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Remove the stigma, own your story

None of us like to talk about mental health. Even as a reporter who has been covering the issue for years and understands the importance of removing the stigma, I don’t want to talk about my own mental health struggles. 

It’s uncomfortable and feels vulnerable — a sign of weakness — but as Dr. Brene Brown says, vulnerability is brave. It’s not a sign of weakness or moral failing. It’s a reality for so many people, so if sharing our stories helps others own their stories, well then it’s worth it. 

First, I think it’s important to know that mental illness looks different for everyone. Being depressed doesn’t always look like someone not getting out of bed for days. It doesn’t always manifest as a lack of motivation or a strong feeling of hopelessness. Having anxiety and/or depression doesn’t just happen to introverts or people without a job or a support system. 

I guess no matter how much we like to think we understand mental illness, it’s always easier to recognize it in other people and not in ourselves. That was me. I’ve always been the helper, the fixer, the people pleaser and the one who wants to do it all. I’ve been told my whole life I can do whatever I want in life, but no one told me I can’t do it all at once.

I thought people pleasing and taking care of everyone else was my identity and I played that role until I was burned out and had nothing left to give. My mental health suffered because I wasn’t taking care of myself and refused to let anyone think I needed help. I just kept loading things onto my plate and setting unrealistic expectations that always left me feeling like a failure when I couldn’t meet them. 

I also developed bad coping skills to deal with the anxiety and depression — mostly overeating and drinking too much to make myself feel better in the moment, but it was only a temporary fix that was wreaking havoc on my body and mind. On top of the daily grind, I experienced a few traumatic events in my life that exacerbated the issue and left me caring for others during some of the hardest times in their lives — once again I put myself on the backburner. 

You can only keep yourself on the backburner for so long before you just boil over. My depression was manifesting physically and that’s when I felt forced to address it by going to the doctor. I wasn’t convinced I needed medication for the depression, but now that I’ve been taking it for over a year, I can’t tell you how much it’s helped me.

I was so far off balance, it had become my normal. It wasn’t until I’d been on an antidepressant for a couple of months that I realized there was nothing normal about the way I was living (surviving) before. 

Let me also say that medication is not the end-all be-all to mental health. The medication cleared my mind enough so that I could begin making hard changes. It gave me the clarity to realize I wanted more in my life and the confidence to believe I am worthy of a better life. I’m more than a year into my new way of living (thriving) and I’ve never regretted it for a second — not even on the hard days.

I started walking, hiking with friends, eating healthier, listening to self-improvement books and podcasts, setting healthy boundaries and working on the relationships in my life. In the process, I’ve lost 70 pounds, I have a greater awareness of myself, I have more patience with myself, my marriage is stronger, my relationship with family is healthier, I’m learning to say no when I need to and to be honest with those close to me about my feelings and limits.

And guess what? They get it. They respect it and they still love me. Imagine that!

To recognize National Mental Illness Awareness Week, my hope is that everyone takes a moment to do some self-evaluation. Ask yourself how you’re doing and be honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you need it. Your mental illness doesn’t have to define who you are, but it is part of your story. Own it, share it, grow from it. One of my favorite Brene Brown quotes says it perfectly:

“When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story we can write a brave new ending.”

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