Advent Reflections: Hope

Christmas decorations caught my eye earlier than usual this year–not literally, but the discussion of them blew through social media like a tornado through a haystack. Questions abounded: Is November 1 too early to decorate? Are people who think so nothing more than mean people that hate happiness? Do people who don’t think so deserve to get sick of the lights and glitter by the first week of December? And what about Thanksgiving? Are we just going to forget a day of turkey and football?!

I have always been solidly in the camp of withholding Christmas decor until at least Black Friday. I like to enjoy each holiday as it comes. But what I noticed this year was that, over and over, people arguing for early Christmas decorations came back to one theme: It makes me happy to decorate. I need to be happy.

Oh my God, I realized, that’s it, that’s exactly it. It’s not a question of when is “too soon” to decorate; the problem is that so many people are using Christmas and its baubles to numb pain they may not even realize they have. “The world sucks! Let’s put up tinsel!”

But this isn’t a solution to pain. It’s narcotization. It’s leaning on something external to soothe an internal misery, and I don’t think the vast majority of people realize they’re doing it, as they stand in the check-out line at Hobby Lobby, their carts overflowing with green branches and red ribbons yet their faces sour and grim. The world sucks. But is a red bow going to fix that? Maybe for a minute. Maybe for a month. But not forever.

Enter Advent, an oft-forgotten season of the church year that many Christians don’t even know exists. I know I didn’t for a long time. I knew the word, and I had heard of Advent calendars as a means to count down to the big day. But Advent the season? My low-church Protestant background didn’t account for that, not with Christmas trees going up the day after Thanksgiving and carols jumping in the song lineup for the following Sunday.

It’s hard for me to explain Advent in a nutshell. If I tried, it would go something like “It’s a season to prepare our hearts for Christ’s arrival, both as the baby in Bethlehem and as the King of Kings on the last day.” It’s not an incorrect summary, but it’s so weak compared to what Advent is and what Advent does. (My point in this post, however, is not to get into the liturgical technicalities of Advent. You can check out resources on that here and here, and some resources for marking the season here.)

Advent is a longing, waiting time. It is a time to beg God “How long will you delay?” It is a time to remember that he, in the person of Jesus Christ, has already touched our world and will return one day to fix everything. Advent holds the wailing and grief of our shattered world in one hand and the brilliant hope of “thy kingdom come” in the other. Already and not yet.

Advent forces us to slow down, to look our pain in the eyes, to see it and name it. No longer is our grief and suffering veiled behind smooth jazz renditions of carols at the craft store. There are no glittering lights in Advent to distract us from what hurts. There is no narcotization in Advent.

But there is hope.

The first candle of the Advent wreath is, fittingly, the Hope candle. We light this candle, knowing our brokenness, knowing the agony of human existence, and also knowing that we are seen by the One who entered this world once before to be just like us, to come screaming into the world he was meant to save, the Lord of Light dressed as the illegitimate son of a teenager and her carpenter fiancé. The hope of Advent forces us to look at Christ and see that he has saved the world through his death and resurrection and is currently saving the world through his Spirit, left behind to be our Comforter until Christ returns to reign on Earth.

“That’s great and all,” you say, “but what does that mean for me right now?”

It means it won’t always be like this. It won’t always hurt. The tears we cry now will be dried up in the kingdom to come, soothed forever. Through Christ, we have hope that our pains and struggles, while yeah, they suck, will not stay with us forever. Some of them will be relieved here on Earth. Others, we have to wait, and wait, and wait, yet with the promise of complete redemption. We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved. Already and not yet.

Advent forces us to embrace the tension of this. It asks us to acknowledge the bitterness in ourselves and in our world, but it asks us not to wallow in our misery but to put it in the hands of Christ, to say, “This hurts, this sucks, please fix this.” And the hope of Advent gathers us up warmly as we hear Christ reply, “I will.” Then we, bursting with this hope, go out among our neighbors to share hope and grace where we can, how we can–with a smile, a dollar, a meal.

Advent is not a season for rejoicing, and yet it is. It’s for lamenting the hurt of existing while also looking forward to a day when all is made right. It’s not for singing Christmas carols, but it is for singing songs of waiting, of longing, of hopeful anticipation of our current and final redemptions.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, the words go.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Stephanie, too.

Advent takes this refrain and pleads it, over and over, until we are screaming it, replacing “captive Israel” with whatever we need to be ransomed. We do. I do. And Christ is faithful to do so. This is our hope, the hope of Advent.

I pray you sit with this during a season when the rest of the world tries to hide pain behind shopping, feasting, and decorating. I pray we are all able to look at a world that lives in the painful tension of Advent all year long and say, “Christ is hope. Let me show you him.”

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 2019)

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

How Not to Suck at Being a Human

I’ve dealt with a lot of toxic people in my life, as I’m sure most of us have. Please note that when I say “toxic,” I don’t mean people that have disagreed with me or who I just don’t like. “Toxic” here refers to people who, among other things, have consistently negative personalities, don’t correct their mistakes and behavior even when repeatedly called on it, and/or give no thought to whether their actions impact people they claim to care about. There are other things wrapped up in the word toxic, but those are the ones that come to mind right now. Here are some other things that define toxic people:

  • DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
  • Gaslighting
  • FOG (Fear, Obligation, Guilt – emotions you feel when around this person)
  • Manipulation, including guilt trips
  • “You never/you always” statements
  • The sense that you have to walk on eggshells around them
  • Feeling any lack of safety for yourself or people you love

And many more. Let’s be real, you probably know a toxic person when you see one.

The biggest challenge about toxic people is they don’t realize they’re toxic. (Can I say toxic any more? It’s becoming a non-word.) They typically have zero self-awareness of how awful their behavior is. In my experience, these sorts of people think themselves the victim in every situation they meet. It’s not them; it’s you. It’s like a parent who thinks their darling child can do no wrong, except the parent and the child are the same unhealthy person.

By now, you’re definitely thinking of a toxic person you know. You might be wondering now how to avoid becoming one of these people. Well, I’m no shimmering angel of perfection, but I do have some thoughts on the subject, having seen and experienced several toxic people over the years.

Step 1: Develop Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a difficult and often painful skill to learn, because it involves looking at yourself objectively and learning to recognize negative (and positive!) things you do. According to this article at DevelopGoodHabits.com, “[Self-awareness] typically means having a deep understanding of your values, strengths, weaknesses, habits […] While you accept your faults, you […] focus on different strategies for self-improvement.”

Pop quiz! Which occurs first, a thought or a feeling/emotion?

Answer: the thought.

Is that surprising? What you think (and think about) informs how you feel. Most of our thoughts are unconscious, flitting by so quickly that we don’t even see they’re there until we’re spiraling out of emotional control. Self-awareness is the process of slowing down, studying your thoughts, and developing the ability to challenge and correct the negative ones.

How do you develop self-awareness? This article is a great launchpad.

Step 2: Challenge and Correct

This is a phrase my own therapist taught me, which I have now blatantly stolen and will pass onto you as wisdom. As you develop self-awareness and learn to “slow down” your thoughts, you become able to stop negativity/toxicity in its tracks and redirect it. An example from my personal life:

My parents recently moved out of my home (yay!), but while they lived with me, my mom was buying groceries and keeping the fridge full. After they moved out, I opened the fridge and saw it was mostly empty.

Immediate thought: “Aw man, there’s no food.”
Second thought: “No, challenge and correct!”
Third thought: “This is a great opportunity to go to the store and buy things I like to eat.”

As you can see, you challenge the initial thought by stopping it. Say no aloud if it helps. Then you can correct the thought. This prevents your brain from going down a miserable rabbit hole.

Step 3: Ask for Honest Feedback

It is helpful to have a third party give you insight into your personality. It can also be terrifying to be that vulnerable with people, but vulnerability and open discussion is so important for personal growth.

Find someone you trust and ask them to objectively point out areas for your personal growth. When they tell you, listen without rebuttals. This is incredibly crucial. You may feel attacked or called out, but you have to shut up and listen. Push down those defensive feelings and note what the other person is saying. Ask the other person for clarifying examples of your behavior if you’re not sure what they mean. And lastly, make sure to spend adequate time in reflection, asking questions such as, “Did this person have a point? What can I learn/how can I grow from this?” Whatever you feel about their feedback, note those feelings and explore where they come from and why you feel that way. Be sure to sincerely thank them for taking the time to help you grow.

We all have ways to grow, me included. I’m not sharing these things as some guru on a mountaintop but as someone who has had to work on all this. I’m sharing what I have learned from in the hopes of it helping someone else.

Step 4: Make Necessary Changes

Just like it says on the tin: fix what needs fixing. For example, I have a tendency to immediately jump in with advice whenever a friend expresses a problem to me. Instead, what I need to do (and have started trying to do) is ask some variation of “Do you need me to get involved or do you need me to just listen?” Or I might respond in a way that would be helpful for me but not necessarily for them; instead, I should be responding in ways helpful to them.

This is a short section because I can’t tell you what changes you should consider making unless I’ve seen a problem. That will be up to you and the people you’re working with for your growth. However, you MUST become comfortable with recognizing you have flaws. You MUST acclimate to seeing and owning up to your own faults and mistakes. You will immediately stunt your growth if you deny or reject ever wronging someone else, which leads us to…

Step 5: Get Over Yourself

Ultimately, not being a toxic person comes down to not thinking so much of yourself that no one else matters. Your ego is not that important. Mine isn’t either. Like I said earlier, shut up and listen. You may not have any issues to work on (but I kinda doubt it; after all, you’re human). But if someone comes to you with a grievance regarding something you did or said, realize they may have a point. You’re not perfect. Apologize for hurting them with your behavior (yes, even if you didn’t intend to hurt them; apologies only cost a little of your ego, so just do it).

I cannot emphasize enough how much you’re hurting yourself and the people around you if you behave like nothing is ever your fault, as if you’re always the victim, as if everyone around you is out to get you. If you’re hearing the same thing from multiple sources, there is probably something to that, and it’s your responsibility to practice self-awareness and deep introspection to sort out true and helpful critique versus somebody just being spiteful. Once you become accustomed to doing that, it’s really easy to separate the hateful statements from the true ones. It’s just that sometimes the true statements are scary. Don’t take things so personally. Grow from it.

Step 6: Never Stop Growing

Obviously, there are so many resources on personal growth and development out there. Find good ones that work for you as you make sure you’re not toxic. Expose yourself to different theories of personal growth as well; read widely and research deeply. Find the core “you” and always be willing to grow.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got for how not to suck as a person. It’s all things I’ve learned in my own journey; I didn’t make anything up and I don’t claim to have done so. I hope you find something helpful in it.

Never stop improving!

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

You Gotta Do the Work

If you’re familiar at all with this blog or with me as a person, then you know two things about me: one, I have struggled with mental health issues since at least 2008, and two, I am passionate about recovery from those issues. Not just my issues; everybody’s issues. All the issues.

Here’s the deal. Mental illness is ultimately the same as a physical illness. Whether acute or chronic, all illnesses can be treated and, if not outright cured, then managed, so that the person with the illness can live a healthy life. An odd thing I’ve noticed about the discussion about mental illness, however, is we talk about it and treat it as if it’s the end, as if having depression or bipolar or whatever else means that you will never again have a healthy life.

As if having a mental illness suddenly means you are excused from taking care of yourself. Or making good choices. Or taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences, good or bad.

All of this is bullshit.

I have a mental illness. I have a psychiatric doctor’s diagnosis of depression and anxiety. Even if I didn’t have that official diagnosis, I would still have depression, and I’d probably be able to self-diagnose it. But here are two things that a mental illness diagnosis does not do:

  1. It does not mean that I am weak, fragile, incapable of taking care of myself, or excluded from being happy and living my best life.
  2. It does not mean that I have no control over my actions, that I am absolved from the consequences of my choices, or that I am a victim of my circumstances.

In the first paragraph, I said I am passionate about recovery from mental illness. Now’s the point where I qualify that and say that I am passionate about active recovery. Let’s get some definitions in here. What do I mean when I say “active recovery from mental illness”?

Recovery: Moving from a place of being controlled and defined by your illness to a place where you choose to make healthy decisions to improve your life. Whether mental illness or substance abuse, the concept of recovery involves taking charge of your life and choosing to improve and grow. Which brings us to…

Active: YOU GOTTA DO THE WORK. To recover from any illness, you can’t just sit back and hope it goes away. People suffering from cancer go to their doctor appointments and receive medicine and intensive treatments. People suffering from mental illness are supposed to do the same. While rest is important in any healing period, active recovery is not passive in that it doesn’t hope someone else does the hard stuff for you.

Active recovery from mental illness doesn’t mean you go to a therapist once every couple months and expect to see results in one session.

It doesn’t mean you have a bad day, a lousy depression spiral, and throw up your hands in defeat.

It doesn’t mean you shrug and say “That’s just who I am.”

It doesn’t mean you never trip up or have bad days or get hung up on something you used to get hung up on, but it does mean you try.

It means you put in the sweat equity in your own health and wellbeing.

You do not foist it onto someone else.

You do not force your friends/support network to serve as your therapist, your crisis counselor, or your suicide hotline when there are professionals available, ready to help you.

You have to get to a place where you are tired of falling back into old patterns and habits and you are ready to get better.

You. Do. The. Work.

Y’all, active recovery is hard. It’s work. And there are so many days when I wonder if it’s worth it. I mean, hey, every counseling session is $65. Maybe I should save that money and just cancel this week. Nope. No. Absolutely not. I put in the work, I do the hard things and have the difficult conversations, I struggle against my own brain at times, because I know that I have more to give to the world than my bad days and my spirals.

“But I don’t have anything to offer the world,” you say. To which I say, you’re wrong.

If you have a friend, you can offer your love and support. If you have a pet, same deal. If you have a favorite houseplant, same deal. Each of us has the capacity to contribute to the world, even if it’s something as small and seemingly insignificant as feeding a pet goldfish every day.

Live for your goldfish. Get better for your goldfish.

Put in the work to get to recovery.

I will always be in recovery. For the rest of my life, which I hope is long and sweet, I will be working on myself. When I finish this round of therapy, I do not expect it to be the last time I ever see a counselor. I don’t anticipate never taking medication again, but I hope I don’t. But even though recovery is difficult and takes so much time and energy, I will not stop.

God did not make me to get lost in my struggles. I have learned so much about grace and suffering through this. I have also learned that, by his grace, I can get better.

Depression is not who I am. I am not excused from the consequences of my actions, any of my actions. I still have a responsibility, both to myself and to God, to make good choices and to put in the work of active recovery. I mean, I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life. Why would I let the shadow monster have that kind of power over me?

You gotta do the work. But trust me, it’s worth it.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

Grownups, Take Yourselves to Disney

The first week of October, I went to Walt Disney World with my friends Kristen and Rachel. We had been planning this trip for the better part of months. I, much to my own amazement, paid for the trip entirely with cash, no credit cards at all. (Not the point of this post, but I wanted to brag.)

Going into this trip, I knew there were two main things I could not miss: I had to see the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios, and I had to meet some characters, especially Belle, my favorite princess of all time. I knew I was going to have fun, but what I didn’t expect was that I would spend so much of the trip engaged with and even healing my inner child.

“Inner child?” you ask. “Isn’t that just some New Age pop psychology mumbo-jumbo?”

You know, you’d think so. I thought so. I thought so right up until I met my inner child. In the little bit of reading I’ve done on the subject, it sounds like one method of recovering from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is to connect with your inner child and give him or her what is lacking and needed.

I’ve got some ACEs. I think more people do than don’t these days. I spent the bulk of my prime developmental years socially isolated. I did not have real, in-person, face-to-face friends from ages 11 to 19. (I made a single friend starting around age 15, but I met her online and it was another year or two before I had the joy of meeting her in person.) I have always been pretty introverted, but there’s a difference between introversion and isolation, and that difference is not good. I’m pretty sure that that’s part of why I developed depression and got stuck in my own head in emotional spirals. But during this period of my life, to medicate my loneliness, I turned to fiction: writing it, reading it, studying it.

I’ve also always loved Disney movies. I grew up with them, I wore out my VHS tapes of them. Beauty and the Beast was my favorite as a kid, but it remained my favorite as I grew up and began to see myself in Belle: socially isolated, taking solace in books, wanting something else for herself. I adore(d) her. I watched that movie to death. I requested the special edition Blu-ray for my 16th or 17th birthday, and it was the best gift ever.

Fast forward again to this trip. We had decided early on that we were going to Disneybound for our trip, so I picked Belle for Epcot day, since you can find her in France in the World Showcase (obviously). We had also agreed early in the planning stages that we would use the trip to do everything we had ever wanted as kids, including meeting our favorite princesses. Whenever people ask me what I want to do, I get into a mode of “Oh, whatever you want is fine, I don’t want to be a bother.” It’s not humility that drives that. I think it’s fear. I’m working on it. Luckily, when I pulled that (“We don’t have to find Belle if it’s gonna be a problem”), Rachel called me on it and insisted that, no, we would.

On Epcot day, we met up with our friends Ben and Lauren who live in Orlando and are Disney cast members. Late in the afternoon, we realized we were running out of time for character meet-and-greets. Ben held our place in line for Belle while Lauren ran to see if Mary Poppins was available in the UK. She wasn’t, so we all met back up at the Belle line. By that point I was nervous and shy, and my inner child was poking her head out.

Let me pause and say that I can legitimately feel and am aware of Little Steph’s appearance. I noticed myself looking around at the park with wider eyes, more wonder, and a higher-pitched voice. I cannot explain why this happened, but it did. It’s not multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia, because it is literally just a younger version of myself, stuck in my psyche, looking for something.

So standing there in line, I felt it happening. I felt myself moving a little more childlike, swishing my skirt and fidgeting. I looked toward the end of the line where Belle was, eyes big, and I kept softly squeaking “You guys, you guys.”

“We’ve got to get a picture of just you and her,” Rachel said.

“But it’s not a big deal if we don’t,” I said shyly. (I get shy when I meet famous people. Like, zoop, there I go, into my turtle shell, bye.)

Then we got there. Lauren went with us, and the four of us girls met Belle and chatted, and I legitimately could not tell you a thing she told us, except that as we gathered around for our group picture, she said she loved my rose earrings. I was so very shy that all I wanted was to scurry away and hide, because I could feel myself choking up. The experience of meeting my favorite princess was really amazing and overwhelming for Little Steph.

Then, at the end of our meet-and-greet, as we started moving away, Rachel said, so softly and sweetly, the most loving tone, “Wait, can we get a picture of the two Belles together?”

Oh geez, man. I thought I was going to fall apart right there. Belle and the photographer agreed, and I shifted back into place. In those pictures, you can see my face is so, so red, both from sunburn and from blushing profusely–from trying not to cry. We took the picture, I started to move away, and the next thing I knew, Belle had reached out and enveloped me in a massive hug.

I am tearing up just writing this.

In that moment, something deep in the inner child portion of my psyche broke open, and so many unrealized childhood dreams all came rushing out at once. I almost burst into tears on her shoulder. I felt the tears welling–you know, that terrible choking feeling you get where you can’t breathe because if you do, you’ll cry.

I don’t know if I actually finished the hug and moved away before bursting into tears. Good tears, of course, but it was such a rush of emotion that I needed a few moments to collect myself. I stood on the bridge from France to the UK, the wind whipping my hair and my dress, with my friends huddling around and comforting me, and all I really remember was Lauren exclaiming “This is why I love my job!” And I remember crying too hard to speak and then, in a very small voice, saying “You guys, I met Belle, I met Belle.”

Whatever dam broke inside me in that moment needed to break. Five-year-old me needed it. Twenty-seven-year-old me needed it. I couldn’t put words on it until later that night when, alone in the shower, I realized that out of that moment, I felt healed. I might not have felt that way if I had not (cautiously at first) allowed my inner child to emerge, to see and feel and experience the trip for herself. I would not have had this experience if I had not gone with friends who give me the loving space to be emotionally vulnerable. I probably would not have had this experience if I had gone to Disney as a child.

Grownups, take yourselves to Disney. It doesn’t have to be a Disney park specifically, but it does have to be a place or an experience that your childhood self would have died for, something you never got growing up. As an adult, you now have the power to give yourself what you missed out on, and you now (hopefully!) have the maturity to meet those needs responsibly, safely, and healthfully. You are in sole command of your time and your finances; the ability to reach out to your inner child and say “Hey, let me give you this thing you’re missing” is an incredibly beautiful gift.

I recognize that some people might not be comfortable at first with the concept of an inner child. That’s okay. I think a lot of people do have one, though, because there is something unresolved from childhood left lingering in the shadows. I see how immensely healing it is to find that inner child. Whenever Little Steph was “out,” I made sure to take time to stop and provide affirmations: you are safe, you are loved, you have friends who care about you, you matter, doing what you want to do is not a burden, we are all having fun together. What resulted was that I was able to more fully enjoy the magic of the trip–all of me, my whole self–despite the sunburn and the heat and the sore feet. I was able to have a more fulfilling vacation because my whole self was involved.

I also recognize this that I might not have been able to get to such a good place with myself without therapy. I’ve been seeing a counselor probably since March, and that has done wonders for changing how I talk to and about myself. Before therapy, I would never have been able to stop and affirm myself. I would never have been free to embrace my inner child and give her this beautiful experience. If you can, please, please seek out a qualified therapist. There is a dearth of available mental healthcare in this country, but you owe it to yourself to try.

And while you’re at it, find your Disney and go there. Your little you will thank you.

Reflections on Hope | The First Sunday of Advent

[I posted this on Facebook this evening, so I figured I would post it here, too.]

I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression and moderate anxiety in October 2012, after a roommate encouraged me to talk to one of the counselors at Union. There. I said it. Six years I have struggled with this plague, this disease, in which my own brain frequently tries to sabotage me because the chemicals that support healthy, normal neurological functioning just don’t have the quantity to be… normal.

I hate the word “neurotypical.” It reminds me that there is a level of mental functioning out there that I cannot obtain but only ever come close to. At least I can come close, thanks to self-care, the cognitive techniques I learned in therapy, and, yes, medication. But that nirvana labeled “neurotypical” feels so very far away at times, as if even on my best day I’m still scrabbling through the muck of existence while people with properly functioning brain chemicals float on clouds and drink champagne. I don’t know what that’s like.

Human existence in general is a lot like this sometimes. Each of us feels lost in the mire while we look around and see others making it. Even if we know, cognitively, that everyone else is as screwed up as we are, it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to see people’s photos on Instagram and think about them screaming at their kids or worrying over finances or crying in the parking lot before entering their office, or, or, or. But maybe we are all just one #blessed away from falling into complete disarray. Our normal is not normal at all. It’s dysfunctional and painful and exhausting. We are weary with no rest in sight. I do not know what “neurotypical” feels like. The rest of us have no idea what real “normal” feels like.

This is the world that Christ came into–a world of bitterness and tired humans, a world so broken that even our bodies and brains don’t work as they should. This is the point of the first week of Advent, when we light the Hope candle in our churches and homes. We light this candle, remembering that it was this same chaos and darkness–a different era, but the same fears and broken people–that welcomed Christ. We hope because as he came the first time to remind us of God’s presence, he will come a second time someday to heal the brokenness once and for all.

He could have done it already. That’s within his power. He could have waved his hand and installed utopia two millennia ago. He could have touched my brain this morning and permanently cleared out the cobwebs and the low serotonin levels. But he hasn’t yet, and I think it’s so we can learn how to hope.

Hope is not some fluffy, feel-good sentiment that makes us deliriously bounce through life, unaware of pain. Hope is a very gritty, persistent thing, something we must decide to grasp. Hope is what we feel when we look into the shadows of our angry world–or our own lives and our own pain–and call out, “The light is coming, just hold on.” Hope is the knowledge that it will not always be like this because the God who came to Earth in the tiny infant body of the Christ Child is going to fix it. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow, or next week, or a thousand years from now–but it will be someday.

Hope is the shaking arm clinging to the cliff edge screaming hold on, hold on, help is coming. It won’t always be like this. There will come a day when I am healed, when I no longer struggle with getting out of bed, when I don’t seclude myself from people because I just can’t bear seeing anyone, when I no longer take a pill before bed that tries to help my brain chemicals do the things they’re meant to do. Hope is knowing that, one day, I will run to the arms of my Savior, and he will wipe away the last tears of earthly existence and welcome me to true normalcy.

This is hope, the heart and point of Advent. We hold on because the promise of healing is stronger than the pain that crushes us in its vise-grip. I hold on for the restored mind and body that awaits me in the New Heaven and New Earth that Revelation promises. I hold on because Christ, my hope, holds me.

Just Say “Thank You”

This weekend, I had a revelation. It is one that I’ve had before, but I almost always forget it. It is the realization that I tend to apologize for and rationalize even the simplest behaviors. Let me set the scene.

On Saturday, my friend Rachel and I went out yard saleing together. I didn’t have any cash, but she told me that she’d spot me whatever I needed if I found something I had to have. I ended up picking up $6 worth of things at various sales, and we agreed this was fine. At one sale, I bought a pair of popular video games with the intent to go trade them in for store credit at the local game/tabletop store. I didn’t bother to check the cases, so it wasn’t until we got to the store that I found out one of the games was just an empty case–no disc. I felt horribly guilty, but we decided not to go back and harangue the yard sale owners over a $2 purchase because driving all that distance felt pointless. But I still felt terribly guilty for wasting her $2–well, $4 because the store wouldn’t take the other disc due to damage. And it was like I couldn’t shut up; I kept promising her I’d pay her the $6, and that I was sorry I hadn’t checked the games first, and that I was sorry for the trouble, but I would pay her back–

After a few minutes of my nervous chatter, Rachel just said, “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll just call it even. You don’t owe me.” Well, then I felt more guilty and kept talking even more because I felt so bad that I wasn’t paying her back, and, and, and. Then we realized I’d forgotten to bring her roommate’s purse with me (she’d left it at my house), and I was apologizing for that

Eventually I sighed and said, “I realize all I do is apologize for and rationalize what I do.” To which Rachel, a counselor in training, replied, “Try saying thank you instead. So instead of ‘I’m sorry I forgot your purse,’ you’d say ‘Thank you for understanding. Let’s go get it together.'”

I know I should do this, truly. It’s a difficult switch to make. It’s a cognitive restructuring that butts heads with everything I’m used to. (Where else but this blog can you see “cognitive restructuring” and “butt heads” in the same sentence?) As I pondered on this, though, I became less and less interested in “Oh, I need to do this.” Instead, I became more interested in why I don’t–why it’s so difficult for me.

It all goes back to my parents. I, along with my sister, was raised in a very shame-based environment. (Ask my sister about it; she can talk about this for days.) I talked about it some in my last post. Missteps weren’t exactly turned into teaching moments, unless the lesson was “You are a bad child.” Not “The thing you did was bad,” but “You are bad.”

Fast forward to now. I am plagued by a constant sense of offending everyone with everything I do. Surely people are annoyed by me. Surely they’re upset by my every minor, minute move. Surely no one would want to be around me because I’m The Worst. Surely I am obnoxious and insufferable. Surely–

Anxiety is a bitch. In the way that I visualize depression as a hulking shadow monster, I visualize anxiety as a pretentious, snobby old woman named Annette. (Annette, anxiety, alliteration.) Annette likes to stand behind me and criticize everything I do. “You’re not going to wear that top, are you? Fat women don’t wear horizontal stripes, dear.” “Oh, dear, you’ve upset the car behind you by going only five over. They’ll be angry now.” “You’re far too clingy with your friends. That’s obnoxious behavior, darling.”

She’s especially mean when it comes to my friends. “I can’t possibly imagine why anyone would want you. You’re loud and silly and you complain far too much about, well, everything. And you certainly overshare about your mental health. No one wants to hear that. You should just stay home alone.”

Sometimes I do. Sometimes Annette looms over me and becomes 100 feet tall and steps on me until I’m squished beneath her penny loafer, like an ill-fated ant. Other times I have the strength to ignore her or, even better, laugh her out of my face. But she’s just so mean when it comes to having friendships. My friends compliment me or express their affection, and I deny it: “Aw, don’t lie.” They tell me I’m the best (for whatever reason), and I scoff and don’t believe them. They tell me they love me, and I snort, “I don’t know how.”

Because somewhere, deep down, there’s a voice in my head–my mother, my anxiety, whatever–telling me I am not worth loving. I am flawed. I am broken and not worth the effort to repair. I am bad.

None of this is true. Cognitively, I know this. The Gospel makes this untrue. My mere existence as a human, created in the image of the Triune God, makes these thoughts false. It’s just a fight to remember that. It’s such a fight.

I hate Annette so much.

But I love my friends for taking up arms to help me fight her. I can’t remember which friend it was, but she told me she loved me and that I was worthwhile and not a burden to her. I replied, “It’s just so hard for me to believe that.” She said, “I know. That’s why I keep telling you. I’ll say it until you believe it.”

In those moments, when my friends grab me by the hand and repeat “I love you” until I’m sick of hearing it, they are pictures of Christ. I don’t know if they know that, but they should, because that’s the same thing he does. “Come here. Lean on Me. I love you.” Over and over and over until we yell “Yes, Lord, we get it, you love us” and still more until we slump down quietly and murmur our gratitude for his endless patience and gentle wooing.

“I’ll say it until you believe it,” whisper my friends, and in their voices I hear my Savior, calling me into his arms.

And all I can say in response is “Thank you.”

Per aspera ad astra,

Steph

Rainy Day Introspection

Hello, universe. I am back, trying to write again even though it’s been rough again. I just haven’t wanted to do anything. I’m going to see my doctor next month; I suspect I’ll need to ask her to increase the dosage on my antidepressants. They just aren’t working like they’re supposed to anymore. I took a pill and a half the other day and felt like new life got breathed into my brain. I suppose that’s a pretty good indicator that something needs to change.

Introducing: Princess Pumpkin Spook

I am currently fostering an itty bitty kitty that was found in a generator at work. She is probably no older than 6 weeks, and she is cute as a button. Purrs like a train. She looks just like Trinket did at her size, which is really cute to me. I’ve taken to calling her Princess Pumpkin Spook to be festive, but when my coworker who wants her is ready to take her, I’m sure she’ll get whatever name they choose. The most hilarious part is that while Winston and Trinket hissed and growled at her for several days, Thor took to her almost instantly. I kept her in a puppy crate for a few days while she settled, and he constantly tried to get inside to play with her. He would also just lie in front of the crate and watch her.

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Thor cuddling with her

Now that Pumpkin has been at the house for about a week, Thor doesn’t so much cuddle her as he does try to tackle and wrestle her. He’s still a kitten himself (about 6 months old), but he doesn’t realize that there’s a big size difference between him and her. Luckily, this little nugget yells at him a lot if he wrestles too hard.

It also just occurred to me after looking at that picture how much healthier she seems after a week. She was curled up on my chest this morning, and her fur was so sleek and soft, and her face is much cleaner. This is what happens when you feed a kitten good food! She’s been on a diet of wet kitten food and KMR (kitten milk replacement). The person who initially took her in was giving her dry kibble, which made my eye twitch a little. If Pumpkin were still with her mother, she’d be nursing. She likes to snack on the boys’ kibble (probably not the best thing since it is for adult cats), but her main meals are still wet food and KMR. And boy does she monch. What an appetite.

It’s nice to have a tiny kitten around the house again. I like it a lot. This is the first time I’ve fostered a kitten, which is great because it means I get all the fun and cuddles of a little baby without the stress of “Oh, geez, I’m gonna have four resident cats running this place.” I may not be her home forever, but she gets all the love and cuddles of my boys while she’s here. October is especially a bad month for black cats, so I am delighted to give her a safe home amidst the insanity of superstitious people.

Unnecessary Guilt is Unnecessary

Yesterday at work, I was almost falling asleep at my desk and not feeling the greatest. So, I did what any person who works for a reasonable employer would do: I said “Screw this” and took a couple hours of comp time to go home at 2:00 rather than 4:30. I told one coworker I was going to leave but otherwise just slipped out the back door and went home for a nap.

It was incredibly beneficial for me to do that. I napped for about an hour and a half, then got up and went to get my Clicklist order at Kroger. When I got home, groceries in tow, I had enough energy to do my dishes (I know, right?) and actually cook supper rather than just microwaving shredded cheese on top of tortilla chips. I was very pleased with myself and had a nice, relaxing evening watching YouTube videos and burning incense.

When I got to work this morning, the coworker I had told I was leaving early asked me if going home early had been helpful. I said yes, it was, and I felt much better, and then she was all like “Ugh, I’m so jealous, stop.” I offered the awkward laugh of “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say now” and didn’t say anything else.

I know she was being sarcastic and teasing me. I know, I know. But in that moment, I felt guilty about taking some time for myself. It struck me just how bizarre the American working world is. Work ’til you’re tired, then crash and finally take time off, then have your coworkers tell you how jealous they are so you feel guilty about it. Don’t be jealous; take time off too! Don’t burn yourself out for this job. We are clerical workers; literally nothing we do is worth dying for. It’s good work, and it directly impacts/helps the students at our institution, but it’s not worth burnout.

That is something that I appreciate about my direct supervisor. He will work hard, but he’s very in tune with himself and knows when to call it quits. The other day he came in and worked a half a day until his sinuses bothered him so badly that he went home. “Everything I’m working on can be done in my pajamas, in my bed,” he said. I’ve never had a boss who was out of the office as much as he is, and I love it. He sets such a great precedent for self-care. Work hard, do good work, be productive, but take time off too. The other day I couldn’t bear the idea of getting out of my bed, so I texted him that I wasn’t coming in, and all he said was “That’s fine, feel better soon.” I rolled over, pulled the blankets over my head, and slept until noon. It was the best.

So take care of yourself, kids. Don’t let the broken American work environment ruin your life.

Friend Care is Self-Care

I don’t have any scholarly sources for this statement, but I’m pretty sure that helping others is one of the best ways to increase happiness and reduce overall stress. Humans do best when behaving altruistically. I think that’s why I spend so much time trying to make sure my friends are okay. We all suffer from anxiety, depression, or both (yikes), and sometimes I feel like it’s my personal responsibility to help them feel better. Sometimes I think it’s because I spent so many years of my life wasting away in my depression that I know what it’s like to be in despair. (I thank God constantly that it never manifested as cutting or any other self-harm like that.) I know what darkness is like, so I don’t want my friends to endure it alone.

Enter sweater and soup weather, my very favorite time of the year. I am hella fond of the concept of hygge (hue-guh). This is the Danish concept of slowing down and being conscious and present in a moment. It is also often accompanied by warm, comforting things like soft blankets and candles. It is a very cozy, intimate feeling. According to the website I just linked, if you don’t feel it, you’re not doing it right.

For me, autumn and winter are perfect times to experience hygge. The very weather makes it easy to come indoors and draw your loved ones close. Rain and snow and cold wind all force you to slow down, to bundle up, to drink tea and find contentment in stillness. In my opinion, if you don’t take advantage of all the slow coziness of cold weather, you’re a moron. Why would you wish away some of the most delightful months of the year just so you can rush through your life again? Summer is for speed. Autumn and winter are for hygge.

I try to create that sense in my friendships. I want my friends to feel that coziness and comfort in our relationship. No rush, no stress, no pressure. I’m not always good at it, because I often get pushy when they’re down (I take a very “Buck up, soldier!” attitude because that helps me sometimes, but I am not them), but I try. If I’m struggling to create the right emotional atmosphere, I usually just feed them and that fixes it.

So tonight, we will try to have a night of hygge. I’m going to make a big pot of gumbo when I get off work, and then I’ll spread fluffy blankets all over the living room. We’re gonna be okay.

KRISTEN I KNOW YOU’RE READING THIS. YOU’RE GONNA BE OKAY. SORRY FOR BEING A DRILL SERGEANT. I LOVE YOU.

Plus, who can be sad when I drop a tiny purring kitten on their lap?!

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie