What is the story related to mental health, suicide, and/or resilience that you’d like to share?
Over the course of my life, I’ve dealt with significant and at many times severely debilitating symptoms of social and generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar type II (frequent and persistent severe clinical depression with occasional hypomanic episodes), as well as ADD. The diagnoses are all interrelated, and in my eyes, symptoms of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
Moving through life with this much neurodiversity without an understanding of what is actually causing so much stress can bring a person to their breaking point—especially in a society that is not designed to recognize and support the gifts that people like myself bring.
I wasn’t raised to talk about mental health. My depression started as early as the third grade from what I remember. I recognized early on that I was different, and my way of “being” in the world didn’t fit the typical mold. Feeling I would be cast out or looked down upon, basically “in danger,” I forced myself to do the things that were expected hallmarks to success—work hard in school, college, and grad school, and go into a high-paying career in a field that helped people.
In college, my dreams were to be a director/producer for music videos, but I was told it was too hard to make it in creative videography. I ended up working as a production assistant for TV news, and when I saw the distortion in “the news,” I became disillusioned. I was encouraged to pursue a job in healthcare to make an impact in the world. I got into a competitive graduate program but realized early on I did not feel passionate about this career. I listened to everyone else instead of my heart. I developed many unhealthy coping mechanisms like an eating disorder and a massive substance abuse problem with alcohol, as well as other addictions, to cope with the pain of deserting myself. I had abandoned myself to become what I was told was safe and expected.
The repression of my truth and use of harmful coping mechanisms to deal with this repression led to symptoms and diagnosis of major mental illness. To add fuel to the fire, as a highly sensitive, deeply empathic person who did not know herself, I was drawn to imbalanced romantic partnerships where the focus was on meeting the emotional needs of the other at the expense of valuing myself or even being visible.
What resources have helped you to address this challenge?
The journey to understanding the events that cause the appearance of groups of symptoms that we call “mental illness” was the key to overcoming the challenges I faced. This has taken a lifetime of deep introspection, counseling, life coaches, mentors, endless studying and a willingness to face the things we are taught to turn away from. I needed to do a lot of “mirrorwork” and “shadow work,” and I continue to do these practices. “Mirrorwork” is confronting the things that make us uncomfortable about others and examining why and what wounding they are reflecting to us. “Shadow work” is taking a deep look at the parts of ourselves that we hide away, are ashamed of or try to repress and instead trying to understand.
Once I worked through disillusion, programming and shame, I was able to explore the things I was interested in but was told I “should not be” when I was younger. This included deep spiritual study in world religions, the wisdom traditions, and mystical philosophies, as well as learning about how power structures work in politics, religion, banking, and capitalism and how fear is widely leveraged to build controlling narratives that make us question and doubt ourselves. Learning to question literally everything I’ve been taught and push back when things feel out of alignment has been essential to taking my power back. Really, that is the most powerful work I have done—to challenge the systems, beliefs, and values that were impressed upon me since birth so that I could access my truth vs. what I’ve been conditioned or told was my “truth.”
I haven’t had any symptoms of any of my previous diagnoses for several years now. Freeing myself from as much oppression as possible and challenging myself to do so has been my saving grace. The key was learning about myself, bucking societal norms, and making the effort to trust myself versus what was taught to me that helped me to stand up for myself and follow my own personal truth.
“Unlearning” is a life-long journey that is best started as early as possible. My resources range from psychology textbooks to lectures by spiritual thought leaders and everything in between. I would highly recommend the books Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach, Belonging by Toko-Pa Turner, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle. On Instagram, I love the accounts The.Holistic.Psychologist and Toniagy. I talk about my journey and everything that has helped along the way in my podcast, Brave Never Broken with Niko Hathaway.
Based on your experience, how can we work to build resilience in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our communities to better face life’s challenges?
Education is the first essential step—learning what healthy thoughts and behaviors are and are not. When we are educated, we are able to recognize imbalance within ourselves and our environments. Resilience is built when we lean in to the discomfort of actually recognizing imbalance, calling ourselves on it and taking the necessary steps to create change.
What is one thing related to mental health, suicide, or resilience that you wish everyone could understand?
Diagnoses are simply a helpful way of identifying a cluster of symptoms. They don’t define a person.