For the past six months, I have been praying for a way to effectively start, and continue, the conversation of mental health in my sphere of influence. At first, I thought solely sharing my experiences would be the best way to teach and reach people who suffer, or who love someone who suffers. That is a good start, but it’s just that: a start. If you’ve been following along, you know my story. You know how anxiety has played out in my life thus far. What you don’t see though, is the effect it has on my relationships. The ripples of panic disorder played out. If I am being completely honest, (tends to be my mantra) my husband and I struggle with my anxiety. And I mean really struggle. I have been living with this pain for so long, that the walls around my heart are very tall. They are reinforced, guarded, and there is probably even a moat. with alligators. But I am also blessed with a patient, kind man who continually fights to know my heart cry…and I don’t make it easy. That isn’t entirely my fault, as mental illness of any kind is typically defined by the isolation that comes with it. After all, if we don’t totally understand our own minds…why would anyone else?
This post has been coming to fruition in my brain for quite some time now. However, I feel the need to preface this by saying that nothing in the next paragraphs will be brand new, or even profound. I have scoured the internet, and most articles preach the same methods. I’m still going to say it, though, because it’s worth repeating. Many times mental health awareness, or lack thereof, is a matter of life and death. I feel the weight of that truth, and the buck stops here. I will not stop fighting for those that are hurting.
So, you have someone you love that is struggling with anxiety/panic/etc. and you feel helpless: Thats normal. There is no quick fix. But, these are the things I need to tell you. These are the things I wish everybody knew. This is how you CAN help.
Do your research.
My grandma on my mom’s side had depression all of her life. She would lock herself in her house for days, was hospitalized many times, and attempted suicide just as often. I could never understand it. I couldn’t empathize, because from the outside it looked like something she was doing to herself. It seemed selfish, dramatic, and even delusional. I remember sitting in therapy a few years ago when the reality of my grandma’s situation finally set in. My heart hurt for her, and I was overcome with guilt that I could ever think depression was something that could be surmounted alone.
Why do I tell you this? Because knowledge is power. If you have a loved one who is suffering, trying to relate is simply not enough. Read the books, and learn the science behind the illness. Ask to attend a therapy session. Ask questions and refuse to be complacent. There are even support groups for the loved ones of the mentally ill. The mental health of someone you love is not something to be half-assed, to put it politely.
You cannot fix it.
Let me say it again for those of you who missed it: There is not a magic button or an instant cure. I desperately wish there was, and have even shaken my fist at the sky a few times… but there isn’t. So put your instincts to “fix” aside. I have a list of phrases that will instantly send me into a rage. The top of the list? “Chill out. Can’t you just get over it? You’re still freaking out, maybe you need new meds?” Don’t be that person. If you ever have the urge to be that person, here is a test for you to implement. Ask yourself, “Would I say this to someone with cancer? Would this be good advice for them?” If the answer is no, then shut your mouth. Please.
I realize this post is coming off slightly bossy and demanding, but here is my point: Many people respond better to someone’s presence than they do to their advice. It’s no different for anxiety. My brain is filled to the brim with scenarios and what ifs, and the last thing I need is to stuff more words in there. Silence doesn’t always need to be filled; Sometimes, silence provides space for the thoughts to settle.
Last thought: if you have to say something, please don’t let it be that you understand. I know you probably try to, and really want to, but you can’t. And that is okay! Maybe instead, though, say something like “You are so strong. I see that you are struggling, and I’m here.”
Patience is a virtue.
I’m not good at this. My husband is better than me. Which is good, because I’m the one with anxiety. There will be many, many relapses. Times when my rational brain takes over, and then the anxiety comes back with a freaking vengeance. Anxiety is like diabetes, heart disease, or any other chronic illness: It has lifelong implications. As much as it may feel like someone is self sabotaging or choosing not to get better, it’s just as much part of the disease process. I could not continue to overcome my own demons without the constant patience and help from loved ones. So, if you need to scream, do it. Scream into your pillow, find a punching bag, and let it out. Because watching someone else self destruct is debatably more painful than the act of self destructing. But just as Jesus’ mercies are new every morning, ours should be too. Do what you gotta do to fill your patience cup back up, and try again. The steps forward should be celebrated, and the steps backwards forgiven. We all have our shit, friends, and we can’t go it alone.
Grounding and Reassurance.
Now, reassurance was a banned word in OCD rehab. Basically, OCD craves concrete truths and absolutely cannot handle unknowns. So, I use reassurance as a way to pacify the OCD. It helps in the short term, but long term I’m just giving the illness what it wants… and driving everyone crazy in the process. However, reassurance with anxiety can actually be incredibly therapeutic. Reminders that you are not crazy, you will get through this, and of how far you’ve come can keep you grounded in reality. Anxiety has a way of taking off with your brain, on a dark path of worst case scenarios. Validation in that dark place can be all someone needs to keep pushing.
There is a specific technique called grounding that has proven incredibly effective for me during panic attacks. Essentially, you just force the panicking person to bring their rational mind back to the forefront. You ask them what color the floor is, where they are, what they hear, etc., using the senses to “ground” the person back into reality. Read more on this here
Be a safe place.
I might be crazy. I’ve always had this nagging feeling that I am insane, actually. For that reason, I shoved most of my mental struggles under the rug for years. I wanted to feel “normal” (whatever that means) and I realized very quickly that the thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety were very far from the norm. Or at least, from what someone long ago deemed as socially acceptable. Even into our marriage, it has been such a struggle to let Connor help me with anxiety. But if you are the Connor in your situation, keep providing that safe space. No judgement, no conditions. It takes a while for me to come around, and it may for your person too. But, all I crave in this life is a safe place to land. A reminder that I am beautifully and wonderfully made, even if that looks very different from someone else. Accept your spouse/family/friend as they are, and support them through the journey.
This one is just kind of an afterthought, but I feel like the outdoors are good for almost any illness (except maybe like allergies.. but I digress). In OCD rehab, I used to have to spend time outside. To go on walks, sit in the sun, anything beyond the walls of the hospital or my house. I hated it: It was hot, I’m afraid of germs, and I always felt like other people could see what I was going through. Not true, but it felt that way. I slowly learned to love that time though. Fresh air, sunlight, and even chirping birds are somehow just good for the soul.
I hope these paragraphs gave you a little practical advice, if anything. Each of these bullet points are things I wish I had said to those that stood beside me through my dark days. They wanted to help, and they needed me to tell them how. So for those that maybe can’t tell you how to help right now, for those that are walking through the valleys: let me be their voice. Let me say what they can’t. After all, we all need somebody.