What Is Mental Health - A Look From The Inside
The Talk Around Mental Health
Written by Kristen Koehl - Friend of Mel and Del
Today, I feel like mental health is this buzz word that we’re surrounded by and are constantly hearing about. But really, what is mental health? In my opinion, it’s different for everyone. Everyone has a unique life and struggles that they deal with every day. The complexity and the priority of those problems are what makes us individuals and no one’s problems are bigger or smaller than anyone else’s because it’s all about perspective. What seems like a big deal to me may not be a big deal to other people, but that’s what makes me, me, and those other people them. It only makes sense that our day-to-day struggles are tailored to who we are and who we want to become.
So, Del and Mel (Mel and Del?) asked to me to share with you all my mental health journey thus far in life. In college, I went through a very pin-pointed difficult year and I struggled majorly with my mental health. I was formerly diagnosed that year with depression and anxiety, but I think those are both something that I’ve struggled with my whole life. I just want to be up front and say that me sharing my story doesn’t mean that everyone else’s should be the same or that my journey is the key to success or the correct way of pushing through and overcoming your struggles. Like I said, mental health is an individualized experience, and everyone handles it in a different way. That is absolutely, 100% okay and how it’s supposed to be! I am sharing my story because I want to be the voice for the people who may not be brave enough to share their own stories yet or maybe someone else can use one of my mental health methods to better themselves. However you, as the reader, want to take my story, that is completely up to you. So here it goes:
My junior year at Butler was my first official year of Pharmacy school, a graduate-level program. I was so excited to finally get to learn pertinent information that was going to help me shape my future career. I survived that first semester, but second semester is where I started to drown.
On the outside, I seemed perfectly okay and that’s what I portrayed to everyone too. Underneath is where everything was dark. Most importantly, my relationship with my parents was struggling and under a lot of pressure. I wasn’t speaking to my mom for months and for those of who are not aware, my mom is my best friend. I tell her everything and I love spending time with her. But, that year was an incredibly difficult year for us and my dad was caught in the middle of it. So, one arm of my support system, my parents: struggling. I was also in an extremely toxic relationship (shoutout to all the humans who have survived one of these!). It was one of those situations where I was unhappy in the relationship but even unhappier out of it. Another arm of my support system: toxic, unstable. Honestly, the only people I had at the time were my friends. And man, were they great! I called my best friend, Sam, who was at IU almost every single day during that time. But as you can imagine, life in college was so busy. Everyone had a million and one things to do and there were times when I needed a friend to lean on but everyone was busy. I couldn’t blame them for that! They were trying to shape their own lives, their own futures, and deal with their own internal issues. That doesn’t mean they still weren’t amazing friends and people, because they were.
After a lot of debating on whether or not to make the jump, I sought out a counselor on Butler’s campus to talk through all the issues going on at home and internally. I saw her weekly for months throughout the semester. I got a little better but then I felt like I was plateauing for a while. Then came spring break. I was going to the Big East tournament in New York to cheer on Butler’s basketball team (alongside Mel and Del!). The older squad members on the cheer team were the ones that got to go to the tournament and cheer so this was my first year going (exciting!). However, right after I had just taken what seemed to be like a million tests, my toxic relationship ended abruptly. At the time, I was absolutely crushed to say the least. Looking back, that’s what I needed because that relationship was only dragging me farther down the hole. The trip to New York was a much-needed distraction, but when I got home, everything came crashing down on me again. I isolated myself and I was not okay by any means. However, I was really good at hiding it from other people.
So, here I was, feeling like I was all alone. It’s an easy feeling to experience in college. My downward spiral became so bad that I couldn’t focus on schoolwork/was almost failing a class, I was crying every second about anything and everything, and I couldn’t sleep. To say my mental health was in the toilet was an absolute understatement. And yes, I was still seeing my counselor this whole time.
Right before finals in the Spring semester, I was such an absolute mess that I went to my advisor from freshman year and cried to her for over an hour about everything that was going on. I told her that I knew nothing in any of my classes due to my lack of focus and that I was probably going to fail my finals. She said to me, “Kristen, you need to get through finals and push through because you need to prove to yourself that you can do this.” At the time, I seriously thought that there was no way that I could face that challenge. I really thought she wasn’t grasping how bad I was struggling. I was on the border of failing a class and me passing depending on my final grade. I didn’t think I could do it. After our talk, my advisor drove me to the Health Center on campus, took me into my counselor, and explained how emotionally drained and basically unstable I was. My counselor ended up contacting my family doctor, explaining the situation, and setting me up with an appointment to get medicated.
You would think, that as a pharmacy major, I would be incredibly open to medication, but I was so scared that my medication was going to numb my emotions and change who I was. Sitting here typing this now, I want to yell at myself and say: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” because medication is there to help stabilize your brain chemicals while you’re working through your emotional/social issues, not change who you are as a person. Medication is not a magic pill and it will not change who you are or how you think. I like to think of it as making you think more logically and less emotionally. It helps you see through the fog to get to where you need to be, mentally. Medication is not for everyone and that’s okay too. There are so many medications also that work differently for each and everyone one of us. There is no specific equation that says this medication works for everyone, so if you ever start one and it doesn’t work right for you, it’s okay to tell your doctor that. They can change you to a new one and maybe that one will work! There are always other options, so keep that in mind.
Even if you’re on medication, it is so incredibly important to keep working through and making sense of your thoughts while you go through your mental health journey. I urge everyone who is struggling to go see a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. These are professionals who went to school to help people become mentally healthy! They are a third party who knows nothing about your life or the people in it so they can give you an unbiased opinion about situations in order to help the most important person in your life: you. If your first one doesn’t work out or you don’t feel comfortable, find someone else! Keep looking until you feel like you walk into someone’s office and you can connect with them on a deeper level, so that you can share what’s truly going on in your mind.
Back to my story: As I started my medication, I could feel myself coming out of that fog. I was still sad at some points, I still felt everything deeply as I had before, but now I could sleep, I could eat, I could get through the day. This was just the beginning of me starting to feel like myself again. That being said, this was a turning point for me NOT a “oh hey you’re cured of all life’s problems now.” My anxiety and depression are something that I struggle with every single day and something that I’ve accepted that isn’t going to just *poof* go away. And that is OKAY and completely normal! I did end up passing my finals and classes that semester but I’m not going to pretend like it wasn’t the hardest thing had to push myself to do. My advisor gave me that “you’re strong enough to do this” talk when I was in her office. A major part of me pushing through was knowing that someone believed in me. I didn’t even believe in myself, but the fact that an advisor, someone I looked up to, believed in me so much.
With that being said, be aware of other people. You have no idea how your interactions are affecting their life at that moment. So, be nice to strangers. Give them a smile. Be kind to your waiters or waitresses. Be kind to the people checking you out at the store. You just have no idea how much you’re impacting someone else’s life. Take the time and go out of your way to be there for someone who may be struggling. I still remember so many people in my sorority, that I did not know super well, sending me a text saying how they were there for me and cared for me. Actions AND words can go a long way. Just be aware that you are not the only person struggling through things. Everyone around you has challenges.
As I continue on with life now, I am still medicated but I’m no longer seeing my counselor. However, I still have her contact information so that if I ever feel like I need to talk to someone, she’s always one call or email away. Again, so important!
I struggle mostly with my anxiety on a daily basis. For example, driving gives me so much anxiety. I cannot sit in traffic or drive slow because I’m anxious to get to my destination and I’m the worst at being patient. It may seem silly to most people but driving exhausts me. If I have to drive around all day, I’ll come home and not want to move off the couch because my brain has been bouncing off the walls all day. If I have a list of things to get done that day or a busy day at work, I feel physically wound into a spiral until everything is complete and then I feel like I can relax. I realize that I’m portraying myself as a wound-up, neurotic human being but if you came across me on one these days, I would appear just as normal as anyone else. I internalize and keep a lot of my anxiety to myself. So, on the outside I’ll look like the normal, everyday Kristen but inside my mind is all over the place. If I’m in a really “off” mood and need to talk about it, I will lean on a close friend, my family, or my boyfriend to just let it all out and vent. But I have learned other ways to cope with my anxiety and depression in other healthy ways that work for me.
I try to workout at least 3 to 4 times a week. It not only makes me feel accomplished and keeps me in shape, but it gives me an hour outlet per day for my mind to race through every burden/problem/issue that it’s worrying about. When I’m finished, those worries are dulled. I should probably know if there’s a scientific explanation behind that, but if it works for me then it works! If working out isn’t your thing, then try something else. Go for a walk with your dog, your mom, a friend, or just you and your music. Give yourself that time to have some peace and quiet, to just think and sort through your thoughts and feelings.
I also love to shop so I use that as an outlet as well. When I would study for hours on end for exams, I would take a break and online shop/browse around. I also will reward myself sometimes with an expensive item that I’ve had my eye for a while. Rewarding yourself is important! It gives you that small moment of happiness which sometimes you need in your day. And maybe it isn’t buying yourself something but letting yourself have that extra cookie or that extra scoop of ice cream. Whatever your guilty pleasure is, allow yourself to have it! Reward yourself for just being alive or surviving a day, because sometimes that is just hard on its own.
I also love browsing Pinterest for quotes on any sort. Badass woman quotes, sad quotes, heartbreak quotes, inspirational quotes, seriously whatever I’m feeling that day! If I really love one or it speaks to me in some way, I save the picture on my phone and then copy it down in this little quote journal that I keep by my bed. I actually do look back on the quotes occasionally and I can still pin-point my exact emotion or point in life that I wrote it down. So, in a way, it’s like a little diary of my life. Plus, it has quotes I can go back to and read again to make myself feel better on a bad day.
Like I mentioned before, these are just things that I do to make myself a little happier inside and to give my mind a break from all the stress and worry it has to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s just important that you give yourself a break from the chaos that is life. I was always so stressed out during school and felt like I never had a chance to take a break from what I was working on. But, when I started to listen to my mind and took breaks when I felt like I needed one, I was happier and felt so much better after. Whether it’s working out, going for a run, taking a break from your desk at work to get some fresh air, talking on the phone to an old friend, reading a book, truly whatever your heart desires – take a moment and do it. You’ll be so much more motivated to continue working on that hard project, to study more for that test, or to tackle that obstacle standing in your way. Take time for yourself. Take care of yourself. Mental health is not just about overcoming your depression or overcoming your anxiety, it’s about keeping your mind and soul happy. Do more of what brings you happiness. Every day.
Good Vibes and Happy Health, Kristen