By Clive Hanuschak, guest blogger
Some days, mental health—or mental fitness, as I now prefer to call it—feels like an unobtainable goal. It’s been a lifelong journey for me, sometimes feeling as overwhelming as reaching and climbing a distant mountain range, alone, like the rider in the picture.
Some of my earliest memories include feeling sad, overwhelmed, depressed and having thoughts about wishing to not be here anymore. No wonder those emotional patterns are so entrenched when they started so early in life from circumstances beyond my control.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a great life in many ways, but mental fitness—or the lack thereof—has been a constant companion. I’ve been blessed with physical health, but emotionally and mentally, life continues to be challenging.
I’m still trying to find my place in the world, something that most people my age (51) seem to have already accomplished. I look at those with steady and successful careers, financial stability, happy relationships and circles of friends…and wonder where I went wrong and why I’m so different.
I’ve had steady jobs, really well paying ones, and close relationships with men I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. I’ve lived and schooled in Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Vancouver. Yet the sceptre of mental unfitness keeps showing up in my life, no matter where I’ve lived, how much money I’ve had, whether or not I was with a significant other, and whether or not I was employed. I have periods, even years, of functioning very well…followed by the inevitable crash and burn of being an emotional train wreck, unable to hold a steady job or keep a relationship going. And each time is like starting over again, and it’s harder to get back up as the years have gone by.
Even Stephen Hawking says to never give up. But when I get into one of those really dark periods, all I can think of is giving up. It feels inhumane to have to suffer with this emotional torture, losing all hope for the future and wondering how the hell I got to this point in my life with little to show for all my efforts over the years. No, I don’t have a job right now. Yes, I’ve been living in my parents’ basement on and off for the last five years. No, they don’t understand why I’m not working like most “normal” men my age and don’t have a steady income or my own home.
Trying to explain, or at least describe, what severe depression is like to someone who’s never experienced it is practically impossible. It’s like trying to explain calculus to your cat. They’re not going to get it. If you’re lucky, they may be sensitive and compassionate, even though they really have no idea what it really feels like to be so stuck you can’t see any way out except to leave the planet. It’s hard for others to grasp because they can’t see anything physically wrong with you. It’s all inside my head, and since I can’t mind-meld with anyone else, I can’t convey the utter and absolute despair that defines one of these periods.
If I could weaponize depression, I’d be a very rich man. Imagine being able to debilitate others with a sudden onset of depression so intense that all they want to do is kill themselves. Yet those of us unfortunate enough to have this condition go through this repeatedly, in my case for as long as I can remember. I’m grateful and even amazed to have accomplished as much as I have, like graduating from Engineering, despite having to deal with this.
I’m not looking for sympathy, pity or rescuing from anyone. I know that the best way to deal with this is self-help and being my own case manager and my own doctor. There are no easy treatments, no magic cures for mental illness; physical fitness doesn’t just happen either. We just don’t have the treatments and technology yet to treat these conditions as quickly and effectively as we’d like to. It’s been a slow and painful process of trying different medications and combinations of medications, talk therapy, alternative therapies, diet, nutrition and exercise. Yet like other chronic conditions, despite my best efforts, sometimes it’s just going to be bad for a while no matter what I do. The trick is to keep living with it in spite of everything else and how rotten I feel.
I think it’s harder being male. Men are supposed to be strong, resilient, self-sufficient and able to withstand just about anything. Disclosing mental illness and asking for help feels like admitting I’m a criminal in need of rehabilitation. There’s a pervasive sense of shame around this we need to get rid of. I cry a little bit every time I hear of the suicide of another beautiful soul who could no longer stand their pain.
People don’t die from suicide because they didn’t ask for help; I assert that, like myself, they’ve been seeking help—sometimes for years—but what they got just wasn’t enough. Advocating for yourself, insisting on referrals, new meds or treatments, is a monumental task when I’m well, nevermind when I’m at my worst, trying to regain balance in my life.
Small things keep me going: a smile from a stranger; my beloved cat sleeping beside me at night; singing in choirs; having energy to exercise, bike or swim; the thought of being in love again someday. I want the same things as anyone else…to love and be loved, to have meaningful work and contribute to society. Simple life goals, not so simply attained without mental fitness.
A close friend, now retired, remarked how grateful he was to be at a point in his life where he isn’t struggling with the pain of finding his way and his place in the world, and is well aware of how his younger friends are struggling and fighting to find themselves and their place in the world. In my dark periods, it feels as if there’s no place for me in the world and that I can’t find my way or find a place for myself, and it would be better to just curl up and die.
Yet I have not succumbed to suicide. Life isn’t all bad and I have many, many happy memories. But when the dark periods come, all those memories and accomplishments fade and become distorted in their meaninglessness. The fact that I’ve kept on going means something, even if others don’t, can’t or won’t understand.
I’m on yet another new trial of medications that will take weeks to take effect. I tend to have productive periods, being employed or doing contract work, followed by crash-and-burn dark periods where I just want to lay in bed. Thoughts of suicide become almost obsessive; luckily exercise, if I can drag myself to the gym, is usually successful in temporarily abating my negative thinking. Yay for endorphins!
It’s easy to find books and writing from people who have recovered from mental illness, and reflect back on their experiences. I’m not “recovered,” I’m “recovering.” I hate the terms “mental illness,” “recovery” and worst of all, “mental health consumer.” They all have such negative connotations and stereotypes. I prefer to think of myself as pursuing mental fitness, not unlike my start-and-stop pursuit of physical fitness. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Ask me again in a month where I am, and hopefully I’ll have progress to report.
Clive Hanuschak divides his time between Winnipeg and Vancouver, working as a WordPress web developer and mental health peer support worker. In his spare time he blogs on mentalfitness.zone and tries to go to the gym often. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.