PSA: Protect Your Mental Health Above All Else, Babe

For she’s all you truly have.

Photo by istock

A while back I got so incredibly lit (and by “lit” I mean despicably hammered) that I fell off a mountain of shame. And by “falling off a mountain of shame” I mean I passed out at a lesbian party that was teeming with hot, sophisticated city lesbians in a modern, chic Fire Island mansion that overlooked the sprawling emerald-colored bay.

Before I fell off that sky-high mountain of shame, Meghan (my girlfriend) had asked me to please monitor my drinking that day. There’s something about my blackouts that are almost spiritual  you can feel them lingering in the air, like a storm, before they swoop in and knock shit down. I had felt the uneasy warning of a pending blackout swish through my bloodstream the moment I stepped off the Fire Island ferry. I chose to ignore it. After all, it had been, like, four, maybe five, whole months since the last time I woke up with little memory of the night before.

“Zara, look. Just pace yourself today. OK?” Meghan coached me as we walked across the boardwalk, surrounded by a bevy of rowdy, seaside gays getting turnt and sunburned in the scathing Fire Island sun.

“Of course,” I cooed, primly, as if I were a chic lady-in-waiting who never, ever had experienced even but a slender moment of sloppy, unrefined drunkenness in her life. Ha!

Meghan took a deep breath. It was a yoga breath. The kind of breath intended to soothe an exhausted spirit. “Zara. Look. It’s going to be a long day of drinking in the sun, and we all know what can happen after too many ‘splashes’ of booze.”

I pressed a can of Babe rosé to my lips. “Meg. I know.” Isn’t canned rosé is the best invention since the high-waisted bikini?

Meghan didn’t look convinced. She just averted her serious eyes into the distance and kept walking.

Cut to the next morning.

I woke up with both my head and heart pounding like a cop on the door of a drug dealer’s house. That oh-so-familiar feeling of dread washed over me like a sickly shower. A sudden onset of endless questions flooded my brain so dramatically, I thought I might drown in their heaviness. What had I done last night? How did I get home? Was Meghan mad at me? How did this happen? Again?

I rolled over and gazed at Meghan. Meghan was lying flat on her back, her caramel-colored hair fanned around her angelic-looking face, like a designer halo handcrafted by the gods of Prada. I intrinsically knew I had royally screwed up. Bad. I felt myself collapse and let the anxiety and the depression win. I deserved to be punished. Dramatic, I know, but at what point in my redundant little life will I ever learn my goddamn lesson? I’m predisposed to anxiety and depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, thank you very much. Drinking to the point of blackout is not only classless and dangerous  it intensifies my mental illness. It undoes all the hard work of the hundreds of therapy sessions I’ve dutifully attended, it undoes all the vitally important lessons I’ve learned after earnestly devouring all those self-help books, it stops the serotonin re-uptake from all those pretty little Prozac pills I pop into my pretty little mouth every single day. Anyone who truly suffers from any form of mental illness knows that nothing feeds the monster like a hangover. It’s precisely why I can’t party like the rest of them. I have friends who get wasted and do illicit drugs for four consecutive days and strut back into their offices on Monday morning with nothing worse than a mild headache. Meanwhile, if I get too drunk one night, I’m contemplating my existence.

I know this about myself.

It’s been the case since I first began to experiment with snorting my friend Hayley’s Adderall in the high school bathroom. I would be chatty and giddy for approximately four hours only to be in fetal position, hugging my knees, shaking and crying when the speed began to wear off. In many ways, it saved me from ever getting too deep into the drug scene as a teenager. I could never physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually handle the splatter into the pavement after being so high up in the sky.

Yet alcohol is a whole other animal. I can drink with great, admirable talent most of the time. I knock back a glass or three of champagne and do nothing but giggle and charm the masses with a full grasp on when it’s time to go home, like an actual grown-up. I’ll wake up in the morning as fresh as a girl in a tampon ad. Bright-eyed and enthusiastically going about my life as if there weren’t a tampon shoved up inside the most vulnerable part of me. As if I hadn’t knocked back sugary-sweet bubbles of booze only eight hours prior.

But other times the alcohol turns on me, like that friend you could never quite trust, and destroys my mental health. One glass of champagne will lead to a shot of whiskey and the next thing I know I’ve awoken in such a wildly fragile state I’ve been rendered too weak to merely face the day. I’ll spiral into a rabbit-hole of such extreme darkness I’m actually afraid for my safety. Afraid of my mind and the sketchy, unsafe places it could venture to if left to its own devices. That’s the place I was in this particular morning.

A voice inside of my head loudly began to repeat: Protect your mental health. It’s all you f*cking have, Zara. Protect your mental health. It’s all you f*cking have, Zara. Protect your mental health. It’s all you f*cking have, Zara.

Does that ever happen to you? A simple mantra or phrase making its way into your head so clearly uninvited it certainly can’t be coming from your own brain. It’s as if another, far wiser entity has broken inside of you and is taking over, knowing that you’re far too unstable to steer the ship today. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I listen to that strange voice. And that day I listened deeper and fiercer than I ever had before. Protect your mental health.

Later that evening, I was back in the city, cuddled up in my own bed with my sweet, warm pets protectively sleeping on both sides of my body, guarding their fragile mother with intention, when I began to really break down what “protect your mental health” even means. After mulling it over for a few minutes it struck me like a shock of lightning: It means know your nervous breakdown triggers. It means look after yourself with the same dedication you would look after a small child. It means start valuing your mental health, stop taking it for granted, stop neglecting it and doing destructive, horrible things to it.

I began to look at my mental health as a person. What would her name be? Lyla, I quickly decided. I imagined her as a six-year-old little girl, gorgeous, but scrappy. Skinned knees and stars in her eyes. The kind of little girl who’s wildly adventurous and super trusting at once. And while her innate trust in strangers and impulse to throw caution to the wind and try anything are surefire dangerous qualities that can put her in terrifying situations at times, they’re also her most beautiful qualities.

If I were her parent I would want to protect her reckless innocence, but I would keep a close, watchful eye over her. I would do my best to guard her against the badness in the world because that’s what we as adults do for children. We are hardwired to care for them. I vowed to protect my (child!) mental health, Lyla, with every fiber of my being. Because while my mental health is attached to me, she’s also separate from me.

She can run off with the wolves if I don’t reel her in. If I don’t feed her, she could starve to death. And part of tending to her is actively NOT doing the things that stand to threaten her safety. Like blackout drinking. Which usually comes from skipping dinner because I feel hideous and ugly. Or putting myself in toxic situations with people I have no natural connection to, which causes my anxiety to skyrocket and drives me to binge-drink in hopes to quell the panic. Maybe if I stopped putting myself in those situations, I would be better at protecting Lyla. Maybe if I fed Lyla before I poured liquid poison down her throat she would be nourished enough to stay awake. Maybe if I began to put her first, she would stay healthy. Maybe if I prioritized her over anything else, all the rest of the broken pieces would fall into place. My career. My relationships. My confidence.

So, have I begun to care for Lyla after this dramatic life epiphany? Well, yes. Some days I do a better job than others (I’m a new parent! Give me a break!) but I’m trying and *mostly* succeeding. My mental health lies at the core of who I am. And personifying that part of me has driven me to care for her in a whole new way. Because even though she and I might not be always aligned on everything, we share the same body. We’re in this life together. And the more time I invest caring for her, the better she’ll care for me.