by Tammy Zollinger
Wise words from my not so young niece, Ashley. It’s taken me more time than I care to admit to decide what to write about in my second column. A three-hour conversation with my sister today solidified what needs to be discussed. For many years I’ve heard the phrases “Oh, just get over it.” “It’s not that hard.” “It’s really not a big deal.” These comments, often from well meaning people in my life, left me with an urge to retaliate in not so nice ways. They induced feelings of rage, shame, guilt and often contributed to my battle of depression and anxiety.
The stigma of mental illness has been around for decades. Often times, well meaning friends and family downplay the severity of the issues that lurk below the surface of an already struggling person. Let me explain. When I was a child, I had my head held underwater. I can so vividly remember the terror, the panic thinking I was going to die. Add to that, the three times I nearly drowned (thank you Sara for saving me in Mexico). To this day I cannot handle water in my face. The rare occasion I do venture into our pool, my kids know there is no splashing mom, and that’s only if I can get past the anxiety of getting in to begin with. When I was a bit older, I had my face held in snow. The infamous “face wash”, hilarious for the person doing it, not so much for a child like me who had been traumatized previously. I’m 36 years old, old enough to realize my 5’ pool is safe for me to stand in, that the St. Lawrence is not scary because I can’t see the bottom, but yet here I am. Unwilling to swim in any body of water where I can’t see the bottom of, and get anxious if shower water from hair runs down my face.
Mentally, I am old enough to realize these fears are often without merit. I will not drown in my pool, nor my shower, but yet the fear and anxiety are just as real today as it was as a young child fearing for her life. This is the same battle I have with my anxiety on an almost daily basis. Winter sucks. Being outside in minus 30-degree weather feeding my goats is stressful and anxiety inducing. Constantly pulling at my neck warmer which makes me feel like I can’t breathe and I’m being choked is hard. My mind says I’m ok, but it also says, remember that time…. There’s no separating the two. The constant battle between freezing my face and not, well, it’s not something I look forward to. Logic speaks, fear screams.
November 11th every year we celebrate Remembrance Day and these days my mind shifts to the mental health battles veterans face. PTSD is huge. Every year I see the posts of being mindful to veterans reliving trauma from war because of something we all enjoy on Canada Day, fireworks. I’ve never been in war, however, the feelings of anxiety and fear from water, make me realize the sound of fireworks can terrorize a soldier. Not to mention the memories of fallen brothers in battle. I have a lot of respect for those who have fought for the country I call home. They fought for freedom for us to enjoy while many live in their own prisons. I’ve heard and read many times, “They just weren’t the same after they came home”.
For those who struggle with mental illness, our minds are our prisons. The bars of shame, guilt, uselessness and failure keep many of us trapped. I can look beyond my struggles on good days, believe and pray this just a phase, one day at a time, but on the bad days, there is no escape. Phrases like the ones I mentioned above seem like the dangling keys that someone is constantly pulling away when I get so close to a breakthrough. Knowledge admits life is good, then reality hits. My reality, one that no one else in this world could ever fully understand or fathom.
Our experiences may be different, but our reality is real. Please don’t minimize, joke, or downplay a person’s reality, to do so would cause more harm than good. I Know the truth, I have a good life, an amazing family, loving friends and a beautiful farm to call my home, yet, the cloud of “my” reality cannot overcome the darkness of my mental illness. Empathy, understanding and support are key. Whether you struggle with mental illness or not, we all need love, acceptance, and a lot of patience. My hard is hard, your hard is hard, but together we bear one another’s burdens and help carry each other’s load to victory.