It’s World Mental Health Day, and I’m thinking a lot about my maternal grandmother. A woman I’ve met only through a notebook from her schooldays and a handful of letters written to her beloved sister, she took her own life at the age of 41. She left behind a husband, six children, two parents, four siblings, and one final missive – a brief explanation of “melancholy,” addressed to no one in particular. The letters now in my possession and written more than a decade before her death, abound with love, concern, and generosity toward her sister, yet reveal a woman who felt trapped in a very small world and rarely left a house that she couldn’t bring herself to call home. One alludes to a secret weighing on her heart, kept in service of surface peace among extended family. Several hint at a cleaning fixation while lamenting an inability to find domestic help capable of meeting her standards. She wrote of remodeling projects and furniture shopping with the ultimately futile hope of transforming her surroundings. In the context of a world at war in the early 1940s, my grandmother battled her own painful internal conflicts and external circumstances.
My grandmother’s suicide generated a legacy of inherited family trauma that on another level claimed a part of my mother’s life as well. At the age of 20, she found her mother’s body. Also at the age of 20, she became the de facto primary caregiver to her two youngest elementary school-aged siblings. Sixty-three years later, when, due to the onset of dementia and lack of long-term resources, she came to live with my husband and me, that was the first story she’d tell when she met someone. It was the story she’d tell at every holiday dinner. It was the story she told her new hairdresser and our housekeeper. It was her only story.
In When the Drummers Were Women, author Layne Redmond writes, “All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother.” Our maternal grandmothers literally carry us in their own wombs. They imprint on us in deep and elemental ways, even if we never again exist together in the physical world. I’m equally troubled and comforted by this connection, while simultaneously connected to yet distanced from her trauma. Her story became my mom’s story becoming part of my story. It won’t be my only story.
Familial trauma is cyclical trauma – often gaining mass and force as it’s passed down over time, like a snowball rolling downhill. How this has played out through my mother’s parenting and in the patterns of my own life merit a longer narrative than even a longform World Mental Health Day blog post will accommodate. I’m also working on a book. But, as a trained integrative life and wellness coach, I know for certain that harmful cycles and patterns are breakable. Heredity is not our fate. Keeping secrets and “keeping the peace” are unhealthy people pleasing tendencies. Making our own peace is essential and looks and feels different for everyone. Speaking truth can be hard, especially in families – and scary, especially with age or power differentials. The first step is acknowledging truth to ourselves so that we can express it to others.
I’ve noted recently that the past three and a half years as the primary caregiver to my mother have felt like extended visits from the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future – disruptive, terrifying, and painful, yet illuminating – all about acknowledging hard truths, and ultimately central to my salvation, personal growth, and future well-being, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It’s my mantra that in any hardship, look for the lesson or the blessing. This year the hardships have been particularly plentiful (Hence the significant gap in posts – I’ve had much healing and rebuilding and adjusting to change and challenges to work through.), but I have gained immense knowledge and perspective – and feel an unparalleled amount of gratitude and renewed sense of inspiration and motivation. Amidst the struggles, I also recognize that I enjoy a considerable amount of privilege. My resources, physical environment, circle of support, lifestyle, self-care habits, work routines, nutrition, and exercise options contribute significantly to my ability to reset and re-center when I register a decline in mental, emotional, and physical health. The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Mental Health in an Unequal World.” The gaps are real and their effects are heartbreaking. Resilience is relative, but there are ways we can all cultivate more of it, regardless of our circumstances. Below are five tips for building resilience and strengthening mental health.
Ask yourself what you need. Be specific. Where are there gaps you can’t or don’t know how to fill? Once you have an awareness that need exists, ask for help to get it. Be gentle with yourself. If you’ve experienced trauma, treatment is essential for healing. Don’t judge yourself for needing help. Be part of the change in destigmatizing mental health conversations. Have the courage to reach out to a friend, family member, medical professional, or other trusted professional or resource and take action. Accept that results rarely happen overnight, and you may have to push beyond your comfort zone. Start here. Support makes the steps below easier to take.
Live your truth. Embrace your authenticity. See yourself beyond the context of external birth/family/marriage/career circumstances, labels, and relationships. Acknowledge and process and have the courage to speak about your lived experiences and feelings. Find healthy outlets to express and release your emotions. Set and enforce personal boundaries. Don’t allow someone else to determine the size of your world or diminish your aspirations, intellect, or curiosity – not parents, not a spouse, not friends, no one. Period. Stop people pleasing and performative behaviors. Recognize attempts at gaslighting and the difference between keeping the peace and making peace. Make choices that align with your values. Disallow disrespect, regardless of power dynamics.
Recognize that mental health is strongly connected to emotional and physical health. Nurture healthy relationships. Show and accept love. Start with loving yourself. Give your body the nutrients it needs to function at its best. Take a multivitamin. Eat more veggies and fruits than animal products. Avoid added sugar and processed foods. Stay hydrated throughout the day. Regardless of your current ability level, engage in some form of mindful movement every day. Get an appropriate quantity and quality of sleep.
Cultivate a healthy mindset about work. Even if your current job isn’t as meaningful or fulfilling you’d like, remember that you are not your job. Nor are you defined by your employment status. Work and occupation do not always equate to earning a paycheck. Regardless of how you occupy your time, make work breaks work for you. Unclench your jaw. Eat something healthy. Go outside. Look at trees. Stretch. Draw wide circles in the air with the tip of your nose. Meditate for three minutes and re-center. And, outside any paid occupation, prioritize a hobby or interest that provides personal fulfillment. One facet of your life does not encompass the entirety of who you are.
Reframe how you adjust to changes and challenges. Changes, challenges, and additional tasks on already endless “to do” lists can lead to feelings of overwhelm and into a fearful, reactive mindset – and thinking and acting from feelings of lack. Reactive responses can leave you feeling like a victim of circumstance scrambling to catch up and trigger helplessness and resentment. Proactive responses center power and choice with you, where they belong. Instead of, “I have to rearrange my life to accommodate this thing,” think, “How does this thing fit into my life? What system or routine can I create to make it work?” Remember that we all have choices, and gratitude for our blessings, resources, and supports helps us shift back to a place of abundance and control. And lastly, if you get stuck, see #1.