personal

Better Late Than Never

Hi.

It’s been a while.

As is tradition right before the new year, I abandoned all self-made promises, and made tons of excuses as to why. “I’m taking a break from writing–I mean, I wrote a novel.” “It’s so cold outside, and I was sick, so of course I couldn’t run.” “I haven’t blogged in forever, I can’t just sit down and start again, I need to explain why.” “I have so much work to do!”

All lies, for the record. Or, perhaps excuses is a better umbrella to put them under. I come from the school of thought (and the place of privilege) that you make time for the things you love, things you’re passionate about. And I haven’t made time. I have procrastinated (I just watched through the entire Lizzie Bennet Diaries again) and pushed everything I ought to do to the perpetual “tomorrow morning.” I have argued circumstance and life situation (sickness and NaNoWriMo shouldn’t get in the way), and everything a serial procrastinator has up their sleeve. I can run circles around things I need to do—it’s a gift.

But no more. It’s a new year, and while I’m kind of against sweeping life statements (despite the fact that I make them quite often), I might as well get into the spirit of self-improvement. No goals this month, just… hopes. As you might know from previous entries, I’m a pretty big fan of forgiveness, especially when it comes to yourself. And while the new year is a great time for becoming the better you, it’s also important to remember that you are only human. Trying to become the super human version of yourself will only bring you disappointment. So rather than steadfast resolutions, let’s talk about hopes for the new year. Let’s talk about all the ways we can find happiness.

Yesterday morning, over toast and scrambled eggs, my best friend read last year’s hopes aloud. Rather than writing down all the ways she should improve or change, she’d decided to list all the things she could do for a fuller life—a happier existence.

So let that be your challenge. Even if it is the second of January—no one says you can’t begin something new any time you want. Write out a list of things you can do this year to improve your overall happiness. And check them off as you fulfill them. Whether it is greater forgiveness, walks in the park, drinking more tea, visiting friends, road trips, readings, finding religion. Improve your life, but don’t forget to take time to enjoy it along the way.

And welcome back to Staving Off Disaster. I’ll be here all year.

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Be Brave

Shanna Murray, 2012

One of the terrifying things about life is the rhythm. How it seems to fall into moments of stasis, of paralysis.

For me the stasis has never really meant contentedness, or calm. It’s felt like dreaming of running, and knowing your legs won’t move. Of waking up flailing, only to realize no progress has been made. It is a paralysis built on fear of complacency, of settling. It is a fear built on not making something of my life.

For a long time I built my life on cause and effect. Tragedy and heartbreak were stepping stones, path marks on the trail to a person exponentially better than I was, am. When my father died, I built a world of purpose, of consequence, of destiny. My thirteen-year-old self argued, to make sense of the chaos, that this all happened for a reason. I struggled through this disaster because something better was coming. And the scales had to be set right again. I had to lose in order to gain.

Ten years later, I wrote in my mother’s eulogy,

I am not one who thinks that everything happens for a reason. I simply cannot… It is my belief, however, that we make the reason. We give meaning to disaster, we create ourselves in hardships, we decide what comes from death.

I have spent the last three years of my life attempting to make sense of tragedy. Of creating something out of chaos, of turning pain into something beautiful. I am a writer, I argue, because of my hardships. I cannot let disaster and heartache be meaningless, I have to prescribe it meaning. I cannot put it away, let the dust pile on it, let it be forgotten. I must make something of it. I must do it justice, put the cause and effect into the narrative, fill in the backstory of my main character, grow her into something you deem real.

I am still in stasis. I am terrified of standing on the cavern of the world and looking down to my dirty feet and seeing the nothingness below them. I worry that I will never tear through the cellophane emotions, never find the effect in the rhythm, never feel the release of the constant inhale. I wonder if the prescribed meaning is too literal, too neatly packaged. I look again at the accidental structures built after the collapses and wonder if they are just as detrimental, just as false.

I pray for the exhale. I pray for the day when paralysis breaks, like ice melting, and I shake off the past selves like spring shakes off winter. I pray for the release, the meaning, the clarity.

Until then, I continue through the chaos. And I am brave.

The Importance of Taking Care of Yourself

Around Christmas of 2010 I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Many outside factors contributed to this–my mother’s cancer diagnosis, the impending end of college, our recent family move. But the fact remained that my hours in bed (going to bed early, sleeping in late, never feeling awake), my self-perceived worthlessness, my minor bouts with self-harm (I’d clench my fists often, digging my nails into my palms, and occasionally punched my thighs to relieve tension) could no longer go untreated. I worried that soon the depression would get worse, and I would no longer see the point of treatment. I asked my mother to take me to the doctor, where I was diagnosed and encouraged to start a regiment of meds and therapy. I was afraid of meds so I asked to start exclusively with therapy.

I went to my first therapist with deliberate skepticism. This woman can’t help you, I told myself. If you want to get better, just get better. Feel better. Stop being so sad. Just be happy. I labored under the belief that depression was mere unhappiness, and that I was letting myself be unhappy, and that I could choose to be happy. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Stop feeling sad.

In my journey through to depression, I tend to write off this therapist. While I didn’t necessarily feel that strongly about our time together, she gave me something for which I will be eternally grateful–the opportunity to begin a dialogue about my feelings without the pressure of judgment or guilt. I have been extremely blessed with a vast community of friends and family that I have always felt open with, but this network of friends can (and should) only go so far. With a therapist I discovered the importance of naming my feelings, recognizing them as real and needing to be felt, and, perhaps most importantly, not inherently bad. Very slowly I began to shed the belief that there was something wrong with me because of my depression, that I had let myself feel these things, that I could save myself. There were actual physical changes that had happened in my brain, pathways that had been rewired by my constant negative thoughts that couldn’t be changed by simply “feeling better.”

I also discovered another vital truth about depression around this time–for most people (myself included) it is a lifelong struggle. There would be no cure-all for me, I wouldn’t suddenly hit thirty therapy visits and feel elated all the time. Depression is a constant in my life. I make a conscious effort many days to combat it–to avoid situations where I can feed it. Fortunately my depression is currently quiet, but I am aware that if I don’t take care of myself it can and will rear its ugly head. I make sure to get enough sleep, to eat healthy foods that make me feel good, to get exercise, and most importantly to me, to avoid feeling shame my emotions. I will not be happy all the time, I shouldn’t be happy all the time, and I am no less because of that fact. I embrace my emotions more than I ever have in the past–recognizing that shame about them is more toxic than actually feeling them.

My point in telling you all of this is two-fold. One, depression affects a vast array of people, 1 in 10 Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives. The stigma that you should just “feel better” is dangerous, and shuts down the dialogue about mental health. It is why I felt so responsible for my own depression, that I had somehow done it to myself, that I was broken. The more we stigmatize depression the more people suffer its terrible consequences–convinced as I was that they can fix themselves, or worse that there is something wrong with them. Depression likes to be fed, and the idea that you are broken only brings you closer to your depression.

Two, an awareness of your emotions is vital to your mental health. I am extremely fortunate to be at a place where I can manage my depression (many, many people are not). I am aware of what feeds it, and I try to take care of myself. Having dealt with depression, I can see some paths like road maps–too many hours of TV, sleeping too long, staying inside all day, avoiding contact with friends and family, long sad music sessions, not eating properly–these all feed my depression. These are by no means universal, but they are some of my indicators, like flashing lights on the highway: danger ahead.

Depression is a terribly easy thing for many people to fall into–and it might not even be apparent to those you love. I imagine this post will come as a shock to some of my friends. Depression likes to get you alone, make you feel alienated, make your emotions feel unsharable. Outwardly you can be bubbly and friendly, putting on a face to keep your negative emotions quiet, feeding the alienation you feel, feeding your depression. Take care of yourself. Name your emotions. Talk about them. Recognize that life is hard. Don’t compare your emotions, life, struggles with other people’s. If you think you need to, talk to a therapist or doctor–even if you aren’t depressed, therapy is a great way to tap into your emotional health. Be in touch with all of your feelings, not just happiness.

Please, please, please take care of yourselves. There are many people that love you.

If you feel you need immediate attention, the National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255.

I love you. Be good to yourself.