mental health

Look for the Heart Shaped Pizzas

When I was in high school, I was part of my church youth group. On Wednesday nights, we would get together to worship, hear a sermon, and then hang out and talk. The boys liked to skateboard and play tag and do stunts that would make me say, “that doesn’t look safe.” And the girls would talk and shoot basketballs and try to figure out what in the world it meant to be a teenager.

I wouldn’t be unique in saying that, for me, being a teenager was hard. It was confusing and awkward and terrifying. Nothing felt normal or safe or easy. And on top of the things I was going through in my own body and mind, the world threw a few curveballs at me that really rattled my foundation.

Death, betrayal, and new levels of fear burst through the bubble I’d been living in, introducing me to dark parts of the world I wasn’t ready for. Every direction I turned had a new mountain to climb, or hole to dig out of, or an empty room to sit in that used to be full.

Each shot came at me and I took it, though I didn’t really absorb the pain, at least not in a way I was able to process. I was sad and angry and confused, but I was also 15 and 16 and 17, just trying to get that cute boy to notice me or to pass my Economics final. There were a lot of emotions competing for the surface, and the fun ones were more enticing.

One Wednesday, when I went to youth group, we met in the Fellowship Hall, which is like a banquet room. There were round tables set up and we were assigned seats. Heart shaped pizzas sat in the middle of each table. I sat down in my spot, nervous, but hungry, and listened for further instructions.

The theme of the night was love. It was sharing the hard parts of our lives so that we might be able to help one another work through, overcome, or at the very least talk about them. I peeled pepperoni off my slice of pizza and then took a big bite. A few people at my table shared before me. They talked about fighting parents, divorced parents, difficult relationships with siblings or friends. I chewed on my slice of pizza and then had another.

When it came to my turn, I took a deep breath and then started talking. I assumed it would be like giving an oral report—simply stating the facts. But once I started, I realized how heavy it had all been to hold.

“It’s just been really hard,” I said. And then I burst into tears.

This shocked everyone at my table, as no one before me had cried, or even welled up. No one at any of the surrounding tables was emotional either. But I was suddenly sobbing. My youth group leader walked over and scooped me into a hug. She rubbed my back and I cried in shuddering breaths and sniffles. I kept trying to stop, embarrassed at the scene I was making, but it just kept coming.

As I leaned into her chest, the boy beside me was asked to share. To continue the process so people would stop staring at me. I listened as he shared a story of an abusive stepparent and then I instantly stopped crying. The grief that had literally spilled out of me was instantly swallowed by shame.

I felt guilty for being so overwhelmed by what I was going through, because clearly it wasn’t as hard as what he was going through. I was embarrassed for crying. I went home exhausted.

For years afterward, I didn’t cry in front of people. I’m still not good at it. There is still a shame buried deep inside me, something that tells me that if I breakdown I will look stupid, ignorant of the realer, harder problems happening around me. It takes me right back to that moment in the Fellowship Hall, feeling like maybe I was just weak.

I say this now, with dots connected, though it took me a long time to figure it out. To pinpoint the when and the why. I used to say, with a sense of pride, “I just don’t really cry.” I used to brag that sad movies never got me. I felt tough, cool, unique. Kim doesn’t cry. She’s so strong.

But I wasn’t.

I was just burying it all. The same way I’d done in high school. And even though it’s what I wanted LEAST, I was walking around with all of that weight, all of that pain, looking for another table with a heart shaped pizza to lay it all down on.

I think for a long time I resented that day. Absolutely HATED that I cried and that I got embarrassed. I fizzled out on youth group after that, just slowly stopped going. Not only because of that night, but I think part of me was terrified it might happen again.

I spent the next decade of my life scared to cry. Scared to be vulnerable. Scared to be weak.

But more and more over the last few years I’ve realized how valid it all was. How justified. How okay. That night I needed to let it go. To let it out. To admit that what I was carrying was heavy.

And no matter what is going on in the lives around me, when something feels heavy to me, it’s heavy.

When something feels heavy to you, it’s heavy.

Being a teenager isn’t easy, but neither is being an adult. Let’s face it, as time goes on, life gets harder and things tend to just get heavier. But I’m learning now that I don’t have to run from the heart shaped pizzas asking me to sit down and lighten my load. I don’t have to pretend to be strong. Sometimes you just have to peel off a pepperoni, take a deep breath, and let it go.

It doesn’t make you weak, it just makes you honest. And when you’re honest, when you’re vulnerable, when you’re brave enough to let it go, you find strength, you find peace, and then you can grab another slice.

A Name for Smoggy Days

Yesterday was a smoggy day.

Sure, in Los Angeles, it’s smoggy most days. But that’s not the smog I’m talking about.

Some days I wake up feeling low. Sad. Or what I like to describe as “heavy.” It’s when every worry, insecurity, and regret seem to be sitting on top of me, making it hard to think straight, feel comfortable, or find motivation. There is a haze that blocks the blue sky. And it’s hard to breathe the fresh air that was there yesterday.

I’ve long looked for something to call these days. Because often when they pop up, I don’t know how to explain them to others. I sit quietly, talk politely, walk slowly, and fidget nervously, all while fighting through the chaos and lies that are spiraling in my mind. On particularly bad ones, I feel fragile. As if I might burst into tears at any given moment. And I don’t know how to explain that it’s not you, it’s me. I’m playing offense and defense in a battle that is taking place inside my head, and I’m not sure if I want help, privacy, attention or solace.

When I was in high school, I remember having a handful of smoggy days that I didn’t really understand. My mind was in overdrive and I wanted validation. I wanted to be told I was wonderful and beautiful and absolutely crazy to be thinking these negative thoughts. But when I reached out to a friend, spitting self-deprecating venom, fishing begging for compliments and expecting them, I got nothing. I got crickets. I got, “I don’t know what to say when you’re like this.”

I don’t mention this to blame them, because they were just as young and lost as I was. But I remember the guilt that was born in that moment.

The guilt that comes in with the smog. The shame that sits on top of everything else. Telling me that I should be embarrassed for feeling so low. For bringing people down. For not being my best. It tells me to get over it. And it promises that if I don’t I will push everyone away.

And so the smog suffocates. And for a little while, it wins.

For a little while I am low. I am sad. I am quiet. I am scared. I am not myself.

But then the wind comes.

A friend. A movie. A book. A butterfly. A sunset. A tall tree. A child’s laugh. A kind word. A joke that lands in just the right place. A hug. A moment alone. An unexpected deep breath. A combination of a lot of little things. And eventually, a breeze picks up. And then a gust. And soon the smog is blown away and I can see the sky again. I can breathe the fresh air.  

It doesn’t last forever. Eventually the smog settles back in and piles back up. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the more I talk about it, the more opportunities I give to that wind, the more public I make these battles that thrive in private, the better I set myself up to win.

And I’m hoping the same can go for you.

We all have smoggy days. Maybe even smoggy seasons. And sometimes we just need a name for it all.

We might not know what we need from others. We might not want extra attention or to give a longwinded explanation of everything we’re thinking about. Sometimes we just need a name. Something that can explain where we are when we aren’t ourselves.

So if you’re looking for a name, have mine. And remember, it’s okay to have smoggy days. It’s okay to not be your best. It’s okay if you get knocked down. As long as you get back up and keep fighting.

Open a window and let that breeze in. Take a good look at the blue sky. Take a deep breath of that fresh air. You are okay.