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.

The End of Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craving Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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. 

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.

The Burden of “Happy Clothes”

The other day I was reading a book, and I’m not going to tell you which one. But, after an anecdote about the author’s mother, she wrote that adults “have the opportunity or maybe even an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit.” She followed that statement by saying adults must “show we can rise above winter’s chills by wearing happy clothes.”

I wanted to curse at her. I wanted to throw the entire book. The author’s a Christian, a long-time Bible study leader, and I wanted to shout “Is this what you teach?!?! Those poor people!”

The world isn’t entitled to a good mood from me. I don’t expect that from others. And I don’t demand that the world look “pretty” or put together or wear “happy clothes”. I’m not just talking about self-expression, which is important. I’m talking about the idea that women are pressured to present themselves, to have it all together, to show no emotion but gratitude, to never make a mistake or need a break. Men face it too.

According to the CDC, white men in this country are three times more likely to commit suicide than white women. Black and Hispanic men are only twice as likely as white women to commit suicide, but they are four times as likely as black and Hispanic women. Black women and Hispanic women are the least likely: half as likely as white women and twelve times less likely as white men. Society is built for white men. They have the most privilege. So why are they so much more likely to commit suicide? A big reason is that we don’t teach boys and men to deal with their emotions and we don’t allow men to appear weak. And it’s killing people. The burden to “convey an upbeat spirit” is killing people.

I’m sure the author, who I really don’t want to rake through the coals, wasn’t thinking in these terms. She was thinking about neuro-typical Christians exuding confidence in their faith to the outside world. Which I also have serious problems with. But I want to talk about the heavy burdens “an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit” and wear “happy clothes” place on a person’s well-being.

Let’s talk about spoon theory. It’s a concept generally used to help people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses to describe what their day is like. I’ll link you to the whole explanation here, but below is the short version.

Think of the spoons in your kitchen. You have a certain number, and that’s all you have. You cannot wash and reuse them. You can’t use a fork instead. You start every day with a specific number of spoons, and everything you do costs a spoon. Getting out of bed costs a spoon, brushing your teeth costs a spoon, flossing costs a spoon, cooking lunch costs a spoon but skipping lunch might cost two or three spoons.

When you’re well, you have a nearly unlimited number of spoons. But when you’re disabled or ill in one way or another, you have far fewer spoons. You might can borrow a spoon or two from the next day to help you get through your friend’s birthday party or a blown tire on the interstate, but you will go from 15 spoons tomorrow to 13.

Last year when I struggled with depression for two months, the four-minute task of putting on moisturizer, foundation, and eyeliner (what I consider to be my minimum makeup regimen) hardly ever happened. I didn’t have enough spoons. It wasn’t worth it to me to use a spoon to put on makeup for work. I knew it wouldn’t take long, but for once I cared more about the effort involved than I cared about the time it took. I might need that spoon to go to the grocery store later, or to take my car by the mechanic to have a light checked, or to wash my hair (another spoon for conditioner, a third to blow dry). Every spoon counts. Everything costs a spoon. Every email I read, every paragraph I wrote, getting out of bed, arranging a meal cost a spoon. My life whittled down to the bare minimum. I wore the same outfits—incredibly soft, comfortable outfits—over and over. I went to work, went home, laid on the sofa, ate at least twice a day, showered, went to bed.

I literally thank God that my coworkers didn’t bring up my lack of makeup, fifth day with a pony tail, or the third consecutive week wearing that outfit. The conversation would have cost an unexpected spoon and would have increased my anxiety and guilt for weeks about my limited number of spoons.

It’s not an act of service, and it’s definitely not an obligation, to smile and look pretty for the world. Those things cost spoons, and whether I’m struggling with depression or not that day, I may well decide that I don’t have the time or energy to bother with it. Everyone should be free of the same burden.

When I started dating Tyler, I had the energy but chose not to spend the time. Instead, I stayed up later than usual so I could spend those hours with him, and shaved off makeup time in the morning to help me recover some of my sleep. My choice was not an assault on the world. I don’t owe the world a painted face or a fake smile or a yellow blouse. (I’d also like to point out that men aren’t expected to wear makeup because we haven’t been trained to think that men need makeup to look “presentable”. Same with shaved legs.)

I don’t owe the world “presentable” anything. You don’t owe the world makeup or a smile. Other people are not entitled to the facade it expects. Do I care about people and want to be a good representation of my faith and my God? Yes. But inauthenticity drives away the hungry and gathers the shallow. I’m not going to knowingly hurt myself to make a few other people feel more at ease. And I want hurting people to know it’s okay to be hurting. That’s the kind of Christian I try to be.

***

I thought I was done with this post. I just needed a photo of a spoon, which I planned to take at my boyfriend’s, before we went to dinner and a worship service in which I was reading the opening Scripture (Psalm 145:1-3, 10-13). Even before I got to his apartment, though, my plan flew out of my head. After a busy day with little sleep, I was listening to an audiobook, reminding myself to read the Scripture passage a few more times aloud before worship, and carefully planning my nutrition intake so I’d have enough energy to stay alert through the late-starting service without sugar or caffeine crashing. I’d originally planned to go home and nap after work, then to get ready and leave from there, but I was too wired. So Tyler suggested dinner instead.

During the song immediately after I read, I realized that I hadn’t put on eyeliner. Or lipstick. Or even foundation. I’d been in too much of a rush that morning and I hadn’t gone home after work like I’d planned to, so I hadn’t remembered. And I was wearing my comfy work pants—a little high-waisted, a little baggy in the hips—instead of the skinny jeans I’d planned to be in. My loose floral top is exactly something my grandmother would wear if it only had sleeves.

So is presentation more important than the words I’d read? I hadn’t been worried about my appearance when I’d walked to the microphone. I hadn’t noticed my lack of makeup in the bathroom a few minutes earlier. During the song, though, I’d noticed someone else’s eye makeup and all the comparisons rushed to me, all my intentions I’d forgotten just like the spoon photo. I felt God nudging me, Do you owe the world “presentable” or don’t you?

I thanked God for not letting me realize until after I’d read. That’s very God and I. God teaches me something, but not when it might mess with other people’s worship. God often waits until the perfect moment, like when I’m singing the words of a praise song, to let me wrap myself up in my own self-consciousness. Then God reminds me of truth, and in this case of the words I’d written a few hours before. I asked for forgiveness, for my pride most of all.

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.