One Small Step for Man…

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

When you really think about it, what a powerful statement that is! What a true and quite often unnoticed truth it is, too. Many scenarios rapidly come to mind when I think of practical examples of this and it’s been something flowing through the last few weeks of thoughts for me. I have been working with an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist over the last year and a half and this recently came up in conversation. When we are experiencing big feelings or what feels like overwhelming tasks or life circumstances, it is very often a small choice that can, over time, make a big difference. For example, with ACT therapy, there’s significant focus on one’s personal values and learning to make decisions based upon those values. Over my time in therapy and as I really began to highlight my values and what that looked like in my little life, they often led to rather small shifts in my everyday choices. I struggled and felt silly when I found myself discussing with a therapist something as insignificant as the snooze button on my alarm, but now more clearly than ever am I really seeing what “small steps” can do for my purposeful living.

Let me explain the snoozing and how a delightful domino effect can happen. As I spent time reflecting on my personal values, a particular area that landed at the top was my parenting and being as present as possible for my children. Digging a little deeper, that leads to practical examples such as creating more opportunities to be able to actually look them in the eye, giving them my undistracted attention when I’m not washing dishes, on my phone, rushing to get myself dressed, etc. This led to the very simple, but oh so difficult for me choice dating back to circa 1990, which is waking up in the morning to an alarm at a reasonable hour that allows for dressing and eating in a civilized manner. This may sound foreign to those of you who are actual grown-ups and don’t still act like a 13-year-old in the morning, but that damn snooze button is my arch enemy and causes me to wear my hair in a ponytail 362 days of the year, bark at my children to get up and find their other shoe, do a lot of sweating getting loaded up in the car and possibly tempt speeding to school. I am not present on those mornings. However, when I PRACTICE making a simple shift in my choices and drag myself from the bed to the bathroom when the alarm goes off, I then have the option of having a cup of coffee in quiet, matching my socks or accessories with my underwear, helping kids with breakfast and sitting down with them while they eat, and just plain feeling better and ready to face the day. I could go on and on with ways that the dominos continue throughout the day, but you can likely imagine that it leads to meeting other personal value goals like productivity, creativity, etc.

What led me to begin typing this morning is another small change I’ve been recently working on (and failing a lot on, too) is that dang social media habit! The brain and fingertip mindlessly tap on the app and suck me into a vortex of time-sucking, productivity-wasting, and guilt. That’s a bit dramatic, but something I despise nonetheless. It continues to come up in therapy as a frustration for me and at this last appointment, we set a very simple goal to try. I’m (supposed) to quickly set a 5-minute timer on my phone right before opening a social media app. When it goes off, I choose to take two slow breaths and then decide if I want to keep scrolling. It’s my choice at that point, of course, but it gives me a small window to assess whether I’m enjoying the scrolling as a mental break or if it’s mindless and unhelpful. Maybe this sounds silly, but this very small, seemingly insignificant choice, can potentially help me with living my life focused more on my values of productivity, mindfulness with my faith, self-care of my mental and physical health, being more present and available with my dear children, creativity projects, renewing my love of reading, etc.

This message and encouragement goes for big and small goals. Have a disaster of a mess in your house? Start with one thing. One thing at a time. Feeling the overwhelm of weight gain or emotional discomfort? You get to choose to start with one small thing. In the mental health world, the phrase used for helping those struggling with depression to find health and routine again is called Behavioral Activation. It was certainly one of the hardest pieces for me when my depression was heavy because you simply “don’t want to” to the nth degree because it feels almost painful to take the first step, but it is the first step that slowly leads to the feeling of hope that we desperately want. Wherever you are today, whether that be in the depths of frustration or simply aware of an annoying habit, set a tiny goal with realistic expectations of the classic “one step forward, two steps back” and keep going.

In Honor of My Father

My Dad passed away a few days ago. My stomach does a bit of a churn when I write it. With only a few days past receiving the news, I feel all sorts of feelings and I can imagine those will ebb and flow with bursts of tears for some time to come. I have so much to say, but then want to say nothing at all. One thing is certain, I want so very badly to give him another hug or say goodbye. That’s the most painful part for me right now and it just makes me feel so very sad and the tears feel like they’ll never stop once they start. The finality of death is alarming once it’s here. It’s feels a little panicky. Of course, I just wish I had more time.

I know my Dad loved me so much. Because of childhood pain and trauma that I couldn’t even begin to understand, he hurt. Because of genetic susceptibility to anxiety and depression, my Dad hurt. Because of unfortunate major health problems and chronic pain, my poor Dad hurt. With all of these factors combined, along with the challenges of life in general, it’s been so very difficult for him. Because of his natural pride and feelings of defeat, he didn’t know how to accept help or engagement from the people that loved him the most. It’s been terribly painful and frustrating to see him withdrawal over the years from the potential of a fulfilling life. His friends have missed him so much. I have felt utterly heartbroken over the joy he’s missed through his grandchildren. He was absolutely crazy about them, but pain can create an unintentional mile-high wall. He expressed his emotions, thoughts and memories through email over the last few years, so it is without hesitation that I know his love for us.

To know my real, true, deep-down Dad/Tim/Timmy/Vito/TR/Grampy was to positively love him. My Dad was witty, incredibly giving and compassionate. My brother and I would agree what we may miss the most is this small part of him that would peek out at rare times over the years and make us have deep giggles. His humor was so clever. I miss it so much. He modeled hard work and because of that hard work, my husband and I were able to take over the business that he and my mom created decades ago. He was immensely proud of this and I’m so thankful for it. Just yesterday I had the honor of meeting with the women in our office and sharing with them that responsibility and honor of creating a strong future for our business with honor and character. I know it would make him very proud.

My brother and I were able to make a visit to see our Dad just a month before he passed away. Of course, we are incredibly thankful for that opportunity. We could tell that his physical health was in bad shape and declining, but not expecting his death would come so soon. It nourished his spirit to have us there and oh, how I wish we could go back and do it again and stay longer. The things I would say or not say, the last hug I would give him; to have the chance to hold on tighter or longer. As I heard myself praying aloud just a few hours after learning he passed, I asked God to hold him so tight, to let him know with everything inside that he is so loved and safe. To think that he is with his brother and mother again brings me bits of joy. I love you so much, Dad.

Dear reader, you may be wondering why I mentioned his pain rather than just honor his memory in solely a positive light. My brother and I both feel very strongly that life struggles, whether that be mental health, addiction, trauma, etc., not be masked or ignored, but rather have light shine on them so they are not as scary, intimidating, or embarrassing. Life is hard. Circumstances can feel overwhelming. No one should ever feel alone and it is never too late to accept a helping hand. There is always, always hope. To you I say: Do speak the words you want to say. Do seek forgiveness, if needed. Hold on to the hugs just a bit longer. Accept the helping hand. Look for the silver beneath the tarnish. You are loved.

You Make Me Happy When Skies Are GRAY

“I like to start my notes to you as though we’re already in the middle of a conversation.” (Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail) It is true. I’d like this place to be one where I take an idea and run with it, without any care that I may sound like a babbling idiot. We all have random thoughts and ideas we find ourselves wondering and because I have this outlet of a blog, I often think, “I should write about that!” Ask me 4 hours later and that thought is long gone, hence the few and far between posts. However, today I picked up my laptop to ramble. In a very tender children’s chapter book called, “The Tale of Despereaux”, the author uses the phrase, “Dear Reader” at different points in the story and it feels as though she’s sitting right next to you as the story develops. I read that book years ago with my students and it’s stuck with me. What a cozy feeling.

So, Dear Reader, I wonder where you are as you read. How are you feeling? Do you have trouble brewing in your heart or gut? Maybe a heaviness you can’t pinpoint? Or, you may be feeling light today. Oh, I hope so! That feeling is notably better than the latter. I very often feel a smattering of both and although I like to have things in better “order” than that, I’m trying to work at letting feelings come and go as they please.

If you are new to this blog, I have a history of intense anxiety that eventually led to a correct diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Along with depression struggles, it’s been an uphill climb at times. I feel hopeful though. While at the beginning of my struggles my number one goal was just feel better and beat myself up because I couldn’t “snap out of it”, today I see more clearly that no one lives in a black and white world with any success. Last year I jumped on the Word of the Year train and found it to be quite encouraging, so this year I chose the word, GRAY. Having OCD, my brain wants nothing more for things to be in order or to feel “just right”. This word reminds me that my thoughts, feelings, habits, relationships, weight, digestion, confidence, behavior, and even the weather are ever-changing! I can sub-consciously try to keep all my ducks in a row, but it’s inevitable that one or two will waddle off track.

Do you think you have any spaces where you are placing unrealistic expectations? Are you giving yourself a hard time for things that you think you “should” have in order? Here are a few phrases that you could try adding in to your inner dialogue (because there are very likely negative thoughts that fly through without you even knowing!): “Well, I don’t feel very good/just how I want to feel, but I’ll let that sit next to me while I carry on.”, “That feels really frustrating! Anyone would feel that way, but it doesn’t have to rule me right now.”, “I wish I hadn’t eaten that, but I’ll have a glass of water and try to remember next time that I don’t like this feeling.”, “This feels yucky, but experience shows me that it will pass in time, so I’ll give it space and focus on what I value in this moment.”

Virtual Hugs. Love, Emily

Failure During Advent

I’ve failed a lot during this Advent season. I think it feels different than failure on a Tuesday in June, but I think I’m seeing it’s been mostly in a good way. Call it depression or my “natural” perfectionistic tendencies (and the OCD part of my brain is dying to give it a label), but Emily is generally not Emily’s #1 fan. So, when I set a goal, particularly one that is based in my faith, failure feels yuckier. With this Advent, I chose to pause my social media activity to try and quiet things, had a book that I hoped to consistently read with the kids, and other lovely goals. Failure happens all the time though and my fears and internal critic tells me I’m not going to get the hang of this, I’m no good at self-control or focus, comparing myself to other moms, etc. 

In the midst of one of my brain’s sucker punching sessions, I saw the benefit of failing during Advent. It gives a clear chance to see the greatness of God’s character in why He came in human form and was wrapped in swaddling clothes being laid in a manger. God is Love. Perfect Love. Compassionate and Never-Ending Love. Not only did I see the opportunity of giving up something during Advent, as most do during Lent, in order to pause and think on Him, but it also happened as I stumbled and failed; when my self-control and self-discipline were majorly lacking. I’m not good enough, at least in my own eyes, but I GET TO rest in Him. You and I can choose to believe that He sees us differently than we see ourselves. I want to do better and still find myself desiring a magical (AKA perfect) holiday season filled with cozy, reflective moments (cue the scene of me gazing out the window at the snow falling as I cradle a steaming mug of warmth in my hands), but yet again, I’m ever aware of the crummy parts of reality that greatly hinder my dramatics and wish for perfection. 

So, as my failures led to my perspective changing a bit, I was appreciative of and more apt to welcome the combination of joy and disappointments over the last couple of weeks. Christmas this year was met with lots of green snot, dog poo tracked in the house, and crispy, brown evergreen trees, but also with fun movie nights, ping pong championships, and cold weather in Florida that actually required sweaters! As I’ve written about before and likely will each year as this form of blogging expression continues, life is hard and rotten at times, but we can practice making space for the disappointment, but also choose to look for the beauty peaking about in this life. 

Peace to you, dear reader. You are loved. You are not forgotten. 

Would Ya Look at That View!

Right now I’m sitting in a cozy chair with one of the most beautiful views in my hometown. My in-laws live in a stunning home on the river with spacious windows that allow you to see the river out back (does that sound like a real estate listing description, or what?) 

I feel almost completely content and generally hopeful. Because of its rarity and because my brain is usually busier, I do not take this for granted. I’ve sat here many times before and this morning, I’m reflecting on just how terribly awful I’ve felt during those times. As you know, often and disappointingly so, the yucky times tend to nab a more prominent part in our memory bank. 

We are here this morning because our home has just been put on the market and we’re staying out of the way this weekend to keep it tidy. Ironically, the emotional and mental breakdown I had sixteen years ago occurred in this beautiful home. While my in-laws were living in their seasonal home, we briefly moved in here while our home was being built. Upon moving in, I wrote a joyful journal entry expressing all I hoped to accomplish and in which creative outlets I planned to dabble. Quite drastically the next entry spoke of complete confusion and misery. Just like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, “my life got flipped, turned upside down” and constant, intense anxiety ruled every hour. 

I feel uneasy as I type because of how sensitive I am to those memories. My OCD wants me to stop typing it for fear that “it’ll come back”. So, I type some more! The heavy tears, shivering as though I had a fever, drastic weight loss, the fears over taking Zanax to get to sleep, a dear friend encouraging me and watching to be sure I a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, waking at 5:00am to immediate nerves…it was such an awful time. 

Over the years, I recall sitting in this chair at times to hide away during social gatherings, as I did my best to put on a smile and hide the heaviness or strong anxiety I had coursing through my insides. I remember sitting here crying on a beautiful Easter Sunday, but I was not able to see the beauty. 

Even though it feels heavy to recall all of these memories and I somewhat regret bringing it back as it puts a damper on my initial cozy contentedness I referred to at the beginning, I think it’s vitally important to do so because I want to possibly bring HOPE to someone that may read this. I don’t feel that way today. Yes, there is always the possibility of doing a crash and burn tomorrow and my OCD takes a liking to that idea, but I am not in misery. I’ve had great difficulty and pain over the last sixteen years, but it’s also been a time of up and down learning and growing. Life is hard. If you struggle with a mental illness of any kind, it may be something you have to manage for life, but it is not a death sentence. There is help. With practice and consistency, there are tools and habits that can help us learn to make space for discomfort so that we don’t make those feelings worse. There is always HOPE, dear reader. 

Dear Discouraged Brain,

Dear Discouraged Brain,

I know you feel heavy and uneasy. Upon waking up you were probably reminded that you “have this problem” and are apprehensive about the day. The basics feel more like a chore and that scattered feeling in your brain makes it seem like not much is getting accomplished in an organized or timely manner. That irritable button gets pushed a lot at the smallest things. Forcing a smile is almost painful when your sweet children engage in a story or tell you something silly. I know it’s really hard and you hear the thoughts streaming that are saying, “It’s not getting any better”, “I shouldn’t feel like this”, “Why do I have to struggle with this?”

Here’s the honest truth. You do feel the way you do and it is all valid. You are allowed to feel sad and angry that this “thorn” seems to get the better of you some days. BUT, you do not always feel like this! I’m writing this letter from the other side of the hill. It’s not too bad over here. The weather fluctuates with a few rain showers here and there, but overall, life is worth the living! I just did a belly laugh not too long ago and giggled at a meme on social media. I woke up this morning and started thinking right away about something I wanted to accomplish with work and around the house. I feel tired right now and do wish my brain acted a bit more like my neighbor, but all in all, I am doing ok.

Each “setback” on this ebb and flow style of mental illness is an opportunity. That isn’t just a line (even though it sounds like one). When you get practice time, it’s a good thing. Because it’s so easy to forget when it feels heavy, here are a few reminders: When the flood of yuck comes, slow that breath and make room for the discomfort. Practice the “radical acceptance” of every previous step and where you are right now. It is important to make a to-do list to help you feel productive, but leave some room in there for rest and self-care (even if you don’t feel like it). This will pass through and the light will peek in, but only in its own timing. Every circumstance is allowed and purposeful. I am really proud of you and I love you.

Love, On the Brighter Side Brain

Welcome, 2017!

Where are you right now? Are you emotionally spent from the holidays? Tired and weary? Or maybe you’ve taken down your Christmas decorations and are feeling organized, energetic and optimistic about the coming year? Or, like me, you may be a bit of both depending on the time of day.

I have been struggling over the last couple of weeks, off and on, with my basket of uneasiness and depression. I am very thankful that it didn’t suck all of the joy from my Christmas celebration with family. It has been an unwanted guest for many beautiful gatherings in the past, so I appreciate the break.  I had a hard time sleeping the night before last and as I’ve written before, that encourages my anxiety monkey to hold on tighter than average.  It nags at me and makes me feel heavy. I’m short-tempered with my children when I want to be patient and attentive. Yesterday I took my kids on a long walk and purposely tried looking up and out. I’ve spent thousands of hours looking inward at the way I was feeling and being consumed by my thoughts and worries over those thoughts. I’m tired of doing that. I want to kick it’s ass. But, I’m a vulnerable prey to it’s grip and it’s a tough battle sometimes.

I believe my most recent “batch”, as I call them, was instigated by stress. That’s fairly common, but it’s so easy for me to dismiss that stress and not connect the dots as to why I may have gotten stuck on an icky thought or feel defeated. I want to make that point clear, so that you, dear reader, are not also falling victim to the “shoulds” of life. Last week when I was cringing against the potential avalanche of scary feelings that I dread and wondering why I’d gotten stuck, I briefly spoke with my Mom about it. She pointed out the added stress I’d had of preparing for Christmas and my daughter’s family birthday party, on top of the everyday Mom duties. I knew it had been a bit stressful, but as I referenced above, I had dismissed it and thought, ” I should be able to handle it and anyways, it’s fun stress!” As I spent some time reflecting on the previous few weeks, I could recall a sense of intensified pressure I’d been putting on myself. I wanted things to be just so, holiday fun and festive, trying to maintain an almost neurotic clutter-free zone in the house, planning out when we’d do Christmas movie nights, cookies, light cruising, etc., etc. Will everyone jive at the birthday party? (divorced parents make for added stress). The house should be just so. It’s my job. I should be able to handle all of the extras.

This certainly carries over into my mental health struggles, too, because I often feel and hear myself thinking, “I should be over this by now” or “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”. That’s not fair inner dialogue and only consistently heaps pressure on our heads as mothers/husbands, spouses, Christians, friends, siblings, sons/daughters, so on and so forth. What are you “shoulding” about? Several years ago I did a self-help program for anxiety and depression and a lesson theme was, “Stop Shoulding On Yourself!” Often times we don’t even hear it or like me, we keep at a distracted, busy pace and don’t notice that the “shoulds” are wearing us thin. You may not have a kick-in-the-pants anxiety monkey like I do, but beware that the stress and “shoulds” may peek out in other ways.

If I were giving myself advice, which is really what a great deal of my blogging is, I would say that it’s important to be open to warning signs of the stressors. Stress is normal and at certain times, depending on circumstances, it can be at an all-time high. That’s ok, but it’s an even more important time to try your best to take care of yourself. All of the basics that we hear a million times and often push to the back of the line, like exercise and a somewhat balanced diet. Being mindful of the amount of time we spend in front of a screen, distracting us from quiet. We need quiet, if only in little batches. Prayer. Remembering that things could always be worse and we have many things to name as blessings. Above all, I’d remind myself that we are good enough. I struggle with that daily, but it still remains true. We can do our very best and that may vary from day to day. Life is not a lick like I thought it would be and much harder than I ever anticipated. I am humanly unable to get it all right and be as I think I “should”. I will do my best and keep working on taking care of myself, so that I can be my best, and that may not look like what we think it should. Let’s try and remember that for the incoming year. Another worthy reminder is that we will get caught up in the “shoulds” again and again, but being gentle on ourselves and recognizing it earlier each time will help ease it over time.

We welcome you, 2017! New Year, you remind me of a “bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils”, as Kathleen Kelly says in my all-time favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail , and I look forward to a new slate. A new quarter in school. A fresh start. I tend to be a frightened little girl about the future, but I welcome you, nonetheless. Cheers!

Where have you been??

Well, 2009 was the last time I posted and as Kathleen Kelly in my all-time favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail, would say, it was the last time I “sent this cosmic question out into the void”. To think of what I’ve done with my time between my last post and current is a bit of a blur. Oh, it’s been productive and busy for sure: I’ve been raising a sweet little boy (who is now 6), taught hundreds of middle school students, played with friends and family, traveled, etc. I have also continued to struggle and keep on keepin’ on.

Although I did not write much at all about it when I aimlessly began this blog, I have been in a battle. July of 2004 was the beginning of a fierce fight for my joy, peace, and logic. Today in 2014 I still battle for these same things, although I’ve developed some of my weaker “muscles” to defend myself. Life is not what I expected when I was thinking ahead while in college, earning a teaching degree, and falling in love. It did not include feeling like my brain was my worst enemy. I struggle with anxiety and depression. I struggle with irrational guilt, shame in who I am, and worry. It has been controlling and all-encompassing at times to where I look back now and have no clue how I managed to function through a work day. An interesting thing to me is how it looks to others. Most people have no idea that it would be consuming me at the time. I appear to “have it all together”. Most days of late I “do life” as I assume most do with juggling home, work, etc. Thank God, most days I’m not consumed with my struggle like I’ve been in the past, but it’s typically a low-level blandness that makes me feel not quite right. I always want to be “me”, but question and have a lot of uncertainly of who that really is. I’m not often comfortable in my own skin; questioning my thoughts and feelings is a regular occurrence. Uneasy. Fearful of what I might think next (irrational guilt or shame from a month ago or ten years ago). Jealousy and sadness are unwanted companions as I wish I had another’s brain. On second thought: maybe I’d just rather wish for the Scarecrow’s situation and be without a brain!

Tonight I sing the chorus to “It is Well With My Soul” in my mind. I am reminded of a study I did by Jennifer Rothschild and she found hope in the idea that it may not be well with my circumstances, but it is well with my soul. To find that peace about struggles is intriguing. Tonight has been one of those where I felt His nearness and a clarity that most days I’m craving and for which sometimes I’m begging. It is rare for me and thankfully I’ve been observant of it tonight and grateful. I felt a part of something. Hard to describe, but I felt that I belonged to this faith I believe and I sensed its Truth. I feel like I’ve been telling God for years now that I just want to live with purpose and on purpose instead of getting through my days or struggling to be in the present, so it was nice to get a glimpse tonight. Thanks, God. I end this collection of ramblings to encourage you to find thanksgiving for something in your world right now. It may not be just what you want or dreamed it would be, but there is good and He is good. I believe; Lord, help my unbelief. Until next time…