I’m having one of the best semesters of my life being abroad in London, but my time here has made me realize something: I should probably be seeing a psychologist again. No, nothing happened; there was no “incident” or panic attack. I think I just need to take an inventory of my mental space.
Let me explain.
I used to think I was pretty good at storing away negative emotions. I was proud of it because I thought I was so tough. In fact, I was even a little bit flattered when someone told me that I wasn’t very sensitive or empathetic.
When dealing with a negative emotion, my strategy was to bottle it up and store it away, deep down in the back of my mind’s filing cabinets. Rejected by a boy? Cry for a minute, then file those feelings away and concentrate on something else. Bad grade on a test? Complain for a day, then file under “fuck it.” I only exhibited stress around schoolwork and college applications because in my pressure–cooker of a high school, that was perceived as an acceptable form of anxiety.
But everything changed when my close friend passed away during my gap year. I experienced feelings I could not possibly relegate to the filing cabinets. It was too much, too fast.
That’s when I first started to see a therapist. Boxes of tissues would accumulate by my feet as I talked through my good days and my bad days, my sleepless nights and little victories. While I was confused about what I felt, somehow my therapist was able to reflect what I was feeling back to me in a way that I could understand. Once I knew what I was feeling, the emotions felt less scary and overwhelming.
What surprised me the most though is that we didn’t just talk about the one traumatic incident.
My therapist led me to the back of my mind, to the old files that were dusty and yellowed from lack of care. Together, we opened them up, took notes on them, and figured out what caused me to have those feelings, and how those feelings were causing me to react.
I realized that the trauma that I experienced wasn’t the only feeling worthy of investigation.
Family relationships were being unpacked. I started to work through questions that I never thought to ask myself. Why did I get so uptight when someone commented on what I ate? Did I really need to get anxious three weeks in advance of an international flight?
The next time those feelings popped up, I was able to recognize them and properly identify the tools I needed to make them a little more bearable. Four months later, I started my first year at Penn, and my doctor closed her practice. I had a fun, challenging, and busy first semester, so I thought I didn’t have the time or necessity to find someone else. I was smiling again. Wasn’t that the point? I was cured.
Three years later, I feel like I should take a look at those emotional files again. And I realize that I probably should have been paying more attention to them this entire time. Maybe it’s because I’m unsettled being away from home and Penn, or maybe it’s because I have a lot of free time that I normally devote to schoolwork, but I am starting to get anxious again for reasons I can’t identify or pinpoint.
I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m out partying, on a nerdy literary tour, or even in class, my mind will wander and my face will go blank. I’ll get nervous for no reason, and think, "I need to figure out why I can't stop thinking about this" or "I’m supposed to be having fun, but I can't because I'm anxious, I’m stressed, I’m—."
So, it’s definitely time for someone to step in and help me take inventory of what I’m feeling.
I’ve learned that I probably shouldn’t have waited for the death of a loved one to start evaluating my mental health. I was, and am, happy most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that I have to disregard the anxieties I'm feeling. Even though I’m healthy, I still go to a doctor whenever I get a virus or a minor ear infection. Why should mental health be any different?
I was conditioned to think that therapists were for working through trauma, or mental illness. But now I know that no major life event needs to happen in order to start routinely checking up on ourselves.
I’m excited to start seeing someone again when I get back from London. The mind is a complex and overwhelming place. There’s no shame in having someone else there to help guide you through it.