Why Don't You Just Ask For Help?
By Laura Friedrich
Recovery is exhausting, emotional, and unpredictable. You have a few good days here and there, and during those days it’s like “by golly, I’m cured!! I can see clearly. I’m normal. I’m okay. I’m going to make it.” But then the darkness comes back. Then you’re left feeling empty and hopeless and tired and fuzzy and like you want nothing more than to not exist so the pain could just finally end. You’re reminded of every single reason why you need the help you so desperately sought, but also of all the reasons why it took so long to ask for it in the first place.
This post started as a convoluted mess of ideas and run-on sentences but eventually unraveled as a real and personal confession about an issue that has become my life: the complexity of asking for help. I need others to understand that reaching out is not an easy, fix-all solution, and the ability to do so alone most certainly should not be expected of people who are seriously struggling with mental illness. I need people to know the deep and intricate reasons why I seemingly couldn’t seek help for many years and that it was compassion and understanding from other people that finally helped me get there.
To give a brief background, I have suffered through bouts of anxiety and depression since I was in my mid-teens. I would endure weeks of waking up feeling so emotionally pained and empty I could not speak to anyone, eat or sleep properly, or get out of bed. On other days, I would panic over mundane things to a point where I could not control my breathing and sometimes would hit myself trying to make the hysteria stop. I have endured many nights of ultimate lows where the pain felt like it was too much to bear and the only thought circling through my head over and over was that I just wanted to end it all. These dismal mental states had seemingly no recognizable pattern and I felt controlled by the unpredictable mess inside my head.
In the midst of all these lows there were also periods where I felt okay again, leading to the belief that I was fine and I could make it on my own. There were a million different reasons in my mind not to reach out to others and professionals for help when my mental health was essentially shot, and my inability to fully admit something was wrong was probably the strongest of them all. Depression and anxiety are monsters that can keep coming back if they aren’t addressed, and even after being forced to withdraw from school in November 2013 I did not want to accept the mangled state I was in; accepting it would mean that I was not normal and okay like everyone else seemed to be.
While taking a year off school and working and volunteering at the University of Alberta, I immersed myself in discussions about mental health and recognized a hugely common fear amongst those who were struggling: that nice little thing called stigma. For someone who is struggling with mental illness there is usually already a deep-rooted sense of shame and guilt, and these feelings amplify when you consider the possibility of being seen as weak, incapable, pitiful, faking it, or seeking attention if you speak out.
Because of these labels I was determined to be a listening ear and shoulder to cry on for anyone who needed it and preached that no one had anything to be ashamed of, yet I myself was deeply afraid of what everyone would think if they new that sometimes I felt like I was dying inside. I portrayed myself as such a positive and confident and strong person and was convinced that the image people had of me would come crashing down if they found out. It was a twisted notion, really, because here I was nodding and listening and encouraging other people and not thinking a single ill thought about them when they told me about their darkest times, but simultaneously refusing to believe anyone would see me in the same way if they knew. The fear always won, and I buried my own struggles so deep I almost forgot about them until they eventually came back around to play.
Tossing emotions aside for a moment, I don’t think it’s any news that we are seriously lacking in affordable resources for people to turn to. This creates a potentially insurmountable block for people who desperately need help and was one of the main reasons I fought the thought of reaching out myself. People are quick to point out the resources available in university settings when in reality far too many students are being turned away, receiving care that does not match the severity of their struggles, or waiting an inappropriately long time for the help they need because the funding for appropriate mental health services is simply not there. Outside of a school setting, mental health resources can be overwhelmingly expensive; for example, the wonderful therapist I’m currently seeing costs me $130 per 50-minute session (a reduction from their usual $190 fee). The fear of not being able to afford the help I need and struggled so deeply to ask for still lingers.
Getting back to being all real and personal like I promised, I want to try describing how it feels to be at my lowest point so others can try putting themselves in the shoes of someone like me. In that moment, it feels like my mind is spiralling out of control. It feels like there is pain in my chest and heart, my head and my mind, and like my entire body is failing me. The guilt I feel for being alive is indescribable in that moment and there is nothing more accurate than to say that it feels like I am dying. The energy, physical ability, or even willpower to pick up my phone and make a phone call or text is not there. I have no will to leave the confinement and intimacy of my own private space where I am suffering so deeply to expose myself to anything outside.
Perhaps it’s a matter of opinion, but in my mind asking someone to open up when they are in their darkest and most vulnerable moments is like asking someone who is lying on the road with both their legs broken in 6 different places to get themselves to the hospital. This would be impossible, of course, unless the person was a wizard or had the upper body strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger or if someone else came around to help carry them to where they need to go. And finally, after lying all broken on the road for so long with a million different reasons in my mind to just stay there and suffer, someone came to save me.
After many years of denying the idea of asking for help, it was the power of love, compassion, and understanding that helped me come to terms with the fact that something was terribly wrong with my mental health. Even though I had gradually pulled away from the friends I had made at the University of Alberta during my year off school, there were a select few people who still checked in with me frequently and I finally started talking about my struggles to them. One specific person, the man who is now the love of my life, took on the mission of carrying me through the obstacles, helping me make sense of what I now know is a mental illness, and slowly convincing me that I am strong, capable, worthy, and loved. These people leant me the strength I didn’t have on my own to confide in my doctor in October 2015 about what I was experiencing and contact my current therapist the next month. These first few steps led me to open up about my struggles with everyone in my life and encourage a conversation about mental illness myself.
Throughout this trying process it’s like I gradually tore down every piece of my life and am in the process of turning over each piece to find out every bit that needs healing. I still live with some guilt and I still have overwhelmingly bad days and nights where I feel like I need to press quit. I’m still in the process of trying out antidepressants with strange side effects and it will always be mentally and physically draining going to therapy. But right now I am at a point where I feel like I’m starting from scratch with myself and also in so many other areas of my life, and although it’s sometimes terrifying and draining I’m beginning to understand that this is exactly where I need to be.
I am not writing this to further discourage those who are struggling from asking for help, but instead to validate their concerns and let them know there are people out there who understand. I am also writing to urge all people to extend a hand to someone who doesn’t have the strength to reach out themselves. Together we have the power to build an open and accepting environment wherein all people can come forward and all people are understood. We all have the power to withhold judgment and to be that person who intervenes when someone feels as though they are alone and dying. We can use our strength in numbers to normalize discussion about mental health and loudly voice the urgency of ensuring affordable and sufficient services become available for those in need. The momentum towards these things is picking up but we still have a lot of work to do – so lets talk. There are still a whole lot of lives that need saving.
About The Author:
Laura Friedrich is a former UAlberta nursing student and current Emergency Communications and Response student at MacEwan University. She hopes for a happy and healthy future of mountain getaways, a career in a field that includes helping other people, reading and writing, learning about the world and the human body, getting physically fit and strong again, forming new friendships, participating in meaningful conversations, corgis, sushi, white wine, love, and so much more.