Most Important Things about Mental Health
By Julia Naftulin
When the clock struck six o’clock on Thursday night in mid-April, I closed the lid of my work laptop and sobbed. I had spent the day sitting on the couch in my dimly lit living room, writing non-stop about the Coronavirus pandemic. The sudden realisation that shutting my computer didn’t end the anxiety-provoking health crisis I was tasked with reporting on was too much to handle.
From mid-March until May, every night ended with me in a puddle of tears, feeling trapped and disconnected from everyone and everything.
As someone who’s never been diagnosed with a mental illness, the enduring hopelessness I experienced in the first few months of lockdown during the pandemic left me confused and defeated.
How could I, someone with a stable job, the ability to work from the safety of my home, and loving friends and family, feel this way?
It turns out, while I’ve always been able to dissect patterns and problems in other people, when it came to my own issues, I had a blind spot — as is the case for most of us.
My brain told me to snap out of it because it recalled the advice mental health experts told me over and over. Since I knew what to do, it wasn’t a problem. But my emotions and body were telling me otherwise.
In June 2020, after three months of emotional distress, I decided to do something I’d advised others countless times during my five-year health journalism career: Go to therapy.
I scoured Psychology Today’s therapist database, a tip I learned from psychologists, to find someone who aligned with my values and needs and was accepting virtual patients. Then, I made an appointment and I haven’t looked back since.
Since April, I’ve been meeting with my therapist for an hour every week. Even just a month into therapy, I noticed changes in how I treat myself, react to others, and view the world.
For years, I advised people, discussing situations similar to my own with my rolodex of therapists, but never thought to apply these lessons to myself. Even with the best advice at my fingertips, I had trouble putting my mental health first.
Though I still have hard days, I’ve learned from my therapist how to communicate with others, and myself, in a way that honours my personal values, past experiences, and emotional wellbeing. I’m not exaggerating when I say the lessons I’ve learned thus far have changed my life.
Trauma can come from anywhere and doesn’t have to be a massive event to have affected you
Despite writing about the nuances of trauma and how both little and small events can leave lasting scars, I never considered my own. I’d fooled myself into thinking I’d escaped trauma because I hadn’t endured physical abuse, witnessed death, or experienced a debilitating car crash or terrorist attack.
But when my therapist framed her work as helping adults who feel like their past is catching up with their current relationships, it resonated. Through more talks with her, I realised trauma doesn’t have to be something catastrophic to deeply affect your relationships and self-view.
During our first few months together, we talked about my adolescent friendships that’d since dissolved. I soon realised that friendship breakups could be traumatic, and a few of mine left deep emotional scars.
I had distinct memories of a friend ‘breaking up’ with me in high school. Though it happened nine years ago, recalling the experience to my therapist made me feel inadequate all over again, and I started to cry. I’d never healed.
You can love someone and hate their beliefs
I was a month into therapy when police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I had a personal reckoning about how I’d contributed to or ignored racism, and I fixated on my family members whose views I found abhorrent. How could I let them be that way? Why didn’t I try to stop it before? And what does it say about me, that I have happy memories with these people, or that I like certain aspects of who they are?
That’s when my therapist said something that shifted my relationship with my family, “You can love someone, and hate their beliefs.”
Instead of being scared of how they would react if I called them out, and feeling guilty for not doing so, I started approaching it in a more constructive way
Once I was able to identify those emotions and tend to them, I felt better equipped to hold family members accountable with compassion, rather than coming from a place of hate or anger.
Your feelings are always valid, even if others don’t understand them
For as long as I can remember, a voice in the back of my head told me I’m ‘too needy’ for some people, even though I know from my work it’s a common projection.
But it’s normal for people to have varying levels of emotional capacity and needs, my therapist explained, and that’s why understanding is the most important tenet in relationship communication.
I learned I have a more anxious attachment style which informs how I view and act in my relationships with my partner, friends, and family. Since not everyone has that attachment style, misunderstandings can happen.
This realisation helped me understand why I react to certain actions and words the way I do.
I still get triggered from time to time if my partner or a friend speaks or acts a certain way, but I’ve now learned how to soothe that anxious voice in my head and have conversations that affirm my emotions and needs.
There’s always room to be kinder to yourself
Once I learned past experiences both big and small shape how I act in the present, I started to value self-care that much more. And I don’t mean the bath-bombs-and-facials type of self-care.
Rather, I’ve given myself more grace when I feel sadness, grief, anger, jealousy, or neglect.
In the past, I would rationalise these feelings as quickly as possible as a way to move forward. I would tell my inner self, “That’s a ridiculous thought! Of course your friends love you.”
But my therapist taught me the importance of parenting myself, or noticing and naming those not-so-great feelings before finding a solution.
A year ago, I would have never guessed I’d be in weekly therapy, despite writing weekly about the perks of the practice. At the time, I was more fixated on healing others’ wounds than thinking about my own.
Now, when the hopelessness, sadness, and fear creep in, I acknowledge those feelings and how difficult they are, visualise giving my younger self a hug, and then I consider how to move forward.
And it works, because life is that much better when you can be your own biggest fan and confidant.