by Michael Leong
It is 3am now. A couple of us had been playing ice hockey; afterwards, JJ and I retired to my room and decided to plan next term’s Oxford Mental Health Support Network launch over a couple of beers. Our conversation returned, as it tends to do, to the people we’re hoping to reach out to – the people whose confessions on Oxfess reveal isolation, and struggles with mental health issues, relationships and crippling workloads.
One thing that has come to strike me about JJ is how he manages to be ambitious in a quiet way. I carelessly leave my room lights in on, he painstakingly separates the aluminium foil that held his vegetarian wrap in order to recycle it. When I moan about our lack of a budget, he talks about how he might go around to all the nearby breweries and ask for free beer. And when we talk about someone who looked a little down, he rushes to think of how we can reach out to them, just as I struggle to come up with reasons why we shouldn’t. Sometimes the impact of what we do matters less than what our actions might come to mean to us in our moral worlds, and JJ got me thinking about caring – not necessarily about how we’re going to make a difference in Oxford, but about how we choose to live our lives. So I put Coldplay’s Parachutes on and started writing.
The Oxford life is a notoriously difficult one, and for so many reasons. There is the fact that we come in thinking that we know what we’re doing, only to have that illusion painfully torn from us. We are chucked into ambiguity, we find ourselves entirely responsible for who we are and who we are to be. I’ve come to face a background stress I hadn’t felt for a long while. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself periodically short of breath for no apparent reason. And whenever I look inside and try to gain some resolution into what’s going on beneath the daily rush, I run into a deep, pervasive sense of dread. I am deeply, deeply afraid.
JJ and I had been trying to find a way to reach out to people who are suffering in isolation. Yet the more we thought about it, the more I felt that there was a problem we were not addressing. In the long run, we are hoping to run campaigns aimed at addressing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Awareness campaigns, T-shirts, anything to make it easier for people who are struggling to be themselves; anything to help them not feel bad about feeling bad. But something was off – I realised that I often feel bad for feeling bad, even though I know I shouldn’t. Many people who I’ve talked to feel the same way: there is a sense that people are ‘ducking’ – floating well on the surface but paddling furiously underneath. On a cognitive level, we might know that others are struggling just as we are – yet on an emotional level, it often feels as if everyone else is doing fine. This huge cognitive dissonance is immensely unhelpful – if everyone around me is always happy and everything is always okay, it comes to feel as if I’m doing something wrong. Or worse – as if I’m just not cut out for this.
And then I realised what felt off – how could I, in good faith, talk about changing stigma when I’m a part of the problem? When things get hard, I reach out to people around me in quiet. I might rant, I might cry, I might whine and go round and round in circles. But once that’s done, I pretend everything is fine. I fix up my face to hide the fact that something is bothering me, I smile when I jokingly say that everything is going to pot. What, I asked myself, have I done to dispel the sense that everything is going fine? Because not everything is going fine.
I’m never quite comfortable with how my work is; it’s so destabilising not to have a clear sense of mastery and a path to follow. After years of trying to carve out autonomy and freedom, suddenly finding myself with both – and having to be responsible for everything – is so terrifying. I feel disconnected from who I am around others and I’m afraid to be myself. Worst of all, I’m not comfortable talking about my fears and admitting that things are not okay. How could I? If everyone is having such a great time, the problem must be me.
So, if you’ve felt alone, struggling in silence, if you’ve found things inordinately difficult, if you’ve felt afraid to bring it up, if you’ve been wondering whether you really deserve to be here – I want you to know: you are not alone. You really aren’t, and it’s okay for things to not be okay. It’s alright to be sad. It’s alright to feel as if everything is almost too much to bear, it’s alright to feel as if everything is stacked against you and everything is just so hard. It’s alright to panic, it’s alright to feel like it’s unfair that nobody else is facing what you’re facing. It’s alright to just hold yourself and to let yourself cry. It’s alright to cry a lot and it’s alright to have your sadness turn into a lump of apathy and emptiness. You are not alone. There are so many of us around you who feel the same way – it’s just that we’re too scared to show it.
And that’s because being vulnerable is hard – give someone too much power, and they might just hurt you. We don’t want people to think less of us, and we don’t want to let people know where it hurts. We don’t want to be seen as flawed, we don’t want to be seen as broken; we want to be accepted. And it’s so much harder to see struggling as acceptable, as something that happens to even the best of us, if everyone pretends it isn’t happening to them. But being vulnerable is so important, because while we wish to be accepted by the people around us, their acceptance is worth so much less if we can’t accept ourselves first.
There is a kind of strength that comes from being willing to be vulnerable – and it stems from self-love. To be openly vulnerable is to say that we accept ourselves for who we are, for all our flaws and mistakes. To you I can show my whole person, to you I take off the veneer of pretensions, it is you I wish to understand just as I wish to be understood. The act of openness, of careful, inward looking, allows us to access parts of our experience we could not, did not wish to see. If we can’t be honest with others, we lie to ourselves: there are times when we deny our feelings without even realising it. And only once we accept and embrace the features of our experience unconditionally can we move towards meaningful change. Vulnerability requires honesty, vulnerability requires faith in the people around you; it requires faith in yourself. When we shrug off whatever problems we face without looking closely at why we feel that way, we effectively deny ourselves the acceptance we deserve. If I am struggling but tell myself I shouldn’t be struggling, I am telling myself that I am not good enough.
Self-love is a process, not an act of will. And vulnerability isn’t an act but a skill. To have the courage to be ourselves with each other is a challenge. But as we come to accept ourselves better, we can come to better accept others; we can acknowledge their experiences as similar to our own. And we can move towards building a deeply supportive community based on mutual trust; being vulnerable lets us look our friends in the eye and tell them: I feel, just as you feel. So my resolution from this point on: be more vulnerable, and be more accepting. It doesn’t always go right – there are times when we misjudge and get hurt. But every act of vulnerability is a gamble on a person – and sometimes, they pay off more than we might imagine. I’m wagering that Oriel is a good bet, and I’d love it if you could join me.