Food For Thought,  Lonely Conservationists

My stigma turned strength

Written by Jessie Panazzolo

I talk in the book and in the podcast about how I have always battled the stigma with mental health in the conservation industry. I know as much as anyone what its like to want to be the most resilient and tough conservationist in the field. I am also the person who has an urge to solve problems and be the fixer, as well as someone who has a deep desire to be the person who is always a rock for others. It is no secret that I struggled greatly through my honours year in 2016 throughout my time living and researching in the isolating walls of North Sumatra. It was probably a secret to most people in my life, however, that I struggled greatly when I returned home to the even more isolating walls of my family and friend’s homes in Adelaide. I remember thinking for the first time that year that I should get help, but I pushed the notion aside because there were others around me that were more sad, more hopeless, and more anxious than what I perceived myself to be, and they never did anything about it. I reasoned with myself that I just had an emotional response to some bad situations, and since they were in the past, I will soon be fine.

Years went by and I learnt to pick myself up and power on, but there were still moments where it was obvious that there was something still lingering inside of me. Earlier this year, a Lonely Conservationist asked me to chat and my stomach sank to the pit of my body with worry that he was going to confront me about something horrific I had said or done, and that he would tell me that I have shamed the community. He hopped on the call all smiley and care-free asking my advice about a new project he was working on and invalidated all of my fears in an instant. This notion of always preparing for the worst case scenario was consuming a lot of my energy. I didn’t think too much of it though, “probably just a fun quirk I have” I thought to myself.

The act of publishing the book made me sick to my stomach. I wholeheartedly believed in everything I wrote, however, a fear consumed me for weeks after publishing it, that it would be the last straw in my career where people would use this book to shame me off stage. It wasn’t until Todd and I released the podcast, that I finally felt some calm after the positive feedback we received and I took comfort in the notion that if people responded well to the podcast, they might not hate the book as much as I’d envisioned. For this reason, I never expected the podcast to make me feel so paralysed. As Todd and I chatted into the microphone about mental health, I realised for the first time that there were some factors about my mental health that we were discussing that I had never realised before. After the podcast, I felt emotionally drained as if I had partaken in public therapy where other people were realising what was going on with my head, at the same time as I was. I was exhausted.

Weeks went on and people started talking with me about the podcast and the book and it made me realise that I never considered the emotional implications of frivolously discussing my trauma with people, and letting strangers and acquaintances into a space of my brain that my friends and family barely knew about. When writing the book and developing the podcast, all I was considering was the power that my stories could have in helping people, and never once did I consider what it would be like to sit with these instances again and again after they were said out loud.

Halfway through producing the podcast episodes, I made the decision to apply for my Masters of Research. As I talked with new supervisors and filled out applications, I felt the trauma creeping back from my honours degree and decided that before I embark on this new research journey, I would finally take control of my mental health and mitigate these feelings before I dive head first into a troubling situation. It wasn’t until one morning weeks later where I actually took myself up on this notion, as I sat on the couch late into the morning with no motivation to do anything. Usually productivity is my means of self satisfaction, but I couldn’t even bring myself to acquire a single pinch of motivation. I decided that I couldn’t let my past shitty experiences take control of my life, and that I was going to take that control back.

Cut to this morning where my GP turned to me and said: “I have been thinking a lot about what you said to me on the phone about your old supervisor. What he said was so horrible, I cant believe it! Is he a psychopath?” And in that moment I knew that I wasn’t the problem. I wasn’t all the fear and all the worry and pain. He continued, “You’re only 27, young, no medical issues and clearly not a depressed person. I am so glad you are taking the opportunity to look after yourself so you’re able to do the best you can at your masters next year!”

Let me tell you, if I knew that tending to my mental health would be this empowering and would give me this wonderful control over a turbulent situation, maybe I wouldn’t have been so afraid of seeking help four years ago. If I had known that acknowledging my PTSD would take away its power, instead of labelling me as damaged, it would have seemed like such an empowering option.

For years I battled a shitty stigma that being tough and being resilient meant sacrificing our own well being. Finally, after writing a book on it, speaking publicly about it, and preaching it for two years, I now want to share from personal experience that seeking help is a true form of resiliency and a true form of strength. Seeking help means that you value yourself and that you take back the power over your own wellbeing. For years, I let other people have the power over me and my emotions including; shitty bosses, horrible supervisors and really bad “friends”. Making the decision to look after yourself and acknowledge that you don’t deserve to feel that way is not a sign of weakness in the slightest, but it is making the decision to acknowledge your worth and take that control back.

I am telling you all this because I have never heard mental health help discussed like this before. I have heard it in terms of being a good thing to do and something that helps people, but never in the context of taking the control back over your life and valuing yourself. In the book I talk about battling the stigma, the diagnosis, the cost, and the hurdles we need to jump over to look after ourselves- but maybe if I had my time again I would acknowledge that the biggest hurdle is the one that lives inside of us- our warped perception of strength.

I owe thanks to the Lonely Conservationists community, the book and the podcast for taking me on this journey and for finally allowing me to acknowledge all the ways in which I can help to conserve myself. People tell me I am the leader of Lonely Conservationists, but really the fact that you have all led me through this time in my life proves how much of an amazing community we are together.


Edit: This blog has sat privated in my drafts for a while and it just didn’t seem right to post it until now. Since writing this, I was accepted into my Master’s program, before I turned it down due to a lack of funding. For me, turning down two years of unfunded study was a way to cement the commitment to myself to value my wellbeing and survival above all else. Looking after ourselves isn’t easy, but I hope that together we can build the courage to value ourselves, despite whether or not we are being valued by others.

For mental health resources around the world click here

And for more of Jessie, follow @ecolojesst on Instagram

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