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Mental Wellbeing: It was a long time coming

My mother died suddenly after an operation when I was 17. I finally committed to therapy more than two decades later. This is what I learned.

Shamis viewing Brooklyn Bridge
Shamis viewing Brooklyn Bridge

My mother died suddenly after an operation when I was 17. We buried her, rented an RV and drove from Maryland to Orlando, FL, went to Disney World and drove home. Then, I packed up my life and moved away to start my freshman year in college. Within one month, I went from thriving high school senior, feeling on top of the world, to a motherless daughter navigating the academic and social demands of university life. 

Simply putting these thoughts onto paper causes me to stop, put my head down and release a few tears. And then the sobs come. Damn. It has been 26 years and just like that, I am transported back to those days of sorrow and loss. It can happen that fast. In an instant. Life changes. In an instant, intense sadness can consume me. 

I stopped asking myself, “Why me?” a long, long time ago. Tragedy happens to people every moment of the day. These days, I ask myself the question, “Why did it take so long for me to reach out and ask for support?”

What were my mental health challenges?

My mother was 45 when she died. She had a career that she seemed to enjoy. She volunteered at our Sunday school and served as class mother at my high school for two years. She also took on outside work, like delivering the weekend paper or doing inventory at the local grocery store, to generate additional income. 

On top of all that, she was a dedicated member of our broader family, serving as historian for our bi-annual family reunion. And, oh yeah, she was a committed friend and loving wife, mother to 3, step-mother to 3, daughter, sister, aunt and more. Bottom line: Mom seemed like a Superwoman. 

I thought I might die early too.

I never had the opportunity to talk to my mom about how she felt doing all of those things. I rarely saw her have time to herself other than when she snuck off to the movies or tried to barricade herself in the bathroom. She only seemed upset when us kids seemed like we had better things to do than support her. In many ways, I feel like I knew her and yet, in some ways, I didn’t know her at all.

I didn’t go to therapy or receive counseling support when I was at school. It wasn’t discussed as something that could help me. I struggled and almost didn’t go back to school for my sophomore year, but the thought of staying home and living in the house where my mother died? No thanks. 

I processed my trauma as, “My mom served and supported many people all the time. I want to be like her. People tell me I am like her. I am going to do a lot of things too.” Oh, and I also thought I might die early too (having a stroke at 34 reinforced this fear), so I needed to establish my legacy on this earth quickly, lest I run out of time.

As an adult, beyond talking to a counselor to navigate boyfriend issues, I kept it movin’, as they say, focusing my time and energy on the needs of everyone except myself. And I was good at it.

What shifted me into action?

I chased creating impact at scale for a long time based on the aforementioned narrative that lived in my head. In March 2018, I was running my third startup and we were running out of funding. When it seemed as if the company was on the verge of closing, I took a step back. The career choices that I was making were not serving me. I was killing myself working to build companies, but I have not yet found the thing that makes my heart sing. 

I realized that I was at the center of what was not working for me and I strongly believed that the solution was receiving therapy. I knew that there was a method to my madness that was likely sourced from my early days. So, I got a referral from a friend and was able to start getting support immediately from an amazing psychotherapist. I have been receiving support weekly ever since and intend to keep doing so.

What will keep me in action?

I have learned so much about myself from my time in therapy. My conversations with my therapist have evolved over time as I have moved towards inner peace and have found practices that support me. I enjoy engaging in intellectually rigorous discussions about my dreams and the complexities and interdependencies of mental wellbeing, i.e., psychological, emotional and social. 

Reflecting on “me” yesterday allows me to be free to explore what is possible for “me” in the now.

I continue to explore the many layers of my identity – what makes me “me”. At times, I unpack my role in my family, deconstructing how I interpret situations and why I respond in a particular way…and how I feel about those responses. Other times, we are dissecting my experiences with perfect strangers that linger in my mind. I enjoy having the space to speak with an expert about what is going on in the depths of my conscious and unconscious mind. I have a very supportive husband with whom I discuss the majority of things that occur in my life. However, there are things about myself that I want to explore in a different way. 

Therapy is also particularly important for me because, as a professional leadership coach, I believe it is important for me to be free of my own perceived limitations so I can show up powerfully for my clients. Reflecting on “me” yesterday allows me to be free to explore what is possible for “me” in the now and, therefore, in the future. You with me? 

What are my key takeaways?

Therapy is what worked for me. It does not have to be expensive, so please do not view that as a barrier to getting the support you require. However, my intention is not to advocate for paying a therapist. My intention is to talk about the importance of getting mental health support.

The loss of my mother was a trauma that played out in many ways over the course of my life. My key takeaway on this mental wellbeing journey is that it is never too late to ask for help. Processing trauma is not linear. 

Please reach out and talk to someone. Taking the first step can be challenging…and you are worth the challenge. 

  • Talk to your primary care physician. 
  • Ask your friends and family for a referral. 
  • If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program, call the hotline to ask for information because mental health support is typically a benefit. 
  • If you have an urgent need – suicidal crisis or emotional distress – The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support. 1-800-273-8255.

So, what is your next step? I am encouraging you to create space to ask yourself, “What are my mental health goals? Why are those things important to me? What support do I require to be in my commitment to my mental wellbeing?”

I will be keeping y’all abreast of my journey.

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