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.

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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…

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.

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.

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.