Her office always seemed too still, but I liked driving up the mountain, so I kept going. It was the second year of my M.Ed program, and I was having a very hard time sleeping. In reality, I’d been having trouble sleeping for about two years prior. But I only paid attention when I began to have headaches, digestive troubles, and other physical symptoms. Mostly, I thought it was just because of my circumstances at the time.
“I’m…uhm… having a hard time sleeping, but it’s most likely because of my recent breakup”
“I’m not sure it’s just the breakup…”
I always wore brightly colored lipstick when I went to her office and made sure to go right after work, in business casual dress. [Lest she think I didn’t have my ish together]. I always came prepared with a planner, a notebook, and a few pens (in case one ran out).
“And when you wake up each morning, how anxious have you been feeling, on a scale from 1 to 10”
“About a 4… or a 5”
“The moment that you wake up?”
Yesterday, Bassey Ikpi (@Basseyworld) & The Siwe project moderated a conversation via the hashtag #NoShameDay to “help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health illness”. When I began to read the posts, I was immediately prompted to reflect on my own journey with mental health and wellness. For quite some time, I’ve encouraged others to let go of the stigma of mental health illness, all while remaining relatively quiet about my own journey. That ended yesterday, as I made the conscious choice to participate in #NoShameDay.
Before then, I’d been quite afraid of something I didn’t have words for… until I stumbled upon this definition from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Santa Clara County:
Participating in #NoShameDay meant being vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t been before… with both the risk of double stigma AND the healing experience of speaking my truth & sharing my story.
Participating in #NoShameDay caused me to remember those early days of trying to figure out what was going on with my mood by talking with spiritual directors & leaders. Their simple admonishments to “Have more faith…” almost always sent me into further panic. How could I have more faith than I already had? Was I missing something? Why was my level of faith insufficient… and HOW, exactly, where they even measuring this?!
After experiencing that scenario more times than I could count, I knew I needed to take a different route.
“Experiencing anxiety at level 5, first thing in the morning, is pretty intense. How long has this been going on?”
“Honestly Dr. S* I think an easier question might be, How long hasn’t it been going on?”
The trouble was that consistently ruminating over what might go wrong made me pretty effective. I was five steps ahead because this old brain of mine had already gone through the 15 scenarios that might happen when… if… and where…
I was achieving great things. And I was also losing sleep, having nightmares, tension headaches, digestive upsets, dizzy spells, and shortness of breath. I legitimately did NOT want to entertain that this was anything more than just a passing phase. So, once the counselor began talking in terms of general anxiety disorder, I stopped taking the drive up the mountain.
A year later, the shortness of breath & tightness in my chest seemed like it was not going away. I’d gone from about a level 5 (upon waking) to a level 8, and I was always fatigued. I went to a family doctor. The first sign of why I’d been feeling so fatigued was a deficiency in iron. However, as time went on, the family doctor began asking deeper questions – questions that would get to the root of those physical symptoms. Eventually, we circled back around to anxiety: the anxiety attached to maintaining my composure in an intensely microaggressive situation.
“So how do you want to do this?”
It took me a long time to answer that question. It was loaded. It would mean that there was something there that I needed to address: double stigma or not. I let out a deep breath and it seemed Dr. W* sensed my apprehension.
“Okay, so how about we keep it simple. Try very simple things first, and then we’ll reassess later: drink water, spend time with people who love you, get enough rest, actually take your vacation time, and take this pamphlet on deep breathing”.
It was honestly the best advice that I’d received at that time. That year, I told my friends and family:
“But you don’t seem nervous or sad at all!”
“Nervousness is not necessarily the same thing… Anxiety, is hard to explain. It’s the feeling that something unfortunate is coming. It’s working out the answers to the problems you don’t know you have yet… and may not ever have. It’s checks and balances – it’s tension”.
I didn’t really understand why that was so hard for me to come to grips with it [AND for people close to me to even consider it was a real experience] until I read on a piece on ForHarriet.com about Black Women, Mental Health… & the Superwoman Myth
. In it, author Anna Gipson references Dr. Brenda Wade’s work
along with the myths & misconception that Black women must be strong (at all times, in all circumstances). Yet it is this misconception that can prove to be such a hindrance to our self care process.
About a year ago, I started the practices of meditation and art therapy. I learned deep breathing techniques and I taught them to my partner, as well, so that I’d have a reminder in case I was having a less-than-ideal-day. I learned that following the musical movements of Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLarieS gives an anxious & ruminating mind something constructive & beautiful to do. There are still hard days, and there’s no guarantees that it will ever subside. However, it has made me more mindful – of myself, of others, and of the present moment that I am inhabiting.
After a four year journey, I’m still unlearning the stigma. I’m learning to forgive myself for the things I didn’t know when the tightness in my chest began. I’m learning how to advocate for myself unapologetically. I’m learning that I don’t have to fix everything. I’m learning and affirming that anxiety is not who I am. I’m learning to take my vacation time. And I’m learning to drink more water. 🙂
*Image Credit: Deathtothestockphoto.com, Daily Inspiration Collection