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May 8, 2020

Mental Health Awareness Month and Us

By Vega Subramaniam

Standing on BeachMay is Mental Health Awareness Month. To my fellow travelers along our bumpy, shifting, treacherous path of survival, I see you and salute you.

Job loss, financial stress, and social isolation: three of the biggest predictors of depression and suicide. Well played, dystopian universe. Well played.

On a personal note, early May—as a time to mark the value of mental health and to honor the role of friends and community in nurturing mental health—has layers of poignancy for me and for Mala. In early May of 2007, Mala tried to take her life. As it turns out, and to my everlasting relief, her life refused in no uncertain terms to be taken.

Which means that every year since then, early May has been a gift—to remind me what’s important. To give gratitude to my community. And to reconnect with what keeps me afloat.

In other years, reconnecting with what keeps me afloat is not a terrible struggle. This year, however, my eternal optimism has taken a pretty severe hit. We’re all watching the breathtakingly grotesque levels of malignant and calamitous…I mean, what words are there left for us to use? For the lynchings, the genocide-in-the-making? The words that history books will use decades from now?

And in the midst of it, we’re trying to “strategize” through the chaos. We who care about humanity are putting our best thinking and planning and collaborating into how to amass enough collective power to shape what is to come into something more humane, equitable, ethical.

Can I just take a moment to say: I am in awe of the movement activists who are still out there doing exactly that strategizing and mobilizing, no matter how short-term, no matter how uncertain the future, no matter how perilously close to ruin their own lives.

How do they do that? How do they do that?

How can I do that? My ability to pause and reconnect with what keeps me afloat matters this year more than ever.

When I think back to May of 2007, I remember wondering how Mala and I could go back to the previous normal. How I’d get my relationship back, my old Mala back.

Wrong questions. In retrospect, I’m extraordinarily grateful that we didn’t go back to before, the “before” us, the “before” Mala. As we clawed our way back up the cliff wall from the abyss into which we’d fallen, it was inevitable that we’d build new muscles, lean on each other in new ways, need new kinds of nourishment, rest, and perception.

Rio GrandeI remember bits and pieces of Mala’s journey up the cliff wall. The meds, the therapy. The steel embrace of our friends who locked their arms around us and didn’t let go.

And also, how important it was for Mala to radically change her criteria for success and the scope of her goals to the most minute, almost laughably manageable portions. When you’re experiencing that level of turmoil, achieving micro-goals equals success. No way she was going to be able to clean the whole dining table. But maybe she could clean a quarter of it. And then fall, exhausted, onto the couch—but with the knowledge that she managed to clean a quarter of the table. A new muscle built on the climb up the cliff wall.

During a recent conversation, a colleague was talking about how, as counterintuitive as it might seem, the enormity of the tragedy of this moment serves to inspire her, propel her forward. “What are we going to do?” she thinks, “throw up our hands and go home? No, of course not. The only way through is through.

The only way through is through, friends. With healing energies and external support. With the (figurative) embrace of loved ones who won’t let go. With new definitions of success and and measures for progress, that build new muscles and propel us forward.

To repeat: I see you and salute you.

p.s. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) and MHA (Mental Health America) are great sources of support and resources, if you haven’t come across them before.

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