May 14, 2021 | OPINION | By Sam Pfeifer | Photo by Bibi Powers
For my last ever Catalyst article, I wanted to write a piece that truly means something personal to me. As it is May, it is also Mental Health Awareness Month, and I hope to use this platform to share a little bit about my own mental health journey. Hopefully, in my own vulnerability, we can continue to raise awareness, break stigmas and inspire others to share their stories.
My journey doesn’t have an exact starting point, nor does it look the same as others. I have seen the same therapist almost every week since I was 14 years old. My family always made space for me and my siblings to feel deeply — to share, to cry and to be angry. On paper, I had the tools to deal with my problems.
Before I ventured off to Colorado College, my world felt like it was exploding. My mom passed away in December of 2016 from complications due to ALS. While I was heartbroken, sad and emotionally exhausted, underneath everything, I felt anger and shame. I had watched for four years as the life was sucked out of her, and I couldn’t do a thing.
I remember how much I dreaded going to see her in her care facility because it was too unbearable. And for that — simply not wanting to see my mom — I felt intense shame.
Three months later, my grandmother, my dad’s mom, passed away from cancer. It felt like everyone I loved was disappearing, and I was powerless.
Then I came to CC. I found a community of people who didn’t see or know me as the kid whose mom had just died. I found a group of wonderful friends; I loved my classes, and I fell in love. In short, CC provided the perfect environment where I could suppress and ignore my “uglier emotions.”
For a while, I was pretty good at keeping my pain and grief in check. I continued to see my therapist, who provided a space where I could talk through my everyday problems — things that might have had some connection to deeper issues, but often tended to be time fillers. My girlfriend at the time opened up space for me to be able to share certain anxieties and traumatic memories. To a certain extent, I wasn’t alone.
But I remained closed off to almost everyone else. When I did let my feelings out, they manifested themselves in uncontrollable outbursts to family members or friends. As much as I was terrified of my deep-seated anger and shame, or suicidal ideation, I was even more afraid to share those feelings with the people around me, especially my guy friends.
Things continued to blow up. In the spring of my sophomore year, my aunt — my mom’s identical twin sister — passed away after her own battle with ALS. Memories flooded back. The pain I saw in my cousin’s eyes was all too familiar.
By the fall of the next school year, I was dealing with exhaustive roommate problems, and the most stable relationship in my life, with my girlfriend, was slowly deteriorating. I was heartbroken, and I felt myself slipping to a true low point in my life.
This was the first time in my life that I truly needed to confront my trauma. The shame and heartbreak surrounding my breakup were feelings that I had felt for years since my mom had been sick: I had failed to help the people I loved the most.
As I went home for break at the end of the semester all I wanted to do was find a solution. I wanted the pain to go away. So, one night I approached my dad and boldly stated, “I want you to shave my head.” At first, he seemed a bit perplexed, but this was quickly washed away by an excitement that he could bust out his hair clipper set.
We set up a chair in the center of our kitchen, and my dad pulled out the clippers. “Are you sure about this?” he asked. My hands were shaking, and with a trembling smile, I nodded. As he began shaving off my hair, a few tears started to trickle down my face. Eventually, my dad handed me a mirror.
I looked into the mirror, took a deep breath and said, “holy shit.” A few more tears streaked down.
The impetus to make a rash decision like shaving my head stemmed entirely from what seemed, in the moment, an inability to come to terms with recent substantial change in my life. With this change came a host of emotion, new and old. So, I shaved my head and chose to revert back to my 7-year-old self.
I had it in my head that with such a drastic change in my physical appearance, all of my own internal pain, shame, anxiety and depression would also go straight out the window. It was certainly wishful thinking, but it provided me the greatest lesson I have learned about my own mental health: in order to do the hard work, you must be actively willing to sit in discomfort. You also have to treat yourself fairly and kindly. So much of what defines my struggle is completely out of our hands, and I have to remind myself of that daily.
For me, this work manifests in a few different ways. First, it requires retaining an honest and authentic relationship with my therapist. I love therapy. Additionally, it means being honest and respectful to myself. When I feel something scary, I ask: where is this coming from? What is in my control? What is not in my control? What can I do better? And, what am I doing really well?
Lastly, my work needs me to be as open, honest and present with those around me. It requires me to trust, as opposed to rely on, those I love in my process to become a healthier human.
I am still working through my pain. I am still learning to be more present and honest with myself and those whom I love. I am still working on diving head-on into the feelings that truly make me uncomfortable. It is still hard. But ultimately, I know that the work continues to make me stronger, more selfless, more kind and more joyful. This is where I am going.
I don’t have a solution for solving our mental health epidemic. There are so many issues that I have not touched on, ranging from general mental health care accessibility to the ways in which identities (e.g. masculinity) inform how we talk about mental health.
I can’t begin to speak of the trauma and pain of those who are abuse survivors or those who grapple with the everyday trauma of living in an oppressive white supremacist society. I can’t even begin to speak about the pain my own dad and siblings have dealt with. It all manifests inside of us differently, and often more intensely for some. All I know is that the more we share, and the more we choose to listen to the people around us, the better our conversations will become.
I recently read a quote from Richard Weissbourd, the director of Making Caring Common, who described the importance of teaching our children that loving someone else requires courage and discipline and subtlety and tenderness and tough-mindedness. Not only is this a valuable reminder for our interpersonal relationships, but for our relationships with ourselves. We must not forget that love at its best is an active choice we make every day.
So, for those struggling, those who feel exhausted and those who feel unsafe, unheard or unseen, I see you. I’m here with you. Know that it gets better with work, and a whole lot of grace and love.