Below is my mental health article published in The Volk, Spring 2019
Mental Health: Living Deeper
By Nikki DiVirgillo, MSW, LGSW
When I was young, I looked through a telescope and viewed the stars in the sky. The expansive night sky with its twinkling lights told me I was special: connected to a great force and intelligence. In my early twenties I lived my life from this acknowledgment and my desires manifested effortlessly. Then, one night as I wrote in my journal, I made a profound connection. It brought a vital link from childhood experiences to what I was beginning to experience internally, which was anxiety. This discovery led to the opening of my Pandora’s Box where I made one childhood connection after another, throwing me in to what some have called a dark night of the soul. The details of this long, dark, night are irrelevant in light of the lessons I learned and the growth that followed.
The main lesson, from which all the other lessons fall under, is that if we want to become more of who we really are, if we want to “live our best life,” and experience calm within ourselves, then we must live deeper, and then once we do, live deeper still. Many of us work at the surface of life; we are conditioned this way. We begin in a family, however that looks, with adults who are often existing at the surface of life. Then we fit our tiny bodies into a school desk with bodies taller than us telling us what they think we need to know to live a successful, fulfilling life. We move on to a job to pay for the lifestyle we think we should have. Through all of these stages who asks what we want? What we think? What we feel? At what point do we wonder, where are we? Who are we? And, is this all there is? If we don’t, at any point, stop and ask ourselves these questions or listen to those who might be asking us, we will continue to work at the surface level until our bodies and minds break down. Sure, some will earn what we see as success working at the surface, but will they be fulfilled? Will they be living an authentic life?
What we know is there is a mental health issue (more likely a crisis) in our country. According to the NAMI website (National Alliance on Mental Illness) “1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.” What is also clear is that mental illness is on the rise for our younger population as well. There is no truer sign of a culture’s overall well-being than how its children are doing. According to the 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute, anxiety disorders have increased 17% in the past ten years. From my professional perspective, I have also seen an increase of students in school diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Something is not right.
My personal theory of what’s not right is that we’ve lost touch with who we really are because we primarily work and function at the surface of life and the surface of ourselves. When I looked up at that star-filled, night sky I was tapping into expansiveness, into space, into mystery, truth, and cosmic order. When I wrote in my journal and made childhood connections, I was digging in beyond the surface to a deeper part of myself, an unconscious part, just as vast and mysterious as the night sky. This space was filled with beliefs, memories, trauma, and emotions stemming from my upbringing. This “stuff” has to be processed, and often our first que that we are ready for this inner work is the experience of anxiety and/or depression.
To listen to our emotions, seeing them as a signal to slow down and check in with our selves, is not something that comes naturally to many of us. We weren’t taught this. Further, to listen and be curious enough about what’s happening inside of us, will open us to change. And, change is frightening, especially at first, because we have only known the surface of ourselves. The surface can lure us with its comfort and safety, but the real value is going beneath our surface. We are more than what we experienced as children, and more than what the culture tells us now. Therefore, when something prompts us to live deeper, like the stars in the night sky, there are points of light within ourselves that we must, and can follow to help us along this journey.
Here are my points of light for you- if you are going through a dark night, if you are experiencing anxiety, if you are feeling an urge to step into something more:
Find Space: this can be anything from looking up into the night sky, taking notice of the stars and the moon, and during the day, the clouds or shades of blue to clearing out a cluttered corner, closet or drawer. Space bring perspective and perspective helps us start to see possibilities and pathways that can bring depth and more internal satisfaction. Meditation is another way to find space.
Be curious: Once you’ve created space, it’s time to get curious- curious about you. This is time to self-reflect, be mindful and ask questions. Beginning this deeper work requires resources to support us. This is important because we may be processing traumas and feeling feelings we haven’t consciously connected with. Consider a journal and seeing a therapist as useful resources as you explore yourself and books!
Seek connection: What I have come to trust and understand is all of us, every single one of us, is looking for connection. We long for deeper connections with ourselves, with our experiences and within our relationships. One of the most important lessons I learned has to do with attachment theory. This theory states the importance of having a secure physical and emotional attachment to a primary caregiver. These attachment needs are present as soon as we are born and continue as we develop and grow. However, it is in our earliest stages that attachment matters most as this will shape our future relationships. If our physical and emotional needs are not met consistently, we will develop insecure attachment. Being insecurely attached will cause anxiety and create difficulties in relationships, along with a disconnection with ourselves. I recommend exploring attachment theory through books or the internet. You will find the four types of attachment and perhaps understand which one best describes yours. Through the process of understanding ourselves, and evolving from greater understanding we will find our relationships change too. Deeper connections with ourselves and others is possible!
These points of light begin the process of deeper work, the work that will eventually guide us to more clarity, wisdom, connection and peace.