Things I’ve Learned from a Lifelong Struggle with Anxiety & Depression

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media this past week has noticed the recent outpour of conversations surrounding mental health on Facebook, Twitter, and various news sources and blogs. In the wake of Robin Williams’s tragic suicide, swarms of people have been coming forward to share their own experiences with depression, voice support for anyone they might know struggling with mental health issues, and start conversations aimed at erasing the stigma and misinformation so commonly tied to perceptions of depression, anxiety, and other aspects of mental health.

Seeing these discussions in my various feeds has been incredible. It has also been a bit overwhelming. Depression and anxiety are not easy things to talk about, especially if you have them yourself. With depression and anxiety comes unbelievable pain, constant distress, and moments when you really do wonder just how much more you can take. As someone who has spent a lifetime struggling with depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I felt the need to contribute, but how? I didn’t want to share my life story with my 600+ Facebook friends, because the details of my life are not everybody’s business. I didn’t want to be “that person” dishing out advice and telling people to “get help” or “talk to someone”, because it is never that easy and not all advice is relevant to all manifestations of anxiety and depression.

But I didn’t want to sit silent, and so instead of empty advice, instead of releasing an entire memoir, I am writing this in hopes that maybe, somehow, and in some way, a part of what I have learned in my struggle with depression and anxiety can help someone else.

Note: I am not a mental health professional and these things may not apply to everyone reading them. These are just some words of wisdom based on things I have learned through my experience, and my experience alone.

First and foremost, never feel guilty or ashamed for being depressed.
This is something I wish I had learned a long time ago and am just recently coming to terms with. An all-too-common response to people with depression, far more damaging (I think) than the “cheer up” nonsense, is to tell people to think about how much worse off ‘other’ people are. When you are depressed, you can’t imagine feeling worse. But that doesn’t make you selfish, or whiny, or unappreciatively privileged. It doesn’t make you narcissistic or apathetic to the suffering and struggles of other people. Similarly, you are not a burden to those around you, and you are not ruining anyone else’s day/life with your anxiety or depression. Your thoughts, feelings, and concerns are VALID – always – and they’re nothing to feel guilty about.

Crisis hotlines serve more than one purpose.
Crisis hotlines are not only for people on the verge of taking their own lives. Calling a crisis hotline does not automatically rope you into treatment, and the person on the phone will not force you to do or say anything that you are not ready or comfortable to. Seeking treatment can be scary, and feeling alone when you are depressed or mid-panic attack is scary, too. Calling a crisis hotline is a great way to just talk to someone, completely anonymously, on your own terms and for any length of time you choose. The people on the other side of the phone are trained professionals and can give you advice, but they will also just listen if you ask them to, or sit on the phone with you in complete silence, if all you need is to know that someone is there. They can discuss treatment options with you (again, anonymously) if that’s what you want, give you tips on how to cope day-to-day, or talk you out of a bad moment. You can talk to them for 30 seconds, 30 minutes, or three hours. They are there for whatever you need them for.

You don’t have to consider yourself mentally “ill”.
This is a matter of choosing the right way to represent what you feel as you struggle with your own depression and anxiety. I’ve come to prefer the term mental “difficulties” in place of “illness” because it more closely resembles what I experience. I don’t consider myself ill or sick and so finding another word that better describes what I do experience has been paramount to how I approach these difficulties on a daily basis. If mental illness is a term that works for you, then that’s fine! But if it’s not, that’s fine, too. Just as there is no one way to talk about mental health, there is no one way to describe or identify what your experience actually is.

Similarly, find the method of treatment that works best…for you.
I can’t stress this enough. I understand that telling someone with depression/anxiety to “get help” is like telling someone to lift a car, but there are options out there, choices to be made, and only you have the final decision in these matters. Medication is not the right course of treatment for everyone (I choose not to take meds), but works for some people. A good therapist is hard to find, but you can find one (I did!). It takes time to find the right treatment method and treatment is hard work, but you’ll know you’ve found the right approach when you see that hard work paying off.

It’s okay to spend some time alone.
The answer is not always to surround yourself with tons of people all the time. While it is definitely necessary to have a strong support group (even just one or two people), giving yourself time and space to breathe can be really important, too, especially for those who also experience anxiety. As long as you’re careful not to turn alone-time into isolation (which can happen very easily when you’re depressed), a little breathing room once in awhile can do wonders. The trick is to spend your alone-time doing something. Read a book that makes you starry-eyed. Write something, even if it’s an explosive rant of feelings that you tear up, toss, or burn afterwards. Take a walk listening to your favorite music. Or just watch something mindless on TV for an hour.

Separating yourself from your mental illness/difficulties is desirable, but not always achievable (and that’s okay!).
The mantra, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD,” is one that has been engrained in me by nearly every therapist/counsellor since my diagnosis, in attempts to reinforce the notion that my mental difficulties are not who I am. Similarly, the #notmymentalillness hashtag has, over the last few days, flooded Twitter with beautiful messages from people showing and telling the world who they are outside of their mental difficulties and diagnoses. It’s all an important reminder that our depression and anxiety issues do not have to define who we are. As anyone who suffers from these difficulties knows, however, it is sometimes impossible to not feel overwhelmed and as if there is no way of existing outside of these bad feelings. And that’s okay. Don’t kick yourself on those days you just can’t say #notmymentalillness, because it will only make you feel worse. Bad thoughts and feelings come with the territory, unfortunately, but remember…

…at the end of the day, it’s all about self-preservation.
You will be in good shape if you can find ways to self-preserve. This goes for “good days” as well as “bad days”, because you will have both and every day you will have to do the one thing that is often so difficult – live. The only person you have to live with is yourself, and you owe it to you to make your life livable. This is much easier said than done, but learning how to self-preserve for the moment, for the day, for the week, is just the beginning of learning how to cope with your depression and anxiety, and the people/events that trigger them, for the rest of your life. Deep breathing, having mantras set for certain triggering situations, channeling bad energy into exercise or art, learning when to let go of toxic people, learning when to reach out to good people – these are all pieces of self-preservation. Write a list of techniques that work for you, and keep it close.

And always remember, in the words of the brilliant Lucille Ball, “It’s a helluva start being able to recognize what makes you happy.” Everything is just one day at a time, even happiness. We can get there.

Somaly’s Lies: On Romanticized Victimhood and the Erasure of Human Life

In case you missed it, Somaly Mam resigned this week from her
positions with Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) and the Somaly Mam Foundation, organizations she co-founded in 1996 and 2007, respectively, to combat sex-trafficking and violence against women and girls in Southeast Asia.

The resignation came after a series of accusations targeting the legitimacy of Somaly’s narrative, accusations that claimed her entire human rights platform to be built on blatant lies and fabrications. Inconsistencies in Mam’s story have been reported on for years, but such claims began to gain momentum in October 2013 when The Cambodia Daily published the story of a young woman named Meas Ratha. As a teenaged student enrolled in Afesip’s secondary school program, Ratha was coaxed by Mam into appearing on French television to share her experience as a child prostitute. In reality, Ratha had never once stepped foot inside a brothel. The whole story was a lie, Ratha revealed, a lie carefully scripted, rehearsed, and performed for the camera as a means of conjuring support for the organization. Ratha went through with the interview at the time, she explains, because she was grateful for the education Afesip afforded her and her sister. Sixteen years later, however, Ratha felt it was time the world knew the truth.

In the months following the news of Ratha’s story, the number of investigations into the legitimacy of Mam’s platform skyrocketed, with pieces published by The Cambodia Daily and other journalistic publications revealing an overwhelmingly disproportionate distribution of funds within the organizations, that Ratha was now being urged by the foundation to ‘keep quiet’, and that there had in fact been suspicion over Somaly’s honesty for years, as confirmed by ex-Afesip worker Pierre Fallavier. The last straw, however, seemed to have been a Newsweek expose written by Simon Marks, the Cambodia Daily journalist at the forefront of uncovering the truth about Somaly Mam from the start. Published on May 21, exactly one week before Mam’s official resignation, the expose detailed every instance in which Mam had been suspected of and/or caught fabricating stories about the girls under the ‘care’ of her foundation, including seriously questioning, with thorough evidence, the legitimacy of Mam’s own story of being trafficked into sex slavery as a child. 

Although Mam has been met with consternation by various non-profits and NGOs in Cambodia for years, and vehemently opposed by sex-worker advocacy groups long before these accusations began to surface, Somaly Mam has enjoyed a nearly twenty-year reign as a mainstream media darling, boasting an impressive list of high-profile supporters from all over the world. The reason, Somaly’s defenders would have it, is in the results – Somaly Mam claims to have provided aid and support to thousands of women and girls over the years, an implication of ‘success’ that prompts even Simon Marks in his tell-all expose to ponder, “She has done so much for so many, does it matter that key parts of her story aren’t true?”

The answer, is yes. It does matter.

It matters because after the news of Ratha’s alleged (false) enslavement reached her home-village, she became shunned by everyone she knew. It matters because the kinds of rescue narratives that Somaly has built her legacy on serve to eradicate the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work, posing extraordinary difficulties for sex workers struggling for rights, safety, and autonomy. It matters because, as Anne Elizabeth Moore writes in a brilliant piece for Salon, Cambodian women who are ‘rescued’ in this way are commonly ushered into work in garment factories, a pattern that works to “normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment,” and “shame women who reject such jobs.” It matters because the soaring popularity of ‘pity charity’ campaigns among prospective first-world donors does not require any sort of critical thinking regarding systemic structures of social inequality, and instead creates a market, and thus a demand, for sob-stories and narratives of “glamorized victimhood”.

On this cult of glamorized victimhood, Amanda Marcotte at The Daily Beast writes that it’s not hard to see why such organizations and media outlets continually contribute to the demand for sob-stories. To distant donors, the idea that they can ‘buy’ someone out of a life of poverty with their donations is extraordinarily appealing. It allows these donors to feel like they are the plot twist in a fairytale, the Fairy Godmother come to replace Cinderella’s rags with the life she has always dreamed of. There are many problems with this romanticized narrative of victimhood, however – namely, that in order for the donor to fulfill the fantasy of becoming the Fairy Godmother, there has to be a Cinderella. There always has to be a victim, even if one has to be created, and that says something profoundly disturbing about a first-world thirst for the suffering of others and a preoccupation with ‘saving’ people out of victimhood.

It is this highly romantic ‘rescue narrative’ that solidifies a disturbing appetite for others’ suffering, fueled by the idea that the outcome of the donors’ aid is always “happily ever after”. Somaly Mam understood this – countless organizations, charities, and aid agencies understand this. They understand this and so they supply the sob-stories to meet the demand of not only monetary donations and volunteer labor, but the demand for the more privileged among us to feel good about contributing to a seemingly noble cause.

As Amanda Marcotte also points out in her piece, another key factor in the widespread popularity of ‘victim and rescue narratives’ is that, for donors, supporting such causes is incredibly easy. Getting behind these hard-to-swallow but easy-to-sympathize-with narratives is a way for people to look like, and really believe, they are noble human rights advocates without having to put in much effort. There is no stake in their commitment, and they are able to feel as though they are ‘doing good’ without having to think about the ways they may actually be complicit in the reproduction of a variety of social factors that contribute to widespread poverty, violence, and inequality across the world.

When organizations feed into the cult of romanticized victimhood, it doesn’t require, or encourage, people to think much at all – because the ‘victims’ of these horrific narratives are not to be thought about, they are just to be pitied. It is a profoundly dangerous approach that not only encourages organizations to lie and exaggerate about their respective causes, but strips the very people they claim to help of their own human agency. It erases who they are as people in favor of a carefully crafted facade of helplessness – a doomed and decrepit object of pity.

But pity does not create sustainable, systemic change. It can, in many cases, actually make things worse. When narratives fail to consider people as anything other than charity cases, it erases so much of what actually makes them human, including any implication that maybe – just maybe – they know what they need better than anyone else. Denying someone their humanity is probably the least helpful thing a person (or organization) can do. There is a lot of good to come out of uncovering the truth behind Somaly Mam, I hope some of that good will be to encourage better thought about what ‘rescue narratives’ really mean for people, and what support for such narratives really do.

So to you, those privileged enough to be reading this blog on your computer, smartphone, or tablet – be careful of the kinds of organizations and initiatives you support*. More importantly, be sure to think critically about how you show your support, and whether your contribution (monetary or otherwise) does help, or if it actually does, in fact, work to perpetuate the work of a Big Charity industry fueled by pity as opposed to the dignity of human life.

Because yes – it does matter.

* If you are looking for work to support in Cambodia, the Ponheary Ly Foundation is a fantastic organization committed to creating sustainable social change through education. They are committed to highlighting the strength and exceptionality of their students, not erasing it, and firmly believe that communities are their own greatest resource.

Kristen C. Turner