The Hidden Struggle: College Edition #WorldSuicidePreventionDay September 10, 2018

September is Suicide Prevention Month and today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Like most of us, I too have been personally and closely effected by suicide. I am thankful every day that even during the most difficult times of my own mental health struggles, I have not been drawn into that darkness. However, many are not so lucky and struggle every day to see and feel the light.

College-age students are extremely susceptible, while simultaneously being really good at hiding their pain. I was reminded of my own hidden struggle recently as I went through the process of acquiring my transcripts from the undergraduate and graduate schools I attended.  Once I received those papers, I had an unexpected, visceral reaction. It felt like I was transported back in time as I closely reviewed each semester.

My undergraduate years were rough. An intense and traumatic relationship that had started in high school followed me to college. Layered on top of that, my nuclear family was facing obstacles no one could have ever imagined.

I went from an honor roll student in high school to a “holdover pledge;” i.e. my grades were not high enough to be initiated into my sorority on time, so I had to pledge an additional semester in order to get my grades high enough to be inducted, achieving the absolute bare minimum.

In addition to my relational struggles, I showed up on campus completely ill-equipped to self manage and self monitor. While others could party all night and get up and go to class, I couldn’t figure out how to balance the two, and ultimately chose fun times far more often than class time.  At first, this unfamiliar freedom to make my own choices felt new and exciting, but it escalated into a pattern of unhealthy decision making.

So why was I, someone who showed solid aptitude in high school, so challenged in college by its demands of independence and self-motivation, while others were able to successfully manage?

Anne Marie Albono, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders says she is inundated with texts and phone calls from students who struggle with the transition to college life. “Elementary and high school is so much about right or wrong. You get the right answer or you don’t, there are lots of rules and lots of structure.” College life is, she says, “free-floating” which causes increased anxiety in students.

Lack of daily structure, ignoring any potential consequences for my choices (DENIAL!), relationship and family problems, as well as a lack of defined sense of self**,  combined to form massive amounts of anxiety and bouts of depression for me. I never told anyone or sought out help while in college, yet the hidden struggles were there, building semester after semester.

I suffered alone or found ways to numb the feelings of fear, anxiety and depression.  When feelings were numbed, life was not so overwhelming and scary. Was help available to me? I’m sure it was but shame and fear kept me from telling even my closest friends and the stigma of mental health problems kept me from pursuing campus resources.

I recently read the book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of An All American Teen by Kate Fagan – (summary link here: (http://womensrunning.competitor.com/2017/07/books/what-made-maddy-run-suicide_77052). The book is the true story of University of Pennsylvania cross country athlete, Maddy Holleran, who committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage at the beginning of her second semester of freshman year. Maddy was a smart, talented, beautiful young woman from a wonderful family and home town. Her back story reminds me a lot of my own town and my daughters’ friends: high performing kids and exemplary members of their school communities in academics, sports and volunteerism.

The flip side of this type of environment is that the often intense pressure and demands they (or others) put on themselves to be high achievers can be doubled-down on as they enter college, leading to significant mental health struggles. Sadly, that was Maddy Holleran’s story and she was unable to see any other way out of her personal pain.

One statistic I recently read is that the number of students seeking help at counseling centers on campuses rose by 30% between 2009 and 2016.  Hand in hand with the increase in counseling services has been the slow but consistent growth in the number of students reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and social anxiety.  “In the past, students may have suffered in silence, unaware of the help available to them or too afraid of the stigma to take advantage of it,” one researcher says.

Below are some additional findings from the reports:

  • College students report feeling as if their mental health struggles are an extremely lonely experience – they feel disconnected and like they are the only ones having the problems they are experiencing.
  • In a spring 2017 survey, 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function; 61% of students said they had felt overwhelming anxiety. If the student was an athlete, the numbers were even higher.
  • Peer comparison, shift of control from parent to student (think of the life change from helicopter parenting to complete autonomy), and a combination of academic (keeping grades high enough to maintain a scholarship, for example, or thinking about applying to law or med school) and financial concerns are listed as major causes of anxiety in students.

Citing the upward trend in college students increasing mental health support needs, the government has infused money into colleges and universities to increase resources available. Here are some examples of a few progressive university innovations:

  • Virginia Tech opened satellite counseling clinics to reach students where they already spend their time, including above a campus Starbucks, in the athletic department and in graduate centers.
  • Ohio State in 2016/2017 launched a counseling mobile app that allows students to make an appointment, access breathing exercises, listen to a playlist designed to cheer them up & contact the clinic in emergency
  • Penn State allocated $700k in additional funding for counseling and psychological services in 2017 citing a dramatic increase in demand for care.

With this post, I hope to reach college-age students who may be wondering if they should reach out and ask for help – the answer is YES. Talk to someone. Know there are resources available to you at all times. You are not alone, even if it feels like it. Most of us have felt have you feel!

My hope is also that parents of college students will read this, listen to their intuition and pay attention to any red flags in their child’s behaviors, words or lack thereof (i.e. isolation, lack of communication, etc.).  Most importantly, make sure your child is aware of all the resources available to them on campus. Just find it and text it to them, even if they act like you are crazy. Tell them to share the information with their friends.

Reducing the shame and stigma of mental health struggles by increasing communication on the topic will help in normalizing the experience of mental illness. Had I known this when I was in college, I would have saved myself from many years of private struggle, from college years into adulthood. Increased awareness of behavioral red flags and pushing through what feel like awkward and difficult conversations can save lives.

Please leave a comment and/or share this to reach as many people as possible today.

RESOURCES:

TEXT:  The Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org) is the only 24/7, nationwide crisis-intervention text-message hotline. The Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741-741

CALL:  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255

World Suicide Prevention Day:   https://iasp.info/wspd2018/

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**Definition of Sense of Self. … In psychology, the sense of self is defined as the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world. It’s a truly dynamic and complicated concept because it covers both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self.

Approval Seeking or Authentic Living?

(I started the first draft of this post on 4/18/18…since then I think Kanye may have taken a dark turn on his twitter…I will, however, stop time on April 18th for the purpose of this post, so if you will, bear with me and/or ignore any of his other cray shizz.)

N’er (I learned from my youngest this is acceptable in iambic pentameter) did I think I would reference Yeezy in my personal blog. I do, however, enjoy insightful reflection from unexpected sources. Hence, my Kanye tweet is the basis of today’s writing.

KWauthenticity

I spent many years of my life, most years in fact, seeking approval instead of authenticity.  I believed I had to act, speak, think and look certain ways in order to be worthy of love and acceptance. This is exhaustion defined. No peace. No present moment awareness. No true connection to self or others.

Authentic. Authenticity. These are words that apply to original works of art, famous family recipes. What does it mean in terms of a regular Joe trying to live a best life?

Well, Kanye purports authenticity over approval. And frankly, so do I. So let’s dissect:

In 2006, psychologists Brian Goldman and Michael Kernis defined authenticity as “the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.” The four components of authenticity contain the following:

  1. Self-awareness: Knowledge and trust in your own motives, emotions, traits, strengths, weaknesses, desires, etc.
  2. Unbiased processing: Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information (such as your strengths and weakness) regardless of the source (internal or external).
  3. Behavior: Acting in a way congruent with your own values and needs regardless of the circumstances and not as a consequence of external goals.
  4. Revealing one’s self in close relationships: Being open and actively disclosing both the good and bad parts of one’s self to close others.

Trading authenticity for approval then, keeps one disconnected from their truest core self.  So how do we move from approval seeking to authentic living?

Authenticity requires self-knowledge and self-awareness. People who are truly authentic accept their strengths and weaknesses and are accountable for their actions. Their actions and values are consistent with one another.

I used to think that my imperfections and fears were to be hidden from all. If I removed the mask and let people see the real me, rejection and judgement would accompany the revelation of my truest self. While hiding my truth, I also minimized my strengths by devaluing myself and my attributes. I erroneously believed that my contributions and presence were not noted, needed nor valued.

Understanding exactly what it is that YOU value is a major step toward living authentically.  If you are unclear about what you value and desire, it’s almost impossible to live authentically. This was an ah-ha moment for me.  At one of my lowest points over the last year, I literally sat with a clean slate – a blank piece of paper and drew/wrote what was important to me in order to become clear on my values so I could begin living authentically.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Value #1: Prioritizing my family- I could go into a shame spiral here but I will stop myself…I spent some years pushing my extended family (anyone outside my nucleus of 5) away from me in lieu of approval seeking behavior for those living in closest proximity to me (neighbors, kid’s school friends, endless activities that I thought I “should” do for acceptance, etc). I also wanted to keep my private pain away from my family.  I fancied myself as the familial caretaker, not the one who needed care. I was more comfortable in focusing on other’s problems than taking a hard look at myself. That felt too scary and vulnerable.

In clarifying my value system, I found that my “love tank” was filled up by my children, husband, sister, mother, step father, mother in law, sister/brothers in law, nieces and nephews. I had devalued my importance in these familial roles as well as their importance in my life. These family members love(d) me unconditionally, as I did them, and it was time for me to start acting in accordance with their high value in my life. And as I should have known all along, once I let them in on the challenges of my inner world, they were supporting, loving, and giving me lifelines.

  • Value #2: Connection & Compassion– I started believing and acting as if interactions I had with people were divinely inspired. That sounds crazy but it’s true. I would take a beat, a breath, each time I was one on one with someone. I wanted other people to feel that I truly cared about them in a shared heart/felt sense. I wanted them to feel safe to share their stories and for them to know they are truly cared for.  Taking a breath is also a grounding technique, which allows one to become fully present in the moment. Full presence creates a deepening connection between two people. Sharing my stories through this blog has brought me some of the most special interactions I have ever had in my life. These connections are absolutely sacred to me. They have have given me a clearer purpose, which is yet another step toward living authentically.

In therapy, I had a big fear that we returned to periodically – I was afraid that I didn’t have any real friendships and often asked how a women pushing 50 was going to find real friends. My perspective was that relationships are pretty cemented by age 50. My therapist told me repeatedly, and without wavering, that I will find my people and that my people will find me. And she was right. The more I started living in accordance with my value system, true relationships began forming and authentic friendships started to regrow. It truly was a “If you build it, they will come” time period.

This did not mean that I needed to shun existing relationships, only that I needed to release those that felt toxic. Living with connection and compassion as a driving value meant that it was time to heed my own advice: “If someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Until this revelation, I had been willing to disregard otherwise unacceptable behavior because I thought that was the only way for the friendship to exist. It’s important to understand that each time we do this, it chips away at our sense of wholeness, our sense of self.  No, no, no, sister-self. You are worthy of so much more. 

  • Value #3: Willingness to learn and grow– Throughout this period of intensive therapy, I became a sponge. I explored, read, wrote, critiqued myself, journaled and went on retreats. I asked myself about my greatest shortcomings and my biggest attributes. What scary parts of my life am I willing to look at and decipher? When did I feel the most content in my life? How did the accumulation of traumatic events shape my thought processes and behaviors? Am I willing to “GO THERE?” Luckily,  99% of the time I said yes, even if it was only for a few minutes or even seconds.

This value, the willingness to learn and grow, was one of the greatest revelations in understanding my depression, anxiety and PTSD. Instead of feeling like a freak show of excessive, uncomfortable feelings and reactions, the pieces of the puzzle started to make sense. With time and care, it became clear that it would have been WEIRDER if I didn’t have these feelings and reactions after what I had been through. Through the core value of willingness to learn and grow, I was able to slowly give myself love, compassion and understanding.  I can assure you, this took the edge off my daily living, both for myself and my house hold.

  • Value #4: Invoke the Spirit of My Matriarchs–  In contrast to the traditional definition of matriarchy,  which is “a social system in which females hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of male,” I created my own meaning.  My personal definition of Matriarchal Spirit is derived from the combination of attributes from my grandmother Althea, my grandmother Meta, my mother in law, Carol, and my mother, Annette.

While they passed away early in my adulthood, I have begun to revere the traits of my grandmothers and better understand their important influence in my life. My grandmother, Althea, my mom’s mom, was tall in stature, strong in physical presence and sometimes intimidating. She taught me to paint, took care of my itchy eczema when my parents were away, gave me a white bunny fur coat and muff (my most prized childhood possessions), was strong willed and a hard worker. She argued her points with my Pop-pop, which my husband can surely relate to. In contrast to my parents who, shockingly, never argued, I saw a woman who stood up for herself and her beliefs.

My grandmother, Meta, was a soft, smiling, laughing, bear-huggable soul. I would do anything to have had more time with her, yet I see/feel a lot of her in me.  When I force my hug-resistance nieces and sister to bear hug me, I feel as if I am invoking her matriarchal spirit. I think my silliness and quirkiness come from Grandmom Meta. When I picture her, I see her at her kitchen sink, laughing and smiling while she made snacks for my sister and I to eat under her massive Willow Tree. Her spirit was contagious and my soul smiles when I think of her. I hope to be that for someone one day.

My mother in law, Carol.  If you have seen her you know – beautiful inside and out. I think of her as an energizer bunny. She literally can run circles around me. But deeper than just being a “do-er” is the love for her family, her children, grandchildren and luckily for me, her daughter-in-law. She’s the person who provides help before the question is finished being asked, often without being asked.  There is never an expectation of something in return. She just gives. Let me be that willing.

Last but not least, my mother. Oh boy, my mother. Has she ever had her burdens to bear. And not just her own. She’s had to shoulder the burdens of others as well. She is unequivocally self-less, the most self-less person I’ve ever met.  She has shown my sister and I the meaning of faith and love, even when we have been prickly and not so easy to hold onto. In the face of adversity, she has been steadfastly strong, always knowing she is a child of one loving God. Always knowing she would be okay whatever comes her way, because of her faith. She is an incredible friend and deeply compassionate to everyone. She’s never met a stranger. I wish to live with a few ounces of my mother’s selfless steadfastness.

For me, Invoking the Spirit of my Matriarchs, is a melding the strengths of these women into my core values. I seek to be a woman that my children, husband, family and friends love in the same way that I love my female role models. .

So those are my Core Four Values: Prioritizing family; Connection & Compassion; Willingness to Learn & Grow; and Invoking the Spirit of My Matriarchs.  These four guide me down the path of authenticity and away from approval seeking behaviors.

Your Core Four will most likely be different than mine. Excavating your personal values will lead you towards the path of authenticity, and will hopefully guide you to the lifelong freedom of authentic living.

Thanks for the thoughts, Crazy Kanye.

Be Fearless, Love Garry – Part 2

I had to return to Garry for this post because his documentary has stayed with me in deep and thoughtful ways since viewing the two-part series.

I posted Part One of Be Fearless, Love Garry in the middle of last week. As I was getting ready to go away for the weekend, I was wrapping a gift for a friend’s party for whom I was going to miss due to my weekend travel. I planned to drop the gift off before I left town.

I had a couple of oddly shaped presents that I wanted to connect together in their wrapping.  I inserted the goods into a hand-made bag that I had purchased from a local shop and went to cut the tags off. My heart skipped a beat and the hairs on my arms stood up. The bag, which I bought because I thought the wording on the front was funny and befitting the receiver, had this beautiful leather tag attached to the back of it, which I had not noticed when I bought it. At the bottom of the tag:

BE FEARLESSLY AUTHENTIC

All caps. The pretty tag was yelling at me. Thank you, Garry, I hear you loud and clear. Just as in last week’s post, Garry’s message was to be brave, fearless and myself.  Synchronicity Posse at it again.

The entire purpose of my writing, starting with the journals years and years ago, was to figure out “who am I” and “what is my purpose”? Authenticity in terms of self had not really entered my vocabulary at the time. But at 40+ a few, I had no idea who I was, what was important to me, what felt true in the deepest levels of my soul. My anxiety had crept up to levels of which I had not felt since postpartum with my first child.

I found myself being reactive, quick to make assumptions, feeling alone and disconnected. Unhappy with myself and my life situation, yet not having a clear cut reason for my unhappiness based on my surroundings and love of my family.

This quote from The Zen Diaries is one of the reason’s I can’t shake Garry’s story:

Sarah Silverman notes, “He turned to Buddhism, but it’s not because he’s Zen. It’s because he was in desperate need of being Zen.”

A few people in my life know personally what it is like to be cut by the knife of Jane’s words. Mean, nasty, inconsiderate, selfish, cutting words.  My inner struggle was taken out on those closest to me at times.  I was in desperate need of being Zen.

This observation, this comment by Sarah Silverman is so poignant to me because of the depth of truth contained within it.  Why do we change our diet? Because we need to lose weight. Why do we exercise? Because we want a healthy heart and bones. Why do we have relationships? Because the human condition requires connection.

I needed to find some sort of Zen because I was in desperate need of peace, love and contentment in my life.

A couple of years ago I took a birthday trip with friends. We were there to celebrate another friend’s birthday but it just so happened to be my birthday while we were there as well. I made a firm proclamation that I wanted essentially no birthday attention – the weekend was to be all about my friend.

Based on my reaction, that proclamation was not at all aligned with what my innermost self had wanted.  I was hurt, acted irrationally and basically made an ass out of myself due to my perceived unmet birthday adoration.  Awoken horrified the next day, I grabbed the book that I was reading at the time by Pema Chodron, “When Things Fall Apart,” and headed to the beach.

I can see how that may have seemed incongruous to the friends on the beach with me. I had acted like a bratty baby the night before and was now reading the teachings of a Buddhist Monk twelve hours later, keeping to myself, ashamed and saddened.

But that is why Sarah’s quote is so on target: we, the hurting souls and spiritual seekers, are here at this point in our lives because we desperately need relief. We know there is more to life than pain and discontent and we are willing to do the work to find healing. I know I am. And I want to help those who feel the same way.

I travel from place to place with my brief case loaded with a little “work stuff” but more fully weighted down by journals, articles and books about healing, meditation, mindfulness work,  resolving trauma, and self-compassion to name a few. These are my journey and they help me answer the question I for so long have asked: Who Am I? Why Am I here?

I am a flawed human soul who has a deep, almost desperate desire, to become the most authentic version of myself in this life time. I no longer hide in shame nor am I afraid to say I am sorry or to reach out to connect with those in need.

I am willing to be me, to BE FEARLESSLY AUTHENTIC, in life and with love.

befearlessGarry

Be Fearless, Love, Garry

Lately I have been having these incredibly interesting life events simultaneously occurring. As I continue to open myself up to others regarding my personal history with mental health struggles and some of the causal factors of those challenges, more people, more articles and more connections are continually being revealed to me.

In psychology, Carl Jung calls this “synchronicity:”  events that are “meaningful coincidences,” occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.

For example, if someone recommends a certain book to you, then you happen to see a review of it in a magazine and then see a stranger reading it in the airport, there’s most likely a message in that book for you.  When three different people of no connection suggest you try something new, it is worth your effort to investigate. The universe has something waiting for you in these meaningful coincidences. I accept life’s synchronicities as little winks from the universe: “Keep going, Jane. You are on the right path.”

However, in order to be alert to life’s synchronicities, we must be fully present, or mindful.  As a reminder, mindfulness is: “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

This is a picture of the artwork I keep on my office wall as a mindfulness reminder:

BeHereNow

It’s a lot harder than it seems, frankly. When I am at lunch with a friend, am I actually present mentally or am I thinking about the 3 things I need to do immediately after? When I am working at my “real job,” where the above artwork is framed, am I day dreaming about what I want to write about next on my blog? (Usually, yes…but we are all works in progress).

The most significant synchronicities have been in the revelation of connection through our shared experiences, particularly our common struggles:  real life stories of anxiety, panic attacks, major depression, anorexia and/or bulimia, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, alcoholism, prescription medication addiction, PTSD caused not only by military experience but also by rape and child abuse, suicide and suicide attempts. Real stuff. Scary stuff. But the stuff from which we are most deeply connected, if we allow ourselves to remove the shame and stigma.

Big name movie stars, athletes, news anchors, and comedians are braving the consequences and sharing the truth of their struggles with mental health. Parents, coworkers, college students, children, young adults and grandparents are opening up with confidants and professionals. I am hearing these stories first hand and know that the more we talk about these things, the more they will be lifted from of the darkness, free from shame.

Which brings me to Garry Frickin’ Shandling, of all people. As those closest to me know, I’m a sucker for anything biopic. Unlike a sitcom rerun that makes me run from a room covering my ears, give me a life story and I’ll inhale it faster than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. But Garry Shandling? Isn’t he a dorky comedian who was in his prime during my college years??

Well, yes, I guess, but I’ve just recently learned so much more about his depth and process through the HBO mini series, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, produced and directed by Garry’s protégé, Judd Apatow.

Posthumusly, Garry Shandling, who died at age 66, has become a major contributor to my Synchronicity Posse. Below are  pictures on my phone from some of his diary writings, which he began in his earliest days of trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and continued throughout his explosive career.  His soul searching began as a result of the trauma he experienced as a boy through the loss of his brother at ten years old. His parents never acknowledged the death of his brother, nor allowed his grief. He wasn’t even permitted to attend his brother’s funeral.

I paused the show and snapped pictures, paused and snapped, taking photos of Garry’s personal diary and his words of wisdom and personal reflection. Each one of these had a personal meaning to me or was relevant to things I care keeping about: being fully present, being/becoming my most authentic self, being fearless, the power of vulnerability, just to name a few.

This is a screen shot of all that I accumulated… from Episode 1:

GarrysNotebooks

A writer. A spiritual seeker. A student of buddhism. Practicer of mindfulness. Also, often a pain in the ass, work-related perfectionist who was often difficult to deal with and overly sensitive. Was I watching a documentary on myself???

No, just my synchronistic soul brother, encouraging me to follow my path and be both brave and fearless at the deepest levels.

Because, of course, this is not the first time I have heard these exact words recently. Meaningful connection through occurrence. Synchronicity.

befearlessGarry

“Have the courage to feel your emotions in <whatever is important to you>”

Meditate on it, open up at the deepest level.

Be brave at the deepest level.

Be fearless.”

– Garry Shandling, Zen Diaries

Look for the 2 part series, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling on HBO:

https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-zen-diaries-of-garry-shandling

Down Day

I used to get really scared when I was having a Down Day. You know the feeling, the one that many of us call the “Sunday Scaries?” It’s that, “I feel sad and I don’t know why” on a random Tuesday feeling. When this happens to me, I typically run through my checklist of usual worry suspects – kid stress, work concerns, sleep deprivation, familial arguments,  friendship issues – to identify a culprit. On a Down Day, the check list typically comes up empty and what’s left is a case of the Unknown Scaries.

The Down Day feeling is a gnawing heaviness; a general malaise perhaps, to put it fancifully. My husband asks, after observing my quiet and distant behavior, “Are you okay?” and I answer, “Yes, I’m just having a Down Day.”

On a Down Day, a tear sits at the ready, waiting to emerge at the tiniest bit of distress or even a kind word.  Not a heavy duty, cleansing cry.  Just a few damp escapees down my cheek that expose hidden sadness to those who may cross my path. Tears, those traitors.

Most of my life was spent white-knuckling my way through a Down Day. Ever fearful that if I stopped moving, stopped numbing, another D, depression, would overtake me, beat me down and exile me. I had to move faster than the depression, like a storm you see in your rear view mirror that is quickly catching up to you.

GO GO GO. DO DO DO. Anything except FEEL FEEL FEEL. Feeling was scary and brought with it too many unknowns. I had convinced myself that my feelings were too much and way more than I, or anyone, could handle.

“The cure for pain is in the pain.
In Silence, there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”        – Rumi

One gets to the point, however, where white-knuckling, busy-ness or any other false coping mechanism no longer work as “feeling avoidance strategies”. That storm in your rear view mirror catches up to you because, as Rumi says, the “cure for pain is in the pain.” We must sit in and then go through pain in order to get to the other side of it. Going around it? Not an option.

I have experienced adverse life experiences that span in time from early childhood through adulthood. No wonder on a random Tuesday the effect of this accumulated trauma may periodically show itself, often times without warning.

What I have learned in sitting with the pain, whether that is in a therapist’s office, in meditation, or in a mindfulness practice, is that when the deep pain and hurt reach out to you on a Down Day, they need to be attended to with compassion and love.

Our tendency is toward avoidance or covering up of the pain. Put on a mask of happiness and go on with our lives. However-

“What we resist, persists” – Carl Jung

Avoidance and numbing strategies create resistance to what is presenting itself, which then results in increased anxiety and depression. If we want to minimize Down Days, we need to do the opposite of resist: accept and allow.

So, what does it look like to “Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves” per Rumi? How do we stop doing and start feeling? Stop numbing and start healing?

For me, it’s an acceptance of, and sinking into, the flow of life’s ups and downs, acknowledging my feelings through stillness and meditation, along with a combination of self-compassion and self-care.

Self-compassion as defined by Kristin Neff, PhD., “requires the we stop to recognize our own suffering. We can’t be moved by our own pain if we don’t even acknowledge that it exists in the first place.” So, on a Down Day, I try to increase awareness, decrease avoidance and offer up some love.

For example, in meditation, I send love to the hurt parts of my emotional and physical self. I literally put a hand over my heart to comfort myself, and then connect with the love and light I send to those hurting places. Some times tears flow as a part of this practice, but when acting within the realm of self-compassion, I no longer think of them as traitors. Instead, they are truth – the truth and authenticity of my story. I feel you. I see you. And I honor the pain and suffering that I share with you.

Self-care can come in any positive action that feels comforting. For me, self-care is crawling into my bed with a good book or to watch a silly reality show, being with my family, snuggling with my dogs or even a mani/pedi. For others it may be a bath, watching a movie, or a phone call with a friend.

Self-care is also prioritizing my own mental healthcare even when my bank account, fear or life’s unexpected circumstances say I should cancel. I have stuck to this self-imposed guideline for the better part of three years and it’s the best gift I’ve ever given myself.*  Healing was not possible for me without intensive therapy.

Instead of being scared of a Down Day, I now know these times are the indicator that my innermost self needs a little love and attention. Sometimes there is a clear cause of the darkness; other days not-so-much as a clue. If you get a case of the Down Days, I hope that the combination of avoiding resistance through mindfulness and mediation practice, self-compassion and self-care will help you feel less scared too.

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*I highly recommend therapy for anyone battling anxiety, depression and PTSD. Keep looking until you find someone you can afford, who takes your insurance, etc., and make it a top priority for yourself. It took me multiple attempts over the years to find the “right” therapist, but when I did, it positively changed all aspects of my life.

Desperately Seeking…Self?

While this won’t necessarily always be a linear story, I want to address how the Badass article further launched my inner curiosities. I had never been a free-thinking, curious child. Growing up, my sister and I were taught that the world operated in one fundamentalist Christian fashion, no questions asked. For most of my life, it never occurred to me to veer from that narrative.

I envied women who questioned authority and challenged norms, even though I was simultaneously perplexed by them. Where did this source of strength come from, to show up and be seen?

From an early age, safety for me was only felt in hiding behind my mother, in her pant leg or skirt. Over the years, the hiding evolved from my mother’s pants leg to the chamelon-esque persona I embodied.  Essentially, I didn’t want to be seen and I didn’t feel safe in the world.

I had spent my late 20’s and 30’s as a dutiful wife and mother while climbing the ladder of traditional success. Beautiful home and family, yet there was also an ongoing emptiness. For many years, I looked the part of societal perfection, but along with my emptiness came the gnawing need for more. Something greater than myself and greater than what I could see with my own eyes. I longed for more, whatever that more was.

The traditional fire and brimstone Christianity I had been raised with no longer filled my soul. I believed God to be a loving God. I wasn’t looking to replace Jesus. Or God. But I was seeking an inner peace and fulfillment that wasn’t being met within the constraints of my religious upbringing.

“Badass” posed existential inquiry, which I had never before attempted.  “Let yourself be seen…deep inside where you feel your breath, that is where you will find yourself.” Some more curiosity triggers from the article:

  • maintain the faith that an energy greater than you has your back
  • fear is the language of the ego that leads you away from where you want to go
  • forget your imperfections
  • what do you need in this moment – let it out, accept yourself & LET OTHERS IN
  • acceptance, forgiveness, letting go
  • every moment is fleeting – do not cling
  • love, care and compassion allow you to operate at an optimal state

Early stages of studying the concepts contained within the article, helped me realize that fear had kept me contracted and closed off from my highest, truest self, my soul. Fear had also disconnected me from others by not allowing them to see my authentic self.

My inner and outer worlds were completely misaligned. No wonder the struggle.was.so.real.  The two selves battled each other every day, which was contributing to my general state of anxiety and discontent.

“Badass” launched me into the study of meditation, mindfulness, gratitude practice, the law of attraction, higher power and energy work. Some kind of next level shizz.  These new-age buzzwords can turn some people off immediately, but it was unexpectedly working for me and I was all in. The article lead to books, websites, more articles and more books. With each inquiry, I recorded my thoughts and feelings and slowly began to put theories into action.

A picture of my inner self was becoming clearer. The practices were making me feel grounded and in closer touch with my higher self, which allowed me to feel safe enough to start to reaching out to others.  I was tightening the Spiritus Link by feeding my hungry soul. I was even beginning to like a little of what I saw on the inside.

That is until the “T word” confronted me. Trauma. I wanted to be living in this happy, higher plane that I had discovered, which at times felt almost euphoric. But Trauma wouldn’t let me stay there too long. Trauma kept pulling at my pants leg.

Top Ten Lists

Five years ago (2013) I came across an article on the wholistic living website, Mind Body Green, that changed my life because it caused me to examine how I looked at the world, the way I lived in the world and how I understood myself. The article took up residence in my psyche and planted a seed that snowballed into years of reading, research and intensive therapy.  Sometimes the message was in the forefront of my brain affecting all of my decisions. At other times, it was deeper and harder to access but it never was far from my consciousness. The truth of that article resonated so deeply within me that I knew my life’s work was somehow centered around the information contained within the 500+- word post. I had no idea how,or what my “life’s work” looked like, only that the content activated within me a need to know and understand more of the topic.

I was drawn to the article because of the title, “10 Ways to Become Your Most Badass Self.” Who couldn’t use more bad-assness in their life?? Immediately I was sucked in, as a good title should do. At the time, I was feeling anything other than badass; more like fearful, anxious, lonely, disconnected, unworthy and borderline depressed.

Just like any “Top 10 Tips to X, Y, Z,” article, the headline conveyed that it had the answer – all the answers. A few tweaks here or there and I’d be “fixed.” Fine-tuned, Bad-ass-Jane, at your service! Super-sized, please! I’m in.

But, alas, the information that followed the headline was much deeper than any 10 step, quick fix program. Damn it. Sold me a bill a goods.

What I wanted:

  1. Wake Up at 7:30 am.
  2. Do 20 sit ups.
  3. Walk a mile.
  4. Make a to-do list.
  5. Less Netflix.
  6. More healthy foods.
  7. Go to bed by 11 pm.
  8. 9. 10. More of the same: clear cut, unambiguous steps.

What I read:

To become our most badass, we must live the most authentic version of ourselves in order to transcend states of anxiety, stress, fear, loneliness or unhappiness. W-T-H. Then more: The balanced center between our inner and outer worlds is found in our Spiritus, which is Latin for spirit, breath, soul, courage, and vigor. When feeling sad, confused, uninspired, tighten the S-Link.  “Tear down the wall that fear built inside you which clogs your passageways to reach The Spiritus.” Spiritus, then, is the truest expression of who we are.

Balanced center of inner and outer worlds. Balanced center of inner and outer worlds. The phrase repeated over and over in my brain. What does that mean? What does that look like for me? Where are my easy and actionable 10 steps!? Instead, this seemingly rag-mag style headline asked me to:

  1. Figure out who I am.
  2. Go slow and steady.
  3. Trust my path.
  4. Be fearless.
  5. Tell my truth.
  6. Move and sweat (finally, a step I understood!)
  7. Look with love.
  8. Practice patience.
  9. Remain in the moment.
  10. Practice gratitude.

Item number one threw me. The writer suggested I “peel back the layers and let yourself be seen…Behind the body, behind the spiral of your overactive mind, deep inside where you feel your breath, that is where you will find yourself.”

I realized for the first time, I truly had no idea what an authentic version of myself looked or felt like. I had lived as a chameleon, changing myself to match whatever was presented to me externally.  For 40+ years, I allowed the outside world to dictate who I was and how I felt about myself. Faced with this reality, it was no wonder I felt like I was spinning out of control, drowning, and miserable.

These daunting 10 steps were not what I was looking for when I pulled up the article, they were, however, exactly what I needed.

This is my story of a deep, deep dive into the truth of my life story; excavating all the way down to my most authentic self and finding worthiness. Finding a woman who has value in all her cracks and flaws. Finding a woman who loves to love and loves to laugh. Finding a woman who forgives. And finally finding FREEDOM through the balanced center of my inner and outer worlds.

*******

Inside the cover of my first major writing notebook – 9/23/13. Drawing and doodling concepts I read helped me process the information.

dipictionofspiritus

First page of notes – 9/28/13. Top line references the article referred to in post above.

first spiritus link notes