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Mental health awareness is everywhere these days, which I’m sure you’re aware of (unless you’ve been living under a rock).
I’ve always felt that I was fairly “aware” of the prevalence of mental health issues as well as the heavy stigma attached to them, due to witnessing numerous people close to me openly struggle with both throughout my life.
What I wasn’t aware of until a couple of years ago was the challenging reality of my own mental health.
Up until my early 30s, I blamed my mental health issues on situational things in my life—after all, there were plenty to choose from. For starters, I was raised completely isolated from the world in an extreme fundamentalist, misogynistic cult. My late adolescence and early adulthood were marked by sexual assaults, my mid 20s were spent as a sex worker (which had its own share of trauma), and later on I was entangled in an abusive relationship with someone who pimped me out as a cannabis mule.
But after I extricated myself from the grip of that relationship and did a tremendous amount of trauma and healing work, I was excited to finally enter what I expected to be a healthy, peaceful season of my life.
Well, that’s now how it played out.
I was confounded to discover that my mental health “issues” didn’t disappear. To the contrary, they have gradually but steadily increased right in time with the number of months I’ve spent on this earth, in this body.
It took some time for me to wrap my mind around the fact that in a world built for neurotypical people, I am neurodivergent. I have a mental illness. I am, quite literally, crazy (and yes, I’m allowed to say that since it’s my own brain that I’m talking about). Not that there’s anything unique or special about this—I am far from alone. Yet, somehow, it’s so much easier for me to find acceptance and compassion for other peoples’ mental health challenges than for my own.
I think it goes without saying that many of the unusual elements of my life are things that carry heavy shame and stigma. Sex work. Sexual trauma. Being (and staying) with an abuser. Mental illness. After rescuing myself and following a path of healing, radical self-love and acceptance, and freedom, I started calling myself a Shame Shifter.
Shining light on these things that we so often struggle with in silence—in darkness—is what I consider to be my life’s purpose. Not to tell shocking stories, but to be a hand reaching out in the darkness saying “Here, you’re not alone. You are worthy. You don’t have to struggle in the dark with this.”
My own life stories are mirrored by millions of people around the world but not spoken about because of the shame and stigma. This means that millions of people are suffering in silence, the heavy weight of that shame suffocating the life and voice out of them day after day.
And yes, mental health is one of these things. I still struggle with my own shame around it, the imagined voices of a neurotypical society screaming in my head at the times when my brain is functioning at its worst.
Despite knowing differently, despite trying to help others believe differently, there is still a part of me that pops up from time to time to tell me that I should be stronger. That I should be able to just snap out of it. That I shouldn’t take medication. That my mental illness is an unworthy, unacceptable, unlovable part of myself; that it is wrong and somehow less real or valid than any other type of illness.
Take what happened a few days ago, for example.
The last couple of weeks have been an especially rough stretch for me, mental health-wise. There’s usually not a reason for this, and to try to find one—something to pin it on, the way I so easily could in my trauma-riddled younger days—is crazy-making all on its own. There are less hard times, there are harder times, and there are impossible times. I have no control over this, although that part of me mentioned above feels like I should.
I’m a full-time digital nomad currently living on a small island in Thailand. My tiny beach bungalow is directly on the sand of the most crystal clear, exquisitely turquoise sea. On this particular day, I had the entire day off and the weather was perfect. After a string of storms, I’d been looking forward all week to having a proper beach day.
But after just a few minutes in the sand, that invisible lever in my brain switched and sent me plummeting from a “harder” time to an “impossible” time. I tried to push through it. I gritted my teeth and dug my heels harder into the sand as the torment dug its claws into me, the agony of it feeling too big to breathe around as I gradually spiraled into a panic attack in the middle of happy holiday-goers on the beach.
And then, I just couldn’t anymore. I went into my bungalow, pulled all the shades, and crawled back under the covers I’d exited only a short time before.
I know every possible “should,” from “I should realize how privileged I am and be happy” to “I should be taking advantage of a full day off and perfect weather.”
I know every phrase I could use to beat myself up.
I know how lucky I am to be living my dream life as a digital nomad with so much freedom and complete location flexibility.
And also, I live with mental illness. And some days, this is what that looks like:
Leaving an intoxicatingly beautiful beach at 12:30 p.m. to crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head, and distract from the torment in my brain by turning on Netflix and shutting out the world.
My entire life on this earth will be spent living with mental illness. There will be days when I am extremely high functioning, to the point that I almost feel “normal.” There will be days when just the basic aspects of day-to-day life feel like an impossibility. There will be days when it’s all I can do to get out of bed in the morning. And there will be days when I can’t even do that; when I have to give myself permission to burrow deep under the covers, turn on music or the TV, and turn off my brain.
I’m learning to be okay with all of it.
I am learning to find and hold the same compassion for myself that I can so easily find for others.