It's 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night. As my boyfriend quietly bustles in the kitchen to clean our dinner dishes, I’m smearing an expensive face mask onto my skin in the bathroom. My email notifications are disabled and the bathroom is suffused with the scent of my Japanese bath salts. I have a silk robe waiting for me to lounge in afterwards. But as I stare in the mirror and take internal inventory for the first time all day, I realize: I don’t feel good. I feel... expensive, I suppose. But I don’t feel happy, or at peace, or fulfilled, or even content.
I nurse that realization as I soak in my bath, my knees tucked into my chest. Why don’t I feel good? I’ve been doing everything right. I have a dedicated morning and nighttime skincare routine, I get plenty of sleep, I eat a balanced diet, I work out, and I’m living my childhood dream as a writer. I’m regularly active (my new pole classes have been super fun and exciting), I’m in a stable and loving relationship. I drink at least one liter of water per day. So why wasn’t I happy? I’ve been doing everything right.
When I started to figure out how to manage my mental health, I was 19 and could barely sit up in bed let alone socialize. Why should I get up? I thought to myself back then. What is out there for me that’s worth washing my face, putting on pants, and smiling for? And my anxiety? I could barely walk down the street without thinking of ten reasons to turn right around and give up.
It’s been years since I realized I’ve been depressed and anxious for most of my life. But, I still learn more about my depressive habits and anxious tendencies every year. I know how to force myself out of bed when I’m depressed. I know how to regulate my breathing to calm down my anxiety. I’ve spent years nipping negative self-talk in the bud. I’ve read damn near all the mental health and productivity lists on Tumblr, devoured countless articles about how self-care improves your mental health, experimented with the benefits of daily journaling, and even asked experts about the best ways to manage your emotions.
But, I forgot the most important thing—which Dr. Carla Marie Manly kindly reminded me: There’s more to good mental health than trying to hack away depression with a face mask. It’s a constant journey. "Many people simply don’t realize that optimal mental health is a journey that must be pursued throughout life," she says. "If we picture mental health as having a set endpoint rather than a lifelong journey, we neglect the truth that we face life-shaping mental and emotional challenges every day...as well, given that we live in a quick-fix society, we often consciously or unconsciously expect our mental health to be 'perfect' or 'great' if we take the right medicine or follow the latest self-help article guidelines. A quick-fix mentality tends to set us up for problems given that fostering good mental health is not instantly achievable goal."
It also didn’t help that the usual quick fixes for my mental health (beauty products, a good meal, and a shower) compounded the part of me that felt shame. They berated me, pointing out all the wonderful things I had to be grateful for. A roof over my head, good health, delicious food to eat, a loving and supportive partner, good friends, and a career that I loved. My teenage self would definitely be overjoyed to see I had achieved what initially felt like impossible dreams. To have everything I wanted and still feel dissatisfied made me feel awful. We made it, a part of me screamed at myself, we made it, so why are you conjuring up some intangible angst to agonize over just because?
It’s only natural to cycle through dissatisfaction and bliss, flourishing and struggling, because we’re naturally inclined to change. To think that it’s possible to maintain a state of constant happiness isn’t just unrealistic, it’s impossible. As a result, "Those who see mental health as being a fixed point (i.e. 'I’ve reached the summit of Mt. Mental Health') do not realize life presents us with many mountains and learning opportunities throughout our lives," explains Manly. "There are subsequent declines, plateaus, and new mountains to climb; there is no end to this cycle until we take our last breath," she adds. By accepting mental health can often be relatively stable with natural fluctuations, we are not taken aback when changes occur. When we have reasonable expectations that allow for natural ups and downs, we are far more prepared—and hopeful—when we feel blue, stressed, or anxious. And, by being honest with ourselves and others, we can slowly erase the false belief that 'being perfectly, eternally happy' is the definition of good mental health."
So, I’ve started to tell myself not forever, but right now whenever I’m struggling. I’m not always going to be happy, but right now, I’m going to choose to think positively about how far I’ve come. I’m not going to be sad forever, but if I can only give 30% today, that's okay. It’s not a permanent solution to my negative feelings, but I’m not looking for something permanent. I’m just looking for something that’s going to work right now to keep me going.