depression, bipolar and honesty: a candid interview

[If you'd like to hear an audio of this interview, click HERE.] 

Becky McCoy: “I am here with Amanda Phillips, and we met at a writer’s conference last year, right?”

Amanda Phillips: “We did! Last summer; almost exactly a year ago!”

B: I was so overwhelmed. My complete introvertedness was severely challenged that week, because there are, like, thousands of women at this conference, and Amanda comes running over, and was just like, ‘Hi! Hi! I’ve been wanting to meet you!’ and I was trying to go through my Rolodex really fast, but my brain was melting, and then I figured out who you were.”

A: “Yeah, I’m a lot. I used to be an introvert, if you can even believe that.”

B: “No, I cannot! So, let’s talk a little bit! This is the mental illness series of this podcast, so why don’t you explain a little bit about how your symptoms and diagnoses might be different or similar to those with the same diagnosis.”

A: “Totally! I’ll try to make this SparkNotesy, because it can be a long story. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder when I was a sophomore in college, and the way that happened – it was my first diagnosis – so Major Depressive Disorder just means that you have what are called Major Depressive Episodes. I’m also a counselor now, so I’ve learned more about the science behind it and can actually tell people about it a little better. So, you have a depressive episode, or a persistent depressed mood, or inability to be engaged in life, all these things – for two weeks – it has to last that long; it really has to linger.

So I had all of that, but we all thought it was grief because I had a friend who had passed away tragically at the time – except it wouldn’t go away. I was flunking out of classes and I was a pretty good student. It was all stuff that didn’t make sense. I just didn’t care about school; I couldn’t care. I couldn’t care about the things that I knew that I liked; it was really strange.

Since I was in college at the time, I was living in a community of friends; I was away from my family, so no one really had any context for it. I ended up going to my college’s Health Services center and getting a referral for a Major Depression diagnosis, and was actually struggling at the time with some pretty heavy suicidal ideation – it was a super dark time. I actually ended up taking some time off to go home for counseling and treatment and started meds, but it never really got all the way better with medication. The suicidal stuff, that went away – that was an isolated period for me, but the depressive symptoms, I would have periods, still, even after the diagnosis and medication, where I wouldn’t want to engage or be social. I would be irritable with people, things that weren’t really characteristic of me and it was hard because it was so contrary to who I really knew I was.

So I did different medications for years, and really struggled to find one that took care of it. And I did the rest of college like that, and then I moved to North Carolina to do a Master’s program in School Counseling, and people were like, “Oh, you had depression and decided to be a counselor!”  -- No, I was laying in bed all day and was binge-watching Friday Night Lights and wanted to be Tami Taylor. That’s why I applied to those programs; because I wanted to be Tami Taylor. It was all a big accident. But I went to grad school, was still super depressed, was on a lot of medication, and I was 21 that fall – so early 20’s. And I started seeing new symptoms, like that I wouldn’t need to sleep at night. Or I’d sleep for an hour. I’d have elevated moods with a lot of energy, which was new, and it felt really nice compared to being depressed and wanting to sleep all the time. I’d have these periods where I’d, like, not max out a credit card, but I’d drop a lot of money shopping or one time I drove from Denver to Virginia without sleeping – things that were like, “Hmm…what’s this?”

And I was actually in a class on mental health in schools and we went over the symptoms of this thing called Bipolar Type II, and my roommate and I were like, ‘Huh, these are all really similar to what’s happening right now’ and I actually went to my psychiatrist and was like, ‘I don’t know, man, what about this?’ – because he hadn’t seen the hypomania stuff before. So I’m diagnosed now with Bipolar Type II, so that’s similar to Bipolar Type I – but the manic stuff that you hear about with Bipolar Type I is a lot more subdued, at least it is in my life. So we just added on some medication to cater to that part, and it was like everything clicked again. I could experience a normal range of emotions again, and wasn’t depressed and despondent all the time – it really, really helped. It just took a long time to figure it out. It took a lot of different doctors and a lot of different medications, but then once we got the right name on it and had a little more explanation for things, that’s when I could go from, ‘the meds aren’t working and I’m broken’ to ‘oh, THIS is what it is. THIS is how you treat that,’ and it made everything make a lot more sense.”

B: “So, how would you say, because I think especially with depression and bipolar, people automatically have a thought in their head that they think they understand what that means. So, why don’t you explain what major depressive disorder and bipolar look like for YOU?”

Amanda: Yeah, so the thing with Major Depressive Disorder is that you’re diagnosed with that only if you’ve never had a manic or hypomanic episode. Like, if it’s just depression, you have MDD. But then when you add in mania or hypomania to that, that’s when you go over to Bipolar Type I or II. That to say, with Bipolar Type II, which is my current deal, you still experience bouts of depression, but you have the ‘up’ moments, too.

In my life, it’s kind of like when I wasn’t medicated, it was a lot of numbness. I think people think that depression means that you’re really sad; it’s not quite that, it’s more that you just can’t feel anything. And this is really hard to explain, but I’ll try. Even though I’m on a medication paradigm and I have a regular therapist, and I have friends who know about this and I have a great support system, and I have a really intense wellness plan that involves nutrition and sleep and fitness and self-care and centering activities – sometimes I still get depressed. Like, still. And I think that is so hard for people to understand, because normally I’m so lively and vivacious and doing things.”

B: “Right, like ‘Aren’t you fixed, Amanda? You’re taking meds!’”

A: Right! Like, ‘aren’t you better now?’ – and no; it’s a lifelong management thing. I still have depressive episodes, even with all of those things I do to try and NOT, and I think it’s been interesting for people to see that. I actually just had one; it lasted about two weeks, and I more or less disappeared from social media, I wasn’t really out and about, I didn’t really have the emotional energy to do my regular coffee dates with friends, all the things -- like I just couldn’t function. I just wanted to be in the bed ALL the time, and people were like, ‘…YOU?’ and I’d be like, ‘YES’ – it’s like if you got a physical diagnosis; and I don’t like to compare two things like this, but if you got a diagnosis for cancer or something, you’d have to reevaluate the way that you take care of yourself. It’s kind of the same thing here. You have to reevaluate.

And so people were used to seeing me on Instagram stories or whatever, like, ‘Oh, Amanda, she’s running around with all the energy, doing all the things!’ and when I slipped into my recent depressed mood, people didn’t get [the shift]. The best way I can explain it is from a comic called Hyperbole and a Half. It’s an excellent resource from this girl Allie, she’s a blogger, and she has this cartoon where it compares depression to having goldfish – so people are watching me on Instagram, and they’re used to seeing me and my goldfish, how much fun me and my goldfish have – and then one day I was just like ‘my goldfish are dead’ – it’s almost like people would go, ‘oh…well, have you looked for them? Are they over there?’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, they’re dead’ – and then they’ll say things like, ‘oh, well goldfish are always the deadest before the dawn!’ or ‘well let’s make finger puppets out of them!’ or ‘well what about bees? Have you tried liking bees?’

And I’d be like, ‘why can’t anyone just acknowledge that my goldfish are dead?’

And that’s how I’ll explain it to people. I’ll say, “I don’t need you to try and make finger puppets; I just need to let you know that I’m struggling right now, and the best thing you can even say is just, ‘Man, let me know what you need.’”

B: “So, to everyone listening, if Amanda and I ever post a picture of a dead goldfish on social media, you know what’s up.”

A: “Well, I actually am afraid of goldfish. I just hate looking at them. I think they’re creepy. I don’t know, I’m a weirdo.”

B: “So at what point did you realize – you said with the bipolar part, you were in class and thought those symptoms sounded familiar, so with depression, how did you figure out that you weren’t just tired or sad or low? That this wasn’t just severe emotion? That this was actually something that needed help?”

A: “So for me, and I’m super open about this, because I think that’s important. So, I was in college, and I had struggled with stuff before – with difficult things before – but that semester, fall of my sophomore year, I had a friend from back home pass away very tragically, and I felt that grief and bereavement and all of that was there in August, but then we hit Halloween, and the other people who knew her had been able to, not go back to normal exactly, but they were going to class and watching them got my wheels turning. Also, it was such a deviation from my normal functioning in a way that made me very scared because I was basically a triple major – Biology and Spanish with a Neuroscience concentration – like, school was tough, but I could do it prior to then. But then that semester, I just could not handle things that I could normally handle, and it wasn’t just academics – it bled into my social life. I was a Young Life leader, and I knew that I loved that, I knew that I loved the high school kids that I got to mentor – but I just couldn’t, if that makes sense. I knew it was a thing that I was passionate about, but I just couldn’t feel that passion, and I couldn’t feel that passion for anything, and so I just stayed in my room and I slept all the time.

And I was sitting on my bed with my friend Kaitlin one time, and I was like, ‘Kait, don’t you go through Tuesday, and you just do the things you know you have to do to get through Tuesday so that you can get to Wednesday, and then you just do that again, you know what I mean?’ – and she said, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean.’ So it was kind of like knowing myself, and also getting some context from other people – like, ‘hey, is this just me?’. I’ve always been an open book person, so I’d check in, and even my suitemates would ask me if I’d thought about taking some time off, and luckily I was in a community that had even a little bit of context for how the things I was experiencing were not baseline for me, and the same thing happened when I got diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. And with that second diagnosis, I was much more excited about it, because I was like, ‘Hey, this finally explains it! This finally makes everything make sense!’  and I was super stoked about it.

But then I came down from that, and realized that when you tell someone that you have Bipolar Disorder, whether it’s Type I or II, that puts a bubble in their head, like, it’s just part of our society – they make an assumption, whether you like it or not, because we make those assumptions about everything, and I got a lot of strange reactions. I came back to school – I got diagnosed on spring break, and I was like, ‘hey, y’all! I have bipolar disorder’ – I was excited, and I know that sounds so strange, but after four years of med trials and and antidepressants not working, you start to develop some feelings of self-inadequacy, but this and the med changes that we made – oh my gosh, it’s like I could access my feelings in a healthy way again and I was so thankful for that. It was like being able to see again; it was like I was underwater and could come up for air again – I can’t tell you what a relief it was.

B: “And that’s what I always tell people. Like, ‘I know you don’t want to go on meds…’ but as soon as the meds got in my system, I felt like myself for the first time in a really long time, and I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t felt like myself, and was just a cloudy version of it.”

A: “Exactly. And I think I had been on…I can’t even tell you how many combinations of things before I found a thing that worked, and even when I found a thing that worked, I still had to make adjustments to it. It’s very high maintenance, but it had come to a point where I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to be tranqued out on these forever.’ But I was working at a camp one summer, and my bosses were like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this. You can go back to the doctor and tell them that this isn’t working. You have every right to say, ‘No, I think I can have a better quality of life than this.’ I think people, when they find out they might need medication [get scared], and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, the first one might be perfect, but it might take until the 10th one, and you have every right to have that process to find the thing that works just right. You don’t have to settle for whatever. You are worth that journey, that investment in yourself.”

B: “So for you, getting help looked like going to counseling, trying meds, and then you said figuring out all the different lifestyle changes that you could make?”

Amanda: “Yeah, just being honest with yourself. A lot of it, with medications especially, you just have to be super vigilant about your life. Like I know that when I am in a season that’s more hectic, and if there are more stressors that are going to be present, I have to make an effort to have more downtime. I can’t just go-go-go-go go. I preach self-care as gospel to people even if their lives are the easiest things in the world, but you just have to figure out what you need and learn how to ask for it from yourself and from the people around you. I think that’s what it comes down to. So with my most recent depressive episode, all my friends were out at a bar on a Friday night, and I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t like to drink when I feel down, because it just doesn’t lead to anything good for me,’ and so I stayed in, and a couple of them came over to my house and we watched a movie. Part of my job right now is being at a lot of social stuff, and being around a lot of alcohol, but I know – like I know – that when I’m down, when I’m feeling depressed, I just shouldn’t touch it because it just doesn’t help. So you know, to an extent what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse, and it can kind of suck, but it’s important. Imagine – and this is not hard for me, because I just did it – but imagine that you broke your arm, and it was just you – the people around you didn’t break their arms. But you’re in a cast, and you’re having to learn to write again with your other hand, and it’s painful, and the other people around you can write with whatever hand they want to, and so it’s really frustrating, but it’s like – hey, your arm is broken, and you have care for it. You don’t have to treat it like a handicap, and I absolutely don’t think my illness is a handicap. I think it’s my greatest superpower. All that to say, I know that when I was taking a certain kind of medication, I couldn’t touch alcohol at all, even if I was feeling alright, because it would counteract the medication. And I knew that if I skipped the gym that it would affect my mood – I knew that. It’s a lot of preventative care, but it’s also a matter of vigilance. When I was in that depressed mood, I had to remember that I don’t do well struggling in a vacuum, and that I had to tell my people.

To anyone listening, if you’re having a hard time, whether or not you have a diagnosis, PLEASE – FOR THE LOVE – tell your people. Even just that you’re having a hard time. And as they are able to, they’ll swoop in if you let them know what you need. I think the greatest thing for me is when people give me options, like, ‘hey, if you want me to come sit with you, I’ll come sit with you. If you want to come sit here, you can do that. If you don’t want any of that, let me know.

The hardest thing for me is when I’m feeling depressed and people are like, “well just come to this thing” – I want to be like, “hah, I would, but I don’t want to, because I’m tired” and that makes me feel awful, and like I’m disappointing people. I have really bad FOMO. I just love being around people, and that is so hard for me, because I just do not have it in me. I call it functional v. relational energy. When I’m depressed, I can get up and I can pull stuff off if I have to, but it is the bare minimum. And if you want to talk to me about anything else, even for 30 minutes, I just can’t; I just can’t be present for that. And it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just because I am operating at a deficit. And it’s not because I don’t love the other person, or don’t want to do whatever the thing is, it is just truly that even with all the self-care I do, I’m just in a depressive swing. In this recent one, I had some stressful stuff at work, and really just minor stressors, and I truly believe that if I hadn’t been in a depressive swing, I would have been able to handle all of that just fine. But since it was phasing that way, I was running on fumes. And I just didn’t have the energy to be my relational self – the hardest part of depression for me is that I have to turn that off to just exist – and that sounds really morbid, it wasn’t a suicidal moment by any means – but I had to preserve every ounce of energy I could just to function, and that is terrifying when you thrive on extroversion.

B: So do you feel like you understand what triggers The Dark Place? When you feel like you’re at your worst?

A: It’s kind of a mixed bag for me. So I don’t know if my dark place is typical. So with the one I just had, nothing bad had happened. Nothing really triggered it. Sometimes, for me at least, it can just happen out of nowhere and I think that is the nature of bipolar type II; I think that Major Depressive Episodes can definitely happen from triggers – my first one did. This past summer was the three-year anniversary of my best friend’s murder, and I knew that was coming. I knew that day was coming, and that it was going to be a hard day, so I did a lot of preventative stuff and I shared that with people and made a list of her favorite stuff so we could do Maggie’s Favorite Things all day. And people were responsive to that – I talk about her all the time, so people knew all her favorite things anyway, so people said, “Sure, let’s go on a walk and do stuff you guys loved.” – So instead of that day being really hard and dark like it had been previously, instead of it sending me into the dark place, it ended up being a day where we celebrated her spirit.

So you do have to think ahead. People tell me all the time to watch Game of Thrones, but I’m a sexual assault survivor, so I really don’t want my leisure time to be watching a show that has a lot of that in it, you know? Like, I’m good. It’s about knowing yourself. I can go to dark places all by myself-- some people can handle stuff like that, and that’s fine, but I can’t, and that’s okay. There are just things that I have to stay away from, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t change all of this stuff because it’s allowed me to be a better understander of hardship for people, so it’s truly about being honest with myself. Do I need to take a nap right now, or do I need to go be around people? Do I need a distraction, or do I need a self-searching moment? I’ve learned a lot about how self-care and self-masking can look a lot alike but they’re different, and every person has a different relationship with them and way that they deal with things.

It’s a lot of work, and I’m super extra all by myself, especially when it comes to self-care and tyring to stay out of depression, but sometimes it just happens and it’s not your fault, and for me it came down to respecting myself enough to know that I needed to slow down and take care of the depressed moments when they do happen instead of just trying to run through them.”

Becky: “To what extent do you feel like dealing with a depressive disorder and bipolar has impacted your life in general, but also on a daily basis?”

Amanda: “I guess before I really had a handle on both of them, I felt like they made everything harder. But now that I have learned more about them, I don’t really see them as deficits. I see them as platforms to be open and share with people. I’ve spoken about it at medical schools, about my experience with the diagnostic process and timeline I had. I’ve spoken at my alma mater, and I write about it super openly. Maybe there’s criticism out there – when I worked for the public school system, there certainly was, so I left the public school system. I think that God picked this life out for me specifically, and that all of these things – depression included, but all of my difficult things, I don’t think any of them are accidents. And I think that part of reclaiming things that should maybe be dark and scary is remaining open about them, and the important thing for me there is having that openness after I have processed things, instead of going to the internet for therapy.

I’ll just say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling’ – but I won’t really say more than that until I’ve sat with that moment and gone through it and picked out what I need to learn from it. As far as daily life, I think it’s just made me be a more present presence for people. When I say, ‘How are you doing?’, I mean it. I want a whole essay. I don’t mean it the cute Southern way – how you’re doing really. I want to be like, ‘....are you fine? It’s okay if you’re not.’ So daily and in general, I think it’s made me focus on being an open person, because I think that invites other people who are struggling to be like, ‘oh my gosh, me too, I could use some help.’ And if I can’t help them, I try to connect them with someone who can, whether that’s a friend to have coffee with, or like, let’s go see a therapist, or go to this meeting.

I think it’s been a really cool avenue. You know those shows about mediums? I don’t even know if this works as an analogy, but I read this book by Brennan Manning – there was this play he referenced where this guy goes to a well to find a healer, because he wanted to be rid of this darkness and the healer said, ‘No, healing is not for you.’ And I’m a very spiritual person, and for years, I prayed and prayed and prayed, like, “God, why is this my life? Please, I don’t want to be depressed anymore. This is awful, this is painful, I hate it, it’s exhausting, it’s miserable; why would anyone want this?” And I prayed and prayed and prayed, and it stayed with me, and later in the play the guy is walking home and this dude tracks him down and says, “Hey, I need you to come with me. My daughter is in this cloud of darkness, and she will not listen to anyone, but she will listen to you.’ And so it talks about how that experience with darkness is truly a gift and I try to look at it that way or else it’s just too awful.

You could just dwell and ruminate on it if you want to, or you could find ways to turn it into a superpower. They’re both a lot of work. You just have to pick which one you want to do. That to say, sometimes, like in this recent funk, I went from doing great to just being in the bed. But that’s okay, and my job now is to look at that period, pull what I need to glean from it, and try to use it to help people – however that is going to look.

B: When you’re in the dark place, what encourages you most to get through that moment? What do you need?

A: I guess I need the freedom to say, ‘Hey, I’m in the dark place.’ And I just kind of do that, whether or not I have the freedom to. I just have to let people know. Hannah Brencher, she’s an author and a friend of mine, she writes about this and says that if you tell people that you are out sunbathing on the dock, but really you are suffering in the swamp, but they don’t know to look for you there…it’s about letting people know, ‘This is where I am. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but there you go.’ If people don’t know you’re struggling…how are they supposed to know? People might pick up on stuff, but they’re not mind-readers. That’s my first step.

The options are what’s most helpful, instead of pressure. And I tell people, ‘you don’t have to fix this. In fact, you can’t fix it. You don’t need to try and make it better, you just need to let me know that it’s okay that that’s where I am right now.’ I think people just don’t know what to say, or how to approach it.

Also, I go back to thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve been here before. I’ve gone through this before,’ and something that helps me is remembering that it’s the nature of my illness that the dark place is going to happen, but it’s also the nature of my illness that it cycles back out. When I was suicidal, I didn’t really have that notion that things would cycle back out. So things that were helpful there were knowing that there were resources, and knowing that there were people who were willing to help me do the work it took to get out of it. It’s always a learning experience, and it is always helpful to have people who are like, ‘Oh, you know what, we’re going to skip the bars and come watch a movie with you, and we don’t even have to talk.’


Thankfully, my tribe of people and my social supports are incredible, and I say all the time that the algorithm is off somewhere, but no one can tell God. I live three hours away from any family, and so I think my friends in South Carolina know that and so they swoop in, but I know that it is not like that for everybody. And I’m always thinking about that – like I have this crap diagnosis that was supposed to sideline me and didn’t, but not everyone has the resources that I do, and not everybody has these social supports, and not everybody has a job where they can just take time off if they need to. I’m always thinking bigger. I’m always thinking about how it’s not like this for everyone, and that’s what moves me into these advocacy platforms. Like, ‘let’s think about how to raise money for these groups that support people who don’t have organic supports, and let’s start a foundation, and let’s change the whole world, because why not? What else am I gonna do?

B:
If you were talking to someone who was struggling with any mental illness, how would you want to encourage them through that?

A: I would just say, ‘I believe you. I believe that is a real thing for you. And it sucks, but it’s okay. It’s okay to struggle. Oh my goodness, it is okay to struggle. You don’t have to pretend like it’s not there, and you don’t have to put a bow on it. Some people aren’t going to understand it, and that’s okay, too. They just can’t. I didn’t understand it until I went through it. So do your best to try to find people who can, and let them know. Please don’t do it in a vacuum. People will do the best they can, and they may say some things that are unhelpful, and you can just say, ‘thank you for sharing’ – but just don’t listen to the voices that tell you to stop it or stuff it or white-knuckle it or just get over it – let me tell ya, ‘white-knuckle it’ was not a thing that either of my counseling Master’s degrees went over. It’s total crap, and it’s actually part of the problem. So stop white-knuckling it. Wave the white flag. I have so much urgency on this. I have so much urgency to find out a way where supports are easier to access, and especially more socially acceptable to access. That’s why I’ll make my Facebook status, ‘hey, I’m going to therapy today!’ or ‘hey, I’m depressed right now’ alongside all of the fun stuff, because you can actually have both and do both. You can have a full life, and struggle with depression. You can do both, and still thrive. You’re not gonna thrive all the time, I don’t. And people are like, ‘whoa, that’s interesting’ – because if I just showed that I get to go to restaurant openings and do all these fun things, that’s a lie, because I also get depressed. It’s both, and it’s okay.

I know that there are certain jobs and situations where it’s so taboo still, and not safe to talk about, so I’m over here like, ‘let’s find a way to bust up on all that.’ I call myself a troublemaker for that. I want to figure out how to change the world so that anybody struggling with anything feels safer to struggle out loud, because I think that’s what’s going to save and change lives. And that’s a very big mission statement. It’s actually a bad mission statement, because mission statements are supposed to be geared toward some target population, but no, my target population is every human being on the planet. So, take that. Who am I not to try and be the one to try and pull all of this off? And I’m not the only one working on it, but I’m very loud and for some reason, people listen to me, so I’m just gonna go with it. Why not? It sounds like fun, and it’s going well so far. I’m seeing my own openness and bravery being respected by other people, and I’m seeing things happen at age 26 that I never thought I’d pull off in my life.”

Becky: “A couple of fun questions for you before we go – what are you loving right now?”

A: “Definitely Diet Coke. I was off of it for a while, but I am back on so hard. Also blasting bluegrass music through my house – especially the old Avett Brothers albums.”

B: “Next question – what’s your favorite food?”

A: “Not even a maybe – chicken burrito, no pico, all rice on the side instead of the cute little lettuce deal. I can finish it all in one sitting and be so happy; I am not sure why anyone let me be a fitness professional.”

B: “What are you doing to take care of yourself?

Working a little less, and being more intentional with my downtime. Making sure that my leisure activities are refueling and not draining me. I won’t give out of a defecit.

"tear down those statues" -- a word from my father

My father, a history buff and Civil War reenactor, had a piece published in The Washington Post on Sunday and just didn't think to mention it for four days -- classic. 

My father has spent much of his life researching the history of the Confederacy and the contributions of Robert E. Lee -- and then he has spent much of the past few days having honest conversations with the people around him, and has landed somewhere new. Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to engage with people in constructive dialogues, and always keep my own social constructs under a critical lens. I value his lens here. I think it will be helpful for anyone who is trying to navigate this whole Confederate monument deal. This is not my arena of expertise, so I yield to him; feel free to share and respond.

Here is his statement, in full: 

"I used to be a defender of the Confederate flag. That's over now. It ended yesterday with the insanity that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, my home state.

I cared about that flag because it represented a different time in America when Virginia chose to side with other southern states and go to war. Never mind the reasons for that decision now; the decision was made and Virginia called on its sons to defend her. And some of my ancestors answered that call, and fought for Virginia in the American Civil War. Some of them died in that war, and they died following that flag. We grow up honoring our ancestors here in the south, and so for that reason a lot of latter day southerners have honored that flag - myself included.

But after what I saw yesterday in Charlottesville, I have to change my way of thinking about the Confederate flag. I have to accept now it has been stolen from our collective southern heritage by the worst elements of American society. The racists, the haters, the ignorant. The KKK, those so-called "white supremisists", those modern day Nazis. They have taken the flag that my ancestors followed and perverted it for purposes that I consider to be evil and immoral. I saw a photo taken in Charlottesville yesterday of a man parading with a Confederate flag alongside another man holding a WWII era Nazi party flag. I cannot tolerate that. If the Confederate flag *wasn't* a symbol of hatred before, it has become one now, because low people have made it one. They have stained that flag beyond redemption in my lifetime, and have quite probably stained it forever. As long as I live, I can never forgive them for that.

Robert Edward Lee is a personal hero of mine. I admire and respect the man for many reasons, but none more important than for the way he conducted himself after the Civil War. He could very easily have taken to the mountains, gathered others around him, and waged a bloody and destructive guerilla war that would have fractured America even further than the Civil War itself had done. Instead he signed an honorable surrender at Appomattox, went home, and began doing all that he could to start rebuilding the country. He accepted a job at a small struggling Virginia school and spent the rest of his days working to educate young leaders who would themselves work to rebuild the state and the nation into a more just society. Robert E. Lee died doing that work, and I respect and honor him for it. The many statues and memorials honoring him in America are well deserved and serve to remind Americans that honor, duty, and working for justice as Lee tried to do are worthy standards to live our own lives by.

But after the events of yesterday, if I could do so I would go to Charlottesville, knock that statue of my hero down with a sledge hammer, and throw the fragments into the sea. And do you know who would stand beside me and help me do it if he were alive today? Robert E. Lee himself, that's who. The same people who have co-opted and disgraced the Confedrate flag now shame and disgrace other memorials to our past, such as that statue of Lee in Charlottesville, and they do so apparently with a complete lack of understanding that their words and actions dishonor the man whose statue they rally around, and that they disgrace the most important things that Lee stood for in his life.

Robert E. Lee would weep if he could see what those people have done in his name. As a Virginian I am weeping now at the shame of it.

Take down those statues; take down and hide away those flags. We Americans have obviously failed to learn the lessons of our great and terrible Civil War. As long as something like the events that happened yesterday in Charlottesville can still happen, we don't deserve to raise our eyes and see the image of a man like Robert E. Lee. He would be ashamed of what we have become."

happy and sad at the same time

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.” -The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I’ve been running at 150% lately. This is not even a secret; I am doing all of the things. Charity events and celebrate nights and designing custom margaritas and spending good time with friends. If you watch anything I do on social media, you see all of these lively, fun things that I’m getting to be in the middle of – and I’m so thankful that life has hit such vitality. And none of the things are bad. They are all actively contributing to my happiness. They’re good things, with good people, and I’m loving them.

And then, to couple doing #allthethings, I am doing ALL of the self care. I have my lil prayer quiet time morning on my back porch, with my giant breakfast every morning. I jam out to all my worship favorites. I’ve even started scheduling naps. Friend things are even restorative in and of themselves.

And even so, the thing I am forgetting is that – it’s June. June is when I always hit a funk. June is when I get drained faster, by things that normally would not put a dent in me. June is when I’m fine one second, but then hit an unexpected wall, because June is the month that we lost Maggie three years ago. Some days, all of the self care in the world can’t touch that.

I threw a dinner party a couple of weeks ago. It was #celebratemode to honor some friends who made it to their third year of medical school. Some of my favorite people in the planet gathered around my dining room table and we laughed and told stories and drank half of my bar. It was total jubilance to every square inch of every moment.

We watched the sunset. And then everyone left, and I just got really sad.
It wasn’t a total breakdown moment, though those still happen.
I was feeling all the happiness from the evening, and the thought that stopped me in my tracks was, “She should be here for this.”

I crawled into bed. It was 1am. I only knew this because I was setting an alarm for 6am and felt excited to be getting 5 whole hours of sleep. “It’s like talking to an ER doctor,” my friend Kristen said the other day.

I shot out some texts and calls, knowing that all of my people were sound asleep,

The next night, I got a call from my friend Stephanie.
“I am so sorry that I wasn’t there for you the other night.”
“Oh, it’s okay.”
“Hey, stop that, because it’s not.”

I have no trouble talking to you about my resolved things. My old depression stories, my bout with suicidality. No trouble at all. But the present darkness? That is something I mostly keep to myself; I don’t like to totally lean on people, because I am scared that my things are too heavy. Y’all know by now that things are really tough when I am not talking to you about current hard things.

I tend to white-knuckle it.

“It is a really big deal when you reach out. It is a really big deal when you are ready to talk about this. And so you do not have to make it easier for us. You tell other people that all the time. You are dealing with some things that are truly hard, and you have trouble feeling them because you were in some relationships that made you push that off, but stop it. If you miss her, then miss her. Be where you are. Don’t clean it up.

And the thing is, I do. I do miss her. It doesn’t come and go in waves. I miss her all the time.

Right before that dinner party, three of my best friends in town took me out get pizza. They asked me what I needed, and I spat out, “I just don’t want this year to be like last year.” Last year, I was with someone who planned a huge barbeque on Maggie Day. My best friends were there, but there were also some new people, so I was doing the thing where I felt like I had to hold it together. Wine was also there, so eventually the “fake it til you make it” stunt stopped working and I ended up having a full-on emotional breakdown. Probably my worst one of all time, if we leave out the actual day I found out that Maggie died. I’m talking hyperventilating, wailing and ugly-crying, almost to the point where there was chatter on if I needed to go to the ER for sedation.

And these three girls were the ones holding me while I sobbed, and I think they could see the shame in my eyes as I ran back through the memory of that night, because one of them, who had also lost a best friend unexpectedly, chimed in with, “And I’m gonna stop you right there.”

“That night, that breakdown that you are so ashamed of and embarrassed by? That’s what taught me that it was okay to still feel such strong grief, even years out. That’s what taught me that I don’t have to put my feelings in a box and pretend like they’re not there. You’re telling that story like it was this awful, weak moment for you, but I have never seen such strength in my life.”

This is a hard one for me, but my friend was right. There is such strength in claiming grief. It is such a hard thing. You want it to resolve, to get better, to be more presentable, even. But it just changes as you change.

I am happier than I have ever been in my life. Truly. There are so many good and beautiful things – things, opportunities, relationships – that have have appeared over the last six months or so. I am not, by any means, sadder than I have ever been, but the sad is still there. The happy and sad can hold hands, and I have never really been so happy and still so sad at the same time. It is a new dance I am learning.

And so, since I have caught myself throwing myself into my calendar. So, I have scheduled the majority of this week for feeling my feelings. It gets a special color in my iCal. For writing. For processing. For being “off” and doing things that are centering, in her honor, so I can keep loving people well in her honor.

I turned down an opportunity to go to the NAMI National Convention this week. I know, I know. I would have had to be gone on her day, on the anniversary of the day we lost her. Many opinions were thrown around on whether or not getting on a plane talking to Senators and networking would be the best way to honor her or not. And it might be, but it’s not the way I’m choosing. I’m choosing to just be still, and leave space.

There is not a race to get over it. If it hurts forever, we will deal with it forever. And when it hurts, I will give my permission to feel that. And then when it is time to celebrate, I’ll be all about that, but I will not try to white-knuckle and pretend when the sad hits. The 28th is the day. The 28th is the day that the sad is really going to get me, I am afraid.

The girls from pizza night were ready for this.
And so let’s go for a walk on the Swamp Rabbit, like you guys used to in Boone.
We’ll drink champagne!
And Blue Moon, too!
“And watch the sunset.”
It’s like they know here, even though they never met her.

And of all the gifts I have been given this year, this is the most incredible one.

 

"13 Reasons Why" is a Keg in an AA Meeting


I am all of the mixed feelings about 13 Reasons Why.

If you live under a rock, 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix series that, in a nutshell, walks you through a high school girl’s revenge suicide plan, ending in her actual suicide, which they show. It has made so many of you angry for so many reasons, and so many of you have also been motivated by it to treat people with more kindness -- there are positive and negative things to sift through.  

Suicide is something I take very seriously. My expertise in this is two-prong. Yes, I have my own experience with suicidal feelings (which you can read about here), and I am also a counselor. I have lived this, and I have worked to resolve it (as much as is responsible to claim -- you never know what will trigger you), and then I have led people through it in therapy. I can, albeit with limitations, see both sides of this thing.

I love that 13 Reasons Why has catapulted us into having such a dynamic conversation about suicide, but I hate that it has done it in a way that is so unsafe for so many people. And what’s more – I am seeing a lot of talking, and not a lot of doing. The people who are hurting, people who are experiencing suicidal feelings, they need us to be just as much talk with even more action. Where is the action? Yes, it starts the conversation, but it really leaves you hanging if you are in a place where you are not ready for its contents.

Simply put, the release was irresponsible, and the triggering nature of some of the scenes is reckless. It should have been shepherded -- a guided watch. 

You do not take a keg to an AA meeting to try and accomplish healing, and if you do, you can't throw your hands up and act like you didn't know it was gonna trigger some people. This is just the flat-out, unregulated truth. YES, this series is getting people talking about suicide, and every piece of my heart says HOORAY to that. BUT – and hang with me here – this show being released into the wild on Netflix is the exact same thing as me walking into a halfway house and leaving them with unlimited beer and a barrel of hypodermic needles. We have to realize that some people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts do not have the proper supports in place to keep them safe. This show is a catalyst in some good ways and some bad ways. We have started a conversation, but we have also put a lot of people at risk at the same time.

I have heard from well over 100 people with personal narratives on how this show is a trigger for them in some way. Here are some of the things that you brave people have shared with me:

“I have severe depression and anxiety and that show messed with me. I've never had suicidal thoughts but that show made it look like a pretty easy alternative.”

“I had a situation with my mom last year and the ending brought back a lot of feelings that I wasn't prepared for.”

And if I may be more direct about it…
“If I had watched this show at that age (high school, college, freshly graduated), it would have put the gun in my hand. I was so angry, and so vengeful. if I had seen the beautiful Hannah Baker slit her wrists in gorgeous lighting, with sweet music in the background, and watched all her enemies suffer her revenge, I would have pulled the trigger. I know that isn’t the point of the books, but the show executes it so melodramatically, and with such… style, that it would have been irresistible. I was sick.”

 

This is actual, valid, ethnographic research. These are reactions from people.

I will say that the producers did some CYA and made a follow-up documentary.
It’s called “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” and it actually pops up right beside the show when you search the title. But I don’t think anyone is watching it, especially the people/teenagers/whoever who are struggling with suicide. I watched it….and I don’t know, I still think it doesn’t fix the whole shock factor they seemed to be going for. And I do think their intentions were so good here. Why? Because Selena Gomez was on the production team. I love her for being so open and honest with her own struggle with mental health…and for that reason, am very surprised that she signed off on such a triggering portrayal of a person's story. 

So, let me say it again: I think that the stir this show has caused will actually cause more suicides if we do not steward this conversation well on a national level, so I am going to focus my attention on that part. This is not just because the show is a trigger; it is because of some of the vocal reactions to the show. Some of you have suggested that the things Hannah Baker experienced in the show are "not worth killing yourself over." Hear me very clearly here: it is NOT YOUR JOB to make that call. I think it may just be more correct that you can't reconcile why all of the things Hannah went through would leave her with the desire to commit suicide -- this is FINE. To someone in Hannah's shoes, it was a real solution to real distress. That is so hard to wrap your mind around if you haven't struggled there.

Another thing that is going to make all of our hearts expand here is that we cannot ostracize people who haven't dealt with this from the discussion, as if this is a secret society. We have GOT TO explain our experiences to the "other side" It is one thing to yell instructions at someone who is in the bottom of a dark hole. It is another to jump down and teach them how to build a ladder because you've had to before, and you know how from experience. Both are extremely valuable. One is perhaps more helpful in times of acute distress. However, there are ladders you can build that I can't. And vice versa. It's why we all need to be in on the same conversation--it's a huge team effort.

I, and others who have experienced suicidal thoughts, think the depiction of the protagonist's journey is very accurate; I have heard some say it seems "overdramatic" -- but lots of individual experiences are like this, if not worse. I never counted the number of stories like this I heard in my two years as a high school counselor, but I wish I had. In that way, it can be very helpful when trying to help those who do not have first-hand experience here garner understanding for those who struggle with suicide, but with a high cost in other ways. It's a both/and. And we have to follow both of those trails.

Another comment I have heard in the wake of this show's release is that “people need to figure this stuff out for themselves," but guess what? "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" was not a therapeutic model they taught me in either one of the nationally accredited Counseling Master's degree programs I have been a member of. NO, vulnerable populations, such as those who are suicidal, do not need baseline encouragement; they need real tools, and ANCHORS. THIS SHOW IS NOT AN ANCHOR. This show will tie an anchor to a suicidal person and drag them to the bottom of the ocean, where they will actually drown if they do not have the supports they need to resurface.

Here’s the thing: Netflix did not listen to the panel of psychologists who told them to not include certain things, so they are not going to listen to me. It’s out there. It’s been released into the wild. It just is.

 

But here’s the good news. This is one of my favorite side hustles because suicide is 100% preventable. This is a mountain I am willing to die on. Mine was prevented because Kaitlin Bailey sat on my bed during my sophomore year of college, and when I told her what was going on in my head, and why and how I wanted it to be over, she escorted me over to Health Services real quick and then my butt was on a medical leave of absence from Wofford – so I could recover. Hear me say this, loud and freaking clear: I am still alive today because someone gave me the permission, which was lacking from society-at-large, to go get help. This has everything to do with the presence of mental health stigma.

This is the boring part where I could throw a lot of statistics at you, but if you would like to review my research findings, with citations, because I read REAL JOURNALS, click here.

Basically, what I discovered is that there is an empirically-backed way to reduce stigma and get rid of the barriers that prevent people from getting help. And, it is not just talking about it. It is talking about it A CERTAIN WAY.

You have to get all of these things in the discussion:
A) the rock bottom part of the story
B) a resilience-building story from rock bottom, even if it does not “end” in “recovery”
C) available resources, whether global or specific to a community

My problem with 13 Reasons Why is that it literally only does Part A. It starts the conversation, gives you all of this dark – but real!!! – but still dark stuff, and then Season One is over. But here we are. It is on Netflix, and I can guarantee you that there is not a dang thing that we can do about that. So, because of this reality, we have to finish the rest of the arc I talked about.

And honestly, I am scared that this is just a fad.
This is a sexy Hollywood show with lots of pretty people in it. Is it still going to even be on our radar in 6 months? What are we going to tell all of the people whose struggles have been brought to the surface when this stuff is gone from our social media feeds, but they are still hurting? What are we going to do for those people? To protect and support them? Are we going to take their hands and find them supports, or are we going to get upset and make a statement, and then move on with our lives? We have a very huge opportunity right in front of us, y’all.

I’m gonna do the first one, and you should jump on that bandwagon with me REAL hard.
You can suggest ideas, and take actions – both are important, and the second one is faster.

1. If you are in GVL, come to this event. White Hot Party – it’s a benefit that I’m helping an event planner throw, and proceeds benefit NAMI Greenville. That might sound boring. We modeled it after Diddy’s white party, and the money from tickets goes straight to helping people in GVL with their mental health support. Your city probably has one, too. Find it. Ask them what they need.
Find your chapter here. 

2. Come to therapy. I now, as of a week ago, work for a counseling practice that specializes in trauma and PTSD. Some of you have asked when I can take on clients. I talked to my mentor, and she says the answer is NOW. Send me all of your hurting people. My email address is helloamandaphillips@gmail.com. Or you can just email me if you have a curiosity. You have to physically be in South Carolina for me to be your therapist. If you are not, I will find you another one of me. Or the Internet can. It could take some work to find one who is a good fit for what you need, but this is step one. Find one close to you. 

3. If this has you wanting to share your story, please  make sure you are ready to do that. I didn't share mine until I'd been through therapy and was in a safe place to yield questions from people, and possible adverse reactions from people who didn't quite understand my experience. I have lots more to say on that. There is so much power in sharing, but you have to make sure you are protected.

And then I'm gonna go figure out how to win the TED Prize, which would give me a million dollars to implement some sort of speaking/guided paradigm to implement mental health education in the schools -- because why not?

Basically, find out what the people around you need. There are ways you can do this pouring out of our ears, and they do not have to have a mental illness to be struggling -- it is our job to actually change the thing about the world that makes us feel like we cannot talk about things openly. Life is not Instagram. You do not actually have to put a pretty bow on all of the things -- we actually need each other to be real. After all, we belong to each other. 

"We are all just walking each other home." -Ram Das

Additional resources:
There are LOTS OF ARTICLES and responses to this show that pick it apart and name the problematic or beneficial elements much more in-depth. That was not my goal here; my aim was to make a call to action.

"13 Reasons Why": Tips for Viewing and Discussing (The Jed Foundation)

"13 Reasons Why" and Its Unintended Consequences  (Brooke Fox, LCSW)

Netflix Series "13 Reasons Why Glorifies Suicide -- The Experts Speak (NBC News)

"13 Reasons Why" Scares the Shit Out Of Me -- And It Should Scare You, Too (The Establishment)

6 Reasons Why I'm Not A Fan of '13 Reasons Why' (The Mighty)

alone is better than The Wrong Thing: an escape from abuse

 

“All I could say was, "I don't know what to do." I remember her taking me by the shoulders and looking me in the eye with a calm smile and saying simply, "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I never wanted to write this story. I wanted to move on from this part of my life, you know? Forget about it entirely, if I am being honest. That is usually an indicator that it is a part of life that needs to be written about.

I handed my business card to a Chamber of Commerce member the other day. I looked at it, and the words “truth-teller” stood out to me in white text, on green cardstock. That is something I have claimed as my identity.  So, I guess that settles it. “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

I shared a thing about mirrors with you last week.

I was in a terrible relationship a few years ago. It fell apart, as things do, thankfully. After it was over, I was left alone in my house with a bunch of pieces of my life that I didn’t really recognize anymore. I told you that it took me years of sitting there at night, alone, with my thoughts, to not twitch with loneliness, and then to not pick apart the woman I saw in the mirror when I walked around the next morning after the sun came up. It took me a long time to be kind to her. There are seventeen mirrors in my house, not counting the tiniest one in my Marc Jacobs blush compact. It took me all those years to see that actually doing the work of figuring out who I am, what I love, what I was put on this planet to do, all of that, was the only thing that could actually release me back into my own life.

But I struggle here, at times, with the woman in the mirrors. And not for the reasons that it seems a lot of other people do.

Last night, I came home, and I looked in the mirror, and I saw a woman there. I love her. I feel so much love for her. And I respect her, because she did all that hard, identity-claiming work. She knows who she is, and she knows how to stand in her purpose. But I told her, “It might just be us. It might just be us in this house at night.” This both terrifies and comforts me, and I will tell you why.

Coming home, and it just being me and who I see in the mirror doesn’t all the way terrify me. It gets quiet, and lonely, but coming home to silence and solitude beats the hell out of coming home to the wrong thing.

For a year and a half, I was in this wrong thing, with G. And then for another year, more recently, I was in Another Wrong Thing, which I am not ready to talk about yet. I have spent every moment of my serious relationship life knowing that I was in The Wrong Thing, but telling myself to stay and pour more of myself into trying to make it work.

G was subtle at first. Our relationship began the day I found out that Maggie died. I don’t know if I need to explain that any further; I was completely untethered. He was an incredible support in the immediacy of such a hellacious loss, but when I regrew a backbone, and my stability, he balked. Hard.

“There’s a big world to live in, but you’re only interested in the volume of your own skull. You’re as stubborn as a mule and selfish like a child,” he said. Well, yelled. And then he stormed out of the Starbucks we were sitting in. I was frozen. A stranger came and asked if I was alright. I called an Uber.

I stood up to him later. That made it worse.

“I mean, you now have the excuse you’ve been waiting for to blow me off but were too much of a stupid little girl to do so on your own. You loved the attention from that stranger. That’s what you’re all about, right? Capitalizing off of distress? I mean, that’s all your dumb blog is about. It’s not like you live off any of that bullshit. You just like people to fawn on you. Too bad your god is fake or you could use your ‘relationship’ with it to ask for relief. Go blow some millionaire motherfucker. We both know you want to because of his money. You wouldn’t know what to without it, you dumb bitch. Your issues are what keep you warm. You could have more, but you’re too in love with yourself for that. Pure narcissism.”

It got a lot worse. I’ve blocked a lot of it from memory; the above is just what I have screenshots of. I don’t have screenshots of the yelling, of the tone of voice, of the facial expressions and hand gestures and the general disdain for my existence that was communicated. Of the way all of that made me feel.

He told me a couple of months later that he wanted to marry me.

This is what emotional abuse looks like, by the way. We stayed together for another year.
It wasn’t love, even though I tried to tell the woman in the mirror that it was over and over again that yes it was, yes it was, yes it was.

The part that terrifies me is that it found me again, a year ago, through another vessel.

I heard, “You’re being too much,” almost daily, and told myself that I deserved it.

I tolerated gaslighting, and had my reality continuously repainted before my eyes, and told myself that I deserved it.

I heard that I was crazy, that my anxiety wasn’t real. That my voice was too loud, that my story was too raw, that “there are just some things you shouldn’t share.” To be quieter, softer, smaller.

I had my identity taken out of my hands, and then torn apart piece by piece, and he narrated the whole process to make it sound like he was doing me a favor.

When I vented to friends, it got back to him somehow and made him mad: “You have all these degrees; how can you not understand something as simple as keeping your mouth shut?” And I told myself that I deserved it.

I told myself that I deserved being hit. And even if I didn’t, that he didn’t mean it, because he was drunk. It didn’t count if he didn’t remember. And besides, it was only the one time. I tried to talk to him about it the next day anyway.

“That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, it’s not a big deal.
And if it is, it’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did, you deserved it.”

That’s the voice I bought as truth. And y’all wanna know why I’m afraid of going on a date.

I don’t remember why, or how, but I kicked it to the curb one day. Cold turkey. I realized it one morning in January. I was getting ready for a photoshoot. The woman in the mirror looked back and said, “Well, it’s about damn time.”

So, I come home alone at night, and I look in the mirror. And I see a woman who feels lonely at times, but she is also fierce. She has fought her way back up from rock bottom, from dark places. I see such strength in her. She is my hero, even though she is scared.

I have an amazing life. I get to do a lot of really incredible stuff. People tell me wonderful things about my self every day, and I believe those things. I get to be the fun, funny PR girl who is always at an event or always doing something interesting. This season has me in a constant state of disbelief.

But then the sun goes down, and I come home. And it’s just me. And at my core, I am afraid that all I will ever be is the funny PR girl. Not someone that anyone will want something real with. That is my deepest fear, and it is very difficult and disorienting to type it out for someone else to read.

Because I do love my life, and I do love this season. I feel abundant and happy. I have strong friendships and feel like part of the family everywhere I go. I am in a good place. A true, good place, for the first time in my life. I am terrified of losing my footing. It is hard not to be. It is hard to not wait for the other shoe to drop.

Anytime I ever told the whole story about The Wrong Thing to someone, they told me to leave. And I didn't know how to do that. So I stopped telling the whole story. My mother would tell me, "there is a good season coming for you; I can feel it," and I didn't believe her because every time I got in the car and left her behind in Virginia, I was driving back to The Wrong Thing that I didn’t see a way out of. Telling her the whole story back then would have been so hard for her, so I didn’t. The same with Another Wrong Thing. So, I kept things from her and everyone else, and let them hurt just me.

I wish I’d had the courage to leave, rather than exist in a world where I took whatever I could get and accepted that I was merely tolerable instead of exquisite and radiant and unstoppable, which are all things I only realized that I am after he left and I had to come home to a quiet house and look in the mirror again.

His house was cold; his heart was even worse. There were no mirrors on the walls there, though. I couldn’t see the strong woman in the mirror. I wonder at times if this was intentional.

I can see her seventeen times on the same lap through my house now. Eighteen if I open the Marc Jacobs blush. I don’t see as much sadness in her eyes, which is good, because she has been though some things. I struggle believing that this many difficulties can happen to a person and she still be happy. But, this seems to be the overwhelming victor.

"There is a good season coming for you; I can feel it," as her mama said.

That sentiment -- deserving a good thing. It no longer makes her uncomfortable She knows that she deserves something good, someone good. And that it is all coming as fast as it can. She is in no hurry; the loneliness is annoying, but she is never really alone. Struggling beautifully, comfortable in her own skin, sure of her place in the world. Finally out of The Wrong Thing. Now she just has to figure out how to, one day, be in A Good Thing with someone.

My favorite part, though, is that she is having an easier time believing that she will be someone’s Best Thing.

 

why I stopped caring about my Bible

It took not getting into Harvard for me to…like…care about Jesus.

I’m sitting on my porch right now, eating a fried egg, drinking coffee with almond milk, and reading my Bible. Let me explain. I usually scramble my eggs, but I wandered off for a little bit while I was cooking them, and came back just before official burning of the eggs happened, and there you have it. Fried eggs. And I usually sugar that coffee up somehow, but I have reached the point in my life where SUGAR TASTES BAD TO ME? I don’t know what this means. I don’t want to think about it.
 

Now, about the Bible. It's open, right in front of me. I haven’t like read the thing, you know, because I wanted to, for a while.  We’ll go ahead and call it a year. Ish. I honestly don’t even know. I’m flipping through it now, and all of the highlights and underlines and things are from, like, college.

So, college. Woooo, child. I like to celebrate anniversaries of things, and March 31, is the however-many-year anniversary of the day I didn’t get into Harvard. I was “supposed” to get into Harvard. It was quite obnoxious. They came to my hometown and followed me around for a day, and put the whole adventure, which involved a lot of me being snooty, and wearing a pea coat, and talking about AP Chemistry in their newspaper. (Clich here, and go to :40 – DON’T SAY I NEVER DID ANYTHING FOR YOU).

Anyway, I didn’t get in, and this shocked the world, and tore mine apart. People treated me like my life was over. I skipped a week of school and just sat in my room, until my Young Life leader, Laura, dragged my sorry butt out of bed and had a conversation with how I could not base my whole identity in something that was going to fall out from under me. This was the first time I ever really listened to her about the whole Jesus thing. At graduation, she gave me a little Bible -- the one I've got out on the porch with me today. She said that she’d always been gifted one at the threshold of life changes, and this was the first time little old me was embarking in life without the thought that I could do things on my own; I knew that I needed Jesus. And now I had this Bible, full of teachings and things that she said would help.

I spent my summers from then on holed up at Young Life camps, being poured into, using words from the Bible to shape my worldview. I didn’t know a lot about church and stuff, so friends in college went with me to Easter Sunday and explained it all to me. And then, things got weird. I had lived my life until that time being praised for my brain and for academics, so I fell hard into that and just took the Bible and intellectualized the hell out of it. I was super legalistic for a while; I didn’t drink until I was 21, and I judged anyone who did. After I took my medical leave, I came back and changed my major to Religion and learned a lot about other religions, and my friend Peter was a little scared that I was going to convert to Buddhism for a minute. I learned a million things about ways different people interpret Biblical text, and what that led them to believe about God. I took a philosophy class that was centered entirely around the view that the presence of evil and the benevolence of God could not coexist.

There was a lot of conflicting information is what I'm getting at. But, luckily, God really leveled with me in the margins, and then in bigger ways, and I was somehow able to take all that intellectualism and form my own opinion -- which was hard, but through grace and the people around me, I ended up in a place where I could hang onto my faith again. My problem was that I was so much more concerned with knowing things about God than I was with knowing God. I was a science nerd, used to making hypotheses, collecting data, and seeing whether the results supported what I expected.

And then, to put it mildly, life after college is when the shit really hit the fan. If you don’t know the rap sheet, in the span of two years, my best friend was murdered, I was sexually assaulted twice in one year, and was in back-to-back abusive relationships.

And that little Bible sat on the dang shelf. All of my hypotheses about God had tanked. My data was telling me that the world was awful and hard, and that God was having a hands-off moment with me, if not giving up on me entirely. Saying it was a hard season is the understatement of my life. I could not, for the life of me, get back to a place where I thought the word of God was at all sweet. I tried to go to church and small groups, and those sweet people there tried to comfort me the best ways they knew how. Hearing that God loved me, and had good plans for me, all of that used to shoot me into gratitude tears, but all of a sudden it sent me into full-on defense attorney mode with a full itemized list of how I knew that God did not actually give a crap. When your actual life is falling apart, it is very disorienting to hear that God is good, and that He loves you. Every now and then, I lost my shit on someone about it. 

Oh, God loves me? Okay, well, if God really loved me, somebody explain what happened to Maggie. He has good things in store? Then why is it that the men who have said they love me slowly stripped my identity away from me and made it sound like they were a favor? If God is a strong tower and a fortress and all of that, if He is watching over me and protecting me, somebody better explain the whole rape thing.”

I came in guns blazing. I had picked holes in the foundation of what I had built my identity on and just decided to go back to handling life myself, thank you very much. I stopped picking up my Bible because it was just so much easier to ignore the dang thing. 

People know that as a result of this season, I got pretty lost.
And unfortunately, I had some bad experiences with the church, and with other Christians. People know those things because I have been vocal about them. And I'm sure that gave the impression that I had given up on church, but there were people who believed in the same things that I did telling me that I was too messy, too dirty, too lost -- when I had been taught that there was no such thing as "too lost" to be included in the kingdom of God.
 I didn't feel welcome anymore, and so I needed to walk away for a minute. I didn't believe that my opinion was gospel, I wasn't angry, and I wanted to find joy in my faith again -- I was just completely disoriented.

As a result of the sudden lack of guidance, I pretty much took license to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to. Spiritual leaders that I had once trusted with soul-baring conversations watched my behavior and called my entire faith paradigm into question, and critics chimed in to point out how much I was "living in sin"; to all of them, I simply said, “Thank you for sharing.” I was struggling, with a lot, and let me tell you that all of the judgement sessions disguised as coffee dates sure didn't help -- so then I started to struggle quietly. Struggling quietly is not a thing that I really believe in or support, because it tricks us into thinking that our struggle is too deep and too messy to be brought to the table where the people in our support environments can help us sort through it all and take steps toward seeking freedom, and throw out the bits that are lies. I wasn’t doing that. I was drinking a lot, and this is the part where this conversation stops being PG-rated, and as my mom reads this...

Hi, mom. I love you. Thank you for teaching me that grace is always a thing that is available. You usually helped me see that over tea. I have a history of being very stubborn. The tea helped immensely. Thank you for everything else you did for me did, too.

In college, I thought I was better than everyone else because I “sinned less” -- as if that is even a thing – but then more recently I kind of threw out the whole rule book and decided that my actions didn’t have consequences if I didn’t want them to.

I don't know what you call the middle. I just…needed a minute. I just needed a minute. I don’t really know what I accomplished, per se, but right now, I’m on my back porch with my physical Bible open, like...instead of the app, listening to a song that makes me feel like Jesus is sitting right beside me, and we are having a chat. We haven’t really had a chat in a while. In the past, during these chats, I have felt like I am like a puppy with my tail tucked between my legs. That I'd peed on the rug, that I needed to be disciplined.

That’s not how it is today. Today, I am in the presence of God, and I feel totally calm about it. I am not nervous. He knows all the crap I’ve done already. He knows all the things I tried to replace Him with. He knew all that would happen, and he signed on for me anyway. Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? So, we have just done the white as snow thing on all of that transgression stuff and we are having such a nice chat about my dreams. I am finally in tune with them again. I am curled up in my papasan chair with a baggy Anthropologie cardigan that I have stretched out beyond recognition – it will never go back to regular cardigan size – eating the strawberries off of my oatmeal. I can’t see what He is eating, but He is in the chair across from me, and y’all know that God has access to really good snacks.

I hear Him say that He loves me; that He always has and He always will, even when I did not and do not feel love for Him. He says that Maggie says hello, and that she is happy, and that she and her dad are shooting some hoops at the moment. I know that the whole God and Jesus things are not everyone’s cup of tea, but oh man. Totally my cup of tea.

I made you guys something, in case you need some songs. When I can’t do the whole Bible thing, I start with the songs.

They are songs that Mesha sang to us at that student-led worship thing we did at Wofford, called United, where I would just pray up a storm on that microphone. One is a song that I heard at a church that met in a movie theater here in Greenville. They are songs that, if I am being completely honest, and I must be, kept me alive in the first weeks after we lost Maggie. They are songs that remind me that I am doing alright. 

Anyway, I've got to get back to porch time. There may be a season coming where I don't feel the sweetness of sitting out here with God eating strawberries, so I'd better soak it up while I can.

 

why I sing on the treadmill

I had dinner with a good friend of mine last night. We went to my favorite restaurant, downtown, where everyone knows me and our conversation was peppered with people walking by and saying hello, catching up briefly. Smiling, laughing, eating good food and telling good stories. I stopped by my favorite bar right after to say hello, and it was more hugs and hellos; genuine but quick check-ins, as I had to get home and get some rest – “I’m running a race in the morning.” I turned around to leave, and saw a dinner table full of even more of my favorite people, who I’d be running that race with the next day. More hellos, more hugs, more laughing. I went downstairs – more friends. In a one-block radius of downtown during a span of a few hours, I ran into upwards of 20 good people, good friends, humans I feel lucky to know.

Before I knew it, it was 1:00 in the morning, and I was still downstairs, sipping on a glass of water, still murmuring about needing to leave, needing to rest, that I had that race. It was “just” a 5K – which I used to be able to pound out no problem, and some people can do without breaking a sweat, which must be nice and thank you for sharing. But I stayed at the bar, and I kept drinking water, and then things got really quiet. I was sitting at a table with a handful of people who I love to be around, but I could not stop thinking about that race.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the race, and I could not understand why I felt so alone in the downstairs of my favorite bar, on a night when I was so surrounded by people who are important to me, who love me well, but I couldn’t feel that. All I could feel was that I was missing my most important person. I didn’t feel surrounded. I knew that I was, in my head, but I could not access that. I looked -- stared -- at their faces, and I hoped I was making the face for “good listener” instead of “terrified”; but there came a point where I could not hear a damn word that any of them were saying because all I could hear was how silent my mind had gone. It was deafening. “I have to run a race in a few hours,” I kept repeating to myself.

“I have to run a race.”

The last time I ran a race, it was a half marathon that I ran a few months after Maggie’s murder. Most of you know about sweet Mags, but if you don’t, all you really need to know is that she was my person and she was every bit of magic to the square inch that God has ever packed into a human being.

That half marathon was the second worst day of my life. I didn’t want to run it. Not because I don’t like running, but because running without Maggie is painful for me. Maggie is who taught me to love running, how to find peace from shoes hitting pavement. She ran for the same reason I write – to center herself, to clear her mind, to find out what she really thought and wanted. The first time she took me on a run, she did this really nice thing where she let us walk the whole time. I knew this drove her crazy, but you’d never be able to tell. She also came to spin classes with me even though I knew she hated things that were not running. (She got extra jewels on her crown in heaven for all of this, I am sure.)

So, since she walked for me, I decided to run for her. It was not pretty, and I whined a lot. We’d go to this one trail in Boone called The Greenway, and man, I hated it. She ran without music, which sort of led me to believe that she was a witch. But the good kind, like in The Wizard of Oz.

She could literally run circles around me, but she stayed with me and helped me learn my pace and stride. The girl was a marathon runner, but she always made me feel like we were equal. When I could do the trail without walking, I was so slow, but she still stayed. I never understood at first why she did that; I told her to go on without me, that I’d turn around with her on her way back, that I knew I was driving her crazy, that I knew she was dying to run fast. “Manda, NO!” she’d always yell, in her loud voice. “It doesn’t matter how fast you go just as long as you keep going.”

So I kept running with her. We bought real running shoes instead of cute Nikes. Mine were bright blue. She’d knock on the door of my apartment after we got home from class, and I’d lace up the blue shoes. And we’d run. And I loved it. I loved that she made me feel like I could do anything in life; even things I didn’t think I could ever do. She made me feel like a great runner. She used to sing to me on the trail. She was tone deaf, so it was so bad, but I loved it. And I’d sing with her. Dumb things, like pop songs, but we’d sing at the top of our lungs, and we’d run. Even when I moved to South Carolina and we spent an unbearable six months living in different cities, she’d call me from Hickory and tell me to go for a run and I’d lace up my blue shoes. I’d run my neighborhood, and she ran around her whole dang down. When I hit a hill or wanted to stop, I’d just go slow, and I’d sing one of our dumb running songs.

After she was gone, after she died, I remember lying in bed for the first time and just feeling…silence. And knowing that from now on, for the rest of my life, that the songs were just gonna be me now. That I wouldn’t have her right beside me anymore, whether we were running or driving around, or laying in my bed talking until 2:00 in the morning. She was gone, her voice was gone, the way it used to soothe me, it was all gone. And all I had was silence.

I tanked hard. I refused to make friends with anyone for a solid year and a half. I stopped running. I went to a lot of therapy, but the loss was as real as the day I found out every session, just as raw as the months went by. I stopped a lot of things. I was very depressed, and felt very alone. If you were in my life for this season, you are an angel for holding something so broken, so well.

A few months later I found a video of her singing. “Just Give Me A Reason” by Pink. This was one of the songs in music trivia last week. I ended up winning.

Mags ran a half marathon every year in Hickory called the Charity Chase. I signed up for it, but I didn’t train. At all. The race was a little less than a year after she died, and though I didn’t feel like a runner anymore, I am nothing if not a natural shower-upper. I carbo-loaded at Olive Garden with the others who were running, and sweet Rachael, one of Maggie’s former students, talked me back into actually running the race. Mind you, one does not usually run a half marathon on a whim, but hello, it’s me.

Again, second worst day of my life. I’d lost my strength and endurance, I couldn’t get a good pace, and by Mile 10, my feet were bleeding through my blue shoes. I got in the back of a police car and demanded to be taken back to the expo plaza.

“Ma’am, we are not a transport vehicle,” the officer said, confused.

“Okay, well, I will sit until you call one,” I said back.

They gave me a medal anyway, even though I did not finish. They knew what had happened, who I was, who Maggie was. Everyone in the group waited on me at the finish line; I was so embarrassed, and swore that I was done running forever.

But I ran a 5K this morning.

And for the last couple of months, I’ve been running on treadmills next to people who have become fast friends, and even family. Today, I ran a race among a huge pack of strangers, some in tutus. We were all in white t-shirts, all covered in color powder. I found some of those people I’ve been running next to on those treadmills, and one of them stopped to introduce herself to me personally, Jennifer, and encouraged me to keep going. I swear to you, some of Maggie’s spirit was in that woman, and so I kept running. Even though it was slow, I just kept running.

I sobbed the entire way home. No one could tell, because of all the sweat and color powder.

The people I run with on those treadmills sing with me. They sing with me while I run. Abby and Zoe and Jenn, especially, and goodness we are going to get kicked out of class for that one day, but I don’t care. Because people run beside me and sing with me again. And even though it’s not Maggie anymore, and it’ll never be Maggie again, I can feel her when my feet are pounding on that treadmill belt. I can hear her singing voice when someone is rapping Nicki Minaj right beside me.

I can feel her again. Not all the time. It comes and goes, and when it goes, I feel so lost and it is so hard there. The loss of her, the hole she left is still so real and so painful, and I worry that it will always be. But when I’m running, and when we’re all singing, I can feel her again.

This is the greatest gift to me. It’s not Maggie beside me on that Orangetheory treadmill, but even though she’s gone, she is still up there in Heaven finding ways to tell me to keep going, even if it’s slow and even if it’s hard and even when I want to stop. In running, in life, in all of it.

I can feel her again.
I ran a 5K this morning, and when I closed my eyes, I swear to you, it was like she was right beside me.
And it’s because she was.