The Journey: Finding Where I Belong
We are all looking for somewhere to call home. We just want to be less lonely.
The last steps of a journey are often the most difficult. The path I’ve followed in dealing with mental illness has been a long and winding road. For most of us, the journey is a lonely one. No matter where we’ve travelled, we are all searching for the place where we belong.
Mental illness remains the ‘great divide’. Even though we just want to connect, there is a chasm between those suffering with depression, anxiety or any other form of mental health challenge, and the people around us.
Despite the current mainstream focus on mental health, I still don’t believe we are comfortable talking about it – even with the people we love and care about. The one thing we most need to do is what we don’t do – reach out to each other. Whether from discomfort or lack of understanding, we hold back. And those of us struggling in the darkness feel alone.
Ironically, though it keeps us apart, mental illness is the one thing we all share. We are all affected, either personally or by those close to us. It knows no prejudice. It can affect anyone, no matter your financial means, your education or any other social circumstances. All of us are on this journey.
I recently listened to Sangu Delle talking about his experiences as an African man challenged by depression. Delle talked about the stigma of mental illness and how those of us on the journey are segregated and classified. “In regards to mental illness, ignorance eviscerates empathy.” At first glance, you may wonder what I have in common with Delle. Although circumstances separate us, we share the experience of mental illness. And the people around me share the same experiences as the people around Sangu Delle. They are left wondering how do we help our friend, our brother, our son?
What if we looked at mental health as a shared experience – a way to connect and bring us together?
People are affected differently by mental health challenges. Some endure and bounce back, while others stumble and even fall. Resilience is our capacity to remain well, recover, or even thrive in the face of adversity. It allows some of us to bend, without breaking. We often wonder ‘what helped them through it?’ But I think the really pertinent question is ‘who helped them through it?’
For most of us, the roots of mental illness develop in childhood. Something happened, someone did something (or didn’t). My struggle began when I was eight years old. I endured three years of abuse. The physical wounds faded but the mental ones have stayed with me throughout my life. I was told I was ugly, unlovable and worthless. Those were the real scars. I was filled with shame about what happened to me, and deep guilt that I may have been at fault. These feelings kept me from talking and seeking help from those around me. Hearing no other voice than that of my abuser, I believed what I was told, that I had no value.
Throughout my high school years, the sexual abuse had stopped but I was relentlessly bullied. Again, I heard that I was nothing. And keeping it all inside of me, I believed it. With no one to talk to, their words became my reality.
University offered a respite from the battering of my sense of worth and gave me an opportunity to be someone new. I kept my story deep inside and became a different person. Sadly, although I formed friendships, I was never able to truly be me. That’s when my struggles with anxiety and depression started. Not wanting to talk about what was happening to me meant I had no support. I felt more alone than ever. I believed that there was something wrong with me – that I didn’t deserve happiness or to have anyone care about me.
I carried this sense of shame and guilt throughout my adult life. In my work, I was blessed to achieve success. But I never felt I deserved any of it and did my best to sabotage whatever good happened to me. I kept my real self away from people. I held back from others, as I believed I did not deserve their affection, much less love.
My anxiety and depression deepened with my isolation, hardening my beliefs about myself, and stripping away any self-compassion.
Is this what resilience looks like?
Yes, I endured and made it through the struggle of experiencing a mental illness. The first steps of the journey are about survival. I was still standing, but I was missing so much.
I believe true resilience lies beyond what is inside of us. It is about our connection with others – the bridge between us is just as important as our own internal strength.
The first part of my journey, to endure and survive, was long. Loneliness kept me on the road. But in the last few years I have had the incredible support of my therapist and close friends – those who I actually decided to let in – to take the next step of understanding my experience and making sense of it all.
Looking back, I understand that an eight-year old was not responsible for the abuse done to him. I feel inside of me that I was not at fault. And the words said to me were just words – they were not the truth. I am worthy. I am lovable. And I am not ugly. I am a person with value to offer.
These wonderful people reached out, asked me questions, and listened to me. They spent time with me and didn’t let me fall back into myself. They connected with me and helped me through it and supported me to move on. And they were always just being themselves.
I am now facing what seems to be the toughest part – that last leg of the journey. I am trying to find where I belong. For many people, it would seem that after you work through a mental illness you should be fine – everything should be okay. But I have been diagnosed, classified, and labeled. Many people don’t know how to relate to me. There are those who avoid me, hesitate to talk to me, and who may even be afraid of what I may be like. I’m like everyone else. Yes, I have gone through a challenge with an illness but I am just the same as you. I laugh, cry, and have the same feelings. You can get angry with me and express your feelings.
It is easy to feel sympathy for someone experiencing a mental illness. But it is tough to let all of the perceptions and misconceptions go and just be yourself with that person. And, really, that is all it takes –just be you. Don’t try to fix me. There is no need to watch what you say for fear I will break apart. I just need you to be you. I don’t want to be treated differently. I just want to feel like I belong.
I think the real measure of resilience is having people around you who help you through it, support you to move on, and, most importantly, make you feel you have a home and belong to a community. Having people that you truly connect with provides perspective – something so critical in making sense of what you are going through.
My birthday is almost here again. And I admit to feeling some anger. At this age, I feel what was done to me has robbed me of many years of happiness. Yet, I know that I am actually blessed. For once in my life, I know exactly who I am. I am content with me, what I have and what I am doing with that. I am the authentic me. That is a gift.
The discussion around mental health tends to focus on diagnosis and treatment, as well as identifying and classifying. We place little attention on helping people with mental health challenges feel they have others around them they can trust with their feelings and find a place where they belong. And this is where we can make a difference and crush the stigma around mental health. It is something we all have between us, but we can use it to bring us together. If we could just accept mental illness as part of life, without discomfort or uneasiness, how great would that be?
It would feel like coming home.