We agree...yes? So, then what?
In my last post, I discussed the newly minted cliché It’s Okay To Not Be Okay. I sang its praises for having elevated the conversation about mental health issues. I argued that its rapid ascension into our lexicon has helped raise awareness about mental health issues, moved the destigmatization needle, and offered people a “permission slip” to raise their hand if they are suffering.
Mental health issues, whether they be severe ones that may require medical attention (i.e., manic depression) or less severe ones (i.e., a case of the blues you just can’t shake), are nothing to feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed about. That doesn't mean people won’t feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed. Still, I'm hoping that the injection of It’s Okay To Not Be Okay into our discourse will help dial down the negative internal dialogue and self-judgment. At least enough so that more people feel safe enough to raise their hand and say, "I'm not okay."
As much as I love clichés, I'll admit that this one is a mixed bag. I believe it’s doing some heavy lifting in the mental health awareness arena, but it leaves something hanging out there. Kinda like a dangling participle. (I confess that I have no idea what that is or whether the analogy fits. I’m taking some creative liberties because it just sounded good. Since I didn’t bother to google it, nor should you. Let’s just roll with it.). The point is, it begs the question: Now What?
I have some thoughts on that (but of course I do!). Before I share them, however, a couple of provisos. First, I am not a medical professional, therapist, social worker or counselor. This article is not intended for anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts or engaging in life-threatening self-harm. It’s Okay To Not Be Okay still holds true, but I urge you to skip the rest and seek medical attention NOW. You matter. Full stop.
Second, I’m not in the business of giving advice. I’m more of a “life lessons learned the hard way” story-teller - with a healthy dose of “feel free to laugh at my expense” on the side. Now, having said that, I’m going to go a bit outside my lane and offer my two cents (or, Bitcoin anyone?) on the matter - solely from a personal perspective, of course.
It’s Okay To Not Be Okay
So, we agree that not being okay is, in fact, okay. Yes? Ahhhhh, some of you are nodding yes because you know this to be true, but inside you are cringing. The thought of (a) admitting it to yourself and/or (b) admitting it to others is really, REALLY uncomfortable. That’s okay too. I get it. I truly do. So before we get to the “Now What” part, let’s take a step back.
Step One - Admitting It To Yourself
If you don’t already believe that it’s okay to not be okay when it comes to you, I’m going to be blunt. You. Are. Wrong. No judgment if you feel that way. But, speaking from personal experience, you’re still wrong.
I spent the better part of my life doing an abysmal impression of Atlas. I believed it was weak to admit to my suffering, either to myself or to others, much less seek help. I believed that I could handle anything and everything. I believed I could shoulder other people’s pain at the same time I ignored or made excuses for mine. I believed I was Herculean. Truth be told, I still do. But no longer do I gloss over the fact that even Hercules had his Achilles Heel and that, while Atlas may not have dropped the world, his entire existence was dominated by that crushing weight. It was no way for him to live. And it’s no way for you or me to live either.
So if you're feeling some reticence, perhaps this is a comfortable place to start. Raise your hand if you or someone you know was affected by the avalanche of muck that 2020 dumped upon the world. Everyone got their hand up? Now keep it up if you felt lonely, sad, anxious, depressed, scared, overwhelmed, grief-stricken or something much worse. How many of you still have your hands in the air? How many of you lowered your hand even though you did feel one or more of those emotions? If you dropped your hand because you truly didn't and don't struggle with any of these emotions - God bless you. But, I’ll be honest, I’m having trouble believing that. We all suffer at times. We all have pain at times. We all need help at times. It's a universal truth. The sooner we all understand that about ourselves and others, the better.
I see you over there with your hand still in your lap. Maybe you’re feeling guilty about what you’ve felt or you’re minimizing it. Stop that. Just because someone else is suffering more intensely than you does not mean you are not suffering. Or maybe you're denying it because the thought that something serious may be going on is paralyzing, and that a mental health issue diagnosis would somehow label you as "broken" or "less than." Stop that. No blame here. No shame here. Internal pain is no less valid than external pain.
I have loved ones who suffer from mental issues that require medical attention and/or medication. Their suffering is often unseen or misunderstood, and it can be completely debilitating. It breaks my heart to see them hurting, judged and judging themselves. I am fortunate in that regard. My pain has never risen to that level, and this is one of the (many) reasons why I denied mine for so long. I made comparisons to their pain level versus mine. I felt I wasn’t entitled to give credence or voice to my own since it didn’t rise to the same level. I also fell prey to the fallacy that admitting to my own emotional turmoil made me weak, which, in retrospect, was a bit sanctimonious.
The truth is I suffer, at times, from intermittent low-grade depression and anxiety. The anxiety is a relatively recent development over the last four or five years or so. It ranges from the "need to/must do/should do” day-to-day self-flagellation to a full-blown anxiety attack. While the latter is rare, it does happen. The depression has plagued me on and off for the better part of my life. It took me until recently to not only recognize that truth but to admit to it.
So listen up there, Sparky. Stop making excuses for your pain, stop ignoring it, and stop sweeping it under the rug. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favors. Yes, what you are going through may seem minor in comparison to others. Then again, it may be a lot more severe and deep-seated than others. It’s not a comparison game. It’s not a game at all. It’s simply your reality. And it’s time to face it.
Step Two - Identify
So now you’ve admitted that something is amiss. You're not okay. You have come to terms with the fact that in and of itself, THAT is OKAY. Right? Right.
Take a deep breath, get a pen and paper, and begin laying the groundwork to identify what it is you are experiencing. You may want to start a log or a journal. Get as much information down as you can. It may be hard. It may be scary. It may hurt. Do it anyway. It's going to be a lot harder to deny it or ignore it once you can see it in black and white. Here are some prompts:
Can you give it a name? Anxiety? Depression? Loneliness? Mood swings? Anger? Fear? Grief? Some or all of the above?
Can you describe what you are feeling internally when it happens? Despondent? Blue? Anxious? Nervous? Numb?
Can you identify what you are feeling psychically when it happens? Sleepy? Shaky? Nauseated? Disoriented? Tense? Butterflies?
How often does it happen? Once a month? Several days in a row? Day in and day out?
Does it seemingly come out of nowhere? Or can you determine what triggers it? Work? Relationships? Parenting? Body image? Lack of sleep?
There are no right or wrong answers. Nor should you expect to have all of the answers. You're just gathering information to try to identify what is happening within you.
Step Three - Assessment
Go back over your log and start putting it all together to get a better sense of the scale of your pain. Note if there are any patterns, and try to summarize what you are experiencing.
Work stresses me out. Not all the time. But too often. I just can’t relax on those days, and I can feel the tension in my shoulders.
I love being a mom, but being a taxi-driving, lunch-making, PTA board member just isn't enough. I feel directionless and unfulfilled.
I am anxious most days. My hands are shaky, and my heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest.
I feel sad daily. I have trouble sleeping, yet I am sleepy all the time. I cannot figure out why I feel this way. I just do.
I get angry so often. The littlest things can set me off. Once I’m angry, I find it difficult to calm down.
Step Four - Put It On A Scale and Source It
Now that you have identified and assessed what you are experiencing, try to put it on a scale. And, if you can, identify the source.
My depression is always at a level 8. I have no idea why.
My anxiety is sometimes at a level 3. It’s usually triggered by work.
My thoughts of shame are often at a level 7. What happened to me is all my fault.
My emptiness is regularly at a level 5. I don’t feel fulfilled in my relationship.
My feelings of guilt occur daily a level 6. I’m not a good enough mother.
Again, there are no right or wrongs here. You're just getting a better handle on what is happening within you so that you can determine the best course of action - for you.
Step Five - Take Action
I’m going to be blunt again: doing nothing is not an option. Feeling guilty about it, making excuses for it, ignoring it, or white-knuckling it until it goes away. Not. Options.
First and foremost, ask yourself if you need to see a medical professional or licensed therapist. Be honest. If you’re at a high level on the scale, or what you experience is "often," "regularly," or "daily," you may very well need to. So do it. Make that call.
You know how the flight attendant tells you that you have to first put on your own oxygen mask first and thenput them on your children? Well, that's one big ole' life analogy. It's called self-care. You've heard of it. You don't need to Google what self-care means. You just need to do it.
If you are someone who simply needs more tools in the self-care toolbox, there is a plethora of options. You just have to find what works for you. If you are someone who needs to seek professional help, these tools can be used as well - only in addition to, not instead of.
This time - you get to use Google! You will find article after article giving you ideas for what to do when you’re feeling crappy. There's the usual list (all of which are valid and can be useful) such as:
Reach out to a friend or family member.
Exercise. Drink more water. Eat a more healthy diet.
Get outside. Breathe fresh air.
Meditate. Do yoga.
Take a nap, a long bath or read a book.
Keep a journal.
Find a hobby
Join a support group.
However, taking action isn’t always as easy as these articles or the memes, motivational quotes (guilty of posting them) and Tik Toks flooding our social media make it out to be. It can be a real mind-over-matter dilemma - which is made all harder because you’re already not feeling your best. These are some things standing in your way that I don’t often see discussed:
Sadness and pain can be so very addictive. So, by definition, it can keep a hold on you. It is, at least to me, one of life’s biggest mysteries.
Inertia is a bitch. In the moment, it may seem so much easier to wallow, to ignore, to deny. But we all know that doesn't solve the problem and often makes it worse.
You know what misery loves, right? Company. YOUR company.
I certainly suffer from inertia. I know what usually works for me - cranking up some 80s alternative music (Dark and twisted Depeche Mode or Cure lyrics are oddly motivating. I try not to over-analyze that particular paradox that lies beneath...) And yet, sometimes I still just wallow. So, if you’re like me, you may have to find some tricks to outsmart yourself. For example, I know if I schedule a time to go smack around a tennis ball with my son (“game” would be overstating the activity), it will get me going. Since I’ve made the commitment to my child - I will follow through. From there, it’s a win-win. I’m spending quality time with my kid. I’m exercising. I’ve gotten my mind off the matter. And I’ve overcome the inertia - a body in motion tends to stay in motion.
Here are a few other tricks I like:
The 15 Minute Pity Party (with Flex Time). If Beyoncè can have one, so can you.
Sing Your Life. Seriously. Answer questions with lyrics. Break into song whenever one pops in your head. Whether in public or not. You might get some strange looks, but who cares? It's not about them. It's about you.
Smile. At yourself. In the mirror. Without fail, someone is smiling back at you. Smiling selfies work too - but no critiques. Focus on the smile only.
Whistle While You Work. There’s a reason we all know the names of the Seven Dwarfs.
Amass Mantras. No single one works for every situation, at least for me, so I like to have an arsenal. They can be very effective in the moment.
o Just Breathe
o I Am Enough
o This Too Shall Pass
o She Believed She Could, So She Did
o I Am The Sky - Everything Else Is Just Weather Passing Through Me
A Tattoo That’s Always Visible To You. I really can’t recommend it, but I can’t not either. Having “gratitude” on my wrist is pretty hard to ignore.
Inspirational Bracelets or Rings. In lieu of permanently inking yourself, putting something on your wrist or hands that inspires or motivates you can be gentle reminders as well. I personally love inscribed leather cuffs.
Use Your Hands To Divert Your Mind. Plan and plant a garden, take a stab at any kind of art, paint your room. The mind tends to focus on what the hands are doing, and it can be a great way to reduce the noise factor in your head.
Stop And Smell The Roses. This is not something I innately do, but I have trained myself to do it. Just stopping for a quick moment to notice the beauty that is there right in front of you or at your feet can be an instant pick-me-up.
It’s Okay To Not Be Okay - AND - You’ve Got To Take Action
As I said, I’m know I’m a bit outside my lane here. I’m not a mental health expert. I don’t make a habit of doling out instructions or advice. I’m just someone who for the better part of her life did not know most this as it applied to me. Even if I had known it, I likely would have been dismissive. I wouldn’t have believed it, at least not on a gut level, like I do now. Had I been built otherwise I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary pain layered on top of the already existing pain.
So, I hope you will give me a little bit of latitude for veering off my usual course and for my bluntness. It all comes from a place of love, care and concern. I hope that by sharing these thoughts someone out there may find a way to give validity to their pain, to give it a voice, and to find their way to the help they may need - in whatever form that takes.
One day, I hope, this universal truth will be universally accepted: Mental. Health. Matters.