World Mental health Day: ’Speak up, don’t let the demons consume you’

, by Xesc Mainzer Cardell

World Mental health Day: 'Speak up, don't let the demons consume you'
Credit: Jose Luis Navarro, Chiswek Calendar. Creative Commons License.

While I am a person that generally doesn’t have that many issues opening up about his negative emotions in detail within closed circles and with trusted people, I am not super confident about doing such things in the wide open of a media outlet (I might actually regret, out of pure worry about what others may think, writing this piece and sending it for publication). However, with World Mental Health Day being around the corner and without the pretension of erecting myself into a sort of example or guide for others to follow, I have a feeling that speaking up about my personal (and still ongoing) experience dealing with mental health issues will do more good than harm and might actually even be useful for others to open up and keep them from being afraid about speaking about their emotional well-being.

“At the moment, I am dealing with depression”. This affirmation is something that has taken me months, and perhaps even a few years, to realise and say openly. Depression (and mental health issues in general) is not something that just appears out of the blue, a state of being that isn’t there and then just pops up like an annoying advert on a website. These problems build up over time, they are a bigger process than just being sad. In the same way that erosion changes a coastline through constant action by the sea but you don’t realise until the effects are visible and obvious, depression is a longer process of lengthy erosion that culminates with the collapse of your emotional landscape.

How it built up

In my case, depression has been building up overtime with a progressive but constant summing up of elements that have added up to a series of starting preconditions of my character. I have always been, from a young age, a very insecure person and with a low self-esteem, afraid of trying to do or say certain things or about feeling certain ways out of fear, out of worry about what others might think, or just out of pure fear of rejection. In addition to that, I am a person with very strong emotions in all senses: a person that can love very intensely, but also feel very negatively about things, and be very passionate about things in a strong way. And last, but not least, I am a person that focuses excessively on other people’s feelings. I have always been a kind of person that is deeply affected by how people in his environment feel and, perhaps more often than I should have, cares too much about other people’s feelings even above his own.

Those are elements that - and I think we can all agree on this - can make a dangerous mix when it comes to emotional stability. Through the years I have tried to work on those aspects of my character and try to become resistant to them, but they always stayed there in a way or another. From that point, any additional untackled issue will just keep adding up, piling up, until the mountain is too big to handle and collapses on you. Some of you may think that little issues can be swept under the rug and dealt with in private. As the saying in my native Spain goes, “dirty clothes are washed at home”. I thought so too, and I was terribly wrong. Sometimes we think like that out of feeling that we have to take care of our own problems, we have to own up to them. Sometimes it may be out of a genuine thought that we are burdening others with our own problems. Or sometimes even out of a fear of making other people feel bad, specially when our issues come from the personal relation to them. Whatever the reason, doing that is not the way to go. Yet we do it like that just too often.

For me, as with probably many other people, the additional issues started to add up as soon as COVID began (though some, minor ones had started to appear prior). The distancing and isolation the pandemic brought, with the issues that implied when it comes to tension in interpersonal relations and teleworking, brought me a lot of pain and increased my insecurity issues. It came to the point when I was even afraid of returning a text or replying to an email (I still find that hard sometimes).

As the extremely social person I consider myself to be, the lack of physical proximity to a close network of friends (on which I had always relied for support) took its toll as I barely had anyone to talk to (a screen is not the same). And over time I started to feel like I was burning out some of my closest friends due to my overreliance on them to talk about my ever increasing problems. After the toughest part of the pandemic my distancing from friends and acquaintances continued for a little bit, both due to a pandemic-induced introversion and my constant moving between my home region, the region where I work and the region where my then-partner lives, as well as my friends dispersing all over as they went on with their life projects. And at the same time, distance and lack of communication led to an irreparable damage in my interpersonal relationships with some people I cared for dearly.

In addition to all of this, I am currently working on my PhD thesis. PhD candidates already go through higher-than-average levels of mental health issues in normal times, and the pandemic and the delays in the progress of my research, with the accompanying fears of not finishing my thesis on time, didn’t positively impact my mental health.

How it exploded

All those issues kept piling up, and while I spoke about them sometimes, mostly I just kept letting them grow into a huge mountain. Until, one day, after a few minor signs in the months before with little “emotional avalanches”, the mountain completely collapsed on me. That happened during the Ventotene Seminar. Just a minor clarification before going on: the Ventotene Seminar is a completely advisable experience and, despite what happened to me, I totally recommend attendance if you have the chance to do so.

While an amazing experience in itself, the seminar can also be an intense experience in emotional terms, and a specially challenging one when it comes to mental health and stability. The random combination of intense socialisation in a geographically isolated community, with a lack of sleeping and an intellectually stimulating agenda can lead to an array of different outcomes. On my side, the effect was a complete emotional breakdown. The merging of all the piled up issues I had been accumulating through the years and the context of Ventotene just blew up my emotional certainties.

It was then that I realised that there was a big issue and that not only I had to try and solve it, but that I needed professional help to do so.

How to fight it

Overcoming depression is a tough, uphill battle. I am still going through it, so I don’t have a success story with a closed end to tell. As I write this piece I still experience bad moments. Moments of sadness that pop out of the blue, triggered maybe by a memory, or a song, or just during the performance of a daily chore. I undergo days when I have to force myself to eat because my stomach is just absolutely locked, even when I am objectively hungry. There are still days when I just can’t find the strength to concentrate on anything and work. However, given that my recovery is already ongoing, I have things to say about how I am coping with it.

NECESSARY DISCLAIMER: Keep in mind that I am talking about my own personal experience and I am not a professional on the field. You should always find your own way to recovery, and preferably with help from a professional.

After returning from Ventotene, I decided to start to talk openly about my issues. In some aspects it was already too late to do anything as problems had been piling unaddressed for too long. I also tried to seek professional help. In the region where I spend most of my time the public healthcare system has for a while been undergoing a process of dismantling, which added to the lack of attention given to mental health in it just made the option unrealistic. So I called my private insurance to get proper coverage including psychological assistance (and specifically asking for it), only to be hung up during the calling process. You can imagine how devastating that can be for someone who, within the framework of his depression, feels like no one cares about him.

I started to seek more contact with my friends, both for emotional support but also to evade myself from the issues. Rebuilding friendships, regaining social contact, can make a difference in the well-being of someone. Also seeking new purposes and setting myself some goals. My work in JEF has helped me a lot during the past month to refocus and keep some purpose for my life by contributing to something bigger. But really, having a group of people who show you care and affection, real appreciation, is something that can really make a difference.

For that JEF’s IMPACT workshop in Mollina a few weeks ago was a turning point. Honestly, and after my experience in Ventotene, I went there with the intent of being a sort of “emotional robot” to avoid yet another emotional meltdown. Luckily enough I didn’t manage, and there I got to make some amazing friends whose loving, caring attitude and honest appreciation for me helped me realise that some of the thoughts that had been crossing my mind because of low self-esteem and depression, such as “no one cares about you” or “no one appreciates anything you do”, were absolutely misled and wrong.

About speaking up

From what I’ve experienced, the important thing about this issue is to not remain silent. I am not going to lie, talking about this can be hard, as it is talking about emotions in general. Many times you may feel like you are just going to be a weight on other people’s shoulders, that telling others about those issues that afflict you is just going to be a nuisance for them. And sometimes, even when you talk about your feelings in general, you may even feel like you have irrevocably damaged your personal relationship with the person you’ve talked to about it.

We have to be honest with ourselves here and get rational: that’s not true. We may feel like that is happening (in some, very isolated instances, that may be true. Some people don’t take well, or straight dislike talking about emotions and feelings, and we shouldn’t judge because there may be reasons for that), but our friends, relatives, and in general those who love us and care for us will be there for us, supporting and lending a helping hand, even if they don’t.

Some weeks ago I had a profound talk about emotional issues with someone and I told that person that the important thing when it comes to emotional issues is to find someone to help us navigate the pathway to recovering. In the weeks since that conversation happened I have gone through a lot of emotional pain, yet it has done nothing but make me double down on my stance. Getting out of what might seem like an emotional well can’t be done without help, and remaining silent about our issues is not the solution.

While it is difficult for me to put all of this in writing and publish it, mostly due to the still profoundly “toxic masculinity”-dominated society we live in where men are expected to just swallow their feelings and become emotionless individuals, I hope that my act to speak up about my own issues will inspire others to open up about theirs and stop suffering in silence.

Let me, thus, just finish this piece with the following advice: seek help. It can come from friends, it can come from professionals, or it can come from relatives, or even your significant other. But most importantly, don’t lock yourself down in solitude, because that’s a recipe for more pain and will only lead to your inner demons consuming you.

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