My dear friend, Leslie, is featuring me on her blog this week. Take a gander for the scoop on life out of the closet, writing aspirations, family, relationships, and more! Vist her site here.
I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.
This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.
I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.
At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.
Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.
I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.
In high school, I had no concept of self care. I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork. I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk. I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6. I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.
Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me. I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others. No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me. The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school. It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself. In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school. Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest. Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later. I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly. I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore. I believed her and tried to move forward. But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.
During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days. But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade. My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection. I was paralyzed by the two extremes. I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.
The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body. I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast. I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value. I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I let her rest so she is free to cry. I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine. I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.
Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom. Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died. I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her. I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.
For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think much about grief. Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy. I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death. The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade. I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.
It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me. I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time. Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests. I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade. It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.
Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more. It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible. I talk to her and write to her and talk about her. This doesn’t make it hurt less. If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me. And unresolved grief can be a real bitch. My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm. So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened. When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.
I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP). There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:
OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT
I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death. One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death. At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense. I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to. Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.
Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her. I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died. I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her. I think about how much she would love my cats. None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.
“or whatever you want to call me.”
In the Kroger parking lot
she wears pajama pants and flip-flops.
She asks for money.
She says she’ll
but can’t offer her regular services
because she has an infection.
He wears a white turban made of blankets
and a puffy ski jacket
no matter the season.
He’s always in the same places,
walking up and down
next to the road
staring at cars,
never walking on the path
with all the other walkers and joggers.
he travels parallel,
ten feet away,
to keep either others or himself
Ten minutes into the church service,
a man in dirty jeans,
carrying garbage bags full of belongings
sits in the third pew.
A large, graying man in a suit
hands him a hymnal.
He holds it away from his chest
as if unsure how to use it.
But when the soprano soloist
takes the stage,
he raises his arms
making small motions
from his fingertips
in the air,
conducting her voice,
his own personal symphony.
*tw* suicide, abuse, assault, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders
I once thought that mental health safety plans were only for people who were “really suffering”, only to be used right on the verge of self harm or suicide. But recently, I realized that once someone reaches a place that urgent, it’s too late to make a plan. Asking for help should happen much sooner, immediately after symptoms and warning signs start to appear. Many of us, myself included, think our symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get any serious help from a hospital or a helpline, but the truth is that it’s much better to ask for help too early than too late. So, based on my limited experience (DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional), here are some helpful insights into creating a mental health safety plan.
- Know your triggers. Do you have something really stressful coming up at work? Are you going to have to have a difficult conversation with someone you love? Are you going to be interacting with someone who makes you feel unsafe? Have you been looking at literally anything on the news? Be able to identify the things that trigger your anxiety and depression (or whatever it is you experience) so you can make sure to have a plan ready before the triggers are present.
- Make a plan while you’re feeling helathy. By the time you find yourself in a hole of panic or depression or suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, you’re not able to make a cohesive plan. Have you been feel good lately? Now is the time to make a plan. Every office building and hotel I’ve ever been in has an emergency evacuation plan posted on each floor. They don’t wait for the building to catch on fire to make an emergency plan. They make the plan while things are still safe and functioning well. Once the emergency begins, the chaos makes logical thinking impossible. It’s important to be thinking clearly when you make a plan for yourself.
- Know your warning signs. Know what to look for within yourself so you’re aware of when you should start to reference the plan you’ve made. If you can stop yourself from spiraling deeper by implementing your plan early on, that’s a huge victory. Knowing yourself and how you respond to triggers is crucial. If you can identify what you’re feeling and understand your symptoms, that’s honestly half the battle.
- Plan for the worst case scenario. As an anxious person, this is not always something I would suggest. When I’m getting on an airplane, I should not imagine the worst case scenario because I’ll find myself in a panic spiral about my plane falling out of the sky in flames. However, when it comes to imaging what you might do at your worst, you need to be prepared. Even if you’ve never harmed yourself or attempted suicide or abused substances or developed disordered eating, mental health can be an unpredictable monster. Know which hotlines to call, even if you’ve never needed them before. Know what resources are available at hospitals near you. Know your therapist’s phone number. It’s not overkill to have the resources at hand.
- Have a support system. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is huge for me. I hate asking for help. I’m an #indepedentwoman and I don’t like having to depend on others. But I promise that your friends would much rather get a call at 2am or have you ask them to come sit on the couch with you in silence than know you were suffering and didn’t reach out. List a few people you can call when you’re struggling. If you’re not good at saying how you’re feeling, develop code words with your partner or best friends so you don’t have to do the emotional labor of explaining what’s going on.
This is all fairly new to me, so if you have any suggestions of your own or things that have worked for you, please share them! Also, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:
- Check out the My 3 app (not sponsored, just a great resource). It’s available for Android and iPhone and provides a place for your safety plan that’s always in your pocket. You can choose friends to contact, list resources for yourself, keep track of your warning signs and coping skills, and make a plan to keep yourself safe all in one spot. 10/10 would recommend.
- If you’re more of a “write it down” type of person, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a great Patient Safety Plan you can print out.
- Lastly, here is a template that I made based on personal experiences. I had trouble finding a template related to interacting with your abuser, so I made my own. Check it out here: Assault/Abuse Survivor Safety Plan Template.
Stay safe out there, friends. It’s a crazy world, and we have to take care of ourselves in order to fight the good fight!
If you are having thoughts of suicide (or if you are concerned about someone), there is help available right now. A trained counselor is ready to talk to you and provide help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is a free 24-hour hotline. (Press 1 for a dedicated line for Veterans and their families. Para español, oprima 2.) If emergency medical care is needed, call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.
*tw*: depression, anxiety, sexual assault, abuse, self-harm
I hate the process of getting somewhere. When I’m traveling, I hate driving for long periods because I feel like I’m wasting time when I could be accomplishing something. Flying makes me anxious, and even though it’s faster, I hate the concept that I have to arrive so early before my flight just to sit in the airport and do nothing. I love traveling when I get to where I’m going. I love exploring new restaurants, seeing new sights, and doing things I haven’t done before. But it’s the process of getting there that makes me uncomfortable.
For a long time, I felt the same way about my mental health. Once I overcame an issue after a prolonged period of suffering, I thought I was done. I could check it off the list because I had overcome it. In high school, I had problems with self-harm, and once I stopped self-harming, I thought I was done with it. I was proud of myself for overcoming an obstacle and moving forward. I thought I’d never have to worry about it again. But mental health recovery doesn’t work like that. There are good days and there are bad days. Our negative patterns tend to show back up in difficult times. Recovering addicts probably know this the best, and the fact that they use the phrase “recovery” to describe their process shows a much deeper self-awareness than my own. Recovery is a process, not a checklist.
Things have been difficult lately. I’m still figuring out what the proper medications are for my anxiety, and because I also have a history of depression, it’s proving more difficult than I expected to find an anxiety medication that doesn’t also trigger my depression. I’m working with my doctor to figure out what prescription will be best for me, but it’s essentially a trial and error process. Also, our current news cycle hasn’t been any help, triggering memories and fears surrounding my own experience of sexual assault. I didn’t spend nearly enough time processing these feelings, which resulted in a breakdown during my therapy session last week, after which my therapist wouldn’t let me leave until I had a friend to meet me at home to make sure I was okay. (Overwhelmingly grateful for my therapist and my friends in that moment.) Because I’m a perfectionist, I rarely let people see me at my most vulnerable. I don’t like for people to see me cry, so asking for help in that moment was a big step.
I’m also supposed to be training for a marathon that’s happening the first weekend in November, but I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to run it. I sprained my ankle (for the millionth time) at the beginning of August and just started coming back from that injury a few weeks ago. I had some calf and shin issues while getting back into training because my left leg wasn’t used to the strain, so I’m incredibly behind on training. Injuries combined with mental health struggles, not to mention that I’m now battling a cold, mean I haven’t trained past 12 miles. I ran a marathon earlier this year, so I might not die if I tried to run this one, but it definitely wouldn’t be what I had hoped. I can’t stand this because I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped when I ran the Nashville Rock ‘n Roll marathon earlier this year, so I chose Savannah (a super flat and easy course) to redeem myself and try to PR (run my best time). But now, I’m facing whether or not I can even complete this marathon.
All this to say, things have been in a downward spiral lately. My depression and anxiety have caused me to spend a lot more time sitting in my room not exercising, making strange meal choices (i.e. cereal for dinner like every day), not cleaning my house, and not getting things done. Without my routine, I get even more depressed and anxious, so you can see how this spirals out of control pretty quickly. I haven’t been moving toward my goals. I haven’t been checking things off of my to-do list. Heck, I haven’t even put on make up most days to go to work. But it’s important for me to remember that these things don’t make me a failure. I’ve made it through times like this before and I can make it again. I made it through an intense bout of depression in high school. I made it through the aftermath of being sexually assaulted. I made it through breaking up with someone I had dated for 5 years only to realize he was emotionally abusive. I made it through coming out. I am strong, and sometimes strength looks a little different than we expect.
Right now, it looks like managing to eat several times per day, remembering to wash my face, going to bed at a decent time, drinking water, and taking my meds. Eventually, it might look like running a marathon again or striving toward getting more pieces published. Being mentally healthy isn’t a straight line forward, so I have to remember to celebrate the small victories along the way.