Pack the things you’ll need

I’m always amazed at the parallels I come across in my life. One of the biggest to date—an improperly filled cistern under our back porch and its connection to childhood trauma—is the inspiration behind the book I am writing.

Another more recent connection I’ve made has to do with my track bag.

That’s not surprising as, since March, I have spent a good portion of my time at track practice or track meets. While I enter each season with hope of beautiful, ideal weather, it’s Kansas. And if you’ve paid attention at all to the weather this spring, it has rained. A lot.

As any Kansan knows, we can’t change the weather. So instead, I am prepared.

With each passing track season, I become a little more like Mary Poppins. Is it raining? I can pull out rainboots, raincoat, windpants and umbrella from my bag.

Cold and blustery? I have snowboots, thermal socks, leggings, winter coat, thick mittens, scarf and stocking cap for just such an occasion.

Sunny? All I need is to pull out the sunscreen, sunglasses, ball cap and shorts.

And for those in-between days, I have a large range of mid-weight jackets, thin mittens, ear band and a puffy vest.

Like Ms. Poppins, my track bag is magical. If I ever pull out a floor lamp or large mirror, I won’t be surprised. All of the aforementioned items go with me in my black duffle bag to every meet until the season’s conclusion around Memorial Day. Even at practice, I carry a small backpack containing extra layers.

But even with all that preparation, there have been times this season I have tried to mentally discourage the rain. I’ve grown weary of the wet, so I have tried to pretend I didn’t really feel the onset of an incoming shower. It didn’t work. So, in familiar form I pulled out my umbrella.

Now here’s where the parallel comes in.

It’s foolish of me to think that just because I tell myself it isn’t raining I won’t get wet. Or that the blustery north wind isn’t cold. If I did, I wouldn’t survive six-hour stretches standing in the elements.

But so often, that’s what happens to people struggling with mental illness. For years, I struggled silently as it was implied that it wasn’t really raining, even as I stood in a downpour. I tried to pretend it wasn’t raining, even when I knew I was getting drenched.

I was led to believe that by putting on a smile or pulling up my bootstraps, I could force the rain away. But really, the storm couldn’t be manipulated.

It wasn’t until I started counseling that I learned to withstand the weather. I had to spend time throwing out the useless items in my bag before I could begin to fill it with things that could actually shield me from the elements.

I threw out lies, misunderstanding, half-truths and shallow misconception as I stripped my past down to its core. It took patience, time and determination, but I have since graduated from counseling and have packed my bag with truth, honesty and knowledge, along with other helpful items.

In this month designated for mental health awareness, I want to encourage those with depression, anxiety, fear, grief, to start examining what’s in your bag. You might need help unpacking at first, and that’s OK. There will be pain involved as root-problems are exposed and as your bag is emptied. But throwing out useless items is exhilarating, especially when you know you are making room for things that serve a purpose.

Keep pressing in. Keep unpacking. Keep examining. Keep trying, even when the process is hard. The end result is not living out the remainder of life without any struggle. Instead, it is the ability to withstand the storms that come, and it is worth the effort!

To those unfamiliar with mental health issues, I want to encourage you to refrain from telling someone it’s not raining. None of us get to choose how someone is affected by another’s actions, circumstance or trauma. None of us get to say that another’s struggle is not real. No matter how heavy the rain, it still makes those standing in it wet.

Instead, please extend an umbrella. You might even need to hold it over his or her head for a time. But with patience, encouragement and help, sooner or later the struggling hands will develop a grip that can take over.

Malinda Just has been writing her monthly column for the Free Press since 2008. She can be reached at malinda@justs.org.