Last Wednesday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day, and this year I only really had time to mark it online in passing by reposting an essay I had written a while ago. But mental health awareness and the ramifications of untreated mental health issues are always on my mind. I don’t really have a choice in the matter. Mental health conditions, suicide, addiction, PTSD, and anxiety have all been part of my life from a very early age, through close family members, myself, intergenerational trauma, and usually a bit of all of that mixed together. Everything is boxed off separately, a contained “issue” that we deal with, and seal away. But in reality it is all linked, interconnected, and if we don’t talk about it, and seek some kind of help, it leaks out at some point.
Leaks out, combusts, explodes. I’ve been through all of that, and it’s never very pretty. Most of time it just gets boxed back away again, because dealing with the layers trauma creates means you have to actually start peeling them back again. That’s scary. And trauma has this way of making you feel like you are all alone, no matter how silly that may sound. You can read so many similar stories to your own, but still you are alone, throwing the same battered ball against your box of hidden memories. My methods of “dealing” with events has either been to drink copious amounts of alcohol, or withdrawal. As the latter is no longer possible, I resort to withdrawing myself, which in itself is actually not always unhealthy; it is a method of self-protection that has served me very well all my life.
At the beginning of this year I started to withdraw myself from everything that was causing my anxiety to skyrocket. One area at a time, I began to refocus on what matters the most to me, and to take myself out of the race that people everywhere seem to think we should be in. I spent the summer reading and writing, and spending quality time with my children, especially as two of them started school just recently. I also “quit” one job, and started another, allowing myself to go back to focusing my writing on what matters to me, and not what matters to businesses, which is often soul sucking and tremendously boring. I also ended up deleting most of my social media channels, and kind of just going back to basics. I haven’t been writing too much online recently but have more than made up for that offline with about 10 projects in the works. I don’t know where they are going, or what I am going to end up doing with them, but they are all cathartic, as I have found the more I reduce my online presence, the more I feel ready to expand my offline work. Next week I will post a story about being visible/invisible that many of you may relate to, and it is one of many short stories I have written this year.
Circling back to the subject of mental health, the importance of consolidating trauma and pain, as well as sharing it in a way that will help you as well as others: this is something that has been on my mind a lot this past year. The growing emergence of the #MeToo movement, the suicides and accidental overdoses of some of my favorite artists from my teens, as well as my beloved Anthony Bourdain, and then the triggering current events where again and again abuse and assault victims are picked apart and vilified are absolute proof that we need to start listening. And when I mean listen, I mean really listen. Not every survivor is able to talk about what happened to them, and we need to listen to that too. Listening, sharing, and moving on doesn’t always mean providing graphic details. Sometimes we may just be able to share that something terrible happened to us and that we may need help. Listening means hearing between the lines and holding out a hand.
At the end of September I participated in the Out of the Darkness walk here in Sacramento. It was the first time that I joined one of the AFSP’s (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) walks, and it solidified the points I have been trying to make to myself for so long now: there is no reason to hide away anymore. You are not alone. Over 1,000 people gathered together for the walk in Sacramento, and I’m sure hundreds if not thousands participate in the walks all over the country. There are different honor beads available at each walk, each color representing a person you may have lost or someone who is struggling. I found that it was a great way to see why people were walking without having to ask any questions. And it made me feel like I was less alone: there were other people wearing gold beads too, and other people wearing purple, and green, and teal. It felt like everyone was holding your hand, because they understood your pain, and you understood theirs.
I may have passed some of these people on the street or in the grocery store before, and never would have known how they had also suffered due to the suicide of a loved one, or because of their own struggle. Mental illness and trauma are often invisible, and when they are visible we shy away out of fear or disgust, unable to reach out and provide some kind of help.
A few weeks ago I was helping my eldest navigate the public toilets in the Capitol Gardens when the homeless lady who had been washing her face there started yelling and shouting obscenities. I had no idea whether it was directed at us, at a voice in her head, or at someone she thought she heard outside, but my first thought was to hold my daughter close and to tell her not to worry. She is extremely sensitive to these type of things and I could see that she was on the verge of having one of her own panicky moments. My next thought was to grab my phone and wonder if I should call someone, but nixed the idea immediately because Sac PD have a tendency to shoot before they think, and the woman wasn’t actually harming anyone. She suddenly stopped shouting and left the space as if nothing had happened. We saw her sleeping on the grass the next day, her belongings next to her. How can a country treat people this way? How can we, as individuals, let this happen? Who knows what this woman is going through, forced to live on the streets, possible voices going through her head constantly, and then also having to face the physical dangers of being a woman alone on the streets. There are so many people like her, victims of a society that refuses to acknowledge that mental health is a real thing, and not a stigma, or something to shove under the carpet. (This one story is part of a much larger issue in this country, one that I have written about before, and am currently writing about again).
I know that what I can do is continue to talk about all of this, whether it be for myself and/or for others. Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide and suicide attempts in the US, and there are approximately 12 people who perform some kind of self-harm with or without suicide intention for every death by suicide. If we don’t shatter the glass every time someone puts a new pane in, these numbers will only continue to climb. My children will never know their grandfathers, and both my partner’s and my father will never get to hold their grandchildren or hug their adult children. But I know for sure that there will be no holding back when we talk about mental health, pain, and trauma in our household.
It took me a long time to learn that there is no shame in sharing the mental load of life with others, and I’m still very much a work in progress. But I have come to the conclusion that the more we share, the more we help ourselves. No one should have to live with pain, trauma, sadness, anger, mental illness, illness, or anything for that matter, alone. It doesn’t matter how we communicate, but it does matter how the message is received and what the receiver does with it. Put the phone down, look into someone’s eyes and ask them sincerely how they are today. Listen to the response, and hold out your hand. It may be a simple gesture, but it’s a gesture in the right direction.