Monday Musings… When You’re Not Okay, Go Ride a Bike!
I’m sure many of you have heard the following: “It’s okay to not be okay”. It’s a catchy slogan that has woven its way into many a song lyric. The popularity of this mantra is evidence that we’re breaking the stigma surrounding the struggles people have with their mental health. While it used to be taboo to openly discuss problems, now it’s mainstream. Alongside the musicians are a multitude of actors and actresses, sports figures and commentators, using their celebrity status to show that “it’s okay to not be okay”. We applaud them, follow their journey on social media, and obtain a great sense of peace that “I am not alone”, because they suffer just like the common person. But there’s a problem, a big problem, if we simply buy into this mentality, and do nothing more.
You see, when you incorporate the notion that “it’s okay to not be okay” into your headspace, it provides momentary relief, but little else. In other words, it’s nice to know that you’re in good company with Justin Bieber who’s “feeling disconnected and weird” according to his March 10th Instagram post, but following him won’t alleviate your personal pain, stress, or anxiety. It simply validates two things: that you and countless others struggle, and that you don’t need to feel guilty for that. But knowing just those two things won’t change the reality of your mental state.
So, here’s my growing concern: spouting this catch phrase is far from helpful. Instead, it’s promoting the infantilization of individual mindsets. It’s essentially saying that if you’re not okay, don’t worry, there are lots like you…basically leaving you to stay in this state (which you don’t like being in) without doing anything about it. My position is: we can’t leave people in the playpen of pain by simply stating these platitudes to act as a pacifier for their problems.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that people are becoming increasingly open about mental health, but it’s pointless, if it’s not partnered with solutions. Viable solutions.
Let’s start with breaking the habit of the soother. Pacifiers were invented to quiet a distressed baby and give parents relief. The soother simulates a human reflex that generates satiation and satisfaction, and everyone is happy. But, at some point, the child (and the parent) needs to learn that self-soothing is for the playpen, and the desired goal is emotional maturity. This is the same thing with mental health. It’s comforting when you are struggling to know that others, especially people we admire, also have issues. This may calm you in the moment, but it will never satisfy the true hunger for well-being. So, a steady diet of “it’s okay to not be okay” will ultimately leave you feeling empty and malnourished.
Next, the playpen must be packed away. Playpens serve the purpose of confining a child for safety reasons, and it’s portable making this very convenient for parents. This metaphor aligns with the mentality that everyone who’s not okay has anxiety or depression, or let’s throw in some common quandaries like rejection, loneliness, or shame. So now that you ‘know’ what’s wrong, you’re in the safety net of symptoms and have confined yourself to a label (often self- diagnosed), but then what? This label can become the convenient answer as to why you’re unhappy, unproductive, or unwilling to get help, or change destructive patterns of behaviour. Staying in the playpen indefinitely, never allows a child to grow; the same is true for mental health. You need to recognize the problem, yes, get comfort that others feel this too, yes, but then explore your environment for options and solutions. This takes effort. Every child who stays in a playpen eventually takes a nap; it’s the easiest thing to do. Don’t nap! Climb over the sides and explore your options.
Thirdly, go ride a bike! It’s every parents’ thrill when they get their child that first bike- you know, the one with the training wheels. This is a child’s first taste of freedom and having control. So, let’s parallel this with mental health. Your first bike is like your personal wellness plan: what do you need to feel okay when you’re not okay? One option may involve connecting with a professional who can help you understand your problem and chart a path forward. Think of it like your first two-wheeler (initial problem or diagnosis) with training wheels (mental health professional) to support you. The mission is to have you master what it feels like to navigate your thoughts, feelings and behaviours; gain a sense of control; manage the sharp turns and bumps on the road; until you don’t need the training wheels anymore. The goal in cycling and mental health is to be independent, to stay balanced on your own, to get back up every time you fall, remembering that you know how to ride, so you can keep moving forward. Explore a multitude of options such as modifying your diet, exercising, joining a support group or club of interest and the list could go on. Purposefully set out to find a plan of action to feel okay again.
Lastly, everyone needs a tune up. Pay attention to the warning signs when you’re not okay, determining in your mind that it’s not okay to stay there! When the tires are flat, you need to pump them back up. When you know things aren’t right mentally, what will you do? Awareness of triggers or issues is important, but it’s what you do next that really governs your future state of mind. Following celebrities on Instagram to watch their recovery and relapse is not the answer. That is a passive playpen approach. Instead, spit out the soother, leap over the sides of the playpen and grab that dusty two-wheeler in the garage. Remember what keeps you in balance as you take off down the street because now is the time to choose your own adventure on the cycling path of your life.
So, don’t choose the pablum of “it’s okay to not be okay”. When you’re not okay, eat a protein bar, and go ride a bike!
Danny Gokey wrote a powerful song called, “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again”. He’s someone who knows what it feels like to not be okay, having suffered tremendous loss when his young wife died. In his words:
You're shattered Like you've never been before The life you knew In a thousand pieces on the floor And words fall short in times like these When this world drives you to your knees You think you're never gonna get back Tell your heart to beat again…. Yesterday's a closing door You don't live there anymore Say goodbye to where you've been And tell your heart to beat again
And, in my opinion, if you do that, actively take charge of the heartbeat of your life, you will be okay.