On the Mental Health Benefits of Taking a Break
I graduated with a Master of Social Work degree in mid-May.
For two years I pushed myself to accomplish a goal I had felt deep in my bones well before that point.
Surprisingly, I became disillusioned as I worked my way through it.
Naively, I thought that going back to school after being in the workforce for seven years would be a thrilling time of intense learning, renewal, and excitement.
Unfortunately, much of what I learned during grad school is that the formal education I remembered from my youth is still largely the formal education system of today.
Boxes must be checked, and hoops must be jumped through before a degree can be had.
I often turned away from bland, required readings to select books that seemed more interesting and compelling.
I frequently got frustrated and felt that, after being enthralled with the material I was learning, I often had to cut that "learning" short so that I could complete an assignment-- and this happened all while I was building up my mental health platform, Nerve 10, in my "spare time."
I remember days being so burnt out from bureaucratic headaches that I would run to the library for thirty minutes so that I could hammer out a blog post for Nerve 10.
Obsessive writing fueled me. It connected me to the mental health community I was creating.
The best part of graduate school was the clinical experience I got in my two field placements, the face-to-face time I had with individuals and families. It reminded me of why I wanted to be a social worker.
But there wasn't nearly enough of it. Most time was gobbled up by completing assignments.
In the end, after two years of doing school, working part-time jobs, and writing posts for my passion project, Nerve 10, I was ready to take a break.
Then, as if by divine intervention, I learned that my father-in-law was giving me and my wife a free cruise credit that he had, I was ecstatic.
My wife and I found a cruise that left out of Stockholm and then sailed to Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Tallin, before completing its round trip by coming back to Stockholm.
We scheduled trips to other cities on either end of the trip, going to London and Amsterdam beforehand, and to Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna after the trip.
I realize my extremely privileged position to even be able to take this trip for three weeks.
I know that I am extremely fortunate to have traveled in my life at all, to have lived in Guatemala while in the Peace Corps, to have moved to Montana to accept a position with AmeriCorps VISTA, and to have seen beautiful parts of Africa and South America.
It's not fair, and that makes me sick with guilt.
And when I travel, I see other privileged travelers.
Now, this does not negate the inherent value of the people doing the traveling. Instead, what I am saying is that I don't often see Guatemalans and Bolivians in my travels.
There are people, who because they just happened to be born in certain parts of the world, are not afforded the same opportunities that I am.
It's not right.
Maybe I've put service at the heart of the jobs I take because I feel guilty. And I'm sure that talking about concepts like social justice and privilege for two years in graduate school only plastered on top me another thick layer of that guilt.
This weighed heavy on my mind as I left for my travels around Europe. To add to that, my mind is eternally heavy because of a predisposition to being highly anxious. It's how I am, and I've come to accept that.
I worried that the Nerve 10 community I created would crumble, that all of my Twitter followers would leave me, that I would miss out on amazing writing opportunities, and that all of my hard work to write and to comment and to promote and to build relationships would all be for nothing.
Of course, that didn't happen. None of that happened.
It's as if all the anxious thoughts I've had in my life have run grooves deep into my brain--so much so that, even when I take a break, there are still residual thoughts hanging out down there deep in the grooves.
But that's precisely why taking a break is so important. It's a flushing process. It expels the anxiety out of my head, puffing it out into the air like wisps of smoke.
While I was in Europe, I wrote this in my journal:
This vacation is an opportunity to retreat and get some space--from work, from school, from everything. But a retreat is only useful if one returns to the world to use the mindset that he has sharpened while he was gone.
Taking a break is a chance to take it easy on oneself and shed the thick skin of committing to the grind every single day. It's an opportunity to realize that life doesn't need to be so serious.
When I was gone, I realize that I relied on the systems I created to work for me while I was gone. Because I had established a strong foundation, an infrastructure, I could step away for three weeks and know that I wouldn't have to run like a hamster on a wheel to work on my mental health and writing side projects upon my return.
I also realized something else while I was gone.
Being disconnected from the Internet for weeks forced me to do other things with my time. I discovered just how much time I actually have in a day--and how much of my time is sucked up by technology. This is something that I, intuitively already know, but taking a break solidified the thought.
I also was able to make somewhat of an objective appraisal of how far I have come with Nerve 10 in just ten months.
From existing only as a figment of my imagination to now boasting a community of 600 subscribers, having quite a few keywords rank on Google, and, most importantly, generating conversations with actual human beings who care about my mission to make mental health more accessible and meaningful.
This all happened in a short amount of time, and I rarely take the time to celebrate that.
I even had a therapist tell me once that "I don't ever take the time to be happy about things ever." She did admit that the sentence "came out wrong" when she said it, and we both had a good chuckle about the hyperbolic admonition. But I got her point.
My anxiety has always pushed me forward, always on to the next thing, then the next, then the one after that.
It has only been in the last few years that I have created the habit of simply being grateful for life. It sounds dumb and trite, but it's the dumb and trite, the basic stuff, that changes the world.
Taking a break is not a weak, passive action; it can actually be one of the most active actions a person can take.
A break is a retreat. It's a lessening, an easing of tension. It's a natural part of the dynamic process that is working and resting.
When I'm going, going, going, I can't see the forest for the trees.
When I stop for a second, I spot a majestic-looking tree that I've never seen before. And just like that, it unleashes a creative spark that gives me an idea of where to go next.