I’ve been so glad to see so many articles and posts come out within the last few years focusing less on the “hustle” and more on the benefits of rest and positive mental health. That is exactly the message I’m always wanting to put out there. A lot of people do a lot of great work in talking about the big picture of health, but I feel there is still a lot of room for improvement and I think it’s important we all serve as a voice in the community.
The longer I do this, the more I realize that many of you aren’t familiar with much about my life, or more so, where my life was before I started this blog. It’s the reason I focus so much on a balance of mental and physical health; because I spent a number of years ignoring both or ignoring one in the name of the other until I finally realized that– if it’s not good for your mental health– it’s not healthy! Not even the “healthiest” (or perceived healthiest) of habits are actually good for you if they don’t nurture your entire Self.
If there were just one thing to know about me, it is that I am all in, or all out. It is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the context. I love my sense of devotion to the things I truly love and believe in. I love that I won’t ever bend to fit something that my heart isn’t truly in. Not even if I tried could I accomplish this. It is against my nature, and this is not something that is likely to change. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn and grow with it. But it will probably always be my innate nature.
I didn’t really start college until I was 21 because I had too much anxiety about choosing what to do. I thought that once I made a decision, I would be locked into it forever without any way to ever escape it, which was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy based on my black-or-white personality than anything else.
Once I did start, I fell so madly, vehemently in love with it that I dedicated my time to very little outside of my studies. In so many ways, it helped me grow so much. I felt independent for the first time in my life. I felt fulfilled. I felt like I finally had a sense of my purpose. I was at last overcoming the fears that has been holding me back for so long, and I immediately felt the impatient need to make up for “lost time” spent not doing this.
I still worked full time the entire time I was going to school. I didn’t really have a ton of choice in this. I was already living on my own by the time I started, already locked into bills and obligations that I could not escape just because I was in school now. I spent so long asking myself if I could actually make this happen. I also spent a great deal of time telling myself that I could not, and a slightly greater amount of time convincing myself that I could.
There is such a fine line between motivating yourself to do something that is difficult but good for you, and pushing yourself through something that is not good for you just because you told yourself you “could”. My life mantra has, and always will be,
You can… but should you?
and has more recently evolved more into, “you can… but is it actually serving you?”
It started smaller and sneaked in little by little, each added thing both filing me up and wearing me down in the strangest, most perplexing, overwhelming way. I almost immediately declared an Art Studio major and it seemed like every piece of my life had fallen into place. Like everything I had ever been and done had lead into this. I never wanted to do anything but be at the studio and the library, and I rarely did do anything else.
Every semester I added a few more credit hours and worked a few less hours and tried my best to also get over my huge social insecurities and actively build a community while battling my tendency to isolate. I was also going through a pretty huge breakup which made me realize how alone I truly was in this new place I had found myself in.
But I decided on this.
That had also been my mantra for so many years. When I decided on something I went full speed ahead and never looked back, not even to make sure it was still serving me.
This has been the theme of my 20’s. I loved my education so much that I was willing to sacrifice almost anything for it, and did. I also wanted to build relationships that I was desperately longing for. I also wanted to learn to stop being co-dependent on romantic relationships to fill holes that only true friendships and self-knowledge/self-acceptance could fill. I also wanted to have my degree and go to grad school right that second. I also wanted everything to slow down so I could have more time in the day to do normal human things like brush my hair and cook food.
Every semester I wondered how I would make it work, and every semester I took on just a little bit more telling myself, “you got through last semester, you can do this one too.”
Somehow my inner voice never asked me, “but should you?” because I had just kept telling myself that I needed to so badly that “should” wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary anymore.
Obviously, I could not have everything I wanted/needed. I prioritized. The priorities looked different from day to day, but school and art were almost always number one. I made sacrifices that I never should have been making because “should” had been completely replaced with “need”.
By “need” I mean desire that is so strong that I couldn’t keep myself from going in head first even when the water was too deep and I never actually learned to swim. In the first semester, I had a teacher that asked the class why we were doing this. I said it was because I couldn’t not do it.
This was true in so many ways. I’ve never been able to keep myself from creating. A part of me actively dies when I am not making something. It is also an innate part of my nature. I had felt that part of myself dying for so long that when I finally revived it, it was like living in a constant honeymoon phase– but with myself.
I made a lot of sacrifices in those years, but taking fewer classes or lightening my academic load in any way was never an option that had crossed my mind. I instead sacrificed sleep, exercise, eating well (sometimes eating at all), healthy relationships, self-care, and any kind of mental health practices like therapy, or journaling.
I kept telling myself I was good with these sacrifices because… I decided on this.
Until I decided on something else…
Which was my husband. And to be brutally honest, if I had ever thought that I was making a decision between being with him and finishing my education sometime before I turned 30, I can guarantee you I would not be married today.
I need to be clear that this is has nothing to do with our relationship and everything to do with the place I was at in my life. More conflicting desires. I wanted to go wherever he went. I also wanted to stay in my department with my professors and my classmates and my degree program. I wanted to pick up UK’s campus with me and move it to wherever we would end up going. We didn’t know when we first met. He was going into his last year of grad school and pretty much everything was uncertain (except that I had decided on him which meant I had already decided to go anywhere he ended up going… we just didn’t know where yet)
It seemed easy at the time.
He told me he got an offer from Michigan State… I told him I would transfer to Michigan State.
Until I realized that– not only was it not going to serve me at all– it was going to be just downright impossible. It was a tough realization to deal with (more so because I didn’t realize this until we were already living here and I had no earthly idea what I would do then) There was serious talk of me going back to Kentucky until I finished school. It was the hardest thing we had ever dealt with as a couple, but absolutely the hardest thing I have ever dealt with individually.
It wasn’t because I was having to choose between the man that would eventually be my husband and school. It was because I had already decided on him and I absolutely was never expecting for it to have been that difficult.
I chose him, not over school, but in addition to it.
It was never supposed to be either-or, and it never really was, but that wasn’t the hard part. I know that I can always go back to school. The time will pass one way or another.
The hard part was the stark contrast between putting my mental health aside in order to pull 12-15 hour days at work and school, sometimes putting nothing but coffee in my body until 4pm and wondering why I was consumed with anxiety and felt like death all the time, and then being in an entirely new place with nothing to distract me from the underlying issues that had been quietly eating away at me for so long (I just kept life loud enough that I wasn’t able to listen)
I no longer had that option. Life got quiet all of the sudden and there was nothing I could do to stop my mental illness from consuming every corner of my life that I had kept so full for so long. There was nothing to distract, nothing to fulfill, and I had lost touch with every effective coping mechanism having replaced it with being so busy for so long.
It wasn’t until then that I realized that what I was putting myself through was terrible for my health. It took a little while– and it was a tough little while– to choose to see this time as an opportunity.
There have been many times that I thought I was going to go crazy if I didn’t have to write a twelve page analysis on a Klimt painting soon… there have been plenty of times where I kept myself too busy with things that made me incredibly unhappy just to have something to occupy my time (and mind).
Over a year later, I can say with some confidence that learning to be content with doing less has been way harder than going to school ever was, but perhaps just as important.
The savasana of my life
The more I come back into my yoga practice, the more I think– this is like the savasana of my life (not because I’m at the end of my life 😉 ) For those of you who aren’t yogis, savasana is how we end each practice. Usually you just lie on the mat completely motionless for about 5 minutes to seal in the practice. Sound kinda boring? It did to me at first too. Which was part of my problem. I never saw the merit in slowing down or even stopping completely.
It’s just you and your thoughts in there, and shit can those thoughts get ugly sometimes. Yoga teaches us not to judge those thoughts, but instead let them pass like clouds in the sky, remaining outside observers. Which is about as hard as it sounds.
If someone would have told me 5 years ago that laying motionless on my mat was going to be the hardest part of the practice, I would not have believed it. Same goes for learning to be content with doing less. It’s all the same, really. I can’t tell you how many times during a home practice that I’ve just rolled right off the mat and back onto my computer because I remembered something I’d been meaning to look up, or even gotten off the mat multiple times mid-practice because of other mental distractions.
And I don’t even want to talk about how infrequently I meditate.
I don’t like just sitting there with my thoughts and feelings. I never have. Which is probably why my tendency is to keep going, going, going. It’s still odd to me that all my most valuable lessons have been in not doing, and even stranger how hard not doing can really be. I’m still not good at it, but I am at least focused on it now, which is more than I’ve ever been able to say.
I had said that if I had known coming here would have meant taking time off from school, I never would have done it. But it just so happens to be one of the best things I could have done.
Not because my husband is so great and I’m so glad we got married (I am)
Not because East Lansing is some kind of paradise or even remotely cool in any kind of way (it’s not)
Because if I hadn’t been practically forced into doing less, I have no idea how far I would have pushed myself. I have no idea what that would have looked like or what it would have taken for me to realize that what I was doing was so bad for me in so many ways. I never would have started taking care of myself again. I never would have actually addressed my mental health. I never would have started yoga and running again. I never would have seen the value in less.
I have a new mantra now, and it is this;
NOTHING is more important than my mental health
and I truly believe that if I accomplish nothing else in the next year, as long as I can grow in this area, it will have been time well spent.