Our Youth Is Fleeting, Old Age Is Just Around The Bend

I recently had dinner with an old friend to make up for lost time. For hours, we sat and reminisced on old memories and caught up on months of missed news. Our lives have always been like that — a handful of dinner dates planted sporadically throughout the year just to catch up. I’m not quite sure if this is an indicator of a friendship fraying at the ends, or if it’s a testament to our busy lives. But on that day, I shared with my friend the news of my new job, future plans to move, and talked about my upcoming graduation.

I was waiting on happiness. Support. Encouragement. But what I received was bitterness. Resentment. Oh poor you. Your life is so hard. You’re just lucky. Simple words, maybe, but words heavy enough to minimize everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve.

And so, I sit here on the eve of my graduation from graduate school, looking back on the road I’ve walked the last three years — all the bumps, twists, turns, and detours that it took to get me to where I stand today. Because if I sat here and told you that I spent the last couple of months tying up loose ends, studying for and taking my comprehensive and licensing exams, gathering up the paperwork I need for licensure, finishing up my semester, taking finals, wrapping up at my internship of one year, resigning from a job of three and a half years, and most recently started my first full-time job in the field even before I graduated, it all looks pretty simple. Black and white. Like a clear-cut path laid out right in front of me that I was able to glide right through unscathed.

But, we live in this social media driven world where you can simply crop a picture and put a filter on it and the rest of the world is there to look on with envious eyes. We only show how we want to appear. Some people choose to share with the internet their every move, their every detail of their day. Me, on the other hand… I’ve been quiet for most of the last three years. In a time where we are all so desperate for validation by means of a like, or a favorite, or a retweet, I stood firm in living my life according to the quote: “work hard in silence and let success be your noise.” So tonight, less than 24 hours before I walk across that stage for my 2 seconds of fame, I’m brought back to the tiny details — the things that brought me to my knees, the moments and struggles and tough stuff that I didn’t talk much about.

* * *

When I was a junior in college, I attended a graduate school panel led by professors and students in the mental health field educating prospective grad students about various programs in the tri-state areas, what these programs offer, and what can be expected once we make the commitment to go for our Master’s. The take-away theme was simple. Grad school is isolating. 

I was 21 and naive. As someone who got through undergrad while working full-time all four years and doing freelance writing on the side whenever the opportunity presented itself, I had the utmost confidence that graduate school would be the same. I would get through it working a tremendous amount of hours and somehow walk out mentally stable. My image of graduate school in my head was that of college — except maybe even easier. I wouldn’t be living on a college campus and living that same college girl lifestyle.

I was wrong. Everything I thought about graduate school was wrong.

* * *

I used to have a recurring dream when I was younger. The dream was always set in one of my neighbors houses — girls I grew up with. We were playing, laughing, having fun as little girls normally do. But when it came time for me to leave and take the thirty second walk from their house to mine, I couldn’t ever walk down the stairs to get out. The dream always ended in me falling. Flying, really. Flying down the stairs with no end. I kept going and going and spinning and gliding, but never ending. Never stopping on the ground.

Nearly twenty years later, I never knew that dream was a foreshadow into the image of what it would feel like being a graduate student.

Because if we go back to what I mentioned before — back to the fact that we choose what we want to share, it all starts to make sense to me. I shared with very few people this comparison. I rarely ever opened up and let people in on my little secret — that graduate school feels like falling down a flight of stairs and twisting and turning and hoping for an end, but never quite getting there. So it was probably so easy for my friend to spit those rash words. It’s easy looking on the outside, seeing that I am accumulating such positive things in my life and think that this was all so easy.

But there are so many things I haven’t told you yet.

I never told you that I’ve cried almost twice weekly for the last two months at the loss of my youth. At realizing that life really starts now and not being at all prepared for it. I never told you about the friendships lost and relationships that couldn’t ever last because not many people want to stick around to a friend who’s had two days off a month for the last year and a half. I never told you about the love that never happened because I was so fixated on loves past — on the green eyed boy who cheered me on during my worst days, but never was quite around while I was in grad school. I never talk about the isolation and the loneliness at looking out the window on a beautiful day and knowing that all my friends are sipping mojitos by the water and I am cramming for licensing tests. I never talked about the time a professor failed me for the semester for plagiarism, and how I had to fight for six months for that grade, only to come out with an A because the professor was wrong about me. I never told you how I almost got placed on probation while in grad school because of that incident that wasn’t my fault. I don’t talk about how hard it is for me to sit in a room with my friends and have nothing to talk about. Not many people are willing to sit and talk about what I’ve been doing because no one is interested in tests and papers and clients. I never told you how hard it’s been for me to balance everything with grace — how I’ve had to accept that perfection can’t always be an option. And how the act of accepting that was nearly debilitating.

Those people at that graduate school panel all those years ago were right all along. Grad school is isolating. There’s no other way of putting it.

You will have friends who get married, who have children, who fall into lucrative careers, who branch out on their own, and you will feel stagnant. You will feel not good enough. Not smart enough. Not successful enough. Not wise enough. Not fast enough. You’ll feel like you’re stuck and you’ll do everything you can to crawl out of that chasm that’s sucking you in. And despite the sleepless nights, despite the 15 hour work days, despite the endless papers, and research, and over a thousand unpaid internship hours, you will feel like you’re not doing enough. 

You’ll think you know loneliness. You’ll think you’ve felt it rattle your bones and sink to your core and pull you down and suffocate you with its wrath. But the loneliness that envelopes you like a blanket is unfathomable until you’ve experienced it — until you’ve felt that weight pull you under. Until you scroll through your contact list searching for someone to talk to — someone who will be okay with the fact that you can only go out for a little bit, or okay that a coffee date is as much as you can offer them right now. Or okay that you can only go out for a couple of beers because you have to get up early the next morning to work. It’s unfathomable until you realize it’s your first weekend off in months and hear the echo of your own isolation — everyone you know and love has plans, but you weren’t included. They stopped including you weeks ago when they grew tired of your no’s. It’s unfathomable until you stop yourself from complaining to your friends about how hard this all is for you — because how can you complain when they’re stressed over mortgages and jobs and marriage and breakups and juggling what it really means to be an adult. You will feel that familiar feeling of loneliness when the envy seeps through your pores that it seems everyone around you — everyone but those you go to school with it seems — can hold solid and healthy relationships and you can barely stay up late enough to have a drink at the bar.

And then there’s the self-doubt. The why the hell am I doing this moments. The what did I get myself into moments. The can I really handle doing this for the rest of my life moments. The what if I missed my chance on other dreams moments. There will be nights you sit on your best friends couch going over hopes and wishes and dreams you had years ago and how you haven’t even scratched the surface of achieving those yet. You’ll see other people snag these dreams — dreams you never knew they had. And you’ll watch as they get to feel what you thought you’d feel by now. They did it. They accomplished something you swore you would. A dream you wished upon a star twenty years ago that just hasn’t come true you. And then there will be the lonely, cold night when you just want to forget. Give me the first ticket out of this life, please. I didn’t sign up for this.

These are the nights that will bring you to your knees.

For me, this night came a little over a year ago. I couldn’t wrap my head around school. I couldn’t remember how I had gotten there — what pushed me into this particular field. I had all but given up. I contacted other graduate programs within my University to see if I could transfer into them. It was a moment of both sheer panic and clarity all wrapped into one little ball. And I’m thankful I made it out of that. Thankful I crawled out from underneath that cloud. 

But all of those dark spots, those little flecks of time that took up space in my life led me right here. To this. To sitting at my desk going over the memories of the last three years. Without these moments, without the struggles, and the tears, and the questioning myself, I wouldn’t have what I have now. I wouldn’t know what I know now. And I think the biggest lesson I can take from these last three years is that we are all more resilient than we think we are. We can all handle more than we think we can. And even when we feel we are close to the brink — close to cracking, we somehow bounce right back. 

The last three years have shown me that resilience gets you places. That resilience builds you up and keeps you from falling on your knees when you feel like that’s the only option you have left. I am so fortunate for the opportunities I’ve been afforded, for the lessons I’ve learned, for the massive group of professionals I’ve worked side by side and have learned from. I’m grateful for the relationships and friendships made, and am more grateful to the handful of friends who stood by my side — people who took my abuse when I was seemingly losing my mind over school — people who understood and stuck it out with me. I owe you everything.

So, what I mean to say by all of the above is this: no matter what you are facing, you are tougher than you think. And you don’t need to preach it to the world, you need to preach it to yourself. You need to remind yourself that you are strong. You are tough. You are able to take the hits and dodge the punches and roll with the tides. But don’t ever let someone try to knock you down. Don’t ever let someone try to make you feel like all of the fight was easy. Don’t ever minimize that mountain you had to climb. 

These are the least pearls of wisdom I can give you for now. More to come after I cross that stage and officially have an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

 “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘The Sound of Settling” by Death Cab for Cutie

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I’m Addicted to the Madness, I’m a Daughter of the Sadness, I’ve Been Here Too Many Times Before.

Over this last holiday season, I was out Christmas shopping with a friend and found myself struggling to find a gift for a co-worker. Another shopper — an older man, overheard me and asked what kind of work my co-worker does. It was late, I was cranky, and I was beyond wanting to socialize, but I politely responded, “they’re a therapist,” all while hoping this time would be different. I always find myself gritting my teeth when I bring up the word therapist because I know it always follows with me having to explain, “no, not a physical therapist. A counselor. A mental health clinician.” The man responded with, “Can I suggest a duck?” After staring blankly at this stranger in front of me whom I naively thought was genuinely being kind and trying to suggest a Christmas present, I replied with a feeble, “Why?,” all while knowing as the word left my lips I wouldn’t like his answer. “Because they’re a quack.” I was in utter shock at how pleased the man was with himself. I flashed him a weak smile and walked away, and let his boisterous laugh fade in the background.

His words still echo in my head over a month after hearing them. You can imagine the bullets I’ve dodged in the form of judgment, criticism, and ignorance — all in regards to the mental health field. Since freshman year of college, I’ve let things roll off my shoulders. I let friends, acquaintances, and family members especially, mock me. I let people tell me that what I was going to school for was useless. That mental illness is not real. That addicts are pathetic. That people who commit suicide are selfish and weak.

For years, I stood on the sidelines and watched people make a mockery out of something that’s important to me. I’ve kept quiet about it. I’ve listened on and smiled politely as people belittled my educational and career choices. I made up excuses for people. It’s a difficult subject matter. Not everyone has the tools to learn what I’ve learned. They just don’t understand. I repeated these sentiments to myself, all while seething on the inside. Because for as long as I’ve been on the sidelines, I’ve been wanting to step into the ring and fight. To defend myself. To defend why I chose to do what I do. To put on my gloves and jump in the ring swinging.

But then I think about the people who are quietly living with mental illness every day. The ones with no one advocating for them. The ones who need someone else to put on those gloves and swing for them. And I take my own selfishness out of wanting to defend my career choices and I realize this is why I am doing it. This is why I need to go in and swing. This is why I need to speak up. This is why I need to get up on my soap box and stick it to that stranger in Hallmark and to every other person who’s ever belittled me, my classmates, my co-workers, or made a mockery out of the field of mental health.

It’s time I start talking, because in the case of mental illness, let’s face it. Ignorance is not bliss.

It’s no secret that mental illness bares the heavy cloak of stigma in our society. There is an ugly shame often linked with being anything other than what is perceived as normal. There’s a wall that needs to be broken down. We need empathy and understanding, but we can’t even begin to cross that threshold until we educate ourselves — we need to voluntarily learn about the various mental health diagnoses – from major depressive disorder to anxiety disorders to post traumatic stress disorder to paranoid schizophrenia to borderline personality disorder — and every single disorder that falls between the covers of the DSM. When we make it a priority to educate ourselves, perhaps we will see more understanding and hear less mockery. Perhaps we will see a shift in adequate insurance coverage for mental health services. Perhaps there will be less fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness. Perhaps less people will turn their backs on their friends and family members struggling with mental illness.

Stigma keeps people who have mental illness from speaking out and seeking help. Stigma allows people to suffer in silence. 

According to NAMI, these are the facts: one in every four adults suffer from mental illness in any given year. One in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness — schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder. Approximately 20% of adolescents between 13 and 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. Approximately 60% of adults and nearly 50% of adolescents with a mental illness did not receive treatment in the last year. 

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, more common than homicide. It is the third leading cause of death for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24. 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.

With the deaths of beloved actors like Robin Williams — someone the public eye so deeply enamored, and when entertainers like Demi Lovato use their celebrity to speak out about living with mental illness, we’ve started making progress. People are starting to understand that perhaps fame and fortune doesn’t mean mental well-being. That money can’t buy stability. That even people we laughed with for years can suffer tremendously. But there are still people who choose to look past what’s clearly evident. I don’t want to live in a world where I fear my 11 year old sister will be crippled by shame and guilt if she ever feels the thick weight of depression. I don’t want to teach her that it’s okay to turn a blind eye when she sees someone suffering. I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t sit at a table with my family or friends and talk about my work day for fear that someone will make a harsh jab. Someone will tell me that what I do isn’t real. That people seeking therapy are pathetic. Or one of my personal favorites — “how can you be interested in the field of addiction if you’re sitting there with a beer yourself?” I don’t want to live in a world where I feel forced to sit quietly when I hear someone say, “didn’t he think of his family and friends before he killed himself?”

 We’ve made movement, but I want more.

As you may or may not know, I held on tight to various dreams growing up — all focused on the idea of writing. Of writing novels, screenplays, tv shows. Of having my words matter to someone. For several reasons, I chose to go to school to become a therapist instead. With both writing and reading fiction, I always loved the idea of character development and seeing how each character changes over the course of their story. In writing and reading creative non-fiction, I focus on reality and on words that heal. On words that matter. I found that my choice has afforded me not only the opportunity to still do projects like this one on the side, but to use what I love about reading and writing and apply it to my career.

I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m still learning every day, and I will still continue to learn for the rest of my life. What I do know is that in the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most remarkable and resilient people I have ever met. I’ve spent time with people who have severe and persistent mental illness, people who are homeless, people who struggle with auditory and visual hallucinations, people who’ve endured trauma after trauma and still wake up every day to face a world that’s been nothing short of cruel to them, people who’ve struggled with addiction, people living with various mental health diagnoses. I’ve worked with people who’ve come so close to losing hope, but still manage to wake up every single day and fight. Since starting graduate school and immersing myself in the field with my internships, I’ve been able to collect stories of triumph, of unrelenting strength, of hope in the face of the unknown. Of bravery. I am a better person now because of what I’ve learned through these interactions.

I choose to be aware. I choose to understand. I choose to empathize. 

But I can’t empathize with someone who remains adamant in choosing to stay ignorant. I can’t empathize with someone who chooses to blame people for the suffering they don’t take the time to understand. If you fall into the category of people who scoffed when Robin Williams killed himself, or when Amy Winehouse overdosed, or when Demi Lovato was treated for self-harm, an eating disorder, and bipolar disorder, or when the boy in the town next to you jumped in front of a moving train, or when you see a homeless man on the street, or when you tell someone their pain is not real because it’s not a cut or a scrape or a broken bone, I challenge you to rise above. I challenge you to take a real look at those statistics above — I encourage you to look at those facts, to seek to understand that rather than turn a blind eye to something that can so easily be explained.

We need conversations like this.

We need to fight this war to end mental health stigma. We need to stand up for ourselves when people tell us our careers are useless. We need to advocate for people struggling with mental illness. We need to educate ourselves and the people around us. Without our voices, there will be no more movement. Without our voices, the homeless man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia will get continue to get beat up by a group of teenage boys, as onlookers stand idly on the side. Without our voices, the girl struggling with an eating disorder as a result of post traumatic stress from enduring multiple traumas, will cry herself to sleep at night and hope and pray she doesn’t wake up tomorrow. We need to speak up because without our voices, without even an inch of movement, there is no understanding. And without understanding, there can be no empathy. Let’s speak up so that we can one day live in a world where people — both male and female — don’t feel ashamed for how they feel. Where people willingly speak up and seek help.

Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you feel something is wrong. If you see someone suffering, please don’t let them suffer in silence.

Always, always, always, be kind. Kindness is possible. Chose it.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

The title of this post comes from lyrics of the song ‘I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me‘ by Demi Lovato.