Healing Old Wounds

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.

The Cycles of Grief

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.

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My mom on her wedding day.

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.

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I see myself in this picture.

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.

Why and How to Make a Mental Health Safety Plan

*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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

RESOURCES

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Mental Health is Not a Straight Line

*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.

Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.

On the Three Year Anniversary of my Sexual Assault

*TW: assault, abuse, anxiety and panic*

The semester had just begun and I felt like I really had it together.  I was organized, I was going to the gym each morning, I was ahead on my school work.  But things were not as perfect as they seemed.  I was beginning to doubt my long-term relationship with my then-boyfriend, “Ethan”.  I didn’t feel like I could be myself.  In retrospect, I now know that I spent years in an emotionally abusive relationship, consistently being told what I wasn’t allowed to wear, who I could hang out with, and that my opinions were wrong.  After months of built-up doubt, I finally told Ethan that I needed time to think about what I wanted.  He didn’t take it well, which is understandable, but amidst his consistent attempts to control me, his negative reaction pushed me away even further.  I wanted out but I had attached myself to him for so long that I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own.

The next day, I went to work at a restaurant, anticipating celebrating at my friend’s birthday party afterward to blow off some emotional steam.  I hadn’t eaten much that day.  Distraught about the conversation I’d had with Ethan, I didn’t have much of an appetite.  Despite this, I showed up at the party after my restaurant shift and had a few drinks.  I vented to some friends about what was going on in my relationship, and I got some good advice.  After a few hours, though, I lost most memory of much of what happened that night, but I do know how it ended.

As the party winded down, I made what I thought was a responsible decision to stay on my friend’s couch after the party and not drive home.  I knew I had no business driving a car, plus it was extremely late, and I planned to leave in the morning once I had sobered up.  However, I wasn’t the only one who stayed.  A guy I knew from school, “Jacob”, also stayed.  Admittedly, I had developing feelings for him. This was part of the reason I had begun to question my existing relationship with Ethan.  I thought it was important for me to figure out what I was missing in my current relationship that led me to develop feelings for other people. I now know the answers to that question: kindness, communication, freedom to be myself.  But at the time, I just thought I was a bad person for having feelings for someone else, when in fact I was being manipulated and emotionally abused by Ethan.

That night after my friend’s birthday party, I was excited that Jacob had decided to stay.  We were alone together, and I hoped we would talk and get to know each other a little more.  But that’s not what happened.  Because I had not yet sobered up, things happened that night that I did not consent to.  My feelings for Jacob did not make these things okay.  My lowered inhibitions did not make them okay.  What should have happened was this: Jacob, noting I was intoxicated and emotionally vulnerable, put me to bed on the couch and told me to rest up. What did happen was: I stated what I didn’t want, but he insisted that it was okay for him to those things. I don’t know if I said “no” or “stop”, but I do know that Jacob told me what he was going to do to my body instead of asking if it was okay.  I know that I told him there were things I didn’t want to do and that he did them anyway.  But instead of realizing I had been sexually assaulted, I spent months thinking that I had cheated on Ethan.

I woke up the next day in a constant state of panic.  I couldn’t breathe.  My heart was beating out of my chest.  Partly due to what I perceived as my failure to be perfect and partly due to what I did not realize was a violation of my body, I felt unhinged.  This past Sunday, I felt anxious and panicky throughout the whole church service I was attending.  I was confused until I remembered the feeling of showing up the morning after my assault, to my internship at that same church, exactly two years ago.  I had felt dirty, shameful, unworthy.  I thought I had done something terrible that made me a failed pastor and a failed human.  I’m not really sure how I moved forward the rest of that semester, but in many ways I’m still recovering. I hate that I still feel the need to use fake names to protect these men or to protect myself from them.  Moving toward forgiveness for both of these men is a daily struggle.  I still don’t know how to offer forgiveness in a way that doesn’t justify the things that happened to me.  Others often say that forgiveness is actually for me and not for them, but I have trouble framing it that way.

I no longer feel like a failure because I know what happened was a result of abuse and assault, not a result of my own moral failings. I needed to get out of my relationship with Ethan in order to fully be myself. I needed to realize what Jacob had done to me in order to be able to heal from it. I still deal with the anxiety and panic that I hold in my body from these experiences. But on this 2-year anniversary of the most terrible thing, I do have the ability to look back and know how strong I am to have survived this. I can look back and see how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety. I can look forward and know that I am now in a relationship with someone who values me as I am, shows me kindness, and doesn’t try to take control of me. I can also look forward and imagine a future where forgiveness is possible, and I think that’s a good place to start.