Thank You {Day 31 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

I had envisioned a grand ending to my 31 Days series. An eloquent, epic finale to capture all of my discoveries along this winding road of healing. But today, the only words that I can find are: Thank you.

Thank you to every one of you who reached out, spoke up, lifted up, and joined in this journey. No matter what deeply compassionate words you spoke, the message you sent was “You are not alone. We are not alone.”

Filling the well from rock-bottom can feel like a lonely process. But the greatest power depression, doubt, and grief have over us is the ability to convince us that we are the only ones. This is a lie. This is the lie that keeps us at the bottom of the well. And every encouraging, empathetic word we speak to each other is a tiny weapon brandished in the face of this lie.

Thank you for creating the space to share these words. I cannot say it enough. Thank you.

One more joy-filled for each one of you.

For this dance we’ll move with each other.
There ain’t no other step than one foot,
Right in front of the other.

There’s so many wars we fought,
There’s so many things we’re not,
But with what we have
I promise you that,
We’re marching on.

Where is the Joy? {Day 30 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Where is the joy in this?

Writing about joy at this moment feels flimsy and phony. Against a backdrop of scenes of destruction, against news from friends whose homes have been destroyed, against the heart-wrenching pictures of patients being evacuated from NYU hospital (why was it those pictures that got me so much?), my own tiny journey of healing feels so insignificant. How on earth does joy fit into this?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I think, just maybe, it’s okay not to know. In my college religion classes, students would shout hard-edged questions, demanding answers cast in stark black-and-white. If God is good, why does evil exist? If God is all-powerful, why do natural disasters occur? I do not think real life exists within the confines of these narrow questions. I think there is great wisdom in living into the confusion and hurt for a time, not trying to escape but learning the contours of the pain of wondering why.

But as we walk around inside the pain, at the same time, we let ourselves be held in the knowledge that pain is only part of the story, not the story itself. We do not have to understand the larger story at that moment. We only have to hold the pain in one hand, and in the other hand, the prospect of that larger story.

Sometimes joy isn’t in the barefoot walks and the bluebirds. Maybe sometimes joy is just a moment, in the midst of the confusion and hurt and pain, of resting in the palm of the unknowable greater story.

Prayers of peace.

No Excuses? {Day 29 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

A short post tonight. The hurricane is here in full force, and I’m not sure we’ll have power for long. I’m amazed we still do, actually. I briefly entertained the thought that, if ever there was a reason to flake out on my 31 Days commitment, a superstorm power outage would be it. But then I realized, I’m not actually looking for excuses here. Unlike so many commitments I’ve made in the past, I’m not searching for a way out. I actually want to see this thing through. And I’m on Day 29, for God’s sake.  Hurricane be damned, I’m figuring out a way to make it happen.

This is a pretty foreign concept to me. Often when I make commitments, I start looking for ways out before I even begin. A minor broken bone, perhaps. A brief but not especially painful sickness. Something to provide me a way to neatly excuse myself and retreat into a world free of expectations and burdens.

But I’m not searching for a way out. For the first time in a while, in this small way, I’m actually fully engaging in my life. I am writing the words of my heart. I am making connections with beautiful people on the same journey. I am connecting my passion with my actions. Instead of running from, I am running to.

What would my life look like if I wasn’t constantly trying to escape or excuse myself from it? If I looked for reasons to do my life-work instead of reasons to avoid it?

I don’t know yet. This idea is so new to me, it’s still wiping its feet on my mental welcome mat before stepping in and inhabiting my soul. But I’m chewing on it. I imagine I’ll have a lot of time to think about it over the next few days.

I’m pushing my luck now with the storm, but I’ll be back soon. Posting via smartphone or making friends with neighbors with generators. I’ll be writing, come hell or high water… but probably high water.

Be safe, friends.

Preparing for the Storm {Day 28 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

It’s hurricane central here. Like good mid-Atlantic folks who are unaccustomed to and unprepared for any type of natural disaster, we promptly lose our collective minds whenever a natural disaster looms. The Weather Channel has been on for 48 hours straight. We have a pantry full of shelf-stable items and flashlights stocked with fresh batteries. Every conversation I’ve had in the last three days has involved Hurricane Sandy in some way. We are darn ready for this hurricane.

But here’s the thing. It hasn’t started raining yet. 

Everyone here has spent spent the day alternating between the television and the window. Watching radar maps, pressing our noses against the glass to watch the clouds roll in. Watching meteorologists with microphones get blown about by gale-force winds (We all believe you that it’s windy outside, Jim Cantore. Now will you please go be safe and seek cover?), checking the window again to see if the rain has started yet.

Now, I realize the rain is coming. I’m watching the radar map show our little town in a tiny cove of stillness, surrounded by a massive splotch of green and yellow steadily moving toward us. I’m not denying the forecasts of the strong storm a-comin’.

What I’m saying is — today was beautiful. And I missed it.

I happened to glance up for one moment today while we were moving outdoor furniture. The skies were gray, but the clouds raced so quickly it was like watching a time-lapse video. Rich autumn leaves were whipped around by wind that crackled with pre-storm energy. I glanced, I noticed, I went back to my business.

I was too caught up in anticipating the storm to notice the beauty of right now.

So often, this is how I live my life. I pour massive amounts of energy into anticipating the storm. My  mind churns with what ifs - from the petty to the ridiculous - like the ocean in a hurricane. What if that funny knock in the engine means my car’s going to break down? What if I lose someone I love?  What if this headache is actually a brain tumor? 

I spend so much time trying to get out in front of the sadness and the pain. Like I’m trying to beat it to the punch. I figure that if I’ve already anticipated all of the potential pain from an undesired event, then by the time the pain gets here, I’ll be ready. I have envisioned all of the possible ways this scenario could go wrong so that if it goes right, I’ll be pleasantly surprised – and if it doesn’t when it happens, it’s been-there-done-that.

(It’s like Tina Fey says in Bossypants about the time her honeymoon cruise was alerted of a possible ship fire. When the crew tells the passengers that everything’s fine, she refuses to believe them. “While people around me start to relax,” she says, “I keep my eyes on the sea, waiting to be rocketed into it on a wave of fire. I’m ready for it to happen and that way it won’t happen. It’s a burden, being able to control situations with my hyper-vigilance, but it’s my lot in life.”)

But I remembered today that this anxiety, this “what-if”ing,…it doesn’t actually change anything. Except the fact that I’m too busy imagining the worst to notice the joy of the right-now. Most of my worries are outlandish fabrications of my min. The only purpose they serve is to distract me from real  beauty. And if the pain is, in fact, really coming, the dread of anticipation is only stealing from the joy to give to the pain.

Of course, we should prepare for the storms. Denial is just as unhealthy as obsessive anxiety. Just like stocking the pantry and buying batteries is just plain common sense, building your support systems and creating rituals of self-care is good, responsible preparation for rough times ahead. But stocking the pantry is different from being glued to the television. We can prepare and engage joy. We can’t obsess and engage joy.

As the storm is finally rolling in this evening, I’m deciding not to waste another day anticipating the storm. Life is too beautiful to live inside the suffocating stories of my mind.

And I cannot resist ending with this song, discovered last week through my new blogging friend Anna. Appropriate in so many ways…

Call Out The Lies {Day 27 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Every once in awhile, I’ll snatch a thought that’s lurking quietly around my head, wearing an elaborate costume to disguise itself as The Truth. It sidles up and elbows its way in line between objective facts and neutral observations, hoping that I won’t notice it there. Most of the time, I don’t. My mind hums along, ticking off these thoughts quickly: “I have to do laundry because I have no more socks.” Tick. “The sky is a really beautiful shade of blue today.” Tick. “I am a worthless person, and I can’t do anything right.” Tick. “Zucchini is on sale at the grocery store.” Tick.

Hold the phone. What just happened here?

Depression and self-doubt play some really dirty tricks with our minds, but one of the trickiest is muddling up the boundary between truth and self-perception. It’s like that line in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” Absolutely. Self-doubt and depression do their best to convince us that they don’t exist. That these thoughts of despair are just simple observations to be accepted at face value. If we’re not careful, we believe in the dirty lies that self-hatred feeds us as firmly and unwaveringly as we believe in gravity.

That thought that slid in there so subtly - “I am a worthless person, and I can’t do anything right” – is one of the worst offenders. I spent many years believing that I was legitimately useless and untalented. I could put up a pretty good front to fool the world, but if I slipped up for one moment, it would be like pulling the curtain back on the real “Wizard.” People told me otherwise, but their words grazed right over me. Not until I was faced with the utter despair that this “truth” had created did I begin to name it for what it was.

A lie.

Reminding ourselves of this is the work of our lives. I really wish that it was a once-and-done type of deal. Much like I feel about cleaning the house. I work really hard, clean every nook and cranny (not really), and collapse into my bed, thinking, “Good, I can check that off my to-do list.” And without fail, two weeks later, when I’m faced with an utter disaster, I think, “You mean I have to do this again?” 

Healing is a daily, sometimes hourly, intention. But we eventually learn that it’s not a chore. It’s a beautiful reminder of the truth. The truth of our incomparable, glorious worth, just as we are.

My favorite poem by Rumi, the quote that hangs on the wall by my computer and guides this whole series, is this:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.

Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

At the end of every day, I want to be able to ask myself, “What did you do today to remind yourself of the truth? What did you do to shut down the lies?” And I want to be able to give a resounding answer.

This is, at the heart of it, what filling the well is all about.

Counseling {Day 26 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Not long ago, I was giving advice to a young person who was hesitant about seeking counseling. He was adamant that “nothing was wrong,” so he didn’t see the point. Sometimes, counseling is like taking good care of your car, I told him. (Meanwhile, I was thinking, “What are you doing, CJ? Of all the metaphors…you don’t know anything about cars!” But I soldiered on).

Hopefully, I said, you don’t just pay attention to your car when it breaks down on the side of the road. Instead, you change the oil and take it for inspections and…here, I coughed and vaguely mumbled a couple words like “carburetor.” You take care of it during the good times so that you can try to avoid the big break-downs, and when you hit a big pothole in the road, you’re better prepared.

Ok, the metaphor was kind of weak. But I managed to get through to him, if only a little.

And then, I proceeded to flagrantly ignore my own advice.

When I moved away from DC a few months ago, I left my cherished counselor behind. I was okay with this, though. I had long-since hit rock bottom and was slowly, but steadily, rising upward. I was gaining my energy back, connecting with people, remembering the small joys. I was doing it! Myself!

Those words almost never end well for me.

Over the past few months, I’ve continued to heal, continued to recover, continued to fill myself up with joys. But man. Life is hard, people. It’s like those awful elliptical trainers.  You’re plugging along, doing your thing, when all of a sudden, your steps get a lot more difficult. You’re working just as hard as you were before so you’re confused, but when you look down, you realize that the damn thing has tripled the resistance. Oh right, because it’s the Hilly Course. Well, I forgot life was the Hilly Course. And even if you’re moving forward, you still need some help for those hills.

Yesterday, I went to see a counselor for the first time since I’d moved back to my hometown. Five minutes into my appointment, I was plotting quick getaways from the couch to the exit. Fifteen minutes into the appointment, I was thinking, “Why has it taken me three months to do this?” I need the safe space. I need the cleansing-rain feeling of unloading the brick-heavy thoughts. I need to leave the cell phone in the car and step into the carefully-drawn boundaries that protect a time that is mine. 

This is my joy today.

Joy of Connection {Day 25 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Every once and a while, some time management tip I read in a book or magazine actually sticks with me. And by every once and a while, I actually mean two or three tips in my entire life. So don’t worry. This isn’t going to become a time management blog. This isn’t even a time management post. Just bear with me.

Anyhow, one of those rare tips I kept was this bit of advice about incoming emails. As some organizational guru said, you should do one of three things with each email – delete it; act on it and sort it into a folder; or hold it in your inbox for later action. Mostly, I follow this plan because I enjoy feeling like a productive and responsible adult when I’m just deleting Starbucks promotions. But it’s actually not a bad thought. This way, when you look at your inbox, all you see are the items that you need to take care of.

Which is great. Except when you realize that a large portion of those emails start like this:

Hey! Haven’t talked in awhile. Hope you’re well!

Just checking in because I haven’t heard from you. Send an update when you get a chance!

Can we catch up soon? I feel like I have no idea what’s going on in your life!

Yesterday, I glanced at my “streamlined” inbox and realized that, while I had only two or three unfinished work items to address, I had a horrifyingly large number of kind “hello” emails I hadn’t touched. And, when I thought about it, the same went for texts and voicemails.

Now, most of the time, I would blow this off with some elaborate, but not terribly original, excuse, one that generally involves the word “crazy.” You know, “So sorry, I’ve been crazy busy at work!” “Oh, I’ve been caught up in my crazy family drama” or the ever-popular “Life’s just been so crazy!” But that’s got to stop.

(In large part because I really need to stop the ridiculously inappropriate and disrespectful misuse of the word “crazy.”)

In addition to my careless use of a slur launched at people experiencing mental illness, even if I used more precise language – Work’s been so stressful, family stuff has been really overwhelming – I wouldn’t be entirely honest. Because the reason I’m not reaching out is not purely busyness-related.

It’s because I’m embarrassed to admit I’m struggling.

This is not a commentary on my friends or family.They are extraordinary, kind, enormous-hearted souls that have seen me through depression, grief, transition, and any other major road bump life throws in the way.

But even after all that, I still put off the joy of connection because I’m waiting to get my life together before I call. 

Yes, I am healing. Yes, I am doing the good, hard work of recovery. But recovery is messy. And I want to show people the tidy, cleaned-up, organized version of myself. I’d like to show people my  nifty email sorting system, for instance. Look how much I have it all together! I’d rather not show them  my scribbled, tear-stained journals, my decidedly un-tidy breakdown in my car yesterday.

It’s the reason I haven’t shared this blog with anyone I know in real life yet.

Even in the midst of my healing, parts of me are still trapped within the four white walls of my shame. Shame that I haven’t just shaken this stupid depression thing yet. Shame that I still have to wrestle daily, sometimes hourly, with the demons of self-doubt. Shame that, while my friends are making big professional steps and getting married moving forward, I’ve moved backwards, back to my hometown to immerse myself in old family dramas and fight the same battles I fought years ago.

And I’m afraid that, if I call or email, my friends and family know me well enough that they will see straight through the cracks in my armor. So I’m waiting for those cracks to go away. It’s easier to wait until I’ve got it all together.

The little voice of clarity is speaking up, fighting her way out from under the piles of shame and doubt I’ve thrown on her, to say You’re never going to have it all together.

Especially if you keep closing off those life-sustaining connections. Those connections are what saves you. These writings and these connections in this space — i.e. you – are saving me.  And I’m willing to bet each of those people on the other end of the phone, computer, or blog post has a few cracks in their armor they’re afraid of showing too.

Anne Lamott says, “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, and honesty — and said, Do the best you can with these. They will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

I am waiting for that shiny toolbox to make me a “real” person – acceptable enough, put-together enough, whole enough for my friends and family to love me. In reality, my friends, family, and connections in this space are my tools. I do not have to wait for my “real” life to start before I reach out to them. They are my real life.

If you’ll excuse me, I have some emails to attend to.