Girl Talk: In Praise Of Mental Health Days

When I was growing up I had a friend who was as aloof as she was glamorous. She had a way of holding the cutest and most charming boys in her thrall and all the girls wanted her to like them. Whenever she had problems with her romances, her schoolwork, her friends or her family, she was very mysterious about it. Her glass facade never shattered in public and very seldom would she even admit to having problems at all. Some days, random Tuesdays or Thursdays, she wouldn’t be in school, even though she hadn’t looked sick the day before. She would call them her “mental health days.”

She seemed very melodramatic to me, as if this were all just part of her act. But it was also exciting. My mother is a lot like Betty Draper and she would say to me when I was growing up that if I was not bleeding, I was fine. That kind of mothering doesn’t exactly teach someone self-care: if I didn’t want to go to school, I would lock myself in my bedroom and shriek at my mother through the door that I wanted to be left alone. A “mental health day,” on the other hand, sounded so grown-up, like she was taking a “personal day” at the office and we weren’t just a couple of 10th graders. I could imagine my friend calm and collected, attending to her own needs like a cat licking his paws. Maybe it was melodramatic, but it still sounded nice.

If someone else is having troubles or hardship, I can feel myself slipping into their skin, giving advice and aid and fretting over them as if I were the one in crisis. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s exhausting.

I am a raw and intense person. If a teacher yelled at another student in class, I would feel upset as if I had been the one admonished. If I fell in love, I fell hard like a knapsack of textbooks. If I was angry, watch out for my temper’s flare. If I felt sad, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. And if someone criticized me? Forget about it. I would be obsessed for days, running over the words in my head. On those days in middle school and high school when I would lock myself in my room, I’d be a mess: crying for hours and having panic attacks.

I’ve stayed like that through adulthood, only high school has become college and then the working world. And I’ve taken on new behaviors, which can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how they are channeled. I still feel things intensely and I still take on other people’s intense emotions as my own.

If someone else is having troubles or hardship, I can feel myself slipping into their skin, giving advice and aid and fretting over them as if I were the one in crisis. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s exhausting.

And I am a recovering-but-still-struggling workaholic. My brain doesn’t stop thinking about work unless I force it. I’m always thinking about story ideas, looking for articles or patterns or unexplored, new things I want to accomplish, the next big project. In my early-20s, I struggled with feeling like a resume instead of a person; I had no “life” part of the work-life balance equation. I don’t feel like just a resume anymore. I re-prioritized my values, got myself a life and try to practice self-care. But it’s really hard to change old behaviors. I still burn out from being this way sometimes. Chug chug chug chug chug CRASH.

This weekend I just crashed. It was just a confluence of so many stressors at once. Two friends are in trouble and I feel like I can’t help. One of those friends is in so much trouble it’s starting to scare me. Finances are doing their dastardly financial deeds. My boyfriend suffered a major disappointment recently, which compounded into a disappointment for me. He has been traveling so much in the past month that I feel deeply lonely every night. For the first time in years, I hid in a bathroom stall at work and cried because I missed him so much. I have to fly on an airplane on Friday and on Sunday and flying scares the flippin’ bejeebus out of me. And in the midst of all this, I somehow thought it would be a good idea to go to let a bikini waxer rip hot wax off my pudenda. (It wasn’t: I now think I look like a hairless cat.)

Sunday night, I just lost it. I was ticked off at the boyfriend/friends/life about a couple little things that all crashed together at once and a volcano erupted. I started sobbing and dry heaving in this unleashing of momentary despair. It scared me because I couldn’t stop. I haven’t cried much in the past two years, actually. Since I got serious about treating my depression in the summer of 2008, I haven’t felt despair at all. All this sobbing must have been hiding in there, like reserves.

Staring down Monday — real life — felt like a blanket weighing me down. But still my brain does what my brain wants to do. It was telling me: “Write this list of story ideas,” “Work on your book proposal,” “Mail those bills,” “You have book club tomorrow,” “Call the airline,” “Check if she is OK,” “How is he getting to the airport?” and a dozen other little things that make up life. Having to actually do any of those things filled me with terror.

So I decided to do something radical — radical for me. I practiced self-care. I took a mental health day. I walked down a sunny street at two in the afternoon and bought myself a bagel. I streamed indie flicks over Netflix on my iPad. I called my mom and my sister and my brother. I watched trashy TV. I ate half a pint of Haagen-Daz. I did nothing and it was wonderful. And my batteries recharged.

Of course, to paraphrase the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” no mental health day goes swimmingly. More bad things happened on my day of self-care than they did in the past several days prior, making me wonder if I should have hidden in an underground bunker instead of my bed sheets. But at least my batteries were charged enough to deal with what life throws at me next.

Practicing self-care is something that is really hard for me. I suppose that I see needing a break as a sign of weakness. That was one of the hardest things about treating my depression initially: giving myself the permission to not judge myself. Deep down, I know what true weakness is and I know that feeling overwhelmed every once and awhile is not it. I also know that practicing self-care ultimately makes you a stronger person in the long run. Feeling “liberal guilt” is another problem, too; I know there are a lot of people out there who risk losing their job if they don’t show up for a shift. I can’t let those guilty feelings stop me from taking care of myself. It’s all hard, though. It’s really hard.

I will never be feline, I will never be cool as a cucumber, and my facade will always shatter in public. If I’m strong enough to take a mental health day, though, maybe I can convince myself otherwise.

Photo: iStockphoto

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