Things have been a quiet around here, in keeping with my (and our) now totally upended rhythms.
In my 20s I wrote artfully when I felt down, because it helped me process, and make sense of my world and find connection with readers and other writers.
In my 30s my writing evolved into a more documentary style — product reviews and trip reports — which felt safer at the time since I could write but avoid the deeper and more socially-risky topics I found myself navigating around the break-up of my marriage, my divorce, a new awareness of the importance of recovery as a trauma survivor, another (quite messy) round of career re-assessment, and a variety of
I’m struggling to find the right word, but can’t come up with one that describes the
spontaneous, exciting, adventurous, risky, potentially self-harmful, selfish, messy, hurtful liberty and lack of responsibility I lived with during that phase
and then I found myself working in a creative environment where I had no impulse to write. I was surrounded by creativity, I spent my time observing and noticing the outside world and theorizing insights about it, surrounded by talented and creative people and regularly felt like we were on a perfectly imperfect island of misfit toys, together.
So I stopped writing.
I embraced the literal perpetual motion of my life and poured everything I had into my work and in that perpetual motion I found a sense of peace. I still made messes but I was moving so constantly they were left in the wake so quickly I didn’t dwell on them. I still had down times, but the scenery constantly changed, and the novelty of that change kept me from spiraling. The constant motion was, in a way, therapeutic. It challenged my perfectionism (because perfection could not be the goal with the pace and ways we worked). I learned to decide what work required my best effort and what work could receive a “passing grade’s worth” of attention. I learned to apologize when I dropped balls and to refocus on “OK then, what can we do to fix it?”
(even typing this I can feel my blood pressure starting to increase — the adrenaline of those days kicking up in my body chemistry even as I reflect back on it)
I learned that the only constant is change, and became adapted to the idea of outlasting uncomfortable situations / relationships / environments through perpetual motion, rather than patiently addressing them because: path of least resistance, baby. Just keep moving. You win some you lose some. And right around the next corner is the project that will be a win, right? I just have to keep moving until I get to it.
By the summer of 2016 I no longer knew where home was.
And of course, I knew something was missing.
So I bought tickets to Malaysia, and Vietnam, and didn’t know where home would be when I returned from that trip, so I planned to just embrace it and
and then I met the person who would become my unlikely future husband — equally feral, so we made sense to each other — and his two little girls.
His girls are not feral. They are our tether. We can roam a little in between but (almost) every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday we provide “home” for his girls, so here we are. In Seattle. Playing house (our way) at least until the kids are grown.
And I was ready for a change in my career, to try to shift my focus from 100% career to having room in my life for a functioning marriage (and, frankly, because I was tired, and experiencing burnout, and ready to move on). So I changed jobs, then changed jobs again, and found myself in a strange and unfamiliar
doing work I could only find the good in because I was doing it with people I loved
and by the fall of 2018 I found myself experiencing a new-to-me sensation. I felt it as a nagging shift in my baseline: a perfect storm of the choices I made, the behaviors I exhibited, my genes, the traumas I’ve lived with, my chemistry, my hormones, everything. And when I started waking up in the morning — the brightest, most energetic, most restored part of my day — physically, mentally and emotionally literally unable to get out of bed, I didn’t have much doubt about what I was experiencing.
I figured it would be a short-lived thing … that I’d get some rest, and maybe quit drinking since my experience felt so — chemical. And maybe another job change was in order to reduce my stress levels and put myself somewhere I could work on healthier habits and that would do the trick. Right as rain.
Only it didn’t. Those changes moved me from the third circle of hell to the first but I was still … eh … in hell.
So that’s where I’ve been for the last two years. I’ve struggling with chemistry, with less-than-helpful habitual thoughts, with feelings of stress and anxiety and sadness, with hormones, with exhaustion, with burnout and physical and mental and emotional health consequences. I’ve struggled with the stress and emotions of continued adaptation to the consequences of marrying a (wonderful) dad (aka becoming a stepparent and adopting an ex-wife) and navigating issues with work fit and some stretches of more work-related stress than my system can cope with. I’ve wrestled with my purpose, and watched myself learn the same hard lessons over and over again because I’m not setting and enforcing boundaries. Because my perfectionism has exploded out of control. Because of patterns of thinking that don’t help me live my best: my inner critic, and the all-or-nothing thinking, the comparison, the catastrophizing.
And then, you know, there’s the whole … 2020 … thing
and the acute grief of the losses we’ve suffered close to home and the chronic grief of existing in *waves hands* all of this. I lost a dear colleague this week to cancer and I haven’t yet been able to stop long enough to grieve aside from a brief cry when we got the news that she’d taken a turn for the worse. I won’t have time to grieve until Friday.
My existence right now — as blessed as it is — is such that I have to plan my time for grief five days out.
And even so, of course, my life is full of gifts. So many I can’t begin to count. Friends, family, work I love, my dog, our motorcycles and motorcycle people, our house, our food budget, my curiosity and my tendency to see challenges like this as a puzzle; my access to health care (physical and mental) and the blessing of a spouse who, like me, prefers hard things and would be bored if our life together were easier.
But I’ve hesitated to write about much of my experience with these challenges because I am so lucky. And because I’m so far from an expert and have so little figured out. I’m not “cured.” So who am I to talk about this stuff, other than to provide a “yup, me too” for some wallowing and mutual support? And because of all of the blessings and good stuff in my life, who am I to write or talk about being … sad?
Lately though — very recently — things have taken a slight turn for the better.
All it took was
- being dragged nearly kicking and screaming into a sprint with a sports psychologist after realizing that my choices are to stop riding my motorcycle on the track, or work on my biggest obstacle: my own brain
- leading to starting to prioritize sleep again
- and an awareness of how unhelpful a lot of my thought patterns are and tools and practices to help shift them to be more helpful
- which made me aware of how exhausted and burned out I’d become physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually
- which lead me to learning about burnout, and the epiphany that burnout isn’t my personal failing — it’s also a sign that my needs are not being met
- which lead me to starting to ask myself: what do I need?
- and my inability to answer that question because I’m so wholly focused on other peoples’ needs and how I can serve and show up for others lead me to my meditation cushion
- which helped me start to notice things — my thoughts, my feelings / emotions, my stories, my deeply held beliefs, my physical sensations and the fact that I exist in a body that I’ve been neglecting
- and in turning my noticing inward, and starting to pay attention to myself and my needs, I realized that before I can do anything for anyone else I have to be well, myself. My physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health are a foundation for whatever else I am able to do: they are my gas tank, and for me to do anything for others, I have to ensure a certain amount of fuel is in that tank
- which lead to starting more of a routine of mindfulness practices, exercise / movement / strength, and sleep
- which required creating more time in my schedule for healthful activities so I dramatically reduced my news consumption and use of infinite scroll apps / social media
- and started placing and enforcing boundaries around my time and energy, and
- necessitated I start feeding myself more nutritiously — and more slowly. Less takeout, more home cooking; less inflammatory foods, more anti-inflammatory foods that help both my arthritis and my mood.
you are never alone
getting back into my acupuncture routine which helps both my pain levels and my emotional state, and a whole host of other books, resources and learnings. It leaves out the role that friends and family have played as they’ve loved me through long periods of absence or non-response — and the role that mentors and friends and colleagues from my long past have played and don’t even know it and mentors and friends and colleagues in my present have been graceful and loving with me as I navigate this new normal.
PS that “all it took was…” is a dark joke.
That (partial) list is ridiculous.
It’s been, and it is, a lot. And I don’t take any of it for granted. That I can amass this list of efforts reflects the many, many privileges and graces in my life. And it’s still been very hard. And if you are struggling with or suffering from feelings of depression, anxiety or burnout I don’t share that list as advice. I share this all to let you know that you are not alone and this is hard. Finding the way through is hard. And there is no map. But
you are not alone
and we can do this together.
I find myself at this point where, now, I’m starting to experience fleeting moments of joy again. Spontaneous, unmanufactured, bubbling up from within joy, here and there. In my delight at seeing a learning from a student at work, to the now-unfamiliar but quite pleasant feeling of spontaneous belly laughs when my husband says something LOL funny. Music brings me joy. More time reading and less time on social media increases my joy. Playing with Gibson brings me joy. And each moment of joy puts a little bit of fuel in my tank to take another step toward wellness — so as I notice those little moments of joy, and what triggers them, I’m finding myself fascinated by the Venn diagram that’s forming at the intersection of joy and my own needs.
So all of that has stopped the downward spiral for long enough for me to have the impulse
OK great, now, all power to the engines: perpetual motion — I’m healed! LET’S DO ALL THE THINGS!
but the gift of this time, in this place, at home, in this pandemic, is that the truth is I am not healed. I am headed in a “more well” direction, but I am not “well” yet. And as such, I realized last weekend while out on a beautiful trail on my bicycle which has become one of my most favorite earthly possessions (as well as a profound source of self-regulation and pedal-therapy)
that maybe depression, anxiety and burnout are like algebra.
When I was a kid, the hardest struggle I had in school was with algebra. I didn’t understand the lessons in class, the textbook was like reading gibberish. I asked my (patient, kind, descended-from-teachers) Dad for help, and even he couldn’t help. I felt lost, alone, and developed a theory:
Once you learn how to understand and do algebra, you forget what it’s like to not understand it, and therefore, lose the ability to teach it.
Now to be fair my dataset was small: perhaps there are excellent algebra teachers out there and I just have yet to meet her, him or them. But algebra was a painful struggle for me. And fun fact: I don’t remember any algebra; I only remember my own algebra-teaching theory.
So JUST in case my Theory of Algebra applies to depression, burnout, and anxiety, I’m going to start writing things down. And in case they help you, I’ll share some of them.
And as I had that thought a Macklemore song came on the random shuffle on my Spotify about his recovery and relapse, and about the pressures of being publicly sober. And the lyric that I heard differently yesterday than I have in the past was:
“If I can be an example of getting sober / Then I can be an example of starting over.”
So here (and maybe via my currently-defunct From Think to Do podcast if I can wrestle my inner podcasting critic into submission), for the next stretch my writing will be focused on moving from less-than-well to wellness and including starting over when I have setbacks. Not from depressed to “happy,” whatever that means. That’s too big a delta to try to cross. But more from where I have been — where many of us are right now — to neutral. To basic wellness. To a healthier baseline.
And because I know the feeling of reading stuff written around “wellness” by someone who is already well, I’m going to try writing as I (hopefully) work my way back to wellness. Because I’ve made some progress. But it’s new enough that I haven’t lost the visceral empathy for the dark days that I’ve recently traveled through.
These issues will revolve around several themes:
- The difference I’m seeing between joy and happiness (and the power of noticing micro-moments of joy instead of trying to “be happy”);
- the importance of a focus on general foundational health, wellness and wellbeing — being — as part of our recovery. As a curious patient, not a doctor, I’ll stay in my wheelhouse of sharing the learnings of a curious patient (who happens, also, to be a professional coach);
- and the role of healthy / helpful (and potentially some less healthy) habits and ways that we attempt to self-regulate (or don’t).
And despite the personal nature of this particular issue today, I’m still focused squarely on the role that our work lives and relationships play in healthy functioning.
So if you’re finding this issue a tad overly personal or reading about depression isn’t exactly your thing, stick around another week or two since the ongoing focus will have a tighter nexus to how these themes around well-being apply to our work lives. We’ll pay particular attention to a few habits I wrestle with that I see among my coaching clients as well:
- all-or-nothing thinking
- and a few other gremlins we’ll explore in future weeks.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for sticking with me through so many years and words. If any of the above sparks a reaction for you, I’d love to hear from you: whether it’s a question, an idea, a “you might find this read / listen to / watch [awesome resource] valuable” or “you should meet [amazing human].”
My hope is to make this a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m starting it, but this is only the start. Let’s see where we grow together.
And please, if you know someone else who might join us on this journey, use the big red Share button below to spread the love.
PS: a reminder via @selfmadecade on Instagram:
A post shared by Cade (They•Them) (@selfmadecade)
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