Learning to Cope with My Mental Health

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dear readers,

This blog post has been a long time coming. It's about my adulting existential crisis and my struggle to climb this proverbial hump in my life. The last two years, I have not shared much on the blog because I felt like I lost my passion for life. I felt numb to things going on around me, with my head in the fog and no clear day in sight. Some may call this being depressed. But whatever you call it, the main point is that I was not feeling "OK" and few days went by without me asking myself what was wrong with me.

Mental health is a real problem and I just want to give some space to address it here on the blog. October is World Mental Health Month so I wanted to write a post talking about my own experiences dealing with mental health in case this helps anyone who comes across my blog. This is a look beneath the surface of someone who seems super happy all the time. For a while, I was wondering if I was always going to feel this hopeless. I'm happy to tell my past self, no, things can get better. Hindsight is always 20/20. Now that I'm in a much better place, I feel ready to share these feelings with more clarity.

What’s in this post

  1. A Downward Spiral of Negative Emotions
  2. Things That Has Improved My Mental Health
  3. Woman's Search for Meaning

Not pictured: J and Dan carrying me up so I can get on top of this hump.

A Downward Spiral of Negative Emotions

I generally have an optimistic disposition in life, so my new feelings of negativity took me by surprise. When I started feeling this way, I had no idea how to deal with it. When I think back to when I started feeling these feelings of anxiety and sadness, I go back to the months I spent in spin class and the inner turmoil that I felt anytime I had the 45 minutes to be by myself and my thoughts.

I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was clearly wrong. Spin class is my happy place. So when I couldn't even feel slightly happy in spin class, I really knew something was wrong. 

Somewhere in between leaving my Peter Pan lifestyle in NYC and moving back to California, I had the realization: This is it. This is where I am going to live for the rest of my life, have a family, go to work, and that's it. I've made the transition to finally becoming a real adult. No one told me that adulting is hard work and is not always rainbows and butterflies. 

My 20s living in NYC was the best. I started growing into my career and was finally making enough money to do all the fun things that I wanted to do in life: travel to new places, going out with friends whenever I wanted to and not really a care in the world. For a hedonist like me, NYC is heaven.

My first months back in California was SOOOO boring. I remember sitting in bed with J at around 8PM, and we looked at each other like, oh god, what just happened? Is this it? We heard crickets. CRICKETS. Coming from living right above Rodeo Bar and hearing live music into the wee hours of the night to the quiet burbs of Northern California was quite the culture shock. But our family is here and from the very beginning of our relationship, J and I knew that we would eventually both move back to California to be closer to our family, so this was a natural progression in life.

Even though I grew up here, I think I might have romanticized what being back would be like. You know the saying, happiness is reality minus expectations. Perhaps my expectations was way too high, especially coming from a city like NYC. I had a very difficult time settling in, but J told me he struggled too. As chill as he is, it was difficult for the both of us.

All of this anxiety was put aside when we got engaged and started to plan our wedding (actually make that weddings -- as I mentioned, we planned two weddings haha). That kept me pretty busy for a while. Soon after this time, we had two sudden deaths in our family. This really pushed me into the deep end. This is the first time that I've experienced death so close to me and I just didn't know how to deal with it. This is partly why I've been so silent for so long. I just didn't know how to be happy in the midst of my own grieving and and the grieving of those so close to me. 

My sadness slowly evolved into a feeling of being numb. I wouldn't say that I felt sad for the last two years, but I was also finding it very difficult to feel excited or happy for prolong periods of time. As a Type 7 on the Enneagram (The Enthusiast), I'm only starting to learn recently that it's OK not to be OK. 

I'm slowly learning that it's okay not to be happy all the time. Sometimes you don't need a reason to not be OK. You might not really know what's bothering you or can't verbalize it. That's OK. 

"What do you have to be sad about? Your life is great! You have a roof above your head and food to eat, just be grateful." 

Reminder: It's not productive to compare someone's reasons to be sad over another's. I MENTALLY know I have a million things to be grateful for, but that doesn't actually make me feel better. For me, finding reasons to be grateful based on other's tragedy and misfortune just made me feel even worse about the current state of the world and drove me down a deeper hole of sadness. "I literally have everything that I can want, so why am I such a terrible ungrateful person." See what I mean? Not helpful.

So, what was helpful? Why, I thought you would never ask. ;)

Things That Has Improved My Mental Health

  1. Read. Towards the end of 2018, I did a challenge at work (yes, even in my sadness, ya girl can still appreciate a good challenge lol) -- a book a week for 12 weeks in Q3 2018. Before this, the last time I really read a book was the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy in 2012 (just keeping it real here okay?!). Reading helped take me out of my own inner swirl and into someone else's more positive thinking. Brain impants don't exist (yet), but this might be the closest you get to it.

    If you are in a negative head space, having new ideas introduced into your brain will likely help you think differently, and hopefully in a more positive direction. My reading habit has stuck beyond this challenge and I'm glad I have rediscovered my love for reading.

    The one book that really sticks out in my mind that made me feel better about life is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I know, this surprised me as well because this book is thiiiiick. And about history. But hear me out here. First, even though this book is about history, a subject that I normally find very dry, Yuval's writing is very approachable, and his storytelling kept me engaged enough to keep reading.

    By the end of the 464 pages, what I gained was better perspective and more historical context for dealing with our current political climate. As I mentioned, the 2016 election really shook me. Sapiens really helped me understand that today is only a tiny bleep in time. This fact made me feel a little bit more hopeful that things can get better, but it might take a lot of bad before we can get to some good. Tim Urban's blog post on Putting Time In Perspective is a good visual of this idea.

    If you decide to read Sapiens, I want to warn you that two of my friends independently became pescatarians after reading this book. Yuval is a vegan and there is one chapter in there that might make you question your meat eating habits. (I'm swayed, but not convinced completely.)

  2. Ask for help. I went to a therapist for the first time. Going to therapy seems pretty common these days, but this is still worth calling out. When I asked my psychiatrist friend if I should go to therapy, he said very matter of factly: "Everyone can benefit from therapy."

    I tend to agree. Even though I felt like I spent a lot of therapy sessions venting about things that felt insignificant, I realized later on that a lot of these things can build up over time and become very significant. I was not brought up to talk about my feelings, so it was nice having someone listen to you uninterrupted for an hour every other week. When I was younger, I could rely on my friends on having a good bitch fest. But these days, we are all busier with life and with work, so I don't want to spend the few precious hours that I see them to bitch the whole time. That's not fun for anyone, so if therapy is something that's accessible to you, do it. Many workplaces now cover therapy as they understand the importance of mental health to keep workers productive. So, take advantage. 

    I actually stopped seeing my therapist after a year because I started to feel better. I know there are people who have seen their therapist for years, but I kind of outgrew mine. Finding a therapist is very much like getting into a relationship. You have to find someone who works for you. For example, a friend told me that her therapist is very prescriptive on things that she should work on, vs the one I went to just let me complain the whole time. I'm ready to get some homework assignments from my therapist to dig deeper.

  3. Turn off social media. I have a love hate relationship with Instagram. It's how I keep in touch with friends these days, but it's also where I go to follow accounts that I do not need in my life. Early in 2018, I deleted Instagram off of my phone completely because I needed a break. The first few days when I deleted the app, I noticed myself aimlessly scrolling through my list of apps, scrolling past the "I" section, and realizing that I was looking for Instagram. My body started doing that before it registered in my brain what was happening. It's an addiction and not necessarily a productive or healthy one. 

    There's many reasons why Instagram is known to be bad for your mental health. Dopamine fasting has become the latest trendy term but I honestly do think there's some validity to that. I'm still regularly trying to limit my own social media time because there's a balance between "keeping in touch with friends" vs endlessly scrolling through a feed trying to get a hit of excitement that's fleeting. Go watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you need more convincing that social media isn't great for you. 

  4. Lean into hobbies. I've embraced my new burb life and have now become a plant lady. If you follow me on Instagram, you can see my entire stories all about my tips for Orchids (No, you're not supposed to throw your orchids away once the blooms fall off...). Gardening and plants have really taught me to enjoy life at a slower speed. It's amazing to see what mother nature creates with just a tiny seed and some water. I've been gardening more and there's a lot of satisfaction in eating a meal with food that you've grown entirely yourself. 

  5. Enjoy nature. Similar to my point above, I've made it a point to get out and enjoy nature more. Living in Northern California gives me a lot of places to go hiking, so I try to go take a walk out in nature as much as I can. On days when I go by myself, I really like listening to an audiobook. Three hours will go by so quickly and going back to point #1, instead of spending time swirling in my own thoughts for the entire time, I enjoy also taking the time to listen to a new perspective and feeling more refreshed having learned something new.

Woman's Search for Meaning

In many ways, I'm very thankful for 2020 because COVID-19 has given me a reason to stay grounded at home. Coming into this year, I was feeling tired all the time. But, I also felt so bad saying "no" to the things that was draining me. Sheltering in place has given me more "me" time to refill my batteries and I've been very grateful for that. 

I want to finish this post by saying that 2020 has and will continue to be a challenging time for many. We've seen studies of people's mental health declining due to isolation and other factors. Given the upcoming election, in the US, we're all bracing ourselves for what's about to come in a country that feels so divided. 

In these times, I want to share a passage with you that I found inspirational and appropriate for the current climate. I know I just mentioned that comparing your own struggles to someone else's is not always a productive activity. However, in some instances it can help provide some perspective on how to deal with a situation. 

In Man's Search for Meaning, Psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl describes his experience in the Nazi concentration camps along with his personal lessons for spiritual survival. He says:
Regarding our "provisional existence" as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: "Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already." Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
The part that hit me the most is, "One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners."

In the last few months, there were many days when I felt completely hopeless. All I wanted to do was vegetate and be a potato all day. However, there were and will be days that are better than others. On those days, I want to remember that if I can muster up the energy, that I should be light and take this time as a time for growth.

Frankl had many examples of people who chose to be light during those dark times. People who made jokes to help lighten the mood for others. People who shared what little they had with others. In these dark times, I want to choose to be light and put a little more positivity into the world. Because god knows we all need more positivity and good vibes in the world right now. 🙏

If you've made it down this far in my post, thank you for listening. I hope you're staying well out there, and feel free to reach out as you're not alone in this!

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