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.




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


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.


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.