Earlier, I was telling Abs that I have been feeling down for the last few days and I can’t get anything done, which is making me feel both useless and frustrated. “Yes, that is the vicious cycle of depression,” Abs reminded me. “What would you say to another Anxiety Sister having the same problem?” I took a few minutes to think about it and realized I would say that this cycle is the illness—that not being able to get things done was both a symptom and a result of a brain disorder. I would remind my Anxiety Sister to treat herself with empathy and kindness because nobody ever gets better by punishing herself. I would also help her pick one thing she wants to focus on for this week that may help chip away at the depression/anxiety cycle.
After I got off the phone, I felt a bit better because of two things: (1) the reminder that I am not alone—that we are a community that lifts each other up and struggles together and (2) immediate tangible help I can use to manage my anxiety/depression. I realized that knowing I had someplace to go for help has been such an important component of my recovery, and I am so grateful our “little” community (of thousands!) is there for me and for anyone else who struggles with mental health conditions.
Abs and I founded the Anxiety Sisters in order to break the stigma around brain illness. Those of us dealing with anxiety and depression often carry the burden alone. We may feel comfortable to ask a friend to pick up medicine for us when we have the flu, but not because our anxiety is so intense we cannot drive. We somehow feel less justified in asking for help for brain illness because there is so much misinformation and stigma surrounding it. As much as I know about anxiety disorders, I still find myself judging my own behavior—getting frustrated for not being able to just “snap out of it.” That’s how deeply the mental health stigma is ingrained—it exists both in the outside world and in our own minds.
A wonderful way to break the stigma in our own minds is to hear the stories of other sufferers. When another Anxiety Sister shares her struggles, I never think that she is lazy or somehow responsible for her illness. I know she is dealing with a legitimate medical condition which can be debilitating. What I feel for her is empathy and compassion and a desire to provide support in any way I can. And I can see, from our daily interactions, that so many others feel that way too.
When a community can be a safe place to share stories and experiences without the fear of judgment, a tribal intimacy develops. This connection is so powerful, it can lessen the loneliness and isolation brain illness so often produces. Our community has helped me realize that I need to look at myself with the same nonjudgmental compassion with which I see my Anxiety Sisters—and with which they so obviously see each other. When we see our anxiety as collective and not just individual, we begin to heal together.
Self-compassion is so hard to practice—especially when many people out in the world don’t see anxiety and depression as illnesses requiring treatment. What I’ve learned is that, through community, we model compassion for each other so that we may all get better at being kind to ourselves. And that is truly the first step toward ending the stigma, once and for all.