I have everything. I’m a middle-class white woman with a good job, and so many beautiful friends. I have parents that love me, that I love. My life lives up to all the sunny clichés: the deck is stacked, the world is my oyster, I won the lottery. But sometimes, I can’t get out of bed.
I’ll curl up in the corner of my room and marinate in my mistakes. It can be a quiet, sedate sadness that sneaks up on me and crushes me with disappointment or self-doubt. Sometimes it’s an evening of worried melancholy; other times it’s a stretch that I can’t shake, and can last days or weeks.
Tucked into the corner of my bed, I’ll think about how stupid I was to love that angry man who cheated with so many other women and then left. I think about how stupid I was to love the angry men who came after him. I tuck my feet under the blankets and think about how pathetic it is that with my privilege, with my education and with my feminism, that I made these mistakes, and more pathetic still: that they continue to haunt me.
I think about a dear friend who lost her mother to cancer, and now raises her own daughter without that warmth and support. She experienced real and excruciating loss: something that hasn’t touched my life. As I scroll through Twitter, or sit at my desk with the TV news flickering over my shoulder, I am hit by headlines of rampant sexual abuse and devastating natural disasters. The depth of this suffering, and the never-ending cycle of nightmare news headlines, makes the weight of my own worries feel superficial. People who have weathered some great calamity—lost loved ones, experienced violence or poverty—these are the people that we feel have “earned” depression or anxiety. But there’s a silent crowd of people that are like me.
Friends, colleagues, strangers look at me and see a successful young woman: my job in politics at Queen’s Park fills me with passion, and is a space where I am confident, respected and fulfilled. I fill my evenings and weekends with adventures, like trips to the art gallery and outdoor concerts, in one of the most vibrant cities in Canada. I have a hobby, as an equestrian, that makes my heart sing. When I’m at the farm, with the warm smell of horses and hay and wood shavings, my always-spooling mind stops.
My Instagram feed is a highlight reel: the biggest smiles, the best events, the shiniest ponies. I’m sure yours is, too. But things are not always as neat and tidy as they seem. When I posted a serene photo with my horse in a field of wildflowers on a Sunday afternoon, I had been so anxious that I hadn’t left the house since coming home from work on the Friday before. Behind the scenes of a snap of me in a favourite dress on the way to a charity gala, I was wracked with nervous worries about attending the event. And last year, when I saw #BellLetsTalk and #endstigma trending, I was wrestling with the wisdom of a relationship with a man who told me—and I can’t write this without fighting tears—that he didn’t feel that I was trying to get better.
We happily use these hashtags and on specific days, it’s literally on trend to talk about the need for mental health support. But we don’t talk about what mental illness really looks like. When we talk about how one in five Canadians experience mental health problems or illness each year, we don’t talk about how uncomfortable it is to live that reality. What does it actually mean to one of the estimated 11 percent of Canadian adults with depression?
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with what doctors call “generalized anxiety disorder” or GAD. I’ve tried a variety of prescription anti-anxiety medications, as well as prescription sleeping pills, which I’ve paired with regular visits to my family doctor, stints with several different therapists, and a year on a waiting list to see a psychologist. It’s a patchwork quilt of trial and error.
It’s hard to see or understand the realities of mental illness, and it is easy to mask that ignorance with a well-intentioned hashtag. I find myself frustrated with friends, acquaintances and colleagues that cheerfully chirp about the importance of support for mental illness—but show little understanding of mental health challenges or genuine empathy towards those dealing with them. Adding “#BellLetsTalk” to your tweets, posts, photos isn’t enough.
There isn’t an easy fix for mental illness and there is no miracle cure. I chose a job that I love, which surrounds me with other keen young people and gives me a something to believe in. I protect my quiet time, knowing that nights at home let me recharge. I plan for situations that I anticipate being overwhelming: difficult conversations, boisterous family gatherings or parties packed with vague acquaintances. I remind myself that people usually mean well, and I try to give others the space that I know I value. I stay away from people that make me feel less than, from people that stoke my anxiety. These aren’t a solution, but strategies that make challenging circumstances a little bit easier.
I am blessed with a circle of close friends whose realities mirror my own: successful, ambitious young professional women who can be beset by anxiety or depression. These are women who can I can call when my cheeks are salty with dried tears and all I need is quiet, judgement-free companionship. These are friends who know that they can turn up on my doorstep crying, and will be greeted with a glass of wine, some lavender oil and an episode of Frasier. With these friends by my side and an awareness of what I need and when, when mental health stops trending, and #BellLetsTalk day has passed, I know that I won’t be left in the dark.