World Mental Health Day: Learning That It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

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Writer’s Note: When I planned out this story, I meant for it to be a happy one. Today is Mental Health Awareness Day and I wanted to show the ways that people suffering from mental health issues could get help. Instead, this piece turned into a cathartic outlet for all the anxiety, stress and health issues I’ve experienced over the last few months.

It’s been more than six months since the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down. Over the course of the year, some of my beliefs surrounding mental health have been challenged, while others have been firmly cemented in my being. I’ve learned to listen to my body and to better advocate for myself and my mental health.

I’ve also learned an extremely important lesson. It’s okay to not be okay.

When the pandemic first struck the U.S., my body quickly went into fight or flight mode. I insulated myself in my childhood home and allowed my anxiety of the virus –– of death itself –– to overwhelm me. A respiratory illness that was never officially diagnosed led me to check my temperature every day for weeks on end. The simple act of walking outside to our backyard was enough to send me into a panic.

Talk and exposure therapy eventually let me overcome my anxiety. I stopped fearing the outside world.

Of course, as any person with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) knows, my anxiety decided to take hold in other ways. Insomnia and incessant overthinking have always been trademarks of my anxiety. By July, these symptoms were becoming all-consuming and were manifesting themselves physically in the form of debilitating migraines.

My insomnia led me to overfill my days and nights with work and new projects. But the sleep deprivation and stress to perform well at work proved to be the prime ingredients for migraines that consumed my entire life. I knew that I needed help, so with a bit of pushing and prodding from my therapist, I sought out a doctor to get me back to “normal.”

My new doctor quickly diagnosed me with migraines with aura, a recurring headache that usually occurs at the same time as sensory disturbances called aura, according to the Mayo Clinic. He placed me on a medicine aimed at preventing my migraines and another to stop the headaches in their tracks.

The medicine had the opposite effect on me. Instead of curing my migraines, the medication triggered a depressive episode and plunged me into a darkness I hadn’t experienced since my mom passed away two years prior. Three weeks into my new regimen, I had to once again listen to my body and tell the doctor I needed to come off the medication because the depression had become too overwhelming.

The depressive episode hit hard. I was crying nearly every day over every little thing. I’d sob myself to sleep and wake up with tears in my eyes. I was withdrawn and going through the motions. Worst of all, I was having suicidal thoughts and an unbearable guilt over the feelings my depression caused.

It was embarrassing having to admit to my doctor and those around me that I was struggling and thinking about death. Having to explain to a doctor (to anyone really) that you’ve thought of all the ways you could kill yourself, while also explaining that you have no plans to actually go through with those plans is not easy.

It took nearly as long as I’d been on the medication to wean myself off. I was soon placed on a new set of medication and within weeks I was going to every type of doctor I could think of to rule out causes for the migraines or address issues that had sprung up.

The migraines have largely stopped and I can recognize that I’m no longer living through a depressive episode. But there is a sadness and guilt that continues to linger. It’s forced me to accept that I won’t always be happy or optimistic. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I won’t always be okay. And that feeling of not being okay is perfectly normal.

A lot of talk surrounding mental health awareness is focused on getting help and returning to the baseline of normal — and that’s important. But it’s also crucial to accept that sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to. Allowing yourself to feel what you feel is important as long as you don’t let it overwhelm you.

So if you need to cry it out or stay in bed for a day? That’s okay. You have tomorrow to be on top of your game, happy or whatever else society expects you to be. It’s also okay if your mental health journey doesn’t coincide with society’s expectations.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.