Embracing Mental Health like Laundry-it never ends.
*This post is intended to help us learn the impact of unhelpful messages around mental health and revise with realistic and empowering ways to befriend it. Vanessa M. Sanford, LPC practices in Frisco, Texas, and specializes in multiple areas of counseling for children, teens, and adults.
I love speaking to teenagers. That’s right, you read that correctly. I learn so much from them. They teach me to listen and stop talking so much. When I get out of the need to “teach” and “adult” all over them, I usually learn more from them and walk away with gratitude. In my experience, when teenagers feel brave enough to share what they are feeling with an adult that has earned the right to hear their story and who listens with empathy and curiosity, teenagers receive the gift of being seen and heard. This not only invites teens to keep sharing, but humbles us adults to stop talking so much and reap the benefit from learning just as much in these sacred moments.
I recently had an enlightening conversation with a teenager. She seemed really stuck on not knowing how to untangle some anxious and depressing thoughts she was having at night when she was alone. She talked about how during the day she was a highly motivated student, a focused and hard-working athlete, a strong believer in her faith, a kind and thoughtful friend, but with all of these aspects, she just couldn’t figure out how to help her uninvited nightly dark and lonely thoughts from invading. I reminded her, “You know all the parts of your life you feel self-trust and confident are parts of your mental health. It isn’t just when you are feeling sad and alone and stuck, it is with you when you are with friends, your faith, your studies, your sport. It is with you everywhere you go, just like your body is with you everywhere you go.” There was a pause, and then a deep exhale, and with her eyes widened with liberation, I could see the lightbulb switch on with illumination. “Wait, so I am using my mental health with all these other parts of my life?” Epic moment of clarity seeing her string together the lights to hope. We unraveled how her mental health had time to grow and work through failures, disappointments, challenges, and with practice and self-trust, she felt confident in these facets of her life. She started to braid these insights and study how to infuse this awareness when she is alone in the dark, realizing she no longer has to be held hostage by her negative thoughts. Her posture shifted full of empowerment, ready to handle the dark with this solar lightbulb she already had inside.
This news was a shock to this teen and I got to thinking that maybe others do not realize mental health is actively guiding our every decision. It guides us when we wake up in the morning all the way into our REM sleep, if we can get it. To see someone young and brave enough to explore these conversations and then be open to learning how to strengthen their mental health feels victorious. What we discovered in this heart-to-heart was how stigma powerfully creates such mystery around mental health. The messages we grossly misunderstand and distort to each other is that mental health is fragmented for those only struggling with mental illness. Ignorance rigidly teaches mental health isn’t a part of all of our every move and moments, but it is for “those people” who struggle and are frequently told with contempt “it’s all in your head.” To tell someone when they feel something, the feeling is in your head is shaming and isolating and divisive. Well, we feel in our body and we think in our heads and no matter the experience, our mental health joins us for the ride. When we are feeling joy and gratitude for someone’s kindness for remembering our birthday or when we ask for help or when we say no or when we say yes, all of this embodies our mental health. When we feel intimidated and speak up anyways against oppression and hate, because it is the right thing to do, this is mentally healthy.
Our mental health cannot be separated from us and it lives on a continuum. Meaning, depending on what we go through, we can feel solid in our mental health or we can tip over to an unhealthy range depending on many factors like genetics, environment, and adversity. I know I am mentally healthy when I am aware of my needs and I am my own advocate instead of my own inner bully. My mental health tips to a danger zone when I don’t have coffee, time alone to read and be creative, drink enough water, or have time to play and rest. I know it is my responsibility to self-parent. Self-care is overly advertised at nauseum. One of my favorite artists,
Emily McDowell, says she cannot trust herself to self-care. Self-care to her is eating a big bowl of ice cream. She needs to self-parent. She believes if she is her own
parent, she will get to bed at a reasonable hour, drink enough water, reach for help when she needs it, and make sure she is doing what is right over what is fun, fast, and easy. It takes such courage to own our stories. It takes the practice of self-loving mindfulness to know what we struggle with and not make it our identity, but learn from the gifts it offers and take action to grow and heal. Mental health is my own self-parenting advocate full of self-compassion and concern for my well-being. She makes sure I am safe, she makes sure I have fun, she makes sure I am connected to what keeps me functioning. I have been learning to trust her. When I rebel against my mental health and go rogue, my body is the first to protest, then my thoughts and then my behavior goes down like a ripple effect. They all deteriorate and then I finally get a clue when my relationships start to rupture. My mental health comes back online and I gently rebuild all over again. Alex Elle, the poet, explains the process tenderly, “How do we rebuild? Day by day, piece by peace.
I truly believe the practice of mental health is exactly like laundry. There is no destination for mental health. Like laundry, there is always a load to wash, fold, and put away. It never ends. It is always there, no matter how many times I wash, fold, and put it away. My clothes daily return dirty and I have to do it ALL OVER AGAIN. So, just like laundry, my mental health is something I have to tend to all the time. I don’t like doing laundry. I fantasize about someone else doing my laundry. I somehow forget it is up to me to do it and get mad frequently when I have procrastinated and finally admit I have a mountain to now do.
This is my PSA for all of us who didn’t know or were not taught mental health is with you everywhere you go and it is up to you to nurture and hydrate and make sure she gets enough sleep and playtime. If you feel you need more support, it is not only brave but in the best interest of your mental health to ask for help. Ignoring, numbing, shaming, harming yourself and others, blaming, judging, criticizing, bullying, keeping secrets, or being silent are barricades to your mental health. To dig deeper into what can make the practice of mental health feel like a mud run challenge is recognizing the power of trauma. Trauma lodges in our bodies and can skew our beliefs and therefore effect our mental health. Trauma is fierce and has no concept of time. It builds scar tissue around our suffering and roots itself in our mental health. If you can imagine trauma as the lens mental health uses to see. Trauma lives in our nervous system wanting us to be vigilant and never get hurt again. Patrolling for safety is our number one job. When trauma translates experiences, mental health might develop coping skills more interested in what is instant gratifying than sustainable for our growth and development. Brené Brown says, “We are the most in debt, overweight, medicated adult cohort in US history.” We numb. We find ways to hide from pain. We reach for easy buttons in hopes of removing whatever possible pitfall we could encounter. Instead of self-trust and compassion, it has fear and trauma as her best friends. Regardless of the hearty pain we all experience, it is our responsibility to be our own laundry advocates. I mean, mental health advocates. We cannot hire someone to do it for us. Just like brushing our teeth, washing our own hands, exercising, and yes, laundry, it is ours to own. If we need help, it is absolutely healthy to get support. When we feel positive, encouraged, supported, and loved, we are more innovative, resourceful, creative, and willing to do hard things. When we feel alone, unheard, ignored, and shamed every step feels overwhelming and hard. Our perspective is tunnel-visioned and we cannot see guides or opportunities offering relief and resilience.
When I experienced the loss of my beloved pet, I was deeply heartbroken and lost my zest to be productive, my mental health was wrapping herself all around me mending my heart wounds. When I was rejected and told I wasn’t enough, I was angry and confused and hurt. My mental health guided me to talk to those I trust, cry, and find as many inspirational quotes online to validate my pain or make me laugh. When I had to convey to someone they hurt me and didn’t respect my boundaries, the courage and vulnerability and self-trust I had was led by my mental health. I didn’t yell, I didn’t shame the other person, and I didn’t loosen my boundary because they got defensive and tried throwing emotional darts at me. My mental health and I held hands, grounded in self-worth and kept holding the boundaries keeping me safe and honest.
Many of us, especially Americans, have believed at some point in our lives, if we work hard enough, we will reach our dreams and once and for all, finally be happy. We are taught to revere the all high and mighty belief, way up on a pedestal, entitled the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is defined as a fundamental right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence “to freely pursue joy and live life in a way that makes you happy, as long as you don't do anything illegal or violate the rights of others”, as reported by Thomas Jefferson in the Constitution. This is the path to bliss and once you arrive, no more of hard struggling- this feels like such an injustice to be sold fool’s gold. I would like a refund please. Mental health, happiness, and bliss are not a destination, it is like LAUNDRY! I would like to declare a revised, more inclusive message: The pursuit of practice is a fundaMENTAL right to freely be responsible for our health, joy, and live life in a way that makes you mentally healthy, as long as you don’t do anything illegal or violate the rights of others or your own self-trust, resilience, and compassion. And asking for help is right and just.
The people I truly believe are leaders in practicing mental health are those that are actively in recovery. Recovery from addiction, cancer, diabetes, or those living with chronic illness. They gravely capture the daily accountability of practicing their health because relapse is always lurking nearby. They cannot procrastinate or delay their work as it can make them very sick and even risk their lives. These are our trailblazers. They know the darkness of pain and trauma and they know how quickly they can be seduced to the hiding places of numbing. Practicing mental health is medicine. It is our balm. It includes courage, resilience, humor, compassion, connection, gut health, movement, curiosity, empathy, boundaries, love, kindness, creativity, and many, many more. We have t-shirts, bumper
stickers, and tattoos celebrating these words. We promote them in make-up, insurance, and batteries. We advertise messages of, “Be you, Be authentic” without much clarity of what that even means. Instead of promoting the words, let’s learn to embody the practice of it. The daily practice of mental health. The daily practice isn’t fun or shiny and won’t promise to make you look younger or take your wrinkles away or sell you false promises there is an expiration. It doesn’t go away. It is always something to work on, struggle with, love on, and take care of. As for the teenager I mentioned, and for all of us, when we embrace the pursuit of practice as a lifelong friend, my hope is we learn to love ourselves and each other wholeheartedly and cultivate communities of humanKIND.
Cleo Wade, a poet, wrote this message to leave you with…
Everything is a habit
Doing things kindly
Doing things unkindly
Which of these habits
Of this life you will most definitely
Get to live only