It was a recent conversation that I had with a dear friend of mine, who too has had a similar background as myself. That serious discussion around the stigmas of mental health, provoked me to unveil the secrecy of what I struggled to understand, as I battled my way through navigating my own mental health. So it all began when my friend and I talked at length about why there are so many negative mental health stigmas, and interestingly enough a common theme that kept coming up in our discussion was how we both believed that ignoring mental health was almost as good as living in denial of its existence. The more we talked about it, the deeper that we realized that our own social and cultural upbringings contributed greatly to our past views on depression, anxiety, panic attacks etc.. My friend and I felt as the facade of normalizing an “everything is ok” mentality is clearly part of why we noticed that truth telling can also be interpreted as a weakness instead of being seen as a sign of strength. It is almost as though a person must embody a robust outlook on life, no matter how bad things look and feel..
My friend's reassuring words as I began to divulge on my own personal struggles, were something along the lines of "Believe me I understand.." those words began to stir up old memories that were a backdrop to why a roaring wave of uneasy emotions would crash up against my heart and I would be too overwhelmed to address the roots of my issues with anyone, because I literally thought maybe because I do not see anyone else around me openly discuss mental health, surely no one really understood me. It would be years later when I went to my first counseling session as a sophomore in college that I decided to confront my fears and stop negotiating with myself.
I purposely wanted to expose my truth, so that my conversation on mental health that I had with my friend brings clarity to someone who is struggling to tell their truth, due to the nature of the environment you might live in, or the fear of what others may say about you. Believe me when you read the words “ you are not alone..” because I too once resided in a cocoon of secrecy, because I thought trading my truth with silence was a a sign of strength. Yet when I looked up what the definition of strength it means “the ability to exert power” and interestingly enough this power does not in any way indicate the absence of feeling afraid or weak.
Evidently I grew up not openly discussing openly the state of a person’s mental health because it was an unspoken topic, it was pretty much a taboo subject. In many respects, it became a foreign concept to talk about mental health, as it was frowned upon, and the “responsibilities” that I saw surrounding mental illness seemed to be covered in victim shaming and blaming… So naturally I learnt to hide my internal emotions well.
Yet growing up in Papua New Guinea I had several life-impacting encounters where I knew, at some point I needed to talk to someone about my emotions. It was the tragic death of two different friends from my church youth group that sparked the endless thoughts that I had about life. One of my friends had committed suicide, and I had just taken a picture with her a week before her death. It ended up being the last picture taken of her. The other friend had been a mentor to me and looked out for me and my friends as a brother. He fell sick and passed. I remember being stung with a numbing pain because one of the last things he said to me-during one of our usual conversations-was how happy he was that I made time to catch up with him.
Yet it was when I first moved away from home for college many years later, that I was filled with an array of numbing emotions because although it was an exciting feeling to be studying in a country that was foreign to my upbringing I carried so much grief within my heart. As a college freshman it had only been the 5th year anniversary of the passing of my father.. I was beside myself, when I woke up that day in my dorm room, the emotions of grief overwhelmed me, I felt so alone, I remember wandering the campus early in the morning in hopes that I wouldn’t be seen while experiencing a whirlwind of emotions.
Now I know some would say I was going through a “grieving” phase, in fact I vividly remember confiding in a person, who told me that I just needed to give my pain to God, that the numbing and crippling feelings were just something that I had “allowed” myself to be consumed by. It was only when my junior year of college that prompted me to get into some serious counseling sessions, that I understood for the first time, that I was not just dealing with some offset phase of grief, nor was I crazy for thinking so. In fact my counselor had unraveled a thread that was coming loose, she had asked me about my upbringing and the journey that my life had taken me on, to get to where I was on that day in her office in the fall of 2009 as I began to tell her my truth. I knew that she was onto something, and she was allowing me to step away from the shadows and confront myself. I had to begin to identify where it all began and how I would navigate through this process by first telling myself my own truth.
As the only girl in my family and the middle child struggled to find my footing for so long. For as long as I can remember so much about my life seemed as though I was always living as the outlier. I was consumed with anxiety, and at the time I could not quite put my finger on what was going on in my teen years nor did I think that the trauma of being briefly displaced as a refugee girl child, and moving on the other side of the world.. Was a huge leap not just for myself but for my family. It would only be later in adult life that I would come to grips with confronting myself, becoming present in every single moment, and not just focusing on what I was dreaming for in the near future but living in the moment without the fear of instability.
That whirlwind hit me when I graduated with my undergraduate degree and moved from Oklahoma to South Florida.
It hit me when…. (To be continued)