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Lessons in February

On Friday, February brings fog, as if at sunrise someone exhaled “here is another day”, and their breath spread out across a sky made of cool glass. From my reading chair, I let my third cup of coffee go cold as I watch several birds swoop into view in one living room window, then in the next. Their motion is a sudden arrival and departure, rising and falling in a familiar pattern. I imagine if I cracked my skull, I might find a tiny replica of this larger scene in my brain. Low visibility. Flight of ideas. A depression fog wrapping around my thoughts and feelings like stretched out cotton balls. But I cannot choose a different brain or a different day. I must try to look beyond myself to learn whatever this day might reveal to me. So I open Anne Sexton’s Love Poems and envision the lovers searching one another’s bodies with their fingers and mouths, immersing themselves in a presently passing moment.

I arrive in each new day as unprepared and as hesitant as the day before, trying to find beauty in whatever task I’m doing against whatever background is there. I can’t choose how my depression will affect me on a given day any more than I can choose the scenery of the sky, but there is freedom in surrendering to that, in trusting myself to navigate whatever is in my head. I try to recognize that although everything outside the border of my body is beyond my control, nothing can stop me from exploring the depths of myself, the person I am, the things that I love, and the ways I might construct something positive out of the hours and scenes floating before me.

On Saturday, February brings a bright patch of sunlight that stitches itself into the quilt on my bed. Such warmth is also at breakfast in the biscuits and the gravy I pour over them. I remember it is possible to receive a day with hunger and delight. My brother and I pass the morning lazily—he sprawls on the sofa and I curl up in the recliner watching animated superheroes from our childhood engage in combat on the screen. Finishing my coffee, I sink further into the chair and think I wouldn’t mind staying in this day forever. I believe that yesterday’s bleakness was worth it if only to sweeten the goodness of today.

 

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Bringing a beautiful tone from my violin is not just as simple as drawing the bow across the string. The quality of sound depends a great deal on where I place the bow and how I grip it. I want the horse hair to rest midway between the small wooden piece that supports the strings, called the bridge, and the fingerboard. This is called the sounding point. If I lean in here and guide my arm at the right angle and the right speed, the violin will sing. But if I grip too tight, if I stiffen my arm and force it, the bow will jitter and the string will squeak. If I try too hard, I will lose control.

—–

I arrived in Dallas just before the New Year.  I had spent my last few weeks in Indiana with my grandparents while enduring a depressive episode and the side-effects of newly prescribed medications. In a blur, I wrapped up work at Meijer, visited family, and spent several long days packing and planning the drive to Texas. As I said my goodbyes, everybody wanted to know what my plans were, but I was numb to the question. I just hoped I would somehow figure all that out when I got here.

I spent most of the first month here in wonder. The newness of the apartment, the view from 12 floors up, the unspoken rules of crosswalks and elevators, and the warm city walks provided enough excitement to distract me from the suddenness and unpreparedness that had characterized my move here. But after a few job rejections and one bad interview experience, the newness of the unknowns shifted into a familiar anxiety.

—–

Before I had my first depressive episode, I was an overachiever. This was how I attempted to cope with deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. For as long as I can remember, I have felt different, disconnected, and less-than. I have some theories about where those feelings originated, including a theological background rooted in sin, and an emotionally unstable family life. But however those insecurities got in my heart and brain, I attempted to deal with them by finding all my faults, criticizing myself, and then trying my hardest to be better. And when I inevitably fell short of my own unfair expectations, when I messed up or simply wasn’t the best at everything I tried, I hated myself more and had to try even harder.

—–

Playing violin, like most challenges in life, is a paradoxical experience; I have to relax, but learning to let go is a discipline. To improve, I have to continue to undo the disruptive tension of my effort, strain, and hurry. I must replace striving and struggle with intention and repetition, the result of which is hard-earned muscle memory. This is a tactile process, guiding each finger where it should go over and over again, first slowly and then more and more quickly, until the brain and finger connect. This changes the way I practice. The time I spend with my instrument isn’t just for pleasure anymore. I have to be honest with myself, but not from a place of shame. That note is out of tune every time I play this passage. I have to observe without judgment, and then take action. I need to unlearn the old way and try something else.

—–

This week I finished reading Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. She discusses numerous studies that demonstrate how the stressors and traumas we face in our early years affect our mental and physical health even decades later. Much of the information surprised me, including the overwhelming connections between Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACE) and the likelihood of developing chronic pain or autoimmune diseases later in life. What surprised me less is that the past also influences our emotional resilience in the present day. This basically describes my life for the last seven years. But I just thought I struggled with emotions because I was weak. I didn’t know there was measurable research to confirm that repeated stress and trauma in early life disrupts connections between particular regions of our brains, including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These areas are responsible for processing fear, storing memories, and helping us analyze our thoughts before taking an action. When these regions aren’t working together as they should, it’s a recipe for ongoing emotional chaos.

—–

When I stop cleaning or reading or tweeting or scrolling through LinkedIn long enough to check in with my body, I notice that I’m clenching my jaw, that from my shoulders all the way down my back is one steady ache of stored tension. My breath is shallow and irregular. I am leaning on the right arm of the living room chair, my legs curled up, knees flopped over to the same side—folding inward, a protective stance. From my head to my toes, I am bracing myself against a relentless force that started somewhere inside me a long time ago.

—–

Nakazawa reminds her readers that we are not our past or our negative thoughts, and that with a little intentionality and faith, we can learn to look beyond all the mess of memories and emotions and find the wounded child in us who is worthy of love. And one of the best ways to begin this healing process in our body and mind is mindfulness meditation.

This was not my first exposure to this concept. In college, I had a mentor and professor who taught yoga classes. She always reminded her students not to struggle into a pose, but to accept what our body could do, and that if we got overwhelmed to keep coming back to the in and out of our breath. The practice was all about acceptance, not judgment. This ran contrary to my lifelong pattern of perfectionism and self-criticism, but I kept showing up. I knew I needed to keep showing up.

Starting my own daily practice of meditation has required a greater level of commitment to the act of showing up, but it’s been no less rewarding. I’m as drawn to the notion of noticing thoughts and feelings and letting them go as I am challenged by it. My practice, which on a good day involves five minutes of meditation in the morning and another five minutes at night before bed, is an opportunity to embrace non-judgment and forgiveness as guiding principles of my life. And it’s a simple, and as difficult, as allowing myself to sit down.

—–

When I practice my violin these days, it’s hard not to get frustrated by the technical skills I’ve lost in the nearly ten years since my last lesson. I often start in on a favorite piece, only to realize I can no longer play it. I’ll notice I’ve accidentally shifted into another key, or that my bow is sliding over the fingerboard. I can beat myself up all I want to, but that won’t make me a better violinist in the same way that shame won’t make me a better job candidate or sister or Christian or human being.

What I can do is gently place my fingers back on the string. What I can do is breathe, and stop trying so hard.

 

 

 

 

 

Silence

Monday

August 6th, 2018

I’m two days into my social media fast, and one thing is abundantly clear: I have no idea how to be quiet.

I spent the first two hours of my day in bed watching Hulu. As I finally made coffee and breakfast (at lunch time), I put in my earbuds and listened to music as loud as I could. While I ate, I listened to a podcast and texted a friend.

I love a good Hulu drama. I love hiphop and cheesy ballads. And I love podcasts and texting. But the whole reason I decided to cut myself off from my mindless and compulsive use of social media for an extended period of time is because I need some silence. The world itself is loud, and here I am creating so much noise of my own, almost without realizing it.  So to be struggling this much only two days into the month seemed a little extra pathetic, so I decided to try something new as the podcast ended and I closed out of the app.

My large cat Oscar was curled up all warm and heavy on my lap. My second cup of coffee sat unfinished next to me on the table. I can stay here, I told myself. I took a deep breath and set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes of stillness, of silence. I could probably do this.

I tried to quiet my mind, to turn the thought part of my brain off. I didn’t need sentences to experience sensory observations. I tried to just be exactly where I was without judgment or commentary. I noticed the sway of my window blinds in the corner of my eye and the soft tap of them bumping together, caught in the steady flow of air from the vent in the far wall of my apartment. I closed my eyes and felt my pulse steady and pronounced in my neck from the caffeine. Oscar twitched softly in his sleep,  opening his eyes suddenly at the sound of a particularly loud bird near the window. His eyes closed again, and I focused on the rise and fall of my belly with each breath.  Being still is hard.

I had my feet propped on a wooden dining room chair, and they began to look slightly blue due to lack of circulation. My little experiment was starting to seem like an eternity. I checked the timer on my phone. Three and a half minutes remaining. I felt myself starting to panic slightly. Just for a moment, I let my mind drift back to my church camp days.

Once a day during camp, we were encouraged to take our devotionals and Bibles off to a quiet place to study and pray. All across the grounds, students and adults sat down under big trees, lay belly down on porches near the lake, or stretched out on top bunks in cabins. Some of us had eyes closed, heads bowed. Others, like me, took a more open-eyed anxious approach. I remember spending most of that time wondering if I was doing it all right. That feeling came rushing back to me now. If I had nothing to report afterwards, was it really worth it? You don’t have to share any of this, a voice within me seemed to say. Just wait.

I began to accept that the remaining time would pass without any huge revelations. The timer startled me back to my dining room table, and I sat for a few more moments in silence. I laughed softly to myself, feeling crazy because I didn’t know what to do next. And then, just for a moment, I felt like I was about to cry.

In the absence of my go to distractions like music, lengthy facebook status updates, or snap chat videos, I was overcome with my unfamiliarity with true peace and stillness. Two years living alone, and I’d never let myself truly know it. I was overwhelmed by my disconnect from others, my inability to pray for more than a few seconds, and all the traumas I thought I’d processed, but maybe had only watched through the distorted lens of my own writing and social media posts.

In the days to come, I plan to continue this new practice of stillness without expectation. Just to see where it takes me. Maybe there’s no quick way to get everything back together. In fact, I’m sure there’s not. But I think learning to be alone, to shut my mind off long enough to actually feel a true feeling or experience an actual experience is probably a good foundation for all the other work I have before me.

“Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace always in every way. The Lord be with you all.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16

 

Trying On Courage: A Father’s Day Reflection

My mind is abuzz with many intersecting topics on this Father’s Day because as many of you know and have witnessed through the last several years, my relationship with my dad has been pretty complicated. I write this with so much compassion and tenderness for the many people I know who are without a father today. I pray that I write this with grace and humility in a way that brings hope to any of you dealing with the pain of absence, abuse, addiction, or grief. I believe healing happens in many ways. This has just been my particular experience of healing.

As I grew up, I generally felt no emotional connection to my dad. We rarely hugged or talked one on one. The exception was when he would share his hobbies with me. He spent many hours each week in a factory, so in his down time he enjoyed being outside hunting or training his dogs. He would take me to shoot skeet at the gun range with him or run our bird dogs. I still remember the whoosh of the pheasants breaking free from the brush where the dogs had pointed. Then the pop of his shot gun. The crack as he twisted the birds’ neck and stuffed them into the pocket of his bright orange safety vest. We walked spread out, our boots crunching to their own rhythms. We would drive home in his pickup truck, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking about faith or the confusing parts of life. There was a quiet distance between us, but I liked trying to know him more, even if it was scary sometimes.

From my father I also learned about the spectrum of human emotion. I saw him laugh and cry, yell and whisper, but most of the time he had a darkness around him. Even as a child, long before my own therapy sessions and knowledge of mental health, I saw a man who was deeply lonely, angry, restless. It ate him alive. He is one of the smartest people I know, gifted and in many ways self-taught, as he never finished his college education. But he always seemed to feel trapped in a job he hated, constantly worried about providing for his kids and wife, yet never really making that interpersonal connection them. It’s no wonder to me now that he drank, even that he was drinking long before I ever realized it. He carried that secret with him, hating himself, still alone and afraid. I used to be angry that he was an alcoholic, but now it just makes me sad he went through it by himself.

He had divorced and remarried before ever getting any help for his addiction. His wife forced him to go to rehab to save his life. She told him to dump out all his bottles, but he told me he dumped them down his throat instead. (Recovery humor is weird, guys.)  He said getting sober was actual hell. His addiction was so severe that getting sober meant facing DTs under medical supervision before he could even go to inpatient rehab. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, the guilt that descended on him more and more as his mind returned and he had to face the person he had been. He wanted to be better, but as I had to learn for myself, getting your life back together after living in addiction is very disorienting. And even the best efforts can still end with failure–something a lot of people don’t understand.

My dad had just gotten out of rehab for the second time when he came to pick up me up the day I got kicked out of my own rehab program for snorting pills. My mom was too angry to deal with me at the time, but he was calmer than I’d ever seen him. For the first time in my life, I truly understood him in a different way. I had messed up in rehab, but I’d still spent a lot of time facing my troubled relationship with him, as well as admitting how similar we were. The anger, the fear, the loneliness, just wanting to be numb. We understood each other through the lens of recovery in a deep way. I felt myself beginning to forgive him long before I was ready to forgive myself.

We went to AA meetings together for awhile before I got lost in my addictions again. He knew but didn’t judge. The truth is I had judged him so harshly for his drinking, yet even two years out of rehab I wasn’t ready to really be sober myself yet. I was too scared. I don’t know for sure if he relapsed after that second rehab stay, but even if he did, I celebrate his courage for not stopping there. The courage to self-identify as an alcoholic after years of denying and hiding. The courage to keep trying. That matters to me far more than the number of days he went without a drink.

I also celebrate my own courage today. The courage to keep the lines of communication open with him, to let him hug me and give his input on my medical school plans, even if we don’t see eye to eye, because I know that by giving him a chance, I’m offering him a different quality of life. I celebrate my courage to forgive the things he said and did when he was drinking in the same way I forgive myself for the person I was when I was ruled by my own addictive behaviors. We still often don’t connect in the ways I wish we would, but he’s in my life now, and I want him there. Today we continue to walk our own paths in the brush, but this time in the grace of second and third and fourth chances. This time we walk in the grit it takes to look in the mirror and see both our goodness  and our ugliness, to own it, and then to carry on anyway.

Unglued

The automatic door swung open just in time for my body to slip through. I tugged at my coat zipper, jerking it all the way up to my chin, then balled my hands into fists and shoved them in my pockets. My breath came in shaky, shallow bursts. And right there on the sidewalk outside Meijer, I wept.

To anyone passing by, I might have looked like I’d gotten a call about a death in the family. Or maybe that someone had stolen my wallet at gun point. But the truth? The truth was that I didn’t really know why I was so upset.

I’ve had several similar “episodes” in the last few months, and they’re almost always at work. They’re almost always when I’m with people. Anything seems to trigger them: a snippy customer, a manager disagreeing with me, an innocent text from my mother that I’ve read too much into. When I’m cashiering, I look down at screaming toddlers begging for a Snicker bar and see myself. Coming unglued, having a meltdown, losing my shit—whatever phrase works best. That’s what I do. That’s how I am.

When the feelings pass, I’m physically exhausted. I sit in my car watching the window defrost or pace from the couch to the kitchen to my bed to the door. I try to pick up the pieces of myself, grasping at ideas and emotions and memories like the stray items of clothing scattered around my apartment. I put away my phone and close the blinds, journaling or soaking in a hot bath or binging on cookies as I go over everything all over again. I pick at my skin and my eyebrows. I turn the music up loud in my ears and dance. I crawl on hands and knees through my apartment picking up loose change. I masturbate. I wander into the grocery store in the middle of the night, sweaty and head pounding, looking for something sugary. I text a friend. What the fuck is wrong with me? And then it’s over. The light around me changes and it’s a new day and I’m sipping coffee and I’m hoping for the best and I’m clocking into another day of work. And so the cycle goes. When I fall out of routine, I fall apart.

When I was in rehab, my days were organized around much different patterns. (And I fucking miss those patterns). I was always with others, awake and talking and thinking and writing from 6 am until nearly 11pm, seven days a week for three weeks. With the exception of a single hour of individual counseling each week, every single emotion had to be addressed and processed publically. Our secrets keep up sick. The staff taught us to communicate. And not in the ways we were used to. Instead of storming in and out of conversations or lighting up or pouring a drink, we had to learn to say what we meant, even if we said it imperfectly. In group therapy sessions, when someone asked how we were doing, we were forbidden to use general words. Ok, fine, I’m good. Bullshit.  Our daily and weekly chore rotation taught us to depend on each other. If the shower drains were clogged with hair, somebody had to answer for it. If somebody left their personal items in personal space, we all suffered the consequences.

Maybe some of this stuff sounds pretty basic. Like many of my peers, I grew up in a home with lots of rules and expectations. I was supposed to make my bed and take my laundry in every day. None of this stuff was new knowledge after two years of heavy drinking. But it also kind of was. Active addiction disrupts some of our most basic instincts. Cleanliness, promptness, and awareness of others aren’t mind-blowing concepts for healthy people, but they were to me. I had to relearn the simple ritual of sitting at a table three meals a day. I had to relearn to shower and wear clean clothes. And I had to relearn to laugh and cry sober. Apparently I’m still learning most of that stuff.

Six days out of the week, my kitchen sink is full of dishes, the litter boxes reek, my bed isn’t made, and most of my clothes are dirty. I’m also usually consumed by some form of moodiness or frustration. But the good news is that I sleep 8 hours most nights and shower most mornings. I take a multivitamin and drink at least one glass of milk every day. I’m not spending $50 dollars or more each week on weed. I’m not lying or cheating. I’m mostly just cleaning and reading, petting my cats or watching movies. I spend less time reliving hard moments from my past and more time imagining what the future will be like. And that doesn’t mean things are easy or that I’m doing especially well. I have less than a dollar in my bank account and there’s way too much cat hair on my work uniform. But the way I see it, anytime I’m in the present moment at least trying to deal with my feelings or thoughts is a moment I’m actually living. And I guess that’s a pretty cool thing. We’re all a little rough around the edges. And we’re all a little unglued.

Just For Today: An Update

My life doesn’t look much different from the outside. I still wear an ugly red polo at the same old job. I still don’t have very much (or any) in my savings account, and even after spending three months in Lithuania, my reading and writing skills are still in the English language.

But on the inside, my interior is even more complicated. I’ve been through a lot of change in a really short time. Many people don’t know that I was actually sent home early from Lithuania because of my drinking. And then I went to rehab for 21 days before I was sent home for abusing a prescription medication. Then, shortly after getting home, I spent another evening with wine before I showed up to an AA meeting the next day to pick up my fourth startover chip in 2 months. Now, according to an app on my iPhone, I’ve been sober from alcohol and other drugs for 7 days. I switched cigarettes for vaping and AA fresh brew for the moscato I loved so much. I take Wellbutrin instead of Vyvanse and a sleeping medication instead of abusing Bendadryl or taking one too many Melatonin tablets before bedtime. Some people call this sobriety. I call it really fucking hard.

Much to everyone’s confusion and disappointment, I have not graduated from IWU; I haven’t even finished all my classes from the fall semester of my senior year. I’ve spent many a late night with a pen in hand scribbling out the questions I would ask of God about how I got to where I am. Why can’t I finish anything? Why do I isolate myself over and over again? The answer is simple: I’m a flawed human being with a lot of hurts. But I’m also capable of healing and growth. And even though it’s been ugly and imperfect, that’s what the setbacks and outright failures of the last year have been about. Before I was really ready to recognize that I was a person with an illness and in need of help, I could not start getting better.

In rehab, we used the word insanity to describe our illness and our thought patterns. I was insane when I got in my car to drive after I had a bottle of wine. I was insane when I got angry with the treatment facility when they told me I couldn’t use my vyvanse anymore. I was insane when I romanticized my own pain as I stood dark and cold on the coast of the Baltic Sea. I was insane to think I was too good to ask for help.

Rehab also taught me that if I keep trying, if I take things one day at a time, the mental obsession over drinking and using I once had will be lifted. Who or what exactly does that lifting is really outside the scope of my understanding, but I know there’s gotta be some power greater than me at work in this world and in my life. Most of the time, I find that at the tables of AA meetings. The group is smarter, more loving, and more prepared than I am on my own. Admitting that has taken courage and humility—two things I haven’t had much of for quite some time now. The first step is showing up. The second is drinking the coffee and admitting when it sucks–when all of it sucks.

In the rooms of AA, posters say things like Easy does it! and First things first! At first I was furious. These sayings are terribly cliché and just plain obnoxious. Like who the fuck do these people think they are using kindergarten phrases at me when I have the culture shock and the anxiety that naturally accompanies the early days of sobriety? But the truth is that “these people” have ruined their lives far worse than I did mine, and they learned the hard way that all they had was today to do the most good they could. I should have asked myself who the fuck I thought I was to try to quit drinking on my own.

I’ve come to find freedom in the 24 hours I have. I find freedom, crazy as it sounds, in the idea of taking simple steps in the right direction. Staying sober is only the beginning. My journey out of wreckage and into a group of like-minded people is about finding myself and my will to live again. I’m not afraid of being ordinary anymore. I’m much more afraid of being a lonely drunk.

Here’s to to today.

“We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  Step 2, Alcoholics Anonymous

The time of my life…and depression

When I told people I was going to study abroad in Lithuania, the reaction was always the same:

“You are going to have so much fun!”

or

“That’s a once in a lifetime experience—soak it up!”

or

“You’re going to learn so much.”

 

And all of those people were right. This is so much fun. This is an experience I probably won’t ever have again. And I have learned so much.

But what those people don’t know (and what I hadn’t expected), was to be so far from home and all of my problems, and still somehow be more depressed, anxious, and lost than I’ve ever been.

This is part of the story no one wants to hear. The pictures I post on facebook are happy. The jokes I tell in class are (sometimes) funny. But, as I’ve told some of my closest friends, inside I feel hollow and empty, like heavy cotton balls have replaced my heart and my brain.

The problem with depression is we can’t always explain it. I could sit down and tell you every sad thing that’s ever happened to me, but that’s not the depression. The depression is the part that makes me numb—the part that makes me drink alone or stand in a freezing cold smoke hut in the middle of the night, trying to feel something, anything. One day last week I got in my bed and tried to make myself cry, but nothing. Depression is nothing.

Or sometimes I feel the sadness getting closer and I get so scared that I run. Like yesterday, when I got out of bed without brushing my teeth or changing my clothes and just got on a bus. And when I missed my stop, I just kept sitting there until the bus driver said, “Viskas.” That’s all. I said, “Oh ok, viskas.” And then I got off the bus in a part of town I’d never seen before. And I wasn’t even scared. Depression is being lost and not giving a single fuck. Depression is wondering into a grocery store and buying the first thing I see, just so I have something to hold onto.

Every night at a house across the street from my dorm, a German shepherd  barks for hours, over and over again. It’s so pointless. Sometimes I feel the same way, like my whole life is just a bunch of noise playing on repeat. But on the outside, I smile and laugh. I pretend that everything inside is still in order. But actually, inside is chaos, cold like the Lithuanian nights that set that dog to barking and barking and barking.