“I’m Fine.”

“I’m fine.”

I can’t count how many times I have said this in my life. When I ask the question, “How are you doing?” it’s the answer I expect, and often people are thrown off if you answer in any more detail. I have heard people refer to the word “fine” as an acronym which, in good taste, I won’t expound on in detail in this blog post- but I think the point of the acronym is that fine almost never really means fine. In my experience people’s lives are always in flux, and in the ebb and flow we always are experiencing a struggle on some level. So, I guess my question is, why do we feel obliged to say, “I am fine,” when most of the time we are not? In this week’s post I want to answer why I felt the need to say “I’m fine” for so many years, and why I don’t say that anymore.

I think there is a huge misconception about the attitude behind “I’m fine”. I was taught, by many people at many times in my life, that self-reliance was a virtue and that needing help was a sign of weakness, the folly of children. We are taught that there is something stoic to a person who handles their problems with no help, who can put on the appearance that everything is OK. This narrative deeply affected me as a young child and I can remember the very concept of it feeling so alien. It left me with a lot of questions.

“Am I the only one that feels this way?”

I would wonder, “Why does everyone else seem to have a clue when I don’t?”

“These feelings of self-doubt, this knot in my stomach, does no one else really know what this feels like?”

I learned the lessons quickly. I learned to put up walls, to not show weakness, to hide my vulnerabilities lest people pick and prod at them. I learned to answer “I’m fine” like everyone else, thinking that I was being brave, I was being strong, that the appearance of self-reliance was a replacement for the real thing. I remember a poem I wrote in grade school that ended with the line “no one can hear when you scream inside”, I thought that it was important to keep those screams inside- because I never heard anyone else screaming. “I’m fine” they said, “I’m fine.”

Over the years this narrative became like a suit of armor. It looked strong and resilient, and with each passing day there were less and less weak spots. It covered every inch of the man inside and I thought, “Now nothing can ever touch me.” For me, this is what the attitude of “I’m fine” was supposed to bring. Safety, respect, adoration. I was a model of strength and on the outside I gleamed with perfection. However, the view from inside the suit was much different. Yes, the suit covered every inch and had no weak spots; but because of this it was very heavy and made it difficult to move. The very act of getting up each day became a strain on the man inside the suit. The helmet was stifling, and it was hard to breathe. I could see, but as if through a long hallway; and I could hear, but it echoed as if from a distant dream. I thought my suit would give me freedom, but hiding the man inside the suit became the greatest burden I have ever endured, and after a time I collapsed under the weight of the very armor that I built to keep me safe, to set me free.

I remember awaking from this collapse in a place full of other people. People who had lived their lives in suits of armor that had broken down and rusted, and we all sat together exhausted from the journey that lead us here. A journey of self-reliance, alone, in silence. There were some though, that I remember with vivid clarity. It was the look in their eyes, a look that I hadn’t seen in so long. I remember looking at others from my suit of armor and asking, “How are you?” and they would smile with their mouth, but not with their eyes as they parroted back, “I’m fine.” These people, though, smiled with their whole being. I remember how deeply their hope inspired me, and inspires me until this day. Their strength did not come from armor any more, nor did it come from anything outside at all. It came from within and it exuded from them in a way that amazed me. They had found their true voice.

Following in their path, finding my own voice, has been a perplexing journey; a series of contradictions that once I accepted, changed the way I saw myself and the people around me. Despite what I was told as a child, I have learned that people who ask for help are some of the bravest people I have ever met, and that it takes an immense amount of strength to be able to work on yourself. I was taught early in life that my struggle should be my secret, and I planned to carry that burden for the rest of my life, until when early in my recovery a beautiful thing happened. I remember talking to a person who had followed a similar path to mine. I shared with him my experience and how far I had come since then and I watched that little glint of hope sparkle in his eyes, as it did in mine when I first met those bright eyed people the year before. As I watched that glint of hope change that man’s life as it had changed mine, I noticed that how I felt about my experience began to change, too. Suddenly, my secret was helping other people and that burden of guilt and shame began to melt away. As I opened up I met hundreds of people who had struggled in their life like I had, and I started to realize just how much the attitude of “I’m fine” was affecting those around me. I began to see that every person I had seen in the past 22 years was carrying a burden I knew nothing about, and that deep down inside each and every one of those people would have loved a person to share that burden with. You are not alone. People around you every day are walking around thinking, like you, that no one can know the depth of their pain, their struggle. So I challenge each and every person reading this- to be brave enough to drop the “I’m fine” and to keep an eye out for someone struggling through what it is you have been through, and when you find that person go tell them that they are not alone. When you watch that little bit of hope change their life, you’ll see that it changes how you feel about yours- and that has been the most freeing experience of my life.

Today, I don’t want to be fine. I want to be free.

-Carl Antisell

“I want to see you be brave.”

“You can be amazing; you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug. You can be the outcast, or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love. Or you can start speaking up.”

I am writing for this blog because words can save lives.

I am writing this for you: peers, educators, families, friends of somebody who may be battling with a mental health condition, or of somebody who isn’t. I am writing this for those of you who know nothing at all about what it means to have a mental illness. I am writing this in hopes that you might learn something, that you might take away a piece of knowledge that you can use to help someone in need. I’m writing this so that the next time you hear a phrase like “ugh, that class makes me want to shoot myself”, you won’t chuckle and shrug it off; so that when you notice a friend has been sleeping more than usual and stopped caring about their schoolwork, you don’t feel nervous to be the person to ask them how they’ve been doing. I want you to feel prepared to have those honest conversations. I want you to feel confident enough to stand up to those who make stigmatizing jokes about mental illnesses. Truthfully, as foreign as those struggles may seem, the person in need of help and advocacy could someday be you.

I am writing this for you: who is certain that you’re entirely alone, that you never belonged here, that you’re going to feel this way forever; you, whose eyes can’t see through the fog, whose skin suffers at the hands of your mind, who feels like you’re suffocating from the weight; you, who punctuates every tiny thought of hope with “yeah, but…not me”, who doesn’t feel like your voice is worthy of sound, who can’t bear to face the outside world; you, whose mind races, whose heart races, whose limbs can’t stop moving. This is for you: who feels wrong, who feels lost, who feels stuck. You, who has forgotten that you deserve the world simply because you’re you.

I am writing this for you most of all. I’m writing this for you because I have been there, and sometimes when it’s hard to find words,  finding shelter in someone else’s can give you hope.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way the words do when they settle ‘neath your skin. Kept on the inside, no sunlight, sometimes a shadow wins.”

For way too long, I hid my pain beneath laughter, beneath layers of clothes, beneath excuses. I didn’t want anybody to be pulled down by my weight. I wanted to protect my family and friends. I was convinced that nobody would be able to help me anyway or that I would just be cast away as being overdramatic or stupid. I had always been the good girl, the perfect daughter, the A+ student, and everything was spiraling out of control. I was afraid of who I was becoming, but I was so ashamed that I didn’t want anybody to know. I didn’t want to show how vulnerable I was; and after all, how do you bring up a conversation like that? How do you push those words out?

“But I wonder what would happen if you say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.”

I wish I could pinpoint a specific moment during my journey when I found my voice, but like any solid structure, it had to be built brick by brick. It’s true that once you let the words out, it becomes easier to add those bricks. When you use your voice, when you speak up to friends, counselors, teachers, family members, they can help lift you up and give you the boost you need to keep building, to reach higher than you ever thought you could. They might even offer to carry some of the weight.

“Honestly, I want to see you be brave.”

Some days it’s harder to talk about the pain you feel. Some days there will be a lump in your throat and a heaviness in your chest that suffocates the words inside you. And some days others’ ignorance will make you choke on your words. Know that you don’t have to feel completely confident or have the right words; just let them fall out. The first call I made to the counseling center on my college campus was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but throughout my journey, it really did get easier to talk about my mental illness. And years later, after talking through my pain, after reaching out to those who care about me, after learning to fight for myself, I look back and realize that I have this amazing structure with which I have learned to protect my mental health and to work through the obstacles I face. I have support and it makes me feel safe; it makes me feel lighter. If it weren’t for my friends, family, mentors, therapists, doctors, and all those who were willing to help in between, I wouldn’t be here.

“Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live; maybe one of these days you can let the light in.”

You do not have to battle this alone. You are capable of feeling better, and you are worthy of feeling better. If you are hurting and unsure of what to do, please speak up, reach out, ask for help. Let the words fall out. It could save your life, and we need you here. Be brave.

-Leah B.

Finding My Voice

At fourteen years old, I found myself sitting across the room from a therapist who was recommended to my mother by my pediatrician. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and tried to answer the questions that were being hurled at me while awkwardly petting the therapy dog sitting under my feet. Not knowing what to say and wanting my therapist to think I was “normal”, I gave answers I thought she wanted to hear. Becoming increasingly frustrated after weeks of not being able to get truthful or thoughtful answers from me, my therapist finally said, “You seem to get upset and do stupid things. I mean, cutting yourself is stupid… you do know that, right?” My heart sank all the way into my gut and I wilted into the dark green chair that I already felt so small in. I looked back at this woman who was staring at me demanding an answer. Feeling defeated, I nodded my head yes and tried to move on with the session.

After my session was finished, I got into the car to drive home with my mom. She asked me how it went and I said it had gone well. Lie. I held back tears the whole 35 minute drive home and when I got there I went straight up to the bathroom and cut myself. “That will be the last time I go to therapy”, I told myself. The next week when it was time for my appointment, I told my parents I was fine and did not need to go back. Both my mom and dad believed me and we all moved on with our lives as if my self-harm had been nothing more than a phase. But inside I was begging for something to make me want to live.

As years passed by, I carried a hidden pain inside of myself. I feared rocking the boat again. Even when I was diagnosed with panic disorder in my sophomore year of high school and the anxiety that wreaked havoc on my mind every day was apparent, I somehow managed to pull through and convince the world that I was fine. I did not want to seem as if I was grabbing for attention when so many people seemed to have it worse than me. After all, my brother had a physical disability; I had no place to complain about my mental disability, right?

During my years as an adolescent, I stifled my voice. If I did use my voice it was in all the wrong ways, like demanding at the age of 18 that my doctor take me off of my medication even if he felt it wasn’t medically the best thing for me. I self-medicated and continued to physically harm myself anytime I felt that I needed a visual expression of my pain. I did not ask for help when I needed it and because of this I ended up being hospitalized at 21 for my Bipolar I Disorder. I was not hospitalized just because I had Bipolar Disorder; I was hospitalized because I did not ask for help at the first signs of my manic episode. It wasn’t until I was at the point of no sleep, constant tears, complete isolation and a big old head full of pink hair that I realized I needed to speak up. I entered that hospital with fear and left that hospital with courage.

During my hospital stay I was asked by a therapist why I said yes to being discharged to a psychiatrist that I did not want to go to instead of requesting a different one. I had no answer for him except that I did not want to cause any trouble for anyone. That is when he explained to me that my life would be totally different if I could just tell people what I needed and what I wanted. He said that my fears of asking for help would not only hinder me, but the people around me. After we spoke I went back into the office of the social worker and told him I wanted a different psychiatrist. I thought I would get an eye roll or told that I needed to accept what I got, but instead I got a, “Thank you for telling me. I will call around today and see who we can set you up with.” I smiled and started to look forward to my after care, because I had just taken full control of it.

My healing process after being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder was not easy. I struggled to stay above water some days but I made it through those days by telling people what would work for me. Instead of having people tell me what to do, I told them what I needed them to do. I had never seen the people in my life so happy to have a specific step to take in order to help me get through the bad times. They gave me their undying support with so much ease because they knew what I needed them to do. No one felt burdened by me and no one felt helpless. They just wanted to be there for me in the best way possible. The comfort they felt from this and the strength I felt from them would not have been possible had I continued to stifle my voice like I did during my childhood.

I not only used my voice with my family and friends, but I began to use it in the services I received. I became more and more comfortable calling a doctor when I felt a medication was unhelpful and I felt more and more comfortable transferring to a new therapist when one did not seem like a good match for me. My fourteen year old self, afraid to ask for help and tell someone my therapist was not helpful to my specific situation, was gone. And when I did find that therapist who was a great match for me, I set the goals in my sessions and I told my therapist what coping skills worked for me and what coping skills didn’t, instead of her telling me my goals and what skills I needed to use. I was finally told that cutting myself was not stupid, but a negative coping skill that I needed to replace with a positive one. I utilized my voice in a healthy way for the first time and despite being in a deep and lengthy depression, I never felt so powerful in my life.

I now speak to and work with youth who are currently struggling to find their voice, mostly because I wish someone had told me it was okay to ask for help in the way that I needed it! It would have saved me so much heartache. I find that people look at me often and say, “Yes, but no one will understand what I am going through.” And I always look back and say, “No, they will not understand your situation because they have not lived it, but they CAN understand how you need them to help if you would just tell them.” Don’t be afraid, speak up! People are so much more willing to help than I ever realized if you would just give them something to do for you. They will feel healed knowing they are helping your pain and you will feel healing from the love and support of someone else. YOU HAVE A VOICE! Use it!

-Kristin Nordeman