Take A Break (Stop Breaking Down): Bravery Means Asking For Help

12/27/2012 06:42 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2012

It’s a well-known fact that the modern school day is scientifically designed to make teenagers miserable. You have to get up at ridiculous-o-clock, sit in an uncomfortable chair at an uncomfortable desk and be lectured at for like six hours straight, and then you have to somehow fit all your homework, extracurriculars, family time, and social activities into the remaining few hours of the day. It’s too much!

Add to this mix just one extra stress -- a temporary or chronic illness, a learning disability, a mental disability, a sick relative, a horrible breakup, a death, etc. etc. etc. -- that makes you let’s say six percent more tired than most of your peers, and you can forget it. Getting through a normal day is like running a marathon. Just taking notes in class feels like an unclimbable mountain. And even if you manage to power through it and do OK at school, you’ve got no energy left for things like “having a social life” and “enjoying things.”

No matter what your reason for struggling to get through the day, I can’t give you a solution that will give you a so-called “normal” life. Depending on your issue, you’ll have to turn to your doctor or your therapist or some other more qualified person for that, or perhaps accept that you, like many of us, will always have to deal with challenges that most people don’t. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up altogether. There are no easy answers, but I’d like to share a little of what I picked up when I was struggling through school.

I’ve written before on this here website about my seasonal depression and my migraine headaches. These things are constant hindrances, but I used to feel like they were too minor to warrant help from others. After all, there are tons of people who are far sicker than I am, and in far more pain. I don’t deserve help, I’d tell myself. I should be able to work through this. But that was not a healthy way of thinking, nor a particularly smart one. If I have to write a paper through two weeks of nonstop excruciating pain, that does, objectively, make things harder for me. And just because I can, if I throw all sense and reason aside, get through it, doesn’t mean I have to or that I should -- there’s nothing noble about suffering silently. Bravery means asking for help before the pain overwhelms you -- and then asking again when you are overwhelmed.

My identity in high school was pretty tied up in being an honors student, and it took me well into college to drop my pride and ask for an extension when I needed one. If whatever’s going on with you means you have to ask for extensions on the regular, you’ll probably need a letter from a doctor or therapist, but taking care of your wellbeing is their job, so they should be happy to give you one. With a medical diagnosis or opinion to back you up, you have a good chance of getting long-term help, like extra time for all your assignments forevermore. Depending on how big of an exemption you’re asking for, you might want to talk to your school guidance counselor first and find out what your options are, and exactly what you need to ask your doctor/nurse practitioner/therapist for. (Hopefully, you’re in a situation where your family knows what’s going on with you. If for some awful reason they can’t find out, and you’re under 18, the first thing to ask any doctor, nurse, therapist, or guidance counselor is what they are required to report to your parents, and what they will report even if they don’t have to. Carefully negotiate parameters that will get you the help you need without putting you at risk. Also, if you’re seeing a therapist, ask them what they think about your schoolwork problem. They might have some great insights and advice.)

In my experience, most teachers are sympathetic when you explain that you’re going through some personal issues and need tutoring or extra credit. I know that it can be intimidating to talk to a teacher about personal stuff. But in general teachers are older than you, and have been through a lot; they understand what it means to be gutted by life and health circumstances. Make appointments with all of your instructors and/or your school’s guidance counselor. Again, ask what they will tell your parents before you start spilling. Then, within those boundaries, lay out as much of your situation as you feel comfortable sharing. You’ve been sick, you’re having trouble at home, you took on too many responsibilities, you were hurt somehow, or some other terrible thing happened—whatever the reason, you’ve fallen behind in your classes and now you need some help. If you take responsibility, present a semi-decent reason, and offer to make the work up somehow, you have a pretty good chance of getting the help you need. If you don’t talk to anyone, you have zero chance of getting that help.

Once you’ve gotten the authorities in your life on board, it’s time to make a plan to de-overwhelm yourself. One obvious, amazingly effective, but weirdly difficult solution is to just do less stuff. What makes this option hard is figuring out what to do less of, especially if you, like me, tend to fill your life with way too many things that you really super want to have the energy to do. I wrote about my struggle to simplify my life back in January, and I don’t want to repeat that whole saga here, but basically I stopped signing up for every extracurricular activity that seemed mildly appealing. I enjoyed all of the millions of activities I did, but when I had a different after-school obligation every day of the week, none of which I felt I could skip because I held some position of authority in every single one, I had literally no free time. Free time is important, you guys. Your brain and your body need periods of rest and recuperation on a daily basis, or they’ll just stop functioning. I told myself I thrived under stress, but I think the truth was that as long as I was that busy, I just didn’t have the time to acknowledge my growing anxiety. Sure, I was having more-frequent headaches and upset stomachs -- but those were easy to ignore so long as I staved off a full-on panic attack, which I would not allow to happen because it didn’t fit into my busy schedule.

You will not be surprised to learn that I couldn’t keep this routine up for very long. During my senior year of high school, I had to start dropping classes and activities, lest I wind up too addlepated to do any of the things I so desperately wanted to kick ass at. I even decided against taking a college course that year, which was a big decision for my overachieving self, who had started gathering college credits a year earlier. I was so stressed about that decision before I made it, but afterwards, all I remember feeling was relieved, a sensation that felt weird and alien after so many years of nonstop worry.

But you don’t need to be an overachiever to feel overwhelmed. If you’re having trouble, for any reason at all, finding the energy to get through a normal day, first see a medical professional to make sure there’s nothing going on with you health-wise that’s wiping you out (some conditions that can make you feel exhausted all the time are mono, anemia, clinical depression, diabetes, an underactive thyroid, and the aptly named but little understood chronic fatigue syndrome). If you get a clean bill of health, it wouldn’t hurt to reevaluate your lifestyle. Maybe you’re prioritizing your social life over academics, which is understandable, but I’d recommend finding a balance where you’re not overly stressed out about either one. Because it’s also possible to burn out socially. If you can’t keep up with every single thing that your friends are doing, don’t wear yourself out trying. But also, don’t just drift away and let your friends think you don’t like them anymore (which will be their natural assumption when you stop hanging out with them and returning 100% of their texts). Tell them what’s up. Say that you’re going through a rough patch and that you need some quiet time alone, and that you’ll be back in touch when you feel better. If they’re worth calling your friends, they’ll understand. There’s this thing that’s been floating around the internet for a while called the Spoon Theory, which is basically a way for people to explain their energy-sucking illnesses to healthy people. You can (and should) read the link for the full explanation, but here is my summary: Imagine energy as spoons. Healthy people are given a near-infinite number every morning. Others are given as many as they can hold in their hands. Anything they choose to do, from getting dressed in the morning to going to a party, costs spoons, and when they run out, they’re done for the day.

I’m a known introvert who has several friends with chronic health conditions, so I’ve never been in the position of being forced to explain why I’m turning down a social invitation. “I don’t feel like it” has always been reason enough among my set, thankfully. So maybe I’m not the greatest person to give advice here, but I would still recommend brutal honesty in almost every case. Say: “I’m feeling super irritable today because I have a killer headache, so it’s not the best time for me to talk,” or “I’m really stressed out right now, so I’m not going to be able to hang out for a while, but maybe next week?” People tend to appreciate openness.

Some invitations seem so fun that it’s really hard to turn them down. It’s OK to force yourself out every once in a while. You might find that once you’re at the party/meeting/show it’s actually easy to have a good time. But weigh each opportunity carefully. Is this a once-in-a-lifetime party? If you do go, how much are you going to regret it in the morning? Can you show up, hang out for 45 minutes, and leave early? Can you leave any time you want? I leave all parties early, because I’m boring and hate staying up late. No one seems to mind.

If you’re really tired or sick or moody and don’t know why, don’t just brush it off. I suffered silently through four years of high school before getting diagnosed with anxiety and depression in college. All the advice I’ve given you here is so much easier to take if you have someone helping you treat your underlying issues. You don’t have to suffer alone. ♦

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