Don’t look down

It’s what people say when you’re at an uncomfortable height. It’s advice and admonishment. It’s a warning against the inevitable void that will entice you to fall. It could be a bend from reality, a willful ignorance of what actually exists.

At some point, we have to look down and get real. We have to accept reality and take responsibility for our fear. And then we have to make a plan to face and conquer it.

I think this looks different for everyone, but I can surely tell you what it isn’t, especially as we move into what I call the “post-COVID” era. It’s not: not taking care of your body, not nourishing your mental health, not encouraging and lifting up others, not showing gratitude, not driving dangerously on the morning commute, being a continuous source of negativity.

This global experience is tragic, yes, but as Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, “Life is inherently tragic.” It’s a fact that too many have either not realized or blatantly ignored. What I see is an experience that has the potential to bring us together as humans. With seven billion people on the planet, what experience do we all have that is actually similar? Welcoming new life, grieving death, filling our bellies. That is what we all share, and can also be described as the human condition.

This is a unique time to be alive. But with this unique landscape comes unique responsibility. We have more evidence now than ever of what trauma can do to a person. We have multitudes of resources for mental health. We have the potential to be connected to practically anyone anywhere in the world.

What does “Don’t look down” look like right now? It looks like us harnessed in safely to the side of the mountain, prepared with all our gear. Helmet, rope, someone who can help us in an emergency. It looks like knowing how exactly high up we are and accepting the possibility that we are in a dangerous position. It looks like having enough training to be able to help another climber navigate to safety instead of being the reason they fall.

Let’s get it together, folks.

Breaking my COVID vows

It’s October 2021, and in case you didn’t realize it, 2022 is just around the corner. Almost two years since the world changed. I mean, the world is always changing, but a global pandemic will do a number on “normalcy.” Don’t worry, though, I won’t rush through the last two months of the year. Fall and winter are my jam. Hibernation, introspection… basically an introvert’s dream.

From Reddit

Hey, remember that time that the social landscape actually became the introvert’s dream? Yeah, me too. I am an introvert, and it was my dream to have an external reason to not do anything. By anything, I don’t mean keeping up with friends and family or planning meals or keeping up a house. I mean all the other stuff. Everything on the calendar seemed so superfluous at the time, and yet right now back in “normal” life (insert cat vomit sound effect here), it all seems very necessary. And I hate it.

Not commuting and packing a lunch and picking out an outfit really simplified my life. Those are just things on the surface, but removing that layer enabled me to get away from the low-frequency buzz of the clock, also called anxiety, that permeated every day to some extent. Obviously, the weekend days don’t seem to adhere to the clock as much, but once you get to about 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, you begin to live in the near-future rather than the present. I don’t like that feeling anymore.

It used to be a comfort to me, having one foot in the future and one in the present. Being beholden to the clock, knowing what was going to happen and when. But during the Great Shutdown, I found that days seemed to not just pass me by like a fast-moving train. Each day felt like an adventure. Some days were obviously less adventurous and the dress code was 100% comfort, but an adventure nonetheless. Things like making tea or a delicious meal were the highlights, rather than a fast-paced sprint to Monday morning filled with alarms and… ahem.. pants.

I will be the first to admit that I have already broken my vows to myself that I made during the height of the pandemic. Things like, “I will never allow myself to be that busy again,” or, “I will only commit to one activity on the weekend.”

Now that I’ve been living in “new normal” for a bit, I can see that I have made changes for the good, changes to keep my life more simple. My mindset is what constantly needs the shift. And trying to keep the anxiety and external noise quiet paired with implementing a true “work/life” balance with my demanding teaching job makes for a very hard paddle up a river.

I think I will find a good balance for myself. One that integrates the simplicity of mindset with the necessity of social and intellectual stimulation that we all need because it’s our biological imperative. It’ll just take time, and I probably won’t get there by 2022. Yes, it’s coming.

The Problem of Saturday

Even before I was old enough to have a job in the traditional sense, working on the weekends, particularly Saturdays, was a concept I knew well. Many a Saturday morning, I woke up at a decent time (not by my own accord), perused the “to-do list” written by my mother, and with my sisters we decided who would do which chore by putting our initials next to said household job. And thus every Saturday, or thereabouts, we would go about the business of keeping house – we learned how to do laundry, clean bathrooms, meal prep, weed flower pots, sweep and scrub the kitchen floor (on our knees, the purported “right” way), clean litter boxes, clean our rooms (gasp!!!!). There’s no doubt that I’m thankful for learning how to complete these very necessary tasks, but it’s partially for this reason that up until recently, I could not relax on a Saturday.

I learned at an early age to tie my self-worth to how productive I was.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

Since childhood, I’ve had my share of jobs that aren’t your typical nine-to-five – working customer service at a grocery store, teaching music lessons, helping manage a private tutoring center, teaching night classes. All those positions demanded either odd hours that usually also occurred on the weekends.

For about a decade, I trained for races. Generally these plans indicated that a weekend morning would be a “long run” day, and with church responsibilities on Sunday, that meant that my long run fell on Saturday mornings. And not only that, but I felt to get the most out of my one day completely off from responsibility, I’d get up really early to take advantage of those morning twilight hours and get my run in. It became a ritual.

Now as a mid-30-something adult, for the first time in my life I have had a job whose responsibilities are contained within the weekdays. Well, at least those are the boundaries I’ve set for myself. Millions of teachers across America work the weekends. I don’t. I can’t if I want to stay in this profession for life. And I do.

And then in addition to having only one job that I worked Monday through Friday, a couple things happened that began to open up my Saturday to really being a day to do whatever, whenever: a running sabbatical and lockdowns due to COVID-19.

The year of 2020, I decided to not run, at least not train for any big races. I say that like it was really my decision, but my body was actually screaming for a break. So I took a break. And then COVID hit, and suddenly we went from being busy with something most weekends, especially on Sundays, to having wide open free time on the weekends. It was (is?) awesome. It was something I did not realize I needed, and it was also something I realize I could have done for myself without the help of a global pandemic.

I would say to no minor degree that I have reclaimed my Saturdays. Without the frenzy of church activities on Sunday plus grocery shopping and meal prep that has to happen, things can be spread out over the entire weekend. I can relish in the early morning hours of Saturday (like I am right now) without feeling guilty about not doing chores, or going for a long run.

Reclaiming a true Sabbath day (which can look different for everyone, and does not have to be a traditional weekend day) was not easy. For a long time I dealt with guilt of not doing the things I’d grown so accustomed to for years. It was like muscle memory was taking over my body, and unless I was getting things done around the house or running, my body just didn’t know what to do.

So I rode out the discomfort and began doing, actually, the things I wanted to do on a Saturday in order to usher in the weekend. This includes, generally, having coffee at home (not running out to get it, although sometimes this happens), taking the quiet morning to finish a book (I finished The Invisible Life of Addie Larue and A Court of Wings and Ruin this way), reading the paper, or now that the weather is getting warmer, sitting outside to watch the sun rise over the Susquehanna River.

These activities are different, and there are a number you could substitute in, but they are all similar in that I am present for them. In the book Laziness Does Not Exist, Dr. Devon Price draws on current research to describe how to “savor,” defined as “the process of deeply and presently enjoying a positive experience.” This is in contrast to “dampening,” which makes an activity seemed rushed or only valued because of what it produces.

…being achievement-obsessed actually makes life less rewarding and enjoyable, because we never get to truly savor or appreciate what we’ve done or where we’ve been.

Dr. Devon Price, Laziness Does Not Exist

I think that’s what had happened to me – I became “achievement-obsessed.” I grew up in a family that had to hustle to put food on the table. My mom went to school full time, my dad worked on cars for extra money – and it wasn’t for fun money, either. It was our ethos, our identity, to be a family who knew how to do lots of things, do them well, and do them efficiently. That is a skill valued in our culture, and it served me for a period of time, but it doesn’t have to extend to all areas and years of my life going forward. Price says that “…weeks, months, or even years can all blend together in a haze of anxiety and obligation” – do I want to spend the next 40+ years of my life in this state? Surely not.

I think (and hope) that a global pandemic has taught us all a few things we can learn from. For me, it was how to rest, relax, and recharge without guilt. Of course, this requires saying no, something I’ve been thinking about and practicing for several years now. I’m happy to say that saying no is almost my default mode.

I, for one, will never go back to filling my calendar to the brim with no room to breathe. Of course, there will be busy times – life and work are not static. But “wow, this week was busy” will not be what I say on my way home from work every Friday. I don’t want to “work for the weekend,” as American as that is. I want to see a new American cultural norm – one where yes, people work hard and efficiently, but also set boundaries that are respected so that they can rest and do the other things they enjoy – spend time with family, cook good food, go boating, go fishing, go shopping, camping, whatever – and do those things without guilt or getting work email notifications in the meantime.

One sign to me that I’ve been successful at reclaiming my Saturdays is that not only do I have time and mental energy to read, but to actually analyze and evaluate what I read. For some books, I pause to take notes. I think about what I read, and change my perspective and add new knowledge that will really stick. When I’m reading fiction or fantasy, I can savor the story and immerse myself with the characters. It’s enjoyable.

The time to reclaim our Saturdays is now, folks. If we don’t choose to do it and find our own ways of working in some relaxation and reprieve, other things will do it for us; namely, sickness, injury, and burnout.

My constant companion(s)

Mental illness is a bitch. She’s the shadow behind you when you look in the mirror. She’s the one who whispers, “I’ll always be with you.” And she’s not wrong.

I had a stark realization that this will forever be with me. I can’t shake it. You name it, I’ve tried everything. Prayer. Medication. Meditation. Yoga, all kinds. Therapy. Hot baths. Cold showers. Running marathons. Running in the woods. Retreating from the world. Writing my thoughts with pen and paper. Turning up the music so loud I can feel it in my bones. Playing “Moonlight Sonata” with all my heart and strength. Focusing on work. Distracting myself with alcohol, sex, TV. Watching sunrises and letting the hope of a new day dawn. Scanning sunsets for ways to make the light last longer so I don’t have to start over.

I guess there are things I haven’t tried. Drugs. Cigarettes. Sleeping around. But I know better than to dabble in those painful pleasures. There’s an indelible line that I won’t cross, a glass wall. I’ve been observant enough to see others go down that road, and to then see the pieces of themselves that come out on the other side.

When I was a young teenager, when all these ups and downs were new, the roller coaster was admittedly a little intoxicating. I felt such strong feelings as the pendulum swung and caught me in its arc. Back then I thought it wouldn’t last forever. That it was part of adolescence, a rite of passage that a percentage of people went through. It wasn’t treated seriously, and I surrendered myself to the god of achievement. I flayed my heart open on its altar, all for a chance at acceptance. And it delivered, until it didn’t.

As a young adult, freshly and acutely aware of my responsibility to the world, I realized that the dark clouds weren’t going away. Oh, I desperately wanted them to. I thought there would be a wind that would finally blow them away. I was taught that if I prayed enough, had enough faith, really truly believed that God could heal me, that it would be gone. But I still trusted in science, in sound logic, in the words of people who were smart and got degrees in things like medicine and counseling.

I opened myself up to a counselor at the health center at my university. I tried Prozac and then Celexa after Prozac gave me crazy nightmares. Finding a medication that worked was not easy, but it was worth it for the relief I felt was coming. There was a moment where I thought, “Will I have to take these for the rest of my life?” A big component of the depression and anxiety back then was situational. If only I could get into some new situations, things would be better.

Situations arose, but not necessarily good ones. Depression and anxiety found me in the valleys of military life and infertility and losing loved ones. Anxiety found me at their gravesides, worried about my fate, wondering how their genetics might live on in me. Still, I thought I could pray it away. Or that if I could just get through the grief, happiness and freedom from illness would be waiting on the other side.

I’m here to tell you that they’re still here, those long-suffering companions of mine. Maybe a therapist would say that I shouldn’t personify them, that doing so gives them power. But they’re part of me. I see my reflection in the way they enter my mind, color my vision, convince me of half-truths. They already have power, but their power can be measured and analyzed only in the light. The dark casts shadows that hide their true form.

And the truth is that they’re not going away. The spiral can still catch my heel as I struggle to get free. It can still tap me on the shoulder when the sun is shining and I least expect it. Or it can be a black hole, and drag me down so deep that time stops and it feels like I’ll never be free.

Today I had one of those spirals take me down. While I’d been entwined in its throes before, it hits you the same way the exhilaration of zero g’s hits you on a roller coaster. It can feel like a slippery oily hug, comforting like a blanket but snuffing out the light when you turn your head to catch your breath. It can make you think that the present experience is all there is. You stand on the porch and look at the storm as it comes for you. There’s a beauty in the power, and colors become saturated. That pendulum falls and catches you and pulls you along effortlessly. You know after the storm, there will be sun. It’s the law of nature. No matter the damage from its path, the sky will turn from sickly green to scary gray to brilliant blue, all within a matter of minutes.

These forces within me are as much biological as they are psychological. I have been the constant in the Universe’s fucked up experiment. I know this because of all the things I’ve tried to “fix” it. And nothing fixes it. So it must be inherent in me. So don’t feel pity for me, don’t try to tell me that it’s not me. It is me. And the sooner I realize it, the sooner I can treat it, the sooner I can come to terms with it and try to find its blind spots.

I can sleep at night knowing that I will come through; I always do. There’s never been a time I’ve seriously contemplating taking control of that outcome. I can rest my head on the pillow knowing that I will never pass on this shitty biology, these genetic curses. The students and children I work with see the best of me. They see the strength that rises from the ashes of the Universe’s arson on my soul. For those things I am grateful.

Wintering is almost over

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is wrapping up, coming to a close. While it is mid-February and we still see frozen precipitation of every kind (and least of all snow, sadly), there are signs that longer and warmer days are coming.

We have been walking the dog in the dark for what seems like months now, both morning and night. However, in the mornings we can sometimes see the inky twilight to the east and slowly spreading north and south. The river changes colors with the budding twilight. On weekends, we might even walk the dog in the daylight since we get up later. But not much later – we’re getting older and messed up sleep schedules aren’t good for anyone.

Nightly we comment, “Look how much light is left in the sky, and it’s [insert time here].” Every year, the earth completes its revolution around the sun. Every year as spring approaches, the Northern Hemisphere bows with a curtsy towards the sun, allowing our daily bath in sunlight to be a little warmer each day.

Next year at this time I don’t want to be blindsided by what seems like a yearly audit, or check in.

in my journal, January 28, 2021

Despite the excitement of a new season on the way, I will miss winter. And this year more than ever. The pandemic has brought my go-go-go to a halt in the best way. I’m learning how to regulate my erratic nervous system. I’ve been listening to my body and finally it doesn’t need to scream at me for me to meet its needs. Weekends have become a weekly staycation of sorts, where my to-do list involves a book, a fuzzy blanket, dog cuddles, and a couple good hearty meals that take longer than 15 minutes to cook. I view naps as a restorative exercise instead of a waste of time that showcases my laziness.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.

Katherine May in Wintering

I think if the weather allowed, I would want to winter forever. At least that’s what I feel right now. Endless rounds of coffee and reading, or coffee and writing, watching the snow (or ice) fall, bundling up in sweatshirts and blankets. At some point, we have to emerge from hibernation. Our skin and souls needs the sunlight, especially those final rays later and later in the evening. Our retinas need more input than gray, gray, gray.

I would say that winter will always be there for us, as a meteorological season. But will it? Climate change poses a real threat to this yearly probability. We will have to take the practices that allow us to conserve energy and appreciate nature into the future.

If anything, we can still find a place to winter deep in our souls. The cold and snow and lack of light, and not to mention the pandemic, are external drivers to help us find that place: nature demonstrates its practice to us. It’s a place we must return to if we are to grow and change as human beings. Recently I wrote in my journal, “I want my default setting to be positive and optimistic, to be able to be content but also curious.” Winter is a time of curiosity, of delving deep and doing some seeking. I equate the positivity and optimism with spring – the trees and flowers and grasses share that with me. That is when we do the finding – just as the leaves on the trees find their shape and reach east towards the sunlight.

You are not your calendar

It’s okay to step away from something, even if you’ve been doing it for years. Especially if you’ve been doing it for years. It’s something I’ve been trying to tell myself. Unfortunately, some of my time that I’ve rediscovered as I’ve stepped away from commitments is steeped in guilt, kind of like the half-drunk mug of tea I left sitting on the end table last night.

I look at it, realize that it’s very uncharacteristic of me to just leave things like that around the house, undone, but then it only takes a minute to clean it up and get on with my day.

There’s always a new day, and a fresh pot of coffee.

That’s what it feels like to strip away the patina of the calendar – like that first sip of coffee. Though I’ve been looking at clocks and calendars my whole life, it feels new to look at a clock and not be rushing to the next commitment. To take that first sip of the morning and not be immediately pouring it into a travel mug.

Fresh starts were good; that separateness was where you could feel yourself, where you could learn who you were apart from everyone else.

Akwaeke Emezi in The Death of Vivek Oji

Don’t be deceived that this is easy. Lots of people go around telling people that all you have to do it say, “No.” Emphatically. Like you really mean it. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have scores and scores of people in this country tired, beat down, exhausted, and fatigued from every day life.

I get that we’re in a pandemic right now, almost a year on, however this state of affairs only serves as a magnifying glass for this huge dare-I-say ridiculous and out-of-hand societal problem of “yes.”

I sit here, sipping my coffee, and this is the morning when my work-from-home dream ends. Never again in my career will I experience schools shutting down for a global health crisis (at least I don’t anticipate another pandemic…. but we’ll see what the Universe has in store). Never again as a public school teacher will I commute from my kitchen to my office, never having started the car or stopped for gas or even put on makeup like I used to.

The pandemic has helped me say no when I felt like I couldn’t. When I really, really, wanted to, but felt like guilt was holding me down. I was forced to just… stop. And breathe.

As my sister and I reminisced in a conversation recently (podcast episode to be posted this week), 2020 was a year. But it was also a good year. Which feels weird to admit. BUt one of self-reflection and growth and learning to say “no” and damn the consequences.

My whole life my identity has been wrapped around my activities and accomplishments. While it may look great on paper, my propensity for filling up my calendar is actually an attempt to fill a large gaping hole that is hungry for Guilt. And Self-Sacrifice. The only way for me to feed Guilt is to sacrifice my own self-worth and sanity. And I did it, for years.

And did you see the verb tense I just used? “And I did it.” Past tense. Not present perfect, not past progressive. But past. Because I’m done feeding that monster. I’m beginning to fill up that hole with reading and walking and pondering and conversations and relationships. Soon there won’t be any room at all for Guilt and its companions.

I am a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up my calendar and saying yes to all the things. You are a worthy, capable, loving, generous, compassionate human being with or without filling up your calendar and saying yes to all the things. Let’s make our default “no” and carefully and cheerfully say “yes” to a few things that we can do well, and with that we will snuff out Guilt.

The calm in the winter storm

It’s Sunday and the sight of the fluffy flakes calling outside is enough to bring tears to my eyes with the anticipation of rogue, anarchic mid-afternoon caffeine soon to hit my veins. As I wait for the coffee to brew, I lean against the doorjamb and observe that the shade of the heavy clouds matches the shades of the mighty river and the sidewalk in my immediate view, the only slightly melted snow – just a different sheen. Flat to eggshell to satin. Sky to water to ground.

I am absolutely giddy with the experience of the winter storm – forecasted but not always realized here in the mild Mid-Atlantic. I yearn sometimes for the snowstorms of my youth, the sheer joy of seeing my school district’s name scroll lazily across across the screen to indicate a day off. Very little responsibility lay in wait for me as a child on a snow day, except for maybe a few mundane chores – no shoveling, no driving, no cooking. Maybe that’s one reason I lean into winter. However, I do realize that memory is a strange animal and cannot always be trusted not to be hyperbolic in nature.

I have often heard talk of the nostalgia of snow, the way that we always imagine our childhoods to have been snowier than they actually were.

Katherine May

I fully embrace Mother Nature’s soft whisper that sweeps across buildings and streets and lampposts – a quiet directive to calm down, settle down, take a break. Tomorrow I know that because of the wonders (and annoyances) of the Internet and modern technology, I will have to teach anyway, but today I savor. I relish. I spend time keeping up with completely regular household chores like laundry and cooking and sweeping the floor, but only so that I can relax even more fully.

In the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, author Katherine May talks about how she welcomes a bad cold. Not because she likes feeling poorly, but because it gives her a concrete reason to take time off: “I love the inconvenience [of snow] in the same way that I sneakingly love a bad cold: the irresistible disruption to mundane life, forcing you to stop for a while and step outside your normal habits.” Society these days has a hard time giving people the space they need to take a break, and instead labels them weak.

I think the yearly sinus infections I suffered throughout adolescence was probably allergies gone neglected and awry, but I remember welcoming them. Obviously not because I liked feeling like my head was going to explode, or because I felt the occasional feverish chill, but because it was a good reason to not be active for at least a couple of days. I remember setting up my daytime camp on the couch in the living room, collecting a box of Kleenex, liquids like Sprite, and the pillow from my bed. At night I would make my way upstairs to my bed, and for those nights my bed felt so much cozier, like a warm hug. I was, and still am, someone who really was go-go-go and had a hard time relaxing, but those sinus infections would knock me down off my high-energy high-horse. And I relished in the relaxation it brought.

As an adult, I am learning how to recognize the “wintering” times – the seasons of life that could last years, months, or even just a few days, like a sinus infection. But beyond a concrete sickness, I’m learning how to take myself seriously and just say no, emphatically. To release myself from the pressure to perform perform perform, and go go go, despite what my body and mind are telling me – Stop. Relax. Recharge. Find a new normal. Find what’s next.

For the past several years, I’ve been on a journey to find what’s next for me. Biological children were obviously not the next step, and while parenthood could have been my path, I chose not to pursue it. How will I know what’s next if I keep clouding my vision with activity after activity, waking up and zooming through my day (or at this point, literally Zooming) and then crashing into bed at night, so tired and delirious because of being so busy?

I can’t. And I won’t. I need to create some space that I don’t end up filling with yet another obligation or hobby. A part of me is scared of what creating space will do. That maybe I’ll be lazy. Or heaven forbid, bored. I’m not sure I’m scared enough of boredom to say I have a phobia, but sometimes my actions speak otherwise. Boredom is good. Wintering is good. Contemplation and meditation can bring forth some of the most prolific work of our lives. What will mine be?

Choosing to not drink is easy; sobriety is hard

I don’t mean that the act of not drinking is so difficult. I mean, it can be, especially on the Saturday of a long weekend where I just feel good all day, and what could make it better besides a lovely cocktail or two? In all honesty though, overall it hasn’t been difficult for me to choose to not drink.

That said, after posting this at the beginning of November, the de facto start to the American holiday season, I did imbibe on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Neither time was crazy. I had maybe two glasses of good wine. No hangover, not really any disrupted sleep. But it felt empty. Kind of pointless without the high.

So since Christmas Eve, I’ve abstained. And the difficult part has been the actual state of being sober. The fact that I’m not using alcohol as a proverbial lidocaine to numb my feelings feels a bit like drinking water from a firehose. Emotions are no longer dampened or delayed. They scream in your face, wanting attention, wanting to be dealt with and examined. Right. Now.

Sobriety and self-regulation go hand-in-hand. In my experience (your mileage may vary), you can’t navigate one successfully without the other. It doesn’t have to be sobriety as in abstinence from alcohol, either.

Back in March of the ill-fated year of 2020, I remember feeling like finally all my hard work in therapy had paid off because the world was closing in around us (that’s quite hyperbolic… but that’s 2020 for you) and I felt sober of mind. I felt like I could see the world from up above, and observe my own actions and thoughts rather than be my actions and thoughts. And it was freeing and overwhelming at the same time.

I remember thinking that even beyond work done in therapy, I had come a long way, being able to withstand an undetermined amount of time of isolation at home. Uncertainty everywhere else. I’d come a long way from the child or teenager who when she just couldn’t stand it anymore (pick whatever it you want) she went to her room and slammed the door. Or walked out of the house and slammed the door. I slammed doors a lot.

The slamming of a door, proverbial or literal, is a symptom of emotional dysregulation. As a teenager, I let the annoyances, sadness, and frustrations pile higher and higher because “You will be Little ladies,” and “You don’t need a nap during the day,” and “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and “Do you want an attitude adjustment?” Instead of trying to enter the conversation, I was intimidated by whatever consequence awaited me (and I assumed there would be from prior experience). So I just grinned and bore it. Or didn’t grin. But definitely had to bear it. And then it would get to be so much that eventually I would yell so loud and slam the door so hard and cry so uncontrollably as I walked as fast as I could to my friend’s house across the church parking lot and present my emotional dysregulation volcano or dumpster fire or whatever metaphor you want. I made it someone else’s problem because I wasn’t given the skills or the safe space to practice. There was very little room for error, and especially since I was a high-achieving, super motivated student and responsible member of the family.

So now as a grown-ass adult, I am doing my best to realize when I am getting ready to slam a door, and being completely sober can make it even more difficult. But I don’t like slamming doors, or yelling, “I hate you!” or “I never want to see you again!” or “You don’t understand me and you never will!” so I try my best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

I’m still learning how to self-regulate. The third week in January, a four-day work week I might add, was one of great emotional dysregulation. By that Friday night, every single grief, worry, sadness, emotion was turned up loud. And the only way I knew how to navigate it was to just pull the plug from the wall. I’m still learning how to turn the volume dial.. like back in the day when you got a new boombox and the volume or tuner dial were oh-so-sensitive. Or when you accidentally gun the rental car out of the airport parking lot. Nothing under 90, amirite?

The problem with using alcohol or any substance to soothe is that the practice of regulating yourself is delayed. You might think, Yeah, I need to work through this, but not tonight. It’s been a week. I’ll relax tonight and deal with it another time. But doing that is only putting a kink in the hose. It’ll straighten itself out at some point and then where will you be?

I think one reason I don’t turn to alcohol when I’m confronted with negative experiences or emotions is that it isn’t my only coping mechanism. I think this is key. I write. I read. I go for a walk. I go for a run. I message a friend. I have other ways of turning down that dial, and those things have aided in my entire journey with alcohol.

“Good riddance, 2020.”

I think so many people across God’s green earth would agree with the sentiment of “Good riddance, 2020.” “Peace out.” “Fuck off.” “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”


Twenty-twenty was a year. And damn, does it feel good to be about three weeks away from it, to have 2020 growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. One of the things I mutter under my breath as I drive away from the shitstorm that was 2020 is, “It’s the year you will always remember but the one you want to forget.”

However, I think there is a danger in really taking that to heart and erasing 2020 from our collective human psyche. Just like anything we put on the Internet, it’ll still be there forever.

I think many people, perhaps for the first time, experienced long-standing grief and trauma at all levels. To some extent, that grief and trauma are not quite done with us yet. The thing is, processing all that has happened and bouncing back to some sort of normalcy can’t occur if we pretend it never happened.

Historically (and not-so-historically), Americans are really good at pretending shit doesn’t happen. So much I could say here, but let’s talk about death and related rituals for a second. Towards the middle of the 1800s, we started outsourcing death and all its routines to undertakers and funeral homes. People used to prepare their own family members and loved ones for their eternal resting places, but that practice now seems absolutely absurd and, well, morbid.

We purposely distanced ourselves from the very practice that may have made the process of grief easier to begin by seeing our deceased loved ones and touching their bodies in order to prepare them for their burial. Instead, we may or may not see them die, or immediately after they’ve died, and it’s not until they’re pumped full of chemicals and hair and makeup done that we approach them.

For a long time, I was freaked out by seeing the deceased in an open casket in a mothy, poorly lit funeral home, attended by men in suits whom I did not know. I thought that after years of this aversion, I thought I should just “get over it” because it seemed silly. Did anyone else feel that way? From my second grade teacher Miss Renfro’s visitation when I was ten (which was on the heels of my uncle’s unexpected death earlier that year) to my great-grandmother at age 12, to my grandparents at ages 19, 26, 29, and 32, I really thought something was wrong with me.

As it turns out, embalming bodies is just unnatural. By definition. And no wonder I had such a hard time working through my grief – my loved ones were made to look as they did, in life, while they were breathing and walking and laughing and talking. But they were not alive. And had we had different practices surrounding death and what comes after it until they, or their cremains, are lowered into the ground, maybe I would have not needed so much therapy. (Debatable…)

The point is that the farther we get away from the events that hurt us, the less closure we have, the more we close ourselves off, the longer it will actually take us to even begin the healing process. Sure, that Year from Hell might look great as it disappears into the headlights and sunset behind us, but it might come back full-force as we’re trying to get to sleep, or when we see a picture dated “2020,” or when we remember a birthday or holiday from that year.

There is a different level of comfort for everyone when it comes to naming and claiming our grief. I think that’s a natural part of who we are as humans. We’re all on this journey together, but some of us travel through deserts, through tundras, through lush forests – that is, all of us have different experiences that may help or hinder our moving-forward.

But we have to. So many have hope that 2021 will be a better year. I think it really can be, but only if we truly allow ourselves to grieve, process the pain (and the joys! I’m sure you have at least one) and gently close the door with a wave and understanding smile instead of slamming the door and shouting expletives. Let’s give 2020 the leave-taking that it, and we, deserve.

Spending time with Past, Present, and Future (no, this isn’t my version of A Christmas Carol)

I look at houses online, a lot. Maybe too much. Sometimes I look at houses in my neighborhood, sometimes in my hometown. Sometimes I look at houses in places I’ve lived before. I pore over lot size and price per square foot and judge the lighting or staging I see. But mostly I imagine what my life would be like in another place.

If I were to sketch a pie chart that shows the time I spend living in the past, present, and future, it might look like this:

Past and Future live in my head rent-free, and they never leave. Just like I have been for the past almost-year, they are hunkered down, their butts have made inroads on the couch cushions, and they’ve been raiding the pantry. To be fair, I live there with them. I even made them food and bring it to them while they remain couch potatoes. I bring them a blanket when they’re cold, and water when they’re thirsty. But if I’m being honest with you, Past and Future need to be evicted.

It is difficult for me to settle down and live in the present, and the time I spend looking at houses online is a symptom of that. If I have a goal in my head that I want to read on the couch with a cup of tea in the evening, it will take me at least a couple hours to get there. And even when I physically get there, it takes me more time to quiet my mind. (I know you’re going to suggest meditation…. line up behind my therapist for that one…)

Once I’m in the present, I enjoy it. But there is a constant buzzing in my head, maybe anxiety, maybe not. It’s like I’m afraid of getting caught in the Matrix again and losing my awareness. I’m hyperaware.

I was thinking about why I might be like that.

Growing up, I was always thinking about the future. It was an imperative put on me by my parents. We talked about it a lot – how to be successful in school, how important college was, how education was the way to have financial success (we did not have a lot of money for a long time). I think that mindset paired with an active imagination served with a healthy dose of anxiety spurred my mind into overdrive, and thus creating thought patterns that stuck with me for 30+ years.

I think it’s time for new thought patterns. Ones that allow me to fully enjoy the present without worrying about tomorrow. A caveat is that yes, it is important to think about the future at times – that’s how I keep things like my car maintained. I can’t just not get an oil change; I have to plan it. Or keeping food in the house so I can cook good meals. Or adding money to my investment accounts so we’re not broke in retirement.

But truth be told, those action items do not take much time. The energy I spend taking care of those and similar things can be compressed into minutes, honestly. Maybe a couple of hours. But not during the day when I’m trying to focus on work, or at night keeping my awake during a holiday break.

I see the habits and ways I’m spending my time right now as how I will spend them, forever and ever amen (a-woman? JUST KIDDING). For example, if I really dive into reading more books for 2021, in my mind I think, I cannot “let myself go” because I will become addicted to reading and then I won’t want to hang out with people so then I’ll lose friends and then I’ll be really upset and lonely.

Um, what? All of that doesn’t even make sense. It’s irrational at its core. Each part of our life is a separate phase – a season – a gift. I am in a new season right now where we are in a, say it with me, glo-bal pan-dem-ic. There is a lot happening that is not “the norm.” And it won’t last forever.

I read a lot of memoirs and biographies. Currently I’m a bit obsessed with the quest for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic in the mid-1800’s and all the fun and folly that come along with it. There are sailors who devoted upwards of 40 years to their sailing careers. Some of them were lucky enough to live into their 70’s and 80’s. While they spent 40 years doing one profession, per simple arithmetic, they didn’t spend their whole lives doing the exact same thing at the exact same pace in the exact same way.

I think having that realization can help me get over this hump of spending so much time with Past and Future. If I stop my irrational spiraling way of thinking in its tracks, I can probably spend a lot more time with Present. Let’s try it. And maybe my pie chart will end up looking more like this: