How to Help

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

The concept I want to describe is one that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, so bear with me here. Luckily, I have a couple of very insightful and thoughtful friends who understood the concept when I tried explaining it to them, so I’m borrowing their words.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to separate my depression from me. I demonized it and made it this big villain that wasn’t a part of me – it was a battle I had to fight, an enemy I had to destroy. Time and time again, I hear myself saying “I am not my depression” and how I’m not really myself when I’m anxious and depressed. I still stand by those statements…sort of.

I am not my mental illness, I am not exclusively my mental illness, but it is a massive part of me. It influences the way I act, the way I speak, the people I associate with. It’s in every deep breathing exercise I do, in every therapy session I pay for, in each conversation I have. It does not (always) consume me, but it plays an integral role in my life. As much as I would like to believe I am not defined by my mental illness, it defines a part of me. And that’s not to say that my mental illness has to dictate my life and I just have to accept that, but rather, it means acknowledging how this part of me is not a demon to destroy, but a wound that needs healing. It means acknowledging that though my mental illnesses have made life really hard, they’ve also allowed me to become a better listener, they’ve guided me towards people who have better intentions, they’ve taught me valuable lessons about the universe that some people may never learn. They’ve made me more fearless in knowing what I want and going after it.

I’m learning that because my mental illness is part of me, I have to learn to love it somehow before I can truly love myself. I have to love the beautiful bits, and the parts I think are ugly, and I have to try and see the beauty in the ugly. I can’t accept myself wholly or give myself love if I’m constantly vilifying a part of me that can’t be silenced or ignored.

Part of that process of loving all of me, is being loved by the people around me. Letting them love the good, the bad, the ugly. Being loved simply because of me, and not in spite of something else.

Let me make this part crystal clear: my mental illness is not something to be “looked over” or loved in spite of. I don’t need you to look past my struggles and mental illness in order to love me. I need you to see that there is ugliness in me, but that ugliness is just as worthy of love as the most beautiful parts.

I’m tired of the rhetoric that exists around being loved even though you have pain or baggage or struggles. I deserve better than “I love Ameera, but she has anxiety and depression”. It’s not something that diminishes how deserving I am of love.

I was really frustrated with this one day, and tried explaining it to a close friend. She understood what I meant immediately, and described it as needing people to say “Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”. It was a simple concept I learned in improv class – that when someone offers something in a scene, you accept it. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes the scene harder or easier, you accept it, and you work through the scene together.

Moving from language of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, but I still love her” to messaging of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, and I love her.” It’s reaffirming that I can be loved with what I have, rather than mental illness being something that should detract from the amount of love I am worthy of.  It’s a mixed bag, and you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get.

Another example is when I have a bad day or I’m going through a rough patch and feel bad about it, and people (with only the best intentions) respond with how they know how I really am, and they don’t judge me for this part. They see that I’m actually this happy, funny, lively person and it’s “just the depression talking.” I really, really appreciate the sentiment that I am not my illness, and sometimes my depression and anxiety make me act differently. However, that depression and anxiety is a part of me too. They may be a part I try to hide a lot more, but they’re a part of my journey and my experience. They are not just something to be overlooked or ignored.

When we make our mental illnesses something to be loved in spite of, or we allow them to be ignored so we can be loved, we create the perfect breeding ground for shame. Shame that makes us hide who we are, shame that makes us hide our pain and our struggles, and shame that makes us feel unworthy of the love we need and deserve. It fosters guilt that we can’t be “enough” because we deal with these issues. And it’s not right. No one should be made to feel more isolated and guilty and ashamed because of their mental illnesses. There’s already enough of those feelings because of the mental illness alone, we don’t need the problem exacerbated because it’s easy to love the “good” and hard to love the “bad”.

I realize I’m basically contradicting myself by saying my mental illnesses don’t define me but also they totally do, and I also recognize that it’s difficult to be a positive support when you have to navigate a paradox as complex as this one. This journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s easier when we’re in it together. Even if the people around me don’t know what to say, just knowing that they can love me with or without my mental illnesses, because it has no bearing on how they feel about me, is enough. Reminding me that depression and anxiety don’t have to be looked over and brushed under the rug in order for them to still think I’m great speaks volumes.

Regardless of if you deal with mental health issues or not, think about who you love. Do you love all of them? Do you love them through the messier parts? Do you show up when not showing up is easier? If the answer is no, think about how you can make that move from “yes, but”, to “yes, and”.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, and you feel like people have to love you in spite of what you deal with, or you feel you have to hide the hard parts so that you don’t lose that love, you’re not alone. That fear is totally valid. I hope we can learn to love the beautiful bits and the ugly bits of one another, and see the ugly bits as beautiful in their own way, so that we can break down the walls and boundaries built by bricks of shame and guilt. I hope you remember that you have pain and struggles, and you are loved. Not despite it. Not in spite of it. Not when it’s ignored. You are simply loved. I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you.

“Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”.

Keep Surviving by Living.

The Pressure of Recovery (and tips to help!)

Some of closest people in my life have seen multiple versions of myself over the years. They knew me before mental illness was a part of my life, they knew me when I was in the thick of my depression and suicide attempts, and they know me now.  If you ask someone about me, they might say how I think I’m really funny (and if they’re in a good mood they’ll admit they think I’m funny too). They’ll probably think about my intelligence, or my love of craft beer, or other parts of myself that I choose to showcase more than others. And despite openly talking about my struggles with mental health, it’s probably not the first thing they see.

I’ve designed it this way. I wouldn’t want to be seen as my mental illness (even though I talk about it literally all the time, sorry pals, I don’t intend to shut up about it anytime soon 🙂 ) .

The issue is that when I talk a lot about the strides I’ve made to get better and recover, people forget about the harsh realities of my mental illness that pop up when I least expect it. They forget the bad days can strike at any time, and they do.  They still seem surprised that so many years later, I’m not “better.”

I’m not better. It doesn’t go away. Even when I’m laughing and smiling and having a good time, it hasn’t gone away completely. I may not be as bad as I once was, but that doesn’t mean I’m good. Just because you don’t need a hat and mitts when it’s not snowing anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need a jacket. We all bundle up after the blizzard too, because it’s still cold out. So I’m not freezing, but I’m still cold. We still see mental illness as something that gets better and goes away, like an infection or cold, and don’t accept that it could be something we live with every day like diabetes or arthritis. We always hope mental illness will go away, yet we never go to someone with diabetes and say “oh, I really hope you beat this soon! You’re so strong, you can do it.” Saying that makes it sounds like if it doesn’t go away, we weren’t strong enough to make it go away.

My friends and family are wonderful, and I love them dearly, but they’re often the ones building that pressure when they ask if I’m better, or tell me how happy they are that I am better. This type of pressure comes from people meaning well, but they actually make me feel guilty about my recovery being a non-linear process.

Now, as you’re reading this you’re probably thinking “shit. I’ve said that.” Don’t worry, I’ve said it too, but here are some shifts in language that I’ve found really supportive and helpful. Here’s a great trick on good days as well – celebrate the wins and accomplishments of the good day, rather than just the good day itself.

Language Shifts on Good Days

“I’m glad you’re better” –> “Sounds like you’ve had a few good days”

“Yay, you’re cured!” –> “I’m so happy you feel the worst is over, I’m here if it’s hard too though.”

“You’re finally better!” –> “I know it’s been a long process, but I’m here for the long haul.”

“Phew, glad that’s behind us.” –> “I know you’ll have ups and downs, and that’s okay.”

“I knew you’d get here if you tried hard enough!” –> “I know how hard you try to have good days, and I know how much harder you have to try on the bad days.”

Basically, you’re just trying to reassure the person that you’re excited for their good days and for the times that they’re better, but you’re also totally okay with sticking around for the bad ones. When I’m feeling better and having a good day, my biggest fear is that it’s not going to last, and that I know I’ll have another bad day again (as we all do, to varying degrees).

I also find it really helpful when my friends point out small wins – a friend and I often do this for each other when we’re having good OR bad days. We recognize accomplishments, regardless of how big or small, and celebrate them. On a bad day it’s something like “YAAASSS, YOU ATE A MEAL!”, and on the good days it might be “YAASS, HIT THE GYM!”. We’re proud of each other both times. When I get treated with the same amount of enthusiasm and respect for what I’m capable of on good days and bad days, I feel less ashamed of the bad days, and less pressure to hide them.

That being said, don’t be the annoying person who acts like the bad days are good, because they’re not. I need my support system to acknowledge how hard it is, and how it’s okay to be sad and scared and upset that I’m having a bad day because it’s really hard.

Language Shifts on Bad Days

“Tomorrow will be better” –> “I know today is really hard, how can I make it a bit better?”

“Just try going to the gym, you’ll feel much better” –> “You’re having a hard day, is there anything that you can think of that might help?”

“I know how you feel.” –> “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

*When you don’t know what to say, so you say nothing* –> “I don’t know what I can say or do to help. Is there anything I can do that would be helpful?”

“it’s just a bad day, don’t worry about it.” –> “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this will be temporary. You’ve gotten through it before and you will again. Until then, I’m here for you”

“Come out and have a good time! The distraction will help.” –> “Would you be up to coming out if you think a distraction would help? Or I can come over to distract you or talk about it? You’re not alone.”

“Let’s have some fun and get your mind off it.” –> “I’m here to sit with you in the darkness if that would help. If you’d prefer to have fun, we can do that too.”

“Did you forget your meds?” –> Just. Don’t.

“Call your therapist.” –> “Did you want to talk about anything? I know I’m not as good or qualified as your therapist, but I’m willing to listen until you can talk to them.”

“You have to eat” –> “Have you eaten anything? Can I bring something over? I can leave it outside and we don’t even have to see each other if you don’t want company.”

“I hate seeing you like this” or “I hate when you have bad days” –> “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. I wish I could make it easier for you, but it’s totally okay to not be okay sometimes.”

Basically, by not making the person feel bad on their bad days, and showing up to listen, care, and just acknowledge their struggle, you’re removing the pressure for them to be okay all the time.

So here’s the point I want to make: I feel a ton of pressure to be better, and the fact that I’m not better makes me feel really guilty and ashamed sometimes. Actually, most of the time. Recovery (I hate that word) Progress is not linear, so extra good days don’t mean I won’t have extra bad days anymore. Dealing with mental illness doesn’t look like climbing a mountain – it looks a lot more like surfing. I’m working on accepting that being cured or better may not be a reality for me, and that’s okay. I’m becoming okay with it, and I need the people who love me to be okay with it too. It’s not something to be sad about, it’s just how it is. Some people will have depressive episodes and be okay later, and others won’t. Some people will have their anxiety virtually go away completely with the right therapy and meds and coping strategies, and others won’t. It’s okay. It’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have dealt with a mental illness at one point, it’s okay to struggle with your mental health before, now, or in the future. It’s okay, because we all struggle a bit, some of us more than others. Most of all, it’s okay because we can all love and support each other a bit more to ease that pain even just a tiny bit.

Keep Surviving by Living.

What A Bad Day Looks Like

Since coming out about having depression, and about my suicidal past, I’ve been lucky to have people around me who have promised to always be there on the bad days. The thing is, I’m still not quite ready to let people fully see my bad days. It’s not quite shame because I know I can’t help it, but it’s more like I don’t want to put them through the agony of seeing me so miserable. The days come and go as they please, without warning or regular timing, as if a silent storm that may not seem to do much damage, but enough in a row can cause substantial damage. Some days I may wake up fine, and suddenly I’ll be hit in the face with a ton of bricks, knocking me back and taking me utterly by surprise for no apparent reason, and other days I’ll wake up and instantly know that it’s not going to be an easy day.

One thing people who don’t have depression wonder about is how it feels to be depressed, especially on the bad days. You can’t see my depression by looking at me, and there are no measurable symptoms, so it’s difficult to explain what bad days are like. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think about the best way to explain it and looked for other people’s explanations of what depression feels like, but I can’t find one that quite fits. Some say it’s like being weighed down, like there’s a ton of bricks on your chest or attached to your limbs, while others say everything is just dark. That’s partially true, but doesn’t really explain how it is for me. You see, my worst days somehow always happen when it’s bright outside. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there are plenty of opportunities to have a good time. In that sense, there is no darkness – my world is bright but I’m dark inside. Sometimes it feels like I’m hollow or empty inside, but that black hole of nothingness within me is full of something I desperately want to get rid of but can’t label. I suffer through all this in silence, because other people can’t see it. They can’t feel the paradox of being filled with darkness and being hollow at the same time, they can’t hear my horrible thoughts, and they can’t see the energy being sucked right out of me by just existing. (more…)

Support for those currently struggling

With the emergence of mental health/illness awareness becoming more prevalent, there are countless resources available to those struggling with any mental illness, suicide, depression, bipolar, anxiety, panic, the list goes on. However, with all these resources, it’s hard to know which one works the best, and it differs from person to person. I probably tried at least 15 different resources to find the one that worked best for me, and I am lucky that there is a vast variety of resources, so if I didn’t like one, I still had so many.

The emergence of online resources is incredible, because many people are unable, or unwilling, to pick up the phone and call a crisis centre. Here is a link to one of the best compilations of resources available to people contemplating suicide, or who struggle with suicidal tendencies:

Here is another link to Mental Health Canada, with a list of links and resources to what’s available in Canada:

If you’re currently in a crisis, or are concerned that you may face a crisis in the future, consult this list of resources for anything from mental health concerns, to self abuse, to elder abuse:

The Canadian Mental Health Association provides a ton of PDFs and brochures to offer assistance to people who are struggling, including college students, high school students, and those facing difficulties with job retention:

Do NOT forget that you are NOT alone. There is ALWAYS help. There is ALWAYS hope. There is ALWAYS a good way out of a crisis. If you’re at a serious risk to yourself, don’t hesitate to call 911 and help will always be there.

Keep Surviving by Living. 


30 Days of Mental Illness Awareness – Days 8 to 11

Day 8: What age you were diagnosed at? At what age do you think your symptoms began? (You can make a timeline)
I was officially diagnosed with conversion disorder in the spring of 2013, although my symptoms showed up in late 2012, so I was 18 at the time. Despite the fact that my seizures and such didn’t start until I was 18, when my brain had close to fully developed, conversations with my family and sister especially indicate that there were some signs that my brain didn’t always connect emotionally. For example, sometimes when I should have been sad about something, I would get really angry instead, or during something really exciting, I just wouldn’t really get excited (this one drove my sister nuts). I was 19 when I was diagnosed with depression and placed on anti-depressants, although I’m positive my symptoms started when I was around 13 years old, but I never got the help I needed for it until I was 19 and it was almost too late. (more…)

Teach the Teachers

I was recently asked to create a post about how teachers can help their students who they believe are suffering from depression. I had to think about this one a bit, because I never really thought of it. My depression really hit me in university, and I received absolutely no support from my professors. When I missed school because I was spending time in a mental health facility, the most I got from my professors were requests for proof or suggestions to ask classmates for notes. As a result, I never considered that teachers or professors could be a support. Thinking back to when I was in junior high and high school when I faced my first bout of depression (albeit not nearly as serious as it became years later) I think teachers could have made a huge impact.

The first thing that teachers should recognize is this: your class doesn’t matter. That sounds a little harsh, so let me rephrase. When there is a student who debates whether to get on the bus to school or jump in front of it, their unfinished problem set, or incomplete lab report really doesn’t matter. Coming to school depressed, faking that smile and struggling to engage is a huge challenge for many young people with depression, and being told “sorry, no excuses, if it’s late it’s a 0” really doesn’t help things. Of course, it isn’t sufficient to just forget about homework every time a kid says they’re depressed, because it’s a term used very loosely.

Most teachers will know, there are often students who don’t have people rooting for them. For me, encouragement from teachers was huge and I thrived on knowing someone was in my corner – and I had a great family to support me as well!

I would have loved if teachers offered a “talk to me” policy, instead of more strict policies. Everyone has crazy stuff going on in their lives, and if my teachers had a rule where we could work something out if I didn’t finish my homework, I would have learned a lot more. Teachers usually end up staying after school or coming early for tutorials. Instead of giving them an automatic 0, making them feel more depressed and learning nothing, offer to work through the assignment with them in a tutorial.

I was lucky that I had great friends who helped me through every single assignment that I had missed, but university is different. My assignments were bigger and not as frequent – high school has homework due practically every day. I missed countless lectures and caught up on my own, but high school absences go on your permanent record.

Our education system has close to nothing to help students with mental illness. Guidance counsellors serve as university advisors, and students usually don’t want to go to their school nurse or counsellor for help. For many students, they feel like just a number, a crippling idea when you’re depressed.

Not everyone is ready to work and participate every day. Students with mental illness usually aren’t stupid – in fact, it’s more likely that they’re extremely intelligent. In my case, missing school because I was depressed made my depression worse! Offer students options, because it’s okay to miss class if they try to learn or have a concrete reason.

Teachers see their students more than most parents see their kids. If teachers pay a little closer attention, and try to get to know their students as actual people, they could probably make a huge difference. Don’t treat us, especially the ones who may be at risk, as if we are all the same. We’re not. We have different struggles and different reasons, not all of which can be explained by a concrete doctor’s note. I had teachers who I felt really comfortable with, and I did everything I could to do my work even if I felt really depressed. Why? Because they cared, they showed me my voice mattered.

Depressed people often fixate on the negative, so imagine being a depressed student who constantly sees red pen with criticism all over their page. Try positive reinforcement, give compliments, hell, give them a sticker! Encourage more dialogue with your students on a person-to-person basis, not just a “I-write-your-report-card” basis.

Overall, teachers are amazing people who want nothing more than to educate children and help students become the best version of themselves. Those students can’t do that if they’re depressed, but teachers really have the ability to step in, and be a positive fixture in their students’ lives. To this day, I am grateful to every teacher who encouraged me and coached me when I was younger, because it’s how I am in a position today where I can manage a full courseload, a serious mental illness, and make time for whatever else I want to accomplish.

Keep Surviving by Living

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I’ve received support through my depression from a number of different people. When dealing with a person who has a mental illness like depression, it’s hard to know what kind of support is the best. I made an earlier post of how to help, but I’d like to talk about the support I’ve received from other people that are a little more complicated. I’ve broken it down into three main categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

This is the type of support that really helps you get to where you want to be – on the road to recovery. For me, the good support largely came from doctors, nurses and other trained professionals who were there to provide stable support and really understood the background of the illness itself. Being supported made me feel safer, like I wasn’t alone, and helped me learn to support myself and be more independent. I also found my sister to be a huge support for me – she understood my life, my upbringing, my mentality, and was there to listen and help me address my issues without judging me. Sometimes you need support from people who just know a bit about you, without you having to explain it.

The Bad

Inevitably, there were people who I categorize under “The Bad”. These are the ones who didn’t support me at all – didn’t acknowledge it once they knew, didn’t care, or didn’t see how important it was. The people in this category often were people I thought were good friends, the type who were more than eager to hang out just for fun, but didn’t know how to be a friend for the real stuff. And you know what? That’s okay. Some people really just don’t know how to deal with mental illness, so they avoid it altogether. I have things I don’t like talking about, like needles or bugs, so if it comes up, I’d rather just not deal with it. A word to the wise though: depression isn’t contagious – just because I’m depressed doesn’t mean you need to walk on eggshells around me or get quiet when I’m around. I’m still the same person I was before you knew, you just know that I have this illness now. While I would never be angry that someone didn’t have the capacity to handle my mental illness, I do sometimes get upset when I think about how my illness has now put a barrier on that friendship – correction, their knowledge of my illness has put a barrier on our friendship. There is more to me than my depression; I don’t bite and I haven’t forgotten how to smile.

The Ugly

This is the trickiest type of support. It’s the kind that comes from a good place, but ends up making things worse. I have no idea how to tell these people they’re really no help at all and that sometimes the words they say with good intentions can sometimes set me off.

I’ve broken this part down into further categories that I’ve experienced to make it easier to understand.

The Worry Wart – These are the people I always have to choose my words carefully around. The type that look at me as if I’m about to explode any minute like I am a ticking time bomb. They make me feel like I need to be under constant observation because I can’t be trusted. That may have been true at one point for me, but it isn’t anymore. I can’t recover if people don’t place trust in the idea that I will recover, despite bumps in the road. Keep in mind that when I say “recover”, I don’t mean “cured”. Depression is a part of me that won’t disappear, but my recovery is a term I use for being on the right track again for my own life, though my track is paved quite differently from yours.

The Quick Fix – When I was first in the hospital, and for about a week after my release, I had tons and tons of support. Similarly, when people first found out about my depression, they were quite supportive. Eventually, after about a week or so I’d say, these people thought I would have been fixed by then and forgot about my battles. Now I’m not asking that people ask me every day for a year where I’m at with my recovery, but the quick fixers don’t seem to realize that it’s a very long process, and even though I may seem okay because I have lots of good days, doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days and nights. Remember, depressed people are the best actors, and it’s hard to stop acting when you’ve gotten so good at it.

The Analyzer – Mental Health Professionals sometimes have a tendency to analyze every single word I say, and it can get pretty annoying. I’ve also received support from people who are constantly hanging onto every word I say, as if there’s more weight to my words than there really is. For example, I may be frustrated and having a bay day and say “I am so done with this”, which will lead to a slew of questions about what it is exactly that I am done with. Colloquial phrases like “Ugh I could just die right now” that people use so lightly suddenly have so much weight when I casually say them to an analyzer. Sometimes it gets a bit frustrating having to explain that not every word that comes out of my mouth is literal.

The Disappearing Act – You know the saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”? Well, that’s exactly what this person does; they get going…right out the door. These always really hurt me, because it takes a lot for me to actually open up, especially about something that makes me feel so vulnerable. There were a lot of people who said “I’m here for you” “Talk to me” “Please open up” and when I finally did, they had nothing to say and never brought it up again. It could be as small as me sending a long text, finally trying to articulate my feelings, something that doesn’t come easy to someone with conversion disorder, and receiving no response. 3 days later, I’d get a text back, saying something like “Heyyyyy sorry! What’s up?” and just like that, they had vanished and reappeared again, with no mention of their disappearance.

The Know-It-All – Empathy is one of those things where I find there to be a very fine line between showing me I’m not alone, and belittling my problems. The magnitude of the despair I felt was unimaginable, and I have no way to express what it felt like. I would try my best to explain how sad I was, but I’d never do it justice. Sadly, it’s something you really can’t understand unless you’ve been there yourself. The support I got from know-it-all’s was really annoying, because I always felt they made my problems seem so trivial. Their responses would usually go something like this “OMG, I totally know how you feel! I get so depressed too, like when my boyfriend and I broke up, I was SO depressed.” Well, its unfortunate that you felt deeply sad about a situation where being sad is appropriate, but that is nothing compared to what I go through. See, I can’t label WHY I’m depressed, I just AM. Don’t ask me why I’m depressed, because my guess is as good as yours – not very good at all.

The Solution Maker – No, this isn’t a person who mixes two liquids to get something new. Up until now, most of the “ugly support” I’ve referenced has made me feel more isolated or misunderstood. This one is particularly dangerous and was the kind I encountered the most. It was very dangerous for me to get this kind of support, because people would tell me what I needed to do differently to make my depression go away. They would try to find solutions for me, which is a really kind thing to do, but it made me feel way worse, and reiterated the idea that I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t trying hard enough, I was too weak, I needed to change. It made my illness my fault, which is entirely false, and it took me far too long to realize that. I would go to friends looking for support, desperate for some love and care, and I would get told everything I was doing completely wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I was told “well, you have to have a positive attitude” or “you’re the only one who can change this for yourself”, or possible the worst of all “you’re never going to get anywhere if you pity yourself and are negative about everything”. Please, if you encounter me or anyone else feeling hopeless and worthless, do not try to give them this type of advice. It nearly destroyed me, and it’s taken a lot to get to a place where I can say, I am doing everything I can to tackle my depression.

Remember, there is no perfect support, but just showing someone you care, is almost enough. Write a thoughtful note, tell them they’re doing well, point out their strengths, and most of all, hug them and tell them they’re okay.

Keep Surviving by Living.