It's okay not to be okay; there's nothing to be ashamed of
Given many of the stories and lessons in this series, it may not be surprising to read that I have been living with high-functioning “undiagnosed” depression and anxiety for most of my life. But it is still tremendously hard for me to name, which makes it even more important to name it. I have no rational “reason” to be depressed or anxious, and yet these feelings are always there, lurking just below the surface, always within consciousness, just an incident or moment away from attacking. There are days when the darkness is so profound I can’t see through it, nights when the banging of my racing heart keeps me awake. I struggle with deep-seeded insecurities about my appearance and my intelligence. I am afraid of ostracization and rejection, of failure and being a disappointment. I seek praise and affirmation at the same time as I experience extreme discomfort when receiving compliments. Sometimes I break down crying without truly knowing why. Other times, I avoid human contact because it feels like everyone is out to get me, judge me, and tear me down. No matter what I accomplish, there is a persistent echo that nothing I do is enough, that somebody is going to discover that I am a fraud and don’t deserve the recognition or love I receive.
Society tells us that we should always be happy, that we should be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in the face of tragedy, trauma, or grief. Suffering is all around us, yet we are expected not to suffer. Our televisions, radios, and podcasts spew endless negative narratives, while social media taunts us with the golden and seemingly perfect lives of others. I am guilty of donning a fake smile, of saying I’m fine when I’m not, of trying to portray myself on Facebook as a relentless beacon of hope. I am guilty of spending longer in the bathroom so that my coworkers can’t see that I have been crying, of faking happiness until it resembles reality, of burying my feelings to look stronger and more resilient, to look like the person I think others expect me to be. However, I have realized that in hiding, masking, or ignoring the moments when I am not okay, I do a disservice to the people around me, the people I serve, and to myself. Sometimes, I am not okay. Other times I am REALLY not okay. Sometimes my sadness is a perfectly reasonable response to the tragedies I witness. Other times, grief is random but just as real and all-encompassing. And all of these moments are as much a part of my life, my very human experience, as the moments when I am truly just fine, even great. I have learned and am working on living into the notion that there is no weakness or shame in not being okay; there is instead strength and courage in being vulnerable, and pride in overcoming and even honoring the adversity that shapes us.
I have been in and out of therapy for most of the last decade and I have learned that the depression, anxiety, and profound unpleasant emotions that I regularly experience do not discredit me as a person on this earth and they do not disavow or depreciate my gifts or value. In admitting when I feel like a shadow of myself, when I do not have control of my emotions, or when I am not okay, I am forced to acknowledge that “I” am not defined by the deafening and resounding inner monologue that tells me I “am” hopeless, helpless, irredeemable, damaged, unlovable, or a failure. I am also forced to not be alone in my suffering and to trust that others will not turn their backs on me when I am most vulnerable, both terrifying thoughts when I am at my lowest. But if I am in such an emotionally crippled state that I can’t see the inconsistencies between my depressed and anxious self and my true inner self, sharing my experience and my pain allows others to step up with validation or affirmation, with an encouraging word or a very long hug. I have found that despite my fears and limiting beliefs, people are usually more likely to ask what I need than they are to judge or ridicule. There is healing power in this solidarity (so long as the people we confide in do not veer into the territory of unsolicited and unwanted advice), and by letting others into our not-okayness, we give permission for them to do the same, to name their own demons without embarrassment, to open into space for togetherness rather than isolation. We do not need to suffer alone, with shame, and without support. I must remind myself that it is not only okay to not be okay, it is normal.
Several years ago, I attended a spiritual retreat while in the midst of a personal and professional crisis. Earlier that month, three of my middle school girls had been sexually assaulted in a stairwell by older boys in a co-located school. I heard their screams. I held their tear-stained hands. I had to tell their parents. I watched two barely sixteen-year-old boys get escorted out in handcuffs. It broke me. I know and knew it wasn’t my fault, but it happened on my watch, and in the context of an already traumatic year, I could not let it go. There was no part of me that was okay. I dreamt about it, experienced intense heart palpitations, and broke down crying any time anybody made eye contact. I couldn’t eat without feeling sick, couldn’t watch TV without being reminded, couldn’t smile without feeling immense guilt. My sadness was reasonable, but the depth of the sadness was beyond penetration. I considered not going to the retreat about a dozen times before forcing myself out the door and into the car for the three-hour drive. I thought it would be a good escape, a potential opportunity to be distracted amongst friends I trusted. However, when I got there and walked through the doors, one of my spiritual mentors bee-lined across the room and wrapped me in her arms. She would not let go. When I fidgeted, she gripped harder. I started weeping. “I know it hurts,” she whispered, “it’s okay to not be okay. What do you need?” This person knew nothing about what had been going on in my life and literally felt my grief from across the room. And instead of asking me why I was sad or giving me advice about how to fix it, she sat with me in my not-okayness, validating me for where I was rather than where she or anyone else wanted me to be. Over the course of the weekend, she bore witness to my pain and accompanied me in my grief. She saw me, heard me, and affirmed me without a morsel of judgment or degradation. Because it was okay to not be okay, I began a slow journey toward healing and the dim light at the end of a very long tunnel.