Mental Health Awareness Month

May is mental health awareness month, and I have both everything and nothing to say about it. The term mental health comes in contrast to the term mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t exist without the other.

Every morning, I wake up and take my dog out and while he eats, I brush my teeth, wash my face, and hazily wander back into my bedroom. Every morning, I pick up a pill organizer, labeled with the days of the week, each compartment filled with six or seven pills that serve or support various parts of my body. This week, I added a new one to the group, another psychiatric med that’s meant to, hopefully, make the 100mg of the other psychiatric med I take do its job. Stuffed into the capartments with my psychiatric meds are allergy meds and vitamins, none of which are nearly as important as the later.

My battle with depression has been split into different seasons. Different kinds of battles, mostly. As a teenager, I was in denial. I think I knew I was depressed, but I sure as hell didn’t know what to do about it. Ignoring it was the best option. In college, the battle was out in the open, but it was more about getting acquainted with what we were dealing with. I waged war with counseling appointments, hard conversations, accountability, and prayer. I believed that if I just did everything right, if I healed the right parts of me, then I’d be okay. One day, I wouldn’t be depressed anymore. Since college, there was another bout of denial, but after that has come the hardest fight yet. To quote my current therapist, we’re dealing with the medical side of things now. There’s been more therapy, harder conversations, and an acceptance of the disease for what it is. There’s nothing I can do or say the right way to make the depression go away. It is a part of my story, likely for the rest of my life, and it is my responsibility to learn how to live with it. It is my responsibility to figure out how to make sure it doesn’t define my story.

This looks like a lot of things, but mostly it’s a lot of me listening to people who are smarter than me. It also looks like extreme self awareness, almost to a fault. Just as an athlete has a plan in order to maintain their physical health, so I have one for my mental health.

This plan, though, is an ideal. Unfortunately, a lot of these things don’t always happen, and some of them only happen rarely. In my current season, the plan is laughable. I can hardly get myself up and dressed in the morning, let alone to the gym or in the kitchen, and that’s okay. Because, above all else, if I cannot be unconditionally kind to myself, then none of these things matter. And really, at the core, that’s what it means for me to pursue mental health: make decisions that honor every part of me.

My mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health are all intertwined. Yours are too. We grow up going to PE class being taught to exercise, but we’re never taught to really take care of our brains. Thankfully, if you’re take real, true care of your body, it’s likely that a healthy mind will follow. Endorphins, man. You’ve gotta love them.

If I am really taking care of myself, I’m exercising, eating mostly green things, and writing a lot. I’m talking to my friends about how I am, I boldly walk into therapy every few weeks, and I laugh a lot. I take my medicine and I believe that it works and I let it do its job. With health, there is no shame and there is so much freedom. But when the clouds roll in and my mind turns foggy, shame shuts the city down, and all operations come to a stop. I do what I have to and absolutely nothing else, unless I absolutely have to, and slowly but surely, nearly everything feels impossible.

When it comes to mental health awareness, I believe that the best thing we can do is talk about it. Which, if you’ve been around here for a while, you know that I do. But also, I don’t. I can post about therapy all I want, but when it comes to the real life stuff, it’s hard. It’s hard to talk to my friends and be honest about how well I’m not doing. I lie, I hide, and I do my best to just make it back to my bed each night unscathed. I am often called things like strong and brave, but there is nothing strong or brave about the reality of how depression makes me feel. Sometimes, posting about this stuff is terrifying, and don’t be fooled, there’s still a filter on it, but the conversation is still happening, and I think that’s what matters the most. The whole world doesn’t need to know every detail of what my worst days are like. But, still,  it’s important to me that you know that I have them, so that when you have your own, you know that you’re not alone.

Every morning, I take two tiny pills that keep my brain from hitting rock bottom. If I forget them, I quite literally feel like the world is going to end and I will silently suffer without ever letting you know. But, most days, I don’t forget. I take my pills and I go to therapy and I share my story when it’s needed, and none of those things make me stronger or weaker than anyone else, but I can promise you that I’m a better version of myself because of them.

Ashton Ray