You probably don’t know me. I’m not an expert in psychology (although I did ace Psych 101 while an undergrad), and I don’t have a list of letters following my name detailing the credentials for what I’m about to say. I’m just Megan, and I’m here to tell you a story about mental health.
Once upon a Monday a couple of years ago, I found myself lying on a padded operating table—feeling cold, yet somehow still sweating—while I waited for the doctor to finish extracting biopsies of two “unidentifiable masses” in one of my breasts. And as a 20-something, I was secretly terrified to pieces.
I’d been emotionally paralyzed for the four weeks waiting for the appointment and through the days after, waiting for the call that could determine the direction my life was headed—or not headed. (Not to be morbid.) I couldn’t talk about it without crying, and I hate crying, so I told only the handful of people I could lean on for support and distractions. I also devised a plan of action, because a month is a long time to stew. One of our family friends was the head of oncology and agreed to take my case if the results came back positive.
I was at work when the doctor called, where I excused myself to the stairwell and cried when they told me the results came back negative. My entire body exhaled. I was safe. What I didn’t expect was how I felt afterward. I knew the experience had rattled me, but it was as if all of my puzzle pieces wouldn’t go back in the right places. Too much time spent in the limbo of “fight or flight” had changed their shape, and I had no idea how to reassemble myself.
I was overwhelmed, trying to juggle the start of a new high-stress job and sifting through the emotional avalanche occurring behind the scenes. Nothing felt right. Or perhaps more accurately, nothing felt. I’d try to dig my way out only to find the tunnel led to a dead end. I was “dark and twisty,” and it wasn’t something well-intentioned homemade brownies were going to fix.
I also felt so ashamed, as if I’d somehow failed at being a human for struggling to cope with not having cancer. This reaction didn’t make sense—as someone with an autoimmune disease, I was used to taking medical surprises in stride. So I decided to talk to a professional.
The first time I went to see Lori, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never been to therapy before and pictured myself lying on a squeaky leather sofa complaining about a life I genuinely believed was pretty great. That was far from the case. The room was quaint, with two cozy chairs that hugged your insecurities and gave off a vibe that reminded you of your grandmother’s study. All of this made it easier to open up to a complete stranger, and more importantly, to myself.
In general, we accept how easily we can spin our lives to look #blessed, yet we fail to recognize the people sitting beside us might be treading water in their own personal storms. No one at work knew I sat at the conference table bruised and sore from my outpatient procedure the day prior. At the time, I was quite pleased with my ability to compartmentalize. The show must go on, and I didn’t want to miss it. I was proud because it felt like if no one could guess I was struggling, then I was somehow winning the battle. But it doesn’t work this way; ignoring the elephant in the room only makes the elephant hungry.
Why is it that we underestimate how easy it is to fool ourselves? We armor ourselves with happy faces before breakfast, reciting “fake it till you make it,” and fill our days with so much noise we have but a few moments to sit vulnerable with ourselves as we wait for sleep to wash over us.
“How are you?” “I’m good! How was your weekend?” “It was good!” We somehow always seem to be good, which is statistically impossible. If we don’t feel comfortable being forthright about where we’re at with acquaintances, we must at least learn how to be truthful with ourselves. And let me tell you, that’s hard sometimes.
Meeting yourself where you’re at and not where you’d like to be—or where you pretend you are—looks a lot like my best friend Karlye. Before the biopsies, my doctor first tried imaging the masses with an ultrasound to rule things out—which instead showed irregular edges typically correlated to breast cancer. When I arrived home, clearly unsettled, Karlye stood there, hugged me in the kitchen and cried with me before I even had a chance to share the bad news.
Meeting yourself where you’re at is sitting in the uncomfortable feelings of grief or anger and, instead of asking those feelings to go away, asking them why they’ve decided to stay. It’s looking at yourself without judgment, knowing right now isn’t the time to “fix things,” and offering compassion for yourself the way your best friend would react if they saw you hurting.
Sometimes the cares you carry—be it work pressures, health issues, relationship struggles—get heavier the longer you carry them. You don’t always “get used to it,” which, as it turns out, was precisely Lori’s point. If you continue to bury things under the rug, eventually you’re going to need to buy a new rug.
Check in with yourself. Ask yourself questions. And even if you don’t know the answer right now, the fact that you’re searching for a path toward peace of mind is still progress. Lori said most people who tell her they’re unhappy don’t know why, myself included. She casually explained how most people just needed a little peace, and I remember laughing. Like you could order it off of Amazon. Like it was that easy.
But the thought continued to sneak into my mind later. What made me feel peaceful? I made a list (#TypeA) and began structuring my day to include at least one of these new priorities. And it helped.
When you spend too much time in the snow, your fingers slowly numb, though you don’t always notice it right away. Eventually, once you venture back inside and sit in the comfort of warmth, your fingers actually hurt more instead of feeling better. You’re supposed to avoid heaters or a fire and instead run your hands under lukewarm water and ease your body back to its normal temperature.
Scientifically, a group of Finnish researchers discovered our bodies are hardwired to feel depression in our extremities, much like frostbite. For us to expect this physiological response to suddenly go away because we say so is unrealistic and sets dangerous expectations.
So the next time you find something’s flash-frozen your joy, meet yourself where you’re at, with a bucket of lukewarm water, and extend yourself the same patience. You will get there. You’re not broken. Your puzzle pieces still fit together; you just need to take the time to learn their new order. Life’s challenges will change you, though I argue it’s something we should be grateful for. I’ve found after my pieces rearranged, I’ve emerged a stronger, more compassionate me. And please speak to someone you trust if you’re struggling. Often, the ones we love are the exact people we need to solve that last piece of the jigsaw.
This article was published in May 2019 and has been updated. Photo by SeventyFour/IStock
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.