one step at a time

sometimes it is too hard for me that we cannot save the whole world by tomorrow. total empath dilemma; I know. we still haven’t figured out suicide and there are kids being torn from their families at the border, and the oceans are in trouble, too. it can be so hard here.

in my overwhelm, I decided to turn my brain off and nap on my couch last night, with Cricket curled up by my side. She is such a love; a big-hearted, boundless, and unapologetic Enneagram 7, either in the middle of chaos, eyes wide, or needing to hold my hand with her paw when she is at rest.

Lemon, though, has an even bigger heart and is an Enneagram 2. Every night, she lays on the couch where she can see out the back door to see if the kittens she found last week are less afraid, and have popped out from under the steps. As I tried to doze off, she whined and sang, whined and sang, to let me know that they were back, they were out there, searching around. She could see them. She could see that they needed help.

Next thing I know, I have 20 cans of soft kitten food in a grocery cart in the middle of my neighborhood Ingles, along with some bacon treats for my big-hearted black dogs. I went straight to the backyard to make sure the wide-eyed kittens who wander there had something to eat. If I can’t go to the tent cities in Texas and run trauma therapy, I could at least feed the kittens.

“One step at a time,” my friend Jason reminded me today. Last week, I ordered stainless steel straws and started recycling my La Croix cans, as I cannot sit with the thought that my sparkling water habit could help take down an ecosystem. Tomorrow, I’m teaching a cycle class that will raise money for Alzheimer's Association. I had a call with some brilliant minds this past week who I’m consulting with on a project that very well could make a global dent in mental health stigma AND relationship abuse. I sent money to ACLU last night because they DO have people who can go fight for the kids in the Texas tent cities.

Our hearts beat for things, for reasons. Listen to them. If you can’t save the whole world, save a little piece of it where you are today, and I swear — we really will make it to the whole thing, eventually. Together.

we have to get rid of mental health stigma -- here's how.

We are gutted this week. Us as a society, me as a human being – we are a bit wrecked over the two suicides we have seen flash across television screens in recent days. There are a lot of emotions as I scroll through social media -- shock, fear and overwhelm. We are upset that this keeps happening. We don’t quite know what to do.

Two hours after hearing about Kate Spade, I got off my cycle bike after teaching a class only to check my phone and learn that the woman who trained me in the program a year ago lost her teenage daughter to suicide that same day. A month ago, I waved goodbye to my friend Sam as he backed out of my driveway after visiting on the way home from his father’s funeral. Yesterday, I mailed a letter to my friend who is spending some time in a facility because her suicidal thoughts were getting so bad, and she knew she needed help. The woman who wrote the letter lost her eleven-year-old son less than a year ago.

It’s in the news – it’s our high profile people -- but it’s also our right here people.

People are bailing on life all around us – and it is scary and heavy and hard no matter if you can relate or not. If you have never felt suicidal before, I imagine that it is overwhelming to think about what could drive a person that far. If you have, though, it can almost be even more of a gut check. It can be a trigger. It can feel too close to home. It can feel too heavy either way, and can make us want to hold our breath, or freeze – we almost just want to shut our eyes, and wait for it to pass.

But it won’t just pass. It won’t pass unless we open our eyes and do some things that are gonna get our people to safety.

I have felt suicidal in more than one season.

Right now, I’m solidly not, thank God – I have built a life where it is very accepted for me to take a knee in the name of my mental health, and I know full and well that if I ever wave the flag of “hey, the will to live is gone again” – I know who I would talk to, which place I would call, and that my people would champion my desire would go heal and take care of that and come back and tell all of you what I learned from it.

But that is not a universal impulse. That is not everyone’s reality.
But we need to make it be -- and the first step is to get rid of stigma.
We need to get rid of this idea that even being suicidal-adjacent is a scarlet letter, or a character flaw. That it’s a thing that isn’t okay to share.

I will let the other side in on something: as people with mental illnesses, nobody checks in with us and gives us a medal for going a certain amount of time without hitting a snag, or a dark place again. We are not assigned an Allstate agent when we get our diagnosis, and we do not get milestone-based prizes for keeping our shit together.

But if we are not careful (@society), it can look like we do get prizes for keeping it together. Instagram is a highlight reel and we want to keep up with the Joneses and our good imaging so badly that we will hold our breath underwater for way, way too long. There are consequences to speaking up -- they can be light and social, or they can be things like our jobs and livelihoods. 

On my first day as a school counselor, my principal sat down in my office and instructed me that I needed to take my blog and website down, as some parents had found it and were distraught that he had "hired a counselor with a problem like that." My contract was on the line, so I listened, and I took it down, and I kept things quiet, and learned over time that society expected me to isolate -- that my illness was not okay, or normal. And I suffered from that.
 
Two years later, I quit that job, and have disclosed my illness in every interview and project proposal since then. I have turned down opportunities that made me feel like a flight risk -- because I can't take care of my mental health properly in environments where I feel like a flight risk. When I first spoke out about my depression, my bipolar disorder, my history of suicidal thoughts, it was very tempting to talk about it like it was all in the past. Like I had overcome it. The truth, though, is that I will continue to have to monitor the symptoms of my mental illness for the rest of my life.

But I don’t see that as a bad thing, or a thing I need to apologize for.. I see it as the best way to take care of myself. That’s all. It really isn’t especially terrible, so long as I have what I need to keep it from getting especially terrible. This can be a fight, and it shouldn't be.  

Chances are very good – about 80% -- that if you’ve faced depression once, you’ll run into it again sometime in your life. I know I have, several times. I do a lot of things to try and keep it at bay. I’ve revamped my self-care; I’ve cut out alcohol. I can feel my medication not doing its best work, and so I’m headed to the psychiatrist next week to figure that out. I work very hard to not get depressed, and sometimes it still happens anyway.

Because, the thing is, I flat-out cannot promise anyone that I will never feel suicidal again.
It would actually be irresponsible for me to do that.

There is no one risk factor that can predict if I will ever experience that again. 
I hope not -- but I need to know that if I do, people will know how to help.
That is what will encourage me to reach out. 
That is what will save my life, if we are ever there again. 

The hotlines are important, but they are not always a viable option.
Kindness is a crucial ingredient here, but it is not the entire solution.
We have to retrain the way we respond here. 

What we have to do is get rid of the stigma.
We have to create safe spaces.


A safe space is where kindness, and resources, and respect, and hope, all come together and rescue a person who is trapped in a burning building, and that building is their headspace. They may not know how to get out on their own, but they need to know that they can communicate that to the rest of us, and that help will come swiftly.

Safe spaces are where people can hear that appearances do not matter so much as their vitality -- where they hear that white-knuckling it is not the way they have to do it. 

Safe spaces are where people can see that if one way of getting help doesn’t work, there are others, and there is no timeline on healing. You can go back, and back, and back. Safe spaces are where the facades stop, where the points that don’t matter stop even being counted. Safe spaces are life-saving.

I believe the biggest reason why people don’t come forward about feeling suicidal is twofold – they feel an incredible amount of shame and need to keep up appearances, or they’ve been conditioned to believe that getting help won’t work anyway – and safe spaces are where all of those thoughts get thrown in the garbage, because though they may be present, they are not always true.

We won’t save the whole world in a day. We can’t.
We will not get to everyone tomorrow.
But what we can do is get to one person, one place, every day until we cover the whole thing eventually. Safe spaces will cover the whole world, and stigma will be a foreign concept one day. I believe it.

Here is what I need from the world, as someone who was suicidal once,
and may be again, one day:


I need to not feel embarrassed about that as even a possibility.
I need to know that if those thoughts ever come back, that the people around me will know how to catch them with grace and point me towards help.
I need to know that if I voice that, people will have what they need to move, rather than hold their breath and feel overwhelmed.
I need to know that even if people don’t understand what I’m going through, that they’ll respect my honesty, my journey to have needs met.
I need to know that I am loved, regardless of my sometimes messy headspace.
I need to be reminded that I am worth the work of continual healing.

So, how do safe spaces happen?

If you have a story with the darkness -- tell it as you are able to. The biggest thing I have found when I started telling my story is messages in various inboxes saying, “Thank you -- I’m in this camp also” or “this sounds like my friend. What can I do for them?”

It can be easy to feel pressure here -- but instead, just normalize that the thing to do when you need help is to go get help. It's complex. It involved a lot of stretching. It involves a big amount of love, of heartspace expansion, to recognize where you may need to learn all the different things help can look like just in case one of your people, or even you, ever need permission or directions to get to it.

If you don't understand this kind of darkness, don't be afraid to just say that. Ask questions to those of us who are able to be vocal about it. It's easy to want to detach, but we can do better than that. 

Getting help for depression, feeling suicidal, is not some sort of mark of extra damage, or character flaw, or weakness in and of itself -- but the hardest thing about it can be dealing with all the stuff that tries to stand in the way of getting help. The pressure to have it all together can be the tallest wall in front of the help we need to find actual life. And that, my friends, is quite frankly, a) so, so, stupid of us when we consider what is at stake, and b) something we can 100% eliminate.

So -- may we grant each other the permission to be real. May we check in with our actual people, and not just their Instagram feeds. When we don't understand something, may we just say that, and ask questions instead of issuing decrees from our blind spots.

If our heads start to go to a tough place, may we feel safe to speak that to someone. If someone speaks it to us, may we hold space for them and give them permission to feel, but also the room to go get help wherever they need to pull that from. That may come from a walk in the woods, or from starting each day opening a pill bottle, or spending some time inside the walls of a hospital.

May that all be seen as equal safe space, and may our biggest urge at this time be to go out in the world and make safe spaces even more abundant. 

Resources to Help Our Hearts Grow + Expand:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's goal is to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20% by 2025. One great way they make progress is letting me go bug Congress through their Field Advocate program, and another is hosting overnight Out of the Darkness walks to bring more awareness and fundraising to individual communities.
Read about risk factors and hear stories of hope from them, too.

A list of crisis hotlines from my friends at The Mighty
The Mighty does a great job collecting thoughtful essays from writers who can bring clarity + understanding to hard-to-talk-about things.
Find a list of topics here.


Sometimes help is therapy. Therapy is a great place to find some help. Here is some info on that.
Searching for the Right Therapist is Sort of Like Dating (NY Times)
How to Find the Right Therapist (The Cut)
Therapist Locator

 

our mental health system didn’t fail the Florida shooter -- we did

I'm done with a few things right now.

I'm done with the arguments on social media about why the Parkland, Florida shooting happened. I stayed up late last night watching the CNN Town Hall meeting where kids who had just survived a high school shooting asked Marco Rubio to please ban assault weapons, and parents of now deceased children suggesting that their sons and daughters would still be  in a conversation that has mostly shifted to becoming one about gun control. There is place for that, and I absolutely see it as progress. What I'm done with is that along with it, we are potentially doing damage to a cause I care deeply about -- eliminating mental health stigma. 

It is obvious to us now that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, struggled deeply with his mental health. Fault over why that escalated to a school shooting is being dealt out liberally, tied mostly to external factors, while conversations around what it must have been like in his headspace in the weeks and days leading up to day him walking into his high school with an assault weapon are sparse. People around did everything they were supposed to do in terms of protocol. A lot of help attempts, a lot of hands extended, a lot reports. I am sure he sat in chairs across from therapists, and I am sure those therapists did their very best work with what he revealed to them -- and I am also sure that protocol does not catch everything, and that he did not reveal everything, because for whatever reason, he did not feel that it was safe or worthwhile to. After seeing the aftermath of this shooting, I am more than anything willing to bet that the elements of the world around him did not lead him to believe that overcoming the things he was struggling with was a even possibility, and so we are left with these headlines and debates about causation and gun control, and the perceived failures of the mental health community. 

As a mental health advocate, these targeted debates allocating blame sadden me to no end. The world, though, doesn't seem to want to absorb the fault this one; we want to push it onto specific agencies. It is being sent to therapists, and hospitals, and the people who were supposed to do something. Guess what? The whole world was supposed to do something by now, and the whole world failed. Let us all absorb that.

I received my first mental health diagnosis at age 19, and another one three years later. I struggled deeply with my mental health in my early twenties as a direct result of reading the world around me and concluding that it was not okay to struggle out loud and that the darkness in my mind was not a safe thing for me to herald -- so I didn't for a long time. The biggest thing that got my butt on a therapist’s couch, and made the actual truth about what was going on in my head come out of my mouth when I got there, was the voices of my peers that told me that the problem I was experiencing was an acceptable and solvable one, and I was worth the work it would take to find it, even if the majority rule of society was to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

Let me tell you something – “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was not a therapeutic paradigm they went over in either one of the nationally-accredited counselor education programs I attended, and the things you expose when you dump your brain out to a near-stranger at the risk of being hospitalized has a lot more to do with if you think certain revelations will yield something at all worthwhile than if your therapist paid enough attention in school, or prescribes the right drug to you, or anything that even happens in that office. The therapist is a vessel, a facilitator, with great influence, yes – but also a minority of therapeutic responsibility. They are batting last here, after society-at-large has had its way with each of us, only able to hit the pitches that the person on the couch even feels safe to throw out.

My mental health story having some sort of catastrophic ending was prevented because I had a friend named Kaitlin Bailey, who 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 and 48 hours later, I was headed home on a medical leave – 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. What is going on in Florida, and in Washington, in every way needs to also involve mental health stigma. We will make some progress, but not complete headway, without that.

Hear me also say I should have been, according to most agency best practices, hospitalized that day instead of being sent back home for a few months. I was experiencing suicidal thoughts with high frequency, and had opportunities to act on them. But I was also smart enough to know what information to withhold in order to keep from being hospitalized.

As a mandated reporter in a school system years later, I had to watch a couple of high school kids be taken off in an ambulance because of certain keywords they used in front of me, and I stand convinced that it probably hurt them more than it helped them. This is not to say anything about their time in the hospital – I’ve heard beautiful stories of supportive environments there. I’m talking about the life and world they have to return to once their mandatory hold time ended. I didn’t avoid the hospital because I didn't want to be in one; I avoided it because I’d seen how people were treated like absolute pariahs after they came back from one, even if it was paramount toward their healing. You don’t get balloons when you come out of the psych ward; you get whispered about. Someone explain to me how that’s supposed to encourage more people to ask for help. I think Nikolas Cruz would have sought help, had he believed in its efficacy.

This is the part where I could throw a lot of statistics at you, but if you would like to review my research findings and citations, click here. But what you need to know is that between 2009 and 2014, the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in adolescents jumped 31%, and suicide rates jumped even more dramatically (and got even worse after 13 Reasons Why was let loose in the world). In that same timeframe, do you know what didn’t budge? The number of adolescents seeking treatment for those symptoms.

This is not a mental health system problem – those therapists and hospitals are doing the best they can. This is a stigma problem.

We’re all human beings, and we are all wired for connection. As it stands in the world today, the stigma against people with a mental illness is a straight-up toxin. I can tell you from experience that nothing fans the flames of depression more powerfully than feeling isolated from the people around you, and nothing is doing that more powerfully than the arguments floating around headlines this week about how Nikolas Cruz shot his classmates because the mental healthcare system didn't do its job. What gross oversimplification.

People get angry at the goalkeeper in a soccer game for missing a save when that ball got through ten other players on that team before it hit that net. Mental healthcare wasn’t the weak link; it was society as a whole. It was the way we have made it acceptable to shove struggling people to the outskirts, and turn a blind eye, and say, “Well that’s someone else’s problem.” The mental healthcare system did not fail Nikolas Cruz; it was the entire world at the same time, and we as its inhabitants will continue to allow darkness to fester in the minds of our friends and family members and neighbors, even unintentionally, until we bolster a societal overhaul that changes the way we treat and talk about people who experience mental illnesses and give them the freedom to step into healing.

In my graduate research, what I discovered is that there is an empirically-based 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. A research group in California piloted a program that got a person living with a mental illness to talk about their struggles and successes -- what they were dealt, and how they fought back, and lived with it, and sought continual help -- and it dramatically reduced the audience's perceived stigma over time

It doesn't matter that we talk about mental illness; it matters deeply HOW. We have to get all of these things in the discussion:

A) the rock bottom part of the story – the horrible parts
B) how the person got out
C) local and global resources they used to do it

Transparency. Honesty. Risky bravery. Shame eradication. Things that will lead other people out of isolation.

My favorite thing to tell people is that I have a bipolar type II diagnosis, because you would never know that about me if you examined my life on paper. That was not always a safe thing for me to voice, like when I worked in a public school as a counselor. As a result of a lot of love and support and daily self care and medication and great therapists who were not mind readers, I live in a stable place and could easily keep my illness hidden, but I wear it proudly to show the people who are still figuring out how to overcome theirs that we absolutely can have a mental illness and a normal life at the same time. My diagnosis is a major one, and people did not react with kindness to it, but with fear, including the professors in my first counseling masters’ degree program, who told me that I would never be a good therapist or advocate or presence in the mental health field because of it. They told me to draw back, and stand down, and retreat.

If I had yielded to those voices then, I don’t know what would have happened to me, but I know it wouldn’t have been good with the things that were in my headspace at the time, and it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that a terrible headline in the news wouldn’t have been in the equation – but the voices that tried to ostracize me, for whatever reason or fortune was with me at the time, didn’t stand a a chance against the ones that gave me permission to fight.

We, the fighters, have to give others the permission to fight back, too. I didn’t understand depression or bipolar disorder until I was suffocating in the throes of it. If you have never been there, it is not your job to put words in a person’s mouth who is; it is, in fact, disrespectful and audacious to try. If you have been there, I think it is your duty to speak about it as you can, validation and understanding can grow. We have to clear the toxins from the air, because if one thing will take down mental health stigma – it is permission for people who are depressed or are in awful headspaces to feel that way and look it in the eye so that they can deal with it without judgment or restriction, or fear of being let go from their jobs and shunned from their families, and with connection and space and time to heal. Feeling like you have to keep your darkness hidden can be a death sentence, and I am not just talking about for the person in the darkness – I mean for the people around them, too. I mean for the students of Steadman Douglas. And when we do or don't resolve gun control, I mean whatever medium is next. There will be one -- I promise you that.

You could put me in a room of the best and brightest, most empathic and caring psychologists in the world, and it dead ass would not make a difference how much healing I found in those four walls if the rest of the world wasn't willing to change, too. We have to be that. We have to use our voices as we can. We have to change the entire world, and we have to do it now. 

The whole world was supposed to do something by now, and the whole world has failed together. Let us all absorb that together, and fix it together. We still have so much time, and let us begin right now.

how to not get depressed

I guess I should start this off by telling you that I have no idea. 
I don’t want to be an unreliable narrator, but I have no freaking idea, you guys. 

I wish this was a blog post where I could give you 5 tips to just avoid depression or feeling depressey or depressed-adjacent (there are different tiers of this whole thing), you know? Like, if you meditate enough and think about sunshine, you will be good – if I could stand at the edge of that forest and just circumvent all traffic away from its entrance, I’d do it. It is a cute idea, but not really a thing.

At least, not in my life. I used to think that was my goal as a counselor, and now as a life coach or Sherpa or whatever I am at present – to keep people from getting depressed, but you guys, I don’t know if that is even a real thing.

If there was a way to avoid depression completely, I would have found it by now, as I think it’s safe to say that I have done some prettttty thorough on-the-ground research in what being depressed feels like, and at present have one of the most aggressive self-care plans I have ever seen. I brought in the concept of Self Care Mondays about a month ago – a self-imposed day where I am not to take appointments or chip away on projects, but rather do strictly as I please. Nothing is allowed to be married to a time – and forget talking on the phone. People will not touch Self Care Monday with a ten foot pole, and I love you all tremendously for it.

This most recent round, I stayed in my house the entire day. I made breakfast, and I turned on music that I love, and then I curled up on my couch and watched Gilmore Girls reruns with some really good soup, and fell into an accidental nap. In which I had a nightmare that I had slept through a cycle class and forgot to do ten million other things, which meant that I woke up in a pretty anxious state, and discovered that the sun was down at 6pm, to boot. Self Care Mondays are supposed to make me the opposite of anxious and depressey, so what the hell gives?

I have had incredibly low energy lately – I need a lot more downtime than usual, and building that energy back takes a lot longer than it usually does.. I’m finding myself dreading social engagements a bit, and have a bit of constant low-grade feeling of dread as I go through the day, even despite my best efforts to prepare for things the day before, or go to bed a little earlier, or even eat real food that has nutrients and did not come out of a grease vat.

I commented on this to my friend Mie -- about how I couldn’t figure out the source of the drain and she laughed a bit and said, “Well, you’re forgetting the part where you’ve had a few PTSD triggers rear their heads recently, plus you started teaching a new class, and you start your business coaching this week, plus the time change, plus the holidays, and, well, your depression.”

Ah, that’s right. Depression. Depression, plus my regular life.
We call out the depression part of my mental health life more than the bipolar part of things because the depressive swings are the parts that have given me much, much more trouble this past year. (The hypomanic part of my illness is a lot less of a bother at this point in my story – it mostly translates to more energy, thanks to super helpful medication that I write a mental love letter to daily.)

And this time of year is a breeding ground for a depressive mood swing for a lot of us, I have realized. Thanks, winter. I remember my first academic advisory meeting when I moved to Boone; I shared with my professor that I had a mental illness that tended to swing into depression in the winter months, which are pretty brutal in the mountains. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, honey. You moved to the wrong place.”

Even with all the self care and successes in the world, I can’t stop depression. My busyness is commented on frequently, but what is often missed is that my life is very intentionally structured and color coded to balance the things I need to get done, as well as punctuated with rest. And even with that, I still lose a day to the darkness. When I start to feel down, sometimes I need a day in bed with a book, and sometimes that’s the absolute worst thing for me – it depends on the day. I wouldn’t wish my brain on anyone – it is so annoying, and despite my pleas and PowerPoint presentations to God to let me switch brains with another human or even a mediocre-but-still-good dog at this juncture, He has said no. And so, it is just up to me to get with day-to-day management.

But here's the thing: Every time depression comes to visit, I learn something. Every time I’m down, I come out of it with something I didn’t have before. Every time it knocks, if I invite it in, and sit down with it, and listen, I can usually pull something helpful. Not always, but the ratio  sways in helpfulness's favor. It was this way before I even realized it. I can’t stop it from happening, but I can at least try to make it constructive.

Living with depression is sort of like tornado or hurricane season – you don’t exactly know when the storms are going to hit, but there are indicators, and things you can do to try and mitigate the impact. But, what I have learned is that the times I go down the hardest are the times when I’ve tried to ignore what I know is on its way, out of denial or some cute form attempted self-preservation. Bless my heart. So, here are a couple of things I try to do during my hurricane season:

Look at depression and darkness as teachers. Being depressed was even more annoying to me – and a colossal waste of time – before I made a point to look for something to take back into the non-depressed world. Depression is cyclical -- it comes and goes, and I know it'll come back, so I always try to take good notes -- literally, in a journal -- to help me see if I'm taking the best care of myself, or giving things weight that I shouldn't. If one piece of criticism from an acquaintance sends me into self-deprecation, that tells me that I'm probably neglecting things that make me remember my value -- so I'll head to a trusted friend, or listen to a TED Talk or sermon that helps center me. I always try to use darkness as an arrow, and not a destination.

Give yourself permission to be down. I have a sticky note on the back of my front door that says, “You have permission to be where you are today.”  Permission to be up and joyful, but more importantly, permission to be down, and to take my time while I'm there. You don’t have to rush it away, and I have found that if I try to, I miss what I'm supposed to use to grow. Also, permission to rest as much as is realistic – for me, this means having entire weeks where I don’t make any social plans when I know that’ll be a drain. Or, weeks where I put social things in blocks where I know I’d otherwise sit at home and ruminate. I love Self Care Monday, but I know it’s not universally realistic – so how about daily self care? Something every day that makes your soul sigh with relief, even in a dark place.

Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it. Remember that you know yourself better than probably anyone else. Your darkness isn’t the same as other peoples’ darkness, and you don’t have to navigate it the same way. I was talking to a good friend about how I have to have lots of white space and rest time when I start to feel low, and she said, “Oh, I’m the opposite. I have to stay engaged in the world, or I get lost.” Guess what? Either one is okay – you just have to know how certain things make you feel, and try to live accordingly.

And then tell your people what you need. Seriously, tell them. They may not know. I know that I need options – instead of people trying to “force” me out of the house, I need friends who give me the freedom to go find a way to connect whether it’s through texting or putting on real people clothes and having coffee. 

I wish navigating this world was simple -- but it isn't. There's not a guidebook, but there are patterns and helpful takeaways, but know this: your experience with low points and darker moments is not the same as anyone else's. Use that to empower you. You are not alone in it, but you know your world here the best. Let people in, and listen to those experiences from others. We are all healing from something, whether it's something major or just getting from day to day; we are all just walking each other home.

For me, this means more writing. More note-taking. Getting to bed earlier. Not skipping my hour of centering quiet time in the morning, even if I do hate that alarm clock when it goes off. Before I got out of bed today, I sent "good morning" texts to 10 or so friends, and you would have thought I'd sent them a winning lottery ticket, which made me feel more energized than my usual third cup of coffee. It probably means putting my Christmas decorations up earlier than I ever have before, to make my home at night a bit cozier. You know what you need -- you know what makes life feel softer -- you have the right to ask for it. 

Figure out what you need, and learn how to ask for it. 
Here's to the next round, and how we grow as a result of it.

XOXO, 
AP

a letter to myself, after leaving an abusive relationship

 
blogbed.jpeg
 

This post originally appeared on the One Love Foundation blog.

[This is a letter written to the woman I was 9 months ago. These are the things she needed to hear, and that I can now put a voice to after months of therapy and healing space. This is everything I wish someone had said to me on the morning after I left my abusive relationship.]

Dear Amanda, 

First of all, take a deep breath. There are a lot of things that you need to do right now, and the first one is to just breathe. Second of all, take your time. Get out of bed slowly, if and when you are able. When you do, take a look at the woman in the mirror. She has a whole world to rebuild. If that sounds daunting, try to reallocate that weight to be hopeful for the new and beautiful things that I can see from where we are now. It’s going to take some time for you to get here, and that time will not always be easy, and that’s okay. Healing is like that. Third – and you may not be ready to believe this yet, but we’ve got to break the ice on this – none of this was your fault.

You thought you could fix him; save him. You thought that if you stayed, he would finally love you in the right way, instead of the way that kept you isolated, and up at night, and hiding things. You offered that man every square inch of warmth in your heart. The fact that it didn’t heal him says nothing of any insufficiency on your part, and everything of how cold and despondent he really must have been, despite your best efforts to see the situation in any other light. 

Here’s what you need to know. Not to spoil the ending, but your life has absolutely expanded in his absence. But his departure doesn’t get the credit for that; your life would have expanded regardless. You know who you are, what your purpose on this planet is, what you deserve, where you’re headed, what you are worth. You have always known, and those things were never contingent on his staying or leaving, but it sure is easier to hear all of that without his voice in your ear constantly telling you that you are too much, to slow down on your dreams, or:

“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 wasn’t my fault.

And if it was, I didn’t mean it.

And if I did, you deserved it.

That voice is gone now. I know you don’t really know what to do without it, but hear this – there are better, kinder, more truthful voices coming to take its place. You don’t have to listen that one, The Wrong One, anymore – and I’m sorry that you ever felt like you had to in the first place. The good news is that you found the strength to walk away from it; that was a hard thing, even though most people talk about it like it should have been a really easy decision. They mean that with love; only some people really know the extent of the hold he had on you, the power of abuse, and even fewer people know the whole story, which is that he stripped you of your identity and made it sound like he was doing you a favor, made you feel like you had to stay, and even worse — that you had to keep how terrible things really were all to yourself — and you spent months too paralyzed to look for a way out.

But you did find it — the courage to leave, rather than exist in a world where you took whatever you could get and accepted that you were merely tolerable instead of exquisite and radiant and unstoppable, which are all things you only realized that you are after he left and you had to wake up in a quiet house and look in the mirror again.

His house was cold; his heart even moreso. There were no mirrors on the walls there, though. You couldn’t see the strong woman in the mirror. You’ll wonder later if this was intentional.

But it’s your first morning. It’s your first morning turning over a new leaf. And it’s really hard here. The girl you’re looking at in the mirror – I know that she’s terrified. Be there. Be terrified for a minute – or angry, scared, sad. Feel those things, and stay with them until you figure out what they have to teach you. It would be really easy to just call and let him back in for the 400th time, and start the whole cycle over, which he will invite you to do, peppered with the same old things he doesn’t mean like, “I’m sorry” and, “it was the bourbon” and, “but you’re the love of my life.”

You may have been, but he wasn’t yours, and that is all released to the wind now.
There is actual love out there.
You have so much of it within you; nurture that for a while. Breathe. Take your time. 

None of this was your fault, but oh, you will grow from it. 
The girl in the mirror will smile again, soon enough. 
She will find joy, and pour herself into things that will flourish.
The anger and fear and confusion will pop their heads in from time to time.
They’re still around, but they will be the white noise behind laughter, 
singing in the car, life stories in coffee shops, 
or under the stars.

Life will be abundant again. Write that on the mirror, in case she forgets. 
in case she forgets that love is coming.

Love,

Yourself. Always.

how Young Life saved me in more ways than I thought

 
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I spent last night in a room with a couple hundred friends hearing about the good things Young Life is doing in Greenville, SC. I met my own Young Life leader, Laura, about 11 years ago way back in Virginia. She was always hanging around my soccer team. After I didn't get into any of the Ivy Leagues colleges and my identify was shattered, she took me to get Mexican food and I told her that I was finally ready to listen to who this Jesus guy she kept talking about actually was. We ate burritos, and talked about it. The rest of the story from there is a real beauty; let me tell you about it.

Young Life club is the first place where I got up and told my life story because someone told me it was important -- my first public speaking engagement. I spent summers at Rockbridge and Frontier Ranch. I was a leader at Byrnes High School long before I worked there as a counselor, and I got to be loud and talk about God and do life with girls there who I am still friends with now. We had Bible study and talked about boys, and soccer, and One Tree Hill -- and they were the first people, in our "spot" at Ice Cream & Coffee Beans, who I told when I decided to take a medical leave of absence from college, so I could go home and focus on healing and figuring out my mental health. (And not a lot has changed -- some of them are dating men who they will marry, and we still talk about hard things over brunch when they are in town, and they are stuck with me for life, just like I said.)

 
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While I was figuring out how to heal, Windy Gap is where I'd spend weekends running the ropes course in the snow by day and listening to speakers like Steve Chesney by night, who reminded me that God had integrity, and that I could trust His voice even when I couldn't see His hand. I didn't really do either of those at the time, if I am being honest, but man -- it helped so much to be in a place that whispered it to me constantly.

I ended up interning there that summer, my sanctuary in so many ways -- still battling depression, except I had accepted that that was just how the rest of my life was going to be. I learned to fish and love McDonald's and taught people how to square dance. I was so well-loved there; I had 14 roommates who poured love out just by breathing -- so imagine a one-on-one conversation. My mentors Jenny Moffat and Kayla Simoneaux caught on to my struggles so quickly, and in pure love, pulled me in for a meeting and told me that barely existing was not the abundant life that God had called me to, and that I was worth actual healing, and I called a new doctor that day. (After Maggie's murder, when the incessant calls from Inside Edition and Fox News came, there was no other place I was interested in for seeking refuge, and I hid out in the Adult Guest Lodge for a week for Healing, Part 477.)

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I spent a summer working at Wilderness Ranch, traversing remote trails in Colorado, making hot chocolate with nutmeg and cinnamon and treated creek water and singing Psalms out loud from the tops of mountain peaks. I was still so depressed, but I learned how to pray from my guts there, and that God really does love me -- all the parts of me, even all the dark and twisty parts, even and especially if I was depressed forever and ever, and even if I never did get my act together. I learned how to breathe at the Ranch, in those mountains.

 
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Before my Wofford graduation, my YL team leader, Angie Ratterree (who kept me in her community even though I only really had the relational capacity to run Power Points at club) sat with me in a Starbucks and told me me that my walk with depression was going to be a superpower for the rest of my life, if I would only stop treating it like a handicap.

When I got to grad school, I stopped being a leader, but I got to be Team Mom to the college leaders in Boone, and make them hot chocolate with cinnamon and nutmeg, while they sat in my big green chair talking to me about life and God and hard things. It's the same chair Maggie would sit in, but cross-legged. 

I sat cross-legged on a couch with my friends Ashley and Sam a couple of weeks ago here in Greenville, after dropping off all my old YL t-shirts. I don't wear them, and a high schooler will enjoy the shirt from when Bermuda came to Windy Gap way more than I will.) Before I left, Ashley handed me an invitation to the Greenville Young Life Banquet: "You should come! I have a seat at my table for you!"

And last night. Oh, last night I got to hear stories from three high school kids who sew me, eleven years ago -- met Jesus through Young Life, and I could see sixteen-year-old me in those stories. The full-circle-ness of this ministry astounds me. I do not know where my story would have gone without it -- I really do not. 

To my YL leader angels and friends of this ministry -- please, for the love, do not stop telling kids about how much Jesus loves them exactly right where they are -- that they have a seat at the table, and all of their doubts and questions and dark and twisty parts can come, too. Their leaders were there, too. I feel so thankful to have been a part of a ministry that shepherded me and held me so well, even though I didn't see it all the way at the time. I sure did last night, teary-eyed.

And, most of all, to Laura Wright -- thank you for not giving up on this mission before you got to me. Thank you for changing the life of that soccer player in the Harvard hoodie. None of us knew how beautiful this story was going to be, in that hallway, or at those camps -- but we do now. So thank you, and keep going.

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