Happy mental health awareness month! Has anything ever been more ironic than celebrating mental health during a pandemic?
As mental health awareness and May come to an end, I wanted to talk about my experience around mental health and community. Specifically, this community.
This is what mental health awareness month means to me, take it with a grain of salt because everyone’s experience will be different. Also, this feels like a good place to put a trigger warning for severe depression/mental illnesses. If you’re not in a place where you feel strong enough to read about another person struggling, that’s totally chill. Move along, this will be here when you’re feeling better. <3
In addition, here are some resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
Trevor Project – 866-488-7386
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (Substance Abuse) – 800-662-HELP
Crisis Text line – Text HOME to 741741
I would like to talk about the worst months of my life and the best months of my life. Let’s just start with moving to Ohio. Because without that, well… I wouldn’t be writing this blog, wouldn’t be a leader of NP, wouldn’t have found all of the amazing humans that I’ve found. A lot would be different if I hadn’t moved out to Ohio and I am extremely grateful that I came here for a lot of reasons.
The first week that I came here, I was SO excited. I was going to live a new life, meet so many cool new people, embark on my journey of becoming a doctor. All of these things I had dreamed about for years and it was all finally happening!
And then it hit me… like a brick wall. It hit fast and it hit hard. Felt like it knocked the wind out of me, took my breath away. My clinical depression was here in full force and ready to take me the fuck down. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety back in 2010, so I had the advantage that this wasn’t my first rodeo but even with knowing healthy coping skills and knowing to reach out and ask for help, shit still hit the fan. I was originally on medication for maybe 5 years but then with therapy, I felt well enough to go off of it. After coming to Ohio, not being on medication was completely out of the window now, so I went back on medication within a few weeks of moving. But it still felt like I was falling into a black hole scraping the ground trying to stay afloat.
Jeepers man, you good? That’s some dark shit.
Yeah, we good now lol. But I also want to be brutally honest in this blog because I know that some of you will relate to these feelings and for those that have never had an experience like this, it may give insight into your friends and family that may be struggling.
Let’s do a little definition/dictionary segment so we’re all on the same page of what clinical depression looks like. Mayo Clinic defines it as, “the more-severe form of depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder. It isn’t the same as depression caused by a loss, such as the death of a loved one, or a medical condition, such as a thyroid disorder.” It can come with feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest or pleasure in things that used to make you happy, sleep disturbance, weight loss or gain, feelings of worthlessness, trouble concentrating or remembering things, and thoughts of suicide. The reason that I want to get a definition out there is because the word depression is used colloquially and it has lost some of it’s meaning. Major depressive disorder is depression that significantly impacts your functioning. I don’t want to minimize any of you that are feeling down, but don’t have this diagnosis. Your pain is real too. It may just look a little different than what I’m about to talk about.
Here’s an email that I sent to my therapist back in California a month or two into my move to Ohio (ie September 2018):
“Every time I think about sending you something, I stop because I don’t have good things to tell you and I wish that I did. I wish that I could email you all the awesome things that are happening. Like I’m meeting people, school seems to be going okay. But I feel horrible, there’s a huge weight on my chest. I don’t talk to my dad anymore because telling him how much I hate this place every day breaks his heart. It just feels like I will never fit in here and I don’t know how to make things better. Maybe I’ll never be happy here.”
The midwest culture was different, I didn’t understand the weather, I hated my apartment, I felt like everyone was judging me, I didn’t feel like I connected with very many people (or anyone at all at that point), I wasn’t allowed to talk with my therapist in California, who I had seen for 8 years, and a lot of other stuff that people deal with when moving to a new place. I would just sit in my car at the end of the day and stare out the window or cry for like an hour. Felt like time didn’t matter. There was no point going inside my apartment, it was probably colder than my car anyways.
One of the big things was that there was no November Project in Ohio. NP had become such a big part of my life in LA in just a year. I went to 4 workouts a week, most of my best friends were people I met at NP. It was a reason to get out of bed. I longed for the next time that I would be in a bounce surrounded by tired humans filled with positivity and love. I would just watch old bounces from NPWLA (shout out to Maggie and Tara) and literally just cry. Thinking about that now honestly makes me laugh with how sappy it may seem. But back then, my heart fucking hurt.
I felt lonely and debilitated by my depression. The most simple things became huge tasks, getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, making dinner, walking to class, having a normal conversation about the weather, even breathing. A huge elephant was sitting on my chest and it felt like I couldn’t move anywhere without carrying him with me. The only thing I was consistently able to rally for was leading Crushing it Columbus. It gave me so much fucking anxiety, but also it was the only consistency in my life. It was the only time where I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself.
We all know how that community has grown. Here we are on the November Project website. Things gradually started to get better. I got back on medication. I adopted two cats who keep me company in my apartment, so I have a reason to leave my car and come home. I moved to an amazing apartment complex. I’ll be honest, still don’t understand the weather. (I was taught this week by one of our own NP’ers – Stephanie – what a tornado warning was and what I was supposed to do lol, never too late right?). And honestly, the biggest thing was having a community of people.
I also want to be explicitly clear that while a community helped me somewhat with my depression, it also didn’t take it away. I wasn’t magically saved. 6 months after moving to Ohio, I still hated it and it was still hard to get out of the bed sometimes. 9 months later, I still hated it and felt like I would never call this place home. I think things genuinely started to get better after the 1 year mark. Because I’m condensing this story into a blog, it may seem like these feelings were a fleeting moment, or even fleeting few months. But it really wasn’t. It was and currently is a constant battle that I fight every day. Some days I win. Some days I don’t. But it makes it a lot easier to fight knowing I have a community behind me.
Let’s skip ahead a little to right now. May 2020. Mental health awareness month. COVID-19 Pandemic.
This pandemic has taken away almost everything that keeps us sane. Human connection, community, fitness, friendships, physical contact with high fives and hugging. November Project went virtual and I had to look at all of your beautiful faces through a screen. I couldn’t hug you, I couldn’t scream obscene encouragements, I couldn’t do the morning greeting where I went around to everyone before the workout, I couldn’t hand out the positivity award, the list goes on. Most of my coping mechanisms were out the window. In addition, I was studying for Step 1 of my medical boards, a process that can make medical students suicidal without the added spice of a pandemic. And even on meds, I slipped back into depression. I would always rally for November Project workouts. But I would then spend the rest of the day laying on the couch looking at a wall. I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t breath, and I definitely couldn’t study 12 hours a day. I felt isolated in my apartment all alone. Like I failed every day that I didn’t study or every day I couldn’t get out of bed, while everyone else was out there baking bread and learning new languages.
But NP Columbus has these coffee chats a few days a week. And people were being brutally honest in those chats. We talked about losing family members, losing jobs, being worried about financial stability, losing patience with children or spouses, feeling lonely. And then I didn’t feel so alone. My shit was hard. But knowing that other people were struggling at least made me feel like I didn’t have to pretend or put on a happy face. We tell people in NP to come as you are; happy, sad, mad, celebratory, upset, hungover. Whatever it is. So I decided to take my own advice. People in NP Columbus reached out, making sure I was okay. I got some handwritten cards. A coin circulated around the group that said “I can do hard things”. Someone even gifted me a goddamn megaphone with a note that said, “Use this megaphone if you ever just don’t have the energy”. Like these people are so considerate it makes me want to cry.
So if you’re struggling right now, you’re not alone. If you have a mental illness that’s flaring up right now, you’re not alone. If you feel crushed by the weight of the pandemic, you’re not alone. Our vulnerability makes us stronger and connects us in a world where that feels unattainable.
You’re not alone.
Dear mental illness,
I’ll never be completely rid of you. You’ll probably come for me again in the future. But when you inevitably weigh me down, there are some exceptional people that will help me get back up.
So politely fuck off. Happy mental health awareness month!
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