I want to start by emphasizing that people can live positive and productive lives even with a mental illness.
Content warning: Suicidal ideation
For those of you that have watched the movie “Get Out," when Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya was in limbo after hearing the stirring of the spoon in the saucer—and knowing something was happening, but could not actually do anything—that is how I feel about my relationship with my mental health.
Today I am going to share three concepts I have encountered in my mental health journey: radical acceptance, empathy and toxic positivity.
As a woman in her early 50s, I will share my story. I grew up in a family where we didn’t express much positive emotion—there certainly was plenty of anger. I don’t recall a particularly happy childhood. I think you could easily say that I was called moody. I labeled it as moodiness because what else could it be?
It was a moodiness that caused extremes, often out of proportion for the situation at hand, taking nearly everything I did to extremes, including intense reactivity to the actions and emotions of others. My dad was a strict P.E. teacher at the junior high I went to and I was teased and taunted. I internalized this and the anger fueled me—fueled me to be better than, fueled me to bad decisions, fueled me to what I now appreciate was more than just a female teenager's hormones!
So fast forward to my mid thirties. I owe it to Jon (my husband) for helping me see the light. We had worked side by side for years and often our work would come home and I would have highly emotional reactions— tears virtually every day over something going on.
He told me that something isn’t right with me and that I shouldn’t feel and act this way day after day after day. At first I was defensive: "There are people that have it way worse than me." (I now understand this as comparative suffering) and "I don’t need help—I can fix this on my own." But he persisted. He made it OK.
I hung my head and said I would seek help from a counselor. Of course I walk into my first appointment and I make it clear to her that I need medication. (I bet a couple of you reading might chuckle at that statement.)
In one of my sessions I made a comment that I think about suicide every day. The conversation carried on and we finished our session. I received a phone call the next morning and it’s like she went back through her notes or listened to a transcript and called me alarmed about my comments about thinking about suicide everyday and asked if I need help immediately.
I think that was a turning point: I had never admitted that out loud and thought it must just be normal when I had shared that in the session. To hear the urgency in her voice the next day, I said "Uh oh, this might be bigger than something I can manage all by myself."
From a diagnosis standpoint, she put me in the “clinical depression” bucket. Evidently the frequent suicide thoughts moved me from the mild depression category. At that point I decided to “radically accept” my diagnosis as fact. I said "Let’s do this medication thing."
Of course medication alone is not the automatic answer, but what I did find is that it helped to soften the extremes of my emotions, gave me a way to regulate my emotions, tolerate distress, and be a bit more effective interpersonally.
There was a time I was definitely worried about the “stigma," that something was wrong with me and that I needed medication. Early on, I would be embarrassed to enter on forms the medication I was taking. I had made a goal that I wanted to be able to stop taking the medication. My doctor reiterated that there is not a cure for clinical depression and that it is natural to continue to take the medication and if I feel better and am more stable, that is all the more of a reason to stay on the medication!
With my emotional roller coaster more stabilized, my therapist suggested to “apply the gap,” meaning for every stimulus there is a choice in how to respond. “Check the facts” rather than lead with my emotions and assumptions, something I was not able to consistently do and husband Jon might say I need to continue to work on applying the gap.
My therapist also introduced me to the concept of radical acceptance of certain things especially things out of my control. I have been on medication now for over 20 years and have completely accepted that I have something that I alone cannot fix.
It hasn’t been easy. I still have feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness and hopelessness. I still have anxiety, can be easily agitated, definitely have feelings of of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures and self blame and do still think about suicide on a daily basis.
I did a few years of professional therapy, then I engaged a personal coach (who also had a therapy background) and now I am seeking counseling again. Like many others, COVID-19 has been a challenge, and I feel the need for professional support.
I have covered radical acceptance—now I want to talk about empathy. Empathy fosters inclusion. At Businessolver, we are on our sixth year of publishing study on empathy. We incorporated questions about mental health and its role in being an empathetic employer and the first year I was presenting at a large client event, I decided that was the time to make my own personal struggle known. I did this to show mental illness does not discriminate and I wanted to openly show that I was not afraid of any associated stigma.
Since then I have shared my story within the walls of Businessolver, have been on other podcasts and webinars and I must admit I was surprised with the impact it has had on people. Many people have connected with me and thanked me for sharing my story.
I will leave you with this call to action: I am passionate that it is not just about making it OK for the person suffering to talk about it. I believe it is imperative we help those not suffering from mental health to learn how to listen.
I just listened to a podcast from Brene’ Brown where she was interviewing Dr. Susan David who said: “Toxic positivity is forced, false positivity. It may sound innocuous when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they’re really saying is: My comfort is more important that your reality.”
If we can stop people from saying “We’re in the same boat," because we aren’t in the same boat. Really sincerely listen and help people understand. Really listening can be uncomfortable.
I am an advocate for prioritizing empathy in the workplace. It makes a social impact that is not only felt in workplaces, but in our homes, communities and countries. To do this we must be better stewards of our own mental health, learning techniques to navigate difference and overcome biases.
We need to understand the concept of active listening and brave uncomfortable conversations that lead to understanding. And we need to utilize trusted, credible resources to improve our own mental health literacy and help those around us.