I’ve written numerous articles on the importance of mental health and expressing the fact that “It’s okay, to not be okay.” I believe this wholeheartedly, but often times when I find myself writing articles and reflecting back on a challenging moment or week that I had had – I do it while I am in a better mental state analyzing my past feelings. Today I’m flipping this article on its head because as I write this I am definitely not okay in the feelings I have about my mental well-being at present, which feel wildly different than feelings expressed in hindsight. I think both perspectives are valuable and I offer you today a glimpse into what’s really going on in life and how I am attempting to handle it.
I find great comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my feelings because I get dozens of messages a day from folks expressing thanks for being extremely open with what I go through as a C6 quadriplegic who is dependent on other human beings to take care of me on a daily basis.
What prompted me to write this article was Naomi Osaka. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this young lady, but she is a professional Japanese tennis player and has been ranked number one in the Women’s Tennis Association. She is dealing with a lot of the mental stresses that undoubtedly come along with being a top professional athlete in her field. Just the other day she did not want to partake in a press conference for her own mental well-being and was penalized with a $15,000 fine for not talking to the media after a match. There was an enormous amount of support around the globe acknowledging the importance of mental health from the public, sponsors, and corporations due to the fact that she was honest with yourself, and the world.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade learning to adapt, train, push forward, and fight for survival on a daily basis to, not only accept this life of spinal cord injury, but to thrive in it. For the most part, I believe I’ve done pretty well and professionally I seem to have the ability to seamlessly keep striving for greatness even when I am faced with strikingly devastating defeats.
In my personal life, especially the last few weeks, it feels as though life has been crumbling around me. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability as I am sure many of us feel this way, like failures, whether you’re a single parent trying to handle multiple children on your own, a high-powered CEO trying to meet quarterly profits, or a starving artist trying to make ends meet – we all have the ability to crumble as human beings. Now, it’s how we get back up that of course defines us.
I have always been a realist and live in a world of practicality. I allow myself to dream, but live in a world where I am acutely aware of my limitations, and have successfully been able to navigate within this life to the best of my ability.
However, over the last few weeks my caregivers have been out for the count for various personal reasons, my mother’s quite ill, my husband is there, but trying to work himself, and I feel, well, utterly defeated. I know it will pass. Everything passes, but when you’re in the moment when a dark cloud is hanging over your head you feel completely helpless. So, it’s hard to see beyond the forest when you’re stuck in the trees.
I feel as though I am running around the same tree and just can’t seem to make it out. I was in bed this morning bawling my eyes out willing my legs to just move so I could take care of my damn self — full well knowing this was not going to happen. However, I kept trying to make those little feet move so I could help myself, and not have to wait for somebody who was sick or sleeping to help me. Most of my entire network has been out for the count and I feel, well, defeated in a word.
Of course it will pass, it always passes, but nothing passes without your own tenaciousness to make a change. This got me thinking. People who suffer from serious ongoing depression or mental illness often get judged so harshly by the majority of folks.
I know I will get out of this, but in this moment I can’t see a way forward, which started to make me ponder about those with very severe mental illnesses. We are so quick to judge as human beings what we do not understand. When you have your proverbial “shit” together it’s all too common to look at another person who is struggling for long periods of time why they can’t just get it together. When you have this dark cloud over your head you just can’t see a way forward no matter how hard you may try. You may have an incredible support network around you, but in the moment, a moment of complete darkness, it’s very challenging to see the sunshine and rainbows that everyone else is trying to get you to see.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much love or light you have surrounded around you. It reminds me of that 90’s commercial for some sort of depression medication where you saw this little dude with this little grey cloud surrounding him and raining only on him. They then advocate some magic pill and everything will be right in the world. Some people do need medication because it really does help them. I am not one of those people because I don’t suffer from depression, but I go through bouts of anxiety and I would say seasonal depression; especially when the network of people around me who have to take care of me just crumbles.
It’s nobody’s fault, but being a dependent human being who relies on consistency and a strong network, it can feel like a crushing defeat with no way out. When I was lying in bed this morning I wanted all the able-bodied people in the world to just think critically about what they have. I wanted everyone I know to pick up a glass with their perfectly working fingers; sit up in bed on their own and put their feet on the floor to wiggle their toes; go to the bathroom and pull their pants down because they simply could; or simply stand up to do that really great stretch when you put your arms above your head and just feel all the muscles in your body twist, and turn.
I know I’ve handled my injury with grace and elegance and continue to do so, but I’m not perfect. I really pride myself on positivity and persistence when I wake up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and I create a household where I try to have those around me mimic the same attitude even if I’m feeling utterly exhausted or in extreme pain. I know positive people create positive people and that’s really important to me. However, this week, oh this week, I just can’t do it. It never usually lasts more than a week, but when you’re in the middle of it, you just have to ride out the storm.
Every fiber in my being wants to be back to being my bouncy self, but knowing that I should just accept defeat this week because it’s okay goes against every fiber of my being. I had to cancel a lot of key appointments and obligations I had because, well, spinal cord injury literally kicked my ass and is doing so as we speak – physically, emotionally, mentally, and probably metaphysically. The one thing I know about me is that next week I can double down and get everything I need to get done, which I suppose is one of my superpowers.
I think what keeps me going is the fact that even though I’m honestly scared on a daily basis for my physical safety when I don’t have control over other human beings, their life situations, if they get sick, or if they just don’t show up — my mental training over the last 10 years, which I work at every single moment of every single day, has taught me that life has a weird way of eventually working itself out.
The challenge I have is to accept, in this moment, right now, that I am a mess. I hate even writing that out loud because I know I have become a positive beacon and hope for so many in the community. However, if we don’t show our vulnerabilities, just as Naomi Osaka did, it makes most of us in society feel diminished or like failures because we all have people we will look up to who are strong, and sometimes believe that they are infallible. None of us are. It’s okay to not be okay, but my mental wiring is telling me to just get it together “Ali,” and fight through it. I live in fighting mode, but damn, I don’t have any fight this week. I know that’s okay, but I struggle with it. I really want anyone to know who looks up to certain people in their life that no matter how rosy their lives may look or appear from the outside — they have their real struggles too.
There are certain people in my life who would come over in a heartbeat to help me, which is so welcomed, but they really just don’t know how to physically take care of me. I’m talking the nitty-gritty helping me go to the bathroom, getting me dressed, giving me a shower, etc. This requires caregiving whether that’s someone you hire, family, friends, etc. This takes time and I can’t just teach this in the blink of an eye. In times like this I have to accept that I have lost control and I need to amend my week to down tools as best I can because there’s only so much I can physically do for work if my body is not taken care of. One depends on the other.
If you read this and can relate in any manner I want you know that even though I am going through what I’m going through at the moment, I am always here to listen. Even in my state I get tremendous joy from helping people whether that be issues with insurance, sexuality, disability, mental anxiety, or anything in between. We just have to be kinder to each other as human beings because while mental health and the acknowledgment of it is on the rise in this country, we are just not there yet with respect to understanding the inner struggles we each may be dealing with on any given day.