The Truth About My Mental Health Struggles + Lessons From an Emotionally Turbulent Year
September 20, 2018
This post was written by Alex Phillips, Co Founder of Saint Belford.
Note: This was an incredibly difficult piece to write, but it feels right to share it. Bear with me as I walk you through a few raw details before sharing my biggest lessons (so far) from what has been been an emotionally turbulent yet enlightening year.
The year that has been (so far)
The last nine months have tested my spirit, strength and perseverance. There were a few stormy periods that left me wondering if I was going to survive this hurricane of pent up emotions.
Well, spoiler alert — I’m all good.
Just like a recovering alcoholic is afraid of a relapse, I was (still am) terrified of being sucked into the black hole of depression and anchored down by the same beast I met in high school.
My tragically negative imagination was consistently spinning a web of tales that would put my mind and body into serious overload, which only made things worse. My therapist calls it catastrophizing. Finally, a verb to describe the default function of my brain, which I’m trying desperately to reprogram.
Yes, I’ve been seeing a therapist to piece together a rather large and confusing emotional puzzle and while that private detail is probably something my teenage self would have concealed, I find that the benefits of therapy are only magnified when I talk about the progress it’s allowed me to make.
That Type A Life
As someone with raging Type A tendencies (which I’m actively trying to dilute), I’ll be the first to admit that my expectations are almost always (okay...always) extravagantly high. This makes practicing self-love, compassion and patience all the more challenging when those expectations aren’t met. Not impossible — just hard.
I knew that the year ahead would present some hurdles. I knew it was going to be a big year of mistakes and lessons and change. After all, we were in the first year of our business, navigating foreign territory and I had left my full time job. Honestly, I thought the biggest hurdle would be related to money — watching my savings account deplete each month, the limitations of a frugal budget and other first world startup problems. Naive, I know.
What the year presented instead was a painful trip down memory lane.
The day my life changed forever
My dad emerged from his four year coma, that was depression. I vividly remember his first paranoid episode, right before he spiralled into a deep depression in 2014.
My entire world collapsed that day. It felt as if I had lost my dad. His loud, boisterous personality had vanished and our relationship grew weaker over time.
I felt an immense amount of guilt for not being a stronger presence during that period, but if I’m being honest, I kept my distance because I was trying to protect my fragile mind from spiralling backwards.
I love my family but we’re not the best communicators when it comes to disclosing our feelings. My parents used to tiptoe around me, afraid that sharing how they truly felt would cause me unnecessary pain and anguish. Ironically, it was the silence that contributed more pain.
When my dad eventually rediscovered his voice, energy and zest for life this year, I didn’t know how to process this miraculous transformation. I’m not exaggerating. The contrast would give you goosebumps.
All the pieces in my mum’s life had fallen into place — she got her husband back. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with emotion but my happiness (the expected emotion) was overshadowed by unexplainable rage, resentment and sadness. I know, it sounds crazy.
I felt crazy, and the self-talk that followed was unhelpful to say the least.
When you don’t give yourself the time and space to process your emotions and fully understand where they stem from, it weighs down on you. There’s a reason why they call it emotional baggage. I knew seeing a psychologist was the mature and sensible thing to do, so I committed to it.
It has been mentally exhausting, but incredibly enlightening. It turns out there’s a lot of “grief” from my childhood that I had not previously processed. I’m not trying to win "saddest girl of the year" award because I really don’t want it and I don’t believe I’m a contender, anyway.
I’m sharing this because it can be tempting to suppress and store these unexpected feelings in a box and “deal with them later” but it doesn’t really work that way. You need to give yourself the time and space to process your thoughts and reactions without judgment — without rushing it — without skipping to the end.
It’s never going to be a convenient time to sort through your emotional baggage. I’ll be honest — part of me didn’t want to deal with this sadness right away because I was working on my dream, but I wouldn’t be respecting my mission if ignored this emotional interruption.
Finding the courage
Unwrapping the past in order to understand the present and ultimately move forward with acceptance is never easy. I’ve made progress, slipped backwards, cried to the point of dehydration and laid on my living room floor, playing out the worst, most tragic scenarios on repeat.
These were the thoughts that would linger: I would spiral into depression, without the energy or desire to do anything. The emotional distance between my parents and I would grow larger, causing a strain on our relationship and amplifying my feelings of loneliness and disconnection. I would be alone in the dark without love and connection — the things we all crave and need to survive in this world. I felt fragile and weak.
There’s been a lot to unpack and it’s been a painful journey of “processing” but I feel like the spinning wheel in my brain has finally stopped spinning. The page has loaded and I have much more clarity over this bizzare set of circumstances. It actually inspired the first honest conversation between my parents and I.
I’ve never had an issue discussing my mental health struggles — I speak/blog about it openly with everyone, except my parents. For some reason, it was always a taboo subject. Fortunately, the silence has been broken.
I finally found the courage to explain how I really felt in a way that was honest but mindful of how it would affect them. I actually wrote a very long letter detailing my struggles and I was planning on reading it out to them.
I thought that this would be the best way to convey everything I wanted to say without losing my train of thought or veering off topic. It was probably helpful to clarify my thoughts on paper, but I didn’t end up using the letter. It poured out of me and they listened. I felt heard and connected. It was a powerful, relationship-defining conversation which has allowed me to suffer less in my imagination.
What I’ve learned along the way and what you can take away from this:
Letting go of expectations is a relationship game-changer.
The expectations we impose on ourselves and others can cause immense heartache and create unnecessary tension in our relationships.
For example, I’ve always expected my parents to ask me what was wrong — to be the instigator of conversation and know when I was putting on a fake smile. It’s not like I didn’t have the strength to confess my struggles this year — I did — I just expected them to read my mind and know that something was up.
After numerous sessions of deconstructing my childhood and recognising that “unmet expectations” were a common theme, I’ve made several attempts to let go of certain expectations.
You can’t flip the switch overnight but being mindful of the expectations you have of yourself and the people around you is a good place to start.
Journaling is like tapping into your higher self for wisdom and advice.
Journaling allows me to release my emotions on paper and make sense of them, in a way that keeps the speedometer in my brain on a safe 20kph. It forces me to slow down. I find it’s like tapping into your “higher self” for advice which is so empowering.
The most powerful epiphany I experienced while journaling during this tense period was the need to trust myself — trust that I have the strength to overcome the hurdles that lie ahead — instead of defaulting to “I’m weak. I can’t do this. I’m going to slip backwards. I’m going to fall.”
Another realisation I had was related to the purpose of pain. For me, migraines, pimples, stomach issues are often signals of a much larger unresolved issue.
The pain is simply the messenger, nudging me to to dig deeper, uncover what I’m subconsciously stressing about or what “bad habits” may have contributed to this pain and dedicate time and energy to addressing it.
Communication is the most underrated antidote to suffering.
It’s like taking a really deep breath and letting it all out x 100. The sensation you feel is relief, connection, strength and light bundled into the best mental gift you could possibly gift yourself.
Honest communication is the antidote to suffering. Meaningful conversations ignite the most powerful chain reaction. It’s only when we let our guard down, take off the “I’m okay” mask and begin to articulate the pain we are suffering to the people we trust that we can begin to heal.
We need to recognise that these vulnerable and often uncomfortable conversations are vital. It lightens the load, brings us closer together and makes us stronger and more compassionate human beings. The discomfort is a small price to pay in the whole scheme of things.
Being kind to yourself is like injecting love and light into your life when you need it most.
This is simple advice to digest when things are ticking along nicely, but what about when things don’t go to plan? We are painfully wired to focus on the negative — our flaws, mistakes and failures.
We need to take a step back and assume the role of a loving friend or parent, rather than becoming our own worst bully. I’m just as guilty as the next person!
Making a mistake or letting yourself down — whatever that means to you — is the perfect opportunity to forgive yourself, let go and recognise that we are all a work in progress.
It’s not an easy task by any means and this is something I struggle with immensely at times, but all we can do is be mindful of our reactions and inject a little more kindness into our lives.
My only hope is that if you are struggling, you will recognise that you are not alone and the darkness will pass. You are always stronger than you will ever give yourself credit for and the light you’re searching for is just an honest conversation away.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brené Brown