I leaned up in bed and unlatched my second story window. I heaved it open with all the strength I could muster and thrust my head out, vomiting bright yellow stomach bile onto the roof of the porch below. I stared at it, disgusted. I was in pain. My stomach tightened and cramped with both hunger and nausea. It was empty. I was empty.
I was drinking every night, but I would never be satisfied.
It was around this time, my senior year of college, that my first gray hair sprouted. It was a timely reminder that I was graduating, growing up, and getting old. My roommate plucked it off of my head as I simultaneously laughed and cried. I felt like a maniac. I was nearing the edge of a total mental breakdown, not because of the gray hair, but because of my chaotic life. The gray hair was shockingly symbolic of it all and it hit me at once: I had no idea what I was doing, and I hated myself. The drinking, the drugs, and the constant stress and anxiety were finally catching up with me.
Throughout college I entertained fleeting thoughts of ending my life. I was in pain, but my thoughts were nothing more than dramatic daydreams. I could never act on my plans. A more appropriate path of action would be for me to quit drinking, something that I knew I needed to do since the moment I began. I never had a healthy relationship with alcohol, but at this moment in time it was so entangled with my life and my identity that there was no separating us. For better or for worse.
After graduation, things turned out okay. I ended up landing an incredible job. I spent two amazing years in that job I loved, followed by a year and a half of graduate school. I flirted with sobriety during my stint as a young professional. Drinking was getting in the way, I realized, and I loved my job more than I loved alcohol. I finally got sober (for good) the summer before I began graduate school. My job and graduate school were both experiences that were extremely stressful, but they were also enjoyable. Through the stress of it all, I was content. I loved what I was doing. During those years, I never found a single gray hair.
In December 2019, I wrapped up graduate school and hurried off to a new job, in a new city. I literally drove to campus to turn in my final paper with all of my belongings packed into my little car, and immediately left from there to “start” my life. When I got to my new apartment, far away from my family, an uncomfortable feeling began to bubble up inside of me. I felt sick, like I had made a horrible choice. On my first day of work, I knew it wasn’t a good fit, but it was too late. I had moved, signed a lease, and I was trapped. Ironically, I’m a therapist. All of my training and all of the coping skills in the world could not help me during those first few months at my new job.
I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart beating fast, my stomach flip-flopping around. I would feel like I was going to throw up, and I’d realize that I had been dreaming about work again. I would come home most days and break into tears. Trying desperately to be okay, to hold it together. But I was hating this new life, and hating myself for being so flighty.
I found six gray hairs in two months.
Once a week, I found a new one, clear as day, sprouting right off the top of my temples. I’m 26, I thought, I’m not even that old. I was deeply disturbed by these hairs. Repulsed, even. I’m not that vain, I knew I could just dye my damn hair. But I was sad, so sad, because of what my graying hair meant. It was a physical manifestation of my fragile mental health, decaying and crumbling away, right in front of my very eyes.
I no longer associated my gray hairs with aging — no, they signified something much worse. How I felt inside. Like I was dying a very slow death. They were a dead giveaway, a tell tale sign staring back at me every single morning when I looked in the mirror. “You are not okay,” they said. Negativity, harmful thoughts, and stress were attacking my body and causing this accelerated aging.
I consider myself healthy by every definition of the word — exercising regularly, maintaining a plant-based diet, and abstaining from drugs and alcohol. And yet, none of these preventative measures seemed to protect me from the impact of my inability to adjust. I couldn’t stop the stress and negativity from creeping into my cells and doing some damage.
Everyday I envisioned elaborate future plans to escape my current reality. I could quit and go work on an organic farm! I could quit and become a nanny! I could quit and stay in this apartment and work on my writing. Or I could just quit and move back home and everything would be fine. I put ordinary events into my calendar so I could simply look forward to something, anything. There was Wednesday, “take a bath! :)” and Friday, “watch a movie!” and events that were happening in the community that I probably wouldn’t even end up going to. I begged my friends to come visit me as soon as possible. I even daydreamed about drinking again as a way to numb out my persistent discomfort and unrelenting anxiety.
I was suffering. But I was so afraid of what would happen if I quit a job that I had only recently begun. The shame I would feel, the people I would disappoint, the expenses I would rack up. However, there was a more pressing fear lurking in the background: what would happen if I stayed? The gray hairs were my tiny, determined reminders. How much of this stress could my body actually handle?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Ohio, I was just a few months into my new position as a school-based therapist. I was the newest hire, and so I prayed to be laid off. I wanted an easy way out. I wanted someone else to do the hard part for me. But that didn’t happen, I didn’t get laid off. In fact, I was deemed an “essential” employee.
When the schools closed, all school-based therapists became clinic-based therapists. My coworkers from the school-based team struggled to cope with this huge adjustment. Policies and procedures at our agency changed every single day and we were overwhelmed with responsibilities and expectations that we did not sign up for. There were lots of tears. But I felt okay.
In midst of the chaos and the panic, for the first time, something shifted inside of me. I moved from a place of discomfort and stress to a place of contentment. I felt an immense sense of pride. The world was shaken, fearful and anxious, and suddenly, I was okay.
As a social worker, and now more specifically as a therapist, I was used to being overlooked. We are underpaid and underappreciated. Right now though, we are essential. Ironically, and to my great amusement, the underlying message is: mental health is essential.
I’ve decided to stay in this job for the time being, grateful to still have a job at a time when unemployment rates are at their highest. I recognize that it’s not perfect. I don’t have to love it right now. I’m holding space for those who are struggling, but I’m also acknowledging my personal struggle. There will be an end to this pandemic and there will be an end to this job, even if neither of those ends are in sight yet. I am not trapped here forever, but we are all trapped here for now.
There is a wonderful concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy called radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul. It means you stop fighting reality, no matter how painful and unfair it is. Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. When you accept reality, you find peace.
I accept that my job is not what I expected. I accept that life is not always easy. I accept that the world is not fair. I accept that sometimes I will feel sad, anxious, and stressed.
I have decided to also accept my gray hairs. I will allow them to grow along with the rest of the hair on my head rather than plucking them out of stubborn resistance.
I am at peace. I accept my reality. I accept my gray hairs, and so I am at peace.
And lately, I haven’t sprouted any new ones.