Social media is, as the cliché goes, a gift and a curse. I see women using phrases like “end of my rope”, “lost my zest for life”, “dying inside”, and “anxious all the time.” This is the gift of connection. Being able to reach out for help to those who are like minded and distant enough that you fear no reprisal is a gift to our generation. However, the curse is in the answer. We too often respond with the sound bite: choose joy.
Telling these women to choose joy is telling them that they are choosing to feel like “life isn’t the effort.’’ It implies that their mental struggles are inconsequential, and they must not be trying hard enough to be content. What should we be telling them? “You are so brave for reaching out. There is no shame in feeling this way, and you obviously need help. Go to the doctor. Your family practitioner can refer you to a mental health professional.” Simple, encouraging, shameless, and useful.
Joy is an emotional reflex. You cannot choose it. It just happens, just like none of these women are choosing to feel like they are dying inside. I get the colloquial meaning of this phrase: focus on the positive, dwell in a good state of mind. I wish it were that easy.
These women who are crying out for help are neurodivergent. Neurodivergent, in layman’s terms, is having a brain that functions out of the way our society has deemed normal. This includes people with all forms of autism, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia (innate) as well as PTSD, brain injuries, and long term use of drugs and alcohol (altered). Some call it mental illness.
Becoming neurotypical by “choosing joy” isn’t going to happen. Depression, anxiety, and other types of neurodivergence are not cured by positive thinking although it can help. It takes support, therapy, and often medication. Support is needed because neurodivergent people often feel isolated and guilty. We all need to accept that it is common for people of all walks of life to need mental healthcare and encourage everyone to share their experiences and get help. Therapy teaches coping mechanisms and gives us a rubric for understanding how the healing process works. Lastly, medication is not evil or always needed, although studies show the best outcomes for those who use both medication and therapy. On this note, diet is not medication. No amount of kale is going to balance an anxious brain. Diet is the foundation of mental and physical health, but it’s certainly not a cure!
I have to admit that this is a sore subject for me since I have a history of depression and am currently diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety.
To be very clear: I would choose joy if I could. I do not enjoy feeling feeling like my world is a Jenga tower and every move I make is another chance to bring it crashing down on me. Anxiety and depression try to control my actions. It tells me the the sweet mom I chatted with at the park couldn’t possibly want to exchange phone numbers and become friends so I hesitate to suggest it. It tells me that the compliments I get are actually backhanded and disguised criticism somehow even if I can’t figure out how so I doubt them.
Instead of choosing joy and trying to control my emotions (because again you cannot control emotions; they are reflexes), I control my actions. I go to my doctor even though I feel shame since I have a bed, a roof, clothing, high speed internet, a smartphone, a loving husband, and am close to my 4 sweet, well behaved kids. I take my medication religiously, and I never hesitate to tell someone reaching out for help that how they feel is not ok. I tell them my story from wanting to kill myself in college to walking into my doctor’s office when my baby was 6 weeks old to get treated for postpartum depression. I tell them that if they seek treatment with courage and honesty, they can heal. I tell them that no reason is needed for their neurodivergence. It simply is.