Are you okay? It’s a simple question. But for some reason, it can stir something inside of us. Cause an unsettling. An unexpected pooling of tears and a burning lump in your throat. Maybe it’s because this question does not generally come from a stranger. Most often, it is cautiously articulated from the lips of someone who knows you well enough to ask. A good friend or a spouse or a family member. When they do ask, they already know the answer. They are asking because it is the kindest way to express worry. To let you know that your delicately shaking hands and lack of focus are not going unnoticed. You are not okay.
When responding to this question, there are obvious and universal ailments that require little explanation. If you tell someone you are in pain from an injury, or having relationship or financial challenges, your words are usually met with empathy. A smile and a friendly pat on the arm. There is a sense of justification in being ‘not okay’ while struggling through this type of hardship. When you tell the concerned party what you’re dealing with, they will nod, maybe even offer a similar difficulty they, too, are enduring. They get you.
But there are other reasons to not be ‘okay’. Reasons that are difficult to find the words to express. I recently asked my close friend this loaded question. Because I knew she wasn’t. She told me that when someone is struggling like she is, when you open your mouth to tell the person if you’re okay, no words come out. Just the stream of tears that sprung to your eyes. The ones that, once they start, might never stop. Because how do you explain that you’re scared of invisible demons, and that some days - even though you don’t understand why or from what - all you want to do is hide. Then you realize you can’t hide from yourself. But still, you try. With any substance or action that might provide you with temporary relief. And that gets really ugly. People start asking if you’re okay. And you can’t pretend forever.
I am writing this column on October 10, which happens to be World Mental Health Day. The World Health Organization states that there are globally more than 300 million people suffering from depression, and more than 260 million live with anxiety disorders. Many suffer from both. This is not a small problem. It is not uncommon. So why is it so difficult to talk about? And why are some sufferers made to feel like mental health inflictions are a weakness, rather than an illness?
But I look around and I believe this is changing. Patients suffering from mental illness are beginning to speak out from all professions and walks of life. They are shedding the stigma of lacking strength, and they’re answering this difficult question boldly and bravely.
“No. I am not okay. I am ill. And you may think that because my life looks fine to you - that I have nothing ‘real’ to complain about - that this frightening condition I have can be conquered with a good pep talk and some exercise. Well, that is not the case. But, I’m fighting. I’m trying.”
And I say, bravo. Last month, a dear friend of mine from high school decided to end his life after battling mental illness for decades. Decades. His weary soul could take no more. Another difficult question that floated in the air as we congregated to celebrate his colourful and inspiring life was, “Why?” But this is yet another question surrounding mental illness where there are just no words. If only someone could answer it, the millions of sufferers could stop asking themselves the same thing. There is no ‘why’. There is only love, and support, and empathy. There are remarkable treatment centres and mental health professionals available for anyone brave enough to reach out. There is asking if someone is okay, and then listening. Not judging. Even if no words come out.
This issue of the Fernie Fix is dedicated to re-charging. In that spirit, make the effort to nourish and protect your mental health. If you feel yourself creeping closer to the edge, tell someone you’re not okay. Nothing is more important.