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.
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.
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.