I often quote the late Roger Ebert's mantra, "It's not what a movie is about, it is how it is about it."
As a writer, after years of wondering whether I should address any given topic, I finally have come to enough terms with one subject in particular that it was time to ask, "Why am I not writing about this one?"
Why am I not writing about my mental health?
S-T-I-G-M-A: noun, "A mark of shame, or discredit." (Merriam-Webster)
I have been seeing a psychologist for nearly eight months. At first weekly, then bi-weekly, and now every third week. I would prefer to go no more often, but mental health care is not inexpensive.
Why, just a couple of weeks before Christmas 2016, did I decide things had gotten so bad that I needed psychological therapy?
The answer to that question is at the very epicentre of what ails our understanding of mental health: Things had not gotten so bad, and I wanted them never to deteriorate to that point.
I wasn't depressed; but I was occasionally sad. I wasn't suffering from anxiety; but I was anxious.
I wasn't right.
I wasn't looking forward to most of what a week would bring.
I knew others who did suffer from serious anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. What business did I have thinking I needed therapy?
It was one friend who asked me one question that convinced me to call a psychologist: "Wouldn't life be better if you did look forward to things?"
I didn't really think that was possible. But, what if it was?
What if it was?
I had spent years thinking my feelings weren't worthy of being addressed. But don't those who are further down the spectrum of mental illness begin at the beginning? Didn't they, one day, tip from being fine to being not-so-fine? Didn't they slowly teeter from unhappy to depressed?
Ultimately, for many who suffer, "not fine" went unaddressed and ignored, and became "unwell." This, in turn matured into "ill." Mentally ill.
A therapist was recommended to me by a close friend. She explained, "The psychologist begins with a half-hour phone consultation during which she will decide whether she thinks she can help you."
The therapist's website extolled meaningfulness, lasting relationships and self-healing. As men, we are taught to belittle what is perceived as daytime talk show language. We don't watch Oprah, though we may want to. We don't emote, though we should. We don't seek help, even when we must.
Ironically, my physiological reactions as I dialed the psychologist's number mimicked my behaviour under stress: dry mouth, palpitations, perspiration, tightness in my throat and rapid speech.
This, I would learn weeks later, is my body engaging its fight-or-flight reflex. It determined--while I was calling a therapist to ask for her help--that I was under attack.
That is how men have been conditioned to react to weakness: fight it, or run away. Don't succumb; don't seek solutions; don't share. Fight, or run.
"How can I help you?" She asked.
I explained how I didn't look forward to things. I could fake it, but, in almost all situations, I would look forward to just being home.
And I craved alone time, always.
It was not a question of whether this was 'normal', it was a matter of this psychological need being unhealthy for myself and my family. I am a husband, and a father of two, and a son, and a brother, and a friend, and an employee, and a school volunteer,
I want to be eager for the days ahead. I envy those who are excited about parties and barbecues and having a drink with friends.
Slowly, therapy is teaching me how to summon the strength to ask for what I need: an afternoon away, or half-an-hour of reading on the couch in the evening instead of watching TV with the kids. I have gotten over the prejudice I held towards meditation. I can lie on the floor of my bedroom listening to my meditation apps (Buddhify and Meditation Studio), and feel more rested and peaceful after only twenty minutes.
I am also learning that I can allow myself to enjoy things within my own framework. If I don't want to socialize at a party, I can sit and listen.
I have to change people's expectations of what I bring to a room. I am more of an introvert than an extrovert, and I have to give myself permission to behave accordingly.
There are rough patches as I work on myself. I am changing the person my loved ones and peers have come to know over decades. This is an adjustment for them as well. And that's okay. It is okay for there to be moments of strife and disagreement. This does not mean I am failing, or losing, or neglecting. It means I am human and am demonstrating qualities that many others have already mastered: self-assurance and independence from expectation.
Talking about mental health has become "splashionable." It is fashionable to splash around in a cause's puddle for a while, along with our "friends" on social media. There is Bell's Let's Talk Day, and the World Health Organization's Mental Health Day, and National Child and Youth Mental Health Day, and many other days of consternation.
But then what? Hundreds of days of advocacy disappearance.
I have written before about depression, especially in men, and how those affected by a family member's suicide have tried unique approaches to reach those who are reluctant to reach out.
The resources are in place. What is not established is a systematic change to the perception that psychological hardship should not be addressed in the same fashion as physical discomfort. When your joints are sore, how long before you pop acetaminophen and mention it to your family practitioner? Do you hesitate to mention to friends an appointment with a physiotherapist to strengthen your back?
Contemplating suicide is not the only gateway to picking up a phone. And S-T-I-G-M-A should not be allowed to shame you into keeping quiet. Worry about the perception of seeking talk therapy is valid, and it may not release its grip. Asking for help concerning your mental health is difficult, and uncomfortable, and is often dismissed by family and peers. But, wouldn't it feel good to feel good? Wouldn't it be healing to speak with a professional who brings with them none of your history, or knowledge of your habits, or judgment about your behaviour?
I spent years wondering whether I was a worthy candidate for therapy. Wondering wasn't helping. Thinking wasn't healing. Hiding was hurting.
So I talked. And now you know.