Fall has always been a strangely dichotomous time for me; I greet it with equal parts happiness and melancholy. I mourn the end of the summer, but love the crispness of the changing season – brightly coloured leaves, a little nip in the air.
As a child, Fall also brought the beginning of another school year. I was always one of those nerdy kids who loved school. Learning, reading, writing, researching. What I didn’t love was the unknown that would also come with every September – a new routine, new school teachers and events. I was always anxious and fearful about change. I never wanted to acknowledge the fear – to myself or anyone else – so it would grow under the surface.
My anxiety was multifaceted: from fear of failure, of not being good enough, to disappointing my parents (who, by the way, never set such expectations – I did that all myself). My response was to pretzel myself into the person I thought others wanted me to be. I was a very good student, but I didn’t celebrate my accomplishments because my mind was always fixed on the self-imposed need to achieve more, not for the kudos, but to outrun the failure that I was sure was around every corner. I lived from a place of fear without even being aware of the joy I was robbing myself of each day.
This fear also made sure I took the path of security in life. Risk was my enemy, increasing that ever-present possibility of failure. I made sure that I took the safe route wherever I could. The problem with this approach is, of course, that life happens anyway no matter how much you plan. These challenging events were sometimes within, but often outside of my control. Over the years, I experienced many episodes of depression and tried to hide them from the world. They felt like my personal failure, and I didn’t acknowledge my illness to myself, let alone anyone else. My secret kept me sick.
I was in my early 40s when I finally acknowledged my illness. My love of learning was a huge part during my early recovery. I researched depression and anxiety; I read other people’s stories; I wrote about my own feelings, fears, and experiences. I discovered skills and strategies that helped me learn to live well with a mental illness. Then I took a risk: I began to speak about my journey. At first it was with friends, then further out of my comfort zone, to groups and organizations. Instead of the avoidance I had feared, others embraced me, told me their own stories, or those of people they loved. I admit that I was shocked by the positivity of the experience. I found a passion for mental health education and advocacy and realized I could support others and myself at the same time. The fear was still present, but the passion overpowered its hold on me.
I discovered that fear is a lying cheat, robbing us of not only our ability to become the people we want to be, but also of the chance to connect wholeheartedly with others who are equally anxious about what life has in store. Fear never protected me from the challenges of life, only kept me from taking the risks that are life affirming, whether or not I succeed or fail. I now know that for me courage isn’t about not being afraid, it is about being scared, and doing it anyway. My power comes in the choices I make about the change. Perhaps I will be unsuccessful in my attempt, but if I never try, I most definitely fail by omission.
I have had the privilege of working in an educational environment for my entire adult career. The Fall always brought that crackle of excitement and anticipation in the air as the students buzzed about the halls. This September will be a little different: this year, I will be helping to create the buzz as I return to university full-time to complete my Master of Education which I hope will help me launch a new career in mental illness education and advocacy. Am I scared? You bet I am. Am I excited? Completely. Can you teach a middle-aged dog new tricks? Without a doubt. Let the next chapter begin.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.