7 Things I Wish I’d Known About Mental Health Before I Turned 40

By Heather Zinger
Guest Writer

Heather Zinger, Life Coach and Communications Consultant // Photo: Britta Trygstad of Ekta

When Ladyboss Midwest invited me to write a guest blog on “what I wish the Ladyboss audience knew about mental health,” I had to admit, I was pretty enthused. However, when I sat down to share my thoughts and experiences on the topic, I felt incredibly challenged.

First of all, this is basically how I spent the last 20 years of my life…

 

Secondly, you’re a diverse set of women with vastly differing life experiences. I knew instantly that I wouldn’t be able to speak to everyone’s experiences (nor am I willing to pretend that’s even possible).

So, let me just start with this:

I’m a 41-year-old, white, cisgender, spiritually open, heterosexual, middle class woman born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. I studied French and Intermedia Art in college. I’ve worked in tech (and about every other industry under the sun).

I talk a s*** load and have a bold, direct and quirky personality (I was once described as a Tasmanian devil…) I’m a twin (an estranged one at that), a sister, a child, a spouse and have exactly zero children and the same number of pets (zero). (Though I fantasize daily about getting one, which has now been supplanted by my very strong desire for a baby yoda, but like a real live one.)

I’ve had and/or have a number of autoimmune illnesses starting from age 4 onward (more or less in this order: Guillain Barre Syndrome, severe childhood Asthma, Grave’s Disease, (which after some hefty doses of radioactive iodine when I was 18 is now hypothyroidism. Fun!).

In addition, I grew up with alcoholism and undiagnosed and untreated mental illness in the home. And lastly, on my quest to find healing, I’ve received many diagnoses including depression and anxiety. Suffice to say, I’ve seen a lot of doctors in my day, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists (heretofore referred to as “shrinks”) included.

So what do all those diagnoses mean for my current life? Why am I someone who could be writing a blog about mental health?

Because I live with depression and anxiety and…I suspect I have another, as of yet undiagnosed, mental health condition.

via @mytherapistsays Instagram:

Ain’t that the truth, my Ladyboss mental health sisters out there? (Thank god it comes dressed up as bananas, right? Even my anxiety has a sense of humor!!! Waaahh!!! I hate them.)

So, yes, about that other condition…I’m in the process of seeking a psychiatric evaluation to confirm what I pretty much know to be the case.

Six hours of paperwork and six hundred dollars later…right? Let the party begin!

I treat my depression and anxiety with a blend of medication, lifestyle, creativity and large doses of humor.

So, if you haven’t guessed by now. I’m gonna hijack this post and talk about 7 things I wish I’d known about mental health before I turned 40. (Why only 7? Why not 120? It’s called a word count limit, ladies.)

A few other housekeeping items:

Caveat #1: I don’t and can’t represent everyone here so keep what you like and leave the rest so please resist the temptation to write me long diatribes on why I’m wrong and that I’m a horrible person because I didn’t represent your experiences because I’m telling you now loud and clear, You’re 100% right! You already won that argument! No hate mail required so get on with your coffee and pastries please, saving the yelling for those that truly deserve it – the highway merging illiterates. Give ‘em hell, sister!

Caveat #2: Though I’m not representing anyone else here except myself, I will be using the pronoun “you” instead of “one” as a generic pronoun to position my experiences as generic (even though I’ve already owned they’re not because I can’t speak for everyone!) Aaack. The dilemma!  Please know that my choice is stylistic rather than hypocritical. I want you to be engaged and entertained while reading this. And well, “you” makes for a better experience in my opinion.

Before I deep dive into my top 7 list, I need to share something so vitally important to me that it supersedes the limits of this blog: It’s NEVER too late to take care of your mental health. NEVER. EVER. EVER. (As long as you’re still breathing, of course.)

You’re never too old, or too young, or too high functioning (I’m staring at you Type A personality ladies right now), or not functioning enough. You’re never too drunk or too sober, or too this or too that or all that souped up totally fake BS baloney of excuses that prevents any of us from reaching out for help we deserve and need.

If you think and feel like somethings off, it probably is.

If your loved ones are telling you something’s off, then it probably is.

Without further ado, here are the 7 things I wish I’d known about mental health before I turned 40.

That high functioning individuals can also have mental health problems that would benefit from diagnosis and treatment.

I thought that it was only possible to have a mental health problem if I, a. lived on the streets, b. was doing drugs, c. was having chronic violent outbursts, d. couldn’t get out of bed for 2 weeks at a time for no apparent physical reason, e. couldn’t get or keep a job, or f. couldn’t hold a conversation. Obviously, I thought that only amoeba could have mental health problems. I never knew that the land of the high-functioning could also be rife with mental health issues, and that in fact, there’s a spectrum of severity when it comes to symptoms.

That I didn’t have to be close to dead for it to be clear that I was having mental health issues.

It wasn’t until I met my husband, volunteered as Board Secretary for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) North Dakota Chapter and worked for a youth mental health nonprofit that I actually began to get a clue that I might have legit mental health issues and that I could be functioning better (e.g. be happier). Who knew? (Not me, obviously.)

It wasn’t until a long-time friend, a trained Art Therapist and Counselor, said to me during one of our calls, “You sound depressed.” There was no fireworks-hammering-yelling-finger pointing-book throwing about it. Literally, she just stated an observation that somehow slipped through all my defenses and cracked me open. I knew she was right and that the time had come to do something about it.

I’m a reader so I got a kajillion books on depression from the library. I needed to hear about depression from the horse’s mouth, i.e. regular folks living with it, plus you know, some real science.

In the end, I only remembered one thing. That, I’m paraphrasing here, depressed people’s primary symptom isn’t just sadness, or numbness. About 80% of the time, their main feature is that they’re irritable and angry.

That blew my mind. I’d been chronically irritated and angry since I was 14 years old, which ironically coincides with how long I’ve probably had anxiety and depression. Go figure…

That was when I gave up the ghost. It was true. I was depressed (and angry and anxious and…)

That I can’t do everything on my own and sometimes, I just need professional help. 

I used to think that I could figure out everything on my own.

I used to think that I had to figure out everything on my own.

I used to think other people couldn’t help me.

I realized that maybe I couldn’t help myself.

I realized that I could pay a professional to help me.

I decided to do that.

The other day, a close friend of mine called to chat. She shared some changes she was making in her life to address some career issues. She also said this, “Then, I decided I was going to do what Heather [me] would do.”

“What does that mean?,” I asked, genuinely confused.

Her reply, “I’m going to hire a professional.”

That finding the right shrink would make all the difference.

It frustrates me to no end that there isn’t an easier process in place to help those with mental health issues trying to figure out how and what help to get for said issues. I mean, c’mon, most of us spend way more time getting properly sized for a bra than we do getting “sized” for the right therapist because guess what? It’s 100 million times easier. No, wonder I have so many bras…

In my experience, it’s important to find mental health professionals that are supportive, caring and strengths-focused. If you’re new to therapy, just do the best you can. Though it’s a lot of work in the beginning to figure out what therapist and treatment are a good fit, please know that it’s absolutely worth it and will pay off in the end.

I’d like to point out that for women of color trying to navigate the mental health care system (as well as society), the barriers they face are double, triple, quadruple, 100 million times different than what white women (and white folks in general) face. I comment on this more in the resources section and include a few local resources for women of color looking for mental health providers.

Please see the resources section at the end of the blog for more info on the steps I follow to find a shrink and for mental health services for those without health insurance and on limited budgets.

That getting a mental health diagnosis doesn’t ultimately define who I am or what I can do with my life.

I know, I know, mental health diagnoses are/can be scary. And as much as I want to punch diagnoses in the face, they serve two important functions: narrows down which treatments could be the most effective and allows health insurance to help with the costs.

It’s okay to have a diagnosis. You’re still a worthy human being, capable of living a purpose driven life and of feeling joy. Your diagnosis doesn’t define you just like no one thing really can. We aren’t just the sum of what happened to us (or what hasn’t), of our likes or dislikes, of our successes and failures, we are all bigger and more glorious than that.

Just like I’m not the pound of air fried potatoes I consume on a regular basis, you’re not the color of those blue jeans you wear daily like it’s your religion.

Most people can live very long, happy, healthy and productive lives with a chronic mental health condition. I have found these folks to be funny, witty, charming, quirky, truthful (like it’s going out of style), and unperturbed by things like watching a priest floss his teeth in public. (I saw this once and thought, “cool!”)

That meds are A-OK!

Over the course of 20 years, I’ve dumped a bunch of cash on alternative, natural remedies to only some avail. Sometimes, the only difference was that I smelled better (when really, all I needed to do was switch antiperspirant brands, which was equally effective at solving that pernicious problem. #sweatyhairygirlproblems).

I was that judgey, critical, woman who was like OMG, why are they putting all those nasty, harsh chemicals in their bodies???

Until I became a convert. Now, all I want are those “nasty, harsh chemicals.” (Amen. Hallelujah, right?)

How did that happen???

Honestly, look at it this way,  if I haven’t figured out by now how to completely manage my mental health symptoms via diet, exercise, reiki, other energy work, coaching, meditating silently for 10 straight days, therapy, gong baths, yoga and thyroid hormone adjustments, then it might just mean that it’s not gonna happen like that for me in this lifetime (and believe me, it took me 20 years to get here).

I’m tired of trying and pretending I can manage this on my own. I’m raising my white flag. I surrender. So, yes, give me the goddamn meds. I need them. Thank you very much.

Kudos to those of you who cracked the code on this for yourselves. There are Facebook pages and groups dedicated to your mental health experiences. (Peace be with you.)

I only have so much control over my brain, my mental health, my body, my environment, etc. It’s important to remember why I’m here on this planet at this particular time. Obviously, to get a live baby yoda AND to show up and love who’s in my life for me to love, to be of service and to have and share a lot of laughs.

I, personally, cannot do any of these four things when I’m locked in a 24/7, never ending arm wrestling competition with my thoughts, feelings, emotions, reactions, i.e. my mental health gone AWOL. Again and again, I’ve had to lay down my arms, surrender the battle, and find some comrades to help me crawl out of that trench. (Yes, there is a lot of war terminology going on there because the fight for my life and person again and again and again is REAL. I’m sure some of you can relate…)

If you’re able to find a right fit med, the results can be quite life changing. Though keep in mind that medication alone can’t resolve all symptoms. Sometimes you may need more skills (definitely me) and sometimes, it’s time to delve into your lifestyle habits since a healthy body helps support a healthy mind.

That diet and exercise are powerful medicines.

I’m not gonna lie. Having lunch has saved me from melting down on a number of occasions and yet, I still act like I don’t understand what a mouth and stomach are for from time to time…

I still think my functional neurologist said it best, when he shared,  “I hate to say this (though I really don’t because it’s good for you) but after dropping half a million dollars on my education, the answer is still diet and exercise.”

It sure sounds easy, doesn’t it? Eat your fruits and veggies, go walk around the block…then, why is it so dang hard to actually do it? And really, who has the time? And now, with COVID, who wants to brave supermarkets and gyms to stay healthy while increasing their risk of participating in the pandemic first hand?

Definitely not me.

I know a healthy diet and exercise make me a much more reasonable person when I actually do them. So this year, I swore I was going to crack the code on them both. My main partners in crime are a trusty air fryer and my bike (soon to be Peloton).

Now I realize that financially, air fryers and Pelotons are not options for a lot of people. That’s why it’s important to take the time figuring out what foods and forms of movement (e.g. exercise) make you feel better. If you’re not sure, just start experimenting. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s just best if it’s something you can commit to consistently over time (e.g. that you actually truly like it).

If you’re struggling with how to eat healthier, try making YouTube your new best friend. There are tons of people on there who LOVE to make healthy food and LOVE showing and telling other people how to do it for FREE. Ditto for exercise.

If you don’t know where to start, here’s a beginning Qigong video that I do daily. It calms me down while loosening me up. For a Ladyboss with depression and anxiety, what more could I want?

So, by the end of this blog, I hope that if you’re currently or previously have struggled with mental health issues that you feel less alone (cuz you’re in good company) and that you feel more empowered to get the help you need to get back on track with the life you’re meant to be living.

Resources

Educational:

If you’re feeling like you’re not as knowledgeable about mental health as you’d like to be, here are some of my favorite mental health educational resources:

  • NAMI
  • ADHD for Smartass Women
  • More info on mental health that represents the experiences of women of color, the LGBT community and Christians can be found here: list of more excellent podcasts.
  • Your Public Library – search mental health or by diagnosis
  • YouTube – search mental health or by diagnosis

A Note to Ladybosses of Color, LGBTQ community and Christians:

Yes, women of color can have mental health issues too. AND the same issues that they face in society such as racism, being economically undervalued and politically and scientifically (psychological research studies et al) typically follow them to the therapist (and doctors’) offices especially if the only options are filled by white folks.

So, it’s vital that women of color find therapists that have shared lived experiences so that when they go to focus on mental health they can without having to educate their therapist. If you’re a white therapist and want to truly serve women (and people) of color, please seek out the proper training and education to do so without causing further harm.

If you’re a woman of color living in the Fargo-Moorhead area, please feel free to reach out to Motherland Health and Paulette Walker for services and/or recommendations. Here’s some links to more mental health resources available to women of color.

One way to find the right shrink:

  • I talked to my primary care physician.
  • I asked my trusted primary doc for recommendations. (Caveat: sometimes they really don’t know or can’t give mental health recommendations except to check your insurance.)
  • I asked my FM area friends for recommendations.
  • I researched said recommendations online to learn more about them.
  • If none of the recommendations looked good, I researched (NAMI) to ballpark my symptoms to get a better idea of what treatments might be best and then checked out the Psychology Today Directory to find therapists who specialize in the treatments.
  • Next, I narrow down my list to 2-3 options.
  • I check to see if their services are covered by my insurance (Best to call them, who doesn’t cringe at surprise bills?)
  • I call my (covered) options, leave a synopsis of my issues I want to address and ask them if they take new clients.
  • If they’re not taking new clients, if I really really want to work with them, I beg them to take me (hey, it’s worked before). If I’m feeling open, I’ll ask them for a recommendation (please save me some time, right?)

If you don’t have health insurance, here are some local, more affordable mental health services options:

If you’re in need of immediate help (suicide ideation and planning are happening) and/or need help locating available mental health resources, please call FirstLink (2-1-1) or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). They’re fabulous and will help you.

The local nonprofit, Motherland Health (MH), offers free counseling in addition to free rides and childcare to make it even more accessible. A huge shout out to Simi Kasakwe and the MH team for making this available in our community.

The City of Fargo Southeast Human Services Center has sliding fees available for mental health services. Call them for more info.

The City of Moorhead’s Clay County Office also has a number of services. Here’s a link to their services for adults and children. They even have a Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response (so awesome!) for those living on their side of the Red River.

It seems that a lot of church clergy are getting more education and training in mental health these days, which is awesome! If this is where you feel safest, try talking with them first. However, be mindful that unless they’re a trained therapist/psychologist, you’ll still need to find additional psychological help from a person with the appropriate credentials. Becoming a therapist is a long, arduous training process for a reason. Respect that.

About Heather Zinger

Originally from the Chicagoland area, Heather moved to Fargo in 2012 to serve as the first Artist-in-Residence at the Roger Maris Cancer Center to make art by the bedside with patients. After leaving the position in 2014, she continued her work in community engaged art, project and organizational management, events planning, content creation, communications and marketing.

Heather has worked for over 10 years in startups, project management, marketing, and communications in industries as diverse as technology, healthcare, higher education, property and nonprofit management. She helps new projects and companies articulate their products and services, effectively connect and communicate with their clientele and keep the focus on delivering quality with integrity.

Her interest in mental health stems back to her own experiences with anxiety, depression and living with a chronic autoimmune illness. She’s a strong advocate for health and wellbeing and served as a board member on NAMI ND for multiple years and served as the Executive Director for Imagine Thriving, a youth mental health and wellness non-profit during its transition to Lutheran Social Services (LSS).