do the things that you enjoy. This is excellent for mental health and key to a healthy mind in a transitional state.
There are some days I struggle with my hypocrisy. I try not to think about it too much, if at all, because it gets under my skin. I tell others to hang on when they’re feeling down in their lives. I want people to keep on living when they’re feeling suicidal and depressed.
Yet, the fact of the matter is that I don’t always want to keep on living. There are often times—usually once a month or so—when I want to throw in the towel and end it all. It’s a thought and sometimes it’s fleeting—gone in a minute. But I feel overwhelmed, tired, and trapped by responsibilities I don’t want such as work I don’t enjoy. Sometimes what I need to accomplish in a day—chores, errands, projects—seems too much. I’m unable to live in the moment and take pleasure in what I have.
I then think about the hypocrisy involved with that. There is a light that shines in us and I know that. To extinguish that light is tragic, as things can often turn around and get better. I’ve felt that in my own life.
Depression is a slog, though. It’s asking whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. Sometimes I look at it as a life-long struggle that never ends and that discourages me. I think about how depression will always be there and how much it tires me.
There’s another part of me, though, that recognizes the depression goes away. That my default state isn’t sadness, but kindness and helpfulness. Those times of feeling down are bumps along the way.
I think about people whom I know who seem mentally strong but at the same time hide their suicidal feelings. Sometimes they give in to them.. I never want to be that person. Past experiences have shown me I want to live when given the chance. Yet suicidal thoughts hang there, on the periphery and stare me down as I tell others, “Keep going.”
I know that for many people, their depression is fleeting. A message of encouragement is what they need in their darker hours. So, every little bit of help I can give to others is great. But it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle. And it feels hypocritical to tell others to keep going when I want to give in.
Regardless of what happens to me, I figure if I can get one person through a mentally rough patch, it’s worth spreading the word of staying with us. We need you, even if I may not always feel that way about myself. It doesn’t change that fact that you’re good and wanted and loved by so many others. And I know I am, too. If only that could always be enough.
Trigger warning: I get in the weeds in speaking about suicide in this entry. It may not be for everyone.
Suicidal ideation is a scary topic to talk about, both for the speaker and the listener. It's safe to say suicidal ideation is generally considered a bad thing. But there are parts of it that I’ve come to realize are worse than others. It’s one thing to think about throwing yourself in front of a train but knowing you’ll never act upon it. Yet suicidal ideation has many layers, some of which affect the individual more than others.
1. You never know what will set you over the edge
I can handle my thoughts most of the time but I live in fear of wondering what the thing will be that might set me over the edge. Will it be an unkind word from someone? A frustrating day at work? What helps is knowing coping skills that I can undertake when those difficulties occur in my life. I can try and adjust my thoughts and realize that things happen, but the important thing is my reaction to difficult situations. Things can change and that includes my feelings at that moment.
2. Other people don’t know what will set you over the edge
Once you share your thoughts of suicide with others, it’s possible they will fret about it. No one likes to hear someone they love is suffering, especially when it’s not treatable in an easy manner. I’ve come to learn that fine line between ideation and action. Thus I don’t always share when I’m feeling suicidal with others because I know there’s not a lot they can do about it. Yet, I must acknowledge friends and family can show emotional support which means I should share more often what’s going on in my brain. This support can go a long way to helping me recover from down times.
3. Wondering when it will go away
When suicidal ideation comes along, sometimes it hangs around for a few minutes, but other times it’s with me for days. It's not constant but it is consistent. Often times this is in passive ways that I don't register. This may include thinking about what it would be like to not exist when I have a difficult situation occur. Or it may mean thinking of how the impact of various vehicles would feel against my body if I jumped into traffic.
But I can’t help but wonder how long such feelings will stay with me. And that can be troublesome because in those moments I may believe I’ll never get better. I know I have to fight such feelings. They deny the reality that I do, deep down, want to be here on earth. But it can be hard if they’re going on for days at a time.
To combat this, I’ve learned that if these feelings go on for more than a day or two, I reach out to loved ones to let them know what I’m going through. Perhaps the ideation will pass away on its own, but when it comes to mental health, it’s always better to ask for support than not do so.
If you are feeling suicidal, or need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255.
I met with a man in a position of authority recently. “Kurt,” he told me, “I truly believes everything happens for a reason.” I nodded and smiled. He told me how he immigrated to America and achieved success.
I didn’t want to belittle his story, but while I put on a smiling face at his comment, inside I cringed. That’s because I used to believe that things happened for a reason. I thought that god had a plan for everyone and there was purpose and meaning for all my tragedies and successes.
Yet I always chafed under that idea because it didn’t line-up with my experiences with mental illness. Regardless of my belief in god--which is a different subject—as I got older it became harder for me to believe there was a reason for much of anything. Instead, I realized that experiences just are.
For a long time I wanted to believe that my depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts were going to make me into a greater or better person than I am today. But mental illness doesn’t go away. There’s not a lesson to learn from it. It's not like I wasn’t paying attention while I was driving and got in a car accident and now I should pay more attention on the road. No, my mental health issues are on-going. They always will be a part of me.
Some might argue that there are lessons to learn from this on-going struggle, though. I can use my experiences to help others, as I’m doing right now, they may say.
While that may seem like an easy answer, I hope I could help others with mental health issues without having to go through what I have. The idea of having to deal with suicide and feeling a constant state of mental weight on my brain is something I’d love to avoid. I don’t think I’d still need to be going through what I’m going through to share my experiences about mental health.
I find that when people say, “Everything happens for a reason,” it minimizes what I have gone through. It makes it seem as though my experiences are a pawn in some sort of larger game of life that can get me someplace whereby I will have “won.”
Based on my experiences I find it far more likely that things in life just are. They happen and there’s no reason. And that’s okay. I don’t need my trials and tribulations to have some grand meaning to know it’s worthwhile for me to be alive and to continue to live.
Years ago I learned to be okay with ambiguity (as much as it’s possible, at least) and the weirdness of life. It makes things fun and gives life a sense of adventure.
I’ve learned to become okay with life having no universal purpose. It’s up to each of us to come up with it on our own. I’ve chosen to do my best to live a life of service to others, but what you find makes you happy may differ. I continue to experience life with its ups and downs, but what I choose to make of them is my own decision. Anything else deprives us of our autonomy as human beings and limits what we can do and what our struggles mean to us.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian household in rural Indiana in the ‘90s. Needless to say, we were not at the forefront of mental health treatment. And most of the messages I received about good mental health had religious sentiment: Bible verses, prayer, turn to god for answers.
At the time, despite attempts to use these methods to help with my depression and anxiety, I didn’t find any permanent solace. Instead, I experienced much guilt wondering what I was doing wrong to not find healing of my depression. Therapy was never brought up as an option. It wasn’t that the evangelical community I belonged to didn’t believe in it, it was more a matter of ignorance.
By the ‘90s I’m sure a quarter of people in New York and Los Angeles were in therapy. But in rural Indiana it was still considered okay to joke about the mental health facility in town. The people that went there were “nuts” and “crazy,” terms that were always said with a sense of derision. There wasn’t any compassion in regards to those who were mentally ill.
I also saw those attitudes played out in our church. Are you depressed? Turn to these Bible verses. Pray about it. If those things didn’t work then obviously you were doing something wrong and not connecting with god. Perhaps you had some issue you should be working on which would connect you more with him? That way you might receive proper guidance on your depression. Besides, weren’t Christian supposed to have great joy for having found the gift of salvation?
These suggestions did nothing but make me feel more like a failure. And when already suffering from low self-esteem, that wasn’t something I needed any more of.
After hitting severe lows with my mental health in my early twenties, I became more receptive to therapy and medications. I also began to see that just as I didn’t need so-called friends or acquaintances whose lack of support brought me down, mentally, I didn’t want to belong to something like evangelical Christianity that wasn’t supportive of my recovery.
It's likely some evangelical churches have come to accept therapy and medication as positives that can supplement one’s faith in handling mental illness. Yet I wouldn’t know. Along with many other reasons (many of which are more important than the church’s take on mental wellness), I left the faith many years ago.
There are still many Christians that push platitudes that are unhelpful toward feeling mentally fit. “Just pray about it.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Turn to god’s word to find answers for your illness.” And it’s unfortunate that is still the case. My struggles have shown me a detrimental side of Christianity.
I have no regrets about leaving my faith. Yet, my hope is that for those who are in the Church and have mental illness they could find themselves not hindered by clichés. Instead I hope they seek out the things they need to feel better.
I’ve been going to therapy for close to twenty years now. Thanks to moving around as well as my own therapists moving away, I’ve had at least eight in that time. If you count the ones I saw once or twice before deciding they weren’t a good fit, the number is more than a dozen. It’s over these years I’ve learned what to look for in a therapist and what helps me click and find support from them. Based on these experiences I’ve written some tips below. Keep in mind that this is about my encounters and what you find important may differ.
1. Find a therapist who focuses on your specific concerns
When I’ve needed a counselor I’ve often gone to the Find a Therapist part of Psychology Today’s website. There I’ve been able to narrow down what I desire in a therapist to meet my concerns. Counselors specialize in all sorts of problems; there’s no reason for me to go to a therapist who focuses on LGBT issues if I’m not any of those things. My particular issues deal with suicidal ideation, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Thus I’m able to check boxes on those individuals whose focus matches that.
2. Learn what style of therapy works for you
There are numerous types of therapy out there: cognitive-behavioral (CBT), Jungian, EMDR, and many more. Do some research and find out which works for you. I learned that CBT is quite helpful for what I need. It taught me coping skills to deal with when I am overwhelmed with the anxieties that life provides. At many websites you can narrow down the type of therapy that you might find useful.
3. Don’t hesitate to stand up to your therapist
Therapists aren’t perfect. They make mistakes and can miscommunicate. I’ve had therapists try and suggest things for me to do that they think might help. I wasn’t always capable of doing so, but on some occasions I’ve had to tell them things such as, “That won’t work because that’s not who I am. I don’t think my social anxiety would go away by joining a sports team. I’m not into sports.” Because a therapist is pushing an idea doesn’t mean they’re always right. If they continue to not get you or push you to do things you’re uncomfortable with, you may need to do the next step.
4. Don’t hesitate to leave your therapist
It can be tough to break-up with your therapist. It’s an intimate relationship in which you’ve shared some of your innermost thoughts. But if you don’t find their style of therapy helpful or if their personality doesn’t click with yours, it’s fine to leave them. When I meet with a therapist I can usually tell within about two or three sessions if they’re a good fit. It’s kind of like dating in that aspect. But any therapist who is good at their job won’t have a problem if you tell them that things aren’t working with them. If a therapist gets upset at you (which I’ve never had happen, but have heard stories) when you tell them this, by all means ditch them.
I’ve also had to leave therapists because they didn’t have their shit together. They were late to sessions, didn’t do their billing correctly, or weren’t paying attention to what I was saying. Therapy is about you and not anyone else. It’s about you getting better. If anyone stands in the way of that, you don’t want them as part of your journey to wellness. Don’t hesitate to ditch them so that you can come to a place of good mental health.
I recently had a student approach me after speaking to a mental health group on his college campus. He was a friendly, thoughtful guy who wanted to know how I dealt with my anxiety. I had a few thoughts to share with him—methods that worked for me. He was seeing a therapist and working on cognitive behavioral therapy. It was good to hear that—he wanted to put his mental health first, which is important if one wishes to improve it.
Our conversation reminded me that I haven’t written much about my anxiety, which is ironic since it’s the first mental health issue I dealt with. Going back to my time as a small child, I often got nervous or worried in new situations. I didn’t like being away from my mom or my house. Being in new places on my own scared me.
Over the years, my anxiety morphed as I became nervous about getting good grades and finding friends. Some of the old fears still remained but I began to have a hard time being in social situations. I would often shut people out instead of joining in their gatherings or activities. It wasn’t easy for me to tell others that while I liked them, I worried about finding acceptance in their social setting.
Looking back, I've come up with four things I wish I knew about anxiety. It's possible if someone told these things to me it would have given me a leg up on tackling my fears.
1. You might need meds
This is the biggest one. Without anti-anxiety medication, it was impossible for me to calm down to the point where my mind could address ideas in a rational manner. I knew that certain processes might work to handle anxiety. Yet my mind was racing all the time in those anxiety provoking situations. It did so such that I never got the opportunity to use those methods that might have helped with tackling my anxiety. Once my mind drew back to a more calm level thanks to the meds, I found it was easier to focus on the lessons I was learning in therapy and self-help workbooks.
I know medications aren’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine functioning without one.
2. Panic attacks are ok
I’ve had a few panic attacks in my life. They’re not fun. And they’re always the result of fears running full-steam out of control. In the past I used to think panic attacks were the end of the world and meant there was something damaged in me—maybe even beyond repair. After I had the first one, I felt like a horrible person. But that’s far from the case. They're a part of having anxiety but they don't make me worthless. As we say in the mental health field: it’s okay to not be okay.
3. There are ways to control it
I found cognitive behavioral therapy to do wonders for putting my thoughts in context and understand why I thought what I did. The workbook Mind Over Mood was especially helpful.
4. Everything will be okay – look at past experiences
If nothing else, remind yourself of this simple idea: you’ve had periods when you felt anxious and as though you might not make it through that experience. But you survived. And you can continue to remind yourself of your strength any time you have anxiety.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II when I was 21 years old. I went through a rough patch in college and once I got my diagnosis my life made more sense. However, there are some things I wish I had been told which no one ever shared with me at that time. So here they are.
1. Those manic times when you think you’re productive aren’t always as good as you think
There was a time in my early twenties when my manic phases were in full effect. At first it was scary because I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night and felt fine. I wondered when my brain was going to stop functioning due to lack of sleep. But it never happened. So I then realized I could be quite productive. And I enjoyed that. But as comedian Chris Gethard told me (and I agree): “With the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, ‘Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!’ And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.” And he’s right. It’s not worth it. While I could do a great deal of things, my creative work wasn't of good quality. Other work I would do, such as chores on a list, I find I can still do and don't need the other side effects that come with the manic phases.
2. You will get irritable
My stereotypical view of bipolar before I had it was that you are a sex-crazed, drug-addicted party animal for a while and then a crying mess that can’t get out of bed for the other part of your life. First, I didn’t know there was bipolar II, thus, a different spectrum of experiences that were also identified as bipolar. Second, I didn’t realize the amount of irritability that went into my manic phases. And it’s often about things that are small and unimportant. Let's say I’m running a few minutes late—what does that matter in the big scheme of things? But if I’m not paying attention to it I allow it to ruin my day by making me cranky toward everyone around me. Often times I have pre-arranged notions of how I want things to be and if that doesn’t happen I can be a jerk. I’ve gotten better at becoming aware of it but it’s still not always in check.
3. There are medications out there that can help (but it may take a while to find the right mix)
I received my diagnosis when I was 21. It took what seemed like decades to find drugs that worked for me. In reality it was less than a decade. But during that time I was on more medications than I can remember. I felt as though the moment might never come where I could experience some stability. But through experience and trial and error it worked. When I first started down that road I was so impatient. I know medications don’t always work for everyone but when you have diagnosed bipolar disorder they’re often pretty key to getting well. I’m glad I stuck through the process.
It’s that time of year again: holiday season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are all within six weeks of one another. While for many it’s a joyous occasion, for others it can be a very lonely time.
Here are a list of some things you can do to fight off the loneliness during this time (and especially on the actual days).
1. Reach out to family
Not everyone has a good relationship with their family. But if you do and can’t be with them in person, try and connect with them. I’ve spent a few Thanksgivings and Christmases on my own. I made sure to call family on those days and let them know I was thinking of them. I checked in to see how things were going and what they were up to—not only about that specific holidays, but generally in their lives. A phone call for half an hour or an hour is a good way to feel connected with others, even if we’re not there with them.
2. Reach out to friends
Chances are you may not be the only person amongst your friends who doesn’t have anyone to connect with on a particular holiday. For a few years I lived far away from my family on the other side of the country and couldn’t make it home for Christmas. So I spent it with friends—eating at a Chinese restaurant or a diner. Even if it was for an hour or two, it was nice to be out of my apartment and with others. Sometimes I didn’t even know the people too well. But I put myself out there and realized that I would feel better if I could be around others and out of my own head.
3. Come up with plans on your own
Chinese food and a movie. I’ve done it before and it’s always a good time. When you’re at the Chinese restaurant, take a book with you or do some journaling. Afterward, go see a fun film or some big, dumb blockbuster movie. Something to take your mind off any loneliness you may feel. Or, spend the day and binge watch a TV show while working on a project. I often feel bad if I binge watch an entire season of a show but if I’m also spending the time working on a project, it can feel useful.
4. Work on goals for the next year
If you’re alone for a holiday, spend it working on goals for the next year. What do you want to do in the first three months of the year? The first six months? Ask yourself why you want to achieve these goals and what roadblocks may come up in trying to do them. Develop steps to complete your goals. Then put these steps in your calendar for the next few months and keep yourself on track.
These are a few ideas of things to do when you’re alone (and if you're lonely) on a holiday. I’ve celebrated my fair shares of New Year’s Eves, Christmases, and Thanksgivings on my own. I’ve found these ideas to work for me. But what about you? What’s worked for you? Leave me some comments below—I’d love to hear from you!
I’ve learned a lot about depression in the past twenty years. There are many lessons it has taught me, but here are a few things that I wish someone had told me about this particular mental health issue.
1. Depression won’t ever go away but you can manage it
There was a time in high school I thought there would be a cure to my depression. Or it would, at some point, go away. Later, after college, I received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. Yet even then I didn’t comprehend that depression would be staying with me for the rest of my life. I fought against that notion and didn’t want to think it was true, but over time came to accept it as fact. Through medication, therapy, and self-care I’ve learned that it is manageable and I can lead a healthy, productive life.
2. Depression takes many different forms
From when I first began to experience depression in my early teens I thought it meant sadness. It was a sadness that wasn’t always rational, but a sadness nonetheless. Over the years, though, my depression still exists in that form on occasion but more often than not it’s about existential depression. It’s the feeling of loss of direction that occurred because of giving up my faith in god many years ago. That aimlessness kept me frustrated and discouraged for a long time. It’s only recently that I’ve found encouragement in speaking to others about my mental health struggles.
3. There are things you can learn about yourself through your experiences with depression
I’m surprised with how well I’ve managed my depression over the years. Sure, there have been times I’ve been suicidal or been in the hospital, but those are blips on the radar. I’ve far more often had times which have found me more stable. I’ve seen and been through a lot of shit and am still here. To me that shows some great mental and emotional strength. I’ve discovered a sense of empathy for others who experience mental health issues. Finally, through writing and speaking on mental health I’ve learned that there’s a creative side of myself I didn’t always think I possessed. And it’s one of which I can be proud.
4. Because you’re depressed it doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish things
Depression doesn’t mean you can’t do great things with your life. Sure, you may have to adjust at times. But even people with some of the most severe depression—as long as they’re treating it—can lead successful lives they can be proud of. I’ve seen people in the throes of sadness create wonderful art or write beautiful stories or even be excellent parents to their children. Depression doesn’t have to relegate you to a world of nothingness. It can be hard but depression doesn’t equal not accomplishing goals.
More than anything, my concern about money has driven me to extreme levels of anxiety in my life. It’s strange to write that because I come from a well-off, upper middle-class white family. I’ve never lacked for anything and my parents are still well to-do.
Anxiety was the first mental illness I recognized in my life. From early childhood I experienced the concern and worry of being away from my mom, especially. Most days in first grade I imagined leaving school and going home to her, even though I wasn’t a mamma’s boy. I wanted to be someplace I thought was secure and safe.
As I grew up my anxieties expanded as well. I worried about the apocalypse and finding myself left behind (I grew up in an evangelical Christian household). I had concerns about going to friends’ houses to spend the night. I was afraid of being away from home for what seemed like a very long time. When I got my first job at 15 I was anxious about doing good work, even after the first few days showed me I was fine.
I know a lot of this comes through genetics, as I see it in relatives. Still, there was something more. Why the specific concern with money?
This is, after all, an absurd fear. I would never be out on the street if I lost my job. I live in an affordable apartment and have a partner to help pay rent. I have savings. I’m sure my parents would support me. I have to remind myself of these things when I get scared about my financial future.
Much of this goes back to two things: 1) My parents grew up without a lot of money and 2) my dad lost his job when I was in elementary school.
When parents become successful they often remind their children how difficult life was in their own youth. Most kids believe their parents about everything, so even though mine meant no ill will, I took to heart their statements of the difficulty of a poor upbringing. I feared we were always one step away from being out on the streets, my comfortable life gone.
Thus when my dad lost his job when I was around 10 years old, it scared me. Would we lose our house? Would we have to get a small apartment and I have to share a bedroom with my sister? Might I have to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor in a roach-infested hotel room? I’d still be alive but could I get lice from staying there? My mind spiraled into worse case scenarios.
Of course things were fine: my dad found a new job, we didn’t lose our house, I didn’t get lice. But since then I’ve been cautious with my money. I rarely buy any extravagances short of traveling here and there (which I realize I am quite fortunate to do). I save and save and save for purposes I don’t even know what for. I’m a minimalist with a sparse amount of possessions I can move at a moment’s notice.
These fears make no sense to me. Still, as I get older they’ve calmed somewhat. I have a better grasp of finances and can put into context what happened in my youth.
Anxieties are so often irrational and mine is especially so given the privileges I have in this life. Yet, it’s taken me a few decades to get comfortable with this irrational thought and take on a correct perspective of it.
My fear about money will on occasion rear its head. But as I get older my past has shown me I am safe. I've learned to be smart with my money and have a great privilege—both with my financial and mental states. I’m doing my best to not take these for granted.
Over the past few months I’ve been on a journey to narrow down my focus of speaking about loneliness. It's a big topic and while there are those who speak about the subject at large, I prefer to speak to college students.
College was when I first experienced full-blown bipolar disorder as well as the first time I felt severe loneliness. Part of the reason was because I went to a college where I didn’t fit in, but also my mental health issues kept me from feeling connected with others.
Reasons for loneliness among college-aged students can vary. Some are from overseas and going to school in another country may not be easy. For others, their mental health issue may keep them from finding connections. Or it's possible the school they’re at is among people they don’t feel comfortable: they’re a city person and they’re in a school in a small town, or vice versa.
Whatever the reason for the loneliness, it exists. And it’s prevalent among college students. So what are we to do about it?
The first thing we can do is have people speak up. And I’m not only referring to professional speakers on college campuses. I’m also including students. It’s may be easy for some students to hear a tale from someone like myself who is out of the realm of college age and dismiss what I say.
But, having a fellow student come out and proclaim their difficulties can have a much more powerful impact. Whenever we know the person dealing with a problematic experience, it can make us accepting to what they’re going through.
The second thing is to have more education about the agency that we, as individuals, have to combat and defeat loneliness. I’ve often believed that early in a student’s college career (or even before it), there should be education on mental health issues at school. Students should be aware that college can be a time of great transition with their mental wellness. And they may feel emotions and undergo new experiences in their mental health.
That said, loneliness should also be a part of that conversation. This is especially important for students who spend time overseas or who, for one reason or another, are going to be away from their peers. Yet, learning about how to find belonging should be something that colleges teach students.
College can be a tremendous time of change. Even if you’re not in school, the transition from high school to the full-time working world is a jolt. Thus, more awareness, by both peers and educators, is key to letting those in their late teens and early twenties know they’re not alone. And in doing so, we also should pass along means by which those in college can know that there are ways they can find belonging.
I've written about how I got into speaking on mental health, but never so much why. So why did I decide to put myself out there for others to get to know something that many consider a deep, dark secret?
I've always been somewhat of a confessional writer. In the early 2000s I published my horrible poetry and free-ranging rants on my music website, Action Attack Helicopter. I knew I wanted to share thoughts and ideas with others--I thought it might help someone although I'm not sure why. I suppose at some point I got some encouragement here or there from a friend and a few positive words of feedback. That was enough to keep me going.
Over the years I've had some zines and blogs and they also received very limited but honest praise. And I also didn't know what else to do--I felt there was a need to express myself. It's part of being a writer; that idea implanted in one's mind that one must share their thoughts.
It didn't seem too awkward, then, to transition into being more direct and honest about my mental health issues. No longer did I need to mask it in poorly written poetry or adequate prose. I wrote not only of my struggles but also of answers. I spent hours of time online and researched solutions to issues related to loneliness, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
It's not only about writing, though. It's easy to do that behind a computer, tucked away in my apartment. Yet, I want to speak about loneliness and depression. There are a few reasons why I actually get in front of crowds and speak.
1) I like the immediate reactions. It's wonderful to see people smile or laugh at what you say. Or it's an acknowledgment through a nod that they understand what you're saying. The ability to try and connect with others--and to know you're connecting--is a rewarding feeling.
2) It's a rush. Speaking makes me nervous and I imagine it always will. Yet when you know your topic and can channel it into energy when you speak, it's quite a high.
3) I can see the direct effect of lives changed. It's encouraging and rewarding to have that immediate validation afterward. It's awesome when someone tells you that what you said spoke to them and they can identify with it. That confirmation of what you did and that it had a positive impact on others signals to me that it was a job well done.
I'm not going to lie: it's validating to know I'm changing lives and affecting people. It makes me feel good. But that's something we all seek in our lives. We want to be happy about our existence. So yes, some of this is about what I get out of it. But if I'm going to feel good, I can't think of any better reason than because I'm helping others with my words and speaking.
How does one go from feeling nervous about public speaking to presenting a 35 minute talk on loneliness? Should you accept the challenge of becoming a public speaker your experience will vary, but here are the steps I took.
In high school I was in a couple of plays but always had small roles—just a few lines. I sang for my friends’ hardcore punk band on occasion, too. It was a real rush to feel so many people with their eyes on me. After that my performing life went dormant for a long while.
In graduate school in 2009 and 2010 I began to present at academic conferences on my masters thesis subject—1970s Christian scare films. Despite small audiences (as is the case at almost all such events), I discovered I enjoyed being in front of others. I liked sharing information about a subject in which I had an interest.
In 2014 I decided to break myself out of a depressive spell by taking a stand-up comedy class. I have always enjoyed watching stand-up and thought that I could do it. I performed at about 15-20 open mics and did a showcase for my class, too. While I didn't take to the comedy scene, I did know I liked being on stage with people watching me. In such a situation, I found it created a nervous ball of energy and anxiety that pushed me to perform with great passion.
The next year, 2015, I looked into giving historical tours. I took a class through a non-profit that offers such tours and learned a bit more about the history of Boston. After six weeks I graduated a docent and began practicing. And practicing. And practicing. I walked my tour route in Boston's North End many times. I practiced out loud in my room. I followed nine different guides on their tours so I could see what they did. I gave three practice tours to friends. When my time finally came I did all right. It wasn't the best thing ever but I enjoyed it. As long as I felt comfortable with the material, it went okay.
After doing that tour for three years I started working for another company giving a different tour. I learned to handle horrible situations: down-pouring rain, bratty children, fist fights, and drug addicts around me as I tried to tell tales. These situations built character and resilience.
I started going to Toastmasters about this time, learning the fundamentals of giving speeches. I realized I already had most things down well. I used Toastmasters to try out some ideas, though, including my first speech on loneliness. After about a year I left, knowing that I had gotten what I could out of it.
During this same time I made a goal to enter one storytelling event. I practiced my story to my cat and my mirror a dozen times or more. And when it came to my first story slam, I won the audience choice award. For the second event, I entered I won the entire story slam! It's taken me years to work on my self-esteem but I can finally say that this is something at which I excel.
When it came to learning how to understand the speaking business and find gigs, I listened to The Speaker Lab. It's a podcast for speakers and those who want to speak. I also read a lot of articles. I took a copious amount of notes.
I've learned that moving in a stair-step approach—taking on things one at a time—is also helpful. I can't imagine going from no public speaking to giving a 35-minute presentation. But adding one challenge and then another enabled me to build confidence. I may not be the best public speaker but I'm doing what I can to share ideas and help some people along the way. It didn't happen over night but the journey has been well worth it.
Being depressed sucks all around, but there is one aspect of it that I despise more than any other: irritability. With all other aspects of depression I am the only one who feels bad. Yes, it can affect others when they see me feeling sad or withdrawn, but it’s not a feeling of being under attack. It’s a passive feeling.
Yet my irritability affects not only me but also the individuals around me because I often lash out at them over minor things. I grow frustrated when things don’t go my way or aren’t how I planned them to be. For example, on a recent Sunday I wanted to do my laundry and then go to the public library and work on some writing. But my partner and a family member asked me to come to brunch with them. We discussed this idea earlier in the week but I hadn’t heard anything so I assumed the plan wasn’t happening. Based on that assumption I came up with another idea of what I was to do with my day. I knew I had agreed earlier to do the brunch but the change in plans left me irritable.
As I rode the bus to meet my partner and her family member, I grew annoyed and frustrated. Beneath that, though, was a level of concern: would I have the opportunity to do my laundry? I wanted to work on my writing because I set a deadline for myself for edits on a book I’m working on. But these were both self-imposed deadlines. There was nothing wrong if I did these things in the time schedule I had given myself. The world would not end, no one would find themselves disappointed.
I tried to walk myself through this line of thought to calm myself down. I wanted to get to the point where I wouldn’t find myself annoyed at my girlfriend or her family member. This time I was able to do so, although it did leave me depressed. While I exchanged one emotion for another, I was able to get my laundry done and I still have time to finish the writing. My irritability didn’t help anything—it didn’t allow me to be more productive or make anyone happy.
Irritability is still something I struggle with, more than anything else with my depression. It’s a side effect rarely discussed in mental health circles. But it’s something I want to focus on more as I move along in my mental health journey. I wish to do so both for myself and the family, co-workers, and friends who are on the end of my occasional foul mood.
It’s so easy for me to stay in a rut. For weeks on end my life may consist of work, the gym, grocery shopping, watching dumb videos online, sleeping, eating, and then repeating that sequence. I often don’t realize I was in that repetitive place until I’m out of it.
What can often snap me out of that funk is travel. It doesn’t matter where I go: it could be a day trip visiting friends in the suburbs, or a vacation to a foreign country. Experiencing different things and seeing new, or even familiar, things in a place that’s not my usual routine is transformative.
Often times, though, the ability of travel to readjust my mind can do more than get me out of repetitive daily actions. Travel can help with my mental health. When I get away from home I go outside of myself. I’m forced to interact with others and look at new things and people. I observe what’s happening around me as it’s different than what I’m used to.
Even the times when I go to places I’ve often been, such as my hometown, it’s not the paths I trod on a regular basis and that’s important. When I go places I have a connection with in the past, it gives me perspective in that I can see how much that place and the people I know there have changed. That, in turn, causes me to realize how much I’ve changed as well.
Traveling to new places has been important to me as it provides a means by which to see how others live. In doing so, I am forced out of my brain and into realizing that there are others who deal with the same issues as I do, as well as many different ones. I can place my anxieties and problems in perspective. They’re not as fierce as what many people are going through. Or, I’m dealing with things many others are also dealing with. This can help build empathy in my life.
I do find that my return home provides me with a new perspective and renewed energy to see situations that may have been problematic. It’s like a reboot of my emotional and mental state and one I welcome each time. It’s also something I recommend to do as often as you can.
I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the United States (but not as much overseas as I would like) and meet some great people and see some beautiful sights. In doing so, I’ve found incredible benefits for my mental health. It’s important to attempt to make travel a priority to get that reboot one can use with their own mental health.
So, if you have the opportunity to get out of your regular routine, go! Challenge yourself with new people and situations. You may be surprised how it can help with your mood and mental state. It doesn’t solve all my problems, but it certainly can put them in perspective and create new ways of me to look at them. In doing so, it can often lead to solutions to both momentary problems and those I’ve been working on for some time.
Over the past few years I've engaged in mental health advocacy. During that time I’ve noticed there are two avenues by which to tackle issues associated with mental illness.
First, there are steps involving awareness. This includes using our experiences with mental health issues to let others know they’re not alone and that life can get better. Also, awareness can include a discussion of how to deal with making mental health a priority in the community and in our lives. This is primarily what I’ve done and continue to do.
The second way to spread the word of issues with mental illness is in regards to making changes in our society to better assist those in need. This may include working on passage of legislation to provide better coverage of the mentally ill. It may also mean being a therapist and working in the field. Or it could be that you start a foundation or organization to develop better mental health.
I’ve seen a few organizations that focus on the entire package (National Alliance on Mental Illness). But it seems many groups and individuals take on one or the other. It’s difficult to combine both in a way that is coherent and effective. For most people and groups, it’s far too large to both spread awareness of an issue and fight for economic and legislative concerns related to it.
I have done my share of speaking out for good mental health. It’s important to spread the awareness of hope for those in dire straits. When lives are on the line, we need to move.
Yet the lack of affordable insurance coverage, the price of medications, and the need for greater mental health services in many areas are all representative of foundational issues that need attention. The handling of these struggles are best done at a larger societal and governmental level. It’s this lack of change on these issues that amounts to placing a band aid over a much larger wound.
While I’m aware of the need to save lives, it takes individuals with knowledge of this system to fight for the rights of the mentally ill at governmental levels. At this point in my life as a mental health advocate, these skills are something I haven’t attained or spoken up about much. Yet they’re key if we want to move forward and stop with temporary means to grand problems.
There are simple ways we can, as a society and as individuals, act to make systematic changes. We can start by challenging our legislators. We can ask them where they stand on issues related to mental health, and more importantly, what they’re going to do about it. We can ask them to support and propose legislation that will fight for the mentally ill.
We also need to not hesitate to elect legislators who are open about their mental illness or have close connections with the mentally ill. Unfortunately, for many politicians, it’s only when they have personal experiences with an issue that they are prone to act.
It’s a tough fight for the mentally ill, but it’s only through this combined effort of awareness and action that we will see gains made for our community.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.