In pursuit of mental ‘health’: giving up knowing it all for feeling something

I’ve written this post in response to Mental Health Awareness Week 2022.

A few months ago, I was chatting with a group of other women about how we look after our wellbeing. One of them shared that she couldn’t actually live without journaling, and then a discussion around the power of writing began. 

“Oh, I used to journal,” I admitted, “but I don’t really do that anymore.” I then gave a reason that I hadn’t thought through before sharing it with the group: my current headspace as a Psychology student means I’m more likely to rationalise and intellectualise what I’m going through, rather than feel my way through it. 

Other than being met with blank stares from the journal-loving group, I didn’t think about this again for a while, until I went to a personal development workshop a couple of months after where I expressed how I can’t help but plan every last thing down to the very last detail. The coach facilitating the workshop caught up with me afterwards, and asked, “Do you journal?” Clearly, she picked up on how I have a lot to get off my chest once I get going; how I speak at one million miles a minute when feeling emotional; how I’m quick to do a lot of crying. I replied, “Well, I used to. I don’t really do that anymore.” In the coach’s wonderful no-nonsense direct approach, she suggested I do it again. 

In the past three weeks I have written exactly 40 pages in my journal, the same amount of pages I’d written in the previous eight months. I can say with quite some certainty that I’m feeling better emotionally, and it feels good to be back in the happy camp of melancholic journal writers. In subconsciously resisting journaling for such a long time, I was stopping myself from being allowed to feel. I lost – and am now attempting to reclaim – the ability to proclaim that this here is my experience, and this experiencing lark means I might get it wrong sometimes.

It’s no coincidence that I’ve stopped writing publicly too, which is a shame, and again, one I hope to rectify. As others have written about more eloquently before me, sharing a part of yourself online means being open to scrutiny and judgement from the harsh and unwelcoming internet. In not wanting to say the wrong thing, I say nothing at all. Something struck me while reading Jia Tolentino’s opening essay on the internet in Trick Mirror: that I’ve been mourning the early days of blogging, where I felt that writing about Marc Bolan and working as a waitress was worthy of taking up pixels. Going forward, as an attempt to take up more space in the virtual and real worlds (as I did unapologetically as a teenage glam rock fan, with nonchalant titles of posts such as: “A round up of my week, if you care“) I’m going to share my writing online more often, in a way where I don’t worry too much about what others may think. 

In trying to be kinder to myself, I’ve been striving for the middle place, a homeostasis that I thought would make for ‘boring writing’.  However, the fact that I’ve stopped writing altogether speaks to a more secretive truth: I’ve been veering so far to an extreme of trying to ‘heal’, or ‘make sense of’, feelings, that to write about them would’ve meant having to sit down and confront the fact that I haven’t really figured anything out at all, despite knowing more about psychological science now than ever before! Ha!

That’s been a funny thing about working towards a psychology degree, and volunteering in – and thinking a lot about – mental health. Doing a psychology degree is like living inside of the self-help books that book-ended my breakdown (but with added cynicism regarding the lack of scientific rigour in the ‘evidence’ presented in many of those bestsellers). Being a psychology student has really changed how I deal with difficult things. Often, I can’t help but link what I’m learning about in lectures to something I’ve myself experienced, big or small. This has made the past two years exhausting at times. For example, I worry a little about the trauma module I’ve opted to take next year: will I be able to sit through it? Will I be courageous enough to accept that I need support sometimes? 

This intellectual approach to thinking about the mind has also meant my ways of coping have changed, unconsciously again: from journaling (healthy) and drinking too much alcohol (unhealthy?) to putting all my efforts into studying (semi-healthy) and going sober (healthy?). The question mark is there, as after a six-month sobriety stint (that’s a lot of morning showers rehearsing your one-year sober speech in the bathroom!), I landed in a place where totally abstaining from drinking had really heightened my perfectionism and my desire for control. I’m not quite ready to write about this yet, and I don’t want to disregard anyone’s journey to change their relationship to drinking: for many, it is a necessary and wonderful experience. But like anything that seems too good to be true, I’m not sure if the recent sober movement is totally innocent. For me, it brought out my perfectionism in quite an obsessive way and increased my need to be in control. I love this painting ‘Macdonna’ by Stephanie Bates that suggests that ‘perfect health’ doesn’t always look like the idea of wellness we are constantly fed these days through advertising campaigns on social media promoting cheap athleisure and £20-a-month yoga subscriptions. Health can look like whatever you want it to look like: caring for others, showing up, taking it easy on yourself.

There is a metaphor used in sobriety circles about not pressing the ‘fuck it’ button – ie buying a bottle of wine – as soon as you hit emotional difficulties. I no longer do that, and I’m grateful to my abstinence experiment for the ability to not give into that impulse so quickly when I’m feeling down. After trying to have so much control, as a means of reclaiming autonomy after unexpected life events such as trauma and bereavement, I’m now attempting to re-learn how to accept that fucking up is how you go pro, because how far can things really go wrong, anyway? What would be wrong, what would be a mighty waste of time, would be whittling away these days to fear, to worry; would be pushing down all the good feelings while trying to suppress all the bad. Sometimes – and possibly I’m wrong – I feel that our chattier mental health discourse doesn’t properly account for the darkness of life that we will inevitably trudge through. Maybe we don’t always need to make drastic changes or try and get to the bottom of why we’re feeling this way: sometimes we just have to feel it.

I would like to say that since journaling again there has been an outpouring of feelings, an outburst of ecstatic emotion, an epiphany of sorts, but there hasn’t been anything major like that. And it’s not like I’m dropping out of my degree anytime soon to determinedly pursue the emotional over the intellectual. How I’ve been able to sit and write this after a year of not really writing anything personal is all I’ve got to show for it: small moments of realisation, long journal entries where I slow down my overactive thinking brain and begin to make sense of how I feel, by feeling it. Maybe the fear isn’t of fucking up, maybe the fear is of just how great my life could be, if only I could give myself the chance to live it – and feel it – as fully as I dare to, without always knowing what the answers will be.

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