Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Music Man: Of Course it Continues *trigger warning*

After I stopped seeing him, MM and I kept in touch sporadically, exchanging emails every once in a while and occasionally chatting on Facebook. I'll be honest, even though we didn't meet up again, we did flirt a little sometimes. A girl needs to practice her sexy, you know? And even though I found myself conflicted about the nature of our relationship, over the time we'd known each other I'd come to care about him a great deal, and wanted to keep in touch. I'd read drafts of the early chapters in the book he ended up publishing...I wanted to know how he was doing, know the general outlines of his life. I wanted to know that he was happy.

In 2009, I ended the most emotionally difficult intimate relationship of my life, and I wasn't quite sure how I was feeling. Although I'd loved my partner, I'd struggled for over a year-and-a-half with the dynamics between us that made me feel deeply unhappy and unhealthy. I'd always felt a little bit controlled and restrained by the way he seemed capable of taking over my life and my affairs; he didn't do it on purpose, but I ended up feeling incapable and small. After I had behaved particularly badly, my partner told me that he would feel better and trust me more if I dropped MM from my friend list on Facebook. So I did. For the first time -- and I hope the last -- I allowed someone else to determine who I could and couldn't be friends with.

When we broke up, one of the first things I did was get back in touch with MM. Part of it was revenge, I'll admit it: I wanted to do what I hadn't been able to while I was with my ex-partner. Part of it was a feeling of expansive freedom. Part of it was wanting to feel desired and desirable after feeling sexually unworthy, unattractive, unwanted, and messed up. And part of it was just wanting to be able to talk to MM again, about all things psychological, about our lives, about the parts of ourselves that people keep hidden for fear of being judged. I wanted to be vulnerable and have someone accept me.

As it turns out, MM had recently been missing me as well, and we quickly struck up a flirtation. We ended up meeting for hot chocolate soon after getting back in contact, and I was pleasantly surprised by how things went. We talked about our lives, our recent relationships, and what I'd learned I wanted. I found myself very different with him than I used to be: I was shy and deferential, but now I found I was expressing myself with confidence and behaving more like who I really am, instead of like a student trying to impress her teacher. He remarked on the change as I, too, was noticing it. I was older. I was more sure of myself. And I knew that, if I liked him, it wasn't because I was star-struck but because I knew him and I knew myself.

I often wonder what exactly it is he saw in me. I know he liked that I was smart and we could talk about a range of topics. I know we found each other insanely attractive. But, more and more, I think it was that I simply wasn't impressed by all the crap he usually impresses people with. I didn't care that he was the equivalent of a psychology rock-star, because I'd known him before that was true. I didn't care about his house, or his cars, or his clothes, or his job, or his money, although I knew that those things all represented success to him. And he knew that I didn't give a crap. I think what he liked most about me was that I looked at him and saw him with all those things stripped away, and was interested in him anyway. I got the feeling that he was surrounded by people who focused on what he could do or what he had and was, and I was part of a smaller number of those who took him for who he was. We seemed to give each other something we were both missing, along with a lot of desire and tenderness.

I 'dated' him from late spring through to early fall, meeting up once or more a week. I invented a fake graduate student working in a psychology lab so my family would know I was seeing someone and wouldn't constantly be asking where I was going. I wasn't sure exactly what our relationship was, but we were having a lot of fun, and I was getting to know both of us a lot better. I met and had dinner with one of his friends from out of town, and actually went to a block party with him. We had a lovely and memorable day trip. I knew I had feelings for him, and him for me, but it didn't seem important to try and define what we had or where it was going. I was much happier and more fulfilled dating him this time around than I had been the first.

But, as time went on, it started to bother me. I felt like, in a way, I was letting myself get comfortable in a relationship that would, in the long run, keep me from pursuing what I really wanted. I was still young and I knew I wanted children, and that he didn't. I knew one day I wanted a life partner, but I didn't think that was in his plans. Ultimately, I started feeling like I was selling myself short and allowing myself to be less than I hoped to be by choosing to be with someone who couldn't give me the kind of commitment that I wanted. I felt like we were both settling for less than we deserved.

I knew it would hurt, but after crying it out all over a friend in Dio's basement after a Friday morning Eucharist, I decided I needed to stop seeing him and re-evaluate what it is I needed in a relationship in order to feel like I was growing, like I was a real partner, like I could be fulfilled.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Montreal Walks for Mental Health

This year was Montreal Walks for Mental Health's sixth year in existence, and my second year participating. I'd seen a segment about it on the news three years ago, and immediately began following the event on social media so I could join the next one. I sincerely hope I'm able to participate every year, and not just because they give walkers these truly awesome hats!

This year, I was able to double the number of people I convinced to walk with me. Double! On the surface, this sounds impressive and speaks wonders of my charisma and persuasive skill. This would all be true, except for the fact that the number of people who came out to walk with me was two.


I posted extensively on social media about the event, and about other mental health topics in the weeks leading up to the walk. I posted mass invites on facebook, and personally asked a couple of people I feel really close to if they would come with me. The posts where I told everyone I was going and invited them to come with me got only 8 'likes.' None of the people I singled out came -- some because they couldn't, others because they didn't want to. While I did have an encouraging number of private responses, most of those who were trying to make it ran into personal conflicts and ultimately weren't able to attend.

I have 402 friends on facebook, all of whom have seen my re-posts about mental health over the years. Of those 402 people, 1 person said the walk wasn't worth going to because we wouldn't be spending any time alone, 3 planned to come and couldn't make it, 1 wished she could come so much that she shared my invitation with all of her friends (with my permission!), and 2 actually came. 


The point of the walk is to stand up together against the stigma surrounding mental illness. We all know the tangible effects that stigma and discrimination can have: unemployment and underemployment, lack of adequate housing, fragile and non-existent social networks, loss of opportunity, loss of friends and family, food insecurity, looks of disdain, refusal of service...the list goes on. As for me, I am fortunate to have never experienced life-shattering stigma, to have never run up against that wall. While I've had my fair share of people tell me they don't believe in medication (including my mother who habitually refers to it as 'a crutch' and a graduate thesis supervisor who approved my leave of absence specifically so I could stop taking pills), or who believe that I will get better if I just try harder, the way that stigma has hurt me the most is actually in its silence.

I feel stigma in the silence of other people surrounding my illness. Over the years, my depression has been dismissed by family members as 'not that bad,' even though we've never spoken about what it's like for me. In the decade since I first became acutely ill, my mother has not read any literature on depression, suicide, or trauma. Depression, and its ongoing effects in my life, is never discussed, except in the weekly complaints that I kept a prescription light box on the family's kitchen table so I could use it every morning. 

I feel stigma in the way that people avoid talking about mental illness. The informational posts I share are the kind of thing people seem to skip over in their newsfeeds. Perhaps, like me, they worry that if they display too much of an interest people will begin, on that basis, to assume they must be mentally ill.

I feel stigma in the way that inappropriate language and misinformation about mental illness is silently accepted. Over the past few years, I've occasionally scattered my speech with ridiculous mental-health terms, hoping that someone will call me on it. A thing can be 'psychotic,' 'schizophrenic,' 'bipolar,' 'crazy,' or 'retarded.' I have never, not even once, had anyone tell me off for using offensive and discriminatory language (though I've certainly done it to others!). When I complain that news media have reported a story in a misleading and discriminatory way, people respond by changing the topic, with non-committal sounds, or by defending the newscaster. We have come to accept the misuse of words and misinformation as part of our social fabric, in the face of which we, as a society, are largely silent.

I feel stigma the most in my own personal silence. Although I was quite outspoken about my struggle with trauma and depression years ago, and was able to use those experiences to help other people, over time I've become hesitant to share these details about myself. When I began a new university degree, I decided to tell as few people as possible about my history of mental illness. Part of that was wanting to make a new start after having tried to kill myself again. Part of that was related to taking on new roles in church leadership and preparing for a more public ministry within my Christian life. Part of it was shame that, after years of helping other people with their illnesses, I could no longer convincingly tell a story of my own recovery.

In terms of employment, my manager does not know I have depression. My absence was coordinated with disability and HR, so none of the people I actually report to are aware of the circumstances of my medical leave. While negotiating flexible hours to accommodate group therapy (which should be starting soon!), I implied to my manager that the group is about my chronic headaches. I write this blog, all about my experiences living with depression, but the link is not posted anywhere on my social media because I'm afraid it might get back to the office inadvertently through friend-colleagues.

I feel like a hypocrite because, while I talk about ending mental-health discrimination, I keep my own illness wrapped in a carefully guarded silence. I do it because I'm afraid to ruin my career in a competitive, target-based work environment where failure to succeed is not tolerated. I do it because I am afraid I'll be seen as a liability in an office where taking your full 10 sick days in a year is tacitly considered unacceptable, unprofessional, and detrimental to the team. I do it because, on my very first day of employment, I asked about using sick days for mental health reasons and was told that for mental health days we have to use our vacation. And I do it because, as someone who longs to dedicate her life to working with other people as part of her church ministry, I understand all too painfully that disclosing my mental illness makes it unlikely that I will ever be entrusted with authority; depression makes me 'unstable,' and my honesty has meant that I am not considered a good candidate for ministry.

So yes, I do feel the stigma. I wonder to myself if people skip over my profile posts about mental health because we are more comfortable not talking about it. I wonder if I would have gotten more likes or more participation if I had asked people to join me for Light the Night. And I feel the stigma in the relationship of my own speech about mental health awareness to my silence about my own illness.

I went to Montreal Walks for Mental Health and I was proud to stand with people who are fighting stigma by speaking out, hopeful that one day I, too, will no longer feel the need to protect myself with silence.