Okay Fine Whatever

Courtenay Hameister captivated audiences for nearly a decade as the host of the popular public radio program Live Wire, interviewing notable thinkers in a variety of fields. Behind the scenes she felt overwhelmed throughout her tenure, by preparation for the next show and onstage nerves. The unpredictability inherent in interviewing turned out to be a perfect trigger for what she later discovered was generalized anxiety disorder.

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Leaving Live Wire and confronting her anxiety became the premise for Hameister’s debut book, Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things. The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series featured Hameister on October 14 at Buffalo Street Books, where she read from her first chapter “Stepping Down” and discussed her experiences with anxiety in a Q&A session afterwards.

Through candid and precise prose, Hameister’s book gives a nuanced perspective on the nature of generalized anxiety and ways to both explore and challenge its pathology. Her writing recorded her encounters with things that scared her, the page becoming a place for both problem-solving and reflection. “Maybe I could retrain my brain the way you train a baby’s,” she thought. “We take a child out in the world and show them this is here to hurt you, and these things, like teddy bears, are for fun. Our anxious brains tend to get those things mixed up. I was training my brain to become optimistic.”

She describes her endeavors as “exposure therapy to the whole world”; from a sensory deprivation tank to time with a professional cuddler to 28 first dates to a Build Your Own Burrito night at a sex club, Hameister engaged with her fears by challenging the way she related to them.

“The one shift that happened was just one word,” she recalled. “Before if someone asked me to do something that seemed strange or new or gave me a little dread, I would say ‘Oh that sounds terrifying’ pretty much every time. And now, after it’s all over, I just say, ‘Well that sounds interesting.’” This adaptation, says Hameister, removed the judgment, allowing her to remain open to whatever might come her way.

Despite these shifts in her thinking, Hameister was quick to acknowledge that this book was not written to document a monumental, immediate transformation. In fact, this trope found in so many memoirs and movies doesn’t quite capture the true nature of negotiating one’s anxiety. The reason being, she explains, is that “change is frustratingly incremental. Most of the time as we’re changing, we don’t even notice it.” And her memoir is not afraid of unveiling this slowness. The book is less about overcoming anxiety and more about living with it.

In the Q&A session, Hameister offered some of her takeaways about anxiety. For example, she describes how generalized anxiety—“this free-floating anxiety that’s there all the time just waiting for something to attach to (and unfortunately there’s always something to attach to)”—impacts her ability to write. It became an additional obstacle to finishing the book, though she was not without potential antidotes. Sometimes she simply told herself, “I am going to write a terrible first draft.”

Another part of the process is creating new neural pathways around writing. She remembers her therapist explaining, “When you’re creating a new neural pathway, imagine yourself in the jungle, pushing through these leaves and they’re wet and horrible, and you can barely get through it. This is the first time you go through. The second time you go through, you have a machete, so it’s a little bit easier. And the third time you go through, you’ve got a couple friends, and really the tenth time you go through you have rototiller.”

Hameister also addressed the importance of normalizing anxiety. So often, people think they are the only ones that struggle. “If people could talk about mental illness the way we talk about breaking a bone or lupus disease, it would be life changing to let people know you are struggling,” she said. Additionally, reframing anxiety’s purpose can be helpful to this conversation. She proposes we think of anxiety as a signal that allows us to recognize, “Oh I care a lot about this. It’s really important to me.”

Hameister opens a doorway for those looking to better understand their own anxious tendencies or better relate to those in their life who have them. Okay Fine Whatever wonderfully highlights the value of people living with mental illness writing narratives that provide true insight into the mental health challenges all around us.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.

“Readings on Mental Health” is presented by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, hosted by Buffalo Street Books, and sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

A Plan to Manage My College Mental Health

Last semester was the definition of rough. I faced consistent academic, social, and personal obstacles that I wasn’t at all prepared for. And the crazy part is, these stressors don’t even take into account the issues that I faced as a member of the Ithaca and Cornell University communities.

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Amber Haywood, chair of the Mental Health Summit at Cornell University

From the rumors of a potential school shooter on campus to an unfortunate death of a fellow student on graduation weekend, there was a lot to handle as a freshman. All these incidents took a toll mentally.

To cope with the chaos, I incorporated some mental health strategies into my life; and while some worked well, others ended up hurting me in the long run. Here are few of the methods that worked well for me:

  • Exercise! My personal favorites are group fitness classes (try spinning!). While I’m not always excited to work out, I learned that exercising indeed releases endorphins, which reduces your perception of pain and triggers a positive feeling in the body.
  • Social Media Cleanse! After not having access to wifi or phone service for a portion of winter break, I realized how much time I spent on social media. The time that I was on social media could easily have been devoted to something more important and useful to me. Not to mention, that by spending so much time on social media, I was comparing myself to students, friends, and people I didn’t even know that well. All these toxic thoughts of comparison were weighing on me more than I even realized. After deleting social media completely, I found that I was able to concentrate more time on homework and, consequently, saw my academics improve significantly. I realize that this is a difficult task for some, so an easier alternative is to limit yourself to a singular social media platform, or to limit the amount of time you spend on social media (e.g. only giving yourself two hours a day on it, or not checking social media an hour before you go to sleep/after you wake up).
  • Schedule “Me” Time! Blocking out specific times for relaxing, Netflixing, reading for pleasure, etc. Scheduling time in for self care helps make you more accountable for actually practicing regular self care! I personally block out an hour, normally when I know I get tired. Trying out different times and knowing your body rhythm will help when you feel yourself running low on energy!
  • Getting Away From Campus! This may be the hardest one physically and financially, but for me, it’s the most rewarding. Seeing new sites and being in a different setting has renewing effects on the mind. This can be catching a fan bus to a football game in Philly, taking a road trip to the nearest Chick-fil-A or even finding a new hiking trail around Ithaca!

I’ve developed many techniques for improving mental health due to my involvement in Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.), a Cornell student organization. Come share your mental health practices, while learning from others, at B.O.S.S.’s annual Mental Health Summit taking place at Cornell from November 9–11. The summit is free and open to any self-identifying womyn of color.

The keynote address is by Dior Vargas, the Latina feminist mental health activist and creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. Workshops will tackle subjects including relationships, depression, body image, and communicating with professionals and family about mental health issues.

Click here for more information about the summit and how to register. Click here for more information about the summit and how to register.

–By Amber Haywood

Amber Haywood ’21 is the chair of the Mental Health Summit hosted by Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.) at Cornell University from November 9–11