We’ve all heard the term knowledge is power, right? And on this course of thought, I’m a fan of the idea that knowledge is only power if we use that knowledge. This seems perhaps obvious as well but in truth, for a lot of things simple to know isn’t enough.
I had struggled with my mental health for more than 5 years when utilizing my knowledge really clicked. I had been in therapy for nearly a decade, several hospital visits, endless meetings with specialists and prescribed a fair amount of medication as well (none of which my stubborn ass took).
I thought that all of these remedies were supposed to infuse me with knowledge and understanding. That through osmosis of just being in these places and hearing these things that I would magically be transformed and no longer deal with depression and anxiety!
Wrong-o I was, indeed.
After a mass accumulation of depression, anxiety, stress, and general pressure (most of it put on me, by me) I started having panic attacks. My thought process was something like “of course I’m gonna die choking on my own snot because I thought myself into believing anxiety is a disability”. You can read more about that here but what I realized is that if I had the power to think myself into these places, then I probably have the power to think myself out.
So fast-forward a month and I’m in the hospital calmly explaining to a doctor why I can’t stop freaking out about arbitrary shit. They do some tests and ask some questions and she informed me kindly that I had a good dose of PTSD and Panic Disorder on my mental palate.
Our culture is currently fraught with people talking about anxiety, depression, PTSD, and everything in between. Almost all of us are inflicted with something; we live in a time where we consume terror and trauma at an inconceivable rate and have less and less time to genuinely process these things.
Our blue-screen time affects our ability to sleep so we don’t ever get around to the necessary processes it takes to digest our lives. It also cuts into our time in general, especially the time we take to meander through our thoughts and feelings. We’re being slammed instead with different thoughts and feelings, as well as new things to have thoughts and feelings about.
We feel justified in our emotions and thoughts because we read an article depicting an experience exactly like ours. We don’t need to think about it anymore because it has effectively been legitimized.
I don’t know when we started to think that sistering experiences means we don’t have to be accountable for the understanding and undertaking of our own, but somehow it seems we’ve gotten into this phenomenon where to not be alone in an experience is a justification for the experience – or at least a justification for how we deal with it.
I am realizing that there is a difference between feeling united by something – to know you’re not alone – and to be enabled by something – to justify it because you’re not the only one.
I was, and in many ways still am, a part of this cycle. I am realizing that there is a difference between feeling united by something – to know you’re not alone – and to be enabled by something – to justify it because you’re not the only one.
So I’d been in therapy for 10 years and had this privilege and knowledge and I was like… still not okay? I thought people talking at me was supposed to cure me? What the fuck is going on!!!
And I realized that in school if I had a test I would study. If I wanted to update my tumblr I would look up the html and try to understand it. If I was having mental health issues I had to try to understand that too. Having someone tell you what catastrophizing* is and then learning to catch yourself when you are catastrophizing, is the difference between someone telling you what swimming is and actually getting in to tread water.
I had been taking in all this information but never applying it to myself. Regardless of what I knew, I believed that mental health meant in a way that I was broken. It was my belief that I would never be separate from it. And because I believed this, it was self-prophetic and it wasn’t separate from me. Instead it was deeply ingrained, it had an insidious life that lived for the great attention I gave it as it crept into every aspect of my life. The same way I took in what I was learning in therapy was the same way I took in how my mental health was taking over my life.
I don’t know exactly what was different, except that maybe I didn’t have all the resources with this diagnosis that I had had in the past. You have Panic Disorder and PTSD. This is what that means. Good luck.
So I researched. I read books on abnormal psychology, articles on Developmental Trauma Disorder, PTSD, and Panic Disorder. I looked into why all these breathing techniques I had been taught worked and how they affected my body. I started to understand my mental health as something outside of myself. Something that I could understand and study and take apart from what I knew was me.
Once I began to look at it objectively and not give it the power to understand it only experientially was when I began to feel empowered again. I had always had the knowledge, but I had never used the knowledge to scrutinize my experience and make better choices. To understand that how I am feeling is real, but also that my ability to be in control is real too.
It took several years to really feel I had grasped the ability to understand and be empowered in my mental health. I did not read a book and a couple articles and feel ready to take on a whole new life. There were crutches I needed to discard. I needed to build emotional endurance and strength.
Basically, I needed to be my own mom. That became a mantra in my ability to heal and create myself. That if I am capable of knowing the person I want to be, then I am capable of being the person I want to be. Even if it feels unnatural. Even if it’s hard.
We all have mental health. No matter what its condition, it is a part of our human experience. It is one of our stats. There are still periods when I struggle with mine. Days where it feels like a lot more muscle to stay calm. The goal was never to eliminate my mental health, but to actively understand it. To participate in my own being and be accountable for how my actions and input changed the trajectory.
* Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation, and imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation.
Photo by Britney Townsend