Fiona asks “What do you find the most rewarding and challenging aspects about being such a strong advocate? What is the hardest part? What makes it worthwhile to you?”
I’m going to break this down into segments, because I find it difficult to separate them into 4 distinct aspects (Most rewarding? Most Challenging? Hardest part? What makes it worthwhile?). The positives and the challenges can be more easily addressed if they’re taken together. I don’t know if I’d be able to answer one without touching on the other.
- What are the most rewarding aspects of being such a strong mental health advocate? What makes it worthwhile?
There are many aspects that I find rewarding – my personality type tends towards the introvert side of things. That’s not to say I don’t like being with people, or socializing. Actually it’s a big part of my job in customer service. (FYI – ’ll get into more details about my job in another post – I received a question about my job/career that I’ll address in a different post). However, sometimes after work I don’t have a lot of energy for “people-ing” – at least not face to face. But thank the good Lord for social media and the Internet! I can “hang out” with people without actually having to be with people. So – socializing in the comfort of my own home? Yeah that’s a total win! Especially if I don’t have to think about what I should or shouldn’t wear, or having to choose between being somewhat presentable enough to be in public vs wearing whatever I want to at home (which may or may not include pants).
So – with that random babble off my chest, I know there are many more people who are similar to me. People who just can’t handle being out and about, for a variety of reasons and not all directly related to mental illnesses. Sometimes its fatigue, sometimes it’s a physical handicap, sometimes just the thought of venturing into the “real world” is just too much. So, those of us who can’t always hang out in person can still find community online. For me, just being part of a few mental health communities has been a positive thing. I’m so glad I can be a listening ear for people who are struggling. I’m thankful I seem to have a knack for helping people feel comfortable and valued, which is a huge battle for so many. Having a chat with someone, and having them say “thanks” is huge. Having people comment or “like” stuff I’ve posted on social media feels good. Not because I’m getting recognition (although, I’ll be honest that part of it is pretty cool too!) but because that person now knows someone else faces the same struggles. For a few moments (and hopefully longer then that) they feel less alone – that heaviness of isolation lifts just a little bit. I know all too well what that “nobody understands” feeling is like. It’s not fun. That alone is hard to bear, but when the added struggles of mental illness are mixed in, it can often seem overwhelming. So if I can connect with someone, even if it’s just a ‘like’ or a comment, or a short conversation – that makes it worth the hard days. Getting to know people – even a little bit – they feel noticed, they feel like someone else cares. And if there’s one thing I’ve seen come up time and time again is the feeling of isolation. The balance to isolation is community, making connections, trying to keep an eye open for the ‘silent sufferers’ – because if they’re anything like me, they so desperately want to connect with someone. Anyone, actually. But the desire for connection is balanced or even outweighed by the fear of rejection. But again, therein lies the strength of community. We’re all individuals, but that just means my perspective won’t connect with everyone. There’s a good chance, however, that someone else’s story will. It’s just a matter of keeping people plugged in to a place or community they safe in, so they can heal and also make those connections.
The short version comes down to this: I know how ugly things can feel when isolation, shame, rejection and more keep me from reaching out. Things go downhill rapidly if I don’t work on my connections to friends and the mental health communities, even though it’s incredibly hard to ask for help with I’m feeling down. The last thing I want is to sit idle, knowing someone else is facing that same brutal weight, and the memory of those dark, heavy days is a driving factor. I know I can’t save everyone – but hopefully I can encourage a few people to keep fighting for healing and happiness. Knowing I seem to have a knack for that is rewarding in itself. Watching people grow and overcome various obstacles they’ve been struggling with is incredible. And that’s what makes it worth it. There is hope within change. If I can bring a bit of hope and light into someone else’s world, I can rest a bit easier.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered? What is the hardest part for you?
Honestly, one thing I struggle with a lot is actually reflected in how you phrased the first question, and that’s just acknowledging to myself that people really do see me as a strong advocate, as an encouragement, as a role model, as an inspiration, or (dare I even think this?) a hero. To be honest – most times I think they must be talking about someone else, because from my perspective I wouldn’t call myself a strong advocate. At least nowhere close to the people I think of as strong advocates and “mental health heros” and the ones that are an inspiration to me.
A rough analogy of this would be like being called a “movie star” just because I was a background extra in a feature film with the top actors in Hollywood (again, to be clear – this is an analogy. I’ve never been in a movie). The big names, the people who have a lot of reach and influence with their blogs and publicity are the ones who challenge and inspire me, and then there’s me… The movie credits are scrolling, down near the bottom of the list of actors is “5th man in bar scene” who had maybe 15 seconds camera time as an “extra” and no dialogue in the script. Was I in the same hypothetical movie with all the hypothetical big name actors and actresses? Yup. Do I feel worthy of the same level of recognition? Heck no! Not even remotely close!!! But I forget to acknowledge that yeah, I was in the same movie, so that is still worth something – they could have picked one of many people for that part, and they still chose me for that part. I realize that’s not the greatest analogy, but it’s the best I could come up with. I minimize my value, and perhaps in doing so, I’m limiting my potential impact. To be honest this is something that I try not to think about too much, because to think I might have more potential than I’m allowing myself to work with, well… I don’t feel deserving of that kind of influence and/or responsibility.
However, that’s something I’m very slowly working on. Realizing that when I look at me, I tend to magnify all the flaws and minimize all the positive traits. But when others look at me they might see parts of the same flaws I do – but they can see and experience the impact I have (with far less bias, I might add), and draw encouragement from that. It is somewhat cliche’ but it is somewhat like interacting with a hero or celebrity. They tend to get put up on a pedestal and may seem to be this almost unapproachable entity – yet the few celebrities I’ve had a chance to chat with (very brief encounters) are just as human as me. Bad habits, odd idiosyncrasies, unique passions and hobbies, and so forth. So, just allowing myself to be ‘ok’ with being someone else’s role model, or inspiration is a struggle. And to be honest, I had to read your question a few times because I honestly don’t think of myself as anything much more than a mediocre blogger who got tired of hiding my struggles, and decided to spew my thoughts from my brain, to a keyboard, to a blog for anyone to see…because it was therapeutic for me, and just might help someone else. I wasn’t really trying to do anything other than maybe give someone “out there” a shred of hope to keep struggling on, and not to give up.
So if those are the challenges, what particular aspect is the hardest for me? In a word, I would say balance. Sometimes I get too emotionally invested in people – and if I’m not careful, I can internalize their hard days or setbacks as a personal failure, as if I personally could have changed their circumstances and stopped that particular setback or ‘failure” and that because I couldn’t or didn’t is now my own personal responsibility. Mind you, I am getting better at that – I’m much more careful about that now. And a lot of that in the past was fueled by the need to please people in order to feel accepted or valued. I’ve made a lot of progress in that area (being a people-pleaser), which I’m proud of. But I struggle to find balance. I often forgo some important self-care in order to try to help someone else. Sometimes this just continues to enable them instead of allowing them to struggle and grow through difficult circumstances, which is what’s best in the long run, both for them and for myself. Sometimes it’s seeing the other person as far more valuable than I am, and therefore their needs and burdens take priority over my own. Sometimes it’s just as simple as self-neglect on my part. Not so much a case of active self-loathing, as just not actively taking care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and being aware of when I need to really invest in myself instead of always pouring into other people’s lives.
I realize that may come across as fishing for sympathy or attention, and believe me that’s not what I want. What I am finding, however is that the more I just lay things out as I see them, keep sharing my journey and the stuff I’ve observed along the way, the more people seem to connect with that. And I guess that is still rare enough, even within the various communities focused on mental illnesses, that people find it refreshing and encouraging. If that’s the case I need to give myself more credit, and learn how to use and develop my skills to improve my writing, and to reach more people. It’s extremely challenging to allow myself to think beyond “mediocre blogger” and move toward “influencer” and “strong advocate” and “role model” and “inspirational”.
My hope is (and has been for quite some time) that through my blog, people will find the courage and strength to start sharing their own journey too. Everybody’s story is important. Every story is valuable. And despite the struggles I face, despite the heaviness I feel for other people – we’re only strong if we keep working together. I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the support I’ve found online. I hope to be that for someone else. I hope people can look at me and go “if he found the courage, maybe I can too” – not so that I get the credit, but so those very people can share their story and spread their stories of influence, courage, and hope to people in their circles, so people from there can continue to reach even more people
If you toss a pebble in a pond, it quickly sinks and is forgotten, but the ripples it creates spread well beyond the initial splash. When the water is still and peaceful, those ripples and waves seem to travel forever. I’m ok with being a pebble, because the ripples are what make the impact. That’s what people watch, and are captivated by. Heck, that’s why people toss the pebbles in the first place. They don’t do it to make a pebble sink, or to make a rock wet. No, they do it to hear the gentle ploop before the concentric waves dance and shimmer in ever-growing circles. The pebble isn’t important. It’s impact is.
I’m just (slowly) learning how to create the strongest, longest reaching ripples I can.