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Mental Health Is More Complicated Than a Catchphrase

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One of my last days of work, right before the world took shelter from COVID-19, I found myself jammed into a small staffroom for an emergency meeting. My principal addressed the staff about what the following weeks of “distance learning” would look like. At the time, my mind was foggy from a day of teaching and news updates, and I admit, her words felt distant as my attention wandered from colleague to colleague. Finally, my gaze fixed on a sticker clinging to the back of a fourth-grade teacher’s laptop: “Choose Joy.”

At that moment, I felt my breath get caught in my throat. I choked out a bit of air as I fixed my posture. “Choose Joy.” I have seen the sentiment before, and somehow I always read the words like a slap on the wrist. Be happy. Choose joy. Be grateful. So. Simple.

I have mental health issues. They are complicated. In the last 10 years I have been diagnosed and medicated by doctors for a pervasive mood disorder, general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests in an eating disorderpanic attacks, depression, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder and to top it all off “premenstrual dysphoric disorder.” I am a living petri dish of mental health labels, walking around San Jose like a raw nerve.

Along with my labels, I have coping skills. Skills that thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of therapy have helped me build over time. I am one of the lucky ones who gets help. I am one of the lucky ones who has skills.

To get to the point of all of this — some days my “Choosing Joy” looks very different from what the rainbows and sunshine on my coworker’s sticker imply. When I “Choose Joy” it can take herculean strength, a lot of small steps and sometimes days and months to get there.

Some days I choose joy by setting three alarms to take my meds.

Some days I choose joy by telling my husband I am terrified by an intrusive thought.

Some days I choose joy by taking a shower and putting on clean clothes.

Some days I choose joy by using a sick day to sleep in and watch old episodes of “The Bachelor.”

I don’t stop choosing, because when I find myself feeling joy it is worth every effort.

It is important to know that none of my coping skills are a cure. I used to get caught in a snowball of shame by thinking if I just did something right, some action, some “choice” I would be fixed and life would be easy. Choose joy. Be happy.

We can’t simplify mental health into one catch phrase. It is complicated, messy and hard work for a lot of us. My mental health is made up of a series of little choices I make for myself every day because I know that my sunshine, rainbows and joy will be back at some point, and when they are it is spectacular.

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Originally published: June 3, 2020
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