If We Want To Chip Away At The Stigma of Mental Health, We’re Going To Have To Talk About Our Own
The words stared back at me through my phone and perhaps for the first time in my adult life—I had to confront the reality that anxiety was not something I could brush off anymore. That’s because this symptom presented itself all the way back in 2004, and it made me realize that since then, I’ve been largely dismissive of the “A-word” only seeing it as a moment in time diagnosis, as something that would pop up from time to time only when there was a big life issue that triggered it. And there’s a lot of truth to this—especially in my case. But that doesn’t mean I can continue to diminish what even a subconscious anxious mind does to the body. This describes me perfectly, exceptionally high functioning in mind—until the body tells me otherwise. I know I am not alone, and I know I can no longer underestimate this mind-body connection.
Here’s my reality. I can handle a lot mentally—and maybe that’s the issue. When life and work get intense, I dig in. I may have a brief emotional reaction and then the rational takes over and I get to work on doing what it takes to solve problems and make the most of situations.
It all works until it doesn’t.
Why did I report to my doctor all the way back in 2004 that I was feeling chest tightness?
I had a really good reason. I was a young dad at that point in my early 30s. My first born son was four years old and both our boys had been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum only 2 years prior. We sprung into action undertaking early intervention therapies as we were still grappling with the cards we were dealing with and the unknown. It was the first true crisis in my life and we were tackling it with ferocity (and making huge progress). In 2004, my older son turned four and I remember vividly how this age specifically was a turning point. He was communicating, he was starting to catch up to peers, there were the early signs of serious hope—we both realized that we were going to be OK—that whatever worst case scenario we had in our minds was not going to be the case for us.
I’m not an expert in PTSD, but I get the gist of it. When you’re in the fight for your life, your body (and mind) dial up the resources you need to take the fight on. You’re focused, you’re determined and you’re engaged in the battle. It’s what happens after the battle, that we’re not often prepared for. Our bodies (and minds) start sending us messages after the fact that just because we’ve been through something traumatic, doesn’t mean that (some of us) get to walk away unscathed.
I downplayed the signs over the years to come...
Acid reflux was just a normal part of getting older, on and off chest tightness was a response to stress (we all have stress, but there’s nothing like a hostile divorce to take stress levels to eleven). And who doesn’t feel fatigued from time to time, especially when you are high energy and high functioning for ninety percent of your awake time? I am gradually coming to the realization that mental health operates across the broadest of spectrums and even those of us who our closest friends and colleagues would describe as “grounded” and all kinds of positive descriptors would miss. Even those of us with strong minds can be susceptible to mental health issues that may not ever manifest psychologically but chip away at us physically.
The lessons for me keep on coming. In October, I got really sick with something that felt flu-like. Immediately after, I started experiencing a condition that a neurologist would reveal to me as “BSF”. It’s not life-threatening (well I did have to rule out ALS) but it’s chronic and life-disruptive. It’s not natural for your body to be experiencing constant and chronic muscle twitching. It’s stressful and uncomfortable. And the healthiest among us in mind and body would be challenged.
And that’s where I am at on my journey. Having finally given in to the fact that a seemingly healthy mind is no substitute for the reality of the things our mind can tell our bodies that we have no control over. I need my mind during this time to be all it can be with the help of someone to talk to professionally, some stress management, some supplements, whatever it takes to restore balance and improve sleep. The body, mind, and spirit are so interdependent on each other—it’s one thing to know this intellectually and another to build your life around it.
I write this now, as it is the final days of May which is Mental Health Month. I also had a realization after writing a piece for Adweek which challenged brands to do more to take on the stigma of mental health—that change starts at home, and at the individual level. So here I am, and here you are.
We’re living at a time where modern life has practically become weaponized to find the soft spots in our mental health and degrade it.
If you’re like me—you may never even realize it until you can no longer ignore what your body is telling you. If that’s the case, you’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you—most people just don’t talk about this stuff and that needs to change. Much like everything else health related—you know yourself best and can proactively do the things needed to either get or stay healthy both in mind and body.