What is being strong?
When a friend of mine asked me to discuss women’s mental health I didn’t know where to start. So, I started by thinking of the strongest women I know and how incredibly different they are. In particular, my mother and my sister. I genuinely believe my mother is an earth angel, she’s probably the most selfless woman you will ever meet and as a teacher, I know for a fact that she has touched more lives than she will ever realise. She’s strong but in a quiet and understated way. In her classroom all it takes is one look and the room falls silent. For a teacher, that’s not an easy feat. Whereas my sister is the type of person you would want defending you in court. She’s fiery, strong willed and an absolute force to be reckoned with. The type of woman that when she hits the floor with her feet in the morning even the devil says “oh crap, she’s up!”. I suppose what I’m trying to say is our perception of “strong” or “resilient” can often be warped. Both my mother and sister have such inner grit and yet have it in completely different ways. But that leads me to this question, how are we supposed to be strong or act strong and in what way?
How strong is too strong?
As a woman I have received conflicting messages all my life be it from men, other women, the media, or in school. I must be soft but at the same time not overly sensitive, kind but not so much that I’ll be manipulated, bossy but not a bitch, sexy but not too sexy, motherly but don’t be a stay at home mom, confident but not arrogant, curvy but not fat, the list is mind-numbingly exhausting. The only thing we probably are not told is to be ourselves. This was made clear to me by my 5-year-old nephew at the dinner table a few months ago. My mom was saying to “just be yourself in the interview now Áine and you’ll be fine”. I could see my nephews face squint as if he had just sucked a lemon. He looked at me worryingly and said “no she can’t be herself until AFTER the interview- otherwise they will think she’s crazy!!”. Now the child wasn’t wrong but what was wrong was the fact that at the age of 5 he had already learned that sometimes being yourself is wrong. But he didn’t mean it as an insult but was simply awarethat people judge you and that standing out results in attention from others – both positive and negative. And there’s something very sad about that. He recently was conflicted when picking out antlers for his school carol service. Since the day he was born both his Mom and Dad have always encouraged him to be true to himself and ignore others. Liam really wanted to wear bright yellow glittery reindeer antlers and after trying on ALL of the headwear in the shop my sister knew that this was the headpiece he wanted. But he paused, withdrew, and said “maybe not actually……I’m afraid of what the girls will say.” She could tell he was upset and anxious and it broke her heart! She then went on to tell him to ignore the girls, he looked great, and that there is no such thing as girl colours and boy colours, people can wear whatever they want….and they bought the bright yellow glitter reindeer antlers. Eat your heart out Rudolf!
Don’t go extinct yourself!
I tried thinking of the times when my mental well being was at its best and honestly it was whenever I was being completely authentic to myself. Despite what society told me I should wear, do or be, this never stopped me from wearing yellow dinosaur dungarees, always (sometimes inappropriately) telling it how it is, and never apologising for who I am or more importantly who I am not. And don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to be true to yourself when you’re in a world of constant comparison and scrutiny but what’s harder is how you feel when you are not. Being authentic for me often means comments like “when are you changing?”, “you’re too sensitive”, and “Áine is just bonkers” (Liam, age 5). But trust me, the comments get easier to shake off when you start owning it. Leave the herd black sheep, it gets better! Maybe authenticity is not an issue for you but trust me, if you own it whole heartedly your mental health will improve. Being authentic is not just dying your hair luminous orange, it’s also about knowing what you need. Being real with yourself. Even the strongest women need help sometimes and asking for it is the start of building your own type of strong. I believe everyone should go to therapy at some point in life. There isn’t one person who hasn’t been affected by something and it’s often the people who don’t think they need it really need it the most. Don’t be “the most”. Plus, if you do go it’s not only beneficial for you but also for those around you. Imagine all the relationships that could improve.
Women are from Venus
According to statistics mental ill health among women is increasing and it is said that 1 in 5 women (19%) suffer from a common mental health disorder such as anxiety and depression. 1 in 8men (12%) affected in comparison. This 7% difference is quite possibly a result of childbirth, the menses, the menopause, pre and postpartum depression - all experiences that men will never have to endure (thankfully!). Ever hear the phrase “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus?”. Well this is no different when it comes to mental health. As women, our brains are wired differently through our limbic system which processes key cognitive and emotional functions. We have a deeper limbic system which means greater thinking brain tissue, and being more susceptible to depression during hormonal changes. So, the next time someone says you’re over thinking something, hit them with a “It’s not me, it’s my limbic”.
For every woman in the world who has ever experienced or is currently experiencing mental health issues, I salute you. It’s not easy when you think everyone else has it breezy. But that’s the thing, winds do change. It may be stormy today but the calm will eventually come and when it does, you will create a storm of your very own. The perfect storm. May your comeback be even stronger than your setbacks, and it’s okay sometimes to tell your limbic to fuck off!