There are a lot of catchy words and phrases out there - things that are trying to sell us something or convey a complex concept in simple terms. Many of these catch phrases and words are used in business and work environments so often that they lose all meaning and significance.
I'd like to talk about one of those words today: advocacy.
I've heard this word a lot in my line of work.
"You have to advocate for yourself."
"We're advocates for our clients."
Advocacy is a nice word. It sounds intelligent. It has a weighty importance to it. But what does it really mean? How do you advocate for someone? How do you advocate for yourself?
I'd like to share my story of advocacy as related to my struggles with mental illness after the birth of my first child. I hope this story can show how simple advocacy can be, but also how important it is, how life saving it can truly be.
After the birth of my first child, my mother moved in with us from halfway across the country. At this point my baby was a few months old and I had been feeling a bit off for the past few weeks. My mother was the first person to say something to me and suggest I might not be well. I just snapped at her and said I was fine.
Because isn't that what you do?
Of course she was right, I wasn't fine. After her words had a couple days to sink in, I was able to admit to myself the truth: I was coming apart at the seams and I needed help. I made the decision to talk to the doctor at my daughter's next check-up.
At the four-month checkup, the doctor who saw us was not my regular doctor. She was someone I had never met before or even seen at the office. I knew going into the appointment that I was still not feeling well. Things were not getting better. My anxiety about producing enough breast milk was incredibly high. I was barely making it through the day without freaking out. I often yelled and raged and I would never have described myself as an angry person in the past.
The doctor did a perfectly good job of checking out my equally perfect, healthy baby. But you know what she didn't do? Ask me anything about how I was doing.
I had been sitting there, in one of those completely uncomfortable plastic chairs, holding my chubby squirmy baby and waiting. Waiting for the moment when she was going to ask me about my mental health (which my regular doctor had done at our previous two-month checkup). The words were swirling around in my head, dancing on the tip of my tongue, just waiting to pour out.
But she never asked.
And I never told.
Instead I sat there realizing this was the end of the appointment, and she wasn't going to ask and I had that feeling - that weighty feeling of knowing I should say something but I couldn't. The words weren't just caught in my throat, they were caught in my brain. They were trapped in the mass of chaotic thoughts I had about myself and my situation; that I was not a good mother, that I should be able to make myself feel better, that this would just go away if only I worked harder to think positive, that this doctor would judge me horribly for admitting I sometimes got so angry at my baby I yelled at her, that I felt inadequate and incompetent and that I would never get it together.
I don't remember leaving the doctor's office. To be honest, a lot of my memories of those early months with my daughter are kind of patchy or missing altogether. Like a blurry photograph where you can barely make out what's happening and certainly can't see any of the details.
I do remember having a conversation with myself about how I needed to try harder, I needed to be more positive. I was young, educated, had support, had a nice home and enough money to get out of the house and do things with my baby.
I didn't fix it.
It got worse.
It got scary.
The next doctor's visit was the six-month baby checkup.
Before that appointment, I did one of the bravest things I have ever done. I told my mom I needed to ask for help, that I should have already asked for help, but I hadn't. I had her come to my appointment with me to make sure I got those words out: "I am not well. I need help."
I did get those words out. Thank goodness. Because I really needed help.
Having my mom there and my regular doctor to talk to took that lump out of my throat and stilled some of the chaos in my mind. It was still hard to say the words. It is hard to admit what feels like a failure, for anyone, at any time.
My mother was my advocate that day. Yes, my mother who simply sat there beside me, offering emotional support, was my advocate. She didn't have to say anything, but I knew she would if I needed her to. I knew she would be my voice if mine failed. For me, just having her there beside me was enough: it gave me the strength to be honest.
Advocacy sounds complicated. It sounds like something other people do: smarter people, stronger people. Anyone can be an advocate. Advocacy is about speaking your truth or supporting others to speak their truth. Advocacy is a quiet act of strength and one I believe we are all capable of, if only we believe in ourselves.