A Good Book on a Bad Day

I had both a very good weekend and a very tough one. Saturday was wonderful. Sunday was hard

Saturday I met a friend at B&N and spent hours shopping and chatting with her. That night, she and another friend came over and we all had pizza and hung out with Tara (the cat) during a thunderstorm and watched some baseball. Sunday, I slept poorly and felt drained. When I got up, I did so out of obligation to Tara, who doesn’t know when it’s the weekend and who I knew would be hungry. Very quickly, my beloved cat got overexcited and scratched me. I went inside for a few minutes to clean the scratch and eat something and reset my attitude, then went back out with her for over an hour. I didn’t want to. I felt so weighed down already, but it wasn’t her fault and I needed to play with her very intentionally. About an hour later, while she tried to keep me from going back inside, she hurt me again. This time I was done. I felt the house of cards in my brain collapse and I chose to collapse with it.

I changed clothes and got back in bed, where Tyler was just waking up. I started crying, and he stayed with me and talked with me, but I was done with the entire day. I stayed in bed or in our big armchair the rest of the day. I didn’t go anywhere I’d intended. I didn’t do anything I’d intended. Living inside my own head felt awful. So I wrapped up in blankets and read, and let my brain and body recover. My phone was upsetting me, so I left it in the bedroom and didn’t look at it from noon until 8:30. Any emergencies could come through Tyler. I let Tyler feed me whatever he came up with and I let him handle all the necessary chores and entertaining Tara. I didn’t avoid her, and I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me—she’s learning. I fed her both of her remaining meals and spent some time with her in the evening when I was feeling better. It was just a bad mental health day. Made even worse because the day before had been so good.

Looking back at my calendar, I see the warning signs. I haven’t had a weekend “off” like this one since June, and I spent it packing for a work trip and packing our apartment. I haven’t truly had a day at home to just stay in and rest since May. A good friend said some hurtful things that took some of the joy out of getting Tara. One of my very good friends is moving away, and Friday was her last day at work. Tyler had to go on a work trip at the beginning of the week, requiring me to single parent the kitten. I’m also living in a new house, with unpacked boxes in every room. My office and desk are still a dumping ground for misc items that don’t have a home yet. 

But let me tell you about the book I read Sunday. Evvie Drake Starts Over is about two people putting their lives back together after all their plans and hopes disintegrated. It’s so soothing, with a steady but lingering pace, and a slow burn romance set behind the main action. It was absolutely the perfect book for me to read on a cloudy mental health day, and it’s the perfect book for a cloudy day spent inside. I’ve already passed it on to a friend.

Yesterday was much better. I had lunch with some friends and someone in my life got really great news. The overcast days make me dream of fall and pies and Tyler’s and my first anniversary. I really needed a day of utter rest, and now that my brain is better, I’m glad I had it. 

Memories of Toxic People

I’ve been thinking lately about toxic people. People whose presence, words, and influence are overall detrimental to you. Sometimes these people are family members. Sometimes they’re friends or coworkers or fellow students or volunteers. You don’t always get to “leave them behind,” as the Facebook memes say. You don’t always get to avoid them. And, looking back on the people who were toxic but are no longer in your life, it can be hard to know how to regard them. I find my thoughts and feelings can be overwhelmingly negative, but I’ve also noticed that negative feelings are more likely to come up again and hold onto my mood longer than positive feelings.

As a kid, I thought the greatest and healthiest revenge on the people who made me miserable would be to forget them entirely, deliberately. I got this largely from the movie “Ever After.” At the end of the Cinderella retelling, when Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is confronting her sinister stepmother (Angelica Huston), she doesn’t ridicule her or admonish her for all the terrible abuse she inflicted on Danielle. Instead, Danielle, now married to the prince and with a crown on her head, presumably with the power of life and death over her stepmother, says, “I want you to know that I will forget you after this moment, and never think of you again. But you, I am quite certain, will think about me every single day for the rest of your life.” And she ensures that her stepmother and one wicked stepsister will be made to work as servants for the rest of their lives, but won’t be harmed. The ending felt magnanimous to me. And wise. And sharp. “I will forget you…and never think of you again.”

I endeavored to do this for years. Once I was no longer at school with my childhood tormentors, I worked to forget them. And when I thought of them I’d draw a knife across the memory and send it back into the void of forgetfulness. Until a pair of them transferred to my new school. I refused to speak to them. Everyone else liked them. They didn’t know them the way I did, but what does that matter in the wheels of childhood social popularity?

We remained classmates throughout the rest of middle and high school. And in middle school, facing the writing on the wall, I decided I couldn’t excise them from my memory. I wouldn’t do to them as they’d done to me. I couldn’t. But I did have to interact with them. I didn’t have to trust them again. I didn’t have to be friends or friendly with them. But I did have to remain neutral territory to them, since they had all the social stock and I had next to none. I could tell the truth, to their mothers if no one else, and I had tools I didn’t have in elementary school, but if they left me alone, I’d leave them alone. So whenever I’d get raging furious at them, or whenever I’d recall an interaction that made me feel shame or humiliation, or whenever I’d grow indignant at their hypocrisies, I’d focus instead on a memory I could be grateful for. Playing in the maze of their dad’s stacked crab pots. Baking snickerdoodles with their mom. Dancing in their black light-lit room.

I still employ this technique in dealing with memories of toxic people. I settle on one thing I’m grateful for related to them—even if it’s just that now I know what that type of snake looks like—and try not to think about the rest. By not bringing those memories up again and again, I help them fade, becoming less potent and harder to access. If I do think of them, if the memory stirs that strong emotion again, I remind myself that those people aren’t in my life anymore and they have no ongoing power in it. I also remind myself that I don’t have to feel those ways anymore. I can feel gratitude instead, simple and brief.

And whenever a toxic but gone person comes up in conversation or in a memory, I do a sort of emotional temperature check. How do I feel about this person? How much am I letting memories of them affect my mood? Do I still forgive them? Do I need to forgive them all over again? Like a nuclear fallout, I’m amazed how long and in what odd and subtle and sometimes significant ways they can still affect me. I don’t like that that’s true, but it is.

I think it’s easier for me to deal with my childhood bullies than the toxic friends of college and adulthood because I can draw some lines in the sand around my childhood. They weren’t family. They didn’t physically hurt me. I wasn’t abused. I didn’t endure lasting trauma. And that part of my life is over. I’m a totally different person now. I could say all these things about college, too, but I’m now more like the person I was in college than the person I was as a child. My life more closely resembles college life than childhood life.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about 2 people who I now recognize as toxic. Both were in my life when I was in my early twenties but I’m still finding negative emotions, sometimes strong ones, rising in me at their memories. One was a classmate and friend. The other was a coworker and friend. During those same years, there were people who I better recognized at the time as being toxic. So I’ve already done a lot of work to heal from their influence. But these two people were my friends, or so I believed. I didn’t begin to comprehend how bad their influence was for me until much later. And, since lately I’ve been thinking about them without any fondness, I’m doubling down on applying my healing technique to them. I have chose one good, solid memory to be thankful for regarding each of them.

1. The classmate encouraged me to disregard negative feedback that focused on me instead of my writing.
2. The coworker provided a phone when my best friend was hurting and needed to talk with me.

There are other good memories, but I don’t need to analyze our relationship in depth—that can bring more pain. I’ve spent enough time already unlearning and unapplying their toxicity. I don’t need to analyze the good if I risk discovering (or rediscovering) new landmines of bad. One good memory is enough. And, frankly, they don’t deserve more than that.

Sometimes people say that God turned someone’s bad circumstances into good. Others believe that God led or allowed people to enter those bad circumstances in order to bring about the good outcomes. It does bring many people comfort to think in these ways. However, I don’t believe that God brings us to terrible circumstances because those are the only ways to make us learn or grow in certain ways. I don’t think we need to be able to identify a purpose to every thing that happens to us, good or bad or neutral or complicated. I don’t think there needs to be a purpose, understood or not. Hurricanes of various types just happen. And so do storms in my own life.

As is always the case, I can only control myself. Grasping one good memory with both hands is a big way I do so.

How do you deal with the legacies of toxic people in your life? What about toxic people who are still in your life?

Making a Change

I intentionally build rhythms into my life. Doing so helps me track the days and gives me things to look forward throughout the week. Something unique to that day of the week breaks the mundane, but I prefer when that event is in itself a part of a larger, familiar rhythm. For example:

Monday – Water plants, Bible study
Tuesday – Favorite webtoon (online comic) is updated, new blog post
Wednesday – Water plants
Thursday – Game night with Tyler
Friday – Water plants, work blog updates, night “off”
Saturday – change out towels, laundry
Sunday – church, lunch with Tyler’s family

Other items—dinner with a friend, exercise, errands, trips to the grocery store, scrubbing the tub—I slot in to the open spaces.

The goal of my schedule is to build a healthy life. Over the years I’ve struggled to give myself enough structure to get things done that are important to me but maintain enough flexibility that I’m not over-scheduled. When I have too much on my list for the week, I feeling stifled and, if I don’t meet my own expectations for a day, I feel like I failed.

The feeling of failure is very bad for my confidence, productivity, and general well-being. I’m too much like Hermione in that way. Especially if I’m already tired or having a bad day.

On the other hand, when I’m not scheduled enough, things fall through the cracks and become habits I’m embarrassed to claim. Like my inconsistent writing schedule. Like my infrequent calls home. Like my lack of exercise. These are made more complicated by my sharing time and space with another person (which is also a very new and very big change in my life that I need to make some allowances for). They’re also complicated by my personal dislike of exercise in general and the fact that dishes are never ending. I did dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen Sunday after I made too many pigs-in-blankets for the Super Bowl, but there was already an imposing tower of tupperware sitting by the sink last night. And then there’s the whole “3 meals a day” thing.

I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a month’s pass at a local yoga studio, which would let me attend as many classes in a month as I want. To make the price worth it, I’d need to go to 2 or 3 classes a week. Honestly, that sounds like the type of schedule I’m going to resent and ultimately fail to keep up. I need to make exercise a habit again, but I don’t want to pay for something I may not get the most use out of. At the same time, I’ve had a list of yoga YouTube videos on my phone for years and have yet to turn those free resources into a habit. I used to walk 3 times a week, but my schedule changed when Tyler and I got engaged, and recently my walking buddy moved.

And so I do nothing. I continue to do nothing. But I need to make a change. The earlier I start the sooner those habits will form. Despite how much my life has changed in the past few months, despite how much I yearn for a steady rhythm, I know I’ll feel better when I’m claiming better habits. And I should be make changes one habit at a time.

Taking Sick Time

I’ve noticed a weird pattern. I’m extremely hesitant every time I feel the need to take a sick day, or even sick hours.

I could have a migraine and be squinting out the light from my phone’s dimmest setting, but I’d still wonder if my boss would believe me for calling in sick. I could be throwing up as the sun rises and I’d wonder if I should try to go in that afternoon. Even if I don’t have pressing deadlines or major projects underway, I struggle to accept my need to take sick time.

I can know I’m on the precipice between feeling poorly and being actually ill, but taking a day to rest and recover feels like an indulgence. As do the monthly massages that significantly reduce the frequency of my migraines. When I’m depressed or need to leave work early for therapy or something else that helps my brain manage its chemical equilibrium, I never take sick time. Even though I know my brain needs care the way the rest of me does, I am ruled by the stigma associated with mental illness, the idea that productivity equals worth, and my own anxiety about being seen as dedicated to my job.

In “Missing Hope: A Trio of Miscarriages, and What Happened After,” Laura Turner writes, “Sick is a feeling as much as a state of being, and it makes you feel Victorian in the worst way, like a woman sent to bed for being weak, which is an especially tough blow in a culture where your value is predicated on your professional productivity.”

And there’s the idea that you must be productive—constantly productive—to be valuable in any way. Yes, we’re paid to work, and so rightly must work to be paid, but there’s also the sense that taking sick time demonstrates a lack of devotion. Or worse, indicates weakness. I’m much less likely to take a sick day on a Monday or Friday because I don’t want people to think I’m lying about being sick. And whenever I must email in sick, I over explain and over justify, trying to make sure my boss knows I’m devoted to my work and to being on a team, but also too ill to be a good employee that morning, or that day.

Last Monday was a day like that. I’d struggled with headaches all day Sunday and medicine made little to no difference. After a wonderful day Saturday with my mom and grandmother and two of my three bridesmaids, and a beautiful bridal shower thrown by Tyler’s family, I thought at first that I was just drained. I’m an introvert who’d spent a lot of time in others’ company the day before. For all the good of that day, I’d need some time to recover. And I probably didn’t drink enough water the day before, and that could account for my headache. I’d mostly muscled and drowned it into subservience by Sunday night, but when I woke around 4 Monday morning, I had a full-blown migraine.

I took medicine immediately and rubbed a special blend of peppermint and eucalyptus oils on my forehead to try to take the edge off. I curled up on my side in the dark room and waited. Nearly an hour later, the pain had lessened enough that I thought I could sleep. But I also knew I wouldn’t be recovered enough in two hours to go to work. I flinched at the light of my screen as I emailed my boss and turned off my alarms. Then I turned the screen off and finally fell back asleep.

In the morning, as expected, the remains of my migraine remained. Maybe by 9, I thought. Then, I’ll aim for 10. Probably by noon or 1. None of which came to pass. I snacked when I felt up to walking around. I wrote a few thank you notes while I sipped Gatorade.

Around noon, head still pounding, I lay down on the sofa. When I next woke, it was 2pm. I felt much better! I got up and walked upstairs, calculating how fast I could get ready and by what time I’d reach the office. The sunshine filtering through the slits in the blinds was uncomfortably bright. I took another sip of Gatorade as my forehead began to hum. I decided I’d try to read, to make sure I’d be okay doing the same activity at work. Ten minutes later, book abandoned, laying down with more peppermint oil on my temples, I finally gave up on making it to work that day.

I am so grateful that I had felt so well on Saturday for the shower and all the fun we had together. I’m grateful I have paid sick time. I’m annoyed with myself for feeling guilty for using it. I’m annoyed that I struggled to admit to myself that I just wasn’t well enough to go, even when there were only a few hours left in the day. I frustrated that the demands of productivity are so closely tied to the idea of worthiness. And I’m aware that the ones who most suffer this are disabled.

Thank you to all the disabled rights advocates, past and present, whose work betters the world for everyone, every day.

For those interested in exploring these themes in fiction, I recommend On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis.

For those interested in learning more about the social work of disabled people, try A Disability History of the United States and Enabling Acts.

Wedding Planning (and Mental Health) Tips

Last week, a friend who recently got engaged asked me how I remained so calmly attentive while planning our wedding. “Teach me your ways,” she said.

This week, two high-profile celebrities, a designer/business entrepreneur and a chef/TV host who made the world better in their own ways, died by suicide.

So here are some major things I do to help manage my anxiety in a constantly humming, high-stress, at times overwhelming season of life. And if today is hard for you, I hope this list might give you some ideas of things that might help you to feel better.

1. Don’t idolize calm. Not only calm, anyway. I oscillate between feeling calmly capable, impatiently excited, and frantically stressed. If I don’t get enough sleep or food, I’m grumpily pessimistic. Just because you see me in a serene moment, or I’m intentionally projecting calm, doesn’t mean I didn’t spend most of the day in one of the less fun emotions. And such moods are just as real, just as natural, as the cheery ones. You don’t have to be happy all the time just because you’re engaged or your life is going well by the world’s standards. You’re still a person. You’ll allowed to feel all the same emotions you felt before, including frustration, fear, anxiety, sadness, and more. Calm is not the ideal. Healthy is.

2. Build a soothing nightly routine. For me, this is a 3-step ritual. Step 1: Take a shower or bath (more on that below). Step 2: Write down the events of the day in a 5-year journal (1 line a day). In doing so, I’m acknowledging what happened that day but also closing the book on it and setting it aside. Step 3: Read a chapter in the Bible. I was already reading the Psalms when I got engaged, and followed that book with Proverbs and now Isaiah. When I read a chapter, I’m nourishing my soul. I’m engaging my mind with something outside myself, and on Someone who can give perspective on my life and struggles and experiences.

3. Hot baths. It sounds frivolous or stereotypical but for me it’s 1000% true. Hot baths can calm you and help your body unclinch from all the stress you’re carrying around. Showering and taking baths are kind of like intentional sensory deprivation: you’re warm and comfortable, the room isn’t busy or loud, you choose the smells and sensations (bubbles, bath bombs, bath pillows, etc) that you experience. Leave your phone OUTSIDE, preferably where you can’t hear it buzz or ding. Read or listen to music, or listen to nothing. I like to give myself 30 min to an hour to enjoy my bath, so I’m not constantly checking the clock or wondering how much time has gone by.

4. Mystery novels. Usually, I read cheesy romances when I’m stressed. It’s my go-to genre in TV watching, too. But lately, they just aren’t as much fun, and I find my mind wandering to my to-do lists. Mysteries, however, are engaging enough to distract my brain from all the people I need to call, all the emails I need to send, and all the kitchen mixers I need to research. They’re easy to put down and pick back up when I have the time. They also tend to be short, so finishing an audiobook a week and a paperback every two weeks makes me feel accomplished. We may still be struggling to get the guest list under 250 people, but I finished two books last week, and I feel good about that.

5. Post-it notes. I keep 2 colors by my bed. One is for daily goals (pink). The other is for weekly goals (green). I cross things off when I get them done. If I don’t get everything done in a day or a week, I just throw the post it away and write a new one. If something distracts me while I’m journaling or reading before bed, I write it down and move on. It’s a quick aside and I’m not letting myself stay distracted by it. Again, acknowledge, then put aside until a better time to deal with it.

6. Take care of yourself. I get way grumpier if I don’t eat well and on time. I get way more stressed if I’m tired. Take naps. Eat green stuff. Go home early and read. Take a bath and go to bed. Drink a glass of water. Go for a long walk or a run. Play with the dog. Watch a funny movie or a mystery and put your phone out of reach. Sit in the sunshine. Make a hair or massage or pedicure appointment and let yourself enjoy it. When you’re taking care of yourself, you’re better able to deal with the stress and anxiety and pressure. You’ll make better decisions and you’ll handle sudden problems better. Your well-being is more important than any of the details of your wedding day.

7. Take breaks. Take breaks from planning. Take breaks even from talking about planning. At the beginning of our engagement, I intentionally tried to only do and talk wedding stuff with Tyler during the week. Weekends were for fun things like visiting friends, having lunch with family, and watching baseball games. If someone else brought up the wedding, we could talk about it. If Tyler wanted to run an idea past me, he would. But I saved all my plans and phone calls, and as many meetings and requests as possible, for weekdays. Eventually, that model broke down and we had to use the weekends. Now its even more important that we take breaks to focus on other aspects of our lives and relationships. Even just a meal without wedding talk can be incredibly helpful.

8. Let go. Let go of stuff. You’re going to be blending your living space and things and time with someone else. It’s a good idea to simplify, even to cull, so you’ll have more time and space and freedom. I’m currently knee-deep in a great book cull. Yarn will follow. I’ve cleaned out my winter closet and am going to clean out my summer closet as the season wanes. Also, let go of obligations that don’t align with what you want and need right now. That will mean saying no to good and cool things, even though you don’t want to. Letting go also gives you permission to cut out things that were never good for you.

As much as you can, let go of others’ expectations for you. Someone is going to get upset with you for something that you didn’t even see coming. It’s going to be stressful. Handle it in the way that’s best for you as a couple. That might mean placating or acquiescing because family is forever and you don’t want to alienate your friends over something that isn’t a make-or-break deal to you but is to them. It may also mean trusting the people who really love you to keep loving you, even when they disagree with or feel hurt by your decision.

9. This is fun. You get to pick out new clothes! You get to figure our your favorite flowers! You get to plan a big trip with your favorite person! So many old friends reach out to you! And a registry is the biggest, most expensive Christmas list you’ll make your whole life! Put another, less bridal way, you experience good things because of this season of life. Remind yourself of those good things. Make a list if you need to. Remember them especially when things don’t feel good.

10. Marriage plan as well as wedding plan. Try to make good habits now that you can keep up later. In the end, your wedding day is just one day. And so is today. Work on your communication. Make a budget. Cook together. Learn way more about your future in-laws. Learn way more about your parents. Don’t give up your hobbies and other interests. Don’t give up your friends. Make buddies with other engaged and newly married couples. Attend pre-marital counseling. Tyler and I consider counseling to be preventative care for our mental health (especially mine) and pre-marital counseling to be preventative for the health of our marriage.

Into the Woods

Last weekend my parents visited and Mom and I talked about my recent blog post “Wilderness.” She found my take on wilderness surprising because (1) as a little girl she would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else, and frequently was, and (2) I’ve done a ton of things that would terrify her to do, like flying alone to other countries and driving long distances by myself.

I asked her if I’d ever shown her the musical Into the Woods. (I haven’t. We’re going to change that very soon.)

In the musical, I explained, The Woods are scary, but all the characters have to enter the woods in order to obtain what they most want. There’s no other way for Red Hiding Hood to reach her ill grandmother. Cinderella’s stepmother won’t allow her to attend the kind’s festival, so she must visit her mother’s grave in the woods, hoping her mother will provide the means for her to attend the ball in secret. Jack must sell the dry milk cow at the next village, through the woods, so he and his mother won’t starve. The baker and his wife want to have a child more than anything, but the witch next door cursed the family a generation ago, so they must go to the woods and procure the items they need to break the curse. (Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t go into the woods for what they want is the Baker’s father, who went into the witch’s garden instead and was cursed for it. Even the lady giant descends the beanstalk and goes into the woods to seek revenge.)

Moreover, each character views the woods differently. To Cinderella, it’s a place of hidden safety, where she can escape her stepmother and sisters, mourn her mother, and later escape to and from the palace unseen. Red Riding Hood takes a familiar route and isn’t afraid, but the woods are not to be explored. To the Bakers, it’s unfamiliar and frightening, but holds possibilities for familial and personal growth. For Jack, it’s just a long path he doesn’t want to travel; if he’s aware of the dangers, he doesn’t heed them.

At times, particularly in the second act, we see that choices made in the woods can be drastically different from what the characters would do in other circumstances. The woods can make us desperate, daring, compassionate, petty, or wise.

“It’s like that,” I explained to my mom. “I have to go into the woods to do the things that I want and that I know will be good for me.” Like those trips I took. Like the new Bible study Tyler and I are attending. Like marriage.

Uncertainty and anxiety is necessary. I can lessen but not escape it. In order for me to live the life I want, I have to go through the woods.

Airports have become a sort of metaphor for the woods for me. They can be confusing, frustrating, labyrinthine, but I’ve traveled enough that I have a strong sense of how airports and flying work. Even if I’ve never been to a certain airport before, I basically know what needs to happen, how to get where I need to go, and how to gain information and supplies (bottles of water and Pringles, mostly). I’ve even earned some hacks/tips/tricks to make the experience of flying better (buy nothing until you’re through security; check the boards before you start walking down your terminal, there might not be another one and the gate might have changed).

I was once on a mission trip to a snowy cabin in the woods outside Pittsburgh and it was a personal emotional disaster.

A small sister church in Pittsburgh was holding a women’s retreat; our team’s purpose was to supply everything they needed, from food to teaching to fresh linens, so they could all rest, feel renewed, and build relationships with one another. We were to work in the background, unobtrusive but helpful, caring for their needs. I believed in the purpose of what we were doing and I was excited to be a part of it.

I was the only unmarried woman on the all-woman team, and also the only one without at least one child. Almost all my team members knew each other from before the trip through their children. And, they almost exclusively talked about motherhood-related subjects. For the entire weekend.

Like, the first night, they talked about breast feeding around the kitchen island while we were preparing dessert and for the next morning’s breakfast. For two hours. An hour and a half into it, the leader of the group, who is the only person I had a relationship with prior to that weekend, realized the conversation was isolating me. She exclaimed, “Oh, Katie! I’m sorry. This isn’t something you can really contribute to, is it?” There were exclamations of “Oh, Katie!” and “Oh no!” from around the island. Like they’d forgotten I existed. Or that silence isn’t my natural state.

I admitted, almost crying but smiling, that no. It wasn’t something I could contribute to. And then they continued to talk about breast feeding for another half hour. Someone had noticed, as I’d desperately wished, but the group hadn’t cared enough to stop isolating me and the leader didn’t do anything further to correct the problem. I finally fled the kitchen so I could sob in the basement bathroom, alone, while cleaning it.

The whole weekend was like that, in that big cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. I felt just as miserable, isolated, and unwanted as when I was a very young child in school. I prayed fervently for strength and humility and a good perspective. I went to retreat attendees and offered to hold their babies during sessions and while they ate, offered to clean rooms and wash dishes, whatever could think of to stay busy.

I tried to have discussions with my group members about the Bible (we were all Christians after all), travel, health, siblings, anything I could think of. And I did manage to draw a few of them into those discussions. They were nice people. But they were thoughtless and self-centered and hurtful. I even learned all the names of all their children, wrote them down, and prayed for each child every night. But I was still miserable and, emotionally and spiritually, felt my threads unspooling as the weekend went on. A few hours before we left town, while out souvenir shopping, the entire group was ooo-ing and aww-ing in a kitchen store. I walked up and down every aisle, feigned interested for about thirty seconds in the mixer 6 of the 8 women were drooling over, and finally stood in the back of the shop watching the kitten bowl until they were ready to leave.

I’d given up watching the Super Bowl with my friends, a long weekend, plus taken an additional day off work, for this. Our service was over, my hands were raw from washing dishes, I was cold. I wasn’t enjoying the snow anymore, even. I didn’t want a single souvenir. And I wasn’t interested in being around these women one more moment. I wanted to be home.

Finally, finally, we reached the airport.

As we walked through the sliding glass doors, I felt myself relax. I scanned the terminal, located the sign we needed, and headed in that direction. The others were still standing in a knot behind me, trying to get their bearings. I turned and called to them, pointing at the sign to the Delta counter, but I didn’t wait for them. Up the escalator, across the terminal, to the kiosks. I was done catering to them and didn’t call them again. But they followed, and after checking in and sending my bag up the conveyor belt, I few breaths, smiled, and helped the others check in.

I was still fighting bitterness at their thoughtlessness, but I no longer needed to be part of this group. I knew where I was and where I was going. Despite never having flown out of that airport before, I was back in the woods. Scary and disorienting for them, familiar and empowering for me. I felt like myself again: confident, capable, kind.

Going into the woods is the means to gaining what you most want. In bad experiences, the woods can provide safe passage home. You don’t have to go through the woods in life, but To get the thing / That makes it worth / The journeying, the woods really are the only option. And the more you enter the woods, the more familiar they are.

Into the wood, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.…
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—
And happy ever after!
(I wish!)

Wilderness

I need another week on the proposal story (the second part to last week’s “The Ring”), so I hope you don’t mind a story from this week.

A month or so ago, I was privileged to discover Rev. on the Edge’s daily Lenten ruminations. Every day, she chose a word to explore, and one of them that I immediately responded to was “Wilderness”. The photo on her blog depicts C-3PO and R2-D2 in the red sand dunes of Tatooine, a deeply familiar image.

Even without the droids to put me at ease, desert isn’t wilderness to me. Wilderness is the woods. Wilderness is a place that, theoretically, I could, as a child, wander into and never return from. Areas I could enter, feeling confident of my way, and then become lost in. Wilderness is the big woods where Laura Ingalls lived, where Brian crashed in Hatchet, where Sam runs away to in My Side of the Mountain.

I grew up on an island on the coast of South Carolina. Family vacations were either to my grandparents’ home in rural GA near the fall line or Cherokee, NC. I remember trembling with fear when I watched a TV show’s dramatization about a Bigfoot sighting (and chase) in the Appalachian mountains. After that, I looked for hulking, hairy bodies stalking me from the woods as we drove those routes. I shivered, looking into the dark trees that edged the playground at school, behind the Holiday Inn parking lot, and my grandparents’ backyard. Wilderness was a place I could access and a place I couldn’t understand. Wilderness contained danger (poisonous snakes and poorly marked trails and kidnappers and cold and bears, and maybe Bigfoots). Wilderness could confuse and injure and trap and terrify me. Wilderness made me feel anxious, even if we were just passing through, and no amount of reading or hiking has broken me of the association.

Wilderness can also be a new social situation like the first day of school (oh, how I dreaded the first day of school) or the first day of a new camp or choir rehearsal or club meeting or doctor’s office. Even now, I equate wilderness with a new place and people I don’t know and no clear understanding of what will happen there. I faced this sort of wilderness Monday when Tyler and I went for the first time to a Bible study aimed toward engaged and newly married couples.

My social anxiety and shyness and introverted nature combine in the worst ways in social wilderness situations. I know going the first time is the hardest part. I know I’ll be nervous no matter what. I know it isn’t normal to ask a dozen questions about the format and set up and precise timeline of events and a list of likely attendees, so I don’t ask. Instead, to make the wilderness less formidable, I look up the exact directions, using Google street view to see the outside of the house, how it’ll look from the road as we approach, what the turn onto that street looks like, and back and back until I have a good sense of location and directions beforehand, as well as when we should leave to make it on time. I did this Monday afternoon, though Google Street View hasn’t traveled up that particular road before, and the satellite images were several years old.

I also fight the wilderness by planning details of my appearance so I feel more comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, on Monday I was completely out of clean jeans and my favorite work pants were dirty. I’d been out of town the weekend before, so I’d had no time to do laundry to prepare. It was also a cold day for this time of year, so I had to dig out a sweater and a scratchy coat that would match a pair of work pants that are lose in weird places.

That day, Tyler’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital (she’s doing much better now), and for a while we weren’t certain if it’d be best to visit her or go to Bible study. I found myself hoping we’d visit. You know your social anxiety is bad when the slight wilderness of an hour in a hospital you haven’t been to before to visit your fiance’s ailing relative is preferable to attending a Bible study out in the woods for the first time.

Tyler was nervous too. For days, he’d asked me a lot of questions about what the group studies and who leads and their style and what dinner would consist of. I didn’t know the answers, and with every “I don’t know,” my nerves ratcheted up another level.

On the phone with Tyler after work, as we both drove to his apartment, he told me what he’d learned about his grandmother’s health and that his dad didn’t think it’d be a good idea to visit that night. Tyler said we should just go on to Bible study. My nerves instantly spiked, my voice dropped half an octave, my answers became clipped. Tyler could hear the change.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous.”

“About going tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Try not to be nervous.”

I didn’t answer.

“It’ll be okay,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be with you.”

“I know.”

When we got to his apartment, taking my hand after we hugged, he asked, “Do you still want to go?”

“No,” I said immediately, “But it’ll be just as bad next week.” The last time he’d seen me this nervous and withdrawn about an event had been before his family’s big Christmas party.

“It’s just one night,” he tried to assure me. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t like it.”

“I want to like it.”

And I did. I think it’ll be really good for us to be in a study together and with other couples in a similar life stage. But I did, desperately, wish not to go. I would have rather done most anything else.

Tyler held my hand on the drive.

I navigated, relying on the directions from my Maps app as well as my research earlier in the day. As we got further and further outside Macon, the road looked increasingly like my mental image of wilderness: thick trees and long shadows and underbrush, places to get lost in the worst ways.

Then we turned off the main road. At the top of a small rise, the road turned to dirt. I searched through the trees for any sign of the house, but it was too far away or the trees were too close together. Even though I knew from others’ stories that it was hulking, a mix of stone and wood.

We found the right gate and wove through still more trees until we arrived at the house. We backed into a space in a line of cars, right on time, but no one else was outside. We weren’t sure which door to go to. We followed a brick path to the nearest one as twilight fell in earnest, knocked, and received no answer. Tyler turned the knob and it gave. Upstairs, we could hear soft voices, so we let ourselves upstairs, me leading the way, smiling my shield, telling myself it’s going to get better. In just a moment, as soon as the leaders see us, it’s going to be better.

It was 20 minutes later before a face I recognized arrived. By then, we were learning names and wondering how the food situation would work (everything was laid out but no one was touching it) and where in the woods we were exactly. The rest of the night was like that, with no concept of what was coming next until the transition began. It’s a disconcerting way to spend an evening.

Once we were there and found the right room and were greeted by the hosts, most of my nerves calmed. The night was still difficult, and I felt caught in the unknown, but I know it won’t be so hard next time. And it did help, so much, to be there with Tyler. I tried not to lean on him too much.

Just because I’m going to have a husband and we’re going to be a team doesn’t mean I won’t have to go new places and meet new people without him. I need to continue to be able to do that. Resigning myself to the experience and the anxiety helps. So, near the end, I purposefully left a conversation Tyler was participating in to join one with strangers.

The drive back to Tyler’s apartment was much easier because we were more certain of the way. The dark had closed in, but we had things to talk about and the wilderness was slipping away with every minute.

In six months or a year, I’m sure I’ll feel familiar with every hill and turn, most of the signs and minor landmarks. I’m sure I’ll understand the pace and flow of the evening, and will probably forget to tell new people what’s going to happen before it does. But the first time in a place is always wilderness.

And unfortunately, in my limited experience so far, entering a marriage is a lot of wilderness.

“My Winter Solstice”

To the tune of “My Favorite Things” by Rodgers & Hammerstein,
famously performed by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

Red stripes on white mugs and antlers on Tahoes,
Bright glitter headgear and fresh trees with fake snow,
Brown Kroger bags hanging from both your wrists,
How are you doing on your shopping lists?

New Starbucks cups and gingerbread castles,
Black boots and gift cards and sweaters with tassels.
Winter solstice is the darkest of days.
Just four sleeps til Christmas. Let’s all dash away!

Friends in short sleeves with ugly socks jingling,
Rainclouds that hide how Orion is twinkling,
Fog that socks in while the river flows on.
Welcome to winter! Look at all the brown lawns!

When the sun sets, when the dark reigns,
When I’m feeling SADs,
I simply remember I could live in Maine,
And then I don’t feel so bad!

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!

Rainy Brain Lies

I give a weather report for my brain when I have a bout of depression or anxiety (often both). It usually sounds like “scattered showers” or “pop-up thunderstorms” or “overcast” or just “rainy.” This past weekend, it was scattered showers. I could feel fine, not notice a problem, but twenty minutes later be sobbing in the bathroom. Between rain showers, Tyler asked me what it feels like. One of the first things I thought of was, “Rainy brain lies.”

Depression lies. Depression tells me I’ve failed, I’m worthless, I’m unwanted and unloved. There’s no convincing my brain to stop lying, or stop raining. It’s weather, you can’t control it. The best you can do is dress for it. Depression lies like a bully. After a while of saying “No” and “Not true” you realize that your arguments aren’t making a difference to him and they aren’t going to. But it’s important to keep telling the truth and to not let yourself believe the lies. That’s hardest to do, of course, when they are based on an element of truth.

I told Tyler that rainy brain lies because mine had just told me that I’ve wasted the whole summer. All the warm weather and hot dogs and baseball games and swimsuits and light dresses I’d had the opportunity to enjoy, I’d wasted. True because I didn’t meet all my goals for the summer; false because using my time differently than I had planned isn’t wasting it. False because I did thoroughly enjoy aspects of the summer, even if, truthfully, I never did buy a new swimsuit.

So I know what my brain is telling me is, ultimately, a lie. One meant to hurt me because rainy brain is a jerk and a bully. I catch the lie, then tell myself the truth.

Except, my emotions are brown water barely contained behind a levee. The surging rainwater fills it to the brim, leaking down the earth and cracking the stone. My emotions react to the lie instantly, causing water to burst out as if a huge bar of soap had been dropped into an utterly full basin of water. I tug back against the lie, and there’s no getting back the water that’s spilled over, but the rush lessens. The water goes back to it’s overfull, dangerous, roiling place, lapping at the edge of the levee. But it’s back.

And then my brain lies again.

If I lean into one lie, even for a moment, the water gains strength and my mental levee is that much harder to shore up. That much more water escapes.

Of course, this is when I have access to a range of emotions. In longer, deeper episodes of depression, I don’t. I have the lies. I have fear. I have self-condemnation. I have exhaustion. And I have the rain. Emotions like joy and silliness and contentment and anger and irritation are the chimneys on houses, occasionally peeking over the waves. And the lies are worse. This weekend, the lies were “You failed” and “You can’t do anything worthwhile” and “You’ll never accomplish your goals.” But in longer periods, the lies are, “You’re useless” and “You’re worthless” and “You don’t deserve any of the good things or people in your life” and “No one really loves you and no one ever will.”

One of the weirder things about depression in my estimation—and I’m by no means an expert on depression or anxiety or surviving either—is that because the rain is in your mind, things in your mind can help you. It’s not like breaking your leg and putting an ice pack on it. The ice helps with the pain, and that’s important, but your leg is still just as broken once the ice pack is off. With depression, the ice pack itself helps you heal.

Or, as Andrew Solomon says in one of my favorite TED talks, if you have brain cancer and feel better if you stand on your head for 20 minutes each day, “it may make you feel better but you still have brain cancer and you’re still probably going to die from it.” But if a depressed person does the same thing, and it makes that person feel better, “it’s worked because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, you are affectively not depressed anymore.”

Watching a gif of a fox on trampoline can help. Sitting on the porch with your roommate’s dog can help. Listening to your mother’s favorite song can help. A single song isn’t going to suddenly end your depression, but if it helps, you do it over and over. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Sometimes the point is that you really, really should brush your teeth if you at all can manage it. Sometimes the point is that you know you’ll feel worse if you don’t eat, even though you aren’t hungry and even though getting up sounds like the most unpalatable thing that you could possibly do. Some things just need doing, and there are people who suffer such extreme mental illness that they are completely incapable of doing them. But for me, during my longest bout of depression, I cut out everything possible so that I could make sure I ate at least twice a day and brushed by teeth twice a day and showered once a day.

Late Sunday night, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Modern Family because it was raining in my brain. Immersing myself in the show, which was familiar and made me laugh without requiring a lot of brain power, helped. So did the end of Look Who’s Talking?, which I hadn’t seen in years. When I got into bed, I played music for a while so I wouldn’t feel so alone and so I could focus on something other than the lies my brain was trying to tell me. And those things helped the rain to stop. But if inclement weather is troubling your brain, when you can’t find a way to make the rain stop, I hope you can find the umbrella and boots you need to keep sloshing through.