A Dream in Which I Tell Myself “I Would Do Anything for You”

I keep thinking about a dream I had several months ago. It was brief and blurry, but one element has remained persistently clear: I was sitting across from myself [a clone? A reflection? That part I’m not sure of, but there were two distinct yet identical presences of me], and the self that I embodied said to the other, reassuringly, matter-of-factly, “I would do anything for you.”

The caring was instinctive, deeply rooted, the way I feel in my waking hours about my boyfriend, my family, and my dearest friends — a level of protectiveness and pride I feel especially about my nieces and nephews: I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. You are strong and beautiful and talented. I believe in you. I’m here for you anytime. I love you beyond words.

Why don’t I treat myself that way?

Well, a couple months ago, several weeks after having had that dream and having it echo in my mind since, my self-care and -compassion were put to the test.

In one simple misstep, I slipped and fell in the yard, landing with one leg curled awkwardly beneath me and my foot bearing the weight of the rest of me collapsing. I’ve replayed that moment countless times since, as if I could retroactively change my footwear or my armload of stuff or whatever it was I stepped on that caused my foot to slip, and each time I’m struck by the notion that I had no idea in that instant how it would ripple out to affect the entire trajectory of my summer and my physical and mental health.

I don’t intend this to be a pity party nor to belabor the details, so I’ll give the abridged version:

  • The sprained foot led to a blood clot in my leg, which has continued to cause periods of swelling and discomfort as well as send my anxiety and depression on a seemingly endless roller coaster.
  • The prescribed blood thinner required me to stop taking another medication that had long been very helpful for me and left me scrambling for an alternative, none of which have proven satisfactory.
  • It was a hot summer to have one leg encased in a boot brace — although that brace has been a godsend in allowing me much better mobility than I had for the first few days, during which I couldn’t put weight on the foot without intolerable pain.
  • This whole experience has been an eye-opener as to how many elements of my typical day are not easily accessible, with any stairs, gravel, or hills leaving me unsteady at best and at times incapable of navigating without help. That is to say it’s opened my eyes to how very much I was taking for granted before.

The dream was not a stretch in that I have long been one to talk to myself — even out loud, even in public — but this too has now been manifesting in new, gentler ways: “We’ve got this,” I’ll say to myself. [We?! As if, again, there are two of us in the conversation!] “Okay, here we go. One step at a time.” I am aware that I am someone in need of caring and more willing to give myself that care than probably ever before. As I step slowly in and out of the shower or turn gingerly to rinse my hair, as I stretch my cramped-up calf muscle, as I climb into bed and appreciate the shedding of a long day, I am carrying myself differently, with more awareness, patience, and forgiveness.

While I wish it hadn’t taken an injury for this slowing-down to happen and I’m eager to start feeling more like myself again, I hope that as I continue to heal I can maintain this new perspective.

And I wish it for all of you, too — without the dramatic catalyst! Let’s adopt an attitude of showing up for ourselves. We need it more than we may realize.

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR, downloaded from Pexels

“That Door Is Now Closed”: A Sexual Assault Survivor on Coping, Setting Boundaries, and Redefining Her Life

A few months ago, I introduced you to Jessica, a survivor of rape and sexual assault whose forthcoming memoir, The Man Behind the Curtain, I’m coauthoring. We’re nearing the finish line on the writing and aiming to self-publish later this year — stay tuned for exciting updates in the coming months!

Here, I talk with Jessica about what the writing and healing processes have been like for her, what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her story with the world, and what’s next for her — including a major personal life update she never thought possible.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity, including some context from me in brackets.

VAL: In our book, you talk about how you’re no longer willing to let yourself be punished for someone else’s crimes, nor to let your past define you or your future. Tell us a bit more about that journey, how you came to make and embrace that shift in your thinking.

JESSICA: It was all about surrounding myself with positive people, to shut out the negatives. As soon as they found out what had happened to me, my grandparents were so supportive. Consistently going to therapy also really helped. My counselor, Debbie, was and continues to be a very positive person to be around. She understood all the feelings I had and even came down to Tennessee from New York for the trial. They all reminded me, and helped me to keep reminding myself, that everything my stepdad had done to me, and everything my mom had done by turning her back on me, was not my fault.

V: What are some of your proudest moments from the last few years? Are there things you’ve accomplished that you might not have thought possible before?

J: My job [as a flight attendant] is really hard to get into, and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do something like that because of how much everybody had put me down for years. So, I’m really proud of that, and also of being in a healthy relationship, finally, with such a supportive partner, Matthew. Other than from my grandparents, I didn’t grow up with an example of what a good relationship should be like, so I’m grateful to be able to have that now for myself.

Also, Matthew and I recently found out that we’re having a baby in December! One of the nurse practitioners I had seen after the abuse was reported said she didn’t know if it would be possible for me to have children in the future. Because of that and the trauma of my past, I would not have thought that this could happen for me. We’re so excited!

V: What do you know now that you wish you’d known back when you were a teenager, enduring the abuse and then the trial?

J: I wish I had better coping skills back then. I would shut down a lot; I was just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what I had to do. Now I know how to cope if I start feeling panicky or really anxious. The main one I use is to hold onto an ice cube, which brings my focus onto that and slows my thoughts.

Another important thing I know now is that I’m going to be okay without my mom being in my life. I’m making peace with it. Because of the baby, I’m no longer open to her being in my life. That door is now closed. It was cracked open for years.

V: Has it been difficult to revisit your past in working on this book? How have you navigated and worked through that?

J: Sometimes I do try to avoid it so that I don’t have to think about the past. I’m to the point where I don’t think about it every day. It’s almost like that was another life, one that I haven’t dealt with in so long. But I navigate it by allowing myself to feel however I’m feeling, instead of trying to bury those feelings.

V: What has been the most surprising or rewarding part of working on this project?

J: Honestly, when we announced it on social media. [See, eg, Jessica’s Facebook post and my Facebook post.] There had always been so much negativity surrounding what happened, so seeing all the positivity and supportive reactions was really nice — and surprising. I look forward to the book coming out, even if it just helps one person.

V: Are there any resources that have been particularly helpful to you as a survivor of rape and sexual assault?

J: While I was actively dealing with the aftermath of the abuse, the truth coming out, and the trial, my attorney connected me with Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), who became such a helpful support network. [Their mission, in part, is “to create a safer environment for abused children” and “to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live.” They have chapters around the world.]

Also, again, therapy has been so helpful, including a therapy group I found while I was living in Chicago that was focused on sexual assault. It’s great to know that those resources are out there.

And I always rely on family and friends who have been really supportive and who keep me positive.

V: What do you hope readers will learn or gain from your story?

J: I hope readers who have gone through similar things will know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and won’t always feel so negative about it or so alone. And I hope people will learn signs of what to look for if something might be happening to their children or to someone they know and will learn about the damage it can do if they’re not supported.

V: What’s next for you? What goals do you have for the next few years?

J: I’ll be focusing on the baby. I can keep flying till about 36 weeks, and then, between maternity leave and baby-bonding leave that the airline offers, I won’t be working for about 5-6 months. I do want to go back and continue flying after that. But mostly I’ll be focusing on protecting my child as they grow up. I want to make sure my child doesn’t have to recover from their childhood like I did.

Read some post-publication thoughts here.

Photo by Christine Renard, downloaded from Pexels

We Need to Talk About Mental Health.

I have anxiety and depression.

People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.

In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.

There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.

And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.

So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.

My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.

Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.

Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.

And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down. 

Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.

Some things that have helped me:

  • COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
  • Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
  • As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!

Some things you can do to help:

  • Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
  • Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
  • Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.

Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.

Photo by Burst, of what is clearly my spirit animal, downloaded from Pexels

A Semi-Open Letter to [the Boss Who Let Me Go]

I’m calling this “semi-open” because I won’t use your name. A lot of people who know me know who you are anyway, and I suspect that many who read this can easily fill some other name in those brackets — someone who wronged them, who rattled them, who forced them to start over and discover a new version of themselves. I hope that for them, like for me, that new version proved to be far better off.

Two years ago, after many exhausting months of our work styles and priorities failing to coexist in harmony, you terminated my job contract. In an instant, with the sight of a single checkmark on a PDF, my life changed. After six years, I was no longer going to be the person who worked that job in that office, made that commute and parked in that spot, collaborated with that team of amazing friends.

There was no way around it: you and I did not see the world through the same sort of lens, and you were in a position to make that issue go away. In addition to being stung by your decision, I felt powerless to counter it, which hurt even more.

There were many broken pieces of our attempted partnership that, in hindsight, I wish I had addressed differently — many things I’ve realized only since leaving that would have helped me tremendously to know while I was there:

My voice deserves to be heard. It has as much potential as any other at the table, regardless of its volume or its speaker’s title or gender. And when I’m feeling overlooked or disrespected, that’s not a reason to retreat into silence but an urgent reason to speak up louder than ever.

I am the most important advocate of my work. I wish I hadn’t let you shake my confidence in my work or my approaches to it. I should have promoted my own successes instead of hoping you would notice them or looking for the flaws you might see. I shouldn’t have let my passion for my work occur mostly behind a closed door.

I can prevent frustrations from festering. I wish I had pushed more for us to address the frustrations I felt about my job — the uneven workload, the extra hours, the stress level — as they first became issues, rather than letting them build. I kept hoping you would see them as I did, that they would then be solved as if by magic. Our conversations about them were never active enough and soon became empty words.

A job should not define the entirety of a life. I never could have believed at the time that the concerns of the workday could be left behind when signing off for the day. I was so controlled by deadlines and processes, so afraid of letting other people down, that those anxieties followed me home at night and consumed my attention. I know now that no pursuit of success should ever come above my health or happiness.

While I was first reeling from your decision, all of those things were harder than ever to believe. My brain didn’t have the capacity to process them. I doubted myself, thinking maybe I wasn’t good enough for that job or for any other, that I was doomed to fail.

After a short period of wallowing, though, I was no longer willing to give you that power over me. My anger became a source of motivation more than pain. It propelled me into my next chapter, one so much better than I could have imagined. After initially breaking me down, your decision ultimately set me free.

A friend of mine — seeing the potential for that motivation before I could — told me I should dedicate the book I’m writing to you, because none of it would have been possible without you. At the time, I laughed at the irony and felt slightly nauseated at the thought. But, in a way, she’s right. I did need to be released from that suffocating situation in order to feel inspired again (how fitting that one definition of inspire is to inhale), to have the energy to work toward this enormous goal and the confidence to make it happen.

There’s a great analogy in Buddhist teachings that compares anger to a burning ember: I may pick it up with the intention of throwing it at someone, but I’m the one who gets burned by it.

Holding onto my anger toward you did burn me for a long time, and I grew tired of it. I’ve let go of that ember now and am walking farther and farther away from it. But I still remember the heat of it. And I need you to know how utterly fantastic it feels to be free from its weight.

Photo by Pixabay, downloaded from Pexels