Growing up, I never really thought of myself as suffering from mental illness. I had family members and friends who experienced potent and difficult mental illnesses across the spectrum – ones that were obvious and easy to pin down when I was a young child. This person is depressed, this person has compulsions, this person struggles with anger management. My sister dealt with mental illness on a daily basis, and frequently saw a psychologist, and next to her, I tended to ignore any potential warning signs in myself. I was the “average” one in my family; the one without any obvious problems. Perhaps it stemmed from a fear of being seen as a burden, or because every time I experienced what I eventually recognized as chronic anxiety, I told myself it was all in my head, I was just trying to create a problem that wasn’t there. I didn’t experience panic attacks – at least not the way I expected a person to experience them – and being nervous about everything, from potential misspellings on an essay to saying the wrong things in conversation, was simply my mind being, well, mindful; I defined my anxieties as being “cautious”, as being “preemptive” to prevent potential (and in my head, inevitable) disasters, and throughout my childhood and young adulthood I avoided dealing with problems, talking to people, and confronting my fears, because I didn’t want to call them “fears” at all.
I think this experience is more common than people realize. As I’ve slowly gained a more conscious understanding of my mind and the anxiety I deal with day to day, I’ve encountered other people in my position – people who aren’t specifically or obviously socially anxious on the outside, but who have put up walls and defense mechanisms to avoid conflict and deflect nagging fears about their mental stability. It’s a scary thing to confront the possibility that there might be something chronically wrong in your own head, to even ask the question, Is this normal?
But it’s an important question to ask. it’s been said by many people before me in much more eloquent ways that there’s nothing shameful about seeking a psychologist. Even if you don’t have something that is (that unspeakable monster of a word) “diagnosable,” everyone has things they are working through. Everyone has problems and fears and questions and concerns and barriers that they’ve put up for one reason or another. When we grow up in a society that labels mental illness as a burden or a weakness, we shy away from having the light turned on us because we don’t want to be called these things, or seen a certain way. But as we collectively develop a greater sense of empathy for the experiences of others, we can create an environment in which people aren’t afraid to answer these questions about themselves, and are instead engaged with their mind and their own struggles and strengths. Many of the issues I struggle with now most likely wouldn’t have gotten to this point if I had dealt with them earlier in life, but now that I’m addressing them head on, they’re already feeling more manageable and understandable.
If our bodies are our temple, our minds are the foundation that keeps that temple sturdy and strong; if you don’t maintain that foundation, you could have the strongest temple in the world and it wouldn’t withstand an earthquake. So don’t be afraid to care about your mind, to ask questions, and to take care of yourself and your feelings.