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It's Okay To Not Be Okay

A (Welcome) Cliché Brought To Us By 2020

The year 2020 will have an asterisk beside it in the annals of history for many reasons. It brought discord and division - between nations, states, communities, families, friends and neighbors. It brought violence and destruction. Death and disease. It brought heartbreak, grief and loss.

But not everything 2020 left in its wake was doom and gloom. There were some bright spots too. Hope, community, optimism, and activism were also persistent themes that, while sometimes hard to spot shimmering through all of the muck, are testaments to the resilience, strength and grace running through (most of) humanity.

The year 2020 also smashed a lot of norms and broke a lot of records. A lot. Much of the record-breaking left no cause for celebration - with some notable exceptions, such as the 9-month development of a Covid vaccine after we were told to expect at least 2 years. To list all of the grim record-breakers would surely be an emotional energy suck that none of us needs right now, and we’re all pretty aware of them anyway. There is one record breaker, however, that I am very likely to be the only person expending any mental juice on (admittedly, it’s a pretty odd thing to be ruminating about).

How long must a complex truism exist, be boiled down into a few words or phrases, and then become so embedded into our lexicon that it becomes a cliché?

Being the self-anointed Cliché Queen, one might think I would know the answer to that question. I don’t. But I would be willing to bet something precious to me (okay, semi-precious… okay fine, twenty bucks) that this cliché brought to you by the year 2020 has broken the record: It’s Okay To Not Be Okay.

People love to hate on clichés, and the word itself often has negative connotations. They are dismissed as trite and overused. They are overlooked for stating the obvious. Many of them do indeed state the obvious or self-evident truths. But I, for one, happen to disagree vehemently that these facts warrant giving them the cold shoulder (again, an admittedly strange thing to have strong feelings about - but it’s kinda my bent). Very often, they are complex concepts, constructs and ideals that have simply been dehydrated into a platitude. This is part of what I love about them. By just adding some water, I watch and think and learn and absorb as their underlying notions expand and spread out into my consciousness.

It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, from my purview, is indeed a self-evident truth. But the mere fact that something is true doesn’t make it simple. No matter how cleverly it has been distilled into a catchy little saying (or, in these times, a hashtag), the subject matter beneath its surface is incredibly complex, often misunderstood, and even worse, stigmatized.

I may be an army of one in the advocacy for clichés - but in this case, I think the advocacy is warranted. And whether you love clichés (if so, please join my brigade as it’s a bit lonely over here) or hate them, I think you might agree that this one’s rapid ascension into our lexicon has been a positive. It has markedly elevated the conversation about mental health. It has contributed in no small part to the under-appreciated, pre-pandemic efforts to raise awareness about mental health issues, decrease stigmatization, provide a safe space for people to recognize and voice their pain, and encourage those in need to seek help. It is one of the few gifts brought to us by the year 2020.

The global pandemic brought upon us an avalanche of absolute shit. One could justifiably accuse me of engaging in hyperbole. Only on occasion, I would argue, but I’m open to the debate. In this case, however, I most assuredly am not being hyperbolic. It UNDENIABLY brought an avalanche of ABSOLUTE SHIT. And none of us has been immune from it. Whether that be the disease itself - or the effects of it.

The Covid tentacles wound their way into, and exposed cracks in, our political, education, law enforcement, social justice, and healthcare systems. Each of us has suffered in one way or another - death (being at the top of the list, of course); a terrible bout with the disease and its lingering effects; financial hardships or ruin; lost wages, lost jobs, lost businesses; social isolation; cancelled weddings, graduations, birthday parties, holiday gatherings; parents and caregivers turned into teachers, playmates and coaches (and therefore, on the plus side perhaps, world-class jugglers); teachers forced into a trial-by-fire educational experiment via Zoom; inundated and overwhelmed hospitals, medical staff and pharmacies; grocery store employees, post office workers and trash collectors all unwittingly saddled with “essential worker” burdens without commensurate pay; pervasive fear and anxiety for ourselves and for others…the list goes on and on. But, good God, I have to end it there lest I leave this page and start tweeting, “I’m not okay. #ItsOkayToNotBeOkay”. So much for skirting around the emotional energy suck. Apologies.

As rapidly as the pandemic was upon us along with its myriad trickle-down effects, so too was a sharp rise in mental health issues. It has exacerbated existing ones, and it has created new ones. Some will prove to be situational. Some will be long lasting. Based solely off of my own experiences and observations, I fear that the current population, especially young people, have developed or will develop such conditions as germaphobia, anxiety, depression, chronic insomnia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder in higher numbers than ever before. Doctors are giving out scripts for anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications like candy. Okay, you got me. That’s a bit hyperbolic. But there has been a sharp increase in their numbers, even as people’s access to mental healthcare providers has been diminished. Although born of necessity as doctors do their best to help people in need in the face of increasingly limited time and resources, the unfortunate combination of those two things is in and of itself deeply concerning. So, I would humbly ask for a pass on the hyperbole.

I must note that my use of the terms “mental health” and “mental health issues” in this article encompasses two VERY broad camps: (i) serious issues that require medical attention and assistance, and (ii) issues that do not rise to such level but are issues nonetheless. By way of example only, people experiencing situational, short-term depression and people experiencing depression caused by a chemical imbalance are both people who are SUFFERING. One is more serious than the other from a medical perspective, and I am not a medical professional, therapist, social worker or counselor. I am speaking here solely to the dialogue (both internal and external) about mental health issues and suffering, no matter the scale.

While the pandemic brought on the above-mentioned deluge of feces and a concomitant rise in mental health issues, it also brought us It’s Okay To Not Be Okay. Before the pandemic, there was much needed growth in conversations about mental health awareness and the need for destigmatization. During and after, those needs are all the more critical. The rampant and relentless disease and its consequences have led to a globally shared experience of pain and suffering. While perhaps counterintuitive, from a mental health awareness perspective, this is actually a positive. Shared experiences can lead to unity, community, support, understanding and empathy. And I think that is something we see happening here. A bright spot glimmering in the muck.

I would argue that the newly minted cliché is a new and useful tool in the fight to bring more awareness of, and conversations about, mental health. That it has encouraged people to recognize and address their own personal struggles. That it has helped to create a safer space for people to do so. And, I hope, it has made significant inroads in destigmatizing mental health issues - not just from external judgment, but internal as well. The increased level of awareness, empathy, and “authorization” to speak one’s truth born partially from the viral spread of It’s Okay To Not Be Okay hasn’t solved the problems. (Fair enough if you can forgive my previous use of hyperbole but not the pun - perhaps a bridge too far.). The stigmas still exist. The lack of understanding still exists. As do fears of talking about ones’ pain. Obviously, one little cliché won’t be a panacea, but its swift addition into our lexicon surely has made some dents. With time, and the elevated conversations, I hope it will prove to be a notable step forward in (i) the external battles we face in destigmatizing mental health issues, (ii) the internal battles we face in recognizing and admitting to our own suffering, (iii) giving space and permission to voice the pain, and (iv) to allow and encourage ourselves and others to seek the help that is needed - whether it be from a professional, a friend or within our own selves.

I certainly wish I’d had this tool in my toolbox much sooner in life. Today, I can safely say Duh, in response to It’s Okay To Not Be Okay as it applies to me. That wasn’t always the case. And that’s not to say it’s become easy. I have loved ones who suffer from mental health issues - both chemical and situational. I have never found fault with, passed judgment on, or felt derision for, others’ mental health struggles. Thankfully, being judgy of others isn’t among my (many) faults. But when it comes to my own mental health, I can’t say the same is true. I didn’t know until I was in my 40s that it was okay for ME to not be okay. It simply didn’t exist in my internal dialogue. For most of my life, I never felt safe or brave enough to admit to, much less talk about, the times where I have struggled. And even though I believe in the truism, I’d be lying if I said admitting to not being okay when I am not, and asking for help, has become effortless. Sometimes, it’s still a battle. And while I may not judge others, plenty of people most certainly do. And, like me, plenty of people place judgment upon themselves.

Perhaps this is one cliché that will not be dismissed as trite. One that’s import will not be overlooked. One that will be used over and over again, not until it wears itself out, but until such time as everyone can understand and believe this self-evident truth. One that will be an empowering tool for people to recognize their pain, give it voice and validation, and find the help they need - in whatever form that may be.

So I, for one, will endeavor to raise my hand more often and say “I am not okay” when I am not. And while the invitation to join my little army of cliché warriors stands, I understand that it’s a weird little group so it won’t hurt my feelings if you decline. But being part of the group that extends grace, humanity, empathy and understanding to the complex constructs underlying It’s Okay To Not Be Okay to themselves and to others is not weird. It’s what all the cool kids are doing. So, at the very least, join us in that.

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can change the world.

- Howard Zinn

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