Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!
This month and what it stands for is so timely. We will always, always, always need to talk about mental health and how it affects our daily lives, interactions, health and well being. Especially during this time.
Sitting at home has forced me to do a lot of self-reflection.
When I’m not spending time trying to figure out what the heck is going on with this whole virus situation or mentally checking out from the overwhelming amount of stress that the media induces, I’ve been thinking about how far I’ve come with my mental health.
My journey to healing and self care began when I nearly hit rock bottom. As they say, when you’re at your lowest point the only way you can go is up. It’s either that or you stay down, accept it, and do nothing. I was almost there. But I refused to be stuck in a pit of despair so I chose to look up. My survival depended on it.
Now, nearing rock bottom for me wasn’t as extreme as you might picture. Although there may be some similarities, I think it looks differently for each of us. For me, it was being so burdened by my pain and emotions that it began to seep out of me and touch everything and everyone around me. Like acid, it felt somewhat destructive. I tried my best to contain it but I felt like a puddle. As if I were trying to hold water with my bare hands. Trying to keep each droplet inside. Impossible.
Every moment seemed like a thousand moments that achingly took its time to pass and yet simultaneously moved at lightning speed. Like molasses, every day would melt into another. I’d look up to see days, weeks, months roll by. Everything felt bland and monotonous. Routine. Like that Squidward montage. I wasn’t fully present. It was like I was seeing myself through the eyes of another. As if I were an observer and not in the driver’s seat. A shell of myself.
I felt this heavy unshakable weight. I tried everything that I could to ignore it, dispel it, contain it. I was numb. Although there were moments where I would find some semblance of genuine happiness, something to laugh at, something to smile at, it was all fleeting. Moments I could barely grasp, let alone maintain.
It’s Okay to Not Be Good
I’ve always been good at making people believe that everything is okay with me. If you know me then you know that I’m almost always smiling, laughing, and making sure other people are okay. I’m naturally a helper and a giver both in my professional and personal life. So trying to maintain that façade, that identity that people connect you with, is difficult when underneath the surface you’re yearning for relief. For something painful to end. It often made me think of one of my favorite Paul Laurence Dunbar poems.
The first step for me was the realization that I don’t have to be okay all the time. That my feelings are valid and deserve my attention, not to be pushed down and ignored. Because at some point the pressure will rise, the lid will unhinge (unsettle? topple?), and the everything will bubble (boil?) over. And things will begin to unravel.
I noticed that I began to have conflict with the people close to me. I still fully believe that my feelings then were valid and based in my truths and that will never change. However I was so emotionally upset about the root cause of my problems that it started to feel like I was being easily triggered by people, whether they approached me with that intention or not. Some people know how to say certain things to incite a reaction out of you or to cut you but when your reaction is so intense that you become emotionally and physically drained or that wound becomes so deep that it affects your outlook, it’s time to make some changes.
I started by doing things that I enjoy and that give me peace. One of those is being in nature. So I started to incorporate the outdoors in my wellness activities. I began running the trail of the creek near my house. This was a trail that I only ever walked but so far in because as a child I was warned about how dangerous it could be after a certain point. Especially for a girl child. Especially for a young woman. This sowed some fear in my heart about it. But I decided to take a leap of faith and see what existed beyond the bend.
I started trail running in college as a form of exercise and to do something that would take me out of the campus bubble but running through that creek turned into something more. I was running into the unknown, exploring unaccustomed earth, and challenging myself to run longer, harder, and faster. I began to see running as more than just a form of exercise but as something that would take my mind off my problems. A form of escapism. When I run, I don’t think about anything but my breathing and my course. It’s a form of meditation for me because I truly have to bring awareness to my breath and to the parts of my body that propel me foreword. It’s also an exercise of brain power, of dispelling any thoughts about what you think you can’t do and replacing them with thoughts about what you can. “I can finish, I can make it, I’m almost there, I got this, I’m almost there, keep pushing, I got this, I will feel better at the end, I feel good now, and I am thankful for this experience.” I not only began to enjoy running but looked forward to it.
I also decided to challenge myself by doing things that I’ve always wanted to do but often put off or did inconsistently. I finally bought a yoga mat and began to practice in the park. Like running, I had to bring awareness to my breath and my body. I practiced sinking deeper into my stretches, seeing what my body was capable of, assessing where work needed to be done. Practicing gratitude for body and strength. Gratitude for the sun caressing my back, the wind flowing through my hair, and the earth beneath supporting me.
I sat by the river and wrote about what I saw, felt, and thought. I examined behaviors and actions made by people in my life and by me, reflected on old and current relationships (familial, romantic, and platonic) and how they affected me, and questioned my decision making and thought processes. I drew pictures, wrote poems, made songs. I lit incense and meditated. I whispered intentions to the flowing river and dipped my toes into its cool waters, letting the tiny fish within kiss the soles of my feet. I began to restore. I began to heal.
Doing the Work
To maintain this and to keep growing, I’m doing a number of things – many simple – that have and continue to improve my life and well being. This list is not all inclusive.
Breathe. Release. Relax. (Repeat)
When I am feeling stressed, anxious, annoyed, or frustrated, I remember to breathe. Sometimes it’s easier said than done but the more I practice this simple step, the more I remember to do it in the heat of the moment when it really matters. Taking a moment to ground yourself, noticing the things around you. Letting the air fill your lungs, holding it in for a few seconds, and as you release, picturing any tension you may be feeling leaving your body. With every breath, you begin to relax and feel calmer.
I am trying to make it a habit of thinking more about what I say, do, and even what I think. Sometimes we need to take a moment to reevaluate ourselves and think about things from another perspective. How have my words, actions, and thoughts affected how I treat others? How I treat myself? How I see the world and other people? What ways can I improve my relationships with my family, my friends, my partner, etc.? What kind of people do I want around me and what kind of relationships fulfill my spirit? What are my needs? How could I have acted better in that situation? Why am I thinking this way about this situation? Why am I thinking this way about myself? Is this point of view based in facts or just my perception? What are some ways that I have hurt the other person? What are some ways I have hurt myself? How can I improve? This kind of line of questioning allows us to examine ourselves and give space to our growth.
Writing about how I feel helps me to process things that have happened. It also helps me to think about what I want, need, desire. It’s an outlet for frustration, confusion, and anger. A path to clarity. Sometimes you find the answers you’re looking for and sometimes you don’t. But getting it all out is therapeutic. And it’s a perfect way to document exactly where you are in this moment. Who you are. What you feel. Something you can look back on and remember.
Read about self care and unlearning
Simple as it says, taking the time to read. And read more. And read again. Until you can understand what you’ve read, adopt the message, implement it, adapt your behavior, and move accordingly. We spend a good portion of our lives learning ways that are not always healthy. It will take a lifetime to unlearn. Dedication to the process is key.
With all the examining, processing, and learning, comes the need to act. That sometimes means having the hard conversations with our loved ones. The ones that could lead to a breakthrough or a break. But if necessary, worth it. Effective communication can be liberating. It allows us to make ourselves clear, giving us the opportunity to be understood and to understand others.
Give yourself permission to feel
I’ve also learned is that you can do everything right, be having the best time, and then suddenly start crying in the shower. Triggers can come so easily. It’s okay if you have a hard day or if you’re back to the emotional state that you were in before or at the start of your process. Healing is not linear. To treat ourselves as if we have to be perfect and have our problems solved in some cookie cutter way is unfair, unnecessary, and unrealistic. Give space to your feelings. Allow yourself the opportunity to feel what is happening in your body. Acknowledge it. Sit with it if you need to. And then allow it to pass.
Being open to support
As I said before, I’ve always been the type of person to keep my problems to myself. To not want to burden other people. To be “strong” in the face of adversity. But sometimes we find our greatest strength in the connections we have with others. It is okay to ask for help, especially when we need it. Be it from family, friends, mentors, your higher power, or a therapist. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
I’m now in a much better place than where I was 3 years ago. 3 years ago I thought my happiness and healing was dependent on other people. Dependent on whether the people who harmed me would admit their faults and correct their behavior. But now I am learning that my healing can only be dependent on me. That I may not get an answer or action that I want from anyone. I can’t control that. But I can control myself. I can control how I choose to see things.
Now I can go days or even weeks without thinking about the things that caused me pain but even when I do, I recognize the moment for what it is and then move on. Happiness is not only something I seek but something I choose. I choose every day to seek the things that give me joy, to only give life to positive thoughts. I feel like myself but also feel like I am becoming and evolving. With the support of my therapist, I am learning and unlearning. I am rediscovering and returning to the parts of me that I buried. I am listening to my inner child, giving her the encouragement and love that she needs. I continue to practice my strategies, to cope, and to heal. And when the hard moments come, I ask myself “will you stay down or will you look up?”