What Mental Health Isn’t

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In my life “Mental Health” has been an elusive thing.

Until just this past year every doctor I’ve seen has said something to the effect of: “Have you considered… <insert trendy new pill here>”

Just this past year I had a doctor tell me: “With your case history and the way your mom passed I don’t ever see you off an anti-depressant. If we had a pill to cure breast cancer and your mom had died of that, wouldn’t you take it?”

Sure, but it’s not really the same, is it? My mom didn’t just die because she was sick, it was this messy cluster of pain and problems.

Like losing my dad to a heart attack and losing parts of her daughter in a car/train accident while struggling with depression.

And this is the point at which mental health becomes really hard to figure out. Am I struggling because I’m sick or am I struggling because this is hard, because Life. Is. Hard?

I would never dream of deciding that for another person. Ever.

It is never my place to say “Here is where your life issues and baggage stop and your chemical imbalance begins so this is what you should or should not do.”

I can’t even figure that out for myself.

But I have figured out one thing in this past year of counseling and life and delving deep into past to discover some foundation core beliefs that are throwing me off.

I have figured out what Mental Health is not.

I always thought that mentally healthy people, people upon whom doctors would never dream of handing a Rx for antidepressants must ooze sanity, logical thought and even keeled temperaments.

But that’s not mental health… and that’s not humanity.

Here is what mental health isn’t, what it doesn’t mean:

It doesn’t mean you never yell at your spouse.
It doesn’t mean you don’t need to make lists to get things done.
It doesn’t mean you never sob for no particular reason over the state of things.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like hiding when the world feels too big.
It doesn’t mean you never get overwhelmed when life feels unstable.
It doesn’t mean you never need to call a friend, right now just to unload and vent.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like walking around with an L on your forehead because you feel like such a mess you may as well proclaim it.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like finding the bottom of a tub of ice cream

These things are not signs of mental illness, they’re just part of being human. Yet for so long I thought that they were things that were categorizing me as “not quite right” when they were normal, human reactions to the big feels of life.

I’ve come to realize that my old idea of what mental health looks like involved two things

1) Not really needing people.
2) Not feeling big feelings out loud.

This is not mental health, this is not human. 

Mental health involves healthy coping skills and healthy coping involves living well in community and feeling your feelings even when they’re really inconvenient.

And they’re going to be inconvenient.

It would be so nice if grief, jealousy, insecurity, sadness, fear, anger and frustration would only come out at the appropriate times but that’s not life, at least it’s not my experience of life on pills or otherwise.

Life happens at messy and inopportune moments and so does it’s corresponding feelings.

If I could share one thing on this topic, it would be this: It is good to feel your feelings. It is healthy, needed and natural…. normal even.

Life is a roller coaster of big feelings and we are meant to be stretched and grown and stressed and sad and thrilled. It’s terribly inconvenient but it’s really important to feel these and go there and know what’s really going on inside us.

We learn how to identify and express emotions in preschool and then sometimes it feels like we try to undo all that as grown-ups.

When your feelings get to a point where you can’t cope or where they are having a negative impact on those around you, then it may be time to seek help, but don’t feel all wrong just for having them.

It’s not my place to speak to anything you’ve discussed with your doctor. You will only ever find me supportive of your choices in that respect.

The only thing I really have to say is don’t assume that your big feelings and inconvenient emotions mean that you’re sick, feel what you need to feel, go to counseling, get to the bottom of it.

The journey to understand your feelings and negative beliefs about yourself, the world and God is worth every moment and penny you invest in it.

It’s the most worthwhile time and money I’ve invested in years and I suspect I will continue to invest in my mental health so I can be the big feels, slightly unpredictable wife, mother, writer and human person God created me to be.

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Just last month I went to a doctor who has seen me for the better part of my life and she told me this: “If you feel like the anxiety is too much, then call me and we will talk through it and figure out the best plan. But you seem to be really self-aware and stable,you’re doing really well.”

As I drove home, I sobbed, because in the journey of living my life and not following in my mother’s footsteps, those were some of the most beautiful words anyone has ever said to me.

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