This story has been more difficult to write than I thought it would be, and I wasn’t sure why. Partly it was because really it’s so many stories, some of which were 3 or 4 generations in the making, and I didn’t have the space to tell them all, nor were all the stories mine to tell. Partly it was because it’s still hard to be vulnerable like this journey does. I’ve had to grow a lot and accept a part of my I didn’t want to admit was even there, but I did it and in the doing became who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.
Generally speaking, I’m a pretty transparent person; for example, I have no qualms talking to people I barely know about some of the auto immune disorders that affect me, including IBS, but I really only started talking about being mentally ill less than 10 years ago. Like, I would literally talk to a stranger about poop, but I couldn’t even admit to myself that I was mentally ill. It just didn’t fit with my image of me as someone who could handle anything or my drive to be perfect, but regardless of how I wanted to see myself, there was no denying the depressions, the heart palpitations and panic attacks, the inability to do simple but necessary things- or to ask for help with those simple but necessary things. It took a lot of stops and starts with therapy and a really low period before I could accept the fact that I am mentally ill.
And that’s what I am, mentally ill. I don’t have mental health issues, I don’t have mental health concerns; those fit for others, but my illness is chronic, it can be managed but it’s not situational and it will be with me forever. I have generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD and I will be dealing with them for the rest of my life.
And you know what? I’m good with that, because in accepting being mentally ill, I realized I have to put myself first, take care of myself first, and the benefits from that care mean that I have the best relationships in my life because I can be a whole partner. It’s understanding my triggers and managing them, it’s listening to how I feel and naming it, and it’s doing the scariest thing of all for me- being vulnerable and asking for help. Because I can’t really afford to not know where my feelings are coming from, I work for constant self-awareness, and with that comes accountability for how you treat others. If I listen to myself, I must listen to those around me, and if I need to change my behavior because it’s harmful to me, I can do the same for those I love, even when it’s hard. If I can forgive myself for my mistakes and failings, I can do that for those who hurt me- while still learning from the lessons that came from the trauma.
I can also honor some of the behaviors I created early in life that kept me safe, functioning, and in some cases, made me successful. I am a badass process maker and every team I’ve led or been a part of has benefitted from my ability to create those processes. I am very good at sizing up people and have a strong track record of hiring the right people and promoting them. You guys, I am a problem solver, able to spin on a dime to help remove obstacles. I always “solve for yes”. All of these things that make me a great employee came from trauma responses. I make processes because I HATE surprises and I crave consistency so I create it everywhere I can. I pay attention to my gut because I could not trust everyone around me when I was young and I needed to know who to avoid. I solve problems because I had to since I sometimes lacked support, and also because that’s the role I created so I could have value, to others and myself. When I am healthy, these are all pluses. When I am not taking care of myself, they turn into rigidity, “my way or the highway”, not trusting others, and trying to save everyone at the expense of myself.
The biggest gift that came from taking care of my mental health came in the form of forgiveness. I mentioned it above, but it’s something I practice with daily intention for myself, and as needed for others. I don’t forgive myself for having a mental illness, but I did have to forgive myself for ignoring it. Once I can forgive myself for the mistakes I make or the imperfections I have, I can move beyond them, and the resulting drop in anxiety is exactly what the therapist ordered. It is the best thing I can do to take care of my mental health. Practicing forgiveness has also led to some hard but good conversations about difficult events from my past with my mom, who has struggled with her own mental health, and it’s gone a long way to repairing our relationship.
What works for me now may not in the future, which is another reason why I must always pay close attention to my reactions and feelings, walking them back to root causes when needed. Turning inward instead of running away from all that I am means I can use the strategies I create today with the ones that have brought me this far to continue to grow into my best self- not in spite of my anxiety and PTSD, but because of it.