There is a meme making the rounds on Facebook. It shows kids, back-in-the-day, playing on a ridiculous set of monkey bars (you know the ones) with the caption “I died once when I was five. My mom made me walk it off.”
If you are of my generation, you find this humorous, and not far from the truth. We can all relate to stubbed toes, open bleeding wounds, and various contusions and abrasions that were generally dealt with by walking it off. I have asked my five-year-old grandson so many times, after a fall or otherwise minor (but cry-inducing) injury: “Is there a bone sticking out?” that now he will say “There’s no bone sticking out” before I can say it.
I do not believe our parents were cruel, and I certainly don’t want harm to befall my grandkids, but sometimes humor is the best medicine. Sometimes we need to minimize the apparent trauma. Sometimes we do, indeed, need to just walk it off.
It took me until I was bumping 60 years old to finally admit that some wounds are not visible. I subscribed, fully and sincerely, to the “suck it up” school of thought and graduated with a minor in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” philosophy.
Until I could not suck it up, and I was not dead, but wasn’t stronger, either.
It was the cumulative effects of my Mom dying under my care, my aortic valve failing (again) and leaving me near death, and the horrible trauma of Eastern Equine Encephalitis which nearly finished me off that I finally realized that this soul could only take so much. Even without bones sticking out, I knew I had problems that were way beyond “walk it off” and I knew I was no longer strong enough, or smart enough, to figure it all out myself.
I was having a text conversation with my sister (she lives in Philadelphia) and was sharing my struggles and my realization of where I am at these days. I mentioned that I was “pretty messed up” and she asked, surprised, “Are you messed up?” She’s known me her entire life and I am sure she is well aware of my (previous) views on dealing with life’s problems. My answer?
Every one of us struggles with something. Most of us struggle with many things. Health, obviously, especially as we age and watch our bodies slowly but inexorably fall apart. Relationships, and the challenge to keep them healthy. World events, and how to process what we see and hear. Our children, out in the world on their own. That job we hate and the boss who causes those feelings. Personal failures, personal demons, personal fears…. I could go on all day, but I am certain that you can fill in whatever I missed.
A couple years back I started seeing a therapist. Don has been a real blessing to me, as much a friend as a mental health provider. He says I am in surprisingly good shape upstairs, especially considering the trauma of the last few years, and he helps me and encourages with practical steps to keep moving forward. Sometimes just being able to talk with a trained professional, a third party, a non-relative or friend, is what you need. They are not so quick to pat you on the head and say “there, there” or, worse, tell you to walk it off! I maintain, though, that I am not depressed (I’m a pretty happy guy) but he pointed out that anxiety is a form of depression, and I am loaded with anxiety.
And my recent Home Depot adventure is a case in point.
I am remodeling my music room (projects are important to me these days). So, the other day Diana drove me to Home Depot (I no longer drive) and dropped me off. I love the Depot and I had a large and complicated list. But I almost didn’t make it out. I even asked employees for help finding things (the shame!). I almost abandoned the rest of my list, but I pushed through (there were no bones sticking out, after all) as I cut some 16’ trim down to 8’ so it would fit in the car. I repeatedly dropped the tape measure, the saw, my list… the Home Depot employee probably thought I was crazy, so he did not offer to help. I was visibly shaken by the time I made it through check out and out the door. I loaded up the car, went home and didn’t do much more that day.
There was just so much going on, so many sounds and colors and activities, it overwhelmed me. I could not process the sheer volume of input and realized that my brain injury has left me quite unable to do what would have been a simple task just two years ago.
Of all things, my Home Depot episode finally made me look hard at – me. I am not who I was. I do not have the capabilities I once had. I am not able to suck it up any longer. Oh sure, I have mobility, I can talk, I can write (obviously). But there is a part of me that is a stranger to the me I’ve know for 63 years. I am no longer able to function with the shear strength of will, the intellect, the reason that I once could. I am not okay.
I have read quite a bit about the brain and how it works, about how we process everything that goes in, about the incredibly complex arena of thought and emotion that swirls upstairs in our head. Oddly, a movie recommended by my therapist, Inside Out, probably presents what is going on in that gray mass in our skulls in the most accurate, and easy to understand, way. Fear, voiced by Bill Hader, would sum up my Home Depot experience this way:
“All right! We did not die today, I call that an unqualified success.”
And he would not be wrong. But what keeps us going? What can we do to make sure we survive the next episode? Are there legitimate steps we can take to improve our mental health?
Glad you asked.
For starters, you need to recognize that maybe, just maybe, you do not have the knowledge or resources or experience to accurately define and address your struggle. Of course, that means admitting that you do, indeed, have something out of kilter. That is half the battle – admitting that there is a battle!
Those of you walking in a faith tradition can oftentimes find help with your pastor or minister. Assuming they have the training, skill and experience needed, that is. I’m going to go ahead say this and say it loud: “If my bone is sticking out, I’m not going to church to get it looked at.” Now, I appreciate the prayers from my believing friends, and the support, and the dinners delivered. But sometimes you need more than that.
You will find plenty of qualified, trained, certified and licensed professionals waiting to help. It may take a few tries to find the one best suited for your personality. My guy is my second attempt, and he’s a winner. By chance, he holds a doctorate in Theology so his approach synchs well with my own world view. Ask friends, ask your pastor, ask your primary care provider.
There was a time that there was not much a provider could do to actually help someone medically. With the advent of specific medications, different forms of depression and anxiety can be mediated. I have avoided a prescription-based solution, but not on philosophical grounds. I take a lot of meds for all my other medical problems that I just do not want another. Which proves my point – if there are meds for high blood pressure and meds for seizures and meds for thyroid problems, then it stands to reason that there are meds that can help your brain. I had a good friend tell me, almost apologetically, that he took Xanax. It was the only thing that kept him moving forward. I told him he should never apologize for taking a prescription drug that helps solve a medical problem – there is no stigma in bandaging that wound you cannot see.
Faith, therapy, prescription drugs. Your problems all have three dimensions – spirit, soul, and body. Obviously a one-stop solution is not the answer.
But what can YOU do on your own (besides walking it off)?
I have discovered, especially during my self-imposed quarantine during the Time of COVID, a variety of ways to relieve anxiety and make life more enjoyable. Here is a brief list, mostly self-explanatory:
- Establish routines
- Escape the situation
- Chill out in a quiet space
- Listen to music I love
- Gentle chair yoga
- Tai Chi
- Read a good book
- Thank God daily for life
- Share my struggles
- Make a list of activities to give me motivation
- Engage in a hobby, and vigorously (my music room for me, my wife’s puzzles for her)
- Reach out to people, not for help, but just to connect
- Take a nap
That last one may seem funny, but sometimes you just need to shut it all down. A brief nap can be just what the doctor ordered to give your brain a break. But remember, I am not a doctor. Just messed up. Like you.
As a matter of fact, I worry far more about the people who do not know they are messed up.
I am trying, now, to seek first to understand what other people are going through. Other people are going through a lot. We need grace, both for others and for ourselves. Jesus said it best:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39
Who is your neighbor? Everybody. What is the level of love? As much as you love yourself. This is the real motivation for getting better, for healing, for being whole. I can only help others to the degree that I am able to help myself. I can only love you if I love me.
I wish that life were as simple as a stubbed toe, that my problems were as easy to solve as walking it off. But that’s not how it is in the real world. Don’t get trapped into sucking it up, don’t believe that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
And, especially, don’t be afraid to get the help you need.