[Author’s Note: If you’re here for the first time, I might recommend starting at the beginning. The things I say in this post will probably make a lot more sense in context. Also, here’s a trigger warning for anxiety and depression]
So, it’s been a couple of years since I wrote The Big Book About Me (TBBAM), and I still get questions about it. People want me to write more, and to be honest, that’s part of the reason I decided to revive this blog. I’ve got a lot of things to say, and people seem interested in wanting me to say it. It’s, like, basic economics. So, the question is, what am I going to be writing about now?
I recently went back and re-read TBBAM, and I generally stand by everything I wrote there, and I don’t really have too much to add to it. Sure, I’ve had new experiences, and I’ve learned some things since I wrote it, but by-and-large I’m pretty happy with where I left it, and I want to use this blog to talk about other things that are on my mind. However, there is one exception — one loose end, as it were, that I’d like to make some progress towards knotting, before I go on to talk about other things.
In Chapter 12 of TBBAM, entitled “Fear, Hope, and Love”, I talk about my struggles with health anxiety, and to a lesser extent, some of my struggles with depresssion. This chapter was probably the most raw chapter of TBBAM, and it got a lot of comments from a lot of different people. Some people sympathized with me; some people told me I needed to see a counselor; some people suddenly felt very comfortable telling me their own struggles with anxiety and depression; one person even used this chapter to try to convince me that God was evil and that I should abandon my faith (no kidding).
So I want to write a follow-up and share some of where I’ve gotten in the last two years, and what I’ve learned. I think this is a hopeful chapter; I’ve made a lot of progress towards understanding my anxiety, and understanding is a powerful weapon in the fight against mental health problems. My hope is that by talking about my experiences, I can impart some understanding to others who struggle with similar issues.
Before I started TBBAM I was seeing a counselor. I went to her, I think, three times. In my third session she told me (I’m paraphrasing slightly), “Well, I’ve told you everything I know. It doesn’t seem like you’re having problems anymore, so why don’t you come back if you start having problems again?” I walked out of that session feeling really frustrated; it didn’t feel like she had given me any lasting tools to help me deal with my anxiety. I knew that nothing inside of me had really changed, and I was annoyed that I’d wasted my time. But I didn’t want to try another counselor, because this one hadn’t given me anything useful, and to be perfectly honest, opening up to a counselor is a really difficult thing to do, and I wasn’t about to go through that again just to be told, “Sorry, can’t help you, good luck!”
However, about 6 months after TBBAM, several friends and family convinced me that I should try seeing someone else. And I’m really glad I did. I started seeing a different counselor, who actually knew what she was doing, and I stayed with her for about a year. While I was seeing her, I realized the following: not all counselors are created equal. Some are just bad at their job. And unfortunately, because the first woman was bad at her job, I’d actually ended up in a worse spot than I was when I started. (Do note: I don’t want to be overly critical of this lady. I’m don’t hold her any ill will, and I hope that she’s been able to help others more than she helped me. My only point here is that when it came to my specific case, she wasn’t able to help me in a way that made things worse for me).
I realized a number of other things while I was seeing my second counselor that I want to relate here. I’ve been trying to form this into a cohesive narrative flow for a couple weeks now, and mostly failing, so I’m going to just barf up a list of tangentially-related bullet points for your consumption :)
- Counseling doesn’t always make things better. At least, not right away. The year that I was in counseling was actually really difficult for me. I think it’s one of those things that sometimes has to get worse before it gets better, you know? I had all of these really stressful things, and instead of being able to force them down and ignore them (mostly), I had to keep revisiting them and bringing them up week after week. Which meant that I couldn’t just ignore them, and they were more likely to cause problems.
- I’m actually a very anxious person. When I wrote TBBAM, I thought I just struggled with health anxiety. But in fact, as I began focusing on what anxiety feels like physiologically, I began to realize that those symptoms occur in a lot of different areas of my life. Work sometimes makes me sick to my stomach. When I say something rude or insulting or embarrasing to a friend, my mind can’t stop spinning about how stupid that was, and why would I ever do or say something like that, and how can I keep it from happening again in the future, and… well, you get the idea. I even get really anxious about my faith.
In many ways, that last item is the most frustrating to me. I don’t believe in a God who motivates people through fear, guilt, or anxiety, and yet so many times I’ve found myself doing things because of precisely those emotions. I’ve had to learn how to distinguish between what I believe is the voice of God and those things which are just my anxiety. And to be honest, it’s a really hard thing to do!
- I have a much better picture of the state of mental health problems in the US. Mental health treatment here pretty much sucks. There’s such a stigma attached to it that shouldn’t be there. People over-prescribe medication and think it will solve all of their problems. Other people refuse to take medication because they think it means they’re somehow “broken” or “not human” (for the record: I’ve seriously considered taking medication to manage my anxiety. I’m not currently doing so, because I’m mostly in a state where I can manage my anxiety without it, but I could easily see myself needing it at some point. And I will never tell anyone that they should not be on medication for mental health problems, because it absolutely does help people). And the biggest problem of all is that nobody talks about mental health problems. So we just go around assuming that everyone else on the planet is “normal” (whatever that means) and we’re they only ones messed up.
In fact, I’m going to go on a bit of a side rant here, because this is a topic that really gets my goat: In all of the church services I’ve been to as an adult, I have heard exactly one message or sermon about mental health issues — and that was a talk I gave! Seriously — if the church is supposed to be caring for the broken people of the world, why do we pretend like these problems don’t exist? Or even worse, say things like “Your anxiety just means there’s sin in your life that you need to take care of,” or “If you get your relationship with God right, he’ll make it go away,” or any of that other bullshit (sorry).
Look: there is no sin in my life that will magically make my anxiety go away if I stop doing it. My mind doesn’t work like that. If I remove the object of my anxiety from my life, I don’t stop being anxious, I just become anxious about something else. And I’ve been praying to God for literally decades to take away my anxiety, and it ain’t gone. It’s the same stupid argument that “If only you have complete faith, all your problems will go away.” That’s not how it works, and when you convey that sentiment to people with mental health problems, you just make it worse. Because all of a sudden, not only do they have mental health problems, you’ve just called into question their relationship with God — and I’m pretty sure you’re not in a position to reliably do that.
So anyways, I could probably go on about this for a long time (and I probably will in future posts), but I want to wrap things up a bit for now. The long story short is that I’m in a much better place than I was when I wrote TBBAM. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have problems and struggles, but I understand a lot better now how to manage them. And for that I’m thankful. And I hope that, if you’re in a place like I am or was, that my story can give you some hope as well.
THE END (for seriouses this time)
P.S. I’m feeling like this chapter was a lot rougher than some of the other things that I wrote in TBBAM. I’ve been wanting to get it out so that I can go on to write about other things, and I’ve been struggling a lot with how to say things. So I finally decided I just needed to get things on the page so that I can move on, and voila — here it is.