Sometimes it’s hard to admit when we’re going through hard times. We don’t want to admit that we’re stressed or anxious or depressed because that makes us weak. The truth, however, is that talking about it is half the battle. Unfortunately, our humanness is stubbornly unshakable, and despite whatever knowledge and understanding we might have of this fact, we often still try and bury it deep down where it doesn’t belong.

And that slowly but surely destroys us.

I have done this all my life. I do it all the time — still — despite being self-aware and able to consciously observe myself doing it. I bury my emotions, my weaknesses, my ghosts deep down in my mind and my heart. I lock them in a cage and throw a blanket over it, hoping I will somehow be granted the impossible gift to will them away. It doesn’t work. It never does.

They stay down in that cage, howling and rattling against the bars. Shaking the door and scratching at the lock until eventually the noise becomes too much and I can’t take it anymore and in a flurry of panic and pain I set them free and they attack my thoughts and my emotions.

It happens the same way every time.

But every time it does, there comes a point when the howling and the scratching stops, and the dark shadows greet me like old, familiar friends. They open my eyes to the pain I have let inside my life and my heart, and allow me to see how I can learn from it and change what I am doing so I can move on and be free of them. After they’ve taught me my lesson, they quietly retreat into the corners of my mind and for a while, all is peaceful.

In the past couple of days, I freed and made peace with some ghosts I had been holding on to for too long.

I didn’t know what it was. I woke up every day for a few weeks straight feeling depressed, lonely, homesick, dreadful of the work day ahead and I couldn’t make myself feel better. Each dark thought that passed through my mind was like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, leading me closer and closer to the rabbit hole of dark thoughts, and feelings of hopelessness, unworthiness, and meaninglessness. Eventually I wandered to close to the edge and I fell.

I spent the last few weeks there, locking my ghosts in a cage and ignoring the darkness in the hope that it would somehow just disappear. But it isn’t until you face it head on that you can make peace with it.

Friday night I went out with some friends after going to a baseball game. We did the same thing we do every weekend. Too many cold ones and not enough sleep. I woke up Saturday morning with plans to spend the day with a friend exploring around Seoul, but my body and my mind were in such turmoil from the night before that I was miserable all day. I had pushed myself too far. I was exhausted, and my body felt like it had been hit by a train. The lack of sleep played heavy on my mind, and my spirit felt like a deflated balloon.

My plan had been to go out and have a good time, but stay ready for the next day. I wanted to hang out with friends, but go home to my own bed and get a good night’s rest.

I failed myself in these capacities, and though I had a good time, it completely kept me from enjoying my Saturday. I lost a whole day because I didn’t know when or how to say enough was enough.

The truth is, I have been doing that every weekend for nearly two months now. I stay out too late, enjoy the night a little too much, exhaust myself with activity the next day, and by the end of the weekend I have had no me time and I am completely drained. I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing to myself.

Saturday night I was too exhausted to really enjoy being out, but I was able to really reflect on my emotions and ask myself… what needs to change?

I opened the cage and released the ghosts.

They showed me that going out can be — not necessarily “calm” and “quiet” — but a lot more so than what I had been getting used to. They showed me that I need to find balance, and enjoy my life in moderation.

I realized I wasn’t getting enough time to myself and the things I like to focus on in my personal life outside of the Army. Yes, I have been having a hell of a time here in Korea, but all the adventures and craziness finally caught up to me and took back what I had given up to them. I had been trying to take a bite the size of a slice, when really the whole pie is going to be there for me for the next year.

It’s about balance. Experience life, but experience yourself, too. Despite my amiable and people-loving personality, I am an introvert at heart. I had been completely neglecting that for too long, and exhausted myself to a dark place in my mind in the process.

I made no plans for Sunday except to grab lunch with some family friends. I didn’t hop on a subway and go get lost. I didn’t stay out. I made time for myself. I watched TV for the first time in months, I found some comfort food, I listened to music and danced at my own free will. I relaxed. My mom has always joked at my inability to relax. Though it’s comical to think that a person actually doesn’t know how to relax, I can tell you it’s a real problem.

But I am learning. Every time I visit the dark place, my ghosts show me something a little new, and I grow a little more. This time I learned about balance, taking care of myself, and making my soul and my spirit a priority.