Navigating mental health

Rebecca Gerster playing her guitar. Music has been a huge help for her in combating depression and anxiety --- (Photo courtesy of Adam Dietrich)

In honour of Bell Let’s Talk, Times-Herald reporter Jane Gerster and her sister Rebecca open up about depression, anxiety in the family

Several years ago on a chilly October Sunday, I’m walking to work when my phone rings. It’s my mum, calling to tell me that my dog is dead. She says Freya – a giddy black Poodle named after the Norse goddess of love and fertility – was in pain, her stomach flipped, and she had to be taken to the emergency vet clinic. My mother put her down.

Then my mum tells me that my youngest sister, Rebecca, is going to the hospital for a little while. She’s depressed and I know this. The hospital stay is her choice, a good choice, and I know this too. But an official diagnosis only came after I left for university so the bulk of the responsibility, the bulk of the understanding, the bulk of the lived experience, has been on my mum, my dad, and Emma, my younger sister still living at home. Until this moment, Rebecca’s depression has existed in a world separate from mine. My parents called to say things like, “Rebecca’s had a bad week, we’re getting help” and I said things like, “can I call you back? I have class in a few minutes.”

I’m already crying for Freya while I walk and now I’m crying for Rebecca. I’m thinking, damn, this is a lot more serious than I thought. I tell my mum I have to get to work and turn my phone off.

The Rebecca then isn’t much like the Rebecca now. The Rebecca I know now still struggles, sure, there are bad days, plenty of tears and anxiety. But the Rebecca I know now has a handle on her mental health: she talks confidently about it even as she struggles. So in honour of Bell Let’s Talk, I’m going to turn the microphone over to my sister. I’m going to let Rebecca offer up some of her best advice for how you can be supportive of the people in your life who struggle with anxiety or depression.

How People React

I’ve had a few different kinds of reactions from people when they find out about my mental health:

— There is the person who doesn’t believe in mental illness. These people suck, but there is pretty much nothing I can do about them so I try to just ignore them.

— There is the person who is somewhat baffled by your mental illness. Either they have an idea in their head of what it is and don’t really understand why you might need something that is outside of that conceptualization, or they just don’t really understand how it works.

— There is the person who has some experience with people with mental health issues or who has studied them in some way. Emphasis on “people” in plural. They understand that what they know might not apply to me and are also not likely to take things personally when I’m kind of insensitive. And I am. Sometimes it’s just me being a jerk, but a lot of the time I sink into this buble of mental illness and I am selfish and insensitive.

—‑ There is the person who is just up for anything. They are totally upfront about their lack of knowledge but they are trusting that you know what you need and they do their best to help you. These people are awesome. I love these people.

On “It Gets Better”

I have always hated when someone tells me, “It gets better.” I imagine I’m not the only one that feels that way, but most people I’ve met seem to find comfort in that – the idea that someone else knows what you’re going through, that you’re not alone. I’ve told my mom about this, I’ve told pretty much everyone about this, and maybe jumped down their throat about it whenever they star to veer the conversation in that direction.

When I told my mom, I confessed that I wasn’t really sure why someone saying the words “it gets better” is so upsetting to me. I mean, I knew why. It made me feel like my mental illness was being belittled, like tons of people struggle with this and they all get better so obviously you will too. Except, maybe you don’t.

What if I don’t get better? For the record, I did get better. I am still getting better. But it still feels like the height of arrogance for someone to come up to me and say “it gets better” as if they know exactly what my experiences and my struggles and feelings are.

Trust

Trust is the single most important thing to me in my fight against mental illness. I needed trust. I still need it. I need people to believe me when I say that I am mentally ill. I need people to believe me when I ask them for help. I also need people to trust that it’s not their fault.

How To Be Helpful

I don’t know what any person is going to find the most useful. Some things I could probably have survived without, even though they made it easier. Some things I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have survived without, that often stopped me from committing suicide. My family is the obvious one. Also, playing hockey. I needed hockey for the structure, for the social interaction with people who just accepted me and didn’t punish me when my mental illness made me act strangely.

My hockey team supported me, but also counted on me. I made a contribution. In a time when I felt useless and like a burden to everyone around me, I found a place where I was still useful. I still had an impact. Everyone has things that help them and most people don’t know what those things are. Sometimes those things are super weird. I went to horse therapy and got people to punch my shoulder really hard when my sensory disorder acted up because I needed it. Just keep an open mind.

A Reminder

Trust me. Don’t make me feel crummy for asking what I need. It’s not about you. Listen and adapt, remember that you don’t necessarily know what’s best for me. Also, sometimes things that don’t seem related to depression or anxiety at all are extremely impactful to me, so don’t discount something just because YOU don’t understand its purpose.