When I was growing up, my dad was regularly sick. I remember hospital trips becoming less and less worrisome because when you’re a kid and you’ve seen your dad in the hospital, or at the doctor, or bowing out of another commitment because his body can’t handle it, you quickly begin to accept these things as normal. I mean… doesn’t every dad continually shirk commitments because he can’t get out of bed?
Part of me began to harbour a bit of resentment towards him after one too many cancelled family excursions. We learned to accept the fact that plans could change at any moment based on how he was feeling. The tie in with all of this, is that no matter how sick my dad got, it seemed like no one else knew the extent. We were always good at hiding things. I remember witnessing my dad answering questions regarding his health with a, “doing pretty well” when only that morning he had been puking so loudly he woke me up in the next room. I witnessed him help move heavy objects in the church, even though at home my brother and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Daily, I saw him lie on the coach and groan or wince every time he stood because the pain in his back or knee would be so bad that he could barely drive – but he still would offer his chair at church to the older gentlemen (even though countless other, younger men could have done the same.)
Subconsciously, I adopted this technique in regards to my own health. I hid the pain I was feeling during every practice because I thought that burdening other people with my personal shortcomings was simply wrong. I felt a great degree of shame whenever I was forced to sit out of practice, or worse, skip it all together because my body was literally falling apart.
This mentality was so ingrained that I played through broken bones, torn muscles, and concussions. I wasn’t tough. I was stupid, and my body makes me pay for those decisions every day.
But the visibility of these injuries made them a lot harder to hide than the mental anguish that I was putting myself through day in and day out. I strongly believe that everything hidden has the risk of becoming something that is shunned by society, something that is seen as inherently weak, evil, or shameful, something that is simply misunderstood and thereby feared.
Mental health shouldn’t be one of those things. To this day, to admit that I am struggling is like pulling a fingernail with pliers. The first time I was prescribed anti-depressants I felt like a failure. The first time I needed anti-anxiety medication to function, I felt somehow less than every other person who could inexplicably handle the stress of school, work, and athletics without having to rely on medication.
And therein lies the problem -this ridiculous comparison to an idealized norm, this constant effort to measure up to the people that I see as the ultimate examples of humanity.
However, I wouldn’t look at my coworker and think of them as any less of a person because they caught the flu and I didn’t. I wouldn’t look at my dad and tell him that everything would get better if he just tried to be positive. I wouldn’t pull him off the couch, watch him cringe as he stood, and tell him to shake off this sickness he’s been hanging on to for so long, and yet every day, I tell myself these very things.
The thing about anxiety is that it is so difficult to explain. The way your heart suddenly starts racing and your palms start to sweat. The way your lungs feel like sandbags and your stomach becomes a knot so tight even the most talented boy scout wouldn’t be able to replicate it. The feeling when people tell you that there is nothing to fear. The resentment that comes with knowing these things they say are true, (I mean obviously, I shouldn’t be feeling as though I face the gallows when all I need to do is get down the road to the grocery store. I KNOW THERE ISN’T ANYTHING TO BE AFRAID OF. THANK YOU) and yet having trouble getting your body to believe it.
The comparisons need to stop. The hiding needs to stop. If people were aware how truly prevalent mental health issues are, I strongly believe the stigmas would wash away like the words you write in sand before a tide comes in.
My favourite president, Honest Abe Lincoln is believed to have suffered from severe depression, a side of him that many people aren’t aware of.
Other notable folks: Isaac Newton, Howard Hughes, Beethoven, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, and countless others are all thought to have suffered from some form of mental illness.
A study on the prevalence of mental illness across five different countries showed that 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer from some form of mental illness. However, this data needs to be taken with a good degree of cynicism as to the margin of error in statistics, especially in self-reporting surveys. Even the researchers admitted that it was apparent that some of those filling out the surveys were not being entirely forthcoming about their medical history. As a result, the statistics could be much higher than this.
It is interesting to me, given these statistics how such an overwhelming stigma and misunderstanding of mental illnesses could still be prevalent in our society. People who are already struggling don’t need the added weight of shame.
In my own personal fight, I need to stop putting all the pressure on myself to be quiet and to hide what is causing me pain or discomfort. I need to stop placing the mantle of shame on myself when no one else is. The easiest way to convince people that mental illnesses are not something to fear is to show them exactly how many of their loved ones, friends, and family are suffering from these very things. I’m really tired of feeling as though I am weak, as though my sense of value diminishes every time I have to pop open the pill bottle to calm my frayed nerves.
So, maybe it’s a societal problem, but I tend to think that it may be up to the individuals to change it. To stop believing what people seem to be thinking and start being vocal about the issues that they are dealing with.
I learned pretty early on that no one will help someone that they don’t know is hurting. In fact, like those people who needed my dad’s help to move furniture, they’ll keep asking things of you simply because you haven’t given them any idea that what they ask of you isn’t good for you. The fault doesn’t then lie in their innocent requests for help – it lies in the fact that you haven’t been honest enough to let them know that you are the one that needs help.
That’s my goal for this year, baby steps. Start being a little more honest. Start being a little more transparent. Make something visible that’s been kept quiet for way too long.