There is No Health Without Mental Health

There is No Health Without Mental Health


2020-05-04 10:42:16

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One in five people will have a mental health condition in their lifetime. You can take a free, private, and anonymous mental health screening at mhascreening.org.

What I feared most about getting sober was the stigma that came with quitting drinking. I just couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol, owning it, and truly being proud of who I was without drinking. I was terrified people would judge me. I was terrified people would call me an “alcoholic,” (a fate worse than death), that they’d think I was some worthless lowlife with no future who deserved pity and prayers, instead of treating me as their peer. 

This is when I first experienced the heaviness of addiction and recovery stigma. But now that I’ve been on this recovery journey for a few years, I realize there isn’t only stigma surrounding using drugs and alcohol, and sobriety. There is stigma around mental health issues in general, addiction is just one of them. I can recall being told as a child that I shouldn’t cry, that I shouldn’t be so upset, or angry, or heartbroken, or even overly excited. These are the messages we all receive in the society we live in. Similar to the messages we receive about alcohol, what we learn about emotions are – we should stifle them. That openly grieving makes people feel uncomfortable. That being heartbroken over a relationship or a job loss means we’re weak. That the more resilient we are, the stronger and braver we appear to others. People often perceive our ability to lack outward displays of emotion as an achievement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen women who appear unaffected by a break-up, a job loss, a pregnancy loss, or anything else that I’ve been emotionally sidelined by, and wished I could be like them.

What I learned quickly was that I was weird and different. I cried in the bathroom at school so other kids wouldn’t make fun of me. I raged in private over injustices I experienced in high school and college feeling like I couldn’t properly express them. When I did try to share any of these things with others I never felt truly seen or heard or understood. I became so filled up with anger, sadness, heartache, and other big feelings, that I eventually turned to whatever I could that would provide me momentarily relief from my own feels – men, pot, alcohol, pills, cocaine, ecstasy. 

Not only are we not taught how to identify, accept, and move through our emotions, but we aren’t taught how to hold space and provide support for others. Again, we learn through environment, messages, and society that people experiencing emotions make us uncomfortable. So it’s not unusual for us to dismiss others, “don’t cry,” “everything happens for a reason,” “it could be worse,” “you’ll get over it.”

We participate in this culture of emotion-shaming and we wonder why people experience high levels of anxiety, depression, and addiction. The truth is everyone experiences some level of trauma, some more complex than others. Everyone will experience heartache, grief, sadness, and anger in their lifetime. But if we don’t have the proper support systems and tools to deal with these emotions as they come, they will greatly affect our mental health. Alcohol and drugs are often used to self-medicate, then when folks become addicted, and/or choose to stop using, they are met with stigma.

Man, we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t, huh?

And yet, we claim we are a health-concerned society. We sell gym memberships, therapy, skinny teas, diet drinks, protein shakes, and weight loss secrets. We idolize models, athletes, and people who appear to have their shit together. But we still hardly ever address mental health. 

The truth is there is no health without mental health. We need to stop acting like anyone can be “healthy,” if they don’t know how to truly allow, identify, accept, and cope with their emotions and any other mental health issues that may come up along the way. Life is hard enough. Avoiding our emotions can lead to drug and alcohol use, it may cover up other underlying mental health issues, and most notably, it reinforces dangerous stigma.

When I got sober I was terrified of what others would think of me, but what I didn’t notice was the stigma and biases I had deeply internalized myself. That the most stigma I experienced came from me. I didn’t want to be seen as crazy, addicted, sober, someone who couldn’t handle life or their emotions, someone seen as other. I wanted to fit in with my peers just like everyone else. But when I realized that fitting in meant binge drinking and horrible hangovers, plus avoiding and suppressing my emotional self, I was able to see the truth. 

I am not the weird one. Any society that tells you it’s normal to make yourself sick and suppress who you really are and what you’re going through, is deeply flawed. Sobriety has given me this insight and the ability to truly become aware of my mental health.

Next time you find yourself wanting to escape the emotions that have been bestowed upon us as functioning human beings, ask yourself, aren’t I just feeling? Isn’t this the way I’m wired? Feeling is how we move through the world. It’s part of our health. Anything that tells us otherwise is repeating a tired societal story that continues to prevent people from living their healthiest lives.


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