This post is a long one and deeply personal. It is hard for me to put my heart out there like this. It is scary putting this out there publicly because you never know who will read it and what they will think of me in the long run. But I also know that if I’m not able to share, then I’m just contributing to the ongoing stigma of mental illness. We as a society need to not be ashamed of this. I need to to not be ashamed of this. It does not make me any less of a parent, partner, friend or person. Let’s start talking.
Not that long ago, I decided to get a tattoo on my forearm. I’d considered getting another tattoo for years, to join the small one on my right ankle bone I’d gotten impulsively while at university, but didn’t have a good enough image to put permanently on my body. I didn’t regret that first four leaf clover (as a good luck symbol) but I was happier with my body the way it was, than I would be with any other image I considered. Plus that first tattoo really hurt! I wasn’t anxious to relive the pain!
But then, 25 years after the first tattoo, something shifted in my life.
Last fall I went to my doctor because I was increasingly experiencing extreme PMS and radical mood swings on a monthly basis. She prescribed me something to take short term and I had a strong adverse reaction to it. I was barely aware that it was the medication causing the side effects but essentially it pushed me into a deep and debilitating depression. I barely left my bed and, when I did, I was not functional. My partner took over for a few weeks until we figured out it was the medication and I stopped taking it and returned to normal.
But then, a few months later, I started to experience some of the same symptoms but on a smaller scale. I had difficulty getting up in the morning. I had a hard time focusing on work and planning ahead. My feet felt heavy, my heart heavier. The smallest little things would irritate me and I’d explode in anger at myself. I tried to hold it all in, as I’d been raised to do, because good girls don’t show tears or anger or strong emotions of any kind. But last January, it started to boil over the surface until I couldn’t hold it in anymore.
And so began my journey towards wellness. It started with visits to doctors and medications and counselling. It started with many months away from work and my days were filled with the work of focusing on wellness of my mental health. I saw specialists and changed medications and waited for them to work. I went to new doctors and tried other new medications and waited for them to work. I learned deep breathing and waited for it to work. I tried yoga and, in between falling over and self-conscious attempts to recreate the poses of the instructor in front of me, I waited for it to work. (I don’t think my body was made for yoga!) I connected to my faith through online services since leaving the house became too difficult for me to do, and I waited for faith to inspire and heal. I drank the water, I ate the healthy food, I slept the required hours, I kept the suggested waking & sleeping schedule… and still I waited for it to work.
And I’ll be honest, none of it really worked.
One day I went for a walk in the woods. I’d been re-introduced to hiking the previous year while on parental leave with Miss D through a local “Hike it Baby” group, and the newest doctor had recommended me to increase my physical activity so I was trying to go for a walk or hike every day. Sometimes with HIB friends, but often alone. On this day, I went alone for a 10km walk around a local lake. It was spring time now and the sun was shining. I considered the latest medication that I’d been prescribed and my heart felt heavy just thinking about taking it, and dealing with the side effects that were unknown but so far, experience told me that they were likely as debilitating as the mental illness itself.
As I walked, I listened to my heart. And my heart said, “you’ve got this… this too shall pass… ride the wave and it will pass…” My heart told me that nature and being outside is what I needed, more so than medication and doctors.
(Note of caution: It wasn’t a decision made lightly but it was a decision made without consulting anyone but my heart and for that, I have regrets. I was lucky that stopping medication didn’t result in any problems. I didn’t tell my partner, I just stopped taking medication. I do not recommend this to anyone! For me the story ends well, but it could just as easily come out with a very different and very bad ending!)
What seemed to make the biggest difference was getting outdoors, walking, connecting with the earth and nature, and learning to listen to my soul again.
It was at this time that I decided to get a tattoo. It was a tattoo to remind me of this dark period because I knew it would likely come again. It was a tattoo that I could look at and see every day and it would remind me to let go and just ride it, that change would come, and it would be okay if I just let go and ride the wave.
It is a deeply personal tattoo and one that I’m incredibly proud of.
Because it is so visible, people have asked me about it and my standard answer is that there is one mountain for each of my children, and they are being held together in a big wave full of strength & power… the waves are a reminder to me to “let go and ride.” I lived in BC for 27 years and my heart and soul connected to the province’s mountains and oceans, so there is symbolism in including both of these in this tattoo. This is the answer I give to people I don’t know well, like the barista at Starbucks that asked about it!
But more than that… a wave is unstoppable, it washes over everything in its path, and leaves behind an altered landscape. Whether it is the deep power contained in gale storm winds, a quick rising squall on a lake that will fill a small sailboats sails, or the quiet constant ripples and small waves lapping onto a sandy beach enjoyed by children on the shoreline, waves are controlled by forces above and beyond us, are unpredictable in their size & strength, and we cannot stop them anymore than we can make them yield to our wishes. Sailors will tell you stories of being stuck on a lake when the wind dies and being left to float aimlessly until, finally, something shifts and ripples start to be seen again, filling the sails and giving power to move the boat. Likewise, if you are swimming in the ocean with big swells and crashing waves, and are trying to fight that power, all you will do is tire yourself out. However, if you have a surfboard and learn to ride those waves? Not only will you experience adrenaline and joy in the surf, as you let the power carry you along its crest, but you will not tire yourself in a pointless battle with this power that is beyond you.
In the crashing of the wave on the shoreline, is the beginning of the next wave, and so the action’s you take today will cause ripples in future actions. Everything is connected and every end is a new beginning.
Yet even in the fury of the storm, there is calm between each wave. And there is always an end to every storm. In every wave, you have a decision to make: to fight the higher power or to ride with it. My tattoo reminds me to ride the wave.
Waves will change the landscape, usually slowly but sometimes in one swift motion like a tsunami, but there is a constant erosion of the bumps and rocks and imperfections along the shoreline which the waves work upon to smooth out.
I can only hope that the waves of my life are working to smooth out my rough edges and help to make me a better person.
I have always loved the ocean, playing in the waves and jumping in the surf. I have very fond memories of playing in the ocean on Vancouver Island with my sister! Still today I find it very soothing to let my body relax and give in to the movement of the ocean, to give in to the power of the waves.
And this is the meaning of my tattoo and why I wear it on my arm, where I can see it every day. It is a constant reminder of the storms I’ve already passed through, the ones yet to come, and what is at stake for me to learn to let go and learn to surf the waves, instead of fighting them.
We don’t talk enough about mental illness in our world. We that suffer from it carry shame around in the suffering from it. I hate when I am weak and ‘give in’ to the illness. I hate when the voices in my head telling me I’m just not good enough for anything are winning out over my brain that knows I’m smart enough, strong enough, good enough. (And no, I don’t mean actual voices… ) And then I hate myself even more for hearing the voices and giving credence to them. I’m learning that the anxiety I feel on an almost constant basis is truly what drives me and my difficulties. I have such a drive inside me to be “perfect” and that is impossible to attain, so I constantly don’t measure up.
When I was packing up our house in Vancouver, I found a plastic bracelet in amongst the kids things. One side of it says “I am enough” and the other side says “I have enough.” I have worn it every day since finding it. I have no idea where it came from! Originally I put it on because I thought the message of “I have enough” was fitting as we worked to get rid of our belongings to lighten our cross-Canada load. It wasn’t until a few days later that I even saw the second message. But I need the reminder, constantly, daily and sometimes hourly.
And I’ll wear it every day until I believe it in my heart because right now, I struggle to believe it. I don’t believe that I am enough of a mother, a friend, a wife, a woman… I don’t believe that I’m good enough.
But until then, I will work with the waves, and look at my tattoo, and try to believe that “I am enough” and that what I am doing is enough, every day, for those I love.
Thank you for reading and thank you for understanding.
As an aside note, a little related:
Recently Sinead O’Connor posted a YouTube video about her own mental health struggles. I haven’t watched the video, but did read this commentary on it and encourage others to read it as well. Let’s not just memorialize people after they’ve died from mental health afflictions, let’s change the system and provide better supports for people while they are living.