⛅️Up in the air in my self-care chair!!!! Sometimes, when everything feels up in the air– I go there too! It helps me to see that it’s okay for all my things to be up there just for a little bit. It reminds me I can take time and gather them up and get grounded alongside them once I'm ready.
I am someone who has found freedom in the growing acceptance we’ve seen in mental health’s presence in social media. As someone who struggled to find words, I can be proud whenever I find some that help to illustrate an aspect of what difficulty feels like. It’s nice to know that when I post a hopeful message out into the world, it is a world that will accept it and be proud with me for being resilient in the face of mental illness. Though, this type of post is easy and accepted because it displays that overall things are okay. What about when things are not okay?
Using a caption like that one is one of my types of sharing that I classify as “struggling successfully”. It is a concept that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and it is a large part of Let’s Talk day. To me, this idea of “struggling successfully” means that messy parts of life are cleaned up, and then sent out. Success in struggle is a wonderful thing. Success in struggle means that you've taken the tangle, and found meaning. At its core, I think success in struggle is found simply by feeling heard. It’s a way of carving out a place of acceptance when we are able to turn frightening feelings into messages. It is the very essence of hope, because it signals that there is a lovely place of celebration after you pass through times where you feel broken and inadequate. But only after.
If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that mental illness distances us. When we struggle, it gives us countless and constant reasons to avoid, to fear, and to become confused by other people. Mental illness can steal our words and make us step further and further away from others. Though we all celebrate the initiative of “Let’s Talk”, it has become clear that this day is also a large source of stress for us all. This encouraged surge in visibility tells us to share, and since that is one of the ways we feel lost in our experiences of mental illness, then in doing so, this day indicates that we should do our most challenging thing as a way to tell people about how challenging it is. As an observer, I’ve often known what it is to feel lost with the frustration of watching put-together people celebrated for sharing their stories. This is made especially difficult when this process gauges worth, and translates into “likes” and shares and the push for viral attention. This is a recipe for surface attention that will mask the truth of those currently drowning in their struggles. When we only praise successful versions of struggling, we skip over discussion, and we skip over the mess that is mental illness.
I celebrate that in the past few years, we have been able to see the direct results of progress as we open up our acceptance levels for inner truths. I feel we have reached a place where we are ready to openly welcome the truth, and welcome difficult truths– though with the requirement that they are filtered for safety and appeal, and turned into something that can perhaps be nice for others. This encourages hope and it is always extremely necessary. It is our progress in celebrating this that allows me to feel free to call attention to the other side of reaching out. A version of reaching out where what we encounter is complete, wild chaos. I choose not to tone down that description, and I choose not to say it is less than chaos (as we sometimes do with the premise of being more accepting), because I think it’s important that we can also accept people experiencing a world of chaos. Severe mental illness truly does bring chaos, and if we ignore it’s severity, we won’t be ready to be empathetic when we see it.
When we see struggle in its root version, it is scary. We aren’t sure what do do with public chaos, it doesn’t fit into everyday street wear. We can paint pictures of it and show it in a nice way– later. The “later” is important to us as receptors. We welcome views of someone’s inner terror, but only after time has allowed us to breathe some aspect of poetry into a horrible experience. There is fear in the feelings that we can’t control, and there is hope when we see that we can control how we present them later.
As I think about our individual preferences when sharing, I’m thinking about a graphic I saw recently that gave some guidelines about how to be vulnerable online in a “smart” way. The point that stood out most was, “Always wait until after you’ve calmed down before posting.” That’s a great way to think about submitting an article about a topic that fills you with raging emotions… though it’s not such a great way to think about telling people you need immediate help. When it comes to reaching out on social media, there is an unspoken line between what is celebrated and what is feared. So, what can be public? What are the boundaries that mark an unacceptable way of sharing what we feel? I think that the current line is drawn between the difference of “felt” and “feel”.
This is the distinction between experiencing and reflecting, and they seem to lie on widely different ranges of what we consider to be in line with social etiquette. It is very logical that we’ll come across both forms on social media. After all, when we need help in a crucial and immediate sense– we are feeling alone. That means that we need people... and that means that, likely, social media is the tool we turn to to send that bottled message out into the world.
In one version, social media can deliver messages about our struggles in carefully constructed paragraphs of afterthought; In another, it becomes a lifeline for in-the-moment pleas of connection. These lifelines– these are scary, and they always will be. They are scary because we can see the real danger before us. When the struggle seems too present, this form of reaching out is received very differently– after all...we would never “like” and praise real struggle...right? This difference is, of course, justified. Stories of mental illness, and the experience of mental illness, are very separate uses of social media– but I think the comparison is a useful one. We can use the contrast in reception to think about the drastically different reaction we have to the different embodiments of struggle.
To frame this in an example, I’ll write about the same person expressing themselves from very different points of mental illness. In one version of reaching out, this person takes the time to prepare and edit a positive spin of what they’ve learnt into a pretty and palatable post. It goes up on “Bell Let’s Talk” Day. This is someone we’d run up to, high five, invite to speak and surround with praise. Then, in another time and another point of their illness, this same person publicly shows the real terror of their fear. They end up feeling more distanced. From what I’ve seen, any sign of current struggle is frightening to us as a social group. Anyone whose mental illness does not readily align with what we’re used to seeing is distanced from the (lack of) responses from the same people who would readily praise reflective stories that seem tidy.
It’s common for us to back away from public outcries of desperation. I think we do this because we feel uncomfortable. We feel as if we’ve accidentally come across something private, so we’re inclined to think we should be looking the other way. I think it’s imperative we remember that in both cases, the person wrote in order to bring their inner thoughts out of the secluded isolation of their heads and into view. When we’re reducing the stigma around this inclination to reach out, we’re altering the conception that this act of opening up is wrong. I’ve seen wonderful steps taken to embrace stories, and I’d love to also see steps taken to embrace those amidst the current that those stories illustrate. Both cases are prompted by a yearning for understanding. Both times they were written with the need to simply be heard and acknowledged as the human being they are. If we are accepting that it is okay to reach out, we need to accept all forms of it.
This comparison can go a step further. We see the difference of how a post is received in correlation to it’s neatness can also display how a person is treated in correlation to their ability to appear in some manner a victorious survivor of their struggles, rather than someone currently battling– this is also relevant when we compare how people are treated in terms of their privilege. The same evidence appears yet again, if we look tidy, safe and hero-worthy, we are greeted with cheers. If we are on the street struggling to find balance and belonging, there is a lot more hesitation.
It is here that I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’ve been writing with an all-encompassing “we”. I do this as we all have mental health, and struggle is common. Though severe struggle should not be overwritten as something we all experience, because I think this makes us more surprised and shocked when we come across what severe mental illness actually looks like. I feel that I am able to use “we” and “us” here as I am someone who has experienced the un-tidy version. It is a version that is swept away into psych wards, it is a version that can separate people from having a home. Mine is also a version with a level of privilege. As a young woman who can blend into what is expected, I have never been considered dangerous. With any less support, though, it is likely I would have instantly been lost and feared. I felt this was important to write in order to encourage compassion for our view of the effects of mania and uncontrollable emotions. If I can be respected, so can anyone who is homeless. Mental illness is a dangerous truth. It is important not to fear those with it, but I feel that to say that the effects of mental illness are not scary would ill-prepare those who have never had direct experience with its potential severity. I think we must also accept versions of mental illness where it does look different. I think we must be open to accepting those whose actions seem distant to our own understanding. So distant that it is hard to associate feelings of “us” and “we” when we’re looking at an experience that, as a society, we’ve been taught to think is embarrassing. Overall, I think I just mean that it's important to remember that though we should acknowledge the distance of our experiences, we can always find the humanity in ourselves to see the humanity in every other person we encounter.
If we’re ready to talk, we need to be ready to hear some incredibly challenging cries for help. If we’re ready to see the truth of mental illness, we’re going to be seeing people in deep vulnerability and desperation. When we cry out, we’re doing so for a reason– we’re hoping to be heard. Every time, that is brave. Every time, we’ve battled through their own fear of others fearing us.
Today, I’m thinking about all forms of reaching out and all forms of being open. I’m remembering that any time we encounter someone who lives with an experience that seems distant to our own, we can see alongside them when we accept distance, and respect equality.