As I sit here writing this blog for Mental Health Awareness Month, I can’t help but reflect on my own journey as well as the journeys of so many families I’ve worked with over the years. I can’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come in shedding light on mental health concerns but also how many of the people in our own communities strive to sweep it under the rug like a dirty little secret; never reaching out for help, never seeing a way out, never getting the treatment they desperately need until sometimes it’s too late.
Did you know 1 in 5 people struggle with a mental health issue? Take a moment. Look around you. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you know someone who’s struggling with their mental health. Maybe it’s you. If it is, you’re not alone. I spent years of my own life struggling with an eating disorder and anxiety.
Shame, guilt, depression, and dread are just a few of the emotions which consumed my life while I was in the disorder. I think shame is one of the only ones that followed me on my journey out of my disorder. As I progressed through my recovery, and got to a stable point in my own life, I decided I didn’t want to talk about my eating disorder any more. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want to be “that girl” with the eating disorder. It was my time to start over and be the person I wanted to do be. I was determined to NOT be the poster child for recovery. I kept my secret for a long time and went about life normally.
One day, a colleague of mine asked me to see the daughter of one of her clients. She told me the girl was struggling with an eating disorder and made her way through multiple counselors and treatment centers. She was certain I could help this child. After awhile, I finally agreed to meet her, but just once. When we met, we had a lot in common. She was sassy, sarcastic, and determined not to talk to me. I liked her instantly and agreed to work with her and her family. Since she decided we wouldn’t be talking during our sessions, I asked her what else she wanted to do. She liked coloring, so we spent our hours coloring big posters while we carried on “casual” conversations.
Finally, a couple of sessions in, while she looked down at the poster she was coloring, she said to me, “you know what? If you only read about eating disorder recovery in books, it must not be very possible. People only write about rare things in books.” In an instant I felt my stomach drop. I knew I had to tell her. For the first time, I disclosed to a client that I had struggled with my own eating disorder and made a full recovery. She told me later that was the biggest defining moment in her own recovery. That one sentence changed everything for her. It changed everything for me too.
I reflected on that session a lot later. We’re taught not to disclose personal information to our clients. We’re taught to keep our personal lives out of the therapy room. In that moment, I realized that my personal experience IS a part of the therapy. If I’m telling my teen clients that there’s no shame in struggling, or having struggled in your past, then I need to be the first one to stand up and live that truth.
In spite of the stigma mental health still faces today, I strive to stand up and be a living example for those who are still struggling. If you’re struggling, know that you don’t need to go through it alone. If you have struggled in the past, know that there’s no shame in that struggle. It was that struggle that helped you find your strength.