My father eats gross things. Head cheese. Liver. Fried baloney. I never tried the first two. Baloney, however, was a lunch staple at our house, especially if my mum wasn’t home and Dad was in charge of feeding me. I didn’t like it, but I’d eat it, because I liked hanging out with my dad, and enjoyed the knowledge that we were eating something my mother wouldn’t approve of.
I recall one day, standing next to him at the stove and reading the label on the tube-shaped slab of baloney. Dad slapped my hand away from it.
“Don’t think about it what’s in it,” he warned. “Just eat it.”
Good advice when faced with baloney, I’ve found. That goes for all kinds of baloney: the luncheon meat kind, and the kind life seems to keep handing me.
There have been times when I felt my head was made of baloney — slightly unwholesome, mysterious ingredients, dense and unappetizing. I’ve struggled with mental health issues for most of my life. I’ve had anxiety since I was eight years old, and it was never addressed until I was in my 30s (apart from one disastrous visit to my small town’s only psychologist when I was nine…I decided it was better to make up an interesting story about what was bothering me, so I lied to him. It reminded me a lot of my First Confession, which I also made up, and never did again, either). I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and poor body image in high school. I went to my guidance counsellor, who stared at me blankly and told me most teenagers felt that way. She told me to stop writing poetry and be more social.
The next ten years were a teeter-totter of great successes and horrible failures. I got into journalism school, which had been my dream. I was too mentally fragile to succeed or find a job. I had brilliant opportunities handed to me. I feel short of everyone’s expectations because I simply wasn’t well enough, and sabotaged my own success.
Eventually, things improved — in some ways. I’ve worked behind the scenes in politics. I’ve published a book. I’ve led provincial health initiatives and non-profit agencies. I’ve been invited to speak at national and international meetings. And yet, I still feel like a failure. Like a fake. Like a house of cards that is always in danger of being blown over. That’s what anxiety is like for me.
Mental illness is isolating. Twenty years ago, when I confessed my depression or eating disorder to people, I lost friends. They couldn’t deal with it. Mind you, I wasn’t always an easy person to be friends with. But I’d say it was equal parts stigma, equal parts me being difficult. It’s not something my family has ever been comfortable talking about, either. So my life with anxiety and depression was a secret part of me, and I always felt that if people knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me. Keeping it hidden is exhausting and unhealthy. It’s taken decades for me to be open about my mental health, or to view my own depression and anxiety as something I should just get over. I know now that it’s something I’ll always live with.
And just when I began to accept my mental illness as part of who I am, I found myself sandwiched between two other family members in crisis: my elderly mother, who has dementia, and my young son, who has learning disabilities and debilitating anxiety. I am truly a member of the ‘sandwich generation’, but many days, barely feel strong enough to take care of myself.
So how do I cope with being the baloney in the middle of this shitty sandwich? My dad advised, all those years ago, “Don’t think about what’s in it”. Sometimes it’s good not to dwell on how much baloney is on my plate, it’s true. But one of the best ways I know to cope with mental health issues is to talk about them — to break down stigma, and increase understanding. That’s why I am open with my kids about anxiety. As soul-crushing as my son’s struggles are for both of us, I want him to know he is not alone, and he is not weird. And as heartbreaking as it is to watch my mother’s memories slip away as she becomes a different person, I need her to know we are all still there for her.
So, I am the baloney. It’s not a sandwich many people would choose, and it’s not necessarily appetizing or good for you. But, it’s what I’ve been served. Don’t think about it. Just eat it. Just get through.