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 recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which had been on my to-read list since it was first published in 2012. (As an English major, I’m ashamed to admit that I saw the movie before reading the book. I do highly recommend both.) For those unfamiliar, a woefully oversimplified summary is that it’s about Strayed’s experiences hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and inexperienced, after the devastating death of her mother and dissolution of her marriage. As the book jacket states, “Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” How soothing to think of strength and healing as the resolution after madness. That’s precisely the kind of journey Strayed takes us on.
I had the pleasure of hearing Strayed read from the book and speak about it as part of SUNY Brockport’s Writers Forum series in 2013. I was struck by how humble, approachable, and normal she was; after having completed this astounding journey, I thought she would seem somehow otherworldly, untouchable. I was awe-struck by what she’d accomplished. But as she talked about what it was like to stagger under the weight of a backpack so heavy she couldn’t lift it from the floor — she calls the approach she eventually managed to adopt “hunching in a remotely upright position” — it was like she answered my thoughts of Wow, how did she do all of that? with her own enthralled gush of, I know, right?!
That humility is present throughout the book and kept me mesmerized by Strayed’s narrative voice. She acknowledges her own amazement and gratitude about being on that hike, her unpreparedness for it and how that added to its impact on her. She knows she wasn’t well suited for it on paper, but that was one of the very reasons she knew she needed to do it. Which, to me, means she had exactly the right kind of mind for it, and the rest she figured out along the way.
One of my favorite moments is when she describes settling in at her campsite one night, 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range:
“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight.”
How brave of her to go willingly into that silence, to take that journey inward — accompanied only by a constant soundtrack of her own thoughts, memories, pains, regrets — in order to better understand all that is happening around her. Having gone through a few major life changes myself in recent years (exhibit A and exhibit B, among others), I’ve sometimes felt drawn to the idea of that sort of exploration — a long trip somewhere new all alone, a drive on unfamiliar roads with no destination in mind — but I have yet to conquer the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in as to what it would require of me and reveal to me.
Another favorite moment is when she meets a 5-year-old boy on the trail who sings her a song his mother taught him after learning that Strayed is grieving the loss of her own mother.
She describes him singing “in a voice so pure that I felt gutted” and says she felt “half demolished by the time he finished.”
I love this description of something being so beautiful and moving that it’s painful. That’s how I feel about Strayed’s writing. Her craft is so good, so finely tuned, that it hurts; it’s the kind of beauty that punches you and leaves you stinging.
As I neared the final chapters, I experienced that wonderful juxtaposition of emotions stirred up by a great read: I was eager to learn how it would end and yet reluctant to part ways with it. As I read the last few paragraphs — and immediately read them again — I felt gutted. I felt I was mourning a loss. Like Strayed, I was in awe of the journey and grateful to have experienced it.
Reaching the end of her hike and trying to process its finality, she writes:
“There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that.”
Oof. Doesn’t that so accurately describe, with such aching beauty, any sort of loss? There is no route back to before it was gone, no choice but to continue moving forward, no matter how uncertain the steps may sometimes seem.