Northwest Herald

Oliver: Taking care of our mental health is part of being ‘real’ about life

“I think there is pressure on people to turn every negative into a positive, but we should be allowed to say, ‘I went through something really strange and awful, and it has altered me forever.’” – Marian Keyes

A friend posted this quote on Facebook, and it hit home.

I’ve been through some difficult things in recent years. I’ve also tried to be positive, so I tend to share the funny episodes of life with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia more often than I do the challenges. I’ve also been battling breast cancer for the second time in less than five years.

What I’ve found is that well-meaning people sometimes race to tell me, “Everything will be OK.” It’s as if they are afraid that if they ask me about my difficulties, I’ll melt down in a pool of tears.

However, to not allow me to talk about the hard stuff has more to do with their discomfort than with me. A lot of people are afraid of dealing with emotions, someone else’s as well as their own.

I mention this because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a time when we should be talking about the fact that it’s OK not to be OK all the time.

This was a lesson that I had to learn.

As a survivor of junior high school bullying, I had to get used to the idea that counseling wasn’t punishment for something that I had done wrong, but an attempt to help me rebuild my self-esteem.

When my father died of cancer right before my sophomore year of college, I probably should have reached out for help in processing the biggest loss of my life up to that point. Instead, I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, so I tried to keep my heartbreak to myself.

It wasn’t until a year later, when one of my sorority’s pledges was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, that I sought help because I felt my world crumbling around me.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks proved another pivotal point. As a member of the newspaper’s copy desk, I was subjected to image after image of the attacks. My desk was right under the blaring television that showed those planes going into the World Trade Center more times than I cared to experience.

As it turned out, newspaper copy editors all over the country experienced the same kind of trauma that I did. And many of us turned to our employee assistance programs to try to handle the stress we were experiencing. Newspaper photographers, as well as first responders of all kinds, have similar things happen when they deal with traumatic events repeatedly.

Getting help in the aftermath of traumatic events isn’t being soft or weak. It’s facing the reality that we don’t have to shoulder these terrible things alone. We can take those experiences out in a safe place, talk about them, and then find a way to live with them in a way that won’t hurt us in the future. Because sometimes the things we think we’ve tucked away in a remote part of our mind will come out at the most inconvenient times.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, one of the most helpful things I was provided was access to a counselor. Cancer is a big thing to get one’s head around. At the time, I was also dealing with the death of my mother in 2018 and the early stages of my husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s disease. To say it was a lot would be an understatement.

I was able to unpack many things and it was helpful to talk things through. It was my own way of acknowledging that it was OK for me not to be OK. Sure, I had responsibilities that weren’t going to go away, but to meet them effectively, I needed to take care of my mental health.

Although I did stop my chats with my counselor when I felt I was ready to do so, this latest bout of cancer has me back to regular sessions. I’m so grateful for the safe place to be heard.

When I first saw that opening quote, I immediately thought of it as permission to say that life sometimes stinks and that it’s OK to say so.

My counselor offered a different spin on the quote. She liked its open-endedness. It isn’t necessarily that these bad things alter us in a good or a bad way. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that a change has occurred.

For me, though, I’ll probably still try to find something positive from the journey … eventually.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.