You Are Not Alone in Mental Illness

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I was bullied, from Grade 6 through to the middle of Grade 11. There was a group of guys who made it their mission to make my life hell. They told me I was ugly and stupid and that no one liked me, and no one would ever love me. They said it every single day. I believed them. I took their words on as my identity. I saw myself the way they saw me, and it was devastating.

I didn’t know back then that depression and anxiety ran in my family. Every family has stories they don’t tell. In my family the thing we didn’t talk about was mental health. I was an adult before I found out that my mom had ever dealt with anxiety or that her dad had at times been paralyzed by it.

The main thing I wish I had known back then is this: I am not alone. I felt alone, but I wasn’t. I felt like I didn’t have any options, but I did have options. I just couldn’t see them. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help. It took me years, but when I finally did ask, help came rushing in. It changed everything.

There’s an author named Jenny Lawson who writes a lot about her journey with depression. She said something I remind myself about all the time:

Depression lies.

Depression says we are alone. It tells us we have no value. It says things will always be as bad as they are now and nothing will ever get better. Depression tries to convince us things actually are as bad as we feel they are. It tells us we are trapped and unworthy and we have less value than other people who seem to always do and say the right things.

None of this is true, but when your brain is lying to you, it feels like the truth. As a teen I didn’t have a vocabulary for mental health. I didn’t recognize the signs in myself and I didn’t see them when they showed up in a loved one. I was “quiet and moody” and he was “too emotional.” We know better now and as a family we do better. We talk about mental health now, but we didn’t then.

In literature there’s a concept called the unreliable narrator. It’s what happens when the person telling the story doesn’t tell the truth, or doesn’t tell all of the truth. It gives the reader a false view of what is happening and changes the way they feel about the characters in the story. I’m learning that sometimes my brain is an unreliable narrator. It gives me a false view of myself and a distorted idea of what is happening in my story.

The great privilege of age is that we learn about ourselves. We learn to recognize our own patterns and habits and along with that, we discover what works and what doesn’t. These days I am able to see the storms on my own horizons much faster. I know how to ask for help and I know both what helps and what is dangerous for me. I am healthier for it.

Recently I had a chance to write a letter to a 14-year-old girl who is dealing with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. It was so freeing to be able to tell my story boldly and know the words to say for what I needed her to hear. I told her how I felt when I was going through it and what I know for sure now that I’m an adult. I reminded her that we are made of stardust. We are beautiful and valuable and necessary. I reminded her that we are both part of what Tennyson called the “equal temper of heroic hearts.” I shared some of the tools I use to keep myself healthy and reminded her over and over that she is not alone.

Writing to this girl felt like coming full circle. My mom taught me what she knew about mental health as soon as she learned it. She was in her 50s when she found the words to tell her story. That meant I heard it in my late 20s. The girl I wrote to heard it in her early teens. Perhaps she will talk to her own future daughter about mental health right from the beginning.

I am so thankful my mom had the courage to tell me her story. I know she wishes she could have told it sooner. I am absolutely convinced she told it the first chance she got. The echoes of her courage have rippled out to me, and to this 14-year-old and far beyond that. Depression lies and tells us we are alone, but when we tell our stories, when we’re open and vulnerable in safe places, the truth wins every time.

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Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at clairecolvin.ca.
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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