I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about the best way to address Mental Health Awareness Month on this blog. Mental wellness is such an important aspect of our mission as the wellness committee and therefore, I wanted to do it proper justice. I jotted down some ideas and for most of the month have been reflecting pretty heavily on my own mental health with the hopes of figuring out the “right” thing to write. Over time, I realized that with all the stigmas surrounding mental health, sometimes the best way to start the conversation is to be open and candid with others. So, that is what I am going to attempt to do by telling you some of my own mental health experiences. It may never be the “right” or “perfect” thing to say, but I hope that by saying anything, I can have an impact on someone and get the conversation turned towards mental health awareness.
Before even really starting, I have to say that I struggled with the idea of having “my own mental health experiences”. In my mind, I always downplay some of my struggles thinking “oh but I have never been diagnosed with…” or “oh but I have never tried to…”, which leads to “so I can’t really say that…”, which is a problem in and of itself. No mental health obstacle is insignificant. Just because someone else you know might have stories, feelings, or experiences that you may consider “more severe” doesn’t mean that yours are invalid or not important to address. Mental health looks different to everyone, and the size or scale of your lived experience can not be compared to that of others.
For years I’ve struggled to love my body. It feels weird to write that despite the fact that I know I am not alone. Like many females I know, it started in my early middle school years when I was concerned about when I would get boobs or the fact that I would gain weight and then suddenly grow (my mother had to move the buttons on my uniform skirt to match the current state of my fluctuating body). Since then I’ve had good days and bad. It doesn’t typically have defining moments when it changes from good to bad, so I’ve never really known when it will hit me. Through the years I’ve tried many things to address how I felt about my body — some were good, such as joining Positive Body Image and Support Group for Girls in high school, while others were bad, such as agreeing to text my friend everything that I ate to hold myself accountable. (That last one is something that lasted for a while and I am not proud of it.) Despite all of this, nothing drastically changed. ~Fast forward to freshman year of college~ I stayed fairly active, playing field hockey and lifting at the gym. However, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t struggling with my overwhelming desire to purchase and consume an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s from Northside every day and then feeling like garbage. I don’t think I necessarily gained the freshman fifteen, but mentally I felt like I did.
One day, I went for a 4 mile run after not having run for a bit. During that run I thought, “I could run further if I trained. I think I could even run a half marathon.” Please note, I never had any running aspirations before this very moment. In fact, I had previously hated running, but suddenly I was on a mission. I signed up and trained religiously for 6 months. I felt like a new person. Sometimes towards the end of my runs, I would get emotional thinking about accomplishing my goal. I loved this new me. I felt strong and powerful. Even better, this new me felt like anything was possible and I could accomplish goals that I had never even dared to dream before. This didn’t mean that all of my insecurities magically went away, but it helped a lot. Then Summer rolled around (*cue the ominous duh-duh-duh*). For a lot of people, I know the change in weather is stressful — smaller clothing, the “beach bod”, the sweat (so. much. sweat.). Personally, I think I own one pair of shorts that I feel comfortable in other than my running shorts. Although being on co-op meant that I wasn’t wearing shorts all that often. Regardless, a lot of my insecurities and negativity came flooding back as the amount of time I could dedicate to exercise dwindled with my increasing responsibilities at work.
This time of my life seemed drastically different than before. I could not get out of my head, and it was affecting my personal relationships as well as my relationship with the greater female population. I began a viscous practice of comparing myself to others to try and make me feel better. I remember thinking, “Well at least I…” or “I’m glad I don’t *insert negative thought about someone else’s body*”. Now many of you reading this might think that I sound like a mean person, and I would agree with you. During that time of my life, my brain was being mean to me and especially mean to those around me. Even if I never verbalized those thoughts, I regret having them and wish I could apologize to everyone I’ve ever done that to because nothing was wrong with any of those people and no one deserves that. It was my mindset that was wrong. It was truly a secret, ugly characteristic. At this point, I’d like to say that I think this is a moment in time that shows how unpleasant the road to body positivity and self love can be. It isn’t a very scenic route, but rather it has potholes and trash and it gives you the worst road rage you’ve ever experienced. I know that isn’t fun to imagine or hear about, but that is exactly why I am writing this–because we need to talk about it no matter how hard it is.
Recently, in a conversation about mental health with an important older woman in my life, I disclosed that many women that I know had previously inflicted self harm at points in their life. This woman stopped walking and grabbed my arm to examine it. Upon finding nothing more than a few stray freckles she remarked, “we are so lucky that we didn’t have to deal with that”. Now this woman is incredibly smart, so I thought that was a pretty naive thing for her to say given that not all scars are visible — mental and emotional scars are very real and present for many people. PLUS, loving yourself is an ongoing process/battle. We are never really done “dealing with it.” Just because you don’t physically see that someone is struggling, does not mean that they aren’t. Lean into those conversations and make it known that you are open to listening, someone to lean on, and most importantly an ally and advocate for those who need one.
A few weeks ago, I ran another half marathon. Along the route, I joked with my dad saying “smile” everytime we passed a camera. No one really looks good at mile 12 or 7 or 2 for that matter, but fake it ‘til you make it, right? However, when I got the link to my pictures, it wasn’t my smile that my eyes were immediately drawn to. “Oh my gosh my legs look so big” I thought. “Ugh why did I wear that bulky raincoat? It isn’t flattering.”. So I stepped back and took a beat. 1. You wore a raincoat because it was raining. 2. Those legs are the same legs that carried you 13.1 miles and set a new personal record. They are strong. What you are looking at is muscle. Love them. Be grateful for them. Cherish their abilities. This is my new strategy for when I am feeling upset about my body. I think of all that it allows me to accomplish and I work on being grateful.
These are just some snippets and stories of moments in my life where I wanted to love myself more or how I tried to change my mindset or the conversation I was having (internally and externally) about mental health. It doesn’t cover the panic attacks that I sometimes have or the germaphobia that makes me wash my hands repeatedly or the OCD that has me put a cup down on a table 9 times just to get it to land perfectly and be positioned correctly. These tend to crop up at stressful times in my life. Honestly, I think I’d benefit from talking to a therapist, maybe even just once. Yet, I can’t seem to get myself there. I’ve thought about it and then I put it off until things seem better. I “talk the talk” telling others that it is okay to not be okay, encouraging them to reach out if they need help, or telling them that they should embrace therapy without shame. One day I hope I can “walk the walk” too.
Please take time this month to check in with yourself and those around you.