On Mondays, We Talk About Mental Health [On Gratitude]
So, I've been very clear about not really knowing what this project is or what it will turn into. But one thing that I know for sure is that I want this to be a place where I can acknowledge things that aren't often acknowledged. Specifically, the various ways that my anxiety shows up in my daily life. So, on Mondays, we talk about mental health. One day, maybe society will teach us to view talking and caring for our brains the same way that we think and talk about our bodies, but until then (and probs even after) I'll do it this way.
It's late November. Officially "The Holiday Season", whatever that means. There's music about cold weather and mythical creatures, spicy festive beverages, ugly sweaters, calorically dense foods, and twinkling lights everywhere. I'm sure it's supposed to be a good time, but like many people this time of year is really difficult for me.
This is a time of the year that, at least commercially, is marked by spending time with family, warm fires, loving moments, gifts, large meals, smiling faces, heartfelt conversations, the warmest of the warm-fuzzies, All things that while I can recognize them as generally positive and happy, just make me feel like there's a hole in my heart. Don't get me wrong, I love a good peppermint mocha as much as anybody, but as someone with a complicated relationship with the holidays, and an even more complicated situation regarding my family or origin, all of these joyous symbols remind me of some of my worst memories, not my best.
I once got had a conversation with a roommate about this. She was one of two people at my college at the time that I trusted enough to tell that I was going to be staying on campus over break. I lived there full-time and didn’t have any other "home" to go to, but I didn't make that public knowledge. It was an incredibly difficult thing to share, and something that in my 4 years I only told a select number of people, partly because of her response. She looked at me and very casually said “You know, you’re really lucky. Being basically an orphan means you don’t have to deal with the annoying parts of being in a family or the pressure to go home and spend time with them. You don't have anyone to make you feel bad for wanting to just stay on campus and work.”
In that moment it became clear to me how much people take familial relationships for granted. It became clear to me that it never occurred to her that maybe coming from an unhealthy, abusive home situation actually means that you get all of the “annoying parts” of being in a family, but none of the positives. it became clear to me that she had no concept for how lonely it can be to be one of maybe 20 people on a college campus during a holiday break. The only car in the parking lot. It became clear to me that even though I explained to her that it wasn't optional, she couldn't conceptualize my staying on campus as anything other than a choice because she had no frame of reference for someone not having a family or a home to go to for Christmas. Side note: It also clearly didn’t occur to her that you should NEVER tell someone that they’re lucky that they’re “basically an orphan”, but that’s a whole different story.
Now I'm a big ol' introvert, but that break was one of the hardest stints of alone time that I've ever experienced. But it caused me to realize (not instantly, god no it took years and lots of therapy) that I can’t really expect people to understand things that I’m not willing to openly talk about. This doesn’t mean that I now share everything with everyone, but it means that If I don’t share my deep hurts with the people closest to me, they just get deeper. It also means that people, even people I love, will say things that are typical and often trite, but that cause me pain. They have absolutely no idea that they’re being insensitive, but by trying to protect myself, I'm actually getting in my own way.
My support system, or my family of choice, is a tribe of people who love me. I use the word tribe very intentionally because it signifies a bond that is very real, but one that can grow and change for no reason other than the fact that people choose to be in kinship with each other for the foreseeable future. For the people that I call my family, loving me is optional, and honestly now I think that's kind of cool, but I used to be incredibly embarrassed by it. I would do all that I could to get out of talking about my “family” because I didn’t really know how to make it make sense to people. I'd talk about my friends, and they'd say "No, your REAL family". I say I don't want to talk about it. They insist, I say "I don't have one". Things get real awkward real fast.
I was also embarrassed because it felt like the fact that I didn't have those so-called easy or default relationships meant that I had to lean on my friends more than I 'should'. I became worried that I was 'too much'. But I've learned that to the people who matter, my 'too much' is just enough. My family chose me, and I chose them, and we continue to choose each other. The fact that we're not blood won't matter until someone needs a kidney, and even then blood only increases the likelihood that things will all line up perfectly. That's a risk I'm willing to take.
So, this post is about Gratitude.
I'm grateful that I have access to resources and mental health professionals. Access to books, programs, and therapy has been essential to my processing my growing up and the aspects of it that I still deal with daily.
I'm grateful for the little things. Handwritten notes, coffee dates, conversations.
I'm grateful that for the past few years, I've had friends who's families have opened their homes to me and welcomed me into their traditions, not taking 'It's fine I never did that as a kid' as an answer.
I'm grateful as hell that I have people in my life who care about me, who chose me, and who are there for me.
I'm grateful for the fact that I don't have to be ashamed anymore. My story is mine and while it may make some people a little uncomfortable, it also makes me who I am, and that's something that I'll always be grateful for,