Just don’t say ‘if you just…’

Ever had a problem; been frustrated, angry or a little depressed; felt stuck? Ever had someone tell you, “Well, if you just did this ______, you’d be fine?”

I’ve had people say that to me. And it shuts me up. It doesn’t help me, but it stops me from talking to those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it to someone else; I hope I haven’t. I know I’ve thought it. But at least for a long while now, I’ve known better than to say it out loud. And I’ve tried to remind myself of the truth:

Any one of us can have problems and challenges that, compared with someone else, somewhere, can look tiny, easily surmountable. Sometimes it’s helpful to realize others have it worse. If we look at our lives with appreciation and gratitude for the good things we have, it can help. But usually, trying to tell ourselves logically (or have someone else “helpfully” do so) that our problems shouldn’t be such a big deal does squat for our feelings.

Here’s why: we are allowed to feel how we feel. We’re meant to feel. We’re meant to have feelings in response to life situations, whether they’re kind of everyday things or unusual things. We’re meant to have all kinds of feelings all over the spectrum of emotion. And those feelings include “bad” ones. We’re meant to just feel those feelings. And what usually happens is once we allow ourselves to feel them, really feel them, we can move on to other feelings about other life events.

The problem is when we stunt that natural process by telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling “so bad” or by having someone else tell us so. It stops us from moving through the feelings, talking or thinking through the ideas and emotions.

Same applies to things we could or should be doing or doing better, not just what we’re feeling. Likely we’re comparing something we’re just naturally not so good at with something that really is easy for someone else, so we feel inadequate. Or we could compare something that’s easy for us with something someone else finds more challenging. And we say those dreaded words: “Just do ___.”

We all not only have a complex mix of weaknesses, strengths, natural talents and acquired skills, but we are at different stages in life. Something that was hard for us 20 years ago might be much easier now. Ditto for those around us. And something that was easy for us a year ago might be harder now because our circumstances are more challenging in other areas or we’re struggling with events that are zapping our emotional strength.

For me, I’m finding that I am feeling a general sadness in one layer of myself/my life because my oldest daughter got married a few weeks ago and moved out. But I hate to say anything to anyone because it just “seems silly.” She lives only an hour’s drive away and we can talk and visit. Every other parent my age has already had children go off to college or serve as missionaries for our church, during which time they’re gone for a solid 18 or 24 months and only generally in contact via email or letter once a week. So I feel ridiculous saying out loud that I’m grieving a little over the “loss” in a way of my first, amazing child. But it does make me sad she’s not around all the time anymore. I miss the daily interaction and talks and jokes and hugs and smiles and everything that was our relationship while I was raising her. Things are changing, have changed. It’s real to me. But I don’t want to say anything to anyone else for fear of being compared, of essentially having my feelings belittled because their “loss” is bigger. Their child is across the country or across the world … or something “bigger.”

I also find that I feel down on myself because I have generally been doing well with eating healthy, cutting out sugar and a lot of carbs, this past 10 months or so. But the past month, since right before my daughter’s wedding and since, I just haven’t had it in me to “diet” properly. I’ve been eating junk, and lots of it, and I feel physically yucky. I feel bad because I had done so well. But I also realize that circumstances are different: I’m “recovering” from all the work and stress of preparing for my daughter’s wedding; my kids are now out of school for the summer and my “alone time” is a lot less; I’m adjusting to the change of our family dynamics, and I’m trying to “play catch-up” for some work and things that got put on hold with all I did for the wedding (because I am not just an awesome mom but very capable in planning things and organizing, and the wedding was awesome too). In short, it takes a lot of work for ME to eat well. And even though I feel yucky physically and would really like to feel better, I have to have the emotional and mental energy to focus on taking care of myself, truly properly. Others might say (and heaven knows plenty of “professionals” and bloggers say) “just do it.” Just stop eating sweets. Just stop emotional eating. Right now, for me, it’s akin to saying, “Just stop smoking. It’s so easy.” I’ve never smoked, but I have certainly heard how hard it is to stop.

I’m trying to allow myself to feel, to validate my own feelings. I’m talking to a few trusted friends who are kind enough to listen and validate as well. I’m also trying to allow myself not to take it too hard that I’ve gained a few pounds and am having a hard time with the junk food. Because I also know that I’ll be fine soon enough and will get back to where I should be. If I’m not there at this very moment, today, it’s OK. I will be soon. And that’ll be OK.

In short, I’m giving myself permission to feel, to not be “my best.” And I strive to do that for others. When they talk about feelings or issues they’re struggling with, I know that even if they sound “easy” for me, they’re not easy for them. I nod, I listen, I hug. I say, to them and to myself, “That is hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that. I love you and care about you.” And it’s true, and that’s really all it takes.

It takes a village to keep me (mostly) sane

Life can sometimes be stressful. Life can sometimes be sublime. It can also, on rarer occasions, be unrelenting in its attacks, throwing punches from the left, right, above and below and behind — any which way — to try to knock one out, making the simple adjective “stressful” woefully inadequate.

It’s been like that for me the past month or two: life has nearly knocked me out. I suppose that any of the somewhat small things that has happened to me could just be easily shaken off; it would be laughable to think that any would really make me want to walk a ledge. But the constant barrage has cumulatively made me angry, frustrated, exhausted, utterly drained and significantly less able to function.

As time has worn on and I’ve become worn out, but I’ve still had to just keep on moving forward because circumstances have simply not allowed me to stop moving, I have come to appreciate just how much I appreciate those who are willing and ready to step in and help lend a hand or just offer moral support as I try to put one foot in front of the other.

This past week I’ve been traveling, visiting family and friends and attending the college graduation of a nephew and his wife. I was already at my wits’ end before the traveling began, so being in the car for hours on end (with three of my four children all cooped up in the small space with me and my husband) and sleeping in different places and all the other things that go along with road trips have made me even more tired and nearly feeling rather out-of-body.

Even so, seeing these special people has been a little boost. We visited for a short time with my husband’s oldest niece, a sweet young woman who was just a kindergartener when we married 20 years ago. Seeing her reminded me just how much I am grateful for her influence in my husband’s life: when she was an infant, he had just returned from a two-year LDS mission and was starting to get back to school and work. But he had plenty of time to help baby-sit her while his sister worked. He loved the experience. By the time we had our first child, I was still adjusting to the whole concept of parenting and all that went with it. But he was just ready to go. He changed diapers and clipped tiny fingernails before I even did. He held her and rocked her in the middle of the night to try to get her to sleep. Even for me, spending time with her as a five- and six-year-old was so enjoyable that I began to look forward to having a small child of my own to do things with.

Spending time with my grown nephew was rewarding because he fits in so well with my little family: my children adore him and his wife, and we enjoy their company so much. It also gives me great hope for his generation of our family and makes me want to be the best influence I can be. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Sitting with my wonderful, dear friend who lives a day’s drive away is always a blessing. We get to have so little time together, but when we do, it’s renewing and enriching. I can be utterly myself with her; I never fear how I may come across. I can unburden myself and she will listen and support without judgment and with love and compassion. She can encourage me to have hope and to do better without making me feel chastised or preached to or lacking or bad about myself. She has a real gift. She’s like my friend soul mate, and I am absolutely blessed to have her.

Last, I’ve had a great deal of practical help from friends in our hometown while we’ve been gone. My oldest had to stay behind because of a school commitment, and our absence, combined with all the things that had already gone wrong before our trip, required us to ask for a lot of help for her with rides, a place to stay so she won’t be alone, and lots of other little things. A number of friends have gladly and willingly stepped in to take care of her and figure out how to solve little problems while we’re gone. Their help has eased my mind greatly on her account. My mind has been racing so much and has been so burned out by all I’ve had to keep track of and fix, etc., that I don’t know if I could have done what needed to be done for her had people not just volunteered and helped her without my even being involved.

Sure, it does take a village to raise a child (a child just thrives and learns the best with a mom and dad and extended family and friends and teachers and all kinds of other people in a community). But it also takes a village to keep an adult functioning. We’re really all interdependent. The better connected we are, the better we can keep on keepin’ on. I’m just incredibly blessed to have some good people in my life and incredibly grateful to them for helping me to survive the toughest periods of my life.

When I’m boiling over, just grab some oven mitts

I’ve just had another week (couple of weeks? month?) that ended horribly for me mentally. I ended up nearly incapacitated with hurt, anger, and hopelessness, curled up on my bed in a puddle of tears and surrounded by tissues that I’d flung wherever. And something that has struck me (yet again) is how difficult it is to explain this outcome and all the little triggers, inner and outer, that lead to it. I still am convinced that most people do not have the least idea how to deal with someone in this situation, or clearly on their way to it. This even (maybe especially?) includes family members, who have known me for years and have varying levels of knowledge about the struggles I face periodically, but who still just don’t KNOW what it’s like to be me at those moments or how to be WITH me.

I can’t blame them, most of the time, honestly. In their place, I might be unsure what to do or say (and how to handle any lightning bolts that come zinging my way out of the storm) and possibly just find it easier (safer?) to wait until that storm was over, the clouds all blown away, until I came near again. But when it comes down to it, in my own place, I can’t help at those times but feel angry and resentful that few people do know how to approach, how to offer support. And if family members, who are supposed to love me and be there for me, just as I’ve always tried to do the same for them, cannot be there for me, what does that say about them, or even about me? Those moments leave me mostly alone, feeling abandoned. I mentioned on Facebook, to friends, that that medium is a dicey place for trying to reach out for true support. How in the world do we use the one medium that keeps us in touch most readily to really connect, to really help each other, when it generally is limited to use as a place for sharing mundane details of day-to-day life, news of our kids’ accomplishments, and photos that show us in vacation spots or in our best moments? I do appreciate that when I put out that little message, some friends offered their support and care, just saying they were thinking about me. That did mean something. A lot, really.

But in real life, how in the world do I get support from those whom I need when I’m giving off a really bad, hopeless, negative, angry, and, yeah, even “crazy,” vibe? Most normal people would run away, far and fast. This is been one of my biggest concerns over the years as I’ve struggled with this beast of mental illness. I’m a pretty “normal” person most of the time, and people say they find me to be upbeat, happy, blessed with a great smile. I care and really put myself out there to help others. I do spend a lot of my time and energies trying to help those around me. But sometimes life just gets to me or I end up spending too much of my energies on others and then run dry in my own well.

boiling waterIt’s kind of like I’m boiling water on the stove, and as long as there’s still water in the pot, even if it’s only a half-inch of water, everything’s fine. But the second that water boils off, the pan is in big trouble. And despite my best efforts to balance my life (ha!) over the years, it’s still a really tricky act to pull off successfully, and I burn out sometimes. The pan bursts into flames as soon as it gets dry, and I need to be removed from the burner, cooled down, and filled back up again with water. Those are the times I need loving friends and family who, armed with oven mitts, are willing to help me cool off and refill my reserves. I sit on the stove sometimes and whistle like crazy, wondering where my mitted friends are, because it’ll take a lot longer to get myself filled up on my own merits. If left for too long, I stay hot and just get angry.

I know it’s hard to come near me at those times. I realize that. But I know I’m worth the effort. I know that I am a good, genuinely caring person who uses my talents and resources to be helpful to others. I’m fun, I’m generally kind, I’m pretty handy to have around in a lot of ways. So I give. Even just in a balance-sheet kind of way, I’m worth the investment. But during all those good moments, I still fear that those I care about aren’t taking the time to find out more about the few really bad, challenging moments that are my reality just as much as they are the good ones. I want my friends and family to want to really get to know me, to understand me a little better, so when the storms come, they’re ready for a little lightning. Because when the sun comes back out again, it will warm them even more radiantly.

All in all, this is probably true for every single one of us, whether we have mental illness or not. We need people in our lives who really get to know the whole us so they’re ready for the times we’re not our best selves. But it’s just magnified a lot more with mental illness, and society still places a stigma on it, where many people misunderstand and avoid in their ignorance. I wish we could all do better to stop this from happening. I would be happy to keep all this to myself. I’m not proud of who I am in my dark times. But that’s my reality, one I’m trying to mitigate and improve, bit by bit. So in the interest of increasing awareness and helping others, just by being open and sharing information, here I am, baring my soul. And thanks, from the bottom of my hot saucepan, to those dear friends who have braved the storms and held me until they’ve cleared. The world is brighter in so many ways because of you. Thank you, my dear ones.

My starfish friends

Thanks to my girls, I’m pretty familiar with the tween movie “Aquamarine,” about a teen mermaid who gets some time out of the water. In one scene, she introduces her new girlfriends on land to the earrings she wears, small starfish that “compliment her.” And no, she doesn’t mean “complement her.” She says, “They literally give me compliments. They talk to me. Starfish are notorious suck-ups. They love to give me compliments.” She picks out a few great specimens from the sea and proceeds to attach them to her earlobes and those of her friends. The starfish latch on and very pleasingly spout many sweet sayings into the girls’ ears. “Aquamarine is soooo lovely. She is awesome. And she is so smart, yes, like tuna.”

I’ve often thought it would be perfectly wonderful to have my own set of starfish earrings. Every woman, especially busy, harried mothers, needs that kind of encouragement on a very regular basis. Some men are good at being starfish for their wives or girlfriends; many are not. This doesn’t mean that women don’t need to hear good things to buoy them up through their busy days.

Me, I like to hear that I’m still pretty, though I’m older and thicker around the waist. I like to hear that I’m smart and talented and capable. I especially need to hear that I’m doing OK, that my efforts for my family and my community and my own interests aren’t unappreciated or just going to waste. I want to know that I’m needed, that what I do matters, that my choices have been good ones, even though sometimes the outcomes haven’t been what I’d anticipated. I need those encouraging words like … well, like a fish needs water.

I have some friends who are particularly great starfish. They give me that encouragement, those sincere words of appreciation and caring that keep me going. I just wish that I could carry those wonderful friends around with me in my pocket or attached to my earlobes! But I’ll take what I can get. Their love and support keep me breathing, keep me moving on, keep me strong enough, just barely, to persevere through busy and frustrating days and weeks. I salute you, my dear starfish. You are my lifeblood. I hope I can be as useful and loving a starfish to you as you have been to me.