“We’re all always a phone call away, but you should think about finding someone at school you can talk to.”
These were the words my sister said to me as we hung up the phone and I sat in my lofted dorm room bed, balling my eyes out. It had been a week since we’d brought my mom to the hospital to begin her treatment for alcohol addiction, and although I’d been back at school since, I still hadn’t told a soul.
It was only the third month of my freshman year and everything still felt so new to me– the school, my friends, and my roommate. In high school, even some of my closest friends claimed to have never seen me cry. Yet, here I was sobbing in front of someone I barely knew and still struggling to tell her why I was upset.
I didn’t feel like I had the right to be sad when she had just faced something so much bigger– the loss of her father. She was more than understanding and comforting when I finally told her what was going on, so why couldn’t I accept that it was okay to actually feel something?
For as long as I can remember, my mom’s alcohol addiction had always been there, like another member of our tight-knit family.
In high school, I’d turn to humor to cover my embarrassment and confusion of my mom’s drinking problem. I’d laugh along with friends when my mom would get too drunk at neighborhood parties though I was truly embarrassed and ashamed.
In the 11th grade, I tried to use writing as a coping mechanism to let out the emotions I had kept bottled up for so long. But when my teacher shared the reflective piece I had written about my mother’s problem to the class, I told my friends I’d embellished the story “Just to get the A.” In reality, every word was true. But even when my mom finally went to rehab, I still couldn’t open up to my friends, or even myself, about what I was feeling.
On one hand, I was embarrassed for being upset. Why should I get to feel sorry for myself when other people have it so much worse? I still had a mother, and a good one at that, when she wasn’t drinking. I didn’t feel like I had the right to be upset, and I surely couldn’t tell anyone with “bigger problems” about how I was feeling. On the other hand, how would anyone that wasn’t going through exactly what I was, be able to understand?
It was at this time I found myself constantly comparing what my family was going through to other people’s problems. Why do we always feel the need to compare every little thing– our bodies, our clothes, our money, and even deepest struggles– to others?
I was overcome with emotions. I was confused. I was afraid for my mom’s future. I was upset about what it all meant. I was worried that my siblings and I were destined to a future full of substance abuse. I was angry with my mom by putting me in a position where I believed she was choosing alcohol over our family.
I tried to continue the routine I had settled into at school. I didn’t visit my mom. I didn’t call. I didn’t reach out to anyone. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not quite.
Avoiding the issue didn’t make it go away. I was alone, but not because I had to be. I was alone because of my inability to feel vulnerable. I had heard numerous times, from numerous people, that keeping emotions bottled up is unhealthy. But knowing that I needed to talk about my feelings didn’t mean that I knew how to talk about my feelings.
I didn’t know how to let people in. I didn’t know how to tell my friends. I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone. I didn’t know there are 23 million Americans in recovery like my mom is now. 23 million families like mine. I didn’t know that it was okay to not always be okay.
Being away at college while having family issues at home can be difficult. But I didn’t have to be alone, and neither do you. No matter how similar or different your story is from mine, I assure you that hiding behind a facade of numbness will be more detrimental to your mind, your self-worth and your relationships than admitting to yourself and those close to you that you need help.
There is a difference between keeping your issues in perspective and conforming to make your emotions feel “right.” It’s important to realize that no matter what you’re going through, things will get better, but it’s also important to allow yourself to feel the emotions you’re facing.
People will always have it worse than you, and people will always have it better than you, but that doesn’t change what’s going on in your life. Your biggest struggle will still be your biggest struggle no matter how big the next girl’s problem is, so why waste your time comparing the two? We all have different stories to tell, and the obstacles we have faced in the past mold the way we deal with problems in the future. There is no right way to feel when facing something troubling, there is only your way.
“I’m an individual, and I feel how I feel when I feel it.”
–Lena Dunham, Girls