Talk About It: 4 Lessons I Learned About My Mental Health in 2018
One year ago, I published 24 lessons I learned about being mentally healthy in 2017.
I’m going to attempt to do the same this year—but in drastically fewer lessons—to describe the mental health lessons that have coalesced in my brain this year.
I’m not the same person I was a year ago.
A year ago, I was about to head into my last semester of a graduate program in social work.
Last year, I was feverishly writing about mental health on Medium and on my fledgling blog, Nerve 10.
I’m still writing, but now I have a better understanding of where all of this is going. I’m grasping the possibilities of this experiment to make mental health information more accessible.
The guest bloggers I publish on Nerve 10 are finding me more easily now. It’s astonishing, really.
In my heart, I knew there were others who were—and are—desperate for authentic mental health conversations. I just didn’t expect the reaction to my tiny corner of the universe to be so strong—and so sudden.
And I didn’t expect to work for a startup company, which I now do. Life has a funny way of presenting us with what we need—but not in the ways we except we’ll find it.
I think becoming older and wiser means a progressive kind of noticing, an “opening up” to the opportunities that make the soul sing.
So, I suppose, I’m grasping at more than possibilities; I’m grasping at real, tangible opportunities as they present themselves.
This is what I’ve learned.
Nothing ever works out the way I expect it will. And that’s perfectly fine.
I just dropped thousands of dollars on a graduate education in social work, and then I promptly quit a job in mental health—at a hospital, in a traditional “social work” role—so that I could join a startup company called AnswersNow.
And I love it.
I feel challenged in ways that I had never experienced at any other job I’ve had. I get to work on something every day that I truly believe in—on something that doesn’t feel like work. It’s the kind of job that only ever existed in my wildest, childish dreams. And now it’s real.
And I never would have found it unless I followed my heart to pursue a graduate education in social work. I followed my heart, listening carefully to what it was telling me to do. I felt the pull of my heartstrings telling me to expand my role as a mental health advocate, and I listened.
What I didn’t know is the way in which the universe would set me on my path. I didn’t know that I would cross the country from Montana to Virginia so that I could complete an education that would serendipitously connect me with a startup company increasing access to treatment for caregivers of children with autism.
It’s something I couldn’t ever have know until I experienced it—and that’s why it’s wonderful.
We are always selling ourselves every single day. And sometimes what’s needed is a hard sell.
Right out of grad school, I got a well-paying job in the psychiatric facility of a large hospital in my area. I wasn’t at the job more than a few days when I realized something was seriously wrong.
The place was very poorly managed, staff hated their jobs—a hatred that was soon transcended to a general hatred of their lives—and I had serious ethical concerns with how work was being done. I raised these concerns on multiple occasions, but no changes were made.
All of this culminated in some of the most unprofessional behavior I’ve ever experienced, and the meetings that ensued still did not address my core concerns.
Staff weren’t living up to the company’s mission statement, there was no accountability, and patient care seemed only to be a tangential concern.
I went back to school to be trained as a social worker because I so strongly agreed with the profession’s code of ethics.
The focus on the “dignity and worth” of all people—and a commitment to empower the most vulnerable—spoke to commonsense truths that I have long felt at the core of my being.
I don’t know where exactly I developed my desire to always “do the right thing,” but it has been embedded in my psyche for as long as I can remember.
My parents often recount an embarrassing story of how, when I was a little boy, I strayed from my parents during one of our regular walks around the neighborhood—and marched straight up to a man smoking a cigarette in his front yard. I have no recollection of this, but according to my parents, I gave the man a piece of my mind about how what he was doing was deeply injurious to his health.
I guess it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t accost a man in his own front yard, but there I was.
That was not the “hard sell” I speak of. The hard sell would come approximately 25 years later when, mired in horrendous behavior and ethical quandaries at my hospital job, I decided to make a big move.
I had been helping out the startup fonder—my current supervisor— who I had met through my graduate program. I was maintaining the company’s social media.
The founder had mentioned his interest in bringing a marketing person on full-time in the near future, and he hinted that I might be the right kind of person for the job. He had learned of the success I had had on Medium and with my website.
He knew I could create something out of nothing, which is the path that all startups must take as they prove their value in the great face of uncertainty.
After telling my supervisor at the hospital job about an employee fabricating assessments on patients, after getting confirmation that the assessments were, indeed, fake, after navigating the swamp of employees talking behind each others’ backs, after getting warned by another supervisor that I would be “reported” if I did not perform some task that a problem employee wanted me to perform—an employee who also wouldn’t tell me her thoughts to my face—I decided to confront the problem colleague in question.
A minor altercation ensued, and she literally ran away from me to go tell our supervisor what had happened.
The “meeting” that ensued was handled horribly, and never could I get assurance that the focus of what we were all doing there at the hospital was to improve patient care. And without a guarantee that what we were doing was about treating patients with respect and the highest-quality care, I knew I had to leave.
I called the startup founder that night after work, explained to him that I found myself wanting to spend my extra time doing work for the startup—work that was about creating access to autism treatment for families who needed it and was, to me, inherently meaningful. I told him I was ready to come on full-time, that I knew the impact we could make for caregivers of children with autism.
He said he would need a day to think about it and run it by his co-founder, but I could sense the excitement in his voice.
Never before had I so boldly asked for a job, but it seemed like the right thing to do. Something was telling me to do it.
And it worked.
I’m on the team.
Every day I am grateful to do work that matters. And all because I made the hard sell I knew in my heart to be right.
We bring more than our skill set to our work and our relationships. We bring ourselves.
It’s been a long time coming, but I understand now that meaningful relationships—be they within a company, a friendship, or a family—are meaningful because they allow the involved parties to engage in authentic behavior.
Anything short of authentic behavior is a farce. It’s an attempt to control, and usually one side’s power far outweighs the other’s.
Who am I if not the quirks and obsessions borne from my unique experiences and disposition?
I have a voice that has something to say. I have a body that wants to be engaged in meaningful work.
Any person can complete tasks and check off boxes, but each one us brings our unique flavor to the way we do it. The way my brain is constantly making associations, my bizarre obsession with words, my undying and, at times, debilitating sensitivity—those are things that I bring to my work.
I’m learning, with each passing year, to love who I am, what I find meaningful, and the desire that I have to bring that meaning to everything I do.
If you have something you feel needs to be said, you have to say it.
My second internship of my social work graduate program took place at a pediatric practice, and, at that practice, I got to bear witness to the raw wisdom of the doctor primarily responsible for the founding and growth of the place.
He had recently retired, but he stuck around to manage the transition to the new leadership—and to check on me and the other intern completing our clinical social work placements there.
Early on he got to know that I had a love for writing. He could also tell that I was self-conscious about the fact that I wanted to spend my free time writing stories and poems.
His intuition was in top form from caring for so many children and families for so many years, and he asked me why I referred myself as “an oddball.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel strange. I feel different from the other students in my program. It’s just hard for me to relate to them. I feel like an oddball.”
“Then be an oddball. Be the best damn oddball you can be.”
The doctor also related stories about never getting used to the high esteem of his position as a doctor—and this coming from a doctor who was regionally known and universally respected.
He said, “I still get so nervous before every talk I give. I hate it. I don’t want to speak in public. But I always do. Do you know why?” he asked me.
I shook my head.
“Because I have something to say.”
His words moved me because I could tell that he knew I felt like I too had something I needed to tell the world—that my incessant writing about mental health wasn’t simply to entertain myself.
I knew I had to keep writing, to speak when I was asked—and also when I wasn’t asked to, if I felt the situation called for it.
I knew I had to keep growing Nerve 10, a site that is now ranked on Google for hundreds of keywords. A site that now appears in the top 10 for the words “mental health blog.” A site that now gets several requests a week from interested readers and writers, real human beings who have been impacted by something that they’ve read.
No one understood what I was doing when I decided I was going to start calling myself a writer. I’m not sure if I believed it myself.
But I still remember the shift in my mindset when I first told someone, “I’m a writer.”
It made me take myself more seriously. It made me ask, in response to my own uncertainty when approaching decision points, “What would a writer do in this situation?”
A writer would write. A writer would know he has something of value to say. A writer would fall in love with the process.
And so I’ve fallen in love with the process. I’m finding my voice. I believe I have something to say.
I know that there are others out there who crave meaningful conversations about mental health.
I’m committed to making mental health information more accessible.
There’s so much to do, and I’m only just beginning.