Flipping the Script

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This blog post has taken me a year to write. Every time I felt close to writing it, some less risky activity would distract me and I’d decide to let it simmer on the back burner just a little while longer. But today, I’m feeling inspired – maybe in part by other people who have taken risks themselves. So, I’m feeling somewhat ready and have logged into WordPress for the first time since LAST March – actually a year ago.

At that time, I was struggling through a bit of a midlife crisis point, trying to find meaningful direction and a way through mounting despair and anxiety. It’s not like I haven’t written about themes like this before, but this time, something was a bit different. It stuck around. Persisted beyond the winter, into the spring and summer, and with fall looming just intensified.

Throughout my life I’ve explored so many strategies for working on my mental health – I kind of feel like I’ve tried almost all of the reasonable ones that have presented themselves.  Reading self help books, journalling, creative endeavours, reinventing my career, psychotherapy, meditation, travel, spiritual seeking, and more. And they’ve all helped in different ways, to get me through tough times, or shift or ease my anguish in some way.

Last year, though, it felt different. I had basically all of the external things in place that should be contributing to a happy life. A happy home, a loving wife, great friends and family, an interesting job that I was good at, engaging hobbies, personal growth – so many things going for me. But it all felt meaningless. And I felt less and less engaged with things that used to bring me joy. I’ve dealt with lots of anxiety over the years at different times, but this was the first time that depression settled in for the long term. And I felt trapped, and like I was running out of options.

So, last summer, after talking about it with my therapist for a while, I started taking a prescription for an SSRI – antidepressant and anxiolitic for the first time in my life. To me, this was never a serious option – I always thought that it would mean some admission of failure, or to the seriousness of my situation that I wasn’t willing to concede. That if I took medication, then this wasn’t just something that will power and the right attitude could solve. But, I was desperate enough to explore this, and my thinking around it – and I realized that I had some pretty loaded assumptions and judgments about it.

I talked it through and starting thinking about my fears and hopes around it. Imagining what life could be like if it actually worked like I hoped it would. I was afraid it would make me dependent. Weak. Have terrifying side effects. That it would change me in ways I didn’t want it to. That it was an easy way out. That all my studies and practice about being with my emotions and thoughts were telling me that I just needed to make room for my uncomfortable content, listen to my feelings, and either be mindful of them and accept them, or make some deeper changes in my life or the world. That taking medication would be covering up this warning sign that my heart was giving me.

7 months later, I still wonder about all of these things. I am on a pretty low dose of 25 mg, when the max could be over 60. But it has had an effect, much of it for the better. After the first month at the very lowest dose, there were pretty minimal side effects (some nausea and headaches, fevers, weakness), but also pretty minimal benefits, so I went up from 10 to 25, the next level. And the side effects intensified, but stabilized after a few weeks, and then went away. And amazingly, the benefits increased, and drastically altered my experience of being alive.

Instead of suffering intense peaks of anxiety, I had lower peaks – not no anxiety, but less of it, and less frequently. And despair and depression did not stay – they came for shorter periods, and were less deep. Less hopeless. Less severe. Less considering giving up on everything meaningful in my life.

And not only did it help to reduce the pain, but it also had the positive benefits in terms of engaging with life that I was most hoping for. Not that I wasn’t before, but now I feel less overwhelmed with new projects, and less stressed in social and performance situations – and more and more like I could actually be myself.  In the fall I began taking on more of a leadership role at work, moving towards some kind of role as head counsellor.  More actively involved in projects with stakeholders across campus.  More of a mentor role in the office with other staff.  And eventually, I was officially promoted to be the actual Head Career Counsellor.

And instead of being in a negative feedback loop, so often associated with anxiety and depression, I found myself in a positive feedback loop. Instead of withdrawing more, and feeling lonely and depressed, I engaged more, and as a result felt more alive. Instead of it being a crutch in the negative sense – that I feared would make me weak – it became a crutch in the positive sense – promoting healthy activity and growth and healing.

At this point, I am still on the same dose, and think I will keep it likely for a while, not ready yet to disrupt the newfound stability that I’m developing. But I do think about a plan, maybe in a year or so, of weaning off, and seeing how these new changes in my life have affected my experience of being me. In the meantime, it still amazes me that something that I had written off for so long, has turned out to be so profoundly powerful and helpful.

And that’s the other side of this post – in terms of flipping the script – there have been other things that I have excluded from my experience, based on my biases and opinions, that have been worth exploring. Starting with the Emerging Leaders program last spring (something I never would have considered before) – when I started exploring the idea of management, and building on that with the beginning courses of a Business Certificate online through SLC (I’ve done HR and Accounting already), I’m continuing to move in directions I hadn’t thought would be so meaningful. I’d written off business too, as something not to be trusted, as shallow, or not important. But of course, learning tools of business can be so empowering for getting things done in our society – foolish me for denying it.

Beyond that is a larger theme of engagement with the world. My approach previously with work had been trying to keep it in its place. Something to make money, but not the main event – life was something outside of it. With study, volunteering, farming, travel, meditation, writing, art, and more. But yet another script is being flipped. Instead of trying to keep work in its place, now I am going further in. I am assuming a leadership role in the office, and investing myself in it. And finding it much more engaging in the process. I feel exhausted at the end of the day, but in a good way – knowing I was busy and challenged by the day.

And more broadly, it’s gotten me mindful of other scripts I have, and we all have. What stories are we telling ourselves that are limiting our perceptions, and experience of life? Who am I cutting myself off from, that I could open to? New people, new places, new ideas, new directions – the more I open myself to the world, the more I can feel that sense of aliveness, engagement, and connection.

So that brings me to my final script – about writing this post in the first place. Admitting to mental health challenges was one thing I had done in the past, but I never felt I was acknowledging the level in any clear way. By confessing to taking medication, there seems to be more heft. It is a declaration of the level of struggle I have been through. And it feels significant.

As much as I hate to admit it, testaments from others through campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk (which I have mixed feelings about due to the corporate involvement) have affected me. And most powerfully, a recent opening up by Demar DeRozan from the Toronto Raptors affected me even more. He’s a pretty big star in the NBA, but he admitted to his own struggles with mental health issues – and he did it to help other people. To ease the stigma – and it eased mine.

So that’s the main reason why I’m writing this. As much as it is liberating for me to admit to this, it would be more meaningful to me if someone else read this and felt a little safer to open up. This is not a cry for help, or attention – I am doing well. I’m writing this for other people who need to hear it, hoping that they might give themselves a little more permission to accept where they are at. To seek help. Or open up and share. That would make it is worth the risk of admitting to what many can perceive as weakness or admission of failure.

Instead I’m choosing to look at it as a success. What finally gave me permission to try the prescription was flipping my script. By relating to my struggle as I would a physical symptom – I gave myself permission to get help. Learning about the biopsychosocial approach to mental health in my master’s studies helped with this – seeing the multiple factors at play. If I had chest pains or headaches, I would not have any trouble with taking medication – I wouldn’t judge myself. I would just do it and move on with my life.

And taking medication, in conjunction with therapy, and positive life changes, meditation, journalling, reading, art, and so much more – all together, have proven a powerful combination for moving my life forward. I’m not saying that it is something for everyone, or every situation – but done mindfully, it can help. And start a positive feedback loop and build upwards momentum.

If anyone reading this is going through their own struggles and confusion about how to move forwards, I would encourage you to get help and talk to someone. It really can make a difference. And if you have your own story to share about your experiences, I would encourage you to add your voice to the growing choir to work to change our attitudes and stigma to mental illness towards a more healthy and inclusive one. Thanks for reading.

K. Miguel Hahn

For more posts from K. Miguel Hahn, visit his website at https://kmiguelhahn.wordpress.com