A little less than a month before I started graduate school, a close friend and coworker died suddenly. I still remember a lot about that day; the phone call, wondering if I could even be strong enough to go to the hospital and the horrible hours of silent crying that felt like years. It was so difficult for me to come to terms with the idea that anyone, especially such a vibrant, young, and happy person could just fall out of my life. That night I remember not being able to sleep, reading cards and other notes she had left me. I knew that I had
to be strong and that she would have hated all of us for crying or stopping everything for her, I just didn’t know if I could
do any of that.
The next morning, I was expected to go in and pull a relief shift at a different clinic, but I seriously just couldn’t get out of bed. To be totally honest, I just didn’t expect to be understood and didn’t think I could hold a strong facade for twelve hours. When the manager texted me asking if I was still planning to go in, I did something I hadn’t done in a very long time; I said no. “Sorry, my friend passed away last night, and I just don’t think I can come in. I’m not in the right mental state to be working,” I replied, fully expecting a passive aggressive answer. Then, my phone buzzed and I read the message. “Don’t worry about it, I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re strong for standing up for your mental health. Take whatever time you need.” I felt so relieved and understood. I ended up taking the rest of the week to spend time with my friends and family, remembering this amazing person, and finding closure.
Being vulnerable about my mental health was simultaneously the best and hardest thing I could have done that day. I won’t lie, I felt so guilty. Some of my friends and old coworkers didn’t have that luxury to take a day off. They had to go to work that morning and feel that raw emptiness. However, I had to remind myself that it was the best option, and I had to think about my own health at that moment and be kind to myself for acknowledging that I wasn’t okay.
Ever since that day, I decided to be conscious of and prioritize my own mental health. I knew the emotions and confusion I was feeling weren’t things I could just deal with on my own. Step one of this process meant being vulnerable and opening up to people. This was and still is the most terrifying part for me. As someone who has always been a calm and mild-mannered brick wall when it came to feelings, I cringed at the idea of letting someone know I had emotions, but it gets better with practice. It starts with a simple “no, I’m not okay” as a response when someone asks, and even (cringe) actually telling someone you need time for yourself.
The next step in this process is reaching out. As much as we all would like to deny it, humans are social creatures, and dealing with some things, like grief and stress, is a group effort to some extent. I don’t think I would have ever gained closure over this loss if it weren’t for my friends, family, and past co-workers. Sitting down and saying, “I need help” is one thing, but there are times you have to say, “I need your
help.” It’s hard to be vulnerable about your feelings, and even harder to explicitly ask for help, but burying your feelings can end up being way worse than an awkward conversation or that fidgety feeling you might get from opening up.
It took losing a dear friend for me to realize that it’s okay to be vulnerable and care about my own mental health. It shouldn’t, however, take something like that for everyone. As graduate students, we’re put under immense amounts of stress and are constantly overwhelmed. It’s absolutely imperative that we care about our own mental health and learn when to say “help.” We can’t do it on our own, and we shouldn’t be expected to. Be kind to yourself, and try being a little more vulnerable. Sometimes you can’t be the only person to pick yourself up.
In Memorial of Dr. Bridget Feldhaus, who would definitely punch me in the arm for doing so.
Corley-Ann Parker is a Masters student in the College of Veterinary Medicine