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.

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.

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.