This post was contributed by Christa Leigh.
I have a little quiz for you. Give yourself one point for each of the following statements that describe you:
(This is not scientific in any way.)
- I get anxious when someone is waiting on me, even if it’s in the checkout line while I fumble through my purse/wallet to retrieve my bankcard or cash.
- I will say yes to something I really don’t want to do because I don’t want to disappoint the person asking.
- When I say no to something, I feel compelled to explain why, even if I have to lie.
- I often say no to things I really want to do because of the inconvenience it might impose on another.
- Even though most people perceive me as outgoing, easy to talk to and would say that I express myself well, I am often anxious about meeting new people, starting new conversations, and what kind of first impression I made.
- I don’t like asking other people for things, especially help.
- I feel personally responsible for the interactions of people who are with me; it makes me anxious if two of my friends do not get along or if conversation stalls.
- I can walk into a room and absorb the vibe; if it’s tense, I get tense. If it’s relaxed, I can relax. I am like a sponge for other people’s emotions, especially in crowds.
- Because of the way crowds affect me, I don’t like to be in them much, especially around stressful times of the year.
- I hate crying in front of other people. When I finally let my emotions flow, I prefer to be alone.
- When someone does something hurtful to me, I tend to make an excuse for them.
- When I know someone is waiting on a response from me, I am anxious until I respond. I will stop important things I am doing in order to respond.
- If I’ve had the same argument a few times with a loved one and have not felt ‘heard’, I tend to stop arguing the point and ‘give up’, believing that I am doing the right thing by compromising in order to avoid future futile arguments.
- I will admit to fault even if I don’t truly believe something was my fault in order to create peace and move past conflict.
- I will overlook things that offend me in order to avoid conflict.
- I will play a conversation or interaction with another person in my head over and over and over again, dwelling on the things I should have said.
- Even though most people who know me would describe me as self-confident, I really never feel like I fit in easily. It is difficult for me to really be comfortable in new situations or with new people, no matter how easy I might make it look.
- I do a lot of things I don’t want to do, because I feel it is expected of me.
- In the past, I have found that people were not aware of my negative feelings toward a person or situation because I never mentioned it, never complained, never made my feelings known.
If you saw yourself in every one of those statements, Congratulations! You’re just like me…… or the me I used to be.
If some of them were like you, then maybe this will still help.
If none of them described you, please contact me immediately to teach me your ways.
I had an intense year last year. And when I say intense, I mean, I didn’t want to be here. There were days when I fantasized about driving my car into the frozen Chicago River in order to avoid the conversations I knew that I had to have with the people in my life.
Mental health, just like physical health, depends on so many factors. Genetics, upbringing, environment, stress…. the list goes on. And similar to physical health, there are habits we pick up when we are young that become a part of the nature of who we are.
Mental habits become as natural as physical habits do, and as we grow into adults, it’s even harder to identify what these habits are as well as where they came from, because we don’t realize that not everyone thinks like us.
For example, I ate a lot of processed foods as a young adult because that was a habit I had as a kid; we were in the military and my mom fed us what was available, affordable and easy… we ate a lot of hamburger helper and steak-ums. Ease of food was what I knew, so it’s how I started my marriage and my family- until a good friend of mine one day noticed what I kept in my kitchen and enlightened me about the horrors of hydrogenated oils, aspartame and ingredients you can’t pronounce.
If we could let people into the kitchen cupboards of our heads when we’re younger, before problems arise, it might be easier to realize that there’s a lot of unhealthy things sitting on those shelves. I don’t think it occurs to us that there’s a problem until someone, somehow enlightens us.
I knew that last year I needed help, and called a counselor. I needed someone to talk to who didn’t know me, didn’t know the situation, didn’t know any of the people involved and could hopefully give me some insight about how to get my shit together and stop feeling like I didn’t want to exist.
I am not a doctor or therapist so the following statements are simply my opinion of my own experience of mental illness.
I believe that intense internal conflict was and perhaps always will be the root of my dark days.
On the outside, I express myself to the world as knowledgeable, confident, self-aware. I’ve been told I’m funny, approachable, easy to talk to, and that I explain difficult concepts to people in a way that makes them easy to understand. I enjoy good conversation and helping people- I go out of my way to fulfill the requests I field day in and day out as part of my career.
Internally, though, I’m a shit show. I overthink. I obsess. I dwell. I also have the nasty habit of allowing everyone around me to have a right to their feelings as I suppress, negate and minimize my own. It’s like my own feelings are gum and my brain is chewing, constantly chewing… and never spitting it out.
Jodie, my counselor, was the first person to take a peek at what I was really stockpiling in my mind. She asked me during one session to really think about the first time in my life where I felt like the feelings of other people were more important than my own. Funny thing is, I knew exactly what it was. When it was. But it was the hardest thing in the world to talk about.
I turned thirteen on January 18th, 1991. Most people won’t remember that Operation Desert Storm officially commenced on January 17th of that same year. My dad was in the 5th Mob in Warner Robbins, Georgia. My family lived in Georgia for three years. My dad was there for maybe six months of those three years. He deployed to Saudia Arabia long before my birthday, I can’t even remember the Christmas before but I don’t think he was with us. So my birthday that year, my very important 13th birthday, my mom forgot. My brother was almost two years older than me and wrapped up in his own problems. I had a best friend at school who knew it was my birthday, and I thought when I came home from school that my mom would have something for me. That maybe feeling like she forgot about it that morning was part of some elaborate surprise, because my dad was and still is the best at planning surprises.
But it wasn’t. There was no surprise. No party. No gifts. She just forgot. She was stressed out. My brother was a handful back in those days and my dad was off at war, and it wasn’t like it is now. He would send letters that we would get weeks later. If he could call- when he could call- it was via a satellite phone to a landline so she literally waited by the phone. She would stay up all night and sleep a lot during the day and her doctor finally told her to quit watching the news. I remember feeling very helpless, like there was nothing to do but tie yellow ribbons around trees and wait for something to happen.
She apologized to me the next day and said we would celebrate that weekend. I remember that in an effort to comfort her and care for her, and to have empathy, I acted like it was no big deal. How selfish is it to be angry at your mom when she’s clearly worried sick about other things? How can you, even at thirteen, demand attention when it seems like the best thing you can do is stay out of everyone’s way? I painted a smile on my face and “shrugged” it off. Don’t be angry. Don’t be mad. Don’t be sad. Don’t give her something else to worry about.
And there you have it. It was the most difficult thing in the world to discuss with a counselor who has absolutely no idea how phenomenal my mother is that it was her actions toward me during that formative time that laid a foundation for destructive mental habits. I had no right to be angry, my dad was at war. I had no right to be hurt, my mom was hurting. I had no rights to my own sadness, I had no right to express my loneliness, I made myself responsible for making the lives of the people around me easier by being as invisible as possible.
Being an outgoing person who tries to stay invisible is quite the impossible task.
It’s not my mom’s fault, what happened. The dynamic of our family at the time set the scene. I formed the habit. I didn’t even understand that this was the way my mind works until my counselor talked me through it. It hurt like hell to think about those three years in Georgia. To be honest, I remember very little except for spending time with my best friend Jenni.
I think our minds try desperately to dim the lights on memories that hurt too much, and until that day, I rarely thought about turning thirteen.
I know that if my mom had known how much I was hurting, she would have helped me. She would not have been angry at me for having my own feelings. It was my flawed perception of the situation at the time that compelled me to internalize and suppress it all.
It took twenty-seven years for me to feel like I am allowed to be here on Earth with everyone else, having real emotions and speaking up for the things in a relationship that hurt me or anger me or that I want to change. It was- and still is- a challenge to break the cycle of thinking one thing but saying or doing something else in order to placate another person. It’s a day-to-day struggle to feel like I’m entitled to an emotion, no matter how irrational it may seem to anyone around me. It has taken mental exercise to come to a place where my inner self-confidence matches my outer self-confidence.
We use the word disease to describe things that attack our bodies and make us sick. Disease is really dis- or lack of- ease. It should be easy to exist, easy to understand your own thought processes, easy to see the fault in your communication with the world. Because it is not, we all have varying degrees of mental disease. We all walk around like the way we think is just the way things are, but this simply isn’t true. And unless you’re willing to dig in, you’ll never cure your own disease.
If you saw yourself in any of this, I hope that you take some time to think about the time and space in your life that set your mental habits in motion, and begin the work of new and healthy habits.