When I was eight years old, my father received a phone call at home, “we’re coming to kill you, tonight”, said the voice on the other end. It was 1972 in Uganda, and my family and I were forced to flee for our lives from Idi Amin’s ruthless henchmen.
For most people, the seeds of their mental health problems were sown in their childhood. While each person’s life is unique, we can, nevertheless, discern common patterns and scenarios that tend to produce certain types of mental health issues.
I’ve experienced more than my fair share of challenging childhood circumstances and subsequent mental health issues (depression, OCD, anxiety, body dysmorphia). While my childhood story is more dramatic than most, the challenges I faced are common enough: abandonment, rejection, alienation, guilt, unsafe environments, the need to be in control, unhappiness with my body, to name but a few.
Don't give up
Having accepted and overcome my emotional traumas and healed my mental health issues, it’s now my life’s work to share my experiences and use what I’ve learnt, to help other people overcome their issues.
Often the very first step is to get people talking about their mental health issues — nothing gets better if you just bottle it all up and try to hide it. Often, speaking about it will lift the heavy weight of secrecy that has been adding to the other stresses.
(Please note that this article deals with the milder forms of mental illness such as depression, OCD, anxiety, phobias etc. It does not apply to conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder etc.)
'I realised that I was believing a lot of stuff that wasn’t true'
My mental health issues improved because I didn’t give up on them and I didn’t get let them own me - I kept learning about them and about myself, and I kept looking for the underlying causes of the symptoms.
I went to counselling, group therapy, personal development workshops, and I read books and talked to lots of people about it, and I learnt that I had to address the problem from two different angles:
- Surface level stuff - I had to handle my day-to-day fears and dramas
- Core level stuff - I had to sort out my beliefs about myself and about life
I realised that I was believing a lot of stuff that wasn’t true, and those beliefs were ruining my life. I didn’t know what all those false beliefs were, but I was determined to find out. Some of the beliefs that I discovered along the way were: “I’m not safe here”, “I have to make everybody happy”, “I am deformed”. The next stage of the process is to stop believing them - which is often easier said than done.
I realised that in order to free myself from my repetitive life script, I had to retrieve the lost parts of myself that had kept me repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Life kept showing me where I was stuck (by putting me in similar situations where I would repeat the same old mistakes) and finally I realised that it was all stemming from the moments in my life where my spirit got broken and I got emotionally stuck.
'I notice, then I breathe'
I would have to re-examine those moments with fresh eyes, to see what I could learn from them, to discover what false beliefs I had created, and how they affected my behaviour.
Slowly I discovered how to release the ‘depressed’ pause buttons that had halted my emotional growth. There was no shame, no blame, just naming the truth of what had happened and unlearning the false beliefs about myself and about how life worked.
In order to deal with my day-to-day, surface level issues I invented the following self-calming technique:
- I notice when my mind has been taken over by fear, fantasies of the future, or unfinished business from the past
- Then in that moment, I take a deep breath, and think to myself, “Thank you for reminding me of who I used to be"
As I exhale, I allow myself to be calm, present and I remind myself that I don’t have to continue being the way that I used to be — I can choose to be different now — especially when I know that my old behaviours were based on false beliefs. I remind myself of what I now know to be true, and that I’m in my current circumstances and not back in some old, childhood scenario. Then I decide to respond to the current circumstances calmly and with awareness, rather than reverting back to the old, unthinking, reactive behaviours.
'Never let a problem of the mind define you as a person'
I believe that there are important keys to dealing successfully with many mental health issues:
- Never let a problem of the mind define you as a person. Own your story, don’t let it own you - don’t be it.
- Don’t give up. Be determined to uncover and remedy the root causes that are negatively impacting your life. Keep taking the next step, and when something comes up, look for the pattern, look for the underlying cause. Sometimes the progress will be gradual and sometimes you’ll have big breakthroughs. But whatever you do, keep at it. I’m living proof that you can succeed.
I was able to undo my false beliefs and now I love my life, I accept my past and I live with purpose. I love working one-on-one with people, I love facilitating groups and I also love training people to run their own groups so we can spread the benefits to more communities — this is what I am here for and it brings me alive. It’s funny how my life purpose was buried under my fears and pain!
Follow Kenny Mammarella-D’Cruz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KennyDCruz
Photo: Flickr/Matt Cunnelly