You don’t have to be fine.

If I see one more ad that starts with “In these unprecedented times,” I’m gonna puke.

Or, maybe I’m a little hungover this morning.

It’s probably both.

These falsely reassuring narratives that corporations sell us are driving me up the wall, at any rate. “We’re all in this together,” they tell us. “We’re okay. You’re okay. And that’s why you should buy more Coca-cola. Because we’re fine.” Saccharine smiles and all, you and I are expected to be okay in the depths of a poorly handled pandemic and a social justice revolution. Everything’s up in the air and nobody knows what the future holds. Eat at Denny’s.

Maybe the federal police will snatch me off the street and shove me into an unmarked van for sharing this with you, friend, but I’ve got a secret for you – You do not have to be fine. And no one is expecting you to be fine.

You just have to make it through.

We place this burden on ourselves. If you go to other countries – well, when that was allowed – and ask them “What’s different about Americans?” there’s one answer that sticks out. We’re always smiling. We’re expected to smile at work, we’re expected to grin and bear it through the hard times, and we’re expected to always have an optimistic attitude, no matter what the cost. This is America, damn it! And we don’t talk about how we’re feeling unless it’s extreme joy or intense rage! Try a Big Mac Combo for $3.99.

How in God’s name do you expect to see me, an essential worker, smiling behind a face mask?

Let’s get personal. I have bipolar disorder. Type 2, which is sort of like the sadder sequel to bipolar 1. If left untreated, it generally ends in suicide. I didn’t get treated until after my suicide attempt, nearly a year ago, because I was expected to be fine. I expected myself to be fine. I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. And my mental health deteriorated due to several outside circumstances and anxiety over trying to be okay when I knew I wasn’t. This sort of toxic positivity rules our lives. Living in denial of how things are in order to force a good mood only leads to stress and self-destructive behavior.

“But Ike,” I hear you saying, “You have such great hair and are so put together! How can you be a basket case?”

Well, thank you, dear reader. You’re lying, but flattery will get you everywhere.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that sometimes you just have to sit with the feeling of not being okay. Don’t blame yourself, or your situation. Recognize that, right now, you’re not okay. And you might be later, but it’s not certain. Know to be honest with yourself. If I hadn’t gotten treatment last year – If I hadn’t gotten exactly this advice last year –  I wouldn’t have been prepared for any of this. And I think a lot of us are still struggling, even as 2020 screams into autumn.

I’ll say it again – You do not have to be fine. Recognizing your discomfort with how things are, examining it, and moving around with it will lead to personal growth. Stop lying to yourself, and forgive yourself for having lied for so long. You’ll feel a lot better. Seriously. Eat your vegetables.

Featured sketch is a self-portrait by the author.

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