By Kovie Biakolo
After a week of waking up with sensations of anxiety, things reached their bleakest point last Friday when I had to take a mental health day off. I cancelled almost every commitment, meeting, project, class assignment, teaching task, grading, writing piece, etc. I had planned to do, and spent the whole day in bed. Sooner or later I did start writing something that only had the effect of opening up old wounds or maybe finally dealing with them. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Or maybe it wasn’t so much a straw that broke the camel’s back as it was the trigger of strong feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Then came the feelings of emotional and physical paralysis. I couldn’t do anything; I felt like I just couldn’t do anything. So I cried. No, it wasn’t just one glistening tear or a few moments of “letting it out.” I sat in my bed and cried pretty regularly throughout the day. Anxiety, stress, tears, panic, and well, more tears, and more anxiety. This isn’t “normal.” And yet it seems not so abnormal for twenty somethings.
I’ve had a few days like this in the past; I can count them all on one hand. Apart from having to, or rather trying to, learn what it means to be a vulnerable person in my adulthood and diminishing my fears of being perceived as weak, I’ve also known that mental health is something that always needs attention. Having had loved ones who suffered and suffer from mental health illnesses, I am aware; I am always aware.
Yet I am also aware both from education, (Thank you Social Construction of Health class.) and experience, that how we speak of and deal with anxiety today is the result of the medicalization of well, just about everything we may perceive as negative. Now don’t get me wrong. There are people with both mild and serious mental health illnesses who benefit greatly from therapy – simply needing someone objective to talk to – and drugs – that help with the chemical composition of the brain. It’s a good thing and it is a necessary thing for people who struggle with their mental health.
But there are also people like me – who are caught up in their twenty something life and are maybe in transition of some sorts in that life (Check) or dealing with particular stressors (Check) or facing difficult decisions (Maybe?), that just need to take a day off or two. Maybe go for a run. Maybe indulge in some prayer and meditation. Maybe do some yoga. Maybe get some acupuncture done. Maybe get a massage or reflexology. Or maybe call your mother and cry some more. Maybe, all of the above.
I think anxiety is the new normal of the twenty something life. How can it not be? A generation that much was expected from is seemingly not living up to expectations. That aside, the twenties are a transition now more than ever from essentially being a child to being an adult, and all the professional, financial, personal, and spiritual challenges that go along with that. I wish I could take my dad’s advice and remember, “Growing up is not easy, so take it easy.” That is sound advice, isn’t it?
But I think instead, we medicate. I’ve always medicated by overworking. Sometimes over-exercising. Sometimes over-consuming food or alcohol. And indeed it is not limited to these for many in my generation. Sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes it’s sex; it can be anything, and it can be everything. Of course the problem with medicating with things you shouldn’t, or things you shouldn’t do too much, is that it catches up with you. And maybe only has the effect of making you more anxious. Eventually, you break down. Maybe all you need is a mental health day, and a day or two to get it together. That’s what I needed. Maybe you need more. Get help if you need more. Either way, you don’t have to face your twenty something anxieties alone.
I’m anxious about the future – not in ten years. The six-month future. Sometimes I wish I could just fast-forward to it because I think in that place, I will be 100%. Except we’re never 100%. In six months, I’ll have a different set of challenges to solve. Maybe I won’t need a mental health day but none of us are ever problem-free. Until we’re dead of course. But I’d be happy to put that off for a few more decades or so.
So make a list of what you can and can’t control, and focus on the former and leave the latter to the heavens. It helps. Counting your blessings help. Keeping your life and lifestyle in moderation helps; talking helps. You are not your anxiety, your worries, or your problems. These things will pass because they always do. Moreover they might be part of the big picture of your life but they are not the picture itself. Never lose sight of that big picture; there are thorns to be painted along with the roses. And the picture will always be more beautiful because of it.