By Shamyla Tareen
Imagine this: you’re 19 years old, but compared to everyone around you, you feel about 12. At the same time, you’re so exhausted from living that you feel 100 years old. It’s a bright, sunny day and you’re a new student on a huge campus. The future is supposed to be yours, but you don’t know what that could possibly mean. You don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of you because you are lost in grandiose thoughts in order to not fall apart. When the sheer beauty of the lush green day forces you to take note of it, you think if the tree leaves don’t blow in just a certain way, God’s not happy with you, and you will be punished.
You have just come out of one of the worst situations of your life, but you don’t know why you were spared, or how it all happened so fast. It’s like being a turtle with no shell, full of conflicting, roller-coaster like emotions, and being completely clueless – all at once. Everyone could immediately be your best friend; anything can trigger tears. The vast possibilities of your life and your brand new freedom terrify and thrill you to an extent that you can’t bear it.
Amidst this chaos, you have a purpose. Something you heard about in International Student Orientation. There you are, marching across the campus mall (when you first heard about it, you thought was a real mall!) You walk single mindedly all the way to Shoemaker Hall, ignoring everyone around you. You find the office inside and before you can even think about what you’re doing there, you sign up to talk to a counselor.
The counselor comes to get you. She’s a different race. You’re being led into her office. And when she glances at your chart and asks what you need, all you can do is whisper, “Help. I need help.” The counselor looks bored and impassive. Maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she doesn’t even want to know. You feel angry at her and scared for yourself. Have you made a mistake? Is it too late to leave NOW? “What do you need help with?”, she asks with no emotion. Is she irritated? Somehow a stronger voice comes out of you this time: “Help. I’ve been through a lot.” And then you start talking. And miracle of miracles – her face softens. She listens.
The above story is a true story, and happened to me. That decision, to talk to a qualified mental health professional, changed and saved my life. I paid attention to my emotional health after years of severe abuse because I wanted to make sense of the madness. I was isolated and forced to live in another country against my will from the ages of 12 to 18. Leaving behind everyone I knew and loved twice in six years had added to my traumatization. I really don’t know what would have happened to me had I not made the choice to talk to someone that day. It was a bold decision for a girl who had it drummed into her head not to talk to anyone about personal issues. Well-meaning family members were extremely worried when they found out I had seen a counselor. I remained steadfast. I was certain that talking to someone would help me sort out the intense pain, the overwhelming, erratic emotions, and would be my major support in this difficult transition. I was rewarded with one of the best relationships of my life – with a counselor who was simultaneously compassionate, wise, tough, trustworthy, and no nonsense. Yvonne taught me so much that I remain humbly in awe of her to this day.
Over the years, I’ve continued to seek counseling off and on with a couple of different counselors. People tell me I am strong and that I don’t need anyone’s help; that strangers don’t need to know my business. People have asked me what I get out of it or why I need this “crutch”. I understand why counseling is viewed that way, but that’s not how it is. I think of it as an asset, not a weakness. I think of it as learning how to be emotionally well.
Emotional Wellness means being attentive to your thoughts and feelings and behaviors, both positive and negative. By choosing to live in a state of emotional wellness, I have learned how to recognize and express my emotions appropriately, trust my own voice, and “unlearn” all the horrible messages I absorbed for years. At first it felt like learning Greek, and often it was a wobbly, difficult, stressful process. Two steps forward, four steps back. So difficult to master when it doesn’t come naturally. No matter; it’s been worthwhile. It’s taken many years, but I’ve finally learned my worth. Being emotionally well means living with peace of mind, having an optimistic view of living (despite all that has happened) and the ability to adjust to change positively.
I think stigma and shame prevent people from wanting to be more emotionally well, especially in South Asian culture. People I know and love tell me that being emotional is a weakness, that mental illness is a first world issue, and that bad feelings will “go away on their own.” However, they don’t; bad feelings continue to fester until they explode into something bigger than needed to be. I still see many people behaving in ways that show that they’re not in tune with their emotions at all. I’ve also heard American born-and-raised friends say they believe counseling is only for “those crazy people.” I get it: it’s easy to ignore that you may have a problem. Denial is easy. It’s hard to believe you could be wrong. Trusting a stranger is difficult and one can feel extremely vulnerable in the process. Realizing you have to monitor your emotions is like looking at a really sharp mirror: it forces you to take stock of yourself. The good, the bad, the ugly. But I believe it’s the only way to maintain balance in our lives.
Counseling is just one way to manage emotional wellness. There are a myriad of other ways – Yoga, meditation, Reiki, journaling, prayer, medication, engaging in meaningful, creative work, and others. All of these techniques teach you how to manage your stress and reduce it, to have better relationships, to handle the constant changes that life brings, to accept mistakes and grow from them. It’s important to identify what you are feeling and why. You just feel better with greater confidence and a purpose for being, and your relationships become easier to maintain.
I’ve learned to communicate more clearly, to set clearer boundaries and limits, and make decisions without feeling guilty or worrying too much. Saying “no” is still hard. I am still learning to reframe negative thoughts. Coping with loss, relationships, bad memories, and the image I have of myself; it’s a daily struggle. But a commitment to emotional wellness means you never give up. And as soon as I became strong enough, it was all I could do – I turned around to help those who are also struggling with emotional wellness. That’s why I became a counselor. I understand emotional pain. I also understand stigma. Everyone has a story. They just need a safe place to work through it.
I believe that life is good. My wish for everyone is to experience life’s goodness and savor its sweetness. I understand acquiring new habits is NOT easy. But when 1 in 4 adults in the US suffer from a mental illness of some sort, and there are daily reminders of untreated pain that lead to international tragedies, isn’t it time we all started to take better care of ourselves emotionally, too? It’s never too late to invest in your emotional well-being.