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.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher.

Every freshman at my alma mater had to attend a certain number of enrichment presentations—skits or lectures or plays—for our ‘intro to college’ class. Of those I attended that first semester, I only remember two. One was about consent (yay!), the other was about…well, courage, I guess. It was called Major in Success and attempted to get us to buy the speaker’s book (I did) and to think about what really makes us happy. He told stories about other college students he’d met and helped, about gloriously successful people in their respective fields who’d once been doing other things. He encouraged us to find a way to make that really happy, fulfilling thing in our lives our major, and promised success would come.

It’s a little hokey, but the part I most remember was when he asked the question, “If you could do whatever you wanted and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” Talking it over with my roommates that night, I said I wanted to be a novelist. The rightness of that moment solidified in me and has defined by long-term goals in the decade since. Judgeship was out. Law school was out. History teacher was out. I realigned my life and goals and on I’ve marched since then.

Until November 9, 2016.

I’ve had no desire to publish since that date. None. It evaporated. Or exploded. Or was sucked out of me in that single, pain-blurred moment I can barely remember when I opened the BBC news election page and realized Donald Trump had won. My desire to publish had been a constant of my identity and inner world for nine years, and it’d been whispering in my head far longer than that. I felt robbed, horrified, and guilty that people were at risk of losing their rights if not their lives, but I merely felt bereft of my dream.

Then things got worse.

About a week after the election, I was fighting depression and didn’t know it. I lacked vitality, energy, motivation. I could not get enough sleep. I didn’t know why I couldn’t write letters and call representatives like I had the week after the election. I didn’t know why it was so hard to craft a tweet, though I kept retweeting. I had trouble praying. I kept writing—completing NaNo—but took none of my usual joy in it.

As my depression worsened, I would sit at my computer feeling wretchedly guilty for being so inefficient, so distracted, so unproductive, but every email I read cost me something, as did every paragraph of my answer. I couldn’t drive across the street to the store for food and Christmas shopping made me want to lie down and never get back up. In the evenings, I lay on the couch and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or two. Then I went to bed.

I had almost no appetite so I let myself eat whatever I felt like or whatever I easily had on hand. The one time I tried to bully myself into eating an actual breakfast with actual nutrition, I made a dozen breakfast casseroles in a muffin tin and forced myself to eat one standing in the kitchen. I threw the rest away a week later, feeling like a ridiculous failure that even reheating had been beyond me.

Caught off guard by a coworker asking about NaNo, I confessed that I felt like I was dying. He assumed it was because NaNo was hard or I was behind on my word counts. I wasn’t.

I don’t know if the election result was a trigger or just bad timing. The situation was never far from my mind, though. I felt despondent, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless, and unable to face the next year, let alone the next four. I didn’t want to die or be dead, but I wanted to be unaware. Not hiding in a hole somewhere, more like unconscious. I wanted to sleep away the next four years. That’s all I felt capable of doing. And I felt incredibly guilty that I wasn’t joining those who I knew were already fighting for people’s rights.

After about a month of this, I emailed my best friend, telling her I wasn’t okay and asking her to pray for me. Explaining my symptoms was the first time I thought I might be depressed. In her reply, she gently suggested the same thing.

Just having a name to it helped. I read up and talked to more people about it. I ordered books and sweatshirts. I found a graphic novel that made me laugh aloud and read it over and over. One weekend when I had a cold, I left work at noon, went through the drive-thru for a dozen Krystals, got in bed with a book, and read it. I ate Krystals, read, fell asleep, woke up, finished the book. I ate more Krystals and started another book. I didn’t get up more than necessary the entire weekend and refused to feel guilty about it because I had a cold. Nevermind that I was also depressed.

I’m not really sure when I came out of the depression. I got up the Monday after Christmas knowing a friend was coming for the day, but until then the house was empty and still. I organized books, cleaned, started laundry, then met my friend for lunch and had a great day with her. She’d suffered depression the year before, and I could tell she understood what I’d been going through by the way she nodded and leaned in as I spoke, even before she shared some of her struggles. We looped arms and walked and walked, swapping book recommendations and snarking at bad Christmas novels on the second-hand bookstore’s clearance racks. It was the first really good day I’d had since the first week of November.

But I didn’t know if I’d be okay the next day. (I didn’t know that about depression until my first good day, how every new day is laced with uncertainty: Will today be the day it comes back?)

The next day was another good day, except that was the day Carrie Fisher passed away.

So many others have written about what she means and meant to them. I won’t add to it, except to say that I’d been following news of her closely since she first fell ill, and I’d been revisiting some of my favorites of her work. That day, once she was gone, I finally started listening to The Princess Diarist on audiobook. I wanted to sink into her insight and humor and honesty. I wanted to hear her voice again.

Perhaps an hour into the book, my desire to publish surged back. I could feel it returning, slower than it left me, beating in me until it was solid. I don’t exactly know how Carrie Fisher inspired that, but I believe she did. My depression didn’t magically go away—I still had some bad days, but none of them were anywhere close to the bad days of December. I also had more good days than bad, then a whole week of good, then I stopped counting how long since the last bad day. My energy is still a little low and my progress is slow, but I’m working again. And I want to publish one day.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. If Donald Trump stole my dream, you pulled me back to it.

Fear Then, Fear Now (Updated)

Note: Based on some feedback I’ve received since posting, I realize that my initial goal in writing eight months ago and my ultimate goal in writing last week both got a bit lost in the proverbial weeds. I’ve tried to tighten this post to make my points and goals more explicit.

About 8 months back, I wrote the following.

***

I rarely sink into a rage among this group of friends. All are people who care very deeply and who I’ve known for months, if not years.

However, last week I found myself seething, forcing myself to sit silently in my chair and listen respectfully to person after person describe their fears. Now, I realize that fears make us feel highly vulnerable, and so they can be very difficult to share with a group, especially if you aren’t very close to every person there. I realize that many people probably have deep-seated fears that they would not ever share with another person, let alone this little group of nine Baptists. Instead, person after person talked about terrorism, “people over there” and “crazies”. Next, someone brought up the presidential candidates. One person confessed trepidation at the idea of ISIS gaining access to a nuclear weapon.

At least no one started talking about spiders.

I studied terrorism extensively in college, so I know I have a different viewpoint than most. And I don’t deny that ISIS is a serious problem, and a daily concern. But I wanted to talk about fear. The most recent time I felt fear was the previous evening. I went to a friend’s house to play board games, and as I was coming home I realized I was coming home to an empty house. My roommate was away for the weekend, my neighbors were all probably asleep, the dog wasn’t alive to bark, the light was on in the carport but I couldn’t see into the darkness past the gate or in my neighbor’s backyard. Before I got out of my car, I had my house key in my hand, angled so it could slide into the lock as quickly as possible. I scanned 360 degrees before I got out and again when I stood straight. I listened carefully for footsteps, breathing, anything amiss. I unlocked the door and still knew I wasn’t safe. Not until the door was shut and locked behind me. And maybe not even then.

I am far more likely to be killed because of someone else’s road rage than I am to be killed by a terrorist of any kind (and there are so many kinds). I am at a much higher risk of being followed into my house and raped than anyone in the world is at risk of dying from radiation exposure due to a nuclear attack by ISIS.

Of the seven of us in this conversation, five were men. Up to that point, only men had been talking. While trying to tamp down my rage at all these fears that have so little bearing on how I live my life and what I worry about, the other women in the group spoke up, describing the moral ambiguity rising in our society and expressing her worries and fears for what her children will have to face, what they will fear as they grow up, how they will be safe and happy and good people in a society like the one ours is becoming.

Finally, something practical.

I built off of my friend’s fears for her children, describing how, in our society,people don’t do right for the sake of right. Here, freedoms and rights are not preserved for many, many people. I pointed out that, as a single woman, I am a more vulnerable target to random violence (not the most vulnerable, certainly) than men who share so much with me, including religion, skin color, socio-economic status, and geographic region. I described my fear of making eye contact with another driver because he might decide on that alone to follow me, to harass me, to hurt me. (It’s happened to me before, and I thank God that he never got out of his car.) I mentioned choices I make every day because of fear, like avoiding filling up with gas at night, like not walking between large vehicles in parking lots, like not going to the neighborhood park alone without texting someone else to let them know where I am and when I’ll be back.

My fellow Christians heard me. Their eyes softened. There was a pause.

One of the men started resumed talking about the “moral decay of our country” and brought up a presidential candidate. And accompanying my rage this time was disappointment. Isolation. I wanted them to be honest about their daily fears, even if they were different from mine. But no one had mentioned cancer or car accidents. No one did.

[Before I go further, I want to point out that every single one of us was white. Every one. Every one, as far as I know, is heterosexual and abled and neuro-typical. We are draped in privilege, swaddled in it from birth. I have real fears related to being a woman, but my fears as a white woman are nothing compared to the fears of people of color, and specifically of women of color. People with disabilities have entirely different and entirely valid fears. And we weren’t even addressing those depths, just the gender discrepancy in the fears.]

I wanted to ask these men, “When was the last time you felt fear? Maybe it was over a news headline but did you ever consider what you would feel if you were a refugee who no one wants to help because they think you might be part of the same terrorist group you’re trying to escape?” I wanted to scream, “Are you thinking about other people’s lives? Are you really more worried about Hillary’s emails than whether someone is going to target you just for existing? Are you really more concerned about Sanders’ socialist policies than whether your father’s cancer will come up in you?”

I might have been letting my anger carry me a little ways, but I don’t think I was being unreasonable to want these Christians to be personal, to match vulnerability with vulnerability as we talked about our lives. Why else are we here, anyway, but to share and support one another as a community? That’s the kind of living Christ encourages.

Again, I don’t mean to imply that terrorism and politics aren’t important concerns, aren’t daily threats for many, many people. They are. These issues and these hurting people should be prayed over fervently. The fears my friends shared valid. And I know they care deeply about their loved ones, friends, and the state of our country and world.

But when I think about fear in the Bible, I think about a son dying, a sinking boat, a terrible storm, a troubling message, a dead spouse, a flood, and standing in the very presence of God. Were more people afraid of Caesar or of the single armed centurion? Of a mass conspiracy or of being recognized by a servant in the firelight? All are worthy of fear, though we Christians are not called to fear but power, and yet I still feel frustrated, angry, disappointed by the way the conversation played out.

***

My relationship with fear has changed since I wrote this. I better understand now that people can take the words of their elected (and not-yet elected) leaders as license to do or say to you whatever they want. To threaten you. To hit you. To try to kiss you. And worse.

The people around me that day eight months ago were right to fear the election and the candidates, and I wish I had better understood the connection between these macro issues and individuals’ personal fears. I felt so frustrated then, but maybe my friends knew what they were talking about better than I did.

Yet I still find it disturbing that there was such a difference between what my female friend and I were willing to admit as daily fears and what the men were. I think this is a problem. But I’m most disturbed that, filled with so much anger, such frustration, I didn’t ask more questions. I didn’t say, “This is what I think you mean. Is that right?”

In the months since that conversation, let me tell you some of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been listening to marginalized people describe the harassment they face at rest stops and in restaurants and in the checkout line. I’ve been reporting Neo-Nazis who are photoshoping the faces of Jewish people into photos of gas chambers. I’ve been retweeting stories of brutality and terror. I’ve been sharing others’ words about how useless, worthless, hated, inhuman they’ve been made to feel. I’ve been sharing ways to support and help people being harassment in public. But I’ve been doing this almost exclusively on Twitter. Few people in my life are on Twitter, and if I see a problem in my reality, I need to address it in the places where my views might do some good. That includes Facebook. That includes a dinner out with friends.

I didn’t say what I was thinking then, but I’ve have eight months to think about it and to see the truth in my friends’ words, as well as realize some related truths.

I still fear the single centurion more than Caesar, but my fear of Caesar is greatly increased because of what people who think of themselves as centurions have done and said as a result of Caesar’s words and actions. They feel justified. And Caesar doesn’t have to deputize every such person to make him or them dangerous. That is the link between the macro and the personal.

Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that the second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. For most people like me (white, abled, heterosexual, etc.), our civil rights weren’t under threat this election. I wish I had urged my friends to listen to people who aren’t like us, to hear their fears and find the macro connections and meet their vulnerability with our own.

I wish I’d made my opinion more plain, so I’m doing so here: I believe that loving others means be afraid of what marginalized people are afraid of, then using your vote and voice to fight for their rights as if they were your rights. I believe that is a significant way we white, abled, heterosexual Christians need to love our neighbors. I believe that I have been failing miserably at loving other people.