Selah in September

Several months ago, a friend challenged me to find a word that would be both a mantra and a truth to speak over this season in my life.  I prayed, looked, read, and tried not to come up with the word myself.  I sensed that there was purpose ahead, and I wanted to be wholly ready, and I felt that whatever the word was, it was going to be part of that.

September arrived, and I woke up with the word on my lips: Selah.  If you’re familiar with the Psalms, you’ll see the word throughout, often given as an instruction to the person leading music – an instruction to stop and listen.  That’s the key – stop and listen.  In the midst of the madness, hit the pause button and employ all the senses.

Stop and listen.

Stop and look.

Stop and smell.

Stop and feel.

Stop and taste.

Stop and be.

Selah.

I don’t believe in coincidence, and I find it telling that the word finally arrived hand-in-hand with September.  Even though I live in an area that is still sweltering in 90-degree weather, I always envision September to be the gateway to Autumn – sweaters, boots, hot drinks (PSL anyone?), cooler days, trees exploding in a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and gold, and the smell of fires being lit in fireplaces.  Everything about fall invites you to slow down a bit, cozy up, and immerse yourself in all that is around you.  Autumn practically calls you to Selah.

So what do I do with this?  It has been more than the obvious, although I have deeply loved stopping and listening to birds, my daughter’s laughter, harmonies, and wind chimes.  I have also been listening to my own body – resting and resetting when necessary, going for a run when I’m craving an endorphin push, and eating when my stomach tells me it’s hungry.  On top of that, I’ve been conscious about listening to others.  Before letting my impatience with my daughter cause a short response, I take a breath and listen to what her little heart is trying to tell me.  I’m in a position at work to make decisions that carry serious weight; but people are impacted by these, and each of those people has a story and a life and a career.  Each of those people matter, and as I have been tempted to make quick decisions based on my gut and a lack of time, I have heard this gentle whisper to Selah…stop and listen. 

And I am a better person for it.

Not better than anyone else.  Never better than anyone else.  But I am growing each time I choose to stop and listen instead of rushing headlong into all the things – the choices, the responses, the moments that I won’t be able to get back or take back.  And as I get better, the people in my sphere of influence are hopefully helped…or at least not hurt.

Selah.  As Summer transitions into the brilliance of Autumn, it beckons us to stop and to listen, to feel, to see, to smell, to taste, and to simply, utterly be.

Selah.

 

 

 

Who Are You?

Who are you?

When someone asks us this question, we always offer our names first. After that, we go with relationships – significant others, parents, children, colleagues. Then activities and places – where we work or go to school, where we go to church, things we’re involved in. On the surface, in public, to a stranger who might ask, we want to communicate that, whatever our identity, we belong. Somewhere, to someone.

But in the middle of the night, when we’re lying awake and staring at the ceiling, what do we say when we turn that question on ourselves?

Who am I?

Our answers to ourselves become far less about convincing someone that we belong, and far more transparent in what we believe about ourselves.

I’m an idiot.

I’m a failure.

I’m the world’s worst parent.

I’ll never be good enough.

I’m unloved.

I’m unlovable.

I’m damaged.

I’m weak.

I’m a fraud.

I’m invisible.

Do these sound familiar? They are the party line of the Negative Self Talk Committee that loves to hold late night meetings in our brains and our hearts. The committee doesn’t always need much help. For some of us, the things we tell ourselves simply echo the wounding things that we have been told by others, making it even easier to believe that this – this less than – is who we are.

But there is no freedom in that identity. None. Every painful word creates another bar on the cage that holds us back from being who we were created to be. And we were created to be more, so very much more.

But God didn’t create us to be more and then walk away. His pursuit of us is steadfast and unyielding. Have you encountered this persistent God? Has He won your heart? Then you are changed. Your identity is changed. It is built on the solid rock of our unshakable God, not on the shifting sand of the things we hold to and the lies we tell ourselves.

So who are you?

You are loved.

You are worthy.

You are new.

You are clean.

You have a purpose.

You are a son or daughter of the King.

You are whole.

You are seen.

You are known.

You are forgiven.

You are not an accident.

You are not alone.

You are not your past.

You are not your scars.

You are not your hurts.

You are surrendered, and in that surrender you are more than a conqueror.

You belong. You belong. You belong.

And you don’t have to convince anyone of that.

Don’t Forget to Turn Around

Moving is stressful.  Anyone who has ever moved can tell you that, and anyone in the military who does this fairly often can attest to the reality that sometimes the move goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.  This has been one of those moves where the list of random things going sideways is almost comedic, but the impact that it has had on my mood and general outlook has been anything but funny.

There was the base hotel that had said they would be able to accommodate me for 6 days, but when I arrived could only do five.  Then the room they put my daughter and me in was less than ideal for two people who had packed up everything they might need for the foreseeable future – the door to the room didn’t close properly at the bottom, so if my daughter kicking me repeatedly in our shared bed didn’t keep me up, the flies, moths, and flying ants that had easy access to the room did a stellar job.  The air conditioner was so loud we had to yell to be heard over it, but we couldn’t control the temperature in the room ourselves, and water pressure in the shower was so bad that my daughter was convinced the shower must be broken.  (And for anyone who would argue that we should have asked for a different room, we had been given the last available room on base.  We were stuck.)  I got into a minor fender bender while trying to figure out which way I was supposed to turn out of a parking lot, because my GPS’ decision to recalculate at the last second was just enough distraction for bad things to happen.  I jammed my thumb somehow and it swelled to twice the size it normally was, which made loading and unloading the car more difficult than I expected.

All relatively little things, but in the context of a move and stress, they added up – big time.  And those little things began to magnify themselves in my brain, especially as I lay awake in the middle of the night, dodging dream-kicks from the munchkin and wondering what bug was crawling on me now?  The morning light, with its overwhelmingly beautiful sunrises, did little to quell my frustration.

I can’t believe I have to pack all of this up again in a few days and move to a hotel off-base – out-of-pocket – and then do it again a few days after that (because of availability) and keep going back and forth from hotel to hotel.  I need a house.  I need a church.  I need some stability.  And, for crying out loud, I need a flyswatter!

Sunday morning arrived, and my heart ached for the familiarity of our church family in the town we’d left.  We’d been known and loved and welcomed there, and I got a stomachache thinking about walking into a new church in a new town where we knew no one.  I did my best to bury my anxiety so that my daughter wouldn’t pick up on it, and we headed to one of the few churches in town that fell into the general description of what we were looking for.  We loved it.  We were warmly welcomed when we walked in.  The kids service used some of the same materials that our previous church had used, and the setup was close enough to familiar for my daughter to confidently hug me goodbye at the door and waltz right in.  The auditorium felt comfortable, the music was good, the preaching – satellited in from a main campus church elsewhere – was fantastic, and it turned out that someone from my new unit was on the worship team.  After the service was over, I picked up my little girl and she chattered on and on about how great everything had been.  I knew then that we had found our new church, and all we had done was show up.

The next day, we arrived at the off-base hotel after a long first day at work.  For the third time, I begged them to see if there was any availability at all that would keep us from having to bounce from one hotel to another multiple times.  With a bit of effort, the nice woman at the front desk was able to work it out so that my daughter and I would be in the same room, at the same hotel, for the next two weeks.  I was overjoyed and relieved.  Finally!

On the way up to our room, I found myself humming the tune to Blessed Be Your Name.  The first line of the chorus says, “Every blessing You pour out, I’ll turn back to praise.”  I always took “turn back” to mean something transformative, as in, I’ll take this blessing you gave me and turn it into praise for You.  But in that moment, in that elevator, it occurred to me that “turn back” might mean actually turning around and remembering to give thanks and praise, instead of just walking on.

As my daughter and I continued down the hall, the story of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) came to mind.  Basically, Jesus healed these ten lepers and told them to go show themselves to the priest, who could verify that they were healed and could rejoin society.  Of the ten lepers who experienced this life-altering, never-going-to-be-the-same event, only one took the time to come back to Jesus and say thanks.  Keying into my room, all I could think was, “I want to be like that guy!”

So we got inside, got settled, and I explained to my little girl that I’d been praying for a resolution to the hotel situation, and God had answered that prayer.  I told her I had prayed that we’d find a church quickly, and I had asked others to pray for the same thing, and God led us straight to one we loved on our first week in town.  I told her it was super important that we not only acknowledge that He’d answered our prayers, but we needed to thank Him for it too.  Adorably, she looked at me and said, “I’ve got this, Mom,” and proceeded to pray for both of us, giving thanks like only a 7-year-old can.

Do you know what it does for the soul when you take a moment to think about and give thanks for the places in which God has moved, in His timing, for your good and His glory?  It’s remarkable.  The other things that hadn’t worked out yet, that loomed so large in my heart and mind, suddenly paled in comparison.  I could easily choose joy, because I had first chosen to turn around and give thanks.

There are going to be seasons in which things aren’t working out the way you want them to.  I encourage you to identify the things that are working out.  Find them.  Acknowledge them.  Call them what they are.  And dedicate a few moments to thanking God for working and moving and loving us enough to operate in His timing and not our own.  Your outlook will change, but you have to turn around first.

Guest Post: The Watch & The Tattoo

Alyssa Montague is one of the gutsiest people I know, and I am honored to have her share her heart and thoughts in this guest post for If I Knew Not Midnight:

Multiple high profile suicides this past week have left me with a lot of thoughts and feelings. This morning I wrote some of them down. I’d like to share them with y’all if you’d indulge me.

I adore the Kate Spade brand and it’s meant a lot over the years. The brand’s simple, sophisticated femininity speaks to me and it’s always a bit of a moment when I let myself have a Kate Spade. A few weeks ago I bought myself a present at the Kate Spade outlet near my dad’s house. It’s a watch that straddles the line between practical and whimsical in a way that feels so very me – a scalloped leather band with enough sparkle on the face to be pretty and fun without nearing gaudy or pretentious territory. I love it so much. Today I put it on, and I paused as I turned my wrist over to fasten it. There, under my Kate Spade watch, was my tattoo. I got this tattoo a few years ago to both honor my fight against depression and suicide and, more personally, to provide a very pointed reminder. At the last minute, I will always be reminded to keep fighting.

Seeing my tattoo juxtaposed with this symbol of celebration and joy, my heart broke. My soul has lived the foggy weariness that claimed Kate Spade and others, and I thank anything divine I’m not there right now. But I know so many are still there, wandering in grey, muted desolation and rapidly running out of hope.

Because you might be one of those people, I want to be open about my struggle in the hope that you will know you’re not alone and you’ll know it’s okay. But in case I haven’t been clear, I am mentally ill.

Let me say it again, louder, for the people in the back. I am mentally ill.

There is no reason or catalyst. It’s just part of my beautiful, amazing brain. Most days I function just fine. Some days I don’t. My medication helps and so does my pupper. Therapy had been invaluable to me. And oddly, running. None of those things are magic on their own, but I’m using all of them to make it. And I’m surviving. No, wait. Actually, I’m THRIVING. I have an amazing life with incredible family – both the one I was born to and the one I’ve found and built. I own the anxiety and depression that has impacted me so significantly, but I refuse to allow them to define the core of who I am.

If, like me, you are living with mental illness, I offer you this: you are not alone. Sometimes you feel broken, and that’s ok. It. Is. Ok. It’s not all of you. Not even a little bit. You are a magical sunfish or an opalescent tree shark (™ Leslie Knope). You, in all your brokenness, are beautiful and magical and brilliant. I love you, and I ask you to stay and keep making the world better by being you. Because I promise you are doing exactly that, and we need you.

The Other Side of Impostor Syndrome

Long before I knew that it had a name, I knew what Impostor Syndrome was. In almost every setting in my life, I felt like I was a fraud, and that any day now, everybody would figure out that I didn’t belong. This deep-seated feeling existed in spite of whatever talents I possessed and whatever successes I had enjoyed in both academic and career pursuits. And it followed me everywhere. At school. At work. Serving and volunteering. The specter of doubt and fear haunted me at every turn, even in my friendships and relationships.

Impostor Syndrome has become increasingly better known, particularly because people are willing to talk about it more. I was stunned when I first heard someone else discuss this thing that clung to my soul; I wasn’t alone, and this was apparently ridiculously common – among women, among high-achievers, and among those who already tangoed with anxiety and depression.

I recently realized that while Impostor Syndrome puts a name to the sense of “not belonging,” there’s more to it. If, courtesy of Impostor Syndrome, I believe that I don’t belong, it is easy to believe that nothing I’ve done has made an impact. If it hasn’t made an impact, if nothing I have done mattered, perhaps I don’t matter. Do you see where this is going? Do you see how insidious this train of thought is? The most accomplished among us could easily be led to believe – by their own brains – that nothing they have done is important, that they don’t belong, and that they don’t matter. For anyone who has struggled with the darkness of depression and the temptation to end it all, this is a slippery slope that anyone can tumble down.

I once had a conversation with a friend who was moving to a new location. This person was trying to avoid having a “going away” lunch, in spite of the tradition of such an event and that this friend was well-known and well-loved within their workplace. They were trying to avoid it because they were convinced that no one would show up and that their absence “wouldn’t matter anyway.” It was heartbreaking to see someone who was so valued and respected feel as though they didn’t matter. I now know it was Impostor Syndrome.

If, like me, Impostor Syndrome has haunted the corners and moments of your experiences, telling you that you are not good enough, that you’re a fraud, that you don’t belong, that you’re not worthy, that what you do isn’t important, and that what you do doesn’t matter, I need you to recognize that for what it is and tell it to sit down and shut up.

If you know someone who wrestles with the beast that is Impostor Syndrome, will you please speak beauty and truth and light and hope into their lives? We often assume that the high-achievers don’t need anyone to tell them that they are doing well and they matter; they may need to hear it most of all. It isn’t even about where they find their identity; they just want to know that their life and work means something to someone, somewhere. What if you could help tame the insidious beast by letting them know how valued they are?

You’re not a fraud. You belong. Your work matters. Your creativity matters. Your passions matter. You matter.

You matter.

You matter.

I See You, Part 2

Ok, friends, we have to talk about this.  It has been almost two weeks since I published I See You, and the response has been overwhelming.  I witnessed the emotional response when I offered the words at church, but the conversations – both in person and online – that I have had since then have just blown me away.  Why?  Because out of a question to God and the words that came from the answer, it has become abundantly clear that I managed to tap into a wellspring of pain.

While both men and women have talked to me about I See You, a great majority of the women have come with questions and stories that have been buried in pain, and that pain has been buried in fear.  Some of these women asked me if they could really dare to hope that God actually saw them.

(And let’s stop right there for a second.  I’m no theologian or guru or anything that makes me the person to be answering that question.  The fact that people wanted the answer from me tells me how desperate they were to hear it.)

Instead of answering the question, I dug deeper into why it was a question to begin with.  These were women of faith; why would they question whether God sees them?  The answers that I got from them boiled down to a sense of inadequacy, which in turn led to this belief that they were somehow unworthy to be seen by the very God who created them.  Ok, so why did these women feel inadequate to begin with??

Y’all.  I didn’t see it coming, but maybe I should have.  Many women pointed out how they didn’t measure up to a certain person in the Bible, and it wasn’t Jesus.

It was the Proverbs 31 Woman.  Seriously.

If you’re unfamiliar with this woman, here’s a refresher for you:

10 [b]A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
    and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
    bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
    she provides food for her family
    and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
    her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
    and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
    and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
    and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
    for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
    she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
    where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
    and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
    she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
    and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
    her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
    and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

On principle, I don’t have a problem with this woman, but I don’t think she’s real.  I think she’s an ideal whose character and integrity we should aspire to, but I don’t think she’s real.  When does she sleep?  How about self-care?  When does she meet her tribe of girls for coffee or wine?  How about date nights with the hubby?  Yes, I’ve Westernized this like none other, but you get my drift.  She’s someone to aspire to, but she’s not the measuring stick against which we should be judging ourselves.

If I See You broke your heart wide open because you feel like there’s no way God could possibly see you and love you in your inadequacy, I want you to think about something.  God gave His Son for you.  And then He kept pursuing you.  (Y’all, I love you, but there’s no way on God’s green earth that I would sacrifice my daughter for you.  Not any of you.  In fact, my parental instinct is to do whatever it takes to save my child.  God did the exact opposite.)

Do something for me for a second.  Close your eyes.  Imagine that you’re sitting at God’s feet.  Now look up, look at His face.  (No, I don’t know what God’s face looks like; that’s why you’re imagining this.)  What do you see?  Are you afraid to even look because you are convinced that there will be nothing but judgment and disgust on His face?  Look, please, because there’s grace in those eyes.  Grace and love and peace and a deep desire for your heart to be at rest.  The judgment you’re convinced will be there is a prison of your own making, and the door is wide open.  Walk out, walk in freedom, and bask in the reality that He sees you.

He sees you.  He knows you.  He loves you.

I See You

 

 

 

On Mother’s Day, we tend to paint this picture of motherhood that looks an awful lot like the Hallmark cards so many of us probably bought to give to our moms today. But in reality, while we can speak eloquently about all the great parts of motherhood, we are often silent about the parts that are far less elegant. Let’s be honest; being a mom is hard.

So I asked God, “What would You say to a mom on Mother’s Day?” The answer came simply, settling into my spirit in the way that only His voice can:

I see you.

I. See. You.

To the mom who is perpetually invisible, always taking the pictures but never in them – unless they are selfies…

I see you.

To the mom who is in the trenches of parenting (and isn’t just about every age and stage “in the trenches” somehow?)…

I see you.

To the mom whose survival depends on coffee and dry shampoo…

I see you.

To the mother in the grocery store whose child is in the throes of a full-on meltdown and you’re convinced everyone within a 5-mile radius is judging you…

I see you.

To the single mom, and the temporarily single mom due to deployment or business, you’re holding it down on all fronts because no one else will, and “exhausted” is just your normal now…

I see you.

To the mother raising a child with special needs, walking down a life path you never could have anticipated…

I see you.

To the deployed mom, your willingness to go has never been a desire to leave, and this day feels to you more like a sacrifice than a celebration…

I see you.

To the mom battling mental or physical illness and trying desperately to hold it together for your family…

I see you.

To the mom who had one of “those” mornings and may have even lost your mind in the car before getting the whole family to fake the “we’ve got it all together” look on the way into church…

I see you.

To the mom who has adopted a child and is facing the unique challenges that go along with it…

I see you.

To the stay-at-home-mom and the working mom who can’t seem to escape mom guilt or the Mommy Wars…

I see you.

To the mom whose relationship with your kids isn’t what you hoped it would be…

I see you.

To the mom who is convinced that you’re a nonstop hot mess who will never be a Pinterest Mom and that your efforts will never quite compare to the highlight reel you see on everyone else’s Facebook and Instagram…

I see you.

To the mom who wishes your mom was still here…

I see you.

To the woman who desperately wants to be a mother, but is 1 in 8 women dealing with infertility. It is so common a struggle, and yet you feel so alone, and this day is so, so hard…

I see you.

To the mother who has known the unimaginable loss of a child, at any age – whether in the womb or as an adult, and this day is a painful reminder of that loss…

I see you.

To the mom who is struggling and overwhelmed, who harbors this shameful suspicion that you are too much and yet somehow at the same time not enough…

I see you.

I see you. I know you. And I deeply, powerfully, perfectly, recklessly love you. If you think My seeing you means I’m judging you, guess again. Don’t you know? I rejoice over you, I sing songs over you, and I absolutely delight in you.

Genesis 16:13 – “Hagar gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me.'”

Oh mama, the God who sees, sees you. He sees you. Let that wash over you and soak into the dry places in your soul, and with that knowledge may you have the happiest of Mother’s Days.

Sometimes Healing Sucks

We often talk pleasantly, longingly, about healing, but sometimes we don’t want healing. Because sometimes healing sucks.

Let me explain.

Awhile back, an opportunity was presented to me that was just that: an opportunity. Sounds good, right? The thing is, it came wrapped in a situation that also represented a stark reminder of the betrayal and humiliation I’d walked through five years ago. Most of the time, I’m good with talking about that whole episode of my life – I wrote a blog entry on it for the entire world to see, for crying out loud! But parts of that whole era were never addressed, and the remaining wounds scabbed over enough for me to be functional – more than functional, really – and I would have been content to keep things that way forever.

Ok, I would have been more than content. Way more. I really would have preferred to leave that aspect of things on a shelf and literally never deal with it again. Like that box of God-only-knows-what from the very first time you moved that keeps finding its way onto the moving truck and into the new house but never actually gets unpacked. I really wanted to just keep things packed and shoved into a corner, because the proverbial unpacking was going to hurt, and I just didn’t have the time or space or emotional bandwidth for that. And I wasn’t planning on creating any, either.

Until this…opportunity…came along. It was impossible to ignore, and, almost as bad, it was impossible to fight against. It was literally a Godfather-esque “offer I couldn’t refuse.” And I cried. Oh y’all, I cried some really angry tears. Because I could have been given the opportunity without the painful walk down memory lane, but it wasn’t going to work that way, and I felt like the extra gut punch just wasn’t necessary.

But perhaps necessary is in the eye of the beholder.

From my perspective, gallivanting through a bunch of stuff I’d rather just never think about again seemed like a terrible idea, regardless of how much better I’d be on the other side of it. If I was at the “80% solution” and was in a fairly good place, I was ok with that. Things were moving along, life was good on all fronts, and I didn’t see broken things, which meant nothing needed to be fixed.

I’m pretty sure The Man Upstairs saw something different. I had done a lot of healing, but I wasn’t healed. I had done a lot of forgiving, but I hadn’t completely forgiven. I had pieced my life back together, but there were still places with cracks and missing shards where my heart was unprotected. He saw through all my claims of functionality to the depth of my woundedness, and He couldn’t leave “well enough” alone.

Our Creator God is funny like that. He loves us as the hot messes we are, but He sees bigger, better, more complete things for us. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be healed. He wants us to be free. And He will lead us on some really weird journeys to get there.

Have you ever broken a bone and had it heal badly? You might still have the use of that appendage, but not as completely as you might have otherwise. So the bone has to be rebroken and reset – so that healing can be complete. The process sucks – it isn’t pleasant at all, but the end is good.

When I wrote about God’s never-ending pursuit of us, I drew a lot from Cory Asbury’s Reckless Love. I still don’t know if this whole opportunity-wrapped-in-pain is a shadow, a mountain, a wall, or a lie that God is doggedly tearing down, but I know He won’t let it go. I really wanted Him to. I really, really wanted to run the other direction as He started pressing on the painful places that I just didn’t want to deal with. I would have settled for broken woundedness over complete wholeness, because while being healed is awesome, the healing sucks sometimes. But God’s not really into settling. He’s into pursuing. And redemption. And restoration.

He’s also into mercy and grace. Mercy, because God let me go five years without forcing a showdown with my pain. Grace, because with every effort to pull away, He kept bringing me back to this.

I’m not through this process yet. Everything about this “opportunity” indicated that it would be a season rather than a quick I-went-to-my-therapist-and-I’m-great-now session. Seasons take awhile; this crummy process is taking its sweet time. Here’s to whatever “healed” looks like on the other side of opportunity.

So I Went To A Supernatural Convention

I went to a Supernatural Convention, and I haven’t been home in a few days…

In August of last year, I bought tickets to the Supernatural Convention in Nashville. The show and many of the projects the cast members have spearheaded have impacted me greatly, and I wanted to say thank you – in person, if possible. So I went, and the experience was surreal. On the other side of it, here are some observations and a few things I learned along the way – although if you’re looking for convention tips, that’s not what this is about:

  1. Demographics are nothing more than descriptors.

I’m 36. A single mom. A military officer. As my first convention drew near, I seriously debated what the heck I was doing. Did people “like me” actually do this? I didn’t know anyone “like me” who would have flown by themselves to Nashville, TN to attend a fan convention completely dedicated to a TV show.

You know what? Who cares?!

My demographics describe me, but they don’t dictate the things I am interested in, and they certainly don’t have the power to create a box that I and all of my interests have to fit into. (Unless, of course, they are prejudicial to good order and discipline, because military regulations are what they are.) Imagine if I had said, “I’m 36, I can’t go to a fan convention!” or “I don’t know any other military officers taking leave to go to a Supernatural convention; I can’t be the first!” I would have missed out on so much. Lesson learned: don’t let what you think someone in your demographic should do hold you back from what you want to do.

2. The Supernatural Family (#SPNFamily) is a real thing.

I had suspected this for awhile, based on more than a decade of anecdotes populating the internet, a fantastic book edited by Lynn S. Zubernis called Family Don’t End With Blood (FDEWB), and the way that the fandom responded to needs – ones that had absolutely nothing to do with Supernatural – around the world. I remember reading FDEWB while deployed and finding validation for the impact the show, the cast, and their projects had had on me. Honestly, though, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find at a convention. I was new, this was my first con, and I felt really overwhelmed.

I shouldn’t have. On the first night, I had tickets to attend the relatively small Pajama Party with Kim Rhodes and Lisa Berry. I got onto the elevator, trying to figure out where in this huge convention center I was supposed to go, and I met three ladies who were also on their way to the Pajama Party. One of them happened to be active duty Air Force, and the other two were military dependents. They caught how lost I was, and they immediately offered to take me with them. Maybe it seems minor, but isn’t it the minor things that make such a major difference sometimes?

But if we’re going to talk about family, I have to tell you about Savannah. In our VIP group of ten ladies, Savannah was the youngest at 13-years-old, and she was absolutely precious. She and her grandmother were in the group, and we basically made her our unofficial mascot within the first twenty minutes. Her favorite cast member is Adam Fergus, and we made sure that all of our interactions with Adam involved giving her pride of place. This even meant that when Adam came over to pull one of the VIPs on stage during the karaoke party, we made sure Savannah was the one. There was this sense of “let’s make this weekend as memorable as possible for her” – just because. Each of us could have easily been out for ourselves, eager to steal the spotlight and the precious few minutes we got with each of the cast, but we chose instead to be intentional about making an already incredible experience even more so for Savannah. And we basked in the glow of her happiness with every encounter. In a ridiculously short amount of time, family happened, and it was beautiful.

Also beautiful was how every person there could just be themselves. Acceptance was pretty much the rule, and it was so fun to see people be fans without worrying about being judged. Heck, I could fangirl without anyone judging me; in fact, I got lots of grins when people figured out it was my first con and I couldn’t get the smile off of my face. More to the point, as soon as people realized I was a newbie, they offered pointers and tips to make the entire experience even better. All around, everyone wanted the best for everyone else, to include leaving random notes of encouragement around the convention. Talk about a breath of fresh air.

3. As much as I love to create, watching others create is a joy on its own level.

Music means a lot to me. It is my go-to creative outlet, and making music is one of the places I most feel “at home,” even when you put me on a stage and hand me a microphone and a set of in-ear monitors. However, there is a deep sense of joy in watching other creatives do what they do and just letting myself enjoy what they are creating. The Louden Swain concert – Saturday Night Special – was no exception, and watching the band perform with each other and with the cast was so much fun, mostly because they were clearly having fun as they entertained us. (That being said, Lisa Berry sang the heck out of Proud Mary, and Jensen Ackles brought the house down with Like A Wrecking Ball – the Eric Church version – and Whipping Post.) It was something to behold, and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, how lucky am I to be sitting here, getting to witness this bit of magic in person?” Because that’s how it felt, like magic. Like a bunch of creatives were connecting in a big way, and something amazing was happening – and they were enjoying themselves immensely in the process!

4. Famous or not, the cast is made up of some of the realest people you’ll ever meet.

With every encounter with the cast, I walked away thinking, “They are so insanely normal.” They talked about the difficulties of being away from home, of parenting, of struggling with self-esteem and self-worth, of tackling physical and mental illness; they talked about the same things we talk about on a daily basis, and it was amazing.

They were also unfailingly kind. I had the opportunity to have some actual conversations with a few of the cast, and they were so present – I never felt like they were just getting through the event, biding their time until the next thing. I think we struggle with that in our everyday lives; they managed to make each person they interacted with feel important and valued in a brief period of time. That’s a gift, but I don’t think it is something you can fake – even if acting is how you make your living.

5. We impact them.

Consistently, from actor to actor, whether in Q&A panels or meet & greets, it was readily apparent that they are as awed by us as we are by them. This incredible phenomenon started off with a TV show but morphed into something powerful, long-lasting, and profound, and the cast realizes that the fans are essential in that equation. We all have stories, and many of us have offered thanks – but they return it to us with humility and a sort of wonder that this work they do has changed lives. That wonder in and of itself is something they continue to carry with them.

Those interactions made me think about the people we have in our everyday lives who make a difference, but we assume they know. Don’t assume. Don’t ever assume. If someone makes a difference, tell them. Thank them. Because that might be what keeps them going on the really bad days, when it’s easy to believe that none of it matters…and yet it all matters. It all matters, and the impact can be reciprocal.

6. Everyone warned me about Post-Con Depression.

Remember all the advice folks were quick to give me the second they figured out I was new to this whole thing? One item that came up over and over again was the warning about Post-Con Depression – when the high of being at a convention and interacting with your favorite cast and being a fan without being judged fades and you have to step back into ordinary life, which can feel like a deep, deep valley.

I’m not there yet. What I am, in this very moment, is grateful. I could have continued to say, “Yeah, it would be cool to go to a convention someday,” but someday isn’t on my calendar, and it might never have happened. I was part of an amazing experience, and I met incredible people – and I don’t just mean the cast. My belief that the #SPNFamily is a real thing was validated, and I got to be part of the fandom without judgment. The convention exceeded my expectations, and I couldn’t be happier. When the Post-Con Depression inevitably creeps up, I look forward to fighting it with the gratitude that I’m feeling right now, because gratitude doesn’t go away.

Bottom line: I’m so glad I went, and I have no regrets. Does it get better than that?

The Never-Ending Pursuit

My daughter accepted Jesus as her Savior today.  This was a decision that I’ve long prayed for, but never pressured her to make.  After all, a pressured decision of this type isn’t real, and if it isn’t real, what’s the point?  We had actually had a conversation about it last week, but I sensed that she wasn’t quite ready, so I opted to “plant seeds” and move on, trusting that when the time was right, she’d know.  Apparently, the time was right this morning.

What’s so funny when a child makes Jesus their Lord is that the gravity of what has just happened is often lost on them.  At that stage of their lives, there is no shadow for God to light up, mountain for Him to climb up, wall for Him to kick down, or lie for Him to tear down in His pursuit of their hearts.  (Yes, I am a really big fan of Reckless Love.  How could you tell?)  The decision is simple and big, but not “the weight of the world just left my shoulders” big – because, hopefully, they haven’t been carrying that kind of weight.

But someday, they might.  Actually, they probably will.  My daughter will have shadows and mountains and walls and lies to contend with – because she’s human, because she’s got a heart, because her decision today doesn’t make her perfect and impervious to the junk out there.  But it does give her hope.

Hope, you guys.

She doesn’t even really know that she needs hope yet, but I have enough perspective and have walked enough painful roads to know that she’s going to need hope in spades. Because we all do.

When I think about the choice she made today, I’m amazed.  Not at her, but at God Himself.  He could have sent His Son to die on the cross, raised Him three days later, and called it good.  He could have said, “Ok, world, I did My part.  I did more than My part.  Now it’s on you.  I’ll be waiting.”  But He didn’t, and He doesn’t.  He pursues us.  The cross was enough, but He didn’t stop there.  Our decision for salvation is enough, but He doesn’t stop there.  Every day of our lives, He continues to pursue us.  Even when our souls belong to Him, He is lighting up shadows and climbing mountains and kicking down walls and tearing down lies because having us wasn’t enough.  He wants us to live fulfilled, abundant lives in Him.  So He pursues, because He loves us…recklessly.

To be pursued by our Creator, by our Savior, by the only One who could see us at our best and our worst and love us unconditionally.  Wow.  And when you find that your little one – the one you asked God for, the one you’ve prayed countless prayers for – has begun to have an inkling that she’s pursued by Him, it’s kind of incredible.  Because His pursuit of her heart continues His pursuit of mine.

Tell Your Mountain About Your God

Confession: I’m a worrier.

Always have been.  It’s probably genetic, although I think it skipped my parents’ generation.  My mom says that if I don’t have something to worry about, I’ll find something.  It’s called borrowing trouble.

And it’s exhausting.

I recently made a list of the things that I fear, that I worry about, that wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and threaten the peace that I hold so dear.  This was really important, because lately it has seemed that fear has been in crazy pursuit of me.  I mean, an all-out hunt for my heart.  I made this list as part of a prayer, fully intending to give the list to God in exchange for that peace that passes all understanding He is so good at giving.

That’s not how things played out.

Instead, I pictured a mountain, and I heard the phrase “tell your mountain about your God.”  I’ve seen that phrase a million times; I always thought of it as a clever script-flip on telling God about your problems…but I hadn’t really considered what it meant.  Until I had a list of mountains, and I had told God all about them, but suddenly sensed that maybe they needed to hear about my God too.

So, I kid you not, I told my mountains about my God.  As in, I stood in my bedroom and had a conversation with each of them.  (I’m not nuts, I swear.)  For example, one of my worries (that exists every time I have a move coming up) is about finding a home in my new location.  I told that mountain about my God who is Himself a shelter and a refuge, who could snap His fingers and create the house that is best for my daughter and me if He chose to.  I told that mountain about how God has never failed me in this area; I said this as I stood in the bedroom of the home discovered three months before moving to this assignment, for a great price, in a great area.  I told that mountain that it might as well shrink into nothing, because my God would make quick work of it in no time.

I went through every item on my list – some huge, some small, all important enough to gnaw at my soul in the late hours of the night.  I told each of the mountains about my God, about His character, about His willingness and ability to fight for me and for my daughter and to prepare the way ahead for us.  I regaled them with stories of His faithfulness, over and over, again and again.  And as I did so, my mountains transformed.  They were no longer huge, hulking obstacles to overcome; they became an audience – an audience for watching my God work, and my telling of who He is and what He can do was simply the opening act.

I told my mountains about my God, and I ended up reminding myself about who He is.  His character, His faithfulness, and His promise were enough to melt the giants into nothing.  The worry, the worst-case scenarios, the lies, the cringe-worthy things that my brain comes up with in the middle of the night – none of them can stand when faced with who He is, the light He brings, and the fierceness with which He fights for His own.

I made a list of my mountains and expected God to just handle it.  He could have, obviously.  But there’s something about facing the mountains and watching the magic happen simply by declaring God to be who He says He is.  Where the mountains disappeared into nothing, my faith grew in their place.  God handled it, just not the way I expected – but that’s usually so much better anyway.

Do you have mountains?  Of course you do.  We all do.  I challenge you to tell them about your God…

A Bowl of Strawberries

I’ve spent the last week thinking about strawberries.  Crying over them, even.

Let me explain.

When my daughter was two years old, she would break out in hives when she ate broccoli or peas.  (Weird allergies for a kid, right?)  A blood test ordered by her doctor indicated that she was also allergic to strawberries.  At that point in her young life, she’d never even tasted a strawberry, so the decision was made to simply keep her away from anything with “strawberry” in the ingredients list.  Eventually, she outgrew the allergy to broccoli and peas, but she had been trained so well to avoid this particular allergen that she refused to even try anything that had a hint of “strawberry” in it.

This year, I convinced her doctor to refer her for another allergy test, ideally to stop the parade of EpiPens and Emergency Action Plans that we weren’t even sure were necessary in her case.  On Wednesday, we received word that my daughter was not, in fact, allergic to strawberries, and the whole world suddenly looked very different.

After getting the big news, our first stop was the nearest grocery store, where she decided that her first strawberry was going to come on top of a giant cupcake.  Why not?  This was something worth celebrating!  We took it home and decided dessert would absolutely come before dinner; how could I deny her the taste of a strawberry for one second longer??  She laughed nervously as she opened the clear plastic container that held her cupcake and then she took a big bite.

I sat there and watched her, sensing that this was one of those moments that you hold onto, because it is rare and special and precious.  I observed as she slowly chewed, getting to know the seed-filled texture of the berry, and I waited for her response to the one-of-a-kind taste.  The look on her face worried me a bit at first; I thought she might not like this fruit after all and the excitement would have been for naught.  But I was wrong.  The uncertainty in her eyes was replaced by wonder, as she enjoyed the flavor of a ripe strawberry for the first time in her life.

As parents, we introduce new foods to our tiny kiddos all the time, but it is simply part of the process of learning to eat new things.  I took for granted the magic of it, as I mostly hoped she wouldn’t spit out the food or break out in hives.  But introducing new foods and flavors to her at seven is very different than it was at two; she could revel in the newness of a flavor that struck her as sweet and somewhat tart, and for a moment there was a captivation with the taste and texture dancing across her tongue.  It was beautiful to behold.

Part of why this entire thing has brought me to tears is that we were created to enjoy flavors; this strawberry tasting had nothing to do with getting nutrition and fueling up.  There was something worthy about taking the time to taste and experience and enjoy.

Think about that.

We were created with tastebuds, and not simply as a survival tool to keep from eating things that could kill us.  We were created to enjoy different flavors and combinations thereof, and there’s something to that.  God could have made fueling our bodies to be as boring and mundane as putting gas in the car, but He didn’t.  It may seem small, but I think it illustrates yet another facet of His crazy, creative, reckless love for us.  In creating tastebuds, in creating a way for us to experience flavors – giving flavor a reason to exist, He opened a door for the creativity of those whose giftings are more culinary in nature.  But He didn’t stop there.  How many meaningful conversations have you had over good coffee?  How many get-togethers have involved a meal?  How many celebrations were incomplete without a cake?  “Grabbing something to eat” is a mainstay of how we interact; breaking bread together is often at the core of developing connections and relationships.  And it started because God loved us enough to give us a way to enjoy foods and flavors, even though He definitely didn’t need to.

All of this is to say that I’m really, really grateful.  Grateful for tastebuds.  Grateful to have been made by One whose boundless creativity gave way to such a gift.  Grateful to have watched my daughter’s awe at tasting a fruit she’d only seen but kept her distance from.  Grateful for the bowl of strawberries sitting on my counter, waiting for my little girl to come take just one more of this goodness that is so new in her life.  Grateful that the little things are still so incredibly powerful.  Just grateful.

Creativity and Compromise

A couple of months ago, my friends Jesse and Becca began something at our church called Creative’s Night. It was a time and place carved out for anyone in the church to share their talents, and it was an ideal setup for folks who weren’t always in a position to demonstrate the creativity within. People shared cooking, scrapbooking, card-making, writing, original songs, dancing – all kinds of things that spoke to the spark of the Divine, the creativity inherently part of each of us.

It got me thinking, and I’ve really been trying to tie all the thoughts I’ve had together, but it has not been easy. You’d think that writing about creativity would be a simple thing – it’s writing, for crying out loud – but I am discovering that my own relationship with creativity is more complex that I would like to admit.

When it comes to being a creative, I have spent a lifetime somehow simultaneously wanting to be “a creative” while vehemently denying being anything close to one. Conversations over the years have gone something like this:

“But Jessie, you can play.” Yeah, I breathe across an instrument and sound comes out. I didn’t write the music. Not a creative.

“Ok, but you can sing.” Same answer. I open my mouth and sound comes out. The words and music aren’t mine. Again, not a creative.

“What about acting? You take a part and make it yours.” Is it creative if I’m taking a part someone else wrote and simply putting my actions and inflection to it?

“Fine. You can write, though. You can’t deny that.” I am perfectly capable of stringing words together that sound good, but I can’t come up with stories. “Creative writing” is called “creative writing” for a reason, and I can’t do it.

Looking back, it bothers me how much I pushed back against any suggestion that I might be a creative. Especially when my heart wanted deeply to be one, and I was convinced that one could not live in both worlds – you were either creative or logical, but you could not effectively be both. I think some of this comes from how we as a society tend to talk about what one traditionally calls “a creative.” For example, starving artists are a thing; starving doctors are not. Creatives are portrayed as free spirits, following their hearts, full of impractical whimsy and most often empty wallets. How many parents of college kids pursuing music or theater or anything else in the fine arts have begged those same kids to develop some kind of practical backup plan, because creativity won’t pay the bills? No one tells kids who are studying to be doctors or lawyers or engineers to have a backup plan; their financial security is assumed and assured. So we compromise. We compromise who we are and how we were made in order to fit what society says we should be and what success is. We bury our hearts and later wonder why there’s a void.

The irony is that creativity exists everywhere, even for those doctors and lawyers and engineers. It is in the numbers, in the approach to problems and illnesses, in the use of the law. Creativity is everywhere, in everyone. It is emblematic of our Creator, and we were designed for our individual creativity to complement that which exists in others. And when we are acting out of that spark, we tend to be happier and more fulfilled, because we are doing the very thing we were designed to do. When I am writing or making music, sometimes I get this overwhelming sense that these are some of the things I was born for, but I hid those things away for so long. In no way do they overshadow what I do in the rest of my life, but when I’m living in freedom – bridging the logical and the creative – I am better at being me, in all areas of my life. Additionally, when I am engaging in creative pursuits with others, there is a deeper connection, a sense that what we’re doing is so much more than the sum of its parts, and the result is so life-affirming.

So what about all of my responses to the earlier conversations, where people tried to point out my creative nature and I ran screaming the other direction? I have decided that it isn’t always about creating a new song or script or book. What if my creativity creates an emotion for someone? An experience? An environment? A perspective? What if I can put words to something someone has yet to find the vocabulary for? What if, in all the intangible ways that our giftings work, we can offer hope or a smile or a way to finally shed tears that have been held back for far too long? Friends, that is beautiful. That is something that I want to be part of, and it is why I am embracing whatever creativity is within me. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to do it.

Here’s another point to consider: we ascribe many things to God – Creator, Ruler, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Counselor, Comforter, etc.  God’s got a lot going on.  But none of His roles or attributes overshadows any other, nor do they undermine any other.  He’s multi-faceted, and He made us in His image, to be just as multi-faceted as He is.  Our creativity doesn’t have to negate anything else we do; it should complement it.

To that end, we were made to complement each other and not compare or compete.  If there’s this thing that you do, that you love to do, that you feel so incredibly alive doing…but so-and-so does it better, so you hold back, you’re missing out.  We’re all missing out on your part in an incredible masterpiece.  When I’m singing, I’m the embodiment of “amateur hour;” I’ve never had a vocal lesson in my life, and I’m surrounded by people with more training and talent in their pinky finger than I will ever have in my entire body.  But I bring whatever gifting and creativity I have in the hope that what we bring as a group is so much more than what we might bring as individuals.  I bring what I have because I want to be a part of the masterpiece God’s making.

Finally, as we’re complementing the creativity in each other, we need to speak it.  If you see creativity – in whatever form it takes – speak it.  Just as yoga practitioners say namaste, which loosely means “the soul in me recognizes the soul in you,” we should recognize the creativity around us.  “The creative in me recognizes the creative in you.”  For someone searching for where creativity fits in their lives, for what creativity even exists in their lives, speaking it out loud to them could be life changing.  This isn’t just speaking truth; it’s speaking life, and that’s ministry right there.

From Inside A Depressive Episode

Hello from inside the dark, oppressive bowels of a depressive episode.

Where the tears come easily but energy and motivation do not.

Where everything, even the air, is heavy – but not in a comforting, weighted blanket kind of way.  More like being slowly suffocated…but so slowly that panicking wouldn’t make sense quite yet.

Where there’s not enough eye cream and makeup to hide how tired you feel, even after a full night’s sleep…because, let’s face it, sleep doesn’t help this kind of tired.

Where minor things feel major and major things barely register.

Where the lies you tell yourself are easier to believe, and none of them are nice.

Where it’s easy to give up on the things you were excited about two days ago, because your brain chemistry did a 180 in that time and everything just looks different now.  More gray.  Less promising.

It’s also where you answer honestly when someone you trust asks if you are ok.

Where you make appointments in order to keep yourself accountable to do the things that are crucial to your self-care.

Where you practice self-awareness enough to call yourself out when you’re isolating – and wow, do you love to isolate when you’re in this place.

Where you dig out the self-care kit you’ve kept by your bed or in the bag you carry to work and you USE IT.

Where you talk yourself out of being overwhelmed by the ridiculously long To Do list and find the things that will specifically help someone else.  Accomplishing something for someone else feels good, and there’s nothing wrong with using that as the motivation.

Where you find a way to keep doing what you do because other people depend on you, and to let them down if you had even an ounce of strength left just isn’t in your wiring – even on your worst day.

Where you lower your impossibly high standards for a time so that you can conserve your energy – and your sanity, not to mention the negative self-talk that wants you to believe you’re just the worst because of what hasn’t been accomplished.

Where you make a list of things and people and places and experiences that you’re grateful for.

Where you make another list of the things you’re looking forward to tomorrow, next week, next month.

Where you offer grace to yourself.

Where you offer grace to others.

Where you breathe.  And cry.  And pray.  And hope.  And dig deep.  And fight for every painful heartbeat because this depressive episode is just that: an episode.  It is a season, and it will eventually end.  The sun will come back up, and it will be glorious.  There will be a day when everything doesn’t hurt and you don’t feel sad every second.  I know it because I’ve lived it, and I know that this won’t last forever.  And if you’re in a similar place, know that yours won’t last either.  We’ve got a life to live, and better days are on the horizon.

“If I knew not midnight, how would I know the morning?” ~Nichole Nordeman

2017: The Year I Gave Up “Someday”

Someday.

I used to say “someday” with this wistful, sad resignation, because whatever I had said “someday” about probably wasn’t going to happen. It was a nice thought, but there wasn’t any real effort toward making “someday” anything resembling “today.”

But I gave up “someday” this year.

I started this blog, after telling myself for years that “someday” I would make my writings public.

I completed my graduate certificate – something I started for me, because I never want to stop learning, and “someday” is a terrible time to further one’s education.

I saw my second wonder of the known world and have set a goal to see my next one by the time I turn 40.

I bought tickets to a Supernatural convention. No more “someday it would be cool to go.” I am going – look for me in Nashville in April!

I faced the deployment that I knew would “someday” come. I survived. My incredible aunt survived. Abby handled it like a freaking rockstar. It changed my perspective and no longer looms forebodingly in the distance.

I acquired furniture for my home that I am really happy with, that I picked out, that doesn’t give the “I am decorating a dorm room” feel.

I went to Hawaii. I paid my respects and cried my eyes out at the Pearl Harbor Memorial and National Cemetery of the Pacific. I saw volcanoes. I hiked to waterfalls. I touched a sea urchin. I saw whales and dolphins and sea turtles. I dealt with my tendency to panic in the water and went snorkeling.

I sang and laughed and cried and loved and made decisions and was present. The passing of a friend and colleague taught me to number my days, and I have done so. I have been more protective of my family time and of the balance I so desperately need in my life, rather than pushing those things off to “someday.”

I just checked the calendar, and “someday” isn’t on there. It isn’t anywhere. It is a wish, fleeting and without foundation. And I have given up on it. I have this one life, ONE LIFE, to live, and I want to make the most of it. I want to see things and talk to people, love the broken and make a smoother path for those behind me. I want to continue building a relationship with my daughter and laying the foundation for the young woman she’s becoming. And I refuse to cast it all on “someday.”

2017, you’ve been many things, but I will forever remember you as the year I gave up “someday.” May 2018 be all the better for the lack of “someday.”

Five Tips for Self-Care During the Holidays

Self-care during the holidays can be tricky.  The routine changes, the junk food is plentiful, and society creates a whole lot of pressure for perfection around this time – all of which can spell disaster for self-care if you aren’t really deliberate about taking steps to keep that self-care process intact.  Here are a few tips for doing just that:

Stay active.  I have a workout regimen, and I am dedicated to it.  But the second that my schedule changes, my workouts are some of the first things to slip.  This ends up making me feel yucky about my body, which tends to snowball into feeling yucky about myself in general, and it’s just a slippery slope from there.  So I make sure to have a plan.  If I don’t think I’ll be able to get a full-up workout in, I carve out time to at least go for a brisk walk; the combination of activity plus fresh air and being outside in nature tend to do wonders for me overall.  If the weather is crummy and I can’t get outside, I have to work a little harder to get activity in.  There are a ton of videos on YouTube that I check out to get a workout in if I can’t get outside, and I have no issue finding one that will keeps my attention (make it fun!) and my heart rate up.

No matter what you do, have someone you know you’ll be with keep you accountable – maybe they can even take a walk or do the workout with you!  If you don’t feel like being that vulnerable with anyone you’re with, tell a trusted friend what your plan is and have them keep you accountable via chat/text/email/a phone call.

Hydrate.  I am a big tea drinker – specifically red rooibos tea.  It is good for me, and I tend to down a ton of water in the process.  But I realized over Thanksgiving that it was far easier to reach for the wine or soda that was readily available than to make my hot tea or drink water.  I ended up using a tracker on my phone to note how much water I had consumed; it gave me a goal to pursue even if my normal hydration was off-kilter.  (I’m not saying avoid alcohol and soda, but hydrating with the good-for-you stuff is an important part of balance.  If you find that you’re experiencing depression during the holidays, however, alcohol may not be the best thing for you to consume, so keep that in mind.)

Pace Yourself.  Whether we’re talking food or activity, pace yourself.  I look forward to the food and drink of the holidays all year long.  For that reason, I refuse to deprive myself, but I also am careful to eat and drink in moderation.  I get to enjoy the goodness that only comes out this time of year, but I don’t hate myself for eating or drinking to excess.  Same for activities – there are tons of places to go, people to see, and things to do, but if you try to do too much, you can wear yourself out and end up feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation.  Don’t overschedule yourself, and don’t be afraid to step back when you need to.  It isn’t selfish; it is part of taking care of yourself.

Take a Nap.  Along the same lines as pacing yourself, the routine change of the holidays might mean that you actually have time for that nap you never seem to get.  Take it.  Enjoy it.  But don’t overdo it – if you’re struggling with depression, a nap can turn into spending the entire day in bed, and that isn’t going to help.  But if you have the chance to get some rest, by all means, take advantage of it!

Manage Expectations.  Most families have some level of dysfunction to them, but the holidays can set many people up for a whole world of disappointment if they go into family time expecting things to look like a Hallmark movie.  Go in with your eyes wide open; this includes watching for the tendency for everyone to fall into years-old dynamics.  You and your family members could all be mature adults, but you may instantly fall into the same relationship dynamic you had when you were kids as soon as you get together.  If you find that this is happening, step back and consciously work to change the dynamic.  It can be exhausting, so watch your energy level, but it can also have a big, positive impact on how your family interacts.  Additionally, if you go in with a clear, realistic picture of what you expect from your holidays, you won’t have to cope with the emotional toll of overwhelming disappointment if you haven’t set an impossibly high standard.

I love this time of year; it is by far my absolute favorite.  I genuinely wish that I could take time off from my battle with depression in the same way that I can take time off of work, but it just isn’t that simple.  Since that’s the reality, let’s make the best of the holidays, taking care of ourselves and kicking off the new year right!

Teach Us To Number Our Days

“Teach us to number our days, that we would gain a heart of wisdom.” ~Psalms 90:12

Teach us to number our days.  It has always sounded so poetic, but I don’t think I’ve ever really grasped the meaning.  Until this week.  I learned this week to number my days, and it is because of a man whose days ran out.

I worked with Mike Clardy when we were both stationed at Ft Gordon, GA.  When he wasn’t making the worst jokes ever, he was quiet.  Reliable.  Kind.  Good.  Incredibly smart.  He loved his family deeply, and he went above and beyond for his wife and four beautiful children.  He did things that made you think, “Yeah, that’s Husband and Father of the Year right there.”  He was a man of faith.  And at 34 years old, he tragically and suddenly passed away.

The outpouring of grief, love, and support for Mike and his family has been something to behold.  I think Mike would be uncomfortable at being the cause of all the attention, but I also like to think that he’d appreciate how deeply he was loved, how profoundly his family is loved, and how he has become the thread pulling together the far-flung military family that served with him over the years.

In my professional capacity, I was in a leadership and training role in Mike’s world.  But his final act was to teach me something.  Mike taught me to number my days, my heartbeats, my breaths.  He taught me to not assume they are infinite, because they are not, even when we have so much left to live for and when death’s timing is seemingly so completely unfair.  He taught me to not only count the days, but make them count, because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow.

I’ll see you on the other side, Mike.

 

No More Busted Cans of Biscuits

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about self-care and suggested that when I get dressed, “I need to put on clean clothes, and they should be clothes that I feel great in, that give me a confidence boost.  (Clothes that make me feel like a busted can of biscuits should probably be removed from my wardrobe anyway, just on principle.)”  In keeping with that sentiment, I cleaned out my closet last night.  My closet, my dresser – basically, anything that held clothes was opened up, dumped out, and a hard look was given to everything inside.

On the surface, this might sound like a simple exercise in some deep spring (winter?) cleaning.  In reality, this was ripping off a proverbial bandaid and diving into a process fraught with emotion and some painful memories; despite knowing that it needed to be taken care of, I was really loathe to actually do it.  But I couldn’t write a blog post about self-care and then not follow my own advice.  For someone who craves authenticity, the blatant hypocrisy would eat me alive, so drawers and doors were opened and the sorting began instead.

I had a ton of clothes that didn’t fit anymore – and by “anymore,” I mean that I had been hanging onto them since before my daughter was born.  My 7-year-old daughter.  Seven. Years.  Three military moves.  Seriously, even if my weight ever returns to a number on the scale resembling the one that appeared pre-baby, my body has changed in ways that mean my clothes won’t quite fit the way they used to.  And that’s ok.  But it means I was holding onto a whole lot of clothes that were symbols of what once was, not what could be.

There were other clothes that fit beautifully but had some really negative, painful memories attached to them.  I’d been keeping them because they fit, because what if I needed them at some point, because I had spent hard-earned money on them, because, because, because.  I’d been keeping them but not really wearing them.  To look at them made me sad or uneasy; to touch them actually magnified those emotions by ten.  Putting the clothes on was like swimming in a pool of misery.  If you’re depressed and you’re avoiding wearing clothes that make your body feel like a busted can of biscuits, you certainly don’t need clothes that make your heart feel like one either.  For that matter, you don’t need any of that when you aren’t depressed.  You just don’t need any of that at all – ever – and neither do I.

I kept reminding myself of that reality as the pile grew.  I suddenly had no slacks, no suits, no little black dress; there was a momentary panic as I grasped how deeply I was purging my closet and dresser.  But I also realized that I hadn’t actually had slacks, suits, or a little black dress in a very long time – not ones that fit, anyway.  Instead, I’d had false hope and security hanging there, waiting to disappoint me when the time came for me to actually need things like the ones I was giving away.

20171110_072618-01942412373.jpeg

All told, 164 items left my closet and dresser last night.  164.  For starters, I felt some shame in realizing just how much I had that I never wore.  I live in a uniform or workout clothes 90% of the time; having a wardrobe that immense just wasn’t necessary.  It also meant that literally every time I opened my closet or a drawer, most of the clothing items within my reach were really just monuments to a past – a past body type, a past memory, a past effort at being someone I no longer am.  Yesterday was a good mental health day, and yet the journey through my hoard of clothing was a painful trip down memory lane.  Imagine how that feels on a rough mental health day.  Imagine the depression setting in and going to your closet in an attempt to take care of yourself and get dressed, only to find that most of what you own makes you feel horrible because it doesn’t fit or it evokes memories you’d really rather just forget.  Self-care sabotage.

So in the interest of not sabotaging my self-care – and self-care is an ongoing process that requires work on both the good and the bad mental health days – 164 items of clothing left my house this morning and were donated to a ministry down the street.  Someone else will get some great clothes, and they will absolutely rock them.  They will look and feel amazing, and so will I.  The monument to the things that I will never again be has been dismantled, no longer something to be leveraged by depression’s ugly voice trying to convince me that whatever I am now is something less.  Because on my good days, my bad days, and every day in between, I’m not less, and I won’t let something as simple as my clothes make me feel otherwise.  Please don’t give yours that kind of power either.

Your Value Is Not Negotiable

“True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value to the world.” ~Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I was on a transatlantic flight, listening to Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness, when this statement made me sit up in my reclined seat.  I backed up the audio and played it again.  And again.  Once we landed, I got on Amazon and bought the book.  (Sometimes, you need to be able to hold that kind of goodness in your hands.  Or maybe that’s just me.)  What’s interesting, though, is that her statement has been evolving a bit, transforming itself in my subconscious into something like this:

Your value is not negotiable.

Read that again.  Your value is not negotiable.  It isn’t up for debate.  I’m not talking about value condensed down to a dollar sign; your value as a human being is not the domain of actuaries.

So I want you to really read these words again.  Say them out loud.  Listen to them.  Let them soak into those dry places in your soul.

You have value.  You are valuable.  You are valued.

You have worth.  You are worthwhile.  You are worthy.

If you read those words and have issues speaking them out loud about yourself, much less believing them, I have a question for you:  Who told you?

Who told you that you had to earn love?

Who told you that you had to perform on life’s stage to be worth something?

Who told you that you were nothing but the sum of your failures?  Who told you that you were nothing but the sum of your successes?  Who told you that you were nothing?

Who told you that your value depended on your bank account?  Your gender?  The color of your skin?  Your orientation?  Your family status?  Your grades?  Where you went to school?  If you went to school?  What kind of car you drive?  The brand name on your jeans?  Where you work?  Where you sit at lunch?  The number on the scale?

Who told you that your heart and soul and thoughts and dreams and hopes and beliefs had a price tag?  Who told you that they were to be haggled down for the lowest bidder?

Dear friends, I don’t know who told you these things, but they were wrong.  Your life matters.  Your presence in this world has a purpose.  You have an impact to make upon this world that is solely reserved for you.

You are worthy.  You are valued.  And your value is not negotiable.

 The Mountain

“You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.”

I’ve seen this quote a lot lately.  By “a lot,” I mean that I have seen it in at least ten different places in the last two weeks.  Over time, I have learned that when something keeps popping up like that, I need to pay attention; there’s a message in it for me.

I finally understood it this morning after my latest quote sighting.  The message – the mountain – isn’t about some struggle currently taking place in my life; it is about the one that I have mostly walked through, the one that some know about, but many do not.  In fact, after my recent Love Letter posting, a few people wrote to me and asked how writing a love letter could be difficult, as my life is pretty amazing.  And they were right – my life is really, really great.  But it is really, really great on the other side of a mountain that I never could have imagined having to move and that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.  In reality, we all have these mountains, and we feel like they are unmovable, which is why letting others into our own mountain-moving expeditions is so important.  If one can do it, others can too.

So let’s talk about my mountain.

June 19, 2013.

I was in Alabama for training, my husband was 2,000 miles away at our latest military assignment, and our daughter was visiting his parents in still another state.  It was his birthday, and I hated to miss it, but holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are sort of arbitrary in military life.  My phone rang, and I answered it with some sappy version of “Hey there, birthday boy!”  What I heard in reply was:

“Don’t say anything.  It’s me.  I was drinking at my birthday party.  I drove my car, and it’s wrapped around a steel pole.  I think I’ve killed somebody.”

Click.

You know those moments in life when something happens and you instinctively know that nothing will ever be the same afterward?  How that incident will forever be a dividing line, and memories will be categorized as “before the thing” and “after the thing?”  I looked around the room in a growing panic, realizing that I was holding the instrument of that dividing line in my hand – my phone – and that nothing, nothing would ever go back to the way it had been just a few seconds earlier.

I tried to call him back.  He eventually answered, told me to get him a lawyer, and hung up again.  How was I supposed to get him a lawyer in a state 2,000 miles away when I didn’t have a clear picture of what was going on?  I called my mom.  I called any attorney who would answer the phone.  I called my mom again.  I called a friend whom I knew had been at my house earlier in the day, and he took another friend with him to the hospital where word had it my husband had been transported.  I called my mom.  I called more attorneys and eventually maxed out my credit cards to pay an exorbitant retainer fee.

As the evening wore on, my friends called me, and they let me know that they couldn’t be sure of anything, but that there was a news story that I probably needed to see, running on a local news station.  I grabbed my laptop, found the story, and was horrified to see coverage that involved my husband’s car, flashing red and blue lights, and a confirmed fatality.  No, nothing would ever be the same.

I then called my husband’s parents.  How are you supposed to break news like this to someone?  What do you even say?  I haltingly got the words out and was met with anguished wails that I will never be able to unhear.  I called my mom.

I kept checking the news, hoping that perhaps there had been a horrible mistake, but now my husband’s mugshot was running too.  His face was puffy, a bandage covering his chin.  He looked angry, as he often did when he’d had too much to drink and wasn’t getting his way.  I remember staring at it, wondering how we had gotten to this place, this moment, at the same time knowing that his worsening alcoholism and stubborn refusal to get help had been building to this moment for years.  Here we were.  A woman was dead, her boyfriend was seriously injured, families were forever changed, and this was beyond terrible.

Over the next 48 hours, my life continued to unravel.  There was the call from jail when he told me to log into his Facebook account to deactivate it, providing me the password he’d never shared before; the untold numbers of pictures of him with alcohol would be damning in court.  I logged in and was greeted almost immediately with evidence of affairs.  In the end, it would come out that he’d had a girlfriend for more than a year in another state, that there had been 27 other women over the course of our marriage, and that I had worked with several of them.  The lies he had told were just as painful as the affairs; he claimed that I had abandoned my family to pursue my career, that he was a single dad with full custody of our daughter, that we were the most amicably divorced couple you’d ever meet.  Even as I write these words now, I feel the hot tears, the sting of humiliation, the sick feeling in my stomach at how completely I had been played, lied about, and lied to.

Then he called to tell me that there was another credit card; he wouldn’t be able to pay it from jail, so that was on me.  Two years earlier, we had gone through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, and I had been committed to the process of getting debt free.  My husband acted like he was too, but he refused to give me the passwords to our credit cards.  I had run out of anything to offer as an ultimatum, short of divorce, so I just took his word for how we were progressing and resigned myself to the uncomfortable situation of not having access to the ground truth of our finances.  (I’ve since learned that this is financial abuse, but I didn’t even know that was a thing at the time.)  Now I was discovering that he had used the Power of Attorney that he had for me, which is very common for military couples, to open a credit card in my name to take another woman to Paris, France.

Yes, you read that right.  He took a woman other than the one he was married to – who wasn’t even the girlfriend in another state – to the most romantic city on earth.  How did he do this without me knowing?  Well, it’s tough to take a trip to Europe without your wife figuring it out, so he spun a story about a bunch of his military buddies going to visit some other military buddies in France.  It sounded a little funny, but every time I brought up any objections, he made me out to be paranoid and in the end I felt like the crazy, nagging wife.  (Another learning point: this is called gaslighting.  I’d never heard of this one either, but he was an expert at this technique.)  As it turned out, there were no other guys going.  He opened the credit card to buy the plane tickets for himself and the woman, in addition to all the expenses one incurs while on a fabulous European vacay.

Needless to say, my marriage was over.  In the span of a couple of days, my husband had killed someone while driving drunk, I was divorcing, I was in $88,000 of debt, I was a suddenly single mom, and I was six months into a demanding three-year military assignment.  This was a literal case of I can’t even

Thus, my mountain.  It loomed large, imposing and seemingly impossible.  Where do you even begin to move a mountain like that?  How do you begin to move a mountain like that when you can barely breathe?  I spent hours, maybe days, crying my eyes out and staring at the wall.  I was convinced that the pain in my chest was never going away.  I lived in fear of the phone ringing, bringing more bad news.  I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life.  My depression, always a companion lurking in the background, threatened to take center stage as I tried to figure out what exactly putting one foot in front of the other was supposed to actually look like.  Forget moving a mountain; I was trying to get out of bed every morning.

That being said, here’s the thing about moving mountains: you don’t do it alone.  You are not Atlas, with the world on your shoulders.  You have a support system.  Sometimes they find out what’s going on and reach out to you; sometimes you have to do the most difficult thing in the world and ask for help.  In this case, I had supporters from all over, and they showed up.  The people I was training with, who had only known me for a month, were great.  I had friends at the same location who checked on me daily.  As soon as the news story got out, it made its rounds on social media, and my phone blew up with texts, calls, and Facebook messages from all over the world asking if my daughter and I were ok, did we need anything, how could they help us?  Friends at my assignment insisted that we move in with them once we returned; they provided a safety net as I attempted to piece my world back together.  When I eventually moved into an apartment, most of my coworkers showed up to take on a task that I was emotionally unready for.  My family rallied behind me, and I found a new church that purposely ministered to the broken places in my life without judgment.  I had people on all sides who helped me move the mountain, even if the progress was incremental at times.

There were other things, horrifying things, that happened in this bizarre chapter of my life, but that’s another post entirely.  In reality, it could be optioned for a Lifetime movie, because you can’t make this stuff up.  But that’s not the important thing.

The important thing is that there is hope on the other side of the mountain.  There is life on the other side of the mountain.  For those who would tell me that my life is pretty freaking awesome, they are so right.  I am awash with gratefulness at how good life is, because I know how epically painful it was not so long ago.  But it didn’t get good overnight.  The mountain had to be moved.

There were tears.

There was struggle.

There was screaming at God about how unbelievably unfair this whole thing was.

There were panic attacks in grocery store aisles.

There was saying no to just about everything as I tried to figure out how to pay off more debt than I’d ever seen.

There were the moments when my preschooler wanted to know why her daddy wasn’t around, and I didn’t have the words.

There were the hundreds of sleepless nights when I tried to figure out what I had done that was so wrong.

These were all part of the mountain.  It took a couple of years, but I paid off all the debt.  The panic attacks eventually stopped.  My daughter and I have a phenomenal relationship, and she understands – in age-appropriate terms – why her dad is not around.  She’s a resilient 7-year-old now, happy and healthy, strong and kind.  I came to terms with the abuse that had gone on and went to counseling.  (I can’t recommend counseling highly enough; we could all use some therapy in our lives!)  I found the freedom to be me – in the way I dress, the way I wear my hair, the creative pursuits that capture my heart.

I also acknowledge the bits of the mountain that are still being moved, the broken pieces of rock and rubble that are still strewn across the road ahead.  One of these pieces involves taking back the things that were stolen in the emotional upheaval of having my world torn apart.  After finding out about the other woman that my husband had taken to Paris, I felt like Paris was ruined for me – and I’d never even been there!  But I cringed when I thought about the city, and I avoided all the aisles in Target that had the Paris artwork and the Eiffel Tower.  I have very recently added Paris to my bucket list, deciding that another person doesn’t get to have the ability to ruin an entire city for me.  There is something empowering about taking back that kind of ownership of my likes and dislikes, my dreams and destination goals.

To all those who are dealing with a mountain: it can be moved.  It can be moved, and you’ve got a support system to help you do it.  If you’re a person of faith, I invite you to dig into that.  I certainly had to.  Regardless, speak up and speak out.  Don’t try to move this thing by yourself.  It is easier in community, and there are those who will love you deeply in the most wounded parts of you as you work together to change the geography of your life.  There is hope, there is peace, and there is life as you do so, and I can testify that life on the other side of that moved mountain is pretty good.  Don’t give up.  Please don’t give up.  There’s so much that I want you to see.

I deeply hope that the story of my mountain gives you some hope as you move yours, and I hope that your courage in turn inspires others.  We’re not in this alone, and mountains move far easier when we’ve got people by our side – especially those who have some experience in the task.  Don’t give up.  It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

When Life Is In Transition

My heart hurts.  There’s a gnawing ache in the pit of my stomach.  Life is in transition, and it is riddled with emotion.

You pour yourself into something – or many somethings – for weeks, months, or even years, and then you hand it off to someone else.  Someone whose background, experience, and vision is probably different than your own, but that matters little.  Or perhaps it matters most.  The things they bring might be what is necessary to push the effort farther down the field, but it does not make it easier to let go.

Letting go feels like a sudden gaping hole where purpose used to be.  If there’s a strange limbo in the transition and you aren’t immediately off to the next thing, there’s the potential to stare at the wall, wondering what do I do now?  The emptiness is overwhelming, and it is unexpected.  Depending on the type of transition, you might assume that there’d be simply relief and happiness in the changeover, only to be knocked sideways by emotions that are something else entirely.

I am deployed. I have been counting down the days until I see my family again, so to feel this profound melancholy has caught me off guard.  I feel guilty for feeling sad; shouldn’t I be overjoyed that I am almost home?  How can there possibly be any room for negative emotions when I am so close to hugging my daughter again, sleeping in my bed, taking an actual shower, and wearing clothes that are not the same ones I’ve lived in for the last several months?

There is room because God created humanity to be wondrously complex, and there is plenty of room for the full range of emotions – to be felt individually, all at once, or something in between.  There is room because we care about the things we do, the efforts we involve ourselves in, the dreams we bring to life, and the people we interact with along the way.  There is room because we aren’t robots, unfeeling and moving from one task to another.  There’s room because what we did mattered.  We mattered.  It all mattered.

We still matter, and we matter in the change.  If, like me, you’re in some weird life transition, and you’re riding a bizarre rollercoaster of emotions, I just want you to know that you’re normal and not alone.  Heck, I’ve saved you a seat – we’ll ride this crazy thing together, and eventually things will even out.  We’ll put one foot in front of the other, we’ll embrace the purpose we find in the next step, and we’ll eventually discover joy growing where that sad emptiness currently resides.

Here’s to life in transition, friends, and all the things we deeply feel along the way.

They Showed Up

They showed up.

From across the country and around the world.

They showed up.

To listen to live music. To relax. To sing along.

They showed up.

To bid farewell to the fading summer and welcome the hints of fall.

They showed up.

To meet with friends and connect with strangers.

And then he showed up.

Revelry turned to panic in a shower of bullets as the worst kind of history was made under the lights of the Vegas Strip.

They showed up.

Concert-goers became protectors; humans became shields.

They showed up.

Picking up, running with, carrying out the scared and the injured.

They showed up.

First responders, running toward the horror, focused on saving lives.

They showed up.

Doctors and nurses in blood-stained scrubs fighting for the lives evil had tried to take.

They showed up.

Trauma counselors answered the call for volunteers and met the scared, broken and distraught whose lives were forever altered.

They showed up.

They filled chapels and churches to keep their promise to pray.

They showed up.

Waiting for hours, even overnight, to donate blood.

They showed up.

Filling other needs to capacity – food, water, hygiene products, and clothes.

They showed up.

Surpassing funding goals for people they might never meet.

They showed up.

They brought hope. They shared life. They sat and cried with the hurting. They demonstrated that humanity’s darkest moments cannot hold sway when love shows up.

Whether a natural disaster or an act of terror, courageous hearts full of hope and action will always win. These are the moments when that divine spark shines brightest because love is so much bigger than anything any force can throw our way.

Love showed up. Hope showed up. Courage showed up. Life showed up.

And it will every time.

The Love Letter

A couple of weeks ago, To Write Love On Her Arms challenged people to write a love letter to themselves, and my first thought was clear and concise:

Nope. Buckets of NOPE.

I love writing, and I love encouraging people to love themselves, so the intensity of my reaction caught me off-guard. This seemed like the perfect little assignment, so what exactly was my problem?? I sat there, dumbfounded and more than a little uneasy. I could dig deeper – which could get ugly – and figure out what was going on, or I could totally pretend that I hadn’t seen TWLOHA’s challenge and just go on about my day. I went to scroll down to the next item in my feed when I realized that I couldn’t unfeel that visceral reaction; this wasn’t going to go away. I grimaced and grabbed my journal and some coffee, sought out a quiet corner, and began to process.

Why did writing myself a love letter bother me so deeply? Did I love myself? Sure. I mean, I thought so. I didn’t hate myself, and that was a world away from where I used to be. I at least liked myself enough to think that I’d want to be friends with me…if I wasn’t already me. So if love wasn’t the problem, what was? This picture popped into my head of me writing a letter, the cursive flowing across the page as I filled up lines with adjectives talking about how great I was. That was the moment that it hit me; writing a love letter felt exactly like writing my annual performance report at work. Those performance reports are always wordsmith-ed to make it sound as though a person not only walks on water, but they led 500 other people in walking on water too, and they saved the organization enough money to pay off the national debt in the process. Writing my performance report makes me feel like I’m selling myself, and I tend to want a shower afterward, because gross.

I didn’t want anything I wrote to myself to be remotely like that. Love letters are beautiful, almost magical things. To string words into sentences that somehow communicate why a person loves another is a spell in and of itself. Maybe I didn’t feel worthy of that magic, or perhaps that kind of enchanted communication seemed meant for two hearts and not just one writing to itself.

I realized that I would believe every word of a love letter written to me by someone else, but I would feel arrogant and conceited if I did the same for myself. Could I trust my own words? What if I wrote the wrong things? What if I loved myself for the wrong reasons? Were there right reasons to love myself, and did I know them? If I knew them, did I actually love myself for them? The line of questioning became absurd and vaguely familiar, and as I asked them, my face suddenly became very hot and my chest tightened a bit. The word iridescent flashed across my brain as I realized this wasn’t all that different from trying to figure out the “right” favorite color to have as a kid. I recognized the sensation immediately, and I was stunned when I made the connection: to write a love letter to myself felt risky, and the potential to somehow be wrong in what I wrote drove a feeling of shame before I had even jotted down a syllable. It was fine to encourage others to love themselves; it was fine to be loved by someone else. It was even totally acceptable to say that I loved myself. But get into the details about why I might be worthy of that love, and I might be wrong. Wrong. Bad. Judged. Shameful.

That was it. The source of my adamant refusal to write myself a love letter had been discovered. I didn’t feel better; instead, I was livid. I wasn’t sure who to be mad at, but the fact that shame existed in this context seemed like a valid reason to be angry. But being pissed off wasn’t going to solve anything, and it wasn’t going to make the weird Shame Monster go away. So I did the only thing I could think of.

I flipped to a blank page and started to write…

**********

Dear Me,

First, I love that on the spectrum of smoking hot messes, you are downright radioactive. That’s part of your charm. You are real and honest about your mess, and you’d walk away from this sweet career you’ve built if it ever demanded that you be anything less than your messy, authentic self.

I love that you bare your scars – some deep, some weathered, some so fresh they might still be wounds. You show them unreservedly, so that others might avoid scars of their own or at least be unashamed of the ones they have.

You’re a forced extrovert by day but a confirmed introvert at heart. In spite of your need for time to yourself, you cannot bear the thought of anyone feeling alone, lost, left out, or hopeless on this journey called life. If you could spend every waking minute telling people that they aren’t alone and that hope absolutely exists, I think you would do it.

I love that you experience life and feel emotion in ways always amplified with the same adverb: too much, too deeply, too greatly. You put those feelings on a shelf to do your job, but you inevitably circle back to take them down, unwrapping the dubious gift left by and for your heart and soul. Profound feeling is your birthright; to be any less would be a betrayal of the very essence of who you are.

The intensity with which you feel and love and live makes you an open target, and while you still feel wounds far more deeply than you will admit, you haven’t closed yourself off. You have consciously chosen to risk those wounds rather than become bitter. It doesn’t always make sense – from a self-preservation perspective, it makes none – but I’m not sure you could actually survive if you boarded up that beating heart of yours. Again, you certainly wouldn’t be you, and I love that you are so recklessly committed to being you.

Part of your unfettered feeling comes from a desire to be an example to your daughter. I love that you want so desperately to be a good mom, and you worry constantly about how your choices will impact her. Here’s the reality: you’re a good mom. Some days, you’re a great mom. Your daughter is secure in the fact that she’s loved, that you believe in her, and that you’re proud of her. She’s happy, healthy, and resilient. You’ve spent the last few years walking through fire to make sure she’d come out unscathed, and you’ve done a pretty good job. Don’t sweat the small stuff; you’ve got this.

I love that you seek out beautiful things and that sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, and starry nights still make you cry. You’ve been storing up and holding onto these encounters with beauty for years, unsure of how to express the raw joy and awe that comes from such things. But you’ve been finding ways to channel all of that into creating. You have shed that people-pleasing skin you’ve been walking around in your whole life, and your creativity has blossomed. You don’t always belong in the analytical corner you’ve painted yourself into, convinced that creativity was the domain of the free-spirits in your life. You can be both – you are both – and that happiness radiating from you when you are making music or writing is telling. I love that you’ve found it; don’t bury it, but by all means, share it!

I love that you are fiercely loyal, often to a fault. I love that your faith still runs deep after all these years, even if you no longer fit the church girl mold that you once did. That’s ok. Jesus loves you anyway, and so do I. And maybe that makes it ok for other people who don’t quite fit the picture-perfect Christian model either. If Jesus loves you, He most certainly loves them!

You’re insecure about so much of your body; you always have been, and there are some molds you just won’t ever fit into. But your eyes – those are my favorite feature. They are shades of brown that resemble different hues of honey, depending on your mood, and they betray your every deeply felt emotion. (You are a terrible liar because of this, and that’s a wonderful thing.)

You’ve come a long way down a hard road, and I couldn’t be prouder. You don’t have it all figured out; you never will. But your heart is still open – to others, to yourself, to faith, to love, to hope. I love that. I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t forget that.

Always,

Me

*********

Friends, do you have it in you to write your own love letter to yourselves?

Hope

“I’m just…I’m just running out of hope.”

I read the words on my screen, but I heard them in my head in her voice.  Tired.  Drained.  Defeated.

I asked the uncomfortable, necessary question; she told me she was not suicidal at that moment.  She let me know that she had an appointment with her doctor the next morning, though, and she was determined to see life through until at least then.  We chatted throughout the night – a comfort for her and a reassurance for me that she was still hanging in there.  When an ocean and a handful of time zones separate you, you do what you can with limited options.  Dawn came, and with it, her morning routine.  She promised to send me a message after the appointment to let me know how it had gone.

I thought back to her statement, typed with such sad resignation: “I’m just running out of hope.”  What was hope, exactly?  I mean, I echo the Bible when I say that it is the anchor of my soul, and I echo To Write Love On Her Arms when I also say it is the anthem of my soul.  But what does being an anchor and an anthem of my soul mean?  Was hope as my friend saw it – some kind of finite resource, invisibly measured by a gauge like a tank of gas in my car?  Was it like a staple that everyone empties grocery store shelves of before a snowstorm, like bread and water?  How do you run out of something you can barely define without a dictionary?

As I pondered and processed, I took to my various social media accounts and asked people to finish the sentence: Hope is _______.  Most answers were abstract; others were more concrete, and some…well, let’s just say that I was trolled by a few friends.  There were answers grounded in faith, there were multiple Emily Dickinson quotations about “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” and there were several answers that defined hope as a belief, a feeling, or a mindset.  Some mentioned what hope is not: blind optimism or a course of action (more on this one in a minute).  By and large, the answers were great but still somehow intangible.  So what does hope look like?

In my own life, when I am spiraling into a dark depressive episode and I choose to short-circuit the spiral by calling it a night and going to sleep, I do so with the hope that the sun will come up tomorrow.  And if it is raining in the morning and I can’t see the sun, my hope is that the colors of everything the rain touches will be magnified as they normally are when wet, bold against the gray.  My hope is for beauty in the bleakness.

Hope is knowing that sunrise will come, even in the midst of the darkest night.

Hope is searching for that sunrise.  Hope is finding starlight in the waiting – maybe only a single star – and hanging on because where there is a little light, there must be more.  Hope is finding no light but remembering starlight, moonlight, sunrise – and where light has been before, surely it can shine again.

In my work, anytime someone says “Hopefully, such-and-such happens,” it is common to remind them that “hope is not a course of action.”  In the military, the details matter and have to be accounted for; hoping things come together without a plan for them to generally results in mission failure.  So from a work perspective, I totally believe that hope is not a course of action.  From a life perspective, I believe that hope may be the greatest course of action we could possibly have.

Hope is audacious, bold, defiant, and daring.  It flies in the face of everything negative and refuses to give ground.  Hope expects.  Hope is action, even if that action is simply to breathe in, breathe out, and put one foot in front of the other.

Hope is choosing not to wall yourself off from people, feelings, experiences, love, and life because you have been devastatingly hurt.

Hope is communicating to someone that you’re having a tough time and could use some help.

Hope is answering that message with a message of its own: you are not alone.  I am not alone.  We are not alone.  And isn’t that what we want so desperately to know?  That we aren’t all by ourselves in this life?

Hope is not an island.  Or if it is, it is ever-expanding and making room for others.  Hope shares hope.  Hope is sitting beside someone in their darkness and offering light.  You may simply be a candle – a tea light, for crying out loud – but have you ever seen what a tiny candle can do in the darkest of places?  Hope shares hope; light shares light.  Does a candle lose anything by lighting another candle?  No, but the darkness sure does.

Hope is many things, but the intangibleness of it somehow drives the most tangible actions.  To live is hope, my friends.  Deep, crazy, wild hope.

My friend went to her doctor’s appointment and was put on some new meds that should help to get her brain chemistry into a better place.  She’s still hanging in there, as am I – and many of her friends.  We are those persistent (read: pain in the rear) friends who won’t let her give up without a fight, and I think that candles are being lit.  Her hope tank is slowly filling, and she’s finding a new reason each day to keep going.  Like I said, to live is hope.

Live big.  Hope big.  And share that stuff everywhere, with everyone.

Shame

This is a topic that has been stirring in the back of my mind for awhile, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it.  Frankly, it’s uncomfortable, but that is perhaps exactly why it needs to be discussed.

Shame.

I owe much to Dr. Brené Brown and her research on the subject; she has helped to clarify and give voice to the feelings for which we often have no vocabulary.  Her insistence that “shame cannot survive being spoken” is a large part of why this blog entry is happening – why this blog is happening.  The stigma surrounding mental illness exists because of shame, but if we call it what it is, that stigma cannot endure.

As someone who is a born people-pleaser and perfectionist, I can tell you that shame and I have been companions for a long time.  Add my struggle with depression to the mix, and shame basically moved in and made itself at home.  For us today, I want to talk through some of the experiences that I’ve had with shame and mental illness – even shame and mental health – because talking about it takes away the power that shame likes to hold over us.

I was a young adult before I figured out that what I was feeling and thinking were not “normal,” that every other person didn’t have these bouts of almost debilitating depression and thought processes that could get downright scary.  Being the perfectionist that I am, I learned pretty quickly that I needed to “hide my crazy,” because no successful person I knew was dealing with it, so it must be bad.  I must be bad, and I needed to keep the show going or everyone else would figure out just how messed up I was.

It should be noted that this ties in closely with Imposter Syndrome.  I didn’t know it had a name until a couple of years ago, but I always had this sense that one day everyone was going to figure that I was a fraud and didn’t belong.  Outwardly, that made no sense; most would say that I am successful academically and professionally.  Inwardly, I was doing my best to hide away my flaws, convince the world that I was Super Woman, and make being Super Woman look easy.  Frankly, that’s impossible, but it seemed to add a whole new layer of depression onto what already existed.

When I got married, my then-husband told me that depression wasn’t really a medical thing – it was spiritual, and I just needed to pray more.  As a Christian, this was devastating.  Not only was I “bad” because of my depression, but I was clearly a terrible Christian too.  I found myself scheduling my day around additional prayer time, hoping that if I prayed enough, God would take this thing away, and the tears I cried could fill an ocean.  I wondered what the magic number was – how many prayers were necessary?  Or was it a time thing?  I completely lost sight of the reality of a relationship with God as I desperately sought what I regarded as a miracle from Him.  And with every depressive episode, I felt worse, I felt I had failed, and I drowned in the shame of being less-than.

When I first sought help, I distinctly remember parking as close to the building housing Mental Health as possible, and I ran to the door, covering my face the whole way.  I recall wishing that there was something else – anything else – in that building that I could use as my cover story if someone saw me going in there.  At that moment, it didn’t matter that I was in the darkest corner of my depression and was desperately reaching for a way out that didn’t involve ending my life.  What mattered was that someone might see me going into the Mental Health building and know that I was broken, that I was a mess, that I couldn’t keep it all together – and if they saw that, my career as a military officer might be over before it really started.

Spoiler alert: I walked through those doors and was met by a friend whom I had told I needed help.  He in turn called the doc, and I began to get the help I needed.  I learned about self-care, healthy coping, and what to do when I start to spiral.  And my career successfully moved forward.

I’d love to tell you that it was all rainbows, kittens, and unicorns from there.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  As I was preparing for Weapons School, my doctor had to sign a pretty routine form that basically said there wasn’t anything medical keeping me from holding a security clearance.  I say “pretty routine” because I’d held a clearance for years, and I had been honest about seeking mental health help on every re-investigation.  So imagine my surprise when my doctor looked at the form, looked at my medical records, and then said to me, “You have a mental health history.  I need your commander to see your history before I sign anything.”  She then printed out all the notes from my mental health appointments, put them in an envelope for my commander, and insisted that he had to sign the envelope – verifying that he had read my mental health record – before she would sign the paperwork.

“I don’t know what this school is that you’re trying to go to, but they might not want people like you in there.  Your commander needs to see what they’ll have to deal with if you go.”

People like you.  She said it.  I was different.  I was “other.”  I was something bad.

I cried all the way to my commander’s office, the shame was so tangible.  I walked in, handed him the envelope, and explained what my doctor had said.  Thankfully, he gave me the “Are you effing kidding me??” look, signed the envelope without opening it, and said, “I already know what I need to know, and I’m not going to read this.  If anything in this envelope was an issue, I would have already been called.”  I was grateful and relieved.  (Looking back, I probably should have taken it up with Patient Advocacy for HIPAA violations, but I didn’t want the already tenuous process to take longer than necessary.)

Second spoiler alert: I went to Weapons School and successfully completed the course.  Even “people like me” can do challenging things.  Do you hear that and know that?  This thing we’re dealing with doesn’t have to hold us back.

Most recently, after publishing a couple of my blog posts, a well-meaning friend wrote me the following:

What you’re writing is good stuff, and I’m glad that people seem to be helped by it.  But you’re about to pin on Major, and if you keep this blog going, you are going to kill your career.  Lieutenant Colonels don’t talk about these things.  If they get help, they keep quiet about it, because no one wants a leader with problems.

My first reaction was shame, followed by a huge temptation to delete this blog.  Then I was indignant.  “Lieutenant Colonels don’t talk about these things.”  Maybe that’s the problem!  We ask our leaders to be authentic, but they cannot be vulnerable.  We demand that they climb up onto a pedestal and lead from there, but if they need to get help, they’d better sneak away and not tell a soul.  What a disservice we have done to our leaders, and in turn to those they lead.  No one is without issues, but we’ve created a culture where the appearance is more important than the truth.

So here I am.  I am owning the depression I’ve been battling my entire life, and every time I talk about this or write about it, I am telling the shame that it has no place in this conversation.  The stigma has no place in this conversation.  I am telling every person who reads this that they are not alone and that there is help.  You can make the courageous decision to get help and not have it destroy your career or your academics or your dreams.  You can lead well and still have issues – as long as you are finding healthy ways to deal with them.

Shame is part of this story, friends, but it doesn’t have to be.  Continue to speak up, to speak out, to get help, and to tell your story.  Keep telling yours, and I’ll keep telling mine, and we will make it impossible for shame to survive.

My Story

As a reader pointed out, perhaps it isn’t entirely fair to ask you to tell me your story, to beg you to see how important you and your story are, without embracing a little vulnerability myself and telling parts of my own story.  I say “parts” only because some of the questions I asked last week could be blog posts in and of themselves, and they may well develop into those someday, but for now I will offer up a look at some of the things and experiences that help make me…me.

My favorite color is purple.  All shades, but I’m especially fond of lavender.  Why?  No clue.  It just is, and I love that reality.  There was a time in my life when I would have told you my favorite color was white because it symbolized purity and innocence.  At least, that seemed like a good church girl answer, a right answer, and Lord knows that I was always looking for the right answer – even to questions that didn’t – shouldn’t – have a right answer.  Someone told me once that their favorite color was iridescent, and I distinctly recall feeling this overwhelming sense of shame at not having come up with that one first, in spite of the fact that one shouldn’t have to “come up with” their favorite color in the first place.  Being a people pleaser has been part of my personality for as long as I can remember; it’s practically written into my DNA, but when you’re looking for the “correct” favorite color and a suitably good explanation to match, something is wrong.  Years later, my favorite color is unapologetically, inexplicably purple, and I’m quite happy with that.

I don’t have any scars to remind me of childhood misadventures.  My heels are covered in scars from the blood gas tests done on me as an infant born three months too early.  I have burn marks on my arms from handling pizza pans still hot from the family’s pizza oven.  There’s a fading scar by my right elbow from the night at the Weapons School when we were all too tired and too giggly and I fell off my ever-present stepstool and sliced my arm open on the wooden edge of a 3D map.  And I have four significant scars from biopsies, as cancer is a very real threat in my family.  Even without childhood misadventures, my scars can tell you quite a story in and of themselves.

I don’t have a “thing I do” when I drive through a yellow light, but I used to kiss my fingers and then tap the dashboard twice and the windshield once.  It was a college thing, I think.

I drink my coffee the way my mom drinks her coffee: two sugars and a dollop of flavored creamer.  Coffee is a special thing with my mom and me.  Sitting down and chatting over a cup of coffee is a tradition we’ve had for years now, even across the miles.

Growing up, I went through the gamut of scientist phases – I was going to be an astronomer, or a paleontologist, or an archaeologist.  I even majored in archaeology at one point, after I decided that I didn’t have the stuff to be an investigative journalist like Woodward and Bernstein.  I then realized that archaeology was a lot more than doing digs, so I moved on to majoring in Communication.  My dream job at the time would have been to become a communications coach, teaching business people how to effectively communicate their ideas – especially in front of large groups.  During my last couple of years of college, I was dead-set on going on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and doing campus ministry; God clearly had other plans, and I ended up enlisting in the Air Force.  12 years later, I have a commission, completed Weapons School (with a cool scar), and I’m in a career I love.

While I watch a variety of TV shows, my favorite is Supernatural.  I discovered this long-running show this summer, and I binge-watched 12 seasons in my spare time.  I love the show because very rarely is anyone all good or all bad; these are people with broken pasts, broken hearts, and broken lives trying to make the world a better place than they found it.  That’s probably a pretty good description of any of us, and I love that they’ve taken a show that mirrors many of the struggles and drama faced in the real world and managed to couch it in a supernatural setting.  The actors themselves are phenomenal, but also down-to-earth and out to make the world a better place too.  The fandom – or the Supernatural Family / #SPNFamily – raised more than $300,000 in a matter of days for Hurricane Harvey relief through a CrowdRise fund set up by Jensen Ackles, and Misha Collins’ Random Acts organization has been finding real, solid, meaningful ways to help and change the world for years now.  Jared Padalecki’s Always Keep Fighting (#AKF) campaign really opened doors to depression and suicide awareness, and I’ve talked to more than one person who has said that his openness about the struggle is why they are still here today.  I love that a single show with some amazing people can have a ripple effect with a global impact for good.  Don’t we all hope for a legacy like that?

The movie that I loved that I’ve only seen once and will never watch again because I cried all the tears was P.S. I Love You.  I am a profoundly hopeless romantic, and that movie did me in from the moment it started.

I like pineapple on my pizza if the pizza is Hawaiian.  The flavors meld so well.

The first concert I went to was Jars of Clay.  I spent the entire evening waiting for them to play Flood, and it was awesome.

I’m divorced, but I have a little girl, and she is my entire freaking world.  My daughter tends to spark my creativity in new and exciting ways, so you’ll probably read more about her in the future (with her permission, of course).

For years, I have painted myself into a very analytic corner.  Always good at academics and very logical, I would wistfully look at my creative friends and wish that I could be more like them.  For some reason, I associated free-spiritedness with creativity and assumed that they were mutually inclusive.  Only in the last few months have I begun to embrace the reality that I am a creative as well.  I love to write – can’t you tell?  I’ve been singing for years, and making music really makes me happy.  I was a theater kid in high school, and while I don’t act anymore, I am ridiculously excited for my friends who are pursuing that art form…because I get it.  Making something where there was nothing before, or where there were just words or notes or colors, that sets my soul on fire.

Something else that sets my soul on fire is advocating for mental health.  Although I just wrote this blog entry, and it has nothing to do with mental health – and it has everything to do with mental health.  As someone who has struggled in silence for years, I have found my voice and my will to fight for myself and others as we walk forward in this.  Depression is something I’ve known every single day for as long as I can remember; it is truly a thread interwoven in the fabric of my life.  But it isn’t my entire story.  It may have shaped part of my story, and experiencing it may have been the spark that set fire to this passion of mine, but I am so much more.  So are you.

So there you have it – part of my story.  There’s certainly more to follow, and as this blog continues, the story will continue to be written.  The point is that we have stories, and they aren’t defined by our struggles.  The fact that I’m still here writing, and the fact that you’re still here reading means that hope is the other thread that’s been making its way through the words, through the painful parts, through the fall-down-laughing hilarity.  Because hope is as real as any of it, and hope is my story.

 Your Story

We should talk about your story.  No, we need to talk about your story.  I really want to talk about your story.  I don’t mean the story of the mental illness battle you’re fighting right now.  Not entirely, anyway.  That piece is only a chapter, or a page, or a thread weaving its way between the words and the moments, but it isn’t your whole story.  That is part of it, and it is important, but its importance exists because it is part of your larger story – and that larger story encompasses so much, and it needs to be told.

I want to know about your favorite color – why it is what it is and why others aren’t your favorite.

Tell me about the scar on your left knee from that childhood misadventure that you have absolutely zero regrets about.

How about that thing you do when you drive through a yellow light?

I want to know how you like your coffee.

I want to know about your favorite place in the world, and I want to hear all about that place you go when you just need to get away from the world for a bit.

Tell me about falling in love.  Tell me about falling out of love.

What do you want to be when you grow up?  If you’re grown up and not living the dream, why not?  What’s stopping you?

I want to watch you get excited as you tell me all about your favorite TV show, especially if you’re part of a fandom.

What’s your favorite memory?  What’s your least favorite?

If you’re a person of faith, tell me all about what that journey has been like for you.  If you aren’t a person of faith, I want to know all about that journey too.

Talk to me about that movie that you loved but you’ve only seen once and will never watch again because it made you cry all the tears.

Do you like pineapple on your pizza?

What was the first concert that you went to?

Tell me about your spouse and kids.  If you don’t have a spouse or kids, tell me about what you imagine them to be in the future.  If you want nothing to do with having a spouse or kids, tell me about that too.

I want to know about the things you hope for, the hobby or sport or instrument or event that sets your soul on fire.

I want to know about places you’ve been, people you’ve met, things you’ve seen.  The monumental and the mundane, the beautiful and the ugly, the big moments and the fleeting seconds.  I want to know about all of them, because they make up your story.  Your story is wild and weird and wonderful, and it is so incredibly important.  Do you see that?  The thing that you’ve been fighting – and surviving – is huge, and it may color some of your experiences, but it isn’t the whole story.

You are important.  You matter.  You were made for something incredible, and I want you to see it and know it and breathe it and believe it with every fiber of your being.  Your story was meant to be told, and it is so much more than the depression or anxiety or whatever it is that you’re dealing with right now.  It is so much more because you are so much more.  Please know that.  Please tell me your story.

Self-Care & Break Glass


Let’s talk about self-care. This is another buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but I want to break it down a bit into something more practical than the vague advice to “take care of yourself.”

Ideally, we should be engaging in self-care all the time. Should. But when depression creeps up and tries to take me down, I’ve got a kind of emergency checklist that I go through, with very specific things to do so I can own the depression, rather than letting the depression own me. Let me preface all of this by saying that these aren’t done in any particular order, but they are all important.

  • Hydrate

Drink a glass of water. Not soda. Not alcohol. Water. Dehydration adds a ton to the physiological effects of depression, to include headaches and sluggishness – which no one really needs. If you’re like me and struggle to drink water sometimes, use liquid or powdered flavoring specifically designed to make water easier to drink.

  • Eat

Eat something quasi-nutritious. By “quasi-nutritious,” I mean avoid the processed junk food. I say that as someone who has a sweet tooth eight miles wide and never met a carb I didn’t like. I’m also an acknowledged emotional eater, and if I’m eating my feelings in the form of a carb-fest, I’m only going to feel worse. So I try to get some protein in there. I’ll snack on nuts or a protein bar. Fruits and veggies are also good; I’ll grab a banana or those little bell peppers to munch on. Bottom line: I don’t feel like prepping much, so I go with what I can grab easily – but I consciously avoid the slippery slope of indulging in my comfort foods. Even if I tell myself that I should have those comfort foods – because, hey, I feel like crap! – there will be regrets later.

  • Workout

This one is tough…and I love a good workout. But when I’m depressed and have no energy and everything hurts, the absolute last thing I want to do is lace up my shoes and workout. So my goal is to simply move. Maybe I take my daughter on a walk outside, and I talk myself into getting to the next stop sign…then the next tree…then the next light pole. Maybe I turn on some music and have a dance party. Maybe I message a friend and say, “Hey, I’m struggling right now and absolutely don’t want to workout but absolutely need to. Can you meet me?” Maybe we’ll lift, maybe we’ll run on the treadmill, maybe we’ll just walk around the track and talk about life. Honestly, in this case, it doesn’t matter what you or I do, as long as we move.

  • Brush Your Teeth

Yes, it takes energy, but no one feels worse after brushing their teeth. This is just good for you.

  • Shower

Take a shower. I will feel a million times better once I’m clean…but it can be so difficult to find the energy. Try anyway.

Backup plan: Soak in a bath. Throw in some soothing Epsom salts. Light some candles. Treat yourself.

Backup backup plan: Use some refreshing cleansing wipes, deodorant, and some dry shampoo. If you’ve got some lotion that smells great, put some of that on too. That will get you only halfway there, but if you’ve got zero energy, it’s a step in the right direction.

  • Get Dressed

If I’m already clean, it’s time to put on clothes that are not the same comfy pajamas I slept in. That doesn’t mean I get to opt for a clean set of comfy pajamas…unless it is already night time and it took me all day to get to this point on my checklist. I need to put on clean clothes, and they should be clothes that I feel great in, that give me a confidence boost. (Clothes that make me feel like a busted can of biscuits should probably be removed from my wardrobe anyway, just on principle.)

  • When Did I Last Do Something I Enjoy?

If it has been awhile, either go do something you love or schedule it – and tell a friend about it so you are kept accountable to doing it. Maybe it’s golf. Or playing guitar. Or hiking. Or painting. Or woodworking. Or writing. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to do something that you enjoy, and go do it.

  • Speak Up

This one is really difficult. Depression already makes me feel isolated, and I tend to believe that no one wants to be around me anyway. But it is important to speak up. On one hand, this could mean setting up an appointment with my therapist if I haven’t checked in recently. On the other hand, it could mean reaching out to friends and saying, “Hey, I need some help here.” It should be so easy, but it isn’t. It’s like the Bible story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet; they would have been fine washing His feet, but some of them freaked out about Him washing theirs. In the same way, we’re eager to help friends in distress, but we get really weird about allowing those same friends into our messes, into the less-than-perfection that is the struggle with depression. Where we see weakness in speaking up, however, there is strength. When you’ve told a friend you’re struggling, also letting them know that you got out of bed and took a shower gives them the opportunity to celebrate with you in that victory. Speak up. Ask for affirmation. Ask for a hug. Heck, ask a friend if you can pet their dog, if that is something that works for you. Ask.

I think that one of the most admirable examples of this was back in May of 2015, when Jared Padalecki (where are my Supernatural fans at?) was in a difficult place and asked his Twitter followers for some messages of love. His fans were quick to respond, reminding him to #AlwaysKeepFighting. We are bred to believe that reaching out like this is selfish, attention-seeking, and akin to fishing for compliments. It isn’t; it’s asking for what you need at that moment. Do it. Speak up, and speak up courageously.

  • Meditation

Take a minute and focus on breathing. This does not require becoming a yoga master, a jedi master, or any other kind of master. In fact, there are a ton of apps you can download to help with this if you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. This helps me to focus and get past the persistent fog that depression creates around my brain.

  • Faith

If I do this right after meditating, I’m normally in a pretty solid place to pray and journal through the thoughts and emotions I’m experiencing. This is also when I specifically read Bible verses that counteract the junk Depressed Me wants to believe. Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 41:10, Isaiah 43:4-5, Zephaniah 3:17, Malachi 3:17, Galatians 3:26, Ephesians 2:10, and Romans 5:8 are some good go-to verses. I will also use this time to listen to praise music, although I may crank it up and sing until I’m hoarse, because that is good for the soul too.

  • Thankfulness

What am I thankful for? It can be really tough to be thankful for anything when depression is weighing me down. For that reason, I keep running list of things I’m thankful for, and I reference it when I need to. Gratitude has a funny way of taking the edge off of depression, if only for a while.

Break Glass

We’ve all seen the Break Glass In Case of Emergency signs, normally covering a fire extinguisher. I keep a Break Glass In Case Depression Is Kicking My Butt kit, but I just call it the Break Glass kit for short. I put this together on my good days to be ready on my bad days – and this is really important. Self-care requires that you be proactive; it requires that you be prepared. Part of owning depression and not letting depression own you is being ready to deal with and overcome whatever that creepy monster wants to throw at you. Putting together a Break Glass kit is a large step in becoming an active fighter in this, rather than a passive victim – and that helps to create a better mindset overall. Once I’ve decided to fight, I’ve been known to whisper, “Screw you, depression, I’m going to go take a shower.” Suddenly, that thing that felt so difficult and so draining is now a victory dance and flipping off that depression monster that wanted to take you down.

What’s in my Break Glass kit? A bottle of water, some flavoring packets/liquid, a protein bar, a snack pack of almonds, my iPod with a dance party playlist and a praise music playlist, refreshing cleansing wipes, dry shampoo, nice smelling lotion, a journal, verses I’ve picked out ahead of time, and my growing list of things to be grateful for.

I keep this by my bed, ready for the next fight – a fight to take care of myself when everything in me would just rather not.

As a final thought, if you know someone who is struggling with depression, and you want to support them but just don’t know how to do it in a meaningful way, consider putting together a Break Glass kit for them. Maybe you could include reasons why they matter to you, and tell them why you are grateful they are in your life. It’s a concrete way to fight alongside someone in this struggle and demonstrate that they aren’t alone.

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves! 😉

The Struggle Bus

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more than a few conversations about The Struggle Bus.  This is a term that we often apply to just about anything involving some semblance of difficulty — a morning where the caffeine just isn’t kicking in, the concept in school that you just can’t wrap your mind around, or one of those days when parenting is really, really hard.  In these recent conversations, however, The Struggle Bus was the term du jour for the ongoing fight with depression.

One of my friends voiced how tired he was of The Struggle Bus, a sentiment that I shared and understood.  For some people, trips on The Struggle Bus are episodic; they come and go with relief in between.  For others, years have been spent on the journey, and they are worn down from it.  Regardless of how often or how long, time spent on The Struggle Bus isn’t fun; it’s exhausting.  That exhaustion plays a large role in many people’s decisions to end the trip permanently.

That’s not the right answer.  It’s never the right answer.  But in the midst of the fight, what keeps us going?  What keeps us from giving in?

Hope.

Hope that this ride will be short.  Hope that getting out of bed, taking a shower, and putting on clean clothes will be the first steps in a day that improves from there.  Hope that the depression won’t be defining.  Hope that the depression won’t get the last word.  Hope that there’s still music to make and stories to write and sunsets to be in awe over and stars to wish on.  Hope that there’s more, and it is vibrant and beautiful and better.

Hope.

I think there might be another layer to this, though.  Have you ever kept hanging on because you knew someone else was hanging on too, and if they could do it, maybe you could as well – even just for today?

Here’s the thing: we need each other.  We isolate ourselves, but we need each other.  We feel alone, but we need each other.  Do you understand me?  We need each other.  In this fight, it’s a Struggle Bus — not a Struggle Unicycle.  Take a look around; there are other people on board this thing.  We all believe that we’re by ourselves and staring out the window into the grayness, but there are other people riding, and they need encouragement and hope as much as we do.  We have the chance to bring that to them.

I know, I know.  Before you put me on blast and tell me that you’re barely getting through the day as it is and how can I possibly expect you to find what it takes to help someone else, hear me out.  Sometimes, giving hope and encouragement to someone else looks exactly like getting through your day.  Someone else might choose to hang in there because you did — no extra effort, no special words, nothing more cosmic than what you’re already doing.  And trust me, I know that there are days when just functioning should earn you a ticker tape parade.

Just living – and encouraging someone else and giving them some hope to keep going – has a way of flipping the script on depression, even while riding its Struggle Bus.  Depression – insidious beast that it is – tells us we’re alone, that we’re worthless, that we matter to no one.  But if the very act of living is giving hope and encouragement to someone else, that flies in the face of the lies depression wants us to believe in our darkest moments.

There’s one tiny catch, however. You have to speak up. You can’t encourage someone else by getting through the day if they don’t have a clue how unbelievably difficult it can be for you to do just that. I’m not saying that you have to announce your fight on social media (although if you want to continue to take down the stigma that way, be my guest).  But tell someone.  Move seats on The Struggle Bus and sit next to someone who was convinced they had the whole place to themselves.  For starters, if you’ve been suffering in silence, I want you to know that you don’t have to do that, and telling someone makes the burden a little lighter.  But telling someone also opens the door for that person to glimpse hope on your good days.  And I pray for a lot of good days for you.

If you are watching someone else, and you know their struggle, and you are encouraged by them, speak up.  Tell them.  It doesn’t have to be flowery, and it doesn’t have to be awkward. But finding out that choosing to stay and live and fight is a choice that is giving hope to other people can be a shot of adrenaline for someone.  You can give that to them.  You.  Who doesn’t want to know they matter in the life of someone else??

For the record, you matter. If you’re riding The Struggle Bus, you aren’t alone.  There are days when I might be sitting right next to you.  I keep riding because I have hope, and I keep riding because I want to give hope.  It doesn’t make the journey less exhausting, but it sure makes it worth it.

Real, Or Not Real?

In Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, specifically in the third book, Mockingjay, Peeta’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that he has to ask “Real, or not real?” in order to discern truth from lies.  In much the same way, when I am in a depressive episode, it is incredibly important to be able to tell the difference between what is no-kidding real and what depression wants me to believe.

For example, we often talk about how depression is isolating.  I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to get out of the house, and I certainly don’t want to socialize.  Part of that is the energy drain; another part is the thought pattern created by depression.  I don’t really want to be around people; depression wants me to believe that people don’t want to be around me, that I am a burden, and that others merely tolerate me anyway.

Real, or not real?

When I’m not depressed, the question seems laughable and the things that depression would like me to believe seem ridiculous.  But when I’m deep in that darkness, they seem legitimate – overwhelmingly so.  So I ask myself the question, “Real, or not real?” and I think about what I know to be true.  I think about what I’ve experienced.  I think about my friends and family, and I know that depression is a big fat liar.

So depression moves on with its insidious, accusatory game.

“You’re a whole bucket of crazy.  Do you think anyone could ever love you like this?  No one will ever be willing to deal with a person like you in their life.”

Real, or not real?

My depression is not my defining feature.  Granted, it likes to take center stage when it can, but it doesn’t get to very often.  Are there guys who will run screaming for the hills the second that my crazy shows a bit?  Yes, and I don’t want them anyway.  I know that I’m actually a pretty great person, and if depression is stopping someone from dealing with me, they can keep right on walking.

So depression tries again.

“You do realize that no one else actually feels this way, right?  You’re literally the only one who has ever dealt with this.  You’re broken, you’re alone, no one understands, and no one wants to be bothered by you trying to explain it.”

Real, or not real?

It seems silly to even type depression’s argument, but the heavy weight of it when I’m struggling cannot be overstated.  In this moment, I think about the number of organizations that exist to help people with depression and mental illness.  I think about the 22 veterans who take their lives on a daily basis.  I think about the number of celebrities who didn’t get help and the handful who did.  I am not alone.

I have close friends whom I let know when a depressive episode has kicked off.  One of them knows that I drink a particular type of tea when I’m feeling down; I’ll ask her over for some tea.  Whether it’s a real invitation or not, she knows that I’m riding the struggle bus and need some support.  Another friend is familiar with my “fight’s on” mantra, and I simply let him know that it’s one of those fighting days.  There are others whom I simply tell outright.  The conversation is no longer awkward; I’ve built trust with them and they with me.  They make it completely, utterly, wonderfully impossible to believe the lies that I am alone and that no one understands, because they walk with me in the darkness.

Depression is real.  The fight is real.  The head games are real.  The thoughts are not.  But when someone is in a depressive episode, it all feels very, very real.  So let me tell you this:

If you are so deep in the tunnel that you can no longer see the beginning or the end, and it is pitch black and all you seem to have are the thoughts screaming at you and reminding you of how desperately alone you are, I will stand with you.  I will stand with you and walk with you in that darkness until we find the light.  You are not alone.  I am not alone.  One step at a time, we’ll get through that tunnel together.  You’re worth it, and so am I.

Real.

So, You Know She Struggles With Depression, Right?

“So, you know she struggles with depression, right?”

I am deployed, and no one here has a bathroom to themselves; community bathrooms are the standard, and privacy isn’t exactly expected.  I was in the community bathroom, and I overheard this conversation. Two women were talking about a third woman, and one of them was talking about how great this third woman was.  She had nothing but really positive things to say about her; she was a great co-worker, their interactions were positive, and she apparently had this ability to make everyone she talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world right at that moment.  It was at this point that the second woman said, her voice condescending, “So, you know she struggles with depression, right?”

Cue the sound of the DJ record scratch off in the distance somewhere.  Suddenly, inexplicably, all of this woman’s awesomeness was somehow overshadowed and cancelled out by this single reality in her life.  You could feel the dynamic change.  The first woman just responded with a disappointed, “Oh.”  The conversation was clearly over, and both women left the bathroom. I wish I had said something, but I didn’t get the chance. And, honestly, I was heartbroken that the conversation had gone the direction it had; we’re still treating depression like it has this big scarlet letter attached to it.

This woman struggles with depression. That means she fights it. The fact that she’s still around means that she is engaged in battle against this thing – and she’s winning. She hasn’t given up; she hasn’t given in.  The day-to-day fight may have been defining, but the depression itself has not defined her.  She’s clearly still out to make the world around her brighter and better, but she’s being treated as the subject of bathroom gossip by those who cannot tell the difference between perceived weakness and actual strength.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been very open about my struggles with depression.  It is counterintuitive to do that, and I’ve been told that I have to be careful because it may impact my career in the long run.  But I firmly believe we can’t destigmatize getting help for mental health while at the same time telling people to keep quiet when they own the struggle and get help. I’d rather be led by those who are honest about not having it all together 100% of the time than by those who fake it to the point of being unapproachable.  I don’t think I’m alone in that.

My depression is a daily struggle, although some days are much worse than others. I can normally tell about 3-5 days before a depressive episode is about to begin. I just feel different, although if I can get some sleep, I can normally “short-circuit” a spiral…right up until I can’t. When a depressive episode hits, I wake up in the morning and I just know. It’s as though a switch flipped in my brain overnight, and I wake up with this indescribably heavy feeling of sadness.  (Many have suggested that the Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are excellent analogies for depression; one feels as though they will never be happy again.)  In spite of a full night’s sleep, I have zero energy, and regardless of what needs to be accomplished, my motivation is non-existent. In this moment, I have learned to say to myself, “Fight’s on.” Sounds all warrior-like, huh? All gritty and determined and badass.  The reality is that fighting the depression looks a lot more like getting out of bed. Getting some semblance of a workout in. Taking a shower. Putting on clothes that aren’t my comfy pajamas.  Eating something quasi-nutritious. Listening to music that I’ve already set aside for this situation. Praying and meditating. Letting a trusted friend know that the fight is on.  Fighting depression looks an awful lot like normal life, and yet it feels like this epic struggle that is going on with the same constant, subtle undercurrent as breathing.

Why am I telling you this? Because we need to talk about it. We need to stop treating people like lepers because they are engaged in this unseen struggle. We need to be honest as leaders and followers and colleagues and friends and family and people. We post the number to the Suicide Hotline on our Facebook walls and we tell people to call if they are ever in a dark place, but we shy away from vulnerable, uncomfortable conversation…unless it is to talk about someone’s struggle as something that is to be whispered about and ashamed of.

I want this to change. For the sake of every person out there battling it out, I want this to change. And I want to be part of this change. So let’s have these conversations. And let’s keep having these conversations. Over and over and over again, until depression isn’t something that people whisper about in hushed tones – we acknowledge it, we deal with it, we walk alongside people on their rough days, and we don’t let it become the defining feature of someone’s life.

To that woman being gossiped about – you’re a badass, and you aren’t alone. Always keep fighting.

Hidden Hope, In Plain Sight

I realize that this is the second tattoo-related post on my blog in recent weeks, but bear with me.

I recently – finally – got my tattoo.  I’ve wanted it for years, but the timing was never great, and I was waiting for the right design.  Then I ended up traveling for work to a location that seems to have as many tattoo shops per capita as Las Vegas has casinos.  One evening, as several of us were eating dinner, one of my coworkers called the shop across the street from the restaurant (after scoping it out on Yelp) and, before I knew it, I was in the shop getting the details worked out.

The artist joked that my design was really four tattoos in one: a butterfly, a semicolon, a heart, and a cross, and, well, he wasn’t wrong.  But their individual significance gives way to a larger meaning when put together in this way.  They each hold something special, but they are more than the sum of their parts.

The butterfly has long been important to me, especially after doing the Chrysalis weekend (Walk to Emmaus) when I was in high school.  It symbolizes new beginnings.  It represents change.  It is new, radiant, beautiful life on the other side of what the caterpillar can only imagine to be darkness and pain.  The old, quite literally, is gone, and the new has come.

If you’re familiar with Project Semicolon, you know that the semicolon is associated with mental health and suicide prevention.  In writing, when an author wants to end a sentence, he or she will use a period.  But if they have more to say, if the sentence shouldn’t end yet, the author can use a semicolon.  My semicolon says that I have thought about ending the sentence, the story, the book…but I chose not to.  I have more life left to live – more to write, more to sing, more to experience, more to be.

What I especially love about the semicolon in this tattoo is that it would be easy to not notice it; it doubles as the body of the butterfly, and one could be forgiven for not even realizing the semicolon is there.  That’s exactly what my struggle with mental illness is – it is a part of me, subtly present, but never my defining feature.  For it to be part of something that symbolizes new life is even better; I carry my struggle into my new life because, while my story doesn’t define me, I can absolutely use it to offer a light in a dark place to someone else.

The heart and the cross are somewhat self-explanatory:

Love.

Love conquers fear.  It overcomes and forgives our worst.  It inspires our best.  Every single thing I do needs to be done in love, and the cross represents the greatest act of love humanity has ever had the opportunity to witness intersecting with the greatest need humanity would ever know.  It is sacrifice, humility, courage, and hope.

Ah, there it is.  That thing I talk a lot about if you’ve spent any time at all reading this blog.  Hope.

I debated simply tattooing the word on my wrist, as much a declaration as a plea, but I wanted to do this differently.  Instead, each of the four symbols within my tattoo is a variation of hope:

The butterfly’s hope is that new life, that “hanging on” in the darkest of experiences, the transformation revealed when it leaves the chrysalis.  The caterpillar’s entire existence might have been over, lost to the darkness, but it continues in a vibrant, bold way.

The semicolon’s insistence that the story isn’t over is hope’s quiet resolve.  There is more to be writtenIt must be written!  Everything is incomplete without the rest of this story.

Love, at its core, is hope.  We often pour out our love for others, willing to overlook and overcome their darkest moments and shadiest corners, because we see potential – we have hope for what can be, and we love them enough to not give up on them while they get there.  Can we reserve that same kind of love for ourselves?  Can we see the potential of who and what God created us to be and believe that we’re worthy of that potential?  Love gives us a place to transform.  Love lets us be caterpillars, with a ridiculous, outrageous hope for the butterflies to come, without giving up on us in the cocoon.

And oh…the cross.  Jesus came face-to-face with humiliation and pain and betrayal.  He could have ended the torture and the spectacle, and the angels – who were perhaps watching in abject horror – would have come to His aid in the blink of an eye.  But He endured the worst because the best was yet to come.  He knew that his sacrifice, and His subsequent resurrection, would mean that hope would not only be forever present, but it would be accessible.  To you.  To me.  To all of us, no matter how dark our past; our futures could be something different.

So each of my tattoo’s symbols has a very specific meaning, but there is hope hidden in each of them.  Hope hidden, but in plain sight.  Where do you see hope today?