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.

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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 from the anxiety of it all 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.  It didn’t occur to me then that the thought that I even needed a cover story was shame in and of itself.

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 one of the military’s most advanced, grueling, kick-you-in-the-teeth, selective training opportunities, 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.)

Spoiler alert: I went to that 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.