In many ways 2019 was a really good year. 2019 was also a year I faced some significant struggles. I am sure this is the same for many of you. The good is always mixed with the bad or so it seems. I spent the year struggling to find balance in a lot of ways. I set PRs and accomplished huge goals I never dreamed of in some arenas, but struggled with actual physical pain like never before as well that held me back in a lot of ways. The pain and challenges I was experiencing cascaded and I am sure impacted my mental health in some negative ways.
So, I am going to take some time here to talk about my mental health. In a lot of ways I have been very fortunate. I have been relatively healthy both physically and mentally. I have seen others go through much worse than I ever have. And I think that is part of what makes mental health a difficult topic for me to talk about. I have not suffered through what I know so many others have, so some times it feels like to complain would be to do a disservice to everything they have experienced.
I have always been a person that I guess one would describe as anxious, shy, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed. For me my anxiety is most present in social situations and interactions especially where there are no well-defined rules of engagement. Anything that risks embarrassment or looking foolish is very hard for me to approach. I spent much of my adult life studying psychology and even while studying psychology I actively avoided any course that would require me to speak in front of others. I even dropped a class after it started when I learned to my surprise that we would be required to regularly speak in front of others. I have always rationalized that as being pretty normal. No one really likes to speak in front of others so I never really took that as a sign of anything significant. But then there are more mundane things like making a simple phone call to order pizza, or more importantly for work that would start my palms sweating and anxiety building. If I needed to make a call for work it would preoccupy my mind and I would plan excessively around how to approach the phone call and I would feel like I was suffering the entire time until I finally made the call. Despite me knowing that most calls go fine this is something that I cannot shake. I almost never make phone calls. I prefer to do all my communication by email and even that is becoming difficult.
As someone who has studied psychology I am equipped with knowledge that one might think would help me in this situation. But instead I harnessed my knowledge to convince myself everything was fine instead of convincing myself to get help. In clinical psychology to be diagnosed with a psychological disorder one needs to display symptoms that are disruptive to one’s life. So, for me I have always told myself that I am still getting along with life pretty well despite the issues I struggle with. I have never had anything really stop me from maintaining a relatively “normal” life. I can still carry on most activities of life freely. I have been able to complete an education, sustain jobs, pursue leisure time activities, and pursue creative endeavors. Why should I need any help right?
Another aspect of my anxiety that has impacted me has been difficulty meeting new people. I am just completely uncomfortable with that idea to the point I have pretty much avoided it most of my life. For a long time as an adult I didn’t really have any friends. It took me literally making a new year’s resolution that I would join a running club to meet new people for that to happen and boy did that resolution come through for me in a big way. The other half of that resolution was to reconnect with old friends that I lost touch with, but I was never able to get comfortable enough with that idea to make it happen.
This year, specifically the last quarter of the year probably, my anxiety has gotten worse. Ever since I started writing in a public way online and to try to publish my work writing has been cathartic for me. It has been a release. It is something that I truly enjoy doing. I wrote 43 posts for my website this year. But near the end of the year I began to feel more stress and anxiety about writing and the simple act of writing and putting my photography together, the thing that used to bring me the most joy was creating anxiety for me. It took longer and longer for me to complete posts for my website. I had to gather the strength to push through each project. There were things I wanted to write about but just couldn’t get started on. There were articles I would write but then couldn’t summon the strength to work on the accompanying photography. There were photographs I would select for an article but then I could not manage the writing of the article. The struggle itself was exhausting. It kept me from being as productive as I would have liked to for my website, despite all the ideas and aspirations I had. As I write this there are two posts sitting unfinished. One I started writing, but couldn’t get focused on enough to finish and add photographs to and one that I have all the photography ready to go for if I could just summon the will to write the article for which the idea is already fully formed in my head. I just have to do the work. And that very thought of doing the work is just overwhelming and I don’t know why. Why should it be? It hasn’t been before. Or maybe it has been and I have ignored it.
This year I ran a 100 mile race and it was amazing and being finished with the training for that race was a relief, but one thing it also did was unmoor me from my structure. I still function ok if there is structure. Getting up for work and going to work I can manage, but a weekend where there is nothing going on and I am free to work on anything that I like is almost like a nightmare. Previously I knew what I had to do every weekend because I had a training plan and a project I was working on, but now I was free to work on anything I wanted to. Take on any idea that I had in mind and that was completely overwhelming. There was so much that I wanted to do, but I never felt like I could actually accomplish any of it. There were many days on weekends where I would lie awake in bed in the morning simply unable to take on the challenge of taking on the day. I would lie there in bed staring at the ceiling or literally hiding under the blankets having this internal dialogue with myself trying to convince myself to get out of bed and that everything would be ok. This new level of anxiety that made it so I couldn’t even get out of bed was scary to me. It was nothing I had ever experienced. So after suffering through this for a time I was finally convinced that it was ok to admit to myself that I was having mental health issues that needed to be addressed. It is going to sound completely corny but I was able to finally get to this place when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Safety Third, where they were talking about mental health issues in the outdoor community. It struck chord with me. Unfortunately, it was a long time before I shared this feeling with anyone else. After weeks I told my wife that I thought I needed to seek professional mental health help. Then I eventually told my best friend. As of now I still have not contacted a mental health professional. That is part of what makes my anxiety so challenging. Recognizing what needs to be done mentally is the easy part. Actually taking the action is hardest, especially when it comes to reaching out to contact a stranger, especially if that contact will need to be done by phone. But I am in the process o trying to get the help I need and take this on in 2020.
I think a huge part of this anxiety and feeling of overwhelm that has hit me this year is because I have been dreaming about and pursuing a career where I feel I have value and meaning. I went to college and studied and wrote and learned for years because I wanted to have a career and a life that I found fulfilling and satisfying. Over the years I have found that what I want is a career as a creative and I have actually had some level of success at it. Enough success that the possibility of actually achieving it scares the crap out of me. It scares me because it would mean leaving behind the structure of everything I have known in work behind. It scares me because it means if I fail it is on me. There is no boss to blame. It scares me because I would be free to do the things I truly want to do and if I still fail to do them it is my own fault.
I have been so overwhelmed with fear and anxiety that there have been many days where I have thought I should just quit doing all of the creative work that I am doing. It is too hard. It is making me too anxious. I will never be able to make it. I should just give it up and enjoy a simple life of going to work and coming home and sitting on the couch watching TV. What would be so wrong with that? The answer is that there is nothing wrong with that. But for me everything is wrong with that. It is not the life I have envisioned for myself or that I have been working for my entire life. It would not make me feel fulfilled. I would not be happy. At best I would be comfortably numb. At worst I would be miserable.
This whole post and life situation is like a giant sad irony to me. I have spent a large part of my life studying mental health. I have been an advocate of talking about mental health. I try to do all the things a good mental health advocate would do. Except that I haven’t taken care of my own mental health and I haven’t been able to share my struggles with anyone. That ends today.
I wrote this post 12/31/19 and didn’t find the strength to post it until 1/12/20.