Word to the wise: If you are struggling with depression, maybe don’t spend 70 hours in one week interviewing people about what it is like to live with mental illness.
Maybe don’t go on live television either.
The last 9 months have been a struggle. A blanket of existential angst has been draped lightly over my life. Over our lives. That’s one thing I have learned recently – most of us are not okay.
When I decided to participate in CAMH’s #OneBraveNight Campaign, it felt like a natural fit—and it was. I believe in what they are doing, and I knew I could help in some way. Talking about mental health, anxiety and depression is all I do anyways, so I might as well put that fixation to good use.
Raising money for a good cause while attempting to dissect my own personal struggle with my mental health by talking to my community. The latter was much more important to me than the former.
I really wanted some insight on what the fuck is going on.
Why do we all feel so fucking broken?
I thought putting a call out to interview people in my life who were struggling would be a good idea. And it was. But for very different reasons than I imagined. I am still processing, two weeks later, all the conversations I had, the lessons I learned, and what the whole experience meant.
Or if it meant something.
Or if I knew something new now.
For just over a week, I interviewed people about mental health and mental illness. There were PhD candidates, mental health workers, wellness professionals, partners of those who have struggled, people living with addiction, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety and more.
I would get on camera, with sometimes strangers, sometimes acquaintances, sometimes good friends, and for about a half-hour we would talk, without recording.
Sometimes we wouldn’t get to the part where I started recording. Sometimes it was too much. Sometimes we weren’t ready yet.
All interviewees had complete control over the end product. I communicated clearly and often that I had no investment in the airing of the conversation if they had second thoughts. I also requested affirmative consent from every participant, after sending them their video.
After each recording, there was always a natural decompression. The aftermath.
We would talk about what we just talked about. I attempted to make sure we didn’t break anything and tried my best to make sure my beautiful friends understood how important they were to me and how grateful I was for their vulnerability.
Suicide, self-harm, oppression, sexual assault, cancer. All of the worst bits.
Rewatching the interviews to make sure they were kosher was always hard. Tracking them for technical glitches while they aired all night on April 7th, was painful. In the end, I spent about 70 hours on this ridiculous project.
And these are the hard truths I think I learned:
1. You cannot get better alone
Not a single person I interviewed did it on their own.
It would be great if you could, but you just can’t.
Our impetus is to avoid telling anyone what is happening. We may secretly attempt to make little changes in our lives and hoping that something will catch and change the way our brains work. New job. New school. New haircut. New city. We think that if we just figure out that one thing that can help us just be a tiny bit happier, we won’t have to air our dirty laundry. Acknowledging the struggle is hard and tearful and it hurts.
And no one really wants to hear it.
It’s sad. It’s upsetting. It might bother our spouse, our father, our siblings, even our friends, so we just pretend it’s not happening. We think we are there for each other, but we don’t ever publicly acknowledge how hard being that person for someone else can be. Not because those who struggle are a burden, but because most of us are not equipped with the tools, patience and emotional intelligence to hold space and be helpful.
But we can’t do it alone. We have to make it worse. We have to make our family sad and worried, get uncomfortable with our friends, or cry in our lover’s lap for hours, if we really want to get better. There is no way around it. Sorry.
And waiting will only make it worse.
Just be honest. Be real. Own your crap and try your best, but know you have to reach out if you want to get better.
2. Finding community is vital
I know, I know. You already told one person and now I want you to tell the whole world? That seems like a lot, and it is. But having one person on your team is rarely enough, and almost always unfair to that person.
We need systems of support.
We need support for our supporters. We need different kinds of people in our lives to help us see different perspectives. We need to feel like we are a part of something. All of the interviewees, on or off camera, mentioned that it was their community, and finding their place, that really made the difference.
3. Stop ignoring your body
You need to get off your ass.
If you want to get better, you have to move your butt. It’s not going to make everything peachy, but it is an absolute must for maintaining a healthy mind.
Every single person in recovery I interviewed said exercise and treating their body right, whether that was abstaining from alcohol or eating well, was essential to keeping them feeling better.
Now not everyone can move their butt. That is a bummer. But there are other ways to feel connected to your body. Learn how to breathe. Get fresh air. Gentle, platonic touch can be powerful.
People tend to think that your mind has nothing to do with your body. This is absurd. Brains are biological, not the land of woo woo. Without our brains, there would be no consciousness, no feelings, no emotions. No “mental” state. The chemicals that are transmitted, the hormones that pulse through our veins, that is all very real and has a lot to do with how we feel mentally.
So if we want to be mentally well, taking care of our physical bodies has to play a role.
4. For the love of Pete, just see a professional already
Just know you need to okay. I swear to god, if I have to tell you one more time…
Every single friggin’ person who has ever gotten better, got better because they had help from a trained professional.
5. Fall in love
This might be a bit of a sharp twang for my single sufferers out there—but being in a healthy relationship made the difference for almost all the people I interviewed. Your relationships matter. They can be critical for keeping it together. (Disclaimer: It is not your partner’s responsibility to keep you together, but no one can deny that when someone loves the crap out of you and supports you, you are in a better place than you would be otherwise.)
On the flip side of that, single sufferers can also rejoice in this news—there are people out there who will love you better and more than you could ever imagine and it does not scare them that you are struggling.
You don’t have to be afraid of no one ever loving you because of what you struggle with, you really don’t. They can, and they will love you. You just have to show up and make a commitment to get better.
No one wants to save you, but the right person will be very okay with supporting you.
6. Listening to your own voice too much will make you nauseous
Before you get to 70 hours, just stop. That’s too much. Highly do not recommend.
7. Your label and diagnosis matter
Now the jury was split between whether they matter in a good way or a bad way.
Let me explain:
Labels can empower us by helping us name our experience and deal with it strategically. The act of naming can help us feel better. It can connect us to a community. The label can help us bring context to our experience. It can be a good part of our story insofar as it can help explain our experience, and may be the start of getting better.
But labels can also be dangerous.
We can use them as crutches. We sometimes use them to define us. We sometimes use them as an excuse. They can brand us for our friends, family and colleagues in a way that limits our relationships, our financial freedom, and capital in our society. They can rob us of our agency unwittingly. We can start to internalise a diagnoses or label that makes us believe we are truly broken, our lives are not worth living, or that we have no power.
Identify with labels carefully and mindfully.
8. No two depressions are alike
This goes hand in hand with number 7. We tend to label diseases and pathologize personality disorders as a means to find treatment, prescribe medication, and organise patients in the medical system.
But there is an inherent flaw in this. Personality and mood disorders are unique to every individual. There may be some key indicators, but they are not biological indicators; the indicators are based on mood and behaviour. This means we get depressed for different reasons—there is not a virus or a bacteria, or a broken bone that we can point to and say this is the problem.
The problem is our lives, it’s our context, it’s our bodies and our relationships and our country and our politics and our skin colour and our religion. It’s how our being clashes and conflicts with the world around us. This doesn’t always manifest in depression or mental illness, but our moods and mental states are a result of many things, not just one thing.
That is why everyone’s sack of rocks looks kind of different. Some people get depressed but don’t think about killing themselves or self-harming. Some do. Some can’t get out of bed. Some people spiral violently. Some people just ignore it.
The point is, it is not useful or fair to compare your experience to anyone else’s. Your reaction, your process, your ‘work’ is going to be yours and will not fit the mould how you think it should.
9. Politics matter
The popular conversation about mental health is very individualistic. A person struggles, they need to get help for themselves. They go for a run or eat better or go on medication, and then they go back into the same environment that got them all fucked up in the first place.
What is going on in your community, to your people, and to your country, matters. It would be ridiculous to say that if you are fleeing as a refugee, struggling to come out as gay in a religiously oppressive environment, or a sexual assault survivor in the United States under the new president, your mental health is just ‘you’. It isn’t just all in your head. It’s everything that is outside of you too.
Unhealthy environments, lack of resources, oppression, prejudice, bigotry, trauma – all of this fun stuff makes up a good chunk of how you see the world.
If your environment is fucked, if you are scared for your safety or those of your friends and family, if you are taught by your culture to hate yourself, if you are being denied personhood, financial viability or freedom because of who you are, who you were born as or who you know you are, you seriously can’t expect to be ‘fine’. All of our struggles are different, and we see each other’s’ and it doesn’t help. We are failing each other on a global scale.
It’s not fine.
If I learned ANYTHING in this series is that the world is not okay. Shit is uber fucked. And we all feel it. And it is okay to feel it. It is normal to still not be over it. It is becoming eerily normal to feel like you are drowning in the horror going on around you.
And this is not your fault.
10. We are all waiting for the opportunity to open up
At first, I thought I would just do a few interviews. After all, I only had about a week to get my act together. So where did all these people come from?
I opened a window and everyone came clamouring in. Friends, friends of friends, strangers, everybody.
I am not just talking about strangers online. Even as I was preparing to go on set at two different TV stations, there was always someone who grabbed me, just for a minute, to share with me their story. I hadn’t anticipated the level of empathy and connectedness that everyone seemed to be seeking, in person and online.
There is a hunger to be heard.
So why aren’t we talking about it? Because of number 11.
11. Talking about mental health still sucks
Unless you are a professional in the mental health field, I bet you $10 I talk about mental health more than you. But this hard-core week of non-stop intense conversations didn’t make talking about it easier. It didn’t make the stories less sad. It didn’t make it hurt less. I didn’t become immune to it.
In some cases, I absorbed a lot of intense energy and am still subconsciously purging it to make room for my own feelings.
It’s hard to talk to people about what they are struggling with. That is why I always feel the need to drive home a) how badly it needs to be talked about because letting this shit fester is just a recipe for disaster b) how crucial it is to enlist professional help c) how we need to support those who support us.
We have a shit ton of work to do.
That is why I am not shutting down this conversation. Over the next couple of months, I hope to start a podcast to help people share these experiences and their perspectives, and continue the interview process. I will also be posting each of the interviews again on this blog with a brief summary of what we talked about and the lessons learned from each conversation.