*I wrote this at the end of the summer – a point in time when I was struggling emotionally for a number of reasons. Writing is cathartic for me, so the simple act of translating these scattered thoughts into words helped me process my experience. I shared this piece with a few people, but opted to push pause for a while before publishing it for a wider audience. There will be ups and downs in life and I’m so thankful that, currently, things have been decidedly “up” for me but this essay still feels relevant and, I hope, if you read this at a period when your life might be in a “down” phase, that you feel encouraged to reach out, find a patient ear, speak to a trained professional, and identify positive changes that will support your mental/physical health and bring joy.*
Years ago, when I was a little girl – around four or five – I injured my foot. I’d been playing on a swing about a hundred yards from our house. When I reached the top of my upward climb, I launched out and off the swing. I’d made this leap countless times before and was accustomed to landing safely.
But that summer afternoon I landed hard and awkwardly. Something snapped, but I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew my foot hurt.
Memories are vague, but I suspect I ran to find my mother in a fit of tears. She wasn’t overly concerned; as a nurse, she’d seen worse. I could still walk and flex my foot. Also, since I was the youngest of four kids, she had been around the block treating childhood ailments. (Her attitude may also have been a reflection on my tendency to exaggerate reality for dramatic effect.)
My complaints continued intermittently, but she brushed them off – handing me an ice pack when groaning crescendoed. Over a week later we were at a local baseball field watching my brother compete in a tournament. I wandered off and my mother happened to see me at a distance, limping across the playground. Even when I didn’t know I was being watched, I was still maintaining a posture of pain. It was at that moment she decided something was actually wrong and that’s how we wound up in the radiology department of our local hospital.
An X-ray filled in the gaps. I had broken a bone at the top of one foot. It was a small break and since several weeks had passed since I hopped off the swing, there was no point in putting on a cast. But, effectively, we needed to pretend like I was wearing one.
The doctor prescribed rest, ice, and time.
My mother, understandably – and to my utter satisfaction – launched into a guilt response. I milked the experience for all it was worth. I remember lounging on a picnic blanket on our front lawn, a battery-operated cassette player beside me, a plate of snacks at my feet. I wasn’t ashamed of my injury. It was a fact and I was following orders: rest, ice, and time – served up with a side of Ritz crackers and Phil Coulter tapes (because I was cool like that).
The whole story has gone down as part of family legend.
I’ve been talking – and thinking – a lot about mental health lately.
I’m not thinking about mental health because it’s fashionable or trendy. I’m thinking about mental health because it’s real. And I’m talking about mental health because the older I get, the more I realize all of us are eventually impacted – directly or indirectly – by mental health challenges.
But it also feels like mental health is still so far removed from the openness and transparency we afford physical health. (I realize the two are inextricably linked but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to treat them in isolation.)
I get that not everyone wants to share and I understand if not everyone wants to hear me share! But often, especially since becoming a mother, I’ve felt like everyone else has it all together, at least mentally. That everyone else spends their days taking pictures of daisies in the field (proverbially speaking). And maybe I add to this perception because taking pictures of daisies in a field very much sounds like something I would love to do (literally speaking).
I know people who are even-keeled. These people ride the waves of life with a calm demeanor that is at the very core of their personality. I hope this is you and I sense, from some of the lovely comments I receive/from reading your blogs – there are some very even-keeled people who visit this space. As Ron Swanson would say: Bully for you.
This is not me. I like to think if I study hard enough, try long enough, get good enough – emotional waves won’t ever knock me down again.
But they still do. And that is frustrating.
I’ve grown to dislike the term mental health. I’m not sure why – perhaps because it feels clinical and vague? When my foot was broken, I didn’t tell people: Behold my physical health issues! I said: I have a broken foot.
But here’s the rub – you can’t see a broken brain.
My brain is not broken, of course. I write e-mails and go on walks and put French braids into an 11-year-old’s hair and fry onions and drive a car and make my bed every morning.
But I also had several dozen panic attacks over the summer. How’s that for a tidbit to accompany your morning coffee?
Before this point, I had experienced exactly two panic attacks in my life, almost a decade apart. So this is not my norm. And this recent run-in with a panicked response left my brain feeling completely and utterly broken.
So why write about my experience here?
This space has become a creative outlet. I don’t want it to be an open door for all my woes. I like having a platform that reminds me to focus on the good and to discuss and celebrate all the wonderful moments that make life so rich and beautiful. I am deeply privileged.
But if I had a broken foot, would I hide my cast? No. I’d ask people to sign it! I’d want others to support me and follow along with my healing process. I’d have people open some doors, pull out my chair, grab my crutches when I forgot them by the couch. I could sip coffee on a café patio and sing along to my favourite songs on the radio. But showering would be a proper nuisance and I’d likely complain about the infernal itching under my cast. I’d be completely useless on a beach volleyball team. And everyone would understand – because a broken foot feels like an accident.
A broken brain feels like weakness.
It makes me feel human.
And sometimes it’s hard to recognize the limitations of humanity. As one of my favourite Bible verses beautifully references it, I am a jar of clay. But I’d rather be an invincible superhero! Impervious to pain! Undaunted by challenges! Superheroes don’t have panic attacks at 4 am – by that point in the day they’re already out saving the world in Spandex.
But I am human. And you are too, so you can likely relate.
Last summer was full of adventure. Sometimes the beauty literally left me speechless. This is 100% true and my reality.
But on other days (or sometimes even those same days when beauty was taking my breath away), my emotions felt like one big tangled mess. And as quaint as that line might be about feeling “broken, but beautiful” here’s my truth: when I’m feeling “broken”, the brokenness doesn’t usually feel beautiful. It just feels…broken. And, well, I’d rather nothing ever felt broken to begin with.
Thankfully I haven’t had a panic attack in months; I’ve talked to medical professionals and feel so much better emotionally. It helps that renovations are over, company is gone, major career decisions have been made, a challenging neighbourhood situation has de-escalated, and the kids have entered a new, exciting season of independence. The chaos in my environment – and in my head – has had a chance to settle down. I’m trying (mostly successfully) to frame the whole experience as part of a natural process of growth and development.
But it was also really, really hard.
And I have to admit, chances are good I’ll wind up in the center of another emotional storm again. That’s life. But for now, I’m taking one day at a time and that feels good.
Also, for the record, while I am not out picking daisies in a proverbial field all day long, I am committed to stopping to admire them when I come across a patch.