Plan for the Night {Day 24 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Night is a scary time. For someone experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, or paralyzing self-doubt, lying awake in bed can feel like a deer standing in an open clearing during hunting season. Nothing stands between you and the army of fear, worry, self-hatred and desperation that’s set up camp in your head. No distractions or defenses. That army has a clear shot at your most vulnerable  places.

Worse still, the noise of that army opening fire keeps you awake for hours. You wake the next morning after only a few fitful hours of sleep, feeling, quite fittingly, like you’ve just done battle. Without the protective armor of sleep, the world is full of sharp edges that cut right into your soul. You are overly anxious, even to the point of paranoia; you are quick to cry or lose your temper; you stagger under the crushing weight of even the simplest tasks.

The very first time I went to see a counselor, I was weepy, anxious, and nursing a chronic sinus infection. After I finished babbling through my introduction, I expected him to dive in to the ample fodder I’d given him: my family history, my panic attacks, my crippling self-doubt. Instead, he placed his fingertips together carefully, the universal sign of wisdom, and looked at me.

“How much have you been sleeping?” he asked. I launched into another babbling description of my sleepless nights, tossing and turning and listening to the onslaught of anxiety and degradation that played on repeat in my head.

He tapped those fingertips together. “Well, let’s start there,” he said. “Because if you can’t sleep, the rest of your healing doesn’t stand a chance.”

I didn’t end up staying with this counselor very long. His style turned out not to be the right fit. But I will be forever grateful to him for teaching me two things.

First: the incomparable value of sleep. Because we need sleep for a life of joy. We need the physical and emotional restoration to face a new day with energy and strength. We need the calm presence of mind to face life’s road bumps. And we need to start our days with clarity and positivity. Because when you wake up feeling exhausted and drained, you are already three steps behind, and you’ll spend the rest of the day trying to catch up.

Second, and even more importantly, he taught me to make a plan for the nighttime. If we are dealing with an army of anxiety and self-doubt, we have to be prepared with a counterattack. (Hint: Lying in bed waiting for those thoughts to go away is not a counterattack.)

Part of that counterattack starts earlier in the day. Sunshine and engaging exercise strengthen my physical body’s inclination to sleep, which can help to overpower my mind. Knocking off a nagging thorn on my to-do list helps too. Although it’s difficult to summon the energy to tackle looming “to-dos,” telling myself that I will no longer lie awake at night thinking “I need to file those insurance papers” does wonders to my motivation.

But the crux of the counterattack happens at night, after I turn out the light and the army goes into full-scale battle mode. I breathe deeply and sink into an image that comforts me. I imagine my thoughts as a raging ocean, and I am standing in the middle, getting bludgeoned by the pounding waves. Just like I do at the beach, I slip underneath the waves of thought, to the calm, often-forgotten space on the ocean floor. I look up at the thoughts raging above me and remind myself that I am separate from them.

If I were a spiritual guru, I would tell you that this image would solve all your sleep problems. But let’s be real: it doesn’t. Some nights, it does wonders. Some nights, the thoughts rage on and nearly drown me. On those nights, if I’ve been tossing and turning for at least a half-hour, I get up and write down whatever thoughts are keeping me awake. Not on the computer, though it do its best to tempt me. (The computer is the worst place to go when I cannot sleep. Repeat. The computer is the worst place to go when I cannot sleep.) Instead, I go old-fashioned, scribbling down the stream-of-consciousness babble that is churning through my mind.

I lie down again. If I’m still awake after another half-hour, I take sleep medicine. I’ve thought a lot about using the medicine and tried to be intentional about the way I’ve incorporated it into my life. I recognize that it plays very different roles for everyone. But some nights, left to my own thoughts, I could easily be up for most of the night. And my very personal, very non-professional belief is – like my former counselor said – if I don’t have sleep, my healing doesn’t stand a chance.

I am always tweaking and adjusting my counterattack. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on changing the pattern of my working and blogging so that I don’t end the night at the computer. The bright lights and information overload stir up thoughts that zing around my head when I turn off the light. A friend also recently suggested Sleepytime tea (she said it’s gross but it works. Fair enough).

But whatever my plan, I take comfort knowing I have a counterattack to defend myself from the army of anxiety and self-doubt. Sleep is a precious tool on my journey of healing that I cannot afford to lose to this army.

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I Don’t Have Time? {Day 23 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

I don’t have time.

Of all the excuses I use to rationalize not seeking joy, this might be the winner. I don’t have time.  It’s a tricky little statement, masquerading as a simple, objective statement of fact. But in reality, it’s a value judgment. A value judgment I need to look square in the eye.

Because I do have time. We all possess the same amount of time: 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week. So when I say “I don’t have time to… [call a friend, go to yoga class, cook a wholesome meal],” what I’m really saying is “I don’t choose to use my time that way.”

But hold up. If I’m not careful, this post could easily go down the same path as so many preachy “Work-Life Balance” articles I’ve read recently. Articles that exude shame: Foolish girl, why aren’t you using your time wisely? Look at these women making time to have a successful career, nurture their families, and maintain their own physical and emotional well-being. What is the matter with you? Perfect balance doesn’t exist. The pursuit of it – which seems to actually mean “doing everything and sacrificing nothing” – is a giant scam tactic used to shame us into believing we are inadequate.

So, I want to reclaim time. I want to take it back from those who use it as a weapon of shame and start using it as a tool of empowerment.

Reclaiming time is a crucial step on my healing journey. Time is a scary concept when you’re experiencing depression. I spent most of my time at the bottom of the well feeling like a passive victim to time’s manipulation. During sleepless nights, it would drag on interminably. I would beg helplessly for morning as I thrashed back and forth in my sheets. Other times, whole days would slip by as I huddled in my bed watching Friends reruns. The possibility of choosing how to spend my time seemed as fantastical as the possibility of teleportation or mind-reading: a superpower far beyond my reach.

As I’m healing, the sleepless nights and empty days have dwindled, but the prospect of owning my time remains far away. I rarely find an hour for yoga, even though I know its restorative power. I put off making good, soul-restoring phone calls until a free moment; that moment never arrives. I am still a victim to time. And I am tired of it.

I’ve been chewing slowly on this thought about choosing my time. It’s equal parts terrifying and empowering to consider that I make a choice about how I spend every minute of my day. Some choices are good, necessary, and sound: I choose to work to support myself and make a difference in a great non-profit. I choose to care for my family because I love them, and their health and well-being matters to me. I choose to shower because I value personal hygiene.

Other choices are destructive. Often, I don’t even realize I’ve made these choices; they usually pop up as mindless habits or tools of procrastination. I choose to watch an episode of Modern Family online…and another and another. I choose to scroll absentmindedly through Facebook posts about vicious political rambling, diet “successes” or “failures”, and my cousin’s girlfriend’s new kitten. I choose to get drinks with someone I don’t quite remember why I’m friends with.

When I say that I don’t have time to do yoga or cook, I am choosing these ways of spending my time instead. I don’t have space to add joy in my life unless I first get rid of these choices that pull me away from myself rather than deeper into myself.

Today, I am taking the first gentle step toward aligning my choices with my journey of healing. I am simply observing the choices I make with my time – the big choices and the small, the hours of work and the five minutes of scrolling through comments on CNN articles (why do I ever do this to myself?). I am learning about how I make – or don’t make – my choices, and I am using this knowledge to help create a life of joy.

Love What You Love {Day 22 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

A few days ago, I talked about loving what you love. True joy is bound up tightly with authenticity. We don’t find joy by striving to be cool, hipster, or conventional – we find joy by being real and true to our soul’s quirky preferences.

But while I was busy baring my decidedly “uncool” musical preferences, I touched briefly on something that I want to return to without being distracted by the unholy combination of Meat Loaf and Hilary Duff in the same sentence. We use a lot of standards to judge and suppress our joys. Coolness and conventionality are some. So is perfectionism.

I have this idea that I need to be “good” at something to enjoy it. No, I need to be perfect at it. I’ve backed out of countless plans because I worried I wouldn’t succeed, I would look foolish, I would fall short. No matter how much I’d looked forward to those plans – going dancing, painting, taking a new class at the gym – my fear of imperfection played the trump card. So I stayed home. Watching TV might be boring, but at least no one would think I was bad at it.

For as long as I can remember, my joy has run up against my natural ability. I was born loving to move my body and remind myself that I am alive by walking, dancing, swimming, biking. For the first several years of my life, I lived in that blissful state of self-assurance found only in kindergarteners and Beyonce. I truly did not know that, by all conventional measures, I was not good at these things. Eventually, as it always does, the other shoe dropped.

How can I describe my lack of physical coordination? Words fail me, so just pick your own description, and be sure to use the words “baby giraffe on roller blades” somewhere in there. I moved like my limbs were entirely  independent from my body. I fell in every possible way there was to fall. And my body just couldn’t move as quickly, deftly, or flexibly as it was asked. I loved the act of moving my body, but that joy was battling it out with the rising tide of teasing, self-doubt, and cultural standards of success. And joy lost. For a while.

I struggled for years against the belief that I wasn’t “supposed” to enjoy being active because I wasn’t good at it. “Good” meaning successful, flawless, and above the 75th percentile or so in comparative measures. Embarrassed at my inadequacy, I sought other activities at which I was more conventionally “successful” – namely school, work, and pleasing others.

But joy can only be kept down for so long. It works on its own terms

Over the years, I’ve made my peace with being active. As I’m healing and rediscovering my energy, I’m remembering that I might not be able to swim very fast, but I love the feeling of slicing through the water. I might fall over in mountain pose during yoga class (just to be clear, that’s the position where you stand still with both feet on the ground), but I crave the clarity and energy I find there. 

Even still, I’m terrified of so many things I enjoy but don’t “excel” in – or might enjoy but am too scared to try. Painting, photography, art journaling – all items on my NO FEAR list that I’ve been avoiding for fear of inadequacy or failure.

Like always, Mary Oliver came through for me recently. “You do not have to be good,” she says in her poem Wild Geese. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

We have to give up the success. We have to give up the failure, for that matter. Dear God, we have to give up the debilitating perfectionism.

We only have to love what we love.

 

Good Tired {Day 21 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

I can barely keep my eyes open as I write tonight. The combination of sunshine and deep breaths of fresh air creates a very particular kind of tiredness. I used to call it “good tired,” but it’s been so long since I’ve felt this way, I’d almost entirely forgotten about it.

Sure, I’ve been tired. “Bad tired,” I guess you’d call it, though that sounds particularly inelegant. Maybe that’s fitting, though. “Bad tired” is the gray exhaustion that settles in before you put one toe out of bed in the morning. The permanent half-moons etched under your eyes, the vague achiness that seeps in your bones. The kind of tired that has nothing to do with physical exertion, but somehow makes a walk to work or cooking a meal seem like an IronMan triathlon. I think Coldplay had it right — it’s when “you feel so tired but you can’t sleep, stuck in reverse…

The English language does not serve us well here, which is why I have to resort to “good tired” and “bad tired.” I mean, seriously. We use the same word – “tired” – to describe this vague, gray, draining melancholy and invigorating physical exhaustion. But these two feelings couldn’t be more different. One makes us feel barely alive. One reminds us we are alive.

When I was cruising at negative 30,000 feet (aka rock bottom), I read a lot of impassioned advice to combat depression by exercising! (Very rarely was “exercising!” used without at least one exclamation point). This advice was generally accompanied by pictures of smiling, fit, blond women jogging on picturesque mountain trails. I wanted to punch those women. I was exercising(!). I was dragging myself to the elliptical trainer or the treadmill nearly every day, and not once did I leave looking or feeling like those women. Instead I felt achy, restless, and decidedly not smiling, fit, or blond.

Here’s another place where the English language fails us, I think. We use “exercise” to cover a large swath of activities from mindlessly elliptical-ing to hiking the Appalachian Trail. Most often, our culture uses “exercise” to describe ways to punish your body into being slim, fit, and perfect. When I read that exercise was an antidote to depression, my mind automatically free-associated “exercise” with the daily grind of the gym machines, surrounded by other people trying equally hard to punish their bodies into submission.

Hello. This is not filling my well.

By dictionary definition, grinding it out on the elliptical trainer certainly counts as exercise. But never once have I felt alive on a gym machine. I remembered today that our bodies are meant to move in natural ways.

We all have different physical abilities, but when we move in ways that remind us of our strength and capability, we are all reminded that we are alive. When I walk in the fall air and rake leaves and lift boxes and hike up the towering hill of the apple orchard and lug 40 pounds of apples back down and soak up sunshine, I connect to the ancient, strong part of my body that is meant to do these things. This is “exercise” that celebrates, rather than controls, my body.

Tonight, for the first time in a long time, I am “good tired.” Tonight, I will collapse into bed, and the sheer weight of my body will overpower the buzz of thoughts that so often keeps me awake. I will sleep the sleep that only sunshine and productive physical work can bring. And I will wake, perhaps a little sore or stiff, but joyfully aware that I am alive. 

Make Your Own Celebrations {Day 20 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

Tonight, I sent off my not-so-little brother to his high school Homecoming dance. Even though he was in full “cool and aloof teenager” mode, I watched him button up his blazer and press down his out-of-control cowlick with unusual attention. And as we were preparing to leave, I noticed him perched on the very edge of the couch, jiggling his spiffy dress shoes and holding his plastic corsage box with exquisite care.

“Are you excited?” I asked. (Note: I’m learning that this is a surefire way to bring any conversation with a teenage boy to a grinding halt, but I had to ask anyway).

He paused. “I guess.”

“Are you nervous?” (I am really pushing my luck here with these questions).

He shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s no reason to be nervous.” (Hmm. I do not need a handbook on teenage-speak to decipher what this means).

As my not-excited, not-nervous brother fidgeted and straightened his tie, my heart twinged. And not just because I haven’t mentally processed the fact that he’s no longer five years old and playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. (Please do not ask me why my eyes are watering. I have allergies, okay? I don’t want to talk about it). Watching him, I had a rush of nostalgia for that kind of anxious, nervous excitement.

I am not, in any way, pining for the awkward, hormonal hot mess that was high school dances. Nor am I having a “Glory Days” moment; I do not labor under the illusion that high school was the best days of our lives.  What I do miss is the time in my life when excitement was a regularly scheduled part of my calendar.

I read a thought by Tina Fey recently that the main difference between childhood and adulthood is that you are responsible for marking your own transitions. As a child, for the most part, we abide by a certain schedule of growth: moving up the grades, graduation, sometimes college. Then, we are deposited into this transition-less void. We are responsible for saying when we’re ready for another job, another opportunity, another goal. This is how so many young adults (and not-so-young adults, for that matter) end up stuck in a job, relationship, or lifestyle that they’ve outgrown.

I feel the same about celebration and excitement. We grow up surrounded by a structure of celebrations and milestones and festivities, be they high school dances or graduations or dance recitals or even just the ends of school years. Even the shyest children (me) and most awkward children (me) who might otherwise shy away from celebration are embraced by this structure. We cannot forget to celebrate life because these celebrations are pre-programmed into our calendars.

But then, we are deposited into the void. The void where we get so busy, we easily forget to mark the passage of time. The void where we might let months go by without feeling that anxious, nervous excitement that precedes a long-awaited event. Sure, we still have holidays, but at some point, holidays turn from “the most wonderful time of the year” to “the most stressful time of the year.” And the rest of the year, we get so consumed by our lives that we rarely take pause for excitement, anticipation, or celebration.

Watching my brother, I wondered, “When was the last time I felt that anxious excitement?”

I don’t labor under any dark generalizations about the “foolish joys of youth” gone by. I think grown women and men are just as capable of feeling the same giddy excitement as children. The trouble is, we forget about it, especially when we’re experiencing depression or grief.

We no longer have built-in reminders to celebrate the life that is whooshing by. We have to make our own.

This looks different for everyone. For me, this means making the effort to coordinate a reunion of geographically-scattered friends. This means forming new traditions to mark the beautiful turning of the seasons. This means going on a date(!). This means planning big, scary, awesome professional projects (!). This means celebrating random holidays with none of the attached stress (I mean, the upcoming week holds Nachos Day, Clean Up the Earth Day, and the inexplicable National Knee Day – what more do you need?).

Today, I’m off to find that giggly, anxious excitement I forgot somewhere along the road. I am making my own celebrations.

Intentions in the Real World {Day 19 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

I am very good at making promises. I’m just not quite sure what happens in the wide chasm that separates my heart from my hands and feet.

I have a whole shelf of my bookcase devoted to the genre of goal-setting. I’ve set New Year’s Resolutions and gone to rousing workshops. I write “morning pages” daily that are rife with intentions for the day ahead. My world – and the world at large – is saturated with goals, missions, intentions, visions.

For as many times as I’ve wailed “I just don’t know what to DO with my life!” I ought to make a bumper sticker out of it. But I’m beginning to question whether that’s true. Yes, perhaps I haven’t quite finished my grade-school essay on What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. Yes, I might not have completed the puzzle yet. But I sure do have a lot of pieces.

I know, for instance, what makes me feel illuminated and whole.

I know that my soul yearns for a day of waking early, writing intentionally, practicing yoga, eating more vegetables, eating less sugar, tackling meaty projects, walking outside, connecting with friends, playing the piano, and stretching before bed.

I know that I need creativity like oxygen and that any job, no matter how convenient or sexy or prestigious, that lacks space for imagination will suffocate me slowly.

I know that life always looks better on dark days after I pick up the “ten-thousand pound phone” (as Anne Lamott calls it) to call a friend.

I also know what makes me feel crummy and small.  

I know that staying in bed watching online TV episodes sucks all the life out of me.

I know that my spirit dries up if I go too long without being near the water

I know that too much sugar and caffeine leaves me feeling antsy and ill.

But all of this knowledge of my heart gets jumbled and warped and utterly destroyed on its way to my real life. At the end of the day, no matter how carefully and intentionally I’d planned it, I’m left with more the crummy and small than the illuminated and whole. I’m left feeling like I do when I pull my laundry out of the dryer. No matter what I do, no matter how meticulous I am, I’m left with a return rate of approximately 50% of the socks I’d put in. Without fail, my favorite socks are among the casualties.

Which leads me to wonder: What the hell is happening in the dryer?

Spoiler alert: The dryer is my mind.

Depression and self-doubt play dirty. They operate a lot like that dryer. My most carefully-pruned, soul-filled intentions have to go through that blasting heat and spinning maelstrom before they can emerge into the real world. And often, by the time they come out, they are so dizzy and disoriented that they are utterly useless. If they come out, that is – depression and doubt ensnare many of them with the traps of “It would be so much easier and safer to stay in bed!” or “Do you actually think you deserve to spend money on that yoga class pass?” and “What’s the point? You’re always going to be miserable anyway. Why try doing anything about it?” Those intentions never see the light of day.

For so long, I directed my energy at setting more intentions or different intentions when I failed to see change in my life. I went to more workshops, bought more books. But the problem isn’t the input. Changing the input means throwing more socks in the malfunctioning dryer. I need to fix the dryer.

For me, filling the well has meant setting very small intentions of joy and then going out and living them. Taking time to cook soup. Cleaning out my closet. Writing in the mornings. Such small victories, but miracles nonetheless.

My mind is, of course, still ensnaring many of my intentions. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t break my heart. But I am learning the boundless power of tiny, fulfilled intentions. Every time I make a small promise to myself and keep it, I chip away at a fragment of the blockage between my heart and my lived reality.

Slowly but surely, I’m fixing the dryer. Maybe I’ll find some of my favorite socks.

Be Uncool {Day 18 in 31 Days of Filling the Well}

I’d like to share a secret with you: I love ABBA. And all manner of cheesy 70s pop.

There’s more. Do you remember several years ago when the first Dark Knight movie opened after Heath Ledger’s death, and everyone and their mother went to the opening night? Well, I also happened to go to the movie theater that night, but I was shocked to see the crowds there. (Second secret: I’ve never seen a Batman movie). As we got in the massive line, I turned to my friend and said, “Wow! Do you think all these people are here for the premiere of Mamma Mia too?” The man in front of us slowly swiveled around and stared.

(For the record, I would like to ask all Dark Knight goers whether they got to sing along with their movie that night. And whether their movie ended with the entire movie theater getting up to dance to “Waterloo.” A true story.)

Really, it’s okay if you love Batman just as much as I love ABBA. In fact, that’s fantastic. My point – and I do have one – is that we do not get to choose what gives us joy. Superhero movies or cheesy 70’s pop music.

When I first started this series, I made a list of what filled my well. I wrote about the bright beams of joy that sustain me through dark days: bluebirds, milkshakes, bonfires. This list is absolutely, authentically true, and it brings me so much joy each time I look at it. At the same time, perhaps it’s not entirely…complete.

I love ABBA. And while we’re at it, I’ll clear the other musical skeletons in my closet – Meat Loaf, the soundtrack to Cats, and Hilary Duff’s debut album.  I take great joy in all manner of newspaper puzzles. Sometimes I pretend I am competing in the crosswording Olympics. Don’t even get me started about the moment of discovery of the final Jumble clue. I adore young adult literature, and I rank the fourth installment of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants among my life-changing books.

In other words, I am devastatingly “uncool.”

I also take great joy in things I ought to have “no business” enjoying – things at which I am, by all conventional means of measurement, terrible. Painting, singing, Zumba, learning Spanish – according to our success-oriented culture, I ought to be miserable with these pursuits. But I cannot get enough.

Yes, I’ve often wished I was the “kind of person” who found joy in marathon running, bar hopping, or symphony-going. I’ve watched myself construct elaborate, utterly false answers to questions about my “cool” hobbies or music tastes. More than once, I’ve feigned ignorance about Harry Potter or Broadway musicals because I wanted to keep my “uncool” card tucked away.

But cool has no place in the business of well-filling joys. Rationality has no place in that business either. The business of joy is nothing more and nothing less than our souls responding to the beautiful, silly, countercultural,, “embarrassing” things that make it sing. 

We don’t get to choose what gives us joy. We do get to choose how we respond. We get to choose whether we put our time, energy, and money toward being cool or toward responding to that inexplicable, nonsensical, joy-filled call of our souls.