How are you, Really?
How many times have you asked someone how they are doing, but didn't really hear or digest the answer? How many times has someone asked you "How are you?" and you said "Okay!" when in reality you were anything but?
It's easy to think that everyone is living their best life. It's well documented that social media tends to be a highlight reel that conveniently doesn't show all the times you get up early to go to the gym before work but forget shampoo, underwear and your left shoe and have to make a return trip only to spill coffee on your shirt. People don't often casually talk about the days when it's too hard to get out of bed, or shower, or when anxiety is so crippling that you feel like you might shatter.
I know this, because during my sophomore year in college, I was "Great!". I was on the varsity crew team, I was in a society, I worked two jobs, went to all the social events and crushed my school work. I was the "I don't know how you do it all!" girl. But under the perfectly put-together exterior, I wasn't actually doing well at all. I was barely sleeping; a 4:45 am practice time and pressure to always be getting stronger and faster for the team meant late nights and early mornings, falling asleep on the bus on the way to my job and accidentally sleeping through classes. An unhealthy living environment and acrimonious changes in friendships left me with no space to call my own and constant worry. But looking at the photos from my sophomore year (some interspersed in this post), you would never know.
Some seemingly insurmountable situational factors on top of sleep deprivation added up to leave me feeling sad, anxious and isolated. More than that, everyone around me seemed to be handling similar pressures with ease and simplicity. All the friends I talked to were doing great, having fun, and achieving highly. It seemed like I was the only one with the problem, so I did what any anxious overachiever would do; I buried it. Shoved all those feelings down into a little box, locked them up, and only let them out when I was somewhere alone; for most of spring 2012 I had anxiety attacks multiple times a week.
And, even though I was a psych major, even though I know how shame and stigma can perpetuate anxiety and other mental illnesses, not once did I actually tell anyone I wasn't okay when they asked. My concern was two-fold; everyone asks how you are doing to be polite, but did they really want to hear it? and In my mind, I always had it all together, so who was I if I admitted that I didn't?
Eventually, things got better. I met with the school mental health center, with the sweet psychologist I met with looking a little stunned when I unloaded everything on her. More than anything else she said that day, her re-assurance that how I was feeling was understandable considering everything was hands down one of the most validating experiences of my entire life. I walked out of the office so grateful to have had someone really listen and hear what I was experiencing.
After that semester, I went abroad and had a lot of time to work on things before coming back. And when I did return to school, I stopped spending time with people who made me feel like I wasn't good enough, I started exercising for fun instead of just to achieve something. I started really allowing myself to have my emotions, rather than being angry or upset with myself for not feeling in control. It's a work in progress, and somedays are better than others. I definitely still tend toward type-A, anxious, over analyzing, but in a way that isn't so debilitating.
One of the biggest changes I have made though, was to I start being honest when people asked me how I was. "Busy, but good!" was replaced with "You know, I'm actually having a kind of hard time right now...". As someone who works in mental health, it is so important to me to be honest- both for myself and for everyone else. To my initial surprise, more often than not my honestly was met with "Me too", and a conversation that showed us both we aren't as alone as we might have thought.
So, for #mentalhealthmonth , I'd love to encourage you to start honestly asking "How are you, really?". And, if you can be brave with me, to start answering it honestly too.