Life with Liz: Mental support is essential
My Facebook feed is full of friends who are running marathons, logging gym sessions religiously, following the newest weight loss programs faithfully with amazing results, and showing off their dedication to their physical wellness in an admirable fashion. I’m proud of them. I’ve donated a few bucks to whatever worthy cause they’re running for this month. I’ve applauded those that have lost weight, happy that they not only look great, but they feel great and are warding off plenty of other health issues. I’ve wondered a time or two if I should post my own fitness and dietary struggles to help keep me accountable.
I vented and complained and voiced my fears for the eight long months that I spent trying to find an answer to why my knee wasn’t working and I rejoiced when it turned out to be Lyme disease and I finally found relief. If we aren’t talking and sharing these things on social media, we’re having these conversations in person. When it comes to physical wellness, it’s easy to have a conversation, especially when a person is improving their own.
Why don’t we share the same excitement and enthusiasm for mental wellness? I haven’t ever seen anyone post a selfie of them fresh off their therapist’s couch with a thumbs up and an “I feel great” caption. I haven’t seen them posing pre-appointment, saying, “It’s gonna be tough, but I know it will be worth it at the end!”
I’ve never walked up to someone and said, “You look happy, those sessions with the shrink are really doing something for you!”
Over the years, I’ve sought professional health for myself and for my family members. I’ve always felt a little ashamed of having to ask for help, or to admitting needing help, but in retrospect, I realize that those feelings were wasted energy, and I’ve learned how to tell when I need to ask for help again.
One of the many silver linings to having a child born with a severe birth defect and dealing with a team of professionals who focus on all aspects of a child’s and a family’s health, is that we had a lot of resources available to us that we didn’t even know we needed.
After A was born, we had a team of medical professionals who checked in on us, as parents, to see how we were feeling, to see if we were handling the challenges of a newborn with special needs, and to see if we were in a good place mentally. At times, I would get mad at these people, because they would suggest to me that I might be feeling a certain way, when I wasn’t, but sure enough, sooner or later, I would end up feeling that way, and just knowing that for me, at that time, that feeling was “normal” and expected, was a major consolation and did a lot to help me get through things like anger, fear and resentment.
After going through that process, I became much more open to listening to what the professionals had to say about mental health, and a few years later, when one of the kids was dealing with anxiety issues, I was able to recognize them as something that I knew I couldn’t handle alone, and I got my child the help they needed.
Taking a child into therapy wasn’t an easy decision, although, it should have been. I would have done the same if we had been repairing a broken arm or leg without a thought. Those sessions were illuminating, not just for our child, but for our family as a whole.
One of the most valuable things we learned was being able to spot the early warning signs that signaled a full-blown anxiety attack was on the horizon, and how to start employing coping mechanisms to prevent that from happening. Years later, my child can now follow those steps on their own and has become an expert at quelling their own fears. I might also be guilty of using those techniques on myself sometimes.
Lately, although I’m not seeing a professional, I’ve surrounded myself with a group of friends that I know I can call or send a text to that says “help!” and they will respond. Usually, the first thing they do is send a wildly inappropriate meme or gif to get me laughing, and then they either hear me out or direct my energies in the most positive direction possible. It struck me the other week how similar our “crisis mode” responses were to the coping mechanisms that the therapist had recommended for dealing with anxiety. They may be arm-chair psychologists, but my friends are just as vital to my mental health as professionals have been in the past.
I also have no doubt that if and when I would reach a genuine breaking point, my friends wouldn’t hesitate to encourage me to get the professional help that I need. I’d like to think that at this point, I’m capable of recognizing that on my own, but just in case, I know they have my back.
Physical fitness without mental fitness is not a healthy life. As doctors uncover more and more about our brains and how keeping them healthy can impact every other area of our life, it’s vital that we pay attention to them and exercise them and keep them as healthy as we do our heart, and our muscles, and all our other organs. These days, we all have fitness trackers, either on our wrists or on our phones or other devices. These do a great job of reminding us when to get up and get moving or when we haven’t met our daily fitness goals. When is someone going to invent a device that can track our mental health as easily?
Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.