One year ago this week, I wrote the article that has been reposted below. It was one of the most difficult, but also one of the most impactful articles that I have ever written; today I choose to share it again.
I’d like to briefly reflect on the past year in terms of this article. As I re-read, I am struck first by the things that haven’t changed. I am still doing the same kinds of self-discovery exercises, and they are still just as unpleasant as they were back then. I wish I could tell you that since this time last year, I no longer have a rabbit hole, no longer deal with feelings of worthlessness and am confident and comfortable with who I am, especially alone. Unfortunately…I think that it will take me more than a year to address all of that.
However! I do believe that I have made progress, if only in that I am actively aware of all of these processes happening in my brain. I’ve become quite good at recognising the rabbit hole as it approaches, and even if this doesn’t always stop me from falling into it, at least it gives me a chance to react and observe. I have actually been able to prevent the dive, and have even managed to pull myself out of the rabbit hole a few times, rather than relying on friends/loved ones or sleeping it off (the human equivalent of “have you tried turning it off and turning it back on?” #supereffective but is definitely only a short-term solution…regrettably).
After having accepted and broadcast the fact that I am not OK, I’ve started looking at *why* I am not OK. Or, more accurately, where do the negative thoughts come from? When did the rabbit hole appear, and will it be there forever? Why do I (sometimes) feel worthless? How is it that I don’t know who I am?? I explored these issues recently in exchanges with a few friends, and I’m starting to feel like I might be on the right track to finding some answers. Remember, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one!
I honestly believe this is where most people get caught, like I did – we refuse to admit that we are not OK, and just keep pushing forward. In today’s world, where everyone wants to run onwards and upwards as fast as they can, where everyone’s life is on display to be analysed and compared…sometimes the best way to move forward is to just stand still for a moment. You can’t acknowledge, unpack and deal with your baggage if you’re traveling through life in a headlong sprint.
The last thing that struck me as I re-read was that writing the article and sharing everything I did just…no longer seems like such a big deal. When I was initially working on it, I remember being really nervous about publication. I didn’t know how people would react, or even if they would take the time to read it at all. I was afraid to put that part of me out there for everyone to see. Over the past year, I’ve opened up to more people. I’ve been honest about my struggles, and I acknowledge them to myself and others. Not every day is good, but a lot of them are, and I think this personal evolution of being able to talk about not being OK started with my decision to write about it and publish.
I’m reposting this article because it is still relevant, and because I believe that it is important. I’m reposting because one year ago, this article touched people, opened their eyes and opened their minds. I’m reposting because the insidious nature of social media is ubiquitous and potentially deadly. I’m reposting to show everyone that people are not as single-faceted as they might seem.
But most importantly, I’m reposting this article as a reminder to myself that we are always growing, always evolving, and always making progress. Sometimes you sprint, sometimes you rest, sometimes you walk or crawl but you just have to keep thinking, and keep asking questions. Its OK not to be OK, and beyond that, its OK to not *always* be clawing our way onward and upward.
I’ve been sprinting for a while, and I think it might be time for me to be still for a moment. I invite everyone reading this to join me
I Am Not OK
Posted on May 18, 2015
Not the kind that wraps around you like the feeling of sun on your skin and fills you with gratitude for the beauty in your life. Nor the kind of grounded self-reflection that comes from meditation or yoga, where you connect and make peace with your body and soul.
I’m doing the kind of self-reflection that feels like falling from the top of the tallest tree and hitting all the branches on the way down while simultaneously digging a claustrophobic underground passage, scraping the dirt out with my fingers. I know that doesn’t sound very pleasant, and it isn’t. But I need to fall and dig to figure out why I am unhappy.
I denied being unhappy for a long time. To be perfectly honest, I still do. I deny myself the right to be unhappy.
I look around at the world and refuse to accept my unhappiness. I am a privileged white woman who has been given every opportunity. I see any problem I have through the lens of #FirstWorldProblems, and ruthlessly mock myself if I ever take my sadness seriously. I bury it, and focus on externalizing myself as much as possible: I fill my time with activities and outings, I throw myself heart and soul into the business of helping other people in whatever way I can. I believe that I am only worth what I can provide for others, and am afraid of who I am when I’m alone. I am afraid that there is nothing there, and that it is only a matter of time before my externalization ceases to be a distraction. Only a matter of time before everyone realizes that I am nothing, that I am worthless.
Right, ok, so I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole with all of you right now – that isn’t the point. The point is that if you know me and you’re reading this, you are probably at least mildly surprised. Which means that I’ve succeeded! No one outside of a very small group of people knows that I have this kind of rabbit hole. I project the image of the happy, outgoing, privileged young woman that I am.
I think it’s important to mention that I am not sharing this with you because I want sympathy. Nor am I sharing because I want to talk about it – I don’t even know how to think about it, let alone talk about it with other people. You probably wouldn’t take me any more seriously than I take myself, and I couldn’t even blame you. I am sharing it because it is my reality, albeit the reality that I hide from everyone (myself included).
It was a bright, sunny spring morning when I first read Madison Holleran’s story. I was on my way to work and checking Facebook as I walked to the bus when I saw that at least 3 of my friends had posted the same link to an article called Split Image. Madison Holleran was 19 and a freshman student-athlete at UPenn when she committed suicide by taking a running leap off of a 9-story parking garage. The article, which I encourage all of you to read, highlights on the irreconcilable difference between the reality that Madison projected on social media and the reality that she was living in her head. Her family has created the Madison Holleran Foundation in her memory.
Social media means that each person can carefully curate and choose which parts of their life they share with others. We have simultaneously become our own personal brand while also being our own communications/PR firm. Like most entities that manage brand reputations, we pay careful attention to the image we project to the public; the result is a filtered, shiny, commercial version of ourselves. This is fine, as long as we all are aware of and acknowledge that social media identity is only one part of the whole.
Madison’s story hit me like a ton of bricks that fell one at a time as I read; it was only at the end that I even realized I had been buried.
I identified with so much of it. I couldn’t even read the article from start to finish; I had to take a few breaks because no one likes crying or seeing someone cry on public transportation, especially first thing in the morning.
I saw myself in Madison, and based on the reaction within my social group on Facebook, a lot of other people did too. The more I open up to people, the more I realize that I am not the only one with a rabbit hole. The past few months have been nothing if not a constant reverberation of the famous quotation “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Sometimes the battle means not giving up in the face of perceived futility, sometimes it is recreating your life after ending a long and serious relationship. Sometimes the battle is getting out of bed in the morning when your body feels so heavy that movement seems impossible; sometimes it is your body fighting through a life-threatening surgery or illness. Everyone is going through something – no one is perfect and no one should be boiled down to what they display online.
But what can you do when you’re falling down your rabbit hole? I’m still working on answering that question but I discovered a strategy that proved effective yesterday. I was sad to the point of not being able to dismiss or hide it anymore and it all spilled out. Fortunately, I had an audience: my boyfriend. For the first time ever, he saw me fall apart into little pathetic pieces (see what I did there? I used the word “pathetic” to undermine the legitimacy of my feelings. It’s important to notice when we do things like that) and proved himself quite capable of collecting them all and putting them back together.
One moment stands out in particular: I was feeling worthless and my brain was insisting that I was nothing but a waste of time and resources when my boyfriend started listing the names of my closest female friends. He said “but what about…” and just kept going. Friends from all stages of my life, strong, brilliant, wonderful women living all over the world. He reminded me that I was important to each and every one of them, and asked me if I really thought that they could all be wrong about me. I’d heard variations of this argument before, but this time something clicked, and I saw my own destructive self-depreciation in a new light – by insisting that I was nothing, I was insulting the judgement of these women and anyone else who ever cared about me. I am perfectly comfortable insulting myself all day long but I will not stand for anyone insulting the people I love. I realized that I can’t really have it both ways.
The good part about this free-falling, branch-breaking, nail-cracking, burrowing process of self-reflection is that I’m starting to figure out where these feelings come from. I’m starting to identify the events, attitudes and relationships that contributed to creating this mindset, and I’m starting to believe that maybe (just maybe, probably not but just maybe) these feelings are not an inevitable part of who I am. That they might be my reality, but that reality, even my own, is subjective.
I may not have very much in common with you, but I know that we share or will share at least one experience: going from academia to the “real world.” Much of my own insecurity comes from the fact that I am *still* trying to figure out how to be an adult. The transition doesn’t happen as soon as you start your first job out of school, it lasts much longer than that. I earned my most recent degree two years ago, and I still feel as though I am in the thick of the transitional period. I don’t know where I’m going, I’m just blundering around trying to do the best I can without breaking anything while feeling like everyone else has their shit together.
As a student, your life is linear. There’s a start (first day of school), a middle (all the other days) and an end (graduation). You may go through a whole hell of a lot in between, but you are given a clear path (if you choose to follow it). Once you leave school, no one is around to give you a path and nothing is linear. You have to create your own path, choose your own direction; you have to make it on your own. This is a big deal. Just because everyone has been there, doesn’t mean that it is easy.
Remember that whatever you’re going through is ok. Your feelings are ok. You might not be ok right now, but you will be ok in the future. You have value, and you contribute to the world in ways you might not even notice. Don’t compare your life to the lives that people choose to show you. If you visited my Facebook profile, you would never know that my life was anything but fun-filled, successful and happy. If you met me at a party or through a mutual friend, you might be impressed by what I’ve accomplished and might remember me for my positive energy. These are genuine parts of me, but they are only parts, not the whole.
Underneath, I am not ok. However, I am working hard to be ok, and am learning a lot about myself and others in the process. No one likes choosing to fall out of a tree or dig tunnels with their hands. But this is exactly why you cannot take what you see at face value: people who look like they’re dancing through life might be digging tunnels at night. People who smile and joke with you at work might be sitting on the edge of their own rabbit hole, legs dangling into the abyss.
I am not ok, but that’s alright. I have people that love me, and I love them. People who care about me and stand by me and refuse to let me give up. You have people like that too – think about them. Make a list if it helps. I didn’t think I could open up, didn’t think that people would believe me or support me…and I have never been happier to be wrong.
Don’t compare your life – with all of the struggles, feelings and battles that go along with life – to what you see on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Don’t assume that just because someone appears to have their shit together that they do. Maybe so, and more power to them. But that doesn’t mean that they have never struggled.
Most of us don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s fine.
A lot of us aren’t ok, and that’s also fine.
It’s called life. And everything will be ok.