Grace Under Fire

“Give yourself some grace.”

This is a phrase I’ve heard often lately. “You’ve had a rough few months.” “You’re going through a lot.” “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

I’m eating way too much ice cream.

“You’ve had a rough few months. Give yourself some grace.”

I’m spending way too much time with my bed and Netflix.

“You’re going through a lot. Give yourself some grace.”

Sometimes I just don’t even know what to do with myself.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it. Give yourself some grace.”

I’m giving myself grace, but it’s too much. I just need to say that: it’s too much. Grief is one thing; grace is one thing. Giving up is something else entirely.

Staying in bed on a rainy day when you have no obligations and can indulge yourself by binge-watching your new favourite show is lovely. I’m all for it.

tiny pink clamshell

Staying in bed because you can’t figure out what to do with yourself and can’t summon the — the what? What is it that’s needed to not let depression win? Energy? Strength? Motivation?

Whatever it is, I don’t have it right now.

I stare in the face of JUST DO IT, and I don’t.

It – whatever it is – should be a simple thing, but it’s not simple. It’s a giant chasm, in fact. It’s the difference between maintaining mental health on the one side and just plain not coping on the other. Between staying in bed and getting up to do something. Between eating all the ice cream and not. Between eating, period, and not.

There’s grace and then there’s giving up.

“Perhaps your expectations are a smidge high,” a friend said.

“Just give yourself some grace,” they all say.

“You’ll get through this

Move past it

Be okay.”

“Just give yourself some grace.”

But not too much, I think.

After all, there has to be something left when I come out the other side.

Lost: One Happy Place

Twice in the last two days, completely unprompted and in totally separate conversations, two friends have mentioned that being near the ocean is their happy place. These friends are entirely different from one another, and in fact don’t know each other. But each made this statement so resolutely without even having to think about it.

It made me wonder where my happy place is.

sand bar

I’ve lost it, you see. If you asked me to think of the one place I can be happy, peaceful, content, no matter what else is going on, I’d say… I don’t know. I don’t know where that is. I don’t think I have one right now.

I have places I enjoy, but that’s not the same.

I have places I retreat to, but that’s not the same either.

I’ve been doing more retreating than enjoying lately. Since this.

It turns out you can’t just draw a line in the sand. There isn’t everything before and everything after. It’s more like a Venn diagram – everything that remains untouched from before, everything that will be new after, and all the crap in the middle.

It turns out the crap in the middle is both bigger and crappier than I had expected, and at the moment it feels like I will be in that middle zone forever.

Logically, I know that won’t be the case, but today I came face-to-face with something that has moved from the untouched zone into the crap zone. I should have anticipated it, or known that there would be places from before that would become tainted by the now. But I didn’t and so I ran smack into it and now a place that had good memories…doesn’t anymore.

Another piece added to the middle zone.

Another thing to grieve.

ocean at sunset

Right now I am near the ocean, which used to be my happy place. Less so, strangely, once I moved away from it, but definitely a place I still enjoy.

I ended up in this particular place quite unexpectedly. It has incredible views and amazing sunsets and an abundance of shells.

It’s beautiful here, but right now it’s not managing to be my happy place.

Maybe nowhere is. Maybe the peace and contentment that come with a happy place are elusive when you’re in the crap zone.

Regardless, right now, in this place, the sun is setting on this difficult day.

And for right now, I will simply enjoy the view with as much peace and contentment as it can offer.

West coast sunset 

The Line

I have (very) recently entered a new phase in my life. It feels like I am standing on a beach and I turn around to find that someone has drawn a line in the sand right behind me, and that side of the line represents before and this side of the line represents now. I am standing right on the other side of the line but there’s no going back. It’s not even a big line, but it’s a line. I didn’t really expect it to be drawn there, but there it is.

I did try to erase the line, sort of. After all, it’s just a line, freshly drawn and not very deep. If I fill in the hole, I thought, maybe the line won’t be there anymore.

But it doesn’t work like that.

I can’t explain what this is just yet. I’m not ready, and it’s not entirely about me. I am walking another line as well, one that’s between my desire (and probably need) to write about this and the reality that it’s not time. But please bear with me. It’s a significant, in fact life-changing, thing and I don’t know what to do. But I do need to put it out there as I work through it.

road curving out of sight

In one of her Dear Sugar columns, author Cheryl Strayed (when she was still writing anonymously) was asked, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”

Part of her answer included this:

“I talk to my partner and my friends. I make lists. I attempt to analyze the situation from the perspective of my ‘best self’ – the one that’s generous and reasonable and forgiving and loving and big-hearted and grateful. I think really hard about what I’ll wish I did a year from now. I map out the consequences of the various actions I could take. I ask what my motivations are, what my desires are, what my fears are, what I have to lose, and what I have to gain. I move toward the light, even if it’s a hard direction in which to move. I trust myself. I keep the faith. I mess up sometimes.”

That’s what I am trying to do.

I have had many people tell me I am strong and can handle this and am so loved and will be okay. Easy for them to say, I think. What I think is that this is just another thing I have to deal with that might sink me. It feels, on a daily (and in fact moment-to-moment) basis that I can’t do this. I am not equipped. I am clearly messed up and this is just another thing that will reveal that to be true.

I can do this, of course, and I will, but oh, it’s hard.

The irony (truth? beauty?) is that I’m mentally moving through the phases of this fairly quickly. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of this, at least for me, are pretty much exactly the stages of coping with dying. And just like those stages as identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, these stages are not linear. They are messy and they stop and start and sometimes one phase completely overwhelms the others and makes any feeling other than that anger or that depression seem absolutely, undeniably impossible to achieve. And then it retreats, even if only slightly, and something else can start to emerge.

I can’t recall exactly how I came across that particular Dear Sugar column, but like so many things that find their way to me when I need to see them it was an unassuming click on a passing link that led me down a path I didn’t know was there and didn’t know I needed to find until I was standing on it.

Since crossing that line a mere three weeks ago, I have had a few glimpses of my “best self” – the one that’s generous and reasonable and forgiving and loving and big-hearted and grateful – and I know she’s in there. At this stage she’s being drowned out more often than not by my not-best self – the one that’s angry and hurt and sad and scared and disappointed – but she’s in there.

It’s early, though. It’s early days on a very hard journey and I’m going to mess up sometimes, but I’m trying to keep the faith and continue on.

After all, it’s only a line.

footprints in the sand

Stuck at the Second Level

Sitting at your kitchen table at 7 a.m. trying to determine where mental health fits on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is probably not a good sign. It’s probably a sign that you need help.

I didn’t get a satisfying answer from Google (one site suggested that failing to have needs met at any of the stages can lead to depression or anxiety, but I think it has to work the other way around as well, i.e. that mental health issues can prevent people from moving through the stages) so I turned to a friend who is wise in the ways of psychology and mental health. “I would put it in the safety band,” he said, “but really, mental health is a precondition for all of the four levels above physiological.”

That makes sense to me, and it’s why I had turned to Google for answers that morning.Maslow's hierarchy of needs

What I had secretly been hoping for was for someone to suggest that mental health was a requirement for functioning properly in this world, that it fit squarely in one of the levels as a clear and understood need, as though I could then point to this theory and say, See? I have a right to good mental health! and someone, somewhere, would then be obligated to ensure I got it.

This, needless to say, is not how life works.

The idea of it being a precondition to the higher levels does fit squarely into the thought process that led me to Google, however.

Many of the things I would normally aspire to, like being involved in my community or deeply pondering or even pursuing answers to life’s big questions—the things that normally make me feel alive and grateful for this life—now exist mostly as a sidebar to the story of my life rather than being woven in as a fully developed theme.

looking up from inside a building courtyard surrounded by walls

I know I have important needs that are not getting met. I even know what some of them are (lately, a lack of sleep has been putting me firmly at the bottom level of the triangle).

Other needs, though, are less easy to defend as legitimate. The need for solitude and for quiet, the need for living space that isn’t constantly terrorized with the mess and energy of three other people, the need to be able to do my own thing sometimes without the burden of guilt caused by leaving more of the childcare to my spouse who is already home with them full time – where do those needs fit? And why does not getting them met cause me to spiral?

I don’t know how to reconcile these needs AND be a mother. I don’t want these needs to rear their ugly heads on hard parenting days and, while I’m down, kick me once more with the knowledge of how significantly (and negatively) I can affect my children’s place on the pyramid. But it feels like admitting these needs is taboo. Not okay.

I’m stuck. I’m struggling. And admitting these needs is scary, especially when there’s no clear path to getting them met.

In Transit

Right now I’m sitting in the observation deck at the Minneapolis airport, a peaceful room with only classical music as the backdrop for the view of the runways. I look out at the planes sitting at the gates, seemingly quiet with no hint as to the activity happening inside; those planes are all going somewhere, though I can’t tell where just by looking.

It feels like a metaphor for me and my own journey.

view from observation deck at MSP airport
I’ve felt a little lost lately, and it feels odd. I don’t know what to say about it. When I first started putting words to my journey three years ago I could see the path I was on, like a moving sidewalk in front of me. Whether I walked or not I was going somewhere, and I had some idea of where. I just had to wait for that moving sidewalk to spit me out the other side. And then it did and I thought, Oh. I’m here. 

“Here” turned out to be a different city. “Here” turned out to be a new job and a new baby and a new appreciation for the time during which the moving sidewalk went a little nuts, forcing me to hold on tightly to the handrail lest I get chewed up en route. And so it was, for a time – at peace, happy, accepting.

After a while, though, things started to feel a little off. I didn’t know why at first, and then I did.

And then I stopped writing because I don’t know what to make of it.

The question I’m wrestling with is, “Really?” I had a baby and got sick and didn’t get help soon enough and now I have to struggle with depression for the rest of my life? Really?!

Inside, I’m railing against this. I’m angry and frustrated and, sometimes, feeling defeated. I did all that work and learned all those lessons and got brave and shared my story to help others and I still have to deal with this shit?

Apparently, yes. Really.

I’m in this airport on a three-hour layover on my way to DC for a conference hosted by a company I know well. I used to fairly regularly fly to the US to speak at conferences hosted by this same company, and as I sit in this quiet room I look around for the me who used to do this, but she’s not here. Just this new me and some classical music.

I’ve often wondered lately if this is it. The last few months with the ups and downs of what I now know is an ongoing depression journey have felt a bit like a layover – interminable and frustrating, watching as everyone else takes off while I’m stuck looking out the window. I’ll depart eventually, but whether I go onwards or backwards I don’t yet know. I’m still in transit.