Joy in Self-Isolation

Here is a list of things bringing me joy in these isolated days:

  • Cuddling with my husband as we wait for our alarm to go off
  • Waking up every morning to my cat nuzzling my hand so I’ll pet her ears 
  • Playing Stardew Valley for 3 hours every week with 3 of my best friends
  • A 5-second commute to work
  • Open blinds throughout the day
  • Every single pair of sweatpants I own
  • Finding new, delicious ways to cook
  • Learning new, interesting things about my Instagram friends
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Orange Juice
  • Long phone calls with my mom
  • Daily cat videos with my husband
  • My cat walking into my office and flopping onto her back so I’ll get up and pet her
  • Sitting on my front steps after work
  • Sara Bareilles’s “Gonna Get Over You”

Being a Millennial in the Pandemic and the Church

Millennials are defined by our memories of and experiences in 3 major events during our childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood: 9/11, sustained wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession. And now we’re adults, many of us with kids and mortgages, in a pandemic. 

In a lot of ways, I think millennials are uniquely suited to doing the good and hard work of this time, which so far include sacrificing social pleasures for physical isolation, patroning small local businesses that may not survive the crunch, and educating our parents and grandparents about the seriousness of the threats we’re facing. We’re used to combing through the buzz of overstimulation and over information on the internet for credible sources and realistic outcomes and expectations. We’re also used to begging older generations to listen to us, trying tactic after tactic to try to get them to understand our perspective and value others’ welfare above their own comfort or routine. We habitually use the internet to remain connected with others. And we’ve become accustomed to reality suddenly, dramatically changing for the worse. We grew up on dystopian fantasies and we learned our lessons.

We are also accustomed to being lied to by people in authority, including our parents, our instructors, our bosses, and our highest elected officials. Our parents lied to us, if unintentionally, about how the world works and our place in it, then denied us access to power while blaming us for our trauma. Our instructors insist we’re lying and demand obituaries to prove our absences while also losing assignments, not sticking to the syllabus, and repeating the same demeaning diatribes as the generations before them. Our bosses lie to us about benefits, our value to the company, and even our value as human beings.

Elected officials have lied about who was responsible for 9/11, who are our enemies, what people think, what’s best for us, who we can trust, and certainly about their motivations. Our current president has lied about…everything. And we’re pretty good by now at sniffing those lies out. Most millennials I know skip his portion of the now daily COVID-19 briefings to avoid the racist comments, misinformation, and lies. And now the president saying some of us will have to die so that rich people don’t become a tiny bit less rich. Smells rotten to me. 

So we value stories and art and entertainment, and we do what we can to support the people who give us that. We look for stories of real people before believing what authorities tell us about the virus, its spread, and what we should do about it. We organize to help others. And we have to keep reminding news agencies and the world at large who we are (25-40 year olds) and who we aren’t (college students on spring break).

There are selfish people who think they are invincible in every generation, ours included. But we aren’t the ones on beaches despite warnings (and why aren’t those beaches already closed?).

Our spring break is working from home while trying to keep our kids on task for their e-learning.

Our spring break is developing online learning for the students we won’t see in person for the rest of the school year.

Our spring break is visiting the grocery store for our elderly neighbors on the way home from an underpaying job.

Our spring break is staying at home, hoping our disability or underlying condition won’t be a death sentence as we watch the president tell us we might have to die and as our caregivers dismiss our concerns.

Our spring break is spent delivering dozens of pizzas a day for less than minimal wage.

Our spring break is a day off from the hospital where we’ve volunteered to care for COVID patients because we are young and healthy and childless.

I see many of the same tension for us millennials in churches. We generally see loving their neighbors as a radically different process and value system than the ones we’ve been taught.

Loving queer people, for example, isn’t accomplished by excluding them or by instructing them, with pitying expressions, that they are hell-bound. And we believe this regardless of how we interpret biblical references to homosexuality, which in biblical times referred to predatory pedophilia, not the identity, lifestyle, and loving relationships implied by the word today. We are more likely to know openly queer people, and our love for them makes these issue far from theoretical.

As another example, to millennials, using funds responsibly and in Christ-like ways means handing out money sometimes, not only food, regardless of whether the person has “earned it” or is “worthy” of it. Their being children of God, human beings, makes them worthy of kindness and dignity, makes their suffering intolerable to our understanding of Christianity. We certainly won’t agree to buying yet another set of cushioned chairs for the one hour a week we’re going to be using them. We don’t believe that the only issue worth voting on, the one that *ahem* trumps all others is abortion. If we are responsible to God for the lives of those unborn children who might possibly die as a result of legislation passed or unheld by a person who we voted for, then we are equally responsible to the children kept in cages and denied flu vaccines, to the children killed on a schoolbus in Yemen, to the children starving in refugee camps, and to our own children, who are taught to run in zigzags to avoid active shooters and who the president sees as acceptable losses in his efforts to save the stock market.

These understandings are largely excluded from the wider church. When voiced, they are largely ignored or vilified. We don’t habitually engage in useless endeavors, so few millennials continue pounding on those doors of power and influence that have been shut to them for their “radical misunderstandings of the Bible.” So most Christian millennials are faced with 3 choices: conform, shut up, or leave. I’ve done all three, most recently “leave.” 

We can hardly leave the country, though. And even if we could, what’s to say any other country would want us? We were told that the racists in power would eventually die off, and we should be patient for change. Instead, we see segments of our generation and Gen Z radicalized. And still we can’t protect our children from gun violence and can’t convince our grandparents not to go to church or to lunch afterwards during a pandemic. 

It’s a grim life that’s prepared us so well for the present pandemic.

Amidst my own dizzying anxiety, I’ve learned a lot from watching older generations face this pandemic. In particular, where I’ve rushed to react quickly and decisively, whether in terms of vegetables or workplace demands, my more mature colleagues have taken a more reasoned approach. They are optimistic for their own emotional well-being. They are careful. And most are generous. 

We aren’t prepared to sacrifice as a society for the sake of that society—all our experiences thusfar have discouraged it—and now we’re being asked to. We’re even required to in order to save lives. I deeply hope that every generation, including my beloved and jaded one, manage to do so.

Sports during the Pandemic

Tyler requested that I do a blog post about sports, and the lack thereof, during this pandemic. He and I usually set our spring to the rhythms of first Atlanta United soccer, then the Braves, which carries us into football season in the fall, when Tyler supports Georgia Tech, I support Clemson, and we both try to be a tiny bit hopeful about the Falcons. Neither of us are basketball fans, but in that lull between the Super Bowl and opening day of baseball season, we have been known to stop on a few Hawks or Duke games, just to have something on in the background that doesn’t make us want to bake really elaborate cakes. 

And in our house over the past two weeks, as has likely occurred in yours, we’ve found ourselves a bit unanchored without these staples of our season. Sports is comforting, an escape for so many people either by playing or by watching. Tyler and I bonded over Atlanta United and the Braves games while we were dating and engaged. It’s been strange to know that such personal staples, and national staples as March Madness, have been suspended for an indefinite period. The one major sporting event I know of that’s still ongoing isn’t the sort that usually gets coverage on ESPN or Fox Sports. It’s a race over 1000 miles of the Alaska wilderness, and takes over 14 days to complete: the Iditarod.

I financially support two dog sledding teams, one of which is currently running the Iditarod. (For the record, dogs DO NOT die during the race! If any dogs become tired or injured, they are left in top vet care at the next checkpoint and are flown to the race’s end in Nome where volunteers care for them until their musher arrives with the rest of the team.) 

The mushers are almost entirely removed from the news, though some villages are opting to host the mushers outside of town to try to protect themselves from COVID-19’s spread. So the mushers must know there’s a pandemic. But until they either scratch or arrive with their teams in Nome, they won’t understand the full extent of what that means or how strange the world has become. Their dogs certainly don’t know. Which makes this event particularly interesting to follow during this pandemic, as we’re charting the paths of all these people who don’t know yet, who haven’t seen or experienced what’s now keeping us flush in toilet paper and awake at night. Their isolation is fascinating at any time, but especially so now.

If you are just getting into the Iditarod due to the dirth of other live sporting events, the team I support is led by Quince Mountain, a rookie and the first opening transgender musher. He is number 50, running in the back of the pack, which matches his slow and steady personality. (Fun fact! Q is allergic to dog hair.) His wife Blair Braverman (who I’ve mentioned before) finished the Iditarod last year as a rookie, and is covering the race with other journalists this year. You can find both of them on Twitter, along with their community of we loyal, big-hearted fans, the #UglyDogs. The Ugly Dogs are funding school projects throughout Alaska in #IGiveARod, and are crafting scarves, hats, and other warm water gear for Alaskan children through #IKnitARod. 

There are also quite a few mushers in good standing to win the Iditarod in the next day or two. Of these, I’m rooting for Mitch Seavey, who features in one of Blair’s many excellent Twitter threads about caring for the dogs on Team BraverMountain.

This thread provides a fantastic overview of the race, as does this article, if you’d like to start following along. And the most up-to-date standings are located here.

Happy trails! Stay safe out there, for yourselves and for others.

Keeping Watch

In Jurassic Park, after climbing a tree and being sneezed on by a “veggie-saurs,” Alan Grant and the kids Lex and Tim settle in to sleep. But the kids are nervous about more dinosaurs coming back while they sleep. Alan promises to stay awake, even all night. But it deeply bothered me as a child that, after the kids settle against him, comforted, we see his eyes close too. And in the next scene, we see the three of them waking up. This felt like a betrayal. Why, I asked my parents, did Dr. Grant promise to stay awake if he was just going to fall asleep? They answered me immediately, “Because the kids wouldn’t have gone to sleep otherwise.” I understood the answer, but I felt unsettled by it. I likely didn’t realized that they’d been in Dr. Grant’s position many times, promising to stay awake so that I would feel secure enough to rest. But I did wonder what my parents might have lied about in the past in order to set me at ease.

A friend recently suggested in a blog post that her and her daughter’s tendency to lay awake at night might stem from a subconscious feeling that someone need to stay awake to keep watch. 

I don’t yet have kids, but when I was a kid, I certainly laid awake a lot. I sometimes got up to make the long walk through the dark house to get more water, but otherwise I didn’t turn on a light or read. Only very rarely did I even turn my radio on, so softly I could barely hear it, so no one else would know I was awake. I’m not sure why it felt so important that my wakefulness be a secret. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I didn’t want to be doing something wrong. I’m not sure why I thought listening to the radio or turning on a light would be doing something wrong, or why I felt my inability to sleep would be seen as a personal failing or disobedience.

My whole childhood was like that. I lived within very strict rules, largely of my own making. My family and school (more so the former than the very loud latter) provided structure and rules that felt largely fair, but I regulated myself to even tighter boundaries. I think, now, it had a lot to do with my anxiety. All the things I was afraid of and nervous about, formed an uncontrollable hum in my mind like a swarm of bees. And I was unsure how to deal with it. Reading helped. Playing helped. But laying awake in the middle of the night, not a lot helped. I prayed. I counted. I imagined (though this could swing into more mental anguish at times).

In particular, I remember laying awake, wanting to give in to that feeling that I’d be more comfortable on my other side, but I was afraid someone would climb through the window while my back was turned. So I’d lay facing the window, trembling with anxiety, uncomfortable, trying to take comfort in what logic I could. My windows were high on the front side of the house. It’d be very hard for someone to scale their way in, even if they could get the windows open. I’d only seen them open a handful of times, usually when Mom was cleaning in the spring. I knew they stayed locked. Still, I worried. Sometimes I talked myself into rolling over and staying there. Sometimes I rolled over but couldn’t stand not to see that vulnerable window. I often prayed, talking to God about my fears as well as whatever came into my head. I got better at praying without ceasing, but prayer didn’t make me feel like someone was in the room with me. Prayer didn’t make me feel secure enough to sleep. Prayer was how I felt less alone while remaining away and anxious, and sometimes afraid.

Eventually, I made a cross out of popsicle sticks to put over that window, then over the one my bed was under, and finally my bedroom door, just to be thorough. This reassured me, a spiritual guard made physical. And when my mom saw what I was doing, she encouraged me. She helped me decorate them with broken bracelets and markers. Later, she bought me a nice ceramic one for my birthday. 

If I could tell my past self something, at almost any age of my childhood and adolescence, I’d tell her that she won’t always struggle with what she struggles with now. I get headaches and migraines now. I still have anxiety. Sometimes it affects me sleep. But so many of the big things she struggled with and stressed about are so much easier for me now. And I think she would take hope in the absolute assurance that one day, her brain will be able to let go of those anxieties in the middle of the night. I’ll be able to roll over without thinking about it or debating it, and my world will expand far beyond what I allowed myself at her age. 

When I wake in the middle of the night now, I have no qualms about rolling over. I don’t feel the need to get up and check the locks on the doors. And when I lay awake at night, it’s not because I feel insecure in my home. Though, some nights, I do feel watchful in a broad sense. Watchful and praying, though everything around me is at peace. Watchful and praying for the insecure, alone, afraid, abused, oppressed, marginalized. Watchful and praying for the world, melting and burning and starving and sick. I lay beside my husband, feel the curl of my cat pressed against my legs, and talk to God as I keep watch.

Reading Goals, Winter 2020

In January, I explained that one of my reading goals for the year is that at least 50% of my reading for the year will be by authors who are diverse in some way. 

Of the 21 books I’ve read so far, 11 are by diverse authors, and they are all fantastic. So I’m listing them in the order I read them. 

I know, I know: some of the romance titles are pretty bad. And maybe the covers are making your cringe. But all the books are amazing. Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins are two of my favorite writers, and it’s been a delight to read so many of their books in a run like this. Every one of their main characters are incredibly driven women, and their books and stories feel real, not contrived, in a way that’s really hard for a writer to consistently pull off. The conflict in Courtney Milan’s books usually revolve around a secret the main character is keeping for a good reason, as opposed to the frustrating misunderstandings that so often spark the tension in romances.

Beverly Jenkins’ main characters tend to be based on interesting black people in the Old West or New Orleans who she’s found amongst her extensive research. For example, in Breathless, the heroine’s family owns an early version of a dude ranch-themed resort that’s visited by European royalty as well as the wealthy from San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago. This resort is based on a real hotel owned by a real family in Arizona.

I just finished With Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo on audiobook (expertly read by the author), and it is incredible in every way. How Acevedo describes food—tastes and smells—made me hungry and also feel strangely competent about cooking, which I am not. Also, Acevedo so perfectly and vividly builds the Philly neighborhood in which the book is set that I wanted to sit down with a hard copy and comb through the sentences so I could figure out exactly how she did it. I adore the main character Emoni, who wants to be a chef, and her love for her Baby Girl and Abuela. Even now that the book is over, I’m rooting so hard for them all.

The End of Winter

On a recent Sunday morning, I was struggling. Struggling to get out of bed. Struggling to complete the tasks necessary to get ready for church. Struggling to look at the day ahead of me with anything but dread. Struggling to move. Struggling to talk. I felt profoundly tired, but the day before, I’d had a wonderful, bright day with friends, having lunch and seeing “Hello, Dolly” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I wondered if I was dragging so much on this morning because I’d been so active the day before. But, I realized I’d taken naps several days that week. Feeling uncertain, I asked my husband if I seemed more tired than usual.

Tyler agreed that I did seem more tired. Then he said, “But this time of year is always hard on you.” That truth sank into my bones and sparked some vivacity for the first time that morning. I felt like I should have realized on my own that this stage of winter was most likely to blame for my recent struggles and lack of energy, but I hadn’t. And with those words, I understood the why to all my questions. I also understood that things would get better, as they tend to when spring returns. And that made facing the day less bleak. 

Then Tyler asked me if I wanted to go to church. I said yes. He got up, but I didn’t. He reached out a hand. When I took it, he literally helped me to stand.

I didn’t stop being tired. I didn’t stop dreading the two normal events for our Sundays. I’ve had worse bouts of depression—far worse. But that didn’t stop this from being a bad mental health day, as rainy a day inside my brain as outside.

Things were better in an hour or so. Not because I went to church (though I did). Not because I ate a magical breakfast (a banana and a dollop of peanut butter). Not because I prayed or meditated. Those things might have had a somewhat positive affect, but the core truth is that the weather in my brain just happened to get a little better. It might have swung the other way and I would have needed to ask Tyler to take me home after church instead of to lunch with his family. (This happened a couple times while we were dating and engaged.) But I did feel better. I could think more clearly. Standing up wasn’t so much of a struggle. Neither was talking. Nor being in another’s presence. (Tyler is excluded from that last part, presumably because my brain has decided that he and I are made of the same stuff, in a way literally no other person on the planet is.) 

I worry about what my life will be like later. If I’m able to have children, how will I handle a day like Sunday? My history of depression means I’m more likely to struggle with depression postpartum, during grief, and before menopause. And, of course, sometimes there aren’t particular, noticeable triggers for depression or anxiety. Sometimes it’s just weather. 

For now, I’m immensely grateful for my husband, who helps me stand when I’m struggling, and tells me it’s okay if I need to change our plans. 

The past few weeks, despite the amount of rain we’ve had, have been better. Still, I’m looking forward to spring. 

Craving Simplicity

One of my big takeaways from Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, which I talked about a little in January, is that our minds crave simplicity. Perhaps this isn’t universal, but in the chaotic and constant bombardment of ads, information, and opinions available to us, I find this to be true for me. Clean lines, fewer items, and a tidy environment are ways simplicity benefits me. And simplicity is also one of my goals in taking care of my mental health. 

When on the way out the door one morning, I pulled open the pantry doors to grab my lunch box. But something was amiss. The reusable grocery bags, all stuffed down inside each other, weren’t sitting neatly in their place, but knocked aside and lumpy. Upon closer inspection, I found that two gallon-size jugs of water were half pushed into same space as the grocery bags, and they had each leaked onto the floor. 

Simplicity allows me focus my attention elsewhere until there’s a problem. Then it’s a lot easier to see when there’s a problem. 

I had some minor but annoying health troubles this month, and I let myself sort of get back to basics in the way I’m physically caring for myself. I had to keep up with meds and call pharmacies and make more and more appointments. So when those things weren’t going on, I relished just being able to focus on 3 simple basics: food, water, and sleep. I decided that if I’m taking care of myself in these three areas, problems will be easier to deal with. 

Of course, within these 3 basics are a host of related possibilities and issues, many of them tied together with my mental health. Matt Haig makes the point in his book that our bodies are not machines housing our minds, but intimately connected to how we experience and process and respond to the world. 

And, when I feel rundown and unmotivated, when work is a struggle and so is getting out of bed, I turn to these three points with some questions.

  • Am I eating vegetables? (I had some last night! Before that…a few days.) 
  • Am I drinking enough water? (No.) 
  • Am I sacrificing sleep for something I can control? (Yes.) 
  • How can I eat better? (Cook regularly with Tyler.)
  • How can I drink more water? (Set reminders.)
  • How can I sleep better? (Replace reading on my phone before bed with reading a physical book.) 

I once had brunch with a friend and her two roommates, all three of whom were in medical school. When one of them announced she had a headache, they cheerfully diagnosed the possible reasons for it (dehydration, hunger, lack of sleep, lack of caffeine) and recommended by consensus the treatment that would address the most possibilities and therefore most likely lead to relief (coffee; we would be eating soon anyway). 

I found this conversation fascinating, in part because I was hearing them do out loud about a headache what they would soon be doing as doctors: diagnosing and prescribing treatment. Also, they loved it. All three of them were enthusiastic about getting to the bottom of things, solving the mystery and righting the ship. And my friend with the headache, who might have done all this diagnosis work by herself, was open to the questions and feedback and suggestions of her friends. Finally, I was enthralled because the causes of a complaint I so often have myself were so basic: food, water, sleep. (And, for them, a 4th possibility based on the substance they were all addicted to: caffeine.) 

My headaches are often do to dehydration or lack of sleep. Just knowing that helps tremendously. If I’m taking care of myself in those ways, when I get a migraine as a result of a change in barometric pressure or allergies, I don’t waste time trying to rule out the three simplest causes with treatments that won’t work.

Which isn’t to say I do this perfectly. I don’t always do it well. But it is a helpful strategy and another way simplicity can help me. 

Minuet, Goodbye

I lost someone. I lost something significant. For a lot of complicated reasons, I’ve given up on the book I spent the 8 years, 1 month, and 1 day writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. I couldn’t ever seem to make it work. And just recently, a news event changed the context in which my book would have been read. And because of that, my book, my idea, my characters’ journeys, don’t have a place in the world anymore. A real story has supplanted it, changed the landscape for the type of story I was telling. So I’m bowing out and laying my story down.

I’m not going to explain further. I’m not going to change my mind. I don’t want anyone to try to talk me out of it or to tell me that I learned a lot. I know the time wasn’t wasted, though I have felt that at times. I know I grew tremendously. I know how much joy writing and rewriting this book brought me. And it still sucks.

I’ve felt this was coming for a while. I tried to work around it. I consulted my best friend and long-time writing partner, the only person I’ve shared this story and these characters with. She gave me the writing prompt from which it all came to start with. And after I laid it all out, she reluctantly agreed with me.

Thinking about my characters, imagining their scenes and stories and voices, is habitual for me now. My playlists and Pinterest boards are full of references to them. I’ll miss them. And I’ll miss what they represented. I thought they’d be the start of my professional writing career. Something my parents could read and understand me better, somehow. I believed in my idea so much, for over eight years. It was my safe place. And now…

Now, putting them away leaves my writing life wide open. And uncertain. For years, I’ve kept a bright pink post-it on my desk at work, saying simply: “I am a writer. I write books.” Monday morning, after Kayla and I agreed that I need to put this book to rest, I took that post-it note down and threw it away. 

I do still consider myself a writer. I do still want to write books. But I’m not writing now. I’m letting go of a dream, and all these beloved characters and their story. I’m saying goodbye. I have other books partially drafted, but it doesn’t feel right to try to jump back into any of them. I’m not excited about any of them. 

This book is over. It didn’t end the way I would have wished. 

It’s strange, and somewhat gratifying, to have seen my story become real for real people, and to have watched so many in the world rejoice at it. Part of me feels as though my idea moved beyond me, grew legs when I wasn’t paying attention, and bolted at full gallop into the world. It seems to have manifested as real in the world. Velveteen Rabbit-real. I don’t believe that I had anything to do with the news story, with those people’s real lives, but I am aware that this idea, this plot, these characters were a creature I purposefully fed and nurtured for most of the last decade. My pet project. And now it’s in the world with no help or connection to me at all.

The world has changed and it can’t be born into this world and be seen as anything other than a poor retelling of reality. Nevermind that I imagined my story first.

The only people who know, who really know, about my story and what it was before this extraordinary news broke, are me and my best friend. This huge part of my life, that I expected my family to read and my new husband to read, is going in a drawer. It’s quite the mental shift. And I am quite sad about it. 

I’m also aware that all this yawning nothingness before me is full of possibilities. And that should be celebrated. So should my past 8 years of work, really. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and then I did it again. And it never quite worked out the way I hoped, but I did write a 300-page book. And I revised it many times. I called it Minuet, after my protagonist. And I am proud of it. And of her. And of the real-life person who has supplanted her.

I imagine I’ll sneak the names of my characters into whatever I write after this. Just in passing. They’ll be hidden in a world between worlds.

That feels like a good reason to write, in and of itself. Something fun. But not yet.

Right now, I just want to say her name one more time.

Minuet, I love you.
Minuet, goodbye.

Therapy in an Election Year

I’m personally of the opinion that every single person could benefit from therapy at just about any point in their life. The trouble is, we wait until we’re basically having an emotional heart attack before we decide our pain or difficulty is bad enough to try therapy, before we decide that understanding why we respond to stressful situations the way we do is a worthwhile pursuit, before we’re willing to be vulnerable with a trained professional in order to become a healthier person for the people we love and ourselves. 

In 2014, I lost 8 people in my life in one year. And I mean they died. They didn’t all leave me by a combination of moving and dying and ghosting. They died. I hadn’t seen some of them in years, but all of their deaths affected me, and because so many came in such a relatively short period of time, I didn’t really deal with them. This was on top of moving to a new city and starting a new job the year before. I pushed them all down, compacting my grief for each person until it was all one huge boulder. I didn’t feel like I could engage safely with any one person’s death without feeling the full, devastating effects of all of their deaths. I kept this up for about six additional months, until my aunt died suddenly. I learned of it an hour before I had to leave for the airport for a week-long work trip. This was the same week as the sentencing for the two men who murdered my childhood nemesis. It was, in short, one of the worst weeks of my life. 

I had to push down my grief to function. I remember crying late at night, pacing in the hotel  bathroom while my coworker, who I shared a room with, slept.  Also in that tiny bathroom, after a 13 hour day on my feet being nice and helpful to customers and connecting with potential authors and not crying, I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote draft after draft of letters to the sentencing judge, sharing beloved memories of my nemesis, until I dropped into bed, exhausted in every way. I felt like I would never be able to accept my aunt’s death if I didn’t get to see her casket, so I called and adjusted to have my flight home moved up a day so I could go to the burial. I missed her actual funeral, but on Saturday I managed to be there with my family for her burial. 

When I finally got back to town and my usual routine, I wasn’t okay. I lived inches from tears. I felt exhausted all the time. My grief was immutable and huge and impossible. And I felt like I was bleeding from a thousand pricks in my heart every day. In this highly alarming state, I looked up the number for the only counseling service I knew of, the one where a friend had gone to therapy after ending a bad relationship and where a couple I knew had gone to premarital counseling. Simply telling the receptionist that I needed grief counseling, and no, I didn’t have anyone specific in mind, and yes that day would work, knocked apart my composure. I cried throughout this short exchange, heartily embarrassed, and continued crying for another five minutes until I managed to pull myself back together enough to get out of my car and go back to work.

I scoured the counseling center’s website for instructions. I used Google maps’ street view to figure out exactly where I’d be going. A couple days before my appointment, I physically drove to the center and circled the parking lot so I’d see where I’d be, where I’d park, where the door was. And then I got off work early, citing a doctor’s appointment, and went inside.

I’d been to counseling before. As a child, I had one particularly hard and miserable year. My parents were worried there might be more to my pain than the bullying, and were concerned they weren’t doing enough to help me cope, so I had 4 sessions with a licensed child psychologist in a room at my pediatrician’s office. I remember one session where he let me just tell him all the things I was interested in and excited about, including Hua Mei, the panda recently born at the San Diego Zoo. A person who just listened the whole time and engaged with what I liked and didn’t judge or tease me was wonderful, and absolutely not what I was getting at school. 

I think, in these 4 sessions, my parents were getting a second opinion by a professional about how I was doing during a miserable year. And, perhaps because of that early introduction and how he’d reassured my mother that yes, I was well adjusted, and yes, she and my dad were supporting me in the ways I needed, as an adult I didn’t feel much of the stigma seeking out therapy that many others feel. Still, my grief was hemorrhaging before I admitted to myself that I needed counseling, and then made time for it. 

I’ve since described therapy as calling in the fire department. Maybe you just smell smoke, and you want to be sure things don’t get out of hand. More often, your house is on fire and you know it and you’ve been running the garden hose for hours already, thinking you can muscle through it by yourself without the neighbors noticing. But even if you could, why would you? Cost of therapy and access are real concerns, disproportionately limiting low-income people of color from health care services. But when the cost of a few sessions is not limiting, this is what fire fighters and therapists are trained to do. Why not go?

There’s no dishonor is needing some professional guidance to search out and put out any fires. Because really—and here’s where my metaphor breaks down—you’re doing all the work anyway. No therapist can change your life just by talking at you, or by listening. You do that. And if you’re doing all the work yourself anyway, why not get a professional to help point out the hot spots and help you adjust your grip on the hoses so your arms don’t grow too weak?

I friend recently tweeted that he’s gone ahead and scheduled his counseling sessions for the rest of 2020, including extra sessions around the election. He isn’t the only person who anticipates needing them, and I’m not waiting around to see if my social media boundaries will help preserve my mental health. I’m planning for regular mental health check-ups and check-ins right now.

2020 is a great year for us to do so together. 

If you’d like some more information on starting therapy, I liked this article from NPR, and it’s assorted links to resources.

Mental Health in an Election Year

I’ve been thinking about what I want to get out of 2020 and what steps I need to take now to protect my mental health this year. The previous election sparked massive anxiety for me, followed by 3 months of depression. I don’t want to go there again, and I know that means I need to take care of myself in advance of, and particularly during the election cycle. I also don’t want to make plans and set goals and then be knocked back by depression or anxiety, leaving this year on a personal sour note, whatever the result of the election might be. 

One of the ways I’ve chosen to focus on my health, mental and physical, this year is to read more about how my body works. I started with Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, which focuses on how social media and the internet at large can contribute to mental health problems. I listened to the book on my commutes to and from work, which gave me short snatches of information followed by a lot of time in between to think about what I’d heard. In the week or so since I finished the book, I’ve considered how I need to implement changes to avoid the problems Haig relates. 

First, I locked my Twitter account (made it private). No, my latest witty tweet probably won’t go viral. But I’m also harder for trolls and bots to find, which is a daily pay off. I’ve also made a list of the close friends who I want to keep up with on that platform. If I’m having a bad day, or a lot is happening in the world that could be bad for my mental health, I can go to just that list. It’s quieter. It’s softer. Kinder. I need to stay informed and lean into the acts of activism I can do for positive change in the world, but I don’t have to stay plugged into the Matrix all the time. In fact, it’s very bad for me to do so. And not just me. Notes on a Nervous Planet helped me understand the widespread affects on that constant background buzz, that blitz of noise and opinions and trauma and demands and just…input. Biologically, we aren’t built to deal with that amount of input on a daily basis. Not just daily but, if marketers and influencers and tech innovators had their way, constantly. 

I’ve started staying off social media (and thus, most of the internet) on the weekends. Instead, I focus on where I am, who I’m with, and push back the constant stream for a couple of days. I need to get better about this, because I still find myself mindlessly scrolling through feeds when I don’t have other things going on. As Matt Haig pointed out in his book, the things that often feel good in the short term are usually bad for us in the long term. And scrolling through my social media feels is one of those. So I’m working on training myself not to go to my social media feeds for entertainment in those mindless moments. When I open Twitter or Insta or Facebook, I should do so intentionally. On purpose. Consciously. And when I’m bored, or trying to fill a moment or distract myself, I should crochet or bullet journal or read or play a game (like Stardew Valley) instead. It’s also important to me that I don’t lose my ability to just sit, to just be.  

To help ensure that I don’t succumb to the siren’s song of social media, I’ve limited my alerts and got rid of all social media push notifications. I may miss a few Facebook birthdays or a DM for a day or two, but overall it’s better for me to have a break and not be hounded by all the apps that can make me nervous, anxious, dissatisfied, and depressed. 

This year, I want to watch fewer Hallmark movies and write more of my own stories. I want to craft more. I expect I won’t read as much as I did last year, but I do plan to read more intentionally (about health) and more diversely (at least 50% of the authors I read). And I plan to create an amazing farm in Stardew Valley (named for my grandparents, who had a little hobby farm when I was growing up). 

I’m under a writing deadline at the moment and courting another (still seeking rejections!). It’s possible I may be writing on the blog less often this year. If I make any intentional choices to that effect, I’ll share them here. 

My time, like everyone’s, is precious and finite. I want to be more intentional about how I’m spending it. Which isn’t to say that I need to be more productive. Idleness is vital to the mind and to creativity. But I do want to be intentional. And in the swirl and chaos and noise of the election cycle, that’s so valuable to my mental health.