Hands Held: The Lifesaving Value of Talking About Mental Health
by Helena Fox
Once upon a time, I had a baby and got postpartum depression so badly I couldn’t function. I was constantly on edge: I’d run to my baby when he woke; I’d feel unraveled when he cried. I was so afraid of getting it wrong and not providing for him that I couldn’t rest. I lived, somehow, on two to four hours of interrupted sleep a night. At some point — at breaking point, really — my doctor sent me to a Managing Depression class.
I went to the first class feeling like a failure. I thought everyone else had life and motherhood sorted — that I was the only one who’d had a baby and loved that baby immensely and also felt broken and incredibly lost. But then I sat in the room with all these fellow humans, and as we went around in a circle and talked about ourselves, I discovered I wasn’t alone.
I’d been unwell before. I now know that I’d been living with mental illness since I was a child. I had experienced the trauma of a chaotic, dysfunctional childhood and had developed my own mental health issues, and I didn’t think I could talk about any of it. I thought my history was shameful and my pain had to be private. I held in my story for years, and then one day, I sat in a circle and was given permission to speak.
It was transformative.
I thought illnesses like mine were something you couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t talk about. But that’s simply untrue. I discovered that when you talk about these things, a whole community of people is waiting to support you.
Many are friends and family. Many are healthcare providers. Many are people with stories just like yours, stories of pain held in — countless people dealing with illnesses that aren’t at all shameful but just are.
I’ve learned that the more you talk, the more your feelings of embarrassment and immense loneliness can begin to change into feelings like joy, relief, calm, and maybe even like empowerment.
I’ve been unwell multiple times since having PPD. This is because I live with active mental health conditions: complex PTSD, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, and clinical depression. These are some of the things I carry.
Sometimes these conditions are sleepy, dormant; they hardly bother me at all. Other times they are loud, hard, and impossible to ignore. Either way, I have to face and manage my mental health every day. I have to consciously work to find joy and keep functioning. I can’t pretend my illness doesn’t exist; I can’t shake it off. It’s a part of me. But the things I carry don’t define me, no more than any other illness might.
You’re not a failure if you are unwell. A loved one isn’t a failure if they are unwell. You don’t have to be silent about it. You don’t have to be ashamed of an illness you might have inherited, or that was brought on by trauma, or perhaps hijacked you and stole the “you” of you, and now you have to climb back out of that stolen place to find yourself. You can speak your story, you can ask for help, and it is — it has to be — okay.
The next question, then, is how you speak your story. How do you share it and feel safe and heard? How do you learn to walk with your story and survive?
I started by talking with people I loved. It helps to start there, but sometimes a loved one isn’t quite enough. Professionals have the training to sort through the jumble of your history and your particular mental health issues. Professionals usually have kind eyes. They always have tissues ready.
After my Managing Depression class, I went to see someone, and later, when I moved, I saw a new someone (and then another when that person stopped being a fit). And so on — for years. With every new person, I sat with them and let my story out.
You can feel very vulnerable laying yourself bare, but as you get used to it, it can feel so good to tip your history and feelings out on the floor and have someone help you sift through them. It feels incredible to develop the tools to manage your mental health.
Somewhere along the way, I also discovered that it’s okay — more than okay, in fact — to keep talking about my mental health. I can raise my hand again and again and say, “Oof. Today’s a hard one.” Because some days are messy and sad and fragile — some days feel like an enormous trash wave. I talk about those days. Sometimes I tell a trusted person that it’s a “trash wave day,” and they understand. Hugs and kindness follow.
I’ve also practiced actively looking for joy and small moments of beauty. I’ve spoken about those moments publicly and written them into my journals. I have gathered gratitude in my arms. I have noticed frangipani flowers on a path, the turn of colors in the sky, and the feel of a cup of tea in my hands. I’ve spoken about my cat coming to find me on a difficult day, and how it’s felt to be covered by his purr.
Beyond that, I’ve written my story down. I wrote a whole book about a girl living with a broken history and serious mental health issues, and into her story I wove my own. I wrote about the ways I’ve dissociated when I’ve been unwell, how grief and trauma have unraveled me, the times I’ve wanted to leave, and how I’ve found ways to stay. I wrote about love and connection and compassion and asking for help, and how these things can bring us back to life.
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I have spoken my story. I have reached out. I have asked for help.
It can be easy to feel like the only person walking around with all their pieces wobbly, parts barely glued together, history pricking their pockets. But there’s a world of people walking around feeling the same. Many of them have hands ready to hold yours, ready to say, “Hello. Hi. Same,” or “Can I help?” and “I love you.”
You don’t know until you speak. And then there you are, in the whirl and wobble, together. So many hands reaching out, so many hands held.