Every year on October 10th, we recognize World Mental Health Day. It’s an important day upon which the global community strives to not only raise awareness of mental health issues but also mobilize efforts to support mental health initiatives at both the grassroots and national levels. Leaving aside the immense political and economic hurdles faced in terms of adequately funding the appropriate educational and medical supports needed to address this multi-faceted issue, I think we can all agree that each us plays a vital role in helping to eliminate the stigma surrounding fragile or compromised mental health.
Is there anything more tragic than going through life ‘unseen’, feeling crushingly alone despite being in community? That’s exactly what living with the stigma of compromised mental health feels like. Stigma is showing up with a full heart and only revealing half of it. Stigma is having to look at the pity in someone else’s eyes as they watch your life falling apart. Stigma is only feeling safe sitting in the waiting room of your psychiatrist's or therapist's office, knowing that here, and only here, do you feel people really know you. Stigma is filling out the disability benefits form from the Human Resources department because you can no longer function at work. Stigma is feeling broken and unworthy of love as you sit across from your partner as he or she struggles to find the right words to take away some of your pain and all of your hurt.
My own experience with tenuous mental health is not dissimilar to that of countless others—a torturous and haunting journey through the dark cavernous abyss of depression, waves of paralyzing nausea-inducing anxiety attacks, nights of being jarred awake in a cold sweat from piercing night terrors otherwise known as the unforgiving echoes of PTSD. Yet despite all of these symptomatic signposts that demarcate the jagged terrain of mental illness, I am still inclined to argue that the most soul-destroying symptom of all, and a byproduct of the stigma of living with mental illness, is the self-internalized belief that you will never be able to inhabit all of your life. It’s facing the reality of a life immersed in the dissonance that comes from never feeling ‘whole’.
I recently heard an interview with the American social and political activist, Courtney E. Martin, in which she described how exhausting it is for us to constantly craft our online persona—an endless happiness parade of joyful selfies, highlights, and stylized moments. In her interview, Courtney suggested that quite possibly the bravest thing each of us can do, is to show up ‘whole’, vulnerable, and authentic. Indeed, a terrifying prospect for most of us, but as Courtney points out, “sometimes it can be worth it, in part because when you show up whole, you give other people permission to do so, as well. You can actually feel the air change when someone does this, can’t you? It’s as if our cells collectively relax, oxygenated by the idea that this is a place where, apparently, we can show up as ourselves. What a relief. What a gift.”
So, I guess that brings me back to reflecting upon the significance of World Mental Health Day, and how I would love to see more and more of us who struggle with mental health issues deciding to step beyond the stigma into our whole life. Just like Dove’s well-publicized Real Beauty Campaign of a few years ago, where women were encouraged to post no-makeup selfies to show their real beauty, I suggest we consider a similar campaign around mental health. I encourage you to join with me in this campaign by using the hashtag #ThisIsMeToo.
Let me start us all off by sharing:
I’m an elite athlete, but I also suffer from PTSD and anxiety disorder. #ThisIsMeToo
For as long as I can remember, I’ve found great solace living in the margins— tenuous spaces inhabited by those set adrift, the wanderers, and the disenfranchised. I spent much of life uncoiled and disconnected, living as an emotional chameleon, a direct result of childhood trauma, and later as I nursed the seismic aftershocks of that trauma reverberating through my teens and into my 30’s in the guise of addiction and suicidal depression.
Yet here I am today at 50—an elite athlete, author, and international advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I do a lot of public speaking, and the question I’m most frequently asked is: How were you able to use the adversity in your life as a stepping-stone for growth and success? I believe it all comes down to resilience, and by that, I’m not referring to that static inner strength that allows us to endure or survive great hardship, trauma, or loss, but rather, to a fluid quality within that enables certain individuals to actively respond to and redirect the untethered energy of that adversity. It’s a conscious decision that is available to all of us when we face our most all-consuming challenges, yet it is a choice that few are willingly to embrace—And for me, that is what sets apart people who are ‘resilient’ from those who merely ‘survive’.
So, how do you get to the place where you can nurture resilience in your life? I’m currently at work on a book about that very question, and part of the research for this project involves interviewing over 100 people from around the world who have demonstrated immense and sustained resilience through some extremely challenging life circumstances. A theme that continues to reappear in these interviews is the importance of getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. In other words, it’s learning to exist within, and navigate along those disarming margins we often find ourselves in.
Anthropology refers to something called liminality, a term that has its etymology in the Latin word “līmen”, meaning "a threshold". It is a concept that is used to describe that period of uncertainty and disorientation occurring within the middle of a ritual when participants can no longer trust the pre-ritual status and have yet to identify and enlist the appropriate transition or way of being needed to move forward. It’s a disorienting feeling during which identity, community, and security are in great flux.
I believe that our ability to be resilient has much to do with how we weather so-called liminal periods of our life. It is those times that often arise out of trauma, adversity, or great loss, when our previous way of being no longer serves us, and all our social and cultural values are called into question. Our way of interacting begins to dissolve and we have as yet to find or embrace, a new way of interacting with our environment. Over the years, I have learned to recognize these moments not as periods of disintegration, but rather as opportunities for integration and creativity. We all face these periods of uncertainty in our life, so I thought I would invite you to consider adopting these strategies the next time you find yourself in a state of liminal disequilibrium:
Adopt an IDEA mindset
IDEA is an acronym I created that stands for innovate, delegate, excavate, and accelerate. By learning to get ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, we open up the possibility to ‘innovate’ in order to find new ways forward through adversity. Second, by ‘delegating’ or deferring to others, we not only invite help into our lives but also stave off isolation by creating bridges of connection. Periods of dissonance provide an ideal time to ‘excavate’, or self-reflect—time to take a close look at what sits in our hearts and eats at our soul. And finally, sooner or later you have to move beyond the liminal threshold of uncertainty, and the sooner you can accelerate that motivation to do that, the better you’ll feel.
Timing is everything… Don’t wait!
I recently heard an interview with Brandon Stanton, the creative genius behind the internationally famous photo blog entitled Humans of New York. As you can imagine, Brandon is often asked by aspiring photographers and creatives what he credits with the phenomenal success of his project, and his advice is to not wait until you have something all figured out before you start. In other words, "You have to start something before you're ready, [and in the process] you learn courage by doing things when you are afraid. Don't wait until you are not afraid before you start."
Harness the thrill of the uncertainty
One thing is for certain, the wake of trauma, adversity, or deep loss, brings with it a debilitating weight of indecision steeped in fear. A characteristic of resilience is having an ability to make decisions without having all the answers figured out first. I believe this comes from a faith that no matter how something works out, you will either have success or you will learn something important about yourself. I once heard Elizabeth Gilbert describe it in this way: “I'm more excited and thrilled by the feeling of the jump rather than the landing… No one knows where he or she is going to the land, we have no control over that, but we do have control of how we feel when we jump.”
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.