“Be kind. Every one is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
(quote source, a matter of debate)
If I could use the analogy of a coin for the 365 days that just passed, I’d say 2014 and 2015 are exactly opposite sides of that coin. The situations on the list would run off the page and the heads/tails contrast is defined and identifiable, even if most surface observers see nothing out of the ordinary. Last year at this time I was operating in the daze of shock, experiencing repeated grief and devastation more like an incessant faucet than a sudden flood. My mind filled like a jar, drop by drop, as the winter passed. My anxieties rose as stress evolved and I panicked frequently watching as the levels being stored continued to rise. Spring inclined; then, summer heat radiated into blinding, blistering, boiling inescapable tension, almost all within my own mind as I was able to cope less and less. I didn’t merely spill from the overfill; I broke.
The details of these situations are not as important as the impact that they had. In fact, that is one of my insights from the year. We all can experience overwhelming times in our lives and chances are the more family members and the more abundant our blessings, the more opportunities there are for stress. I have 3 teenagers and an elementary age son, a second marriage, a full time job; there’s lots of room just right there for stress. Children are not always healthy, relationships experience strain, job are lost and found. And that’s just the tip of the obvious iceberg of possibilities in everybody’s lives, mine included. It isn’t necessary (or even beneficial) for me to overshare, describe, or divulge the drama happening in the wings, amid the curtains and props where no one can really see. The truth is, we all have it, regardless of the personas we send out to perform on stage. The distractions ruin, rather than support, the story of our lives. I’ve come to realize that real transparency and honesty comes through decluttering that back stage, by cleaning house once in awhile, and by understanding our lives are not monologues. We need interaction. Feedback is good. Response is healthy. The result of this work is that our best, most true self is the only one we nurture and send out into the world.
I thought I knew this before. This is the age of Oprah. I’ve been to therapy. I read. But until my 41st year I was not fully aware at how good I’d become at pretense. At filtering myself. At blending in like a chameleon in order to hide my true self. Which makes a shaky foundation upon which to handle life’s stress. If you know me, and you didn’t know I was suffering, that just goes to show how great at hiding I’d become.
“Here’s the thing about hiding. You can get so good at it that you are even hidden from yourself.” -Joy, the movie, 2015
In August, I dropped all my boxes. To use another metaphor, they tumbled down the stairs, cracked open, almost knocked me down. Have you ever had that moment when you are absolutely positive you can not handle one. more. thing? That was me. I’d reached capacity; my eyes teared involuntarily. They just leaked out of my fogged and puffy eyes. As they say, an “all system breakdown” was underway. I was physically sick, emotionally overwhelmed, spiritually numb, and losing my ability to pretend otherwise. I startled, flinched, panicked, feared, dreaded and measured survival in small increments. ODAT, but they weren’t good ones. I was also exhausted from having to pretend. Even if I stooped to pick up the box contents scattered all over the floor, the container to put them in and the arms that used to carry it all, was no longer whole enough to do so.
And then a couple of things happened. First, I got a new therapist immediately. As a survivor of domestic violence in my first marriage, which legally ended 8 years ago, I’d been in years of talk therapy with great therapists for whom I’m very grateful. Except for one relieving EMDR session, most of this served as a place to vent, unload, and get some temporary relief. But I didn’t have the strength for more of that; the backstory alone would have crushed my finger-held grip on the edge. However, my new therapist specialized in PTSD and some cognitive behavioral techniques that I’d never tried, one of which works very well with those able to easily access their emotions. Mine were spilling everywhere, which made me an excellent candidate for treatment.
Next came a change in how I spent my time, as my therapist insisted now was the time to reach out and strap on my own oxygen mask and breathe, before helping others. That airplane analogy is very vivid for me. I have a compulsive, thoroughly ingrained codependent tendency to put myself dead last. Not second, not third; last at the end of a long line of family members and friends and obligations. It was killing me. Changing the order of my priorities was top of the list in the triage appointment and I wasn’t in any shape to argue.
Third, two of my friends posted they were going to do the 100 Happy Days Project in time to finish the last 100 days of the year happy and grateful. Something about this idea deeply spoke to my squashed spirit, the part of me that needed some hope at the end of the hard work. I’m a visual, story based person and I like goals and projects. I tweaked it a little for my purposes and signed on. It became integral to my work. The opening question is, “Can you be happy for 100 Happy Days?” I knew that if I could find some way to be happy during this specific 100 days, I needed to. It was a challenge I needed to meet.
What would it mean to look back at the evidence that I’d been happy for 100 days in a row? What would it mean to me to have visible proof of happiness for that length of time?
I had to know.
And so, the work began. I went to therapy. I got up every day wondering what my happy moment would be. I trusted it would happen. I uncovered memories I’d buried, discovered connections once welded together in my mind. We released the chains. I made amends with my relationships. Others made them to me. I let others do their own work. I stopped relating their work to me. I stopped taking everything personally. The flip side of last year is a contrast in almost every way.
I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m creative, fulfilled, content, calm. When I’m not, I know how to find out why and I’m learning (still learning!) what to do about it. The work was working.
As I got to to the end of the line, the last 9 days of my 100 Happy Days, I started getting nervous. I started anticipating the loss of the anchor of the project and the accountability of it. There is new territory ahead, kind of like when someone is learning to swim and it’s time to let go of the wall of the pool. On Christmas Eve morning I got up early, ran my sprints (a new habit about 90 faithful days old), and I sat down on our dock with my notebook. The inventory that resulted is work I’m proud of. I could not have written with sincerity and belief a day before this year.
The Life Changing Magic of What I Learned in 2015:
- I’ve had my children for half of my life. The season is changing; the signs of this started a long time ago. Denial and sadness that drags on is not useful. It’s time to, “remember the me that was me before we became we.” –Julie Bogart.
- I am now the girl who “gets up early to run”, even on holidays that fall on weekdays, even on weekends, and this is something I do almost always, not only sometimes. I am really a morning person after all, because I like to spend time with myself before the day becomes dominated by anyone else’s needs. The kind of running I do is fast. It is fast and short because I have fun when I sprint. I’m totally fine not earning a distance sticker like, “13.1” or “26.2” for my car. I run dashes of 25, 50, 100 yards over and over. I don’t pace myself. All of this repetitive goal accomplishment is a very strong way to start my day.
- I have an intense interest in story, film, theater and books. These hours are some of my favorite spent. It’s a satisfying use of my time and actually is food for my spirit.
- I also interpret what happens in my life through Story. I have the power over the story I tell. Stories reveal beliefs, reinforce feelings, and trigger emotions. This means feeling shitty is optional. When I feel shitty, it’s time to change the story.
- Feelings are chemicals. Chemicals can get out of whack for lots of reasons. When they are off-kilter, it’s better if I identify why, rather than stroke or simmer the feeling stew bubbling on the stove. I can avoid bad chemical reactions by understanding recipes and by following instructions, by turning down the heat or by remembering what works and what does not.
- The worst part of depression and generalized anxiety is how physically ill it can make a body, and how often it’s only diagnosed in retrospect. Those physical symptoms are real and current Medicine is devoted to the expensive exploration of symptoms.
- Busyness is an instrument of avoidance. A depressed, stressed person wielding that weapon will push people away because it is too hard to allow them to come close. This is counter-productive to health but it does not seem so at the time. I’m very grateful to my loved ones who were there waiting when I learned I could put the weapon down and come back to them.
- Guilty people blame others. Anytime there is blame, there is guilt that is being projected, dumped, vented, and used as a shield. Blame is a waving blood red flag signalling something lies beneath. The source of the guilt and shame may have nothing to at all with the person being blamed. Blame is not the same thing as responsibility. Shame destroys relationships and creates impotence. Defensive people have been blamed a lot; they may have had to contain so much misplaced shame that they reverberate, shake, or become brittle and crack, like once pliant rubber that dries and crumbles in the hot summer sun. I have been part of all the above.
- Here’s the thing about PTSD: the trauma is in the past, the symptoms are happening now. It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened; time is almost irrelevant. In the brain, experiences link to experiences, they connect and compound and sometimes smaller traumas attach onto larger ones, much the same way a garbage pile accumulates mass. Left to rot, trauma will eat away entire sections of the soul. Surface platitudes are as effective as swatting flies. Trauma must be cleared out and away before anything living can grow in its place.
- Knowing what you want is a stone foundation. Don’t try to build on anything else. Decisions are the walls of the house; the occupants and furnishings are the consequences from choices made. It has taken a lot of work but I now remember what I want, who I want, and why. If I’m having a hard time making a decision, it’s probably because I don’t know what I really want, and that is probably because I haven’t given myself room, space, time, or food to think. As a child I was very definite in what I thought and wanted and my needs were very basic. I need to listen to her more.
- Hip flexors. Psoas major. Obliques. When these muscles spasm and cramp and clench and pulse and lock, which they can do for months at a time,…it feels like nausea, gas, appendicitis, colitis, an ulcer, and worse. The last resort from the medical establishment, when they can find nothing else wrong, will be natural methods of pain management. Therein lies the cure. Yoga’s Warrior poses, physical therapy at the chiropractor to release muscle knots and tension, sitting less/walking more, and cognitive behavior therapeutic techniques to clear trauma and anxiety…these all address that kind of stomach pain and they all are preferable to unnecessary radiation and expensive testing, pharmaceuticals, gluten free and other elimination diets, or living with chronic, undiagnosed illness. My warrior pose is wobbly because I’d gotten out of practice. I sometimes fall. I get back up and it unlocks my pain. I like the metaphor.
- Clearing trauma means there’s no longer a need to self medicate with anything. The desire for excess food or drink, distraction, background noise, laziness and procrastination…goes away. Contentment, moderation, and knowing what is “enough” takes its place.
- There’s a significant difference between “learning how to be married to someone” and “learning how to be married with someone.” In my case, the different experiences are embodied in the two men I married. I need to mind my prepositions. Not just, “with” and not “to” but, also “beside” and not “beneath”; “via” and not “versus”. One of the things I want from my lifetime is to learn how to be married well. A love story is a fertile seed but planting it is not enough. Nurturing the growth is up to us. I will not say to the rain, “why did you fall?” I will not say to the sun, “why did you shine?” I will help shelter the plant, offer it shade, wrap it in warmth to protect from the freeze. It takes work but the fruit is good.
- Use a paper calendar. I love how my Google calendar syncs up and sends reminders but there really isn’t any app or digital technique that beats a paper, hand written, month-at-a-glance calendar for my organization and presence of mind. I remember things better if I write them down. And, I have a new trick for making sure I schedule in enough solo and social time! I attach a sticky note on the first page of each month’s calendar with a list of names and activities I want to be sure I do. During the first week, I spend time getting everything scheduled. This means I have had coffees with friends, met for lunch, thrown parties, gone for walking meetings, went to a gallery opening and two plays, and taken personal time alone.
Goals for 2016:
- Write real letters. I want to write ordinary letters on paper by hand. I’ll write to friends who live far away because we are not near enough to have lunch and because technology is filled with much blather.
- Enter my stories in more contests.
- Continue the novels. I have one with the second draft at 75% and another in the planning stages, pre-outline. In 2016 I want the first one complete, which might mean making it a screenplay, and the second one through a fleshed out first draft.
- Work my ass off. My career is in a great, exciting place where I’m challenged and creative, trusted and flourishing. It’s time to dig in with gratitude and devotion.
- Travel, hike, and try new things. Something new every month.