It’s World Mental Health Day #WMHD, so I thought about whether I should post something. After all, I’m ‘in the business’ so to speak. The business of helping people that is and that means that in my work, I often end up talking about and dealing with mental health challenges, the ones that my clients encounter.
But, if I’m going to share something for World Mental Health Day, I feel I ought to speak from personal experience. Be gentle because this is the first time for me. I haven't shared my own very personal story of struggle before. I've shared my background story but I've avoided talking about how it all really affected me...and still does. So, here goes.
If we’ve met before or you’re familiar with my work, you’ve probably heard me talk about my early life with my incredibly creative but tortured paranoid schizophrenic mother and my hugely talented jazz musician Dad who was, like me, an introvert who struggled to deal with life in the ‘real world’, turning to alcoholism for solace.
You’ve probably also know that I’ve worked with some of the most talented and creative people in the world, some well known publicly, some not so, who have fought their own black dogs. I may have told you about my work with offenders where I came to understand (not excuse) their motives.
What you may not have heard much about, because I’m a helper of others, is my own personal struggle. But, as you can imagine, growing up with a violent paranoid schizophrenic and later my recovering alcoholic and agoraphobic father, things were….challenging.
As a child, I looked for reasons and solutions for my mother’s condition. I thought if I could just fully understand it, I could fix it. What I didn’t realise was that she wasn’t broken, just disconnected. I tried and tried in vain. When I couldn’t work it out and the abuse I suffered not only continued but escalated to extremely dangerous levels, I too disconnected. I disconnected from her, from school, from my ability to make friends but mostly from myself. I developed a stammer and retreated so far inside myself I lost sight of myself entirely. The only way I knew, as a child, of coping with the constant fear and uncertainty, was to hide. I hid so well, I hid from myself.
Enter the ‘reinvention’ period of my life. When I finally escaped the horror of life with my disconnected mother to live with my Dad age 12, I stepped fully in to my first people helper role. As well as being there practically and financially for my Dad (I had 3 part time jobs age 14), I wanted to understand both his and my mother’s struggles. I started to read and study everything I could get my hands on, which in 1980 wasn’t a great deal actually. There was no internet and no Waterstones, let alone a ‘self help’ section. I really only had the library. I devoured volumes on psychology, neuro anthropology, psychiatry. You name it, I consumed it. Did I find the answers? Well, I found lots of theories and even suggested remedies for both my parents’ conditions (ranging from the ridiculous to the outright bizarre…drugs, EPT, exorcism) but I didn’t find the answers I was looking for because I was asking the wrong questions.
You see, all of this searching and reinventing was just a diversion, a distraction, a deflection from dealing with MY own stuff. I still suffered sometimes crippling anxiety. Despite spending huge amounts of money on speech therapy, I still struggled to manage my stammer, particularly when the anxiety showed up. I still struggled with guilt, feelings of not being worthy or good enough. I was easily intimidated. I still retreated and hid and I still felt fear almost all the time.
Can you related to this? If you’re a people helper, personally or professionally, do you regularly look at your own ‘stuff’? Or do you help others as a deflection from your own stuff? As a way of avoiding dealing with your own stuff? Here’s a solid hard truth. You CANNOT help others if you’re not helping yourself. I didn’t find the answers I was seeking because I was looking in the wrong place, asking the wrong questions, doing the work in the wrong place. It should have started with ME.
Now I’ve done the work and the work continues. Yep, even I am a constant work in progress. It never stops. That’s the only way I can help those I’m here to serve. Continuing to work on me is how I’m able to fully show up for my clients, my family, my friends. Making myself a priority and having compassion for myself is how I stay mentally healthy.
I’m genuinely grateful that I’ve experienced all that I have because it not only gives me experience to share with those who need it but it has given me the best and most powerful gift of all, sensitivity and empathy. I have the most incredible ability to truly be able to step in to someone’s feeling and experience. Not in an arrogant “I know how you feel.” way. I could never fully know how someone feels in their unique experience of their unique experience. No, I mean in the “Let me get in there with you so I can connect to your unique experience.” kind of way. I used to see that as a curse because I can feel people’s pain but I now realise what I gift it is because I can feel someone’s pain. I also get to feel their joy when they move beyond and start to make themselves their priority. And, with my clients, I get to share their incredible powerful transformations from stuck and fearful to free and fearless.
Here’s to each and every one of us being our first priority.
Here’s to you bravely and vulnerably embracing your ‘stuff’.
Here’s to none of us having to go it alone.
Here’s to a brave new world.
Here’s to mental health.
Here’s to speaking up and speaking out.
Here’s to YOU.
Here's to ME.
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