An Unsafe Place

I resisted joining Instagram for a long time. I was firmly entrenched on Twitter, barely active on Facebook (you may have noticed), and eventually I found myself wanting an escape, somewhere I go to scroll and take in beauty and cute photos, things that inspire me. It’s a luxury and a privilege to expect such a place, and I haven’t been able to maintain it in the way I’d hoped.

My first posts were what I considered to be artistic: a section of my favorite dress, a plate on display in the house where I was babysitting, the light falling across the floor. In time I shared pictures of my roommate’s dog. Eventually I seemed to only be sharing photos and short videos of my cat. And they made me happy. Twitter felt chaotic and every time I logged on I was confronted with important but deeply painful videos and news. So I spent my “wind down” time on IG. I followed artists and crocheters and bakeries. I shared others’ art occasionally. I started having more conversations with people in their DM’s about what they’d posted. Again, the subjects were usually cat photos, and this place remained safe and uncomplicated for me. 

Someone followed me on IG who I had had a conflict with. His wife and I worked it out by phone, but she’d let slip that at some point her husband had felt some kind of attraction toward me, which is why he’d reacted the way he had, and why these new rules for communication they were implementing only applied to me. Despite several attempts, I was never comfortable around him again, and my husband and I decided to withdraw from him, and necessarily from his wife too. I didn’t respond when he would message me on Facebook or comment on my Instagram posts, which for a while was weekly. One day, he commented on a picture of my cat on Instagram, asking whose side of the bed the cat was laying on. From anyone else, that question would have been weird, and I probably wouldn’t have answered it, but from him it made me very uncomfortable. 

I shared a screen shot of it with Tyler, and he also found it very weird, which confirmed that I wasn’t just extra sensitive because this person was the one asking. But it was this person, and I was no longer comfortable simply ignoring him. I was no longer comfortable knowing he could see what I posted—anything that I posted. This was my platform, and I had the right to use it as I wished and to try to keep myself safe on it. So I used security features to limit what he could see of my IG posts and made him unable to contact me through that app. I set a reminder for myself, and two weeks later I unfriended him on Facebook and blocked him on Instagram altogether. I didn’t want it to look like I was responding to that comment, but I was. I didn’t want him to notice when I cut all contact with him. I dreaded getting a new message or text from him or his wife. But I didn’t. In time, I felt comfortable there again.

Eventually, I became freer about the number of cat videos, and also the depth in which I engaged on IG. There were also lots of cats to discuss. An old friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years commented on a photo of a book cover, thanking me for the recommendation. An acquaintance from years ago started liking my posts regularly and checked in with me when the pandemic reached the US. It’s one of the ways I checked in with friends, too, especially those who live alone in other cities. Recently, I started sharing social justice resources and  quotes in my stories. 

On Blackout Tuesday, a friend responded to a Black author’s post, which I’d shared on my IG stories. She wasn’t the only one who contacted me about that post, but this conversation became the only conversation. Over the course of the next several days, it grew dicey, strained, accusatory. I felt dumped upon and judged. I felt taken advantage of. I felt confused and bewildered by her accusations and insistence that she has another opinion without actually telling me what that opinion is. I listened to her share those opinions in a bewildering and draining 3-hour-long phone call. Scrolling through Instagram afterward, I was now aware that this person was watching me, watching what I posted, and my safe place no longer felt safe.

I continued to post about social justice in the way I had before, interspersed with quite a few cat pictures and videos. I was reading more than usual, news was more pervasive and insidious, so there was an uptick in the heavy content I was sharing. But before I posted anything, I analyzed why I was doing it. Was I trying to share my feelings, to put knowledge and my emotions about it out in the world, or was I hoping one person in particular would see it? I felt her presence on all my social media, since she follows me everywhere, but I told myself I was overreacting. She wasn’t paying special attention. It was silly and paranoid and maybe self-centered of me to think so. I was careful to carry on with clear motives, not to direct anything at her. I figured everything would be weird for a while, but eventually it’d relax some. And maybe once it was safe to meet up, we could have an actual conversation about this. 

Late one night, I posted photos of several pages from Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi, including two about the racist “Southern strategy” that helped elect Nixon. I highlighted sections of the page. In the same color I’d used to highlight about Nixon, I wrote “Bastards.” I questioned for a moment whether I should include the s. I didn’t want to call everyone who voted for him a bastard. The campaign had used decades of prejudice and racism to fool many voters. This strategy is employed now as well, and I know I was fooled by it while growing up and in my early twenties. Seeing it explained on that page filled me with anger and embarrassment. I’d believed an old lie, engineered to fool me, and it had worked. Lots of people were responsible for that, and for the election of Nixon and Reagan and the racist policies they enacted. The s on bastards felt appropriate. To a lesser degree, I was calling myself that too. 

The friend I’d been in conflict with commented on that post to my stories the next day, clearly angry. Essentially, she said, “Watch who you’re calling a bastard. Racists are bastards and that’s not me.” 

I wasn’t speaking to her in that post. She wasn’t alive to have been in the group specifically mentioned, even if she did identify herself in a way that connected with those groups. 

The last I had spoken to her, I had accused her of lying to me for two years about why one of her friendships had ended. I felt sure that these beliefs of hers were the reason, not the theological point she’d claimed. And though it still makes more sense to me than what she says happened, I apologized when she denied it. She pushed, laid on the guilt. I apologized again. She wanted to know why I was reacting this way, poured on the loving phrases, and invited me to open up to her about my vulnerabilities. I accused her emotionally manipulating me. She refused to acknowledge my accusation. I told her I wouldn’t be sharing my feelings with her because it did not feel safe to do so. And here she was in my Instagram DM’s two days later, furious at how I was sharing my feelings on my own platform.

I didn’t intend to hurt her, and so many Black people were hurt by Nixon’s policies that I didn’t think her anger at me was justified. After all, I had not directed this at her. She was making connections I didn’t intend and trying to brow beat me about it. 

I was ticked. I wanted to shout in all caps at her. I wanted to call her and curse her out on voicemail. But I needed to slow down, to not simply react. Social justice, which she doesn’t believe in, is a long fight. I didn’t want to react out of my first emotions. I didn’t want to cut myself off from her because we had been good friends for many years. I’m white and talking to a white friend who initiated a conversation with me about racism. I felt it was my responsibility to continue, or at least not to cut myself off. I didn’t want to say something harsh and sever all ties. If I needed to take that step, it should be a sober-minded one.

When she read my angry posts before, she knew they couldn’t be directed at her because she’d hidden her true beliefs from me. She wondered aloud during our phone call if my anger shared on social media would have been tempered had I known about her beliefs. Now she knew the answer to her question was, “No,” and it was difficult for her. She took my posts personally, and she lashed out at me.

After some counsel from my best friend, who knew about the situation, I responded, clarifying who I was calling a bastard, but not apologizing. I assured her that none of my posts are directed at her, but I wouldn’t restrict myself for her comfort either. She demanded to know if I thought she’d been duped by this racist policy if she had ever voted for a Republican. I considered myself a Republican until 2015 or so. I’m slow to change my label; My growth to the person I am now was slow, and the result of many years of listening and learning and questioning myself. So I pointed out that I have voted Republican in the past, and I told her that we should all ask ourselves if we’ve been duped by such a policy. Then I flipped my phone over and didn’t touch it again for an hour. 

When I did, I looked only at my text messages. Nothing from my husband, one thing from a friend, but it didn’t require a reply. I flipped my phone back over and when back to work. And when I wanted a break, to mindless scroll for a few minutes, I clicked on the IG app without thinking, saw the DM notification, and exited the app again. I flipped my phone back over on my desk. After another hour, I finally let myself read her response.

She implied my using of “bastards” was un-Christlike, and maybe it is. Would she have objected if I’d said “brood of vipers” instead of a more modern word with the same understanding? She seemed to feel morally superior for not ever calling anyone else names on social media, and she reprimanded me for doing so. I told her I’d consider her words, but that she had no right to chide me, considering no one on her social media actually knows what she thinks. I have been open and honest about my beliefs on my platform. And anyone can mute or unfollow me at any time.

I asked for an apology. She refused to acknowledge my request.

In the weeks of this conflict, I’d gotten into a dark place, obsessing over our discussions, her haphazardly applied logic, her application of extremes only to views she opposed, her terror of words like “Marxism” and distain for words like “intersectionality” without a nuanced understanding of them. And I obsessed over her dishonesty, her deliberately keeping this from me and from everyone for at least 4 years (by her admission).

I recalled times in our friendship, and in that past week, when I’d said “I feel this way because of what you said,” then had her say “If I made you feel that way I’m sorry.” The “if” felt insidious. I questioned her motivations over those years. I questioned why she had told me, again and again, of the ways she’d “wept” and “cried and cried and cried” related to one of our discussions. I questioned if my feelings were valid and reasonable. I questioned what I had let happen to my time and my brain. I questioned her motivations and the truthfulness of every story she’d ever told me and every time she effused honeyed sentiments about how much she loves and cares for me as her friend.

Hear again: I wondered if I was being reasonable. I wondered if my feelings were valid.

These are symptoms of gaslighting.

I reached out to a close friend, who was alarmed by my questioning of reality. Another assured me that no conversations I had with this friend would change her mind (especially since she’d been reading my social media posts for years), and it was okay to draw new boundaries on our relationship or to reinstate old ones. A third friend read my screenshots of the conversation and called her abusive, then encouraged me to cut all ties. My husband encouraged me not to dismiss my feelings, those of unease as well as those of friendship.

Slowly, I considered how many times in the 8 years of our friendships that this person had emotionally manipulated me, then denied it. How she’d clung to me for support, and how I’d instinctively shied away from sharing my vulnerabilities with her. How the amount of attention or sympathy I gave her was so often not enough to satisfy her. I recalled her dramatic appeals to our friendship and her monologues of love for me, and how they’d all obviously been shared to ensure my compliance. I recounted all the times I ended up apologizing for something she had initiated, and how graciously she accepted those apologies and power from me. I googled “emotional manipulation” and counted the number of signs she had displayed in the last two weeks, and how many more had been true over the course of our friendship.

In bed that night, not sleeping, I considered all the time I’d spent on this topic I don’t believe in. How long I’d spent reading her messages, researching and forming arguments, talking things over with Tyler, and crafting replies. Whatever else was happening with her, I didn’t want to devote that much time to it anymore. I hadn’t wanted to devote that much time to it to start with. I hadn’t felt I had a choice. Not if we were friends. Not when she was putting direct questions to me. Not when she was declaring this a necessary function of our friendship. Not when she was obviously intent on changing my mind despite her insistence that she only wants me to understand her position.

I didn’t feel I had a choice. But I know I do.

I wanted my brain back. I wanted me attention span back. I wanted to get back to writing elected officials and learning about racism and donating to charities. I wanted free time again. I wanted to be able to talk about anything else with my husband. I wanted the constant buzzing in my head to subside and the numbness in my chest and sleeplessness to go away. These are symptoms of depression, and I’ve experienced them before.

For my mental health, I knew I needed to stop obsessing. Which meant I needed distance. So I told her I needed to stop engaging with her about this. I admitted I had been in a dark place and this was best for me. She sent one more message, full of distain. Maybe she read mine that way. But I found it strange that she had no friendly concerns for my mental health now, no effusions of care and love.

I didn’t trust my interpretations, so a few paragraphs in, I handed the phone to Tyler. He read the whole email, and encouraged me to respond in as few words as possible. Once I’d also read the whole email, we talked about the lack of nuanced discussion, her frustrated tone, her lack of expressed concern for my well-being, and her attempt to prove she wasn’t racist because of the actions of her grandfather. I know she’d never say that his salvation could save her by familial association, and I wondered why she didn’t apply that to racism either. I particularly noted her use of the word “loving” to describe her grandfather’s snarky reaction to a racist person. Tyler and I decided on the two most personal and egregious claims, and I responded to those two in the lightest tone I could manage and the fewest words. Then I lay my phone, screen down, on the table. And I didn’t pick it up until morning.

The next few days, I remained jumpy and uncomfortable. I dreaded DM notifications on all my social media. My heart started racing at texts. And none came from her. I questioned again if I was being reasonable.

A few days later, I texted her a photo of my new kitten, trying to indicate that I wasn’t giving up on our friendship for good. I was also testing if she’d respect the boundary I’d put in place. She responded as she might have two months ago, talking about how cute the kitten is. Then I learned she was at a party. During a pandemic.

I didn’t ask any questions about masks or social distancing. It didn’t feel worth it. She’s a libertarian, prides herself on being “counter-cultural,” and bucks at what she thinks is people or the state trying to control people. I only learned about these beliefs few months ago, when Georgia began to reopen. She had insisted to me at that time that people would make good choices for public health once they weren’t being controlled by the government. And she was at a party.

I wondered again if I wanted to stay friends with her. 

I ordered the book Emotional Blackmail. 

I celebrated Juneteeth with donations and books by Black authors.

I sent another mask to my grandmother.

Now I’m the one hiding things from her. Like this post. And the depth of my distrust.

We are barely speaking, and all my social media feels unsafe to share my honest thoughts. I’m fighting to keep behaving as I want to on my platforms.

I’m fighting to keep this blog safe and mine.

I’m trying to do right by her, and feeling confused as to what that means.

I’m wondering if the only way I won’t feel her shadow is to block her everywhere.

I’m wondering if I’m being reasonable.

I’m still deciding.

I’m still deciding.

A Good Few Weeks

I had to return to working in the office full-time on Friday, the day after Georgia’s shelter-in-place order expired. 

For Tyler and I, those weeks where we both worked from home were dear and kind. Talking with my grandmother on the phone one night, she warned me that this kind of experience, especially being stuck in the house together for such an extended period, would be a trial on our marriage. But for us, it hasn’t been. Or for me it hasn’t been. I’ve had bad days. So has did he. But mostly we’ve had closeness, and cat gifs, and cat cuddles, and conversation. Sharing. 

We got used to watching Good Eats and Friends together during lunch, laughing and not wanting to turn it off and go back to our desks. We were spoiled by our ability to get up, brush our teeth, and walk to “work” in a few seconds. We’ve cuddled in the mornings more. We’ve fallen asleep together on the couch in the evenings more. We encourage each others’ hobbies with a presence and attention we usually don’t offer. He’d open the blinds in the morning in every room of the house and I’d shut them at the end of the day. Around 11:30, one of us would ask the other what we want for lunch, and we’d fix it together and work on the dishes afterward.

A good, good few weeks. 

And all of this against the background of anxiety, stress, and the horrors of a society and healthcare system increasingly strained, friends increasingly isolated, friends and friends of friends learning they’d tested positive. People are losing their jobs, their hope. People are losing their family members and not even being able to hug their loved ones for comfort.

Tyler and I are well aware that we’re in an ideal situation. We’ve recently moved into our first home, one in good shape, and we have a cat but no children yet. We could still have a work-life balance because life didn’t need to cross over into work and our work didn’t meaningfully disrupt our lives. I don’t know how people are coping without pets. I can’t imagine being without ours, for comfort and cuddles and warmth and liveliness and cuteness and the sparks of laughter throughout the day.

I had sunlight and sweatpants and didn’t wear a bra or shoes for a week or more at a time. I miss all of that dearly now. Now, I’m in a windowless box. My own office, decorated with a few paintings and some Funko Pop figures. Arranged for ease of flow. But there is no window. The florescent lights overhead are grating and flicker when I turn them on, so I’m making do with lamps instead. 

My first day back in the office, I left with a massive headache I couldn’t shake until Saturday evening. I was utterly miserable, and felt like my work life had stolen something from my home life. I had bad headaches a few times while quarantined, but could take naps during the day and work later so that I didn’t have to take sick time and slow production during one of our busiest times of the year. This is no longer an option.

For all the brightness and warmth I had while working from home—when my job was very busy but my satisfaction was so high—I feel the void now. And, because Bibb County is expecting a surge, and because so many of my coworkers are at high risk or live with someone who is, I wear a mask when I leave my office. And when I’m in my office, I close the door so I can take the mask off while maintaining control of this space, its air, who enters. 

Now Tyler and I are isolated from each other as well as other people during the day, so we’re trying to connect in the same ways we we are with those outside our home, with gifs and texts and emails. And I’m still only available to my coworkers by email or phone, just as I was when working from home.

When I get home after work, I wash my hands thoroughly, clean my phone with Lysol wipes, and set aside my mask to dry out for three days or, if it’s cloth, throw it in the wash to start on hot water, then wash my hands again. 

Forty more minutes of my day spent driving, Fifteen minutes more preparing my appearance. Fifteen minutes more preparing my food and drink for the day. Countless minutes considering where and how to move so that I don’t infect a coworker, don’t infect myself. Every day is so full of anxieties I didn’t have to worry about when I worked from home. I often focus on those inconveniences, small but needless, or the litany of injustices evident in this entire pandemic so I can pretend I’m not terrified I’ll kill my husband by a thoughtless touch of my hand to my nose during the day or an insufficiently cleaned surface upon returning home. 

I’m the one leaving the safety of our isolation every single workday. If one of us gets sick, it’s almost certainly going to be through me. I try to avoid saying “because of me,” since I know I wouldn’t be in this building if there was any alternative that let me keep my job.

I’ve mostly managed to stop planning our hospital go-bags, trying to decide what the last straw would be before taking Tyler to the ER, how I’d need to sell the house after losing him, what it would be like to have to endure the rest of the pandemic alone without him or a single hug. These thoughts spark an anxiety spiral. I mostly manage to avoid it.

I mostly manage. I’m mostly managing. 

Which is all any of us are doing.

We’re managing as well as we can. 

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. 

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.

Welcome 2020

I’ve been seeing a lot of people—friends and strangers—recapping their decade. Initially, I dismissed the idea as too broad. So much has changed for me this year, it initially felt impossible to even consider those of the past decade. But over the past week or so, I have been able to pin down a few of those changes, and I want to record and share them.

In 2010, I was a junior and senior at Georgia Southern, and I’d already met my now husband though we didn’t date for the first 6 years or so. I was studying writing and history. Now I work in publishing as an editorial associate and I’ve drafted 3 novels, all of which are under revision.

As a student, I looked forward to breaks when I could read a couple of books for fun, mostly YA fantasy. I’d recently discovered audiobooks and borrowed YA romances from my hometown library. This year, I read 130 books, mostly adult romance, including 31 audiobooks. 

My best friend in 2010 is still my friend now, though the rest of my friend group has changed quite a bit. I moved more times than I can count, but have lived the last 7 years in Macon, Georgia. I listen to different music. I no longer watch Glee or Doctor Who, but The Good Place and The Curse of Oak Island. Another Star Wars trilogy has come and gone. (So has Carrie Fisher.) I jokingly complain that work gets in the way of my life just as I used to complain that school did so.

My grandfather died the first day of classes of my senior year of college, a Monday in mid-August, 2010. Since then, I’ve lost my grandmother, two great-aunts, one great-uncle, my baby cousin, and a number of other, more distant relatives and friends. I still wish I could call my Papa, especially on autumn days when the red leaves are falling past my window. We just passed the first anniversary of my baby cousin’s death. Lying in his coffin, his long neck and long limbs and grey suit reminded me so much of my last image of my grandfather, in his coffin and suit. And above my baby cousin, the spray was full of the same flowers that’d been in my bouquet a month earlier.

The world is a lot different than I thought it was 10 years ago. Aside from the trends and technologies we’ve all experienced, I now realize that, as a college student, I didn’t understand some core-deep realities of the world and this country related to racism, cruelty, and money. My adulthood has begun to teach me about those upsetting and unsettling realities, and how widely they hurt people. 

Growing up, my mom would avoid reading and watching things that made her sad. She said life is sad enough without seeking out that sadness in entertainment too. She wanted to escape. I didn’t understand that feeling 10 years ago, but I intimately do today. 

My faith has changed greatly, both in my daily practice and in my specific beliefs. I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist, and am unsure that Baptist best fits my theology at all. My knowledge of the Bible and theology has increased greatly, and my mind and compassion has expanded with these concepts as well. How I embody my faith, how I present it to the world, has also changed. 

Although I long suspected that my level of stress and dread ahead of social situations and changed plans was unusual, during this past decade I realized those struggles are symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Knowing this has helped me manage my anxiety, but it still makes an unexpected dinner with friends and especially large get-togethers with my husband’s family deeply difficult, even painful. I give myself grace to not be my best self right away. I do my best to show up, even if I’m uncomfortable the whole time and exhausted when it’s over. And, honestly, having Tyler with me when we travel or go to socially demanding situations helps my anxiety tremendously. 

I’ve had depression. 

I am, generally, angrier than I was 10 years ago, but I also think I’m a better person. I’m rarely angry for myself, but for the abundance of pain around me. And, with social media (which I was sparsely using as the decade dawned), so much more pain feels near.

The last ten years have been, largely, very happy ones for me. I experienced and gave a tremendous amount of love. I visited Egypt and Key West and Germany and Wales, lived for a while in Manchester, England, became an Atlanta United and Braves fan. I learned to crochet. I became a hot chocolate snob. I went to counseling through three different periods, and I wish I’d gone more often than that. 

Despite allowing myself to look back and be proud of myself for what’s transpired over the past decade, I don’t want to look forward another ten years and speculate. Doing so makes my feel anxious, but I also don’t want to anticipate an entire decade’s worth of experiences. I can’t. So much will be surprising and unexpected, though perhaps not in the broad strokes that the 2010’s brought to me. Instead, I’m looking just at the year ahead of me.

I want to write.
I want to manage my anxiety better.
I want to exercise regularly.
I want to more intentionally support my husband and family.
I want to look forward to my work.

Unlike in past years, I don’t have a single word to help encapsulate those desires. Perhaps I’ll still find one. In any case, welcome 2020

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.