Live Through This

Take a Break (Stop Breaking Down)

Bravery means asking for help.

Illustration by Cynthia

It’s a well-known fact that the modern school day is scientifically designed to make teenagers miserable. You have to get up at ridiculous-o-clock, sit in an uncomfortable chair at an uncomfortable desk and be lectured at for like six hours straight, and then you have to somehow fit all your homework, extracurriculars, family time, and social activities into the remaining few hours of the day. It’s too much!

Add to this mix just one extra stress—a temporary or chronic illness, a learning disability, a mental disability, a sick relative, a horrible breakup, a death, etc. etc. etc.—that makes you let’s say six percent more tired than most of your peers, and you can forget it. Getting through a normal day is like running a marathon. Just taking notes in class feels like an unclimbable mountain. And even if you manage to power through it and do OK at school, you’ve got no energy left for things like “having a social life” and “enjoying things.”

No matter what your reason for struggling to get through the day, I can’t give you a solution that will give you a so-called “normal” life. Depending on your issue, you’ll have to turn to your doctor or your therapist or some other more qualified person for that, or perhaps accept that you, like many of us, will always have to deal with challenges that most people don’t. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up altogether. There are no easy answers, but I’d like to share a little of what I picked up when I was struggling through school.

I’ve written before on this here website about my seasonal depression and my migraine headaches. These things are constant hindrances, but I used to feel like they were too minor to warrant help from others. After all, there are tons of people who are far sicker than I am, and in far more pain. I don’t deserve help, I’d tell myself. I should be able to work through this. But that was not a healthy way of thinking, nor a particularly smart one. If I have to write a paper through two weeks of nonstop excruciating pain, that does, objectively, make things harder for me. And just because I can, if I throw all sense and reason aside, get through it, doesn’t mean I have to or that I should—there’s nothing noble about suffering silently. Bravery means asking for help before the pain overwhelms you—and then asking again when you are overwhelmed.

My identity in high school was pretty tied up in being an honors student, and it took me well into college to drop my pride and ask for an extension when I needed one. If whatever’s going on with you means you have to ask for extensions on the regular, you’ll probably need a letter from a doctor or therapist, but taking care of your wellbeing is their job, so they should be happy to give you one. With a medical diagnosis or opinion to back you up, you have a good chance of getting long-term help, like extra time for all your assignments forevermore. Depending on how big of an exemption you’re asking for, you might want to talk to your school guidance counselor first and find out what your options are, and exactly what you need to ask your doctor/nurse practitioner/therapist for. (Hopefully, you’re in a situation where your family knows what’s going on with you. If for some awful reason they can’t find out, and you’re under 18, the first thing to ask any doctor, nurse, therapist, or guidance counselor is what they are required to report to your parents, and what they will report even if they don’t have to. Carefully negotiate parameters that will get you the help you need without putting you at risk. Also, if you’re seeing a therapist, ask them what they think about your schoolwork problem. They might have some great insights and advice.)

In my experience, most teachers are sympathetic when you explain that you’re going through some personal issues and need tutoring or extra credit. I know that it can be intimidating to talk to a teacher about personal stuff. But in general teachers are older than you, and have been through a lot; they understand what it means to be gutted by life and health circumstances. Make appointments with all of your instructors and/or your school’s guidance counselor. Again, ask what they will tell your parents before you start spilling. Then, within those boundaries, lay out as much of your situation as you feel comfortable sharing. You’ve been sick, you’re having trouble at home, you took on too many responsibilities, you were hurt somehow, or some other terrible thing happened—whatever the reason, you’ve fallen behind in your classes and now you need some help. If you take responsibility, present a semi-decent reason, and offer to make the work up somehow, you have a pretty good chance of getting the help you need. If you don’t talk to anyone, you have zero chance of getting that help.

Once you’ve gotten the authorities in your life on board, it’s time to make a plan to de-overwhelm yourself. One obvious, amazingly effective, but weirdly difficult solution is to just do less stuff. What makes this option hard is figuring out what to do less of, especially if you, like me, tend to fill your life with way too many things that you really super want to have the energy to do. I wrote about my struggle to simplify my life back in January, and I don’t want to repeat that whole saga here, but basically I stopped signing up for every extracurricular activity that seemed mildly appealing. I enjoyed all of the millions of activities I did, but when I had a different after-school obligation every day of the week, none of which I felt I could skip because I held some position of authority in every single one, I had literally no free time. Free time is important, you guys. Your brain and your body need periods of rest and recuperation on a daily basis, or they’ll just stop functioning. I told myself I thrived under stress, but I think the truth was that as long as I was that busy, I just didn’t have the time to acknowledge my growing anxiety. Sure, I was having more-frequent headaches and upset stomachs—but those were easy to ignore so long as I staved off a full-on panic attack, which I would not allow to happen because it didn’t fit into my busy schedule.

You will not be surprised to learn that I couldn’t keep this routine up for very long. During my senior year of high school, I had to start dropping classes and activities, lest I wind up too addlepated to do any of the things I so desperately wanted to kick ass at. I even decided against taking a college course that year, which was a big decision for my overachieving self, who had started gathering college credits a year earlier. I was so stressed about that decision before I made it, but afterwards, all I remember feeling was relieved, a sensation that felt weird and alien after so many years of nonstop worry.

But you don’t need to be an overachiever to feel overwhelmed. If you’re having trouble, for any reason at all, finding the energy to get through a normal day, first see a medical professional to make sure there’s nothing going on with you health-wise that’s wiping you out (some conditions that can make you feel exhausted all the time are mono, anemia, clinical depression, diabetes, an underactive thyroid, and the aptly named but little understood chronic fatigue syndrome). If you get a clean bill of health, it wouldn’t hurt to reevaluate your lifestyle. Maybe you’re prioritizing your social life over academics, which is understandable, but I’d recommend finding a balance where you’re not overly stressed out about either one. Because it’s also possible to burn out socially. If you can’t keep up with every single thing that your friends are doing, don’t wear yourself out trying. But also, don’t just drift away and let your friends think you don’t like them anymore (which will be their natural assumption when you stop hanging out with them and returning 100% of their texts). Tell them what’s up. Say that you’re going through a rough patch and that you need some quiet time alone, and that you’ll be back in touch when you feel better. If they’re worth calling your friends, they’ll understand. There’s this thing that’s been floating around the internet for a while called the Spoon Theory, which is basically a way for people to explain their energy-sucking illnesses to healthy people. You can (and should) read the link for the full explanation, but here is my summary: Imagine energy as spoons. Healthy people are given a near-infinite number every morning. Others are given as many as they can hold in their hands. Anything they choose to do, from getting dressed in the morning to going to a party, costs spoons, and when they run out, they’re done for the day.

I’m a known introvert who has several friends with chronic health conditions, so I’ve never been in the position of being forced to explain why I’m turning down a social invitation. “I don’t feel like it” has always been reason enough among my set, thankfully. So maybe I’m not the greatest person to give advice here, but I would still recommend brutal honesty in almost every case. Say: “I’m feeling super irritable today because I have a killer headache, so it’s not the best time for me to talk,” or “I’m really stressed out right now, so I’m not going to be able to hang out for a while, but maybe next week?” People tend to appreciate openness.

Some invitations seem so fun that it’s really hard to turn them down. It’s OK to force yourself out every once in a while. You might find that once you’re at the party/meeting/show it’s actually easy to have a good time. But weigh each opportunity carefully. Is this a once-in-a-lifetime party? If you do go, how much are you going to regret it in the morning? Can you show up, hang out for 45 minutes, and leave early? Can you leave any time you want? I leave all parties early, because I’m boring and hate staying up late. No one seems to mind.

If you’re really tired or sick or moody and don’t know why, don’t just brush it off. I suffered silently through four years of high school before getting diagnosed with anxiety and depression in college. All the advice I’ve given you here is so much easier to take if you have someone helping you treat your underlying issues. You don’t have to suffer alone. ♦

28 Comments

  • Tziporah December 27th, 2012 12:33 AM

    Whoa, Rachael. Thank you for putting what I’ve been feeling into words.

    In high school I went through a pretty hard time with some family stuff.

    I was walking through my school hallways like a zombie and couldn’t focus on schoolwork. A couple days before an assigment was due I went to my principal’s office and broke down. He was amazingly supportive, got me to meet with a therapist that visited the school weekly and spoke to my teacher, who gave me an extension. It’s important for girls (and boys and women and men) to know that it’s okay to ask for help, an extension, an excusal, etc.

    Great post. Thank you!

  • ironsides December 27th, 2012 12:59 AM

    this is one of the most important things ever posted to rookie, i’m pretty sure. i’ve been living with chronic migraine since i was about five, and i still spend nearly half the month in bed in debilitating pain. and like, even days that start out healthy can just be ruined when my spoons are up. i’ve had to take three medical leaves from college because of the migraine/depression combo and i’m finally sort of back on track now, after six years. if it weren’t for the disability resource center on my campus, i don’t know what i would do. getting the accommodations and help i needed changed my life.

    • lexie-lee January 21st, 2013 12:29 AM

      Wow. This is really great. I’ve dealt with anxiety and clinical depression for about three years, and this piece is just totally on the mark. A few years ago I was in a really bad place and I “recovered,” but ever since then I’ve still been struggling a bit. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help because I worry that I’m regressing into serious illness like I was before, but I know that life can be overwhelming and the very best thing for me is to recognize when I need help. I guess what I’m saying is if you are feeling consistently upset/worried/sad/angry/whatever-else for a long period of time, you deserve to get what you need and be happy.

  • rocknavel December 27th, 2012 1:04 AM

    Something not considered in all of these (otherwise great!) articles about mental health is that not all people have the privilege of being surrounded by people who…care I guess? I am 99.9% sure that I have Avoidant Personality Disorder and Dysthymia and they are making school the worst thing ever, but my family just doesn’t care.
    I’m not sure but I think I have OCD – I have had two panic attacks in the last week due to adhesives around my house (even typing out the word sticker disgusts me UGH) and untidy rooms, in one of which I just picked up all of my mess around me and dumped it into an unused room, which I cleaned up later after I had finished crying and hyperventilating. I know this isn’t normal.

    I have a long history of abnormal… mental health I guess; I first considered suicide when I was nine years old. I wrote all the different ways in which I wanted to die and posted them on the walls of my bedroom before crying myself to sleep. (Writing that line makes me feel pretentious and dumb. I have very low self-esteem.) My mother’s response to this was not to talk about suicide or anything like that. She instead ordered me to stop reading violent books (which I had never read in the first place). The feelings didn’t stop, and I still consider suicide on bad days.

    I feel hopeless. Completely. I’m not going to go into it because I have nothing else to say, but I don’t understand how I am supposed to live like this for, at the least, 60 more years?!?! I don’t see my life getting better.

    I used to think this was normal until I watched a doc on social anxiety.

    • rocknavel December 27th, 2012 1:15 AM

      The two times I brought up suicide with my mom in my years of being 9 and 10, she always dismissed it as…I don’t know what.

      But I don’t blame her: it’s cultural. I suspect she had or currently has dysthymia (it tends to run in families) because she told me “I used to be very pessimistic at your age.” I try really, really hard to be outgoing and happy – “fake it til’ you make it” is my motto – but I can’t do it and I hate myself. I don’t want to reveal too much info about myself, but my mom comes from a culture in which mental illnesses are (literally) demonized. I’ve actually had a convo with my sister in which I tried to convince her people with mental illnesses don’t have them because they are possessed.

      I told my other sister about my panic attacks and she told me I need to tell my mom, but I can’t do that. It has happened SO MANY times where I have told my mom that I feel like I have a mental condition of some sort and she hasn’t taken me seriously, I couldn’t possibly list all of them here, but another example is when I told her I felt like I had ADD and she laughed in my face. I know I have problems, but I really just don’t have support. I’m happy that the author of this article has supportive and understanding people in her life, but I (and I’m sure many others) simply don’t.

      Another example: my mother and sister (who talked to me about my panic attacks) always joked to our friends and family for the entirety of middles school that I had anorexia. I actually had bulimia until the middle of eighth grade, but neither of them know that and I doubt they ever will.

      • cin December 27th, 2012 1:56 AM

        @rocknavel
        I feel every bit of your pain seeing as my family is the same.
        It sucks to not have the support you need from the people that are supposed to care about you the most.
        It bring me far back in my recovery from past events since they act like this.

      • Blythe December 27th, 2012 4:19 AM

        Is there any place you can go to without your parents knowing, to get some sort of care? I’m one of those privileged chronic illness people so I don’t know, but it wouldn’t hurt you to find out if you have any other options.

      • M. Kitka December 27th, 2012 7:31 AM

        rocknavel — Do you go to school? I don’t know where you live but in the US most schools will have a school councilor who might be able to help. Or do you have a favorite trusted teacher, another grownup like a neighbor, Aunt, Uncle or family friend who you could speak to? They might be able to help you find the care you need and/or even speak with your family adult-to-adult to help explain the serious reality of your situation!

      • Jenessa December 27th, 2012 8:25 AM

        @rocknavel If you ever need someone to talk to there is an organization called The Trevor Project. They run a 24/7 free lifeline. You can talk to the counselors about mental health issues and thoughts of suicide. They are for LGBTQ people but anyone can call to get help. 866.488.7386

  • sissiLOL December 27th, 2012 4:11 AM

    Thank you for this article! It gaves me courage. Because I have a similar problem: I cant not give too much if anything would. Can you give me special tips? Thank!
    P.S. Sorry for the strange rates, I am from Germany, learn English at school and use for this article Google translate :-D.

    • Twister December 27th, 2012 6:44 AM

      “I cant not give too much if anything would.”
      Sieht so aus als hätte google translate ziemlichen Mist gebaut. Ich weiß leider nicht, was du damit sagen wolltest. Schreib doch deinen Kommentar nochmal auf Deutsch hin, dann kann ich ihn für dich übersetzen.

      FYI I asked her to post the original comment in German so I could translate it for her because obviously google translate was unable to do so.

  • Mary the freak December 27th, 2012 6:35 AM

    I am soo glad we are having holidays currently. everytime when we only have two weeks or si left before the holidays, I feel so weak. I do have free time, but then, there are tests or blog things to do and I feel,so busy and overwhelmed. I would cry immediately if someone tells me something bad,even if it is just “hey, this shirt does not suit you really, sorry…” and bam, crying. It sucks so much. Anyways, so happy to have holidays now.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • natleboo December 27th, 2012 6:47 AM

    Heyladiess

    So I think it is important to note where Rachael (you spell your name just like my lil’ sis!)realizes that she doesn’t have to brave out her mental ilness alone. Being an overachiever in school and a people pleaser in general made my bipolar/borderline personality disorder develop into a lethal mix that ultimately broke me before I realized I needed to get better–and every thing and everyone else can wait. I really embrace my recovery as this mix disintergrated my college success–I dont want it to ruin my career plans!! All you rookiers who have mental health disabilities you have my love and support <3<3 I let my mom (no health degree at all) convince me that there was nothing wrong with me even when I was calling suicide hotlines and having panic attacks daily–even now she tries to deny my disabilities but only YOU know you so always get help if you think you need it. NO ONE HAS TO SILENTLY TRUDGE THROUGH THEIR OWN SUFFERING ALONE!

  • Tihana December 27th, 2012 7:16 AM

    Thanks for this article. :)
    I’m not ill, but I’m mildly phisically disabeled.
    Also,I’m not really what you would call a self – confidant person, and I hate the fact that my problem is visible from the outside.
    But I’ve been living like this for the past 17 years, and based on my personal experience, I can tell you that people are good. Simple as that. ( unless their psychos, i guess, but then they’re also sick in a way.)
    Even the kids who appear to enjoy making fun of others, the seemingly creepy neighbour or that terrible math teacher who totally hates your gutts.
    I am not saying that I like every single person I know, I mean, some of them get on my nerves, but I do respect them all, beacuse they have, or probably will help me at one point in my life.
    It’s actually susrprising how understanding people are, so you really don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for help, or extensions or anything. Sometimes, it seems as if helping others is a part of our DNA.
    Well, it’s either that, or I’ve just been incredibly lucky. ;)

  • Jenessa December 27th, 2012 8:18 AM

    YES. It is absolutely more than ok to ask for help when you need it.

  • sleepyschoolgirl December 27th, 2012 8:57 AM

    thank you for letting me know about the spoon theory, that’s really helpful :)

  • starsinyourheart December 27th, 2012 9:16 AM

    I have M.E/CFS and bipolar disorder and this article is so right.

  • kolumbia December 27th, 2012 10:36 AM

    Thank you for this! The spoon theory is exactly how I feel about what the combination of high school and depression does to me. (So nice to be on winter break!!)

    You are right, there is nothing noble about suffering. It is so good to hear that, because it can be easy to fall into that pattern of thinking.

  • Iris Rookiereader December 27th, 2012 1:32 PM

    But where does that cross the line into knowing you always have an excuse or an out for when you potentially screw up, so you in fact use your mental health issue etc into letting yourself off the hook with teachers and deadlines etc.? From personal experience, I’ve found it to be a slippery slope where once I’ve asked for extra help or extra time, I’ve come to rely on it more to a degree where it’s not ‘extra’ anymore, or I think, oh if I fail, it’s because of depression overpowered me, not because I didn’t try hard enough to work with/through it. Or even if I don’t ask for help, in my head I excuse myself for not living up to my already-lowered self-expectations.
    I don’t mean to be accusatory or unsympathetic, maybe I’ve overstating things a little as devil’s advocate, but I’ve found personally that at first what was liberating about being able to talk about your personal health issues more openly became kind of self-defeating at some point. Does anyone else feel this way?

    • Blythe January 21st, 2013 6:02 PM

      I have problems with that too, and I always ask myself “Would I give up this accommodation to be well?” So long as the answer is yes, I’m not exploiting my disability. And occasionally, I just say “Fuck it, I’m disabled” and use it to my advantage in some situations. Sometimes I just need to treat myself by giving myself a little extra accommodation.

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild December 27th, 2012 3:29 PM

    This post essentially read my mind. I am in my senior year of under grad and I am only just starting to realize that I need to not be so involved and should just take some time for myself!

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • spudzine December 27th, 2012 3:39 PM

    Hey thanks so much for this because I deal with panic attacks/anxiety/depression/just being plain sad most of the time, and no one really helps me. The only one who can help me is me, and that’s because I have to treat myself like an actual person, instead of that girl who makes everyone else happy. Plus, school drains most if not all of my energy, so this article really put my feelings into words.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/

  • Abby December 27th, 2012 3:47 PM

    I think this is really great, because I hate how people don’t treat mental disorders like physical ones. You would never say to someone with cancer, “Oh my god… why can’t you just.. get over it?” like people do with depression or anxiety (or anything else), although both of those things are chronic, REAL disorders, just like cancer. I think that we need to realize that mental disorders hurt just as much as physical ones, and that sometimes, we need help.

  • A.K. December 27th, 2012 4:00 PM

    Thank you for this!

  • hannah-mae December 28th, 2012 4:56 PM

    I can’t thank you enough for this article, I just kept saying ‘yes’ out loud as I read because I relate to this so much. I have chronic fatigue and I’ve struggled with admitting it to myself and others because I myself saw it as a weak excuse for being tired, when really it was a whole lot more than simply being tired, it’s a whole illness that affects everything, I have a lot going on with family, I had glandular fever and I have anxiety issues which all account for my fatigue. School was such a massive issue last year especially with teachers/friends not understanding but when you get to a point of burning yourself out there is nothing else left to do but admit defeat. Anyway this article is just perf and everyone needs to read it. xxx

  • SFclaire December 30th, 2012 3:36 PM

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of writing. I was diagnosed with severe depression about two years ago when I was in the hospital for the first time. It’s great to know that many people feel similar to the way that I do. Keep writing. You’re inspirational.

  • EmilineQ December 30th, 2012 10:30 PM

    This helped me so much! I have anxiety and depression, and on top of that last spring I got a concussion. My concussion basically changed the whole way I saw school and extracurriculars. I used to think I could do it all like my friends and not get burned out, but then I realized I had to slow down or risk never recovering from my injury. It was a painful realization, and I am still working to slow down but all in all it was for the better.

  • bacitracin January 31st, 2013 2:45 PM

    Thank you for saying it’s OK to evaluate and negotiate your time out at stressful social gatherings. So much of our culture implies that we are weird if we don’t enjoy parties, or we’re lame if we want to leave early.

    I’ve been like this for all my life, don’t think it’s going to change.