21 Mar 2018
I just realised that there are some common messages that I talk about during my mental health advocacy talks that I should really put down here as a reminder to myself. Perhaps when my inner critic isn’t as loud, I can do something about these messages.
Do these qualify as self help messages? I don’t intend for them to be. But I think they are truths that we need to put into practice.
1: Aim to change the world. (Don’t demand that the world changes for you)
All of us have dreams, and some of these dreams will come to fruition. Some will not. But when we dream, sometimes we dream of the things we can do to change the world. That’s good, and that’s usually right. But the problem comes when we demand that the world changes for us – to fit our view of how the dream should be. Instead, we should be aiming to change the world starting from ourselves. If we don’t learn to differentiate between the two, the world will be a very hard place to live in.
A very concrete example – I wish that people understood more about depression. I don’t demand that they do – but I start by talking about it. People can’t understand if someone doesn’t tell them. So I start from what I do.
2: It’s all about the people.
I think this is one of the most important messages I have, whether it’s for corporate or for students. The people around us matter. How can we show that they matter? The words that we say, whether in passing or otherwise. The care we take to acknowledge people around us, no matter what level of society they occupy. Have you tried smiling at a grumpy old man on the bus, or nodding a greeting at a young man in a wheelchair? When you interact with classmates or colleagues from other departments, especially that department, you know what I mean, do you look at them as people, individuals, worthy of respect?
Do you look at yourself as worthy of respect? (I don’t.)
3: Take care to go long.
Nobody owes you your health. Not your spouse, not your organisation, not your children. Health is a battle that is always primarily fought by ourselves. If we have cancer, others may pay our way, but we still fight the actual battle ourselves. I fight my own depression, even if my wife supports me.
So if we want to go further in life, if I want to be alive and well to see my kids graduate or to comb my wife’s white hair, I need to fight my depression, even if it means quitting my job. Don’t sacrifice your health for short term gains or financial wins. IT folks, banking folks, please remember that sleep debt is a real thing, and can cause long term damage.
4: Be proud of your scars.
We get scars from everywhere, whether self-inflicted or not, visible or not. Some are psychological scars. Some are physical. We tend to hide them, run away from them, or pretend that they don’t exist.
But for the older folk among us, these scars are a badge of honour. They mark the fact that we have fought through whatever we faced. The presence of scars means that we were harmed, but the fact that they are scars means that they mark our recovery in spite of our wounds. We can carry on despite being hurt.
Our scars shouldn’t be things we are ashamed of. Our wounds shouldn’t bind us to the past. Instead, we should see them for what they are – badges that show that we are happy to be alive, happy to be fighting on. We don’t display them in pride and show them off, but we shouldn’t hide them, or be afraid of them.
Be proud of the scars that have made you.
5: Don’t let social media rule you.
Social media is a double edged sword. It can be used well, especially for outreach and publicity, but there are many ills as well. No one posts pictures of crying babies being difficult, or waking up at 4am to feed the kids. No one glamorises the pain that they go through. Or maybe few people.
I once told some students this – “Your friends will always have the better holiday. The better watch. The better life. Because no one ever shows their pain, or their struggles, or their tears. No one shows themselves waking up to soothe a child’s fever. No one shows the screaming tantrums and the arguments behind closed doors. Don’t chase social media. It’s not worth it.”
I should have said that it’s not worth chasing a lie.
6: You’re never alone.
Here’s a thing. Whatever you’re going through, however bad it is, someone else has gone through something similar. We’re all different people experiencing different things, but similar – definitely. That means we’re never really alone in our pain. That should help a little. Someone else has recovered from depression. Someone else has fought just as hard as me, even harder.
Case in point – I’ve been feeling guilty about spending less time with my kids than I think I should. (If my therapist is reading, please excuse the should). I’ve always struggled with this – until a friend told me that due to an unrelated illness, he was technically an absentee father for a year. He just eased back into things after he was well enough.
Somehow that made me feel a lot less guilty.
7: It’s ok to not be ok.
There’re emotions and thoughts that we classify as “bad”. Anger. Sadness. Exhaustion. Natural reactions to things, that we feel guilty about and we then try to ride over. We have to be “positive”. We mustn’t “let things get us down”.
You know what? Life isn’t a bed of roses. Things do get us down. There’re times where it hurts too much to go on. Instead of acknowledging it and facing it, we try to strangle it and pretend it’s not there, and then somewhere down the line, it comes out again, rearing its ugly head to bite, at an importune time. For example, men who’re often angry, often aren’t actually acting in anger because of what is irritating them at that point. Instead, something else may have affected them earlier, and they swallow the anger because anger isn’t something we’re supposed to show. By the time they get home, it’s been bottled up – and when the child or spouse drops a bowl and breaks it, the dam breaks.
So instead, face our emotions. Acknowledge that we’re reacting. Deal with the issue in our hearts, and then let it go. If it’s pain though, it’s okay to crumple. It’s okay to break for the moment and behave brokenly.
My therapist once said that our thoughts and emotions just appear on the spot, and we have no control over them. It’s how we react to them that matters. True strength isn’t about appearing emotionless and strong in the face of everything. When we do that, we risk releasing our emotions in an unhealthy manner. Instead, true strength comes from picking ourselves up despite falling. True strength acknowledges our weaknesses and our pain, and then carries on despite the pain. True strength crawls forward, bit by bit, rather than giving up.
So it’s ok to fall. It’s ok to crumple. But after crumpling, after licking our wounds, we fight on. Allow ourselves that time to heal, so that we can move on better. So that we don’t end up hurting those around us who don’t deserve to be hurt by our poor handling of our emotions.
That’s my struggle, every day. It’s ok to not be ok.
Ride the wave.