When I was in graduate school, I'd slip away once or twice a week, between morning teaching and evening classes, to have "coffee with a friend." That's what I told my actual friends, anyway. I told them I had an old friend studying over in the psychology department and we liked to catch up once in a while. "Eh, just a girl you don't know. Be back in a bit."
I didn't have a friend in the psychology department. I had a psychologist.
To be honest, I'm not actually sure what she was. I think probably a PhD student who was getting some kind of practical credit or stipend for counseling students? I just know that I saw that students could get free counseling there, and I needed to talk to someone.
I didn't call it therapy, even for years after. This was I think 2012, and if I had admitted then that I was in therapy, I'm pretty sure the Earth would have opened up and swallowed me whole. My "type" didn't go to therapy. As far as anyone was concerned on the outside, I was a picture of success. My grades were high, I worked multiple jobs with a full course load, and I had an active social life and a loving family. I worked out, had hobbies, and was (surprise surprise) extremely goal-oriented and achievement driven. I didn't do therapy.
But I had to do something, because I felt myself spinning out of control. It was an emotionally heavy season in my life, having gone through a couple of painful breakups, and then losing a friend in a tragic accident. My main coping mechanism was distraction. I loaded my schedule, loaded my responsibilities, collected friends, and kept myself busy. The more I loaded on, the deeper I could hide my emotions away and distract myself with "happy" things. I chased happy really, really, hard, but I couldn't seem to find it, and the things I loaded on myself in the meantime were taxing me more than helping me. But I couldn't stop, because stopping would mean facing the things that were painful.
Don't get me wrong - I didn't have a problem with therapy. I knew how valuable it could be, and I would have encouraged any one of my friends or family to go. You know, because that was really important for OTHER people. It was so hard to wrap my head around the fact that, despite all my hard work and best efforts, it was for ME, too.
If I could go back in time and talk to the me of 2012, I would have told her to go sooner. I would have told her to go longer, and to reflect more, and to do the assignments more thoroughly, and to slow down, and to value that experience.
And I would have told my friends where I was. I've thought so many time, Wouldn't life had been so much easier if I didn't feel like I was hiding? If I could have released my embarrassment? If I could have relied on my friends as the support system they could have been?
Most importantly, I would have told her this:
You don't find happiness, you make it.
You make happiness by facing the things that are hard and painful, seeing them, acknowledging how they hurt you, and then learning to believe that what happened in your life does not define your life. YOU define your life by choosing every day to look for joy; by noticing the good; by slowing down and taking the time to enjoy the good in the little moments, instead of trying to keep hurrying "past" and "forward." I would have reminded her that sometimes it's helpful to pause in the pursuit of happiness, and just be happy.
I've never shared about this before, and if I'm being truthful, almost 10 years later it still makes me nervous... It's been on my heart for a long time, though, and today is World Mental Health Day, so it's time.
Mental Health is Health. Caring for your mental health isn't just something that "other people" do. It's not just for people who are clinically depressed or dealing with trauma. It's not just for crippling anxiety or for handling grief. Mental health is for every one, every day, and through every season.
Caring for our mental health means taking the time to understand what we feel, honestly, and develop responses to those feelings that are healthy and aligned with our lives. It means finding ways to manage our stress and worries on a daily basis, not just when they become "too much." It means creating daily habits that inspire little bits of joy, good energy, clarity, rest, acceptance, connection, faith, health, l0ve, creativity, grace, service, and whatever else fills us up.
It's normal to talk about nutrition and nutrition habits.
It's normal to talk about exercise and workouts.
It's normal to talk about sleep and bedtime routines.
It's normal to talk about mental health and our emotions.
Mental Health is Health.
If you need someone safe to reach out to and you feel a little like I did, like it still feels to hard to share with your "real friends," I get it. And I've got you. I'll be your person. Send me a DM on instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you got this far, thank you for letting me share this. We are all always growing, always healing... and I am remembering to pause here in gratitude for this season of growth. Thank you for being a part of it.