Author: lilyellyn

We Must Risk Delight: Or How To Combat the Devil One Tattoo At a Time

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all bound by routine. Even the most spontaneous of humans cannot escape the cycles of time and nature. Repetition–of the sun each day, of the moon each month, of the seasons, of new years–creates a rhythm to our days. For me, these rhythms always include the ominous beats of depression and the frenzied syncopation of hypomania.

Sometimes depression is triggered by a specific event that I can point to, but most often it creeps over me slowly, the way the sun sinks slowly to the horizon at the end of the day until, seemingly all at once, it’s gone. For me, depression is caused by carrying an excessive amount of pain just as much as it is by synapses misfiring in my brain. When this happens, I am also consumed by guilt. I feel that it is wrong for me to be weighed down by pain and sadness when by most measures I live a safe and wonderful life. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to understand that the pain and the sadness I carry is often not my own.

I am a highly empathetic person and I am deeply affected by the feelings of those around me both in my daily life and in the world at large. I am particularly sensitive to their pain and suffering. This is not something I have the power to turn on and off; it is part of my nature. I cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me the same way a sponge cannot help soaking up whatever moisture it touches. Often, I do not even consciously recognize that I am doing it until one morning I wake up feeling crushed by the weight of it all.

Last year I experienced relatively long periods of depression. In spite of many beautiful moments, the undercurrent of my days was heaviness and sadness. There was so much sorrow and injustice in the world in 2017, and I wrestled with the question, How do I dare experience joy when there is so much pain and so much grief in the world? One day as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastic podcast Big Magic, I heard her quote the poet, Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defense.” It spoke beautifully to this exact question. I immediately found the whole poem and read it in tears at least a dozen times in a row.

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                         -Jack Gilbert

I still cannot express how much this moved me except to say that I knew immediately I wanted these words with me always. Without a way to burn them into my heart, I settled for inking them into my skin.

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Umm…so it is really hard to take a picture of something on your upper ribs without things going downhill really fast. It is actually straight in real life. Many thanks to my husband/photographer for making this look as appropriate as possible.

This poem gave me the answer I desperately needed, and the fog of depression slowly began to lift. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the real pain and suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate it. One way that we fight despair is with delight. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” The question then becomes not, How dare I experience joy in this terrible world? but How dare I not?

More joy in the world is always a good thing. More hope in the world is always welcome. Experiencing peace does not dismiss the reality of suffering. Instead it points out that pain is not the only way, and it calls out injustice as evil. Perhaps the way to fight the devil is the way of the Who’s down in Whoville whose Christmas was stolen by the Grinch, but who sang in spite of it. Perhaps fighting the devil is having the courage to embrace joy instead of letting despair win.

When we see goodness for what it is and we dare to enjoy it, we give glory to the giver of every good and perfect gift. We bear the banner that says Hope still exists. Peace is not a fairytale. Joy is alive. This is a sacred calling. I do not know if this knowledge can ever save me from depression, but I believe that this is true: We must be brave. We must risk delight. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We must cling to Joy on behalf of those who cannot.

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What I Plan to (Finally) Read in 2018

If you are a bibliophile like me, you’ll understand me when I say that no matter how much I read, the list of books I want to read only seems to grow longer. One of my problems with making it through that TBR (to be read) list is that I am constantly adding new books to it, and I often get so excited about the new books that I seek them out first. In other words, the longer a book has been on my TBR list, the less likelihood it has of being read, and books that I own tend to get read last since I am often reading what comes up on the hold list from the library before reading the books I already own. I’ve set my Goodreads reading goal for the year at 125 books (follow me there for updates on what I’m reading and mini-reviews!) after reading 124 this year. In addition to new releases, there are several books that have been on my TBR list for a long time that I want to make it a priority to read this year. Here are the books I hope to take off my TBR list in 2018.

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Oathbringer
by Brandon Sanderson. If you’ve read many of my book-related posts, you have without doubt read my rave reviews of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive which are some of my all-time favorite books (Way of Kings and Words of Radiance). The newest book in the series, Oathbringer, came out in November, and my lovely husband was kind enough to give it to me as a birthday present, but I have yet to crack it open, mostly because it is an overwhelming 1200+ pages in hardback. I also gave this to my dad for Christmas, so I have even more incentive to read it so I can discuss it with him. Also, my friends Josh (definitely) and Caleb (probably) have read it and I would like to talk to them about it. Basically, I need to suck it up and devote several weeks of my life to it.

IMG_0014Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I actually have gotten this book from the library before and had to return it before I could read it because there were so many waitlist requests for it. I have heard amazing reviews of this book and am especially drawn to it because it is the story of a Korean family living in exile in Japan. It is a multi-generational saga beginning in the early 1900s. Having lived in Korea for several years and knowing the tensions between Korea and Japan, I am especially interested to read this book and hopefully understand and appreciate even more a people and culture that are close to my heart.

IMG_0016A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. There are two reasons why I haven’t read this book yet. The first is because it is rather long (816 pages). The second is because I have been told (and believe) that it will absolutely wreck me emotionally. Because of that, I also assume I will completely love it since I tend to love sad books.  My understanding is that the book follows four friends in their post college, newly – adult life. It also deals with pretty serious mental illness and other related issues  which I think is part of what makes it so sad and also so meaningful to many people. I picked this book up at a library book sale after it had already been on my list for several months, so I really have no excuse not to have read it.

IMG_0017Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This is a nonfiction book written by a sociologist from Berkeley, California who moved to the Louisiana bayou (my homeland) to study the conservative right. She discovers a commonality with these people that she never expected to find as she explores the question of why the people who have the most to gain from a more liberal government are so ardently opposed to it. I am especially interested in reading this book since by all accounts it deals in a very compassionate and yet intelligent way with “my people” who I have struggled to understand for years.

IMG_0018Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I am  ashamed to recognize how long this book has been on my TBR list. I am even more ashamed to admit that my sister gave me her copy more than a year ago and I have had it on my bed stand ever since. It tells the story of a Nigerian couple desperately in love who hope for a better life in America. Ifemelu arrives in America only to find that it is not all she has dreamed it would be. Meanwhile, her lover Obinze is unable to join her thanks to post-9/11 immigration policies and immigrates to the UK instead. 13 years later they have the chance to meet again, but can they rekindle their love after so long apart? This is a story about immigration and about globalization and about love and I think it will be right up my alley which is why I am making it a priority for 2018.

IMG_0019Night Driving by Addie Zierman. I read Addie’s blog religiously and devoured her first book When We Were On Fire like it was my own story. I related to so much of what she said, and I was eager to read her second book, but by the time it came out I had gotten into a groove of reading much more fiction than nonfiction and was often at the mercy of what holds became available at the library. I bought this book in March of 2016, but never managed to read it. It’s the kind of book that I will probably read in 2 or 3 sittings once I get started, I just need to say no to the allure of the new shiny books and pick it up.

IMG_0021A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. This is another book I received Christmas of 2016 and have yet to read! I actually think owning books is detrimental to my reading at this stage because I am such a devotee of the public library. Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and this book is a companion to her previous book, Life After Life.  Life After Life  is a brilliant, inventive novel in which the main character, Ursula Todd, is born, lives, and dies over and over again. In each life, she makes different choices that affect both her life and ultimately the whole world as much of the plot revolves around WWII.  A God in Ruins is about Teddy Todd who is Ursula’s brother. I can’t say much about the plot since I haven’t read it yet, but I believe it’s about the challenges he faces as a man with a sensitive soul who becomes an RAF bomber pilot during the war.

IMG_0023Moonglow by Michael Chabon.  Ditto for this one. Michael Chabon is one of my favorite authors (he won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2001), and Jonathan and I actually got to meet him when we lived in Raleigh at a book signing he did for his last book, Telegraph Avenue. I bought Moonglow for Jonathan last year but never ended up reading it myself. I’ll admit that I like some Chabon novels more than others, but I definitely want to give Moonglow  a fair shot. This novel is based on the conversations Chabon had with his grandfather on his deathbed in 1989. Given that Chabon is a fantastic storyteller and meticulous researcher, I have not doubt that this will be an extraordinary novel.

IMG_0025Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all time favorites, and I read another of her novels, Pigs in Heaven, on my honeymoon. I think Kingsolver is a master as a storyteller and as a naturalist. I have heard Flight Behavior called one of her most accessible books, and I have owned it for several years, but I have not read it. I know that it is (broadly speaking) a novel about an unhappily married woman who discovers a lake of fire on her way to a tryst with a younger lover. I know that it is set in Appalachia and that it is about climate change, denial and belief, but not much else. Kingsolver has never disappointed me in the past, and I am sure, given the chance, this will be no exception.

So there you have it–the books I vow to finally read in 2018. What’s on your TBR list?

 

2017 Year In Review (Or What I Was Doing While I Wasn’t Blogging)

It may be cliche, but I honestly love the New Year. Not the trappings of the holiday (I rarely leave my house and almost never make it til midnight on New Year’s Eve), but the sense of a fresh start, a clean slate, and new adventures around the corner. I know, I know, there is nothing actually magical about January 1st, and there is no guarantee that starting a new habit on the first day of the new year will make you more successful, but I still love it.

Moving into 2018, I am anticipating some potentially big changes (though I don’t know exactly what those will be). I often find it difficult to be fully present where I am because my brain is always racing ahead to future possibilities. It’s important for me to pause and reflect on the past year and to recognize the moments that stand out in my memory, especially the moments I may not have realized were important while I was living them.

We started 2017 in Costa Rica where we traveled for my brother-in-law’s wedding to a Costa Rican beauty. This was a new country for us and a new adventure, though we were a little limited in what we could do by the fact that my husband had just had major knee surgery and was in a straight-leg immobilizer the entire time. It was a very special time to spend together with my in-laws who are very dear to me.

At the end of January, I experienced several significant disappointments with my job that left me feeling undervalued and discouraged. This came at the end of a fall where I’d been working 60 hours a week at my various jobs, taking care of my husband through his surgery, and, like many people, dealing with layers of emotions about the very divisive 2016 election and its outcome. I spent the majority of the winter in a deep depression that spurred my visit to the psychiatrist at the end of February.

In mid-February, we drove to Washington D.C.  where my husband attended a conference and I got to hang out with a friend of mine from elementary – high school who lives in D.C. While Jonathan conferenced, I ate and drank my way around D.C. with Rachel. We even went to a Valentine’s ball at the Italian Embassy. I even got to re-wear my dress from the wedding. Randomly, my parents happened to be in DC at the same time so I also got to spend an afternoon with them.

It was such great fun that it marked a turning period in my mood. By the time we got back home, things were looking up. Unfortunately, they were a little too far up and I had a brief episode of hypomania where I believed I could do ALL THE THINGS!

It was at the very end of February that I had my first meeting with my psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed with several anxiety disorders and bipolar depression. Which I have written about here. And here. And also here.

In March my mom flew up to visit me during my spring break and we spent a lovely long weekend in Charleston together. One of the highlights was our dinner at 5 Church which is one of the aesthetically coolest restaurants I’ve ever been to. Having one-on-one time with my mom is a rare treat and we had such a great time we decided to make an effort to do this a few times a year.

In April, surprise! We got bedbugs. If you have had bedbugs before, you have my undying sympathy. After several weeks of being covered in massive, painful and itchy welts, but never being able to find a bug, I spotted one on the box spring and captured it. The exterminators confirmed that it was a bedbug, confirmed that they are exceptionally resilient and difficult to get rid of, and then we gave them $1000 for the privilege of moving everything fabric in our house (clothes, curtains, cushions, etc) into a trailer in our yard which was then heated to a temperature high enough to kill any bugs. In the meantime we had to take everything off of our walls and all the books off of our shelves and have the house chemically treated ceiling to floor. And then moved back in again. I do not wish this on my enemies.

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May is always a busy month for people living by a school calendar. Jonathan finished his second year of grad school and some of my students graduated from high school and moved away.

In the last few days of May I flew to Colorado and then drove several hours into the mountains to be at my brother’s wedding at the beginning of June. It was truly the most scenically beautiful wedding I’ve ever seen, and the bride looked stunning. And the next morning we all went whitewater rafting together!

At the end of June I threw Jonathan a surprise 30th birthday party that was a huge success as far as surprises go. All of the gold is because it was his golden birthday.

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Part of the reason I was able to pull of the surprise so well is because we were leaving the very next day to go to Germany to visit my brother and sister-in-law who had moved to Germany after their wedding. We had never been to Germany, so while we were there we tried to get around as much as possible. We stayed with our family in Tubingen for a while, but also traveled to Berlin (rainy and dismal) and Munich (beautiful) and spent a long weekend in Prague (like a magical fairytale kingdom). We also spent two days in Lucerne, Switzerland where I got to meet up with one of my students and her parents who are from a village nearby. It was such a cool and rewarding experience to get to know her family and see her hometown. Also, they took us up into the Alps, and we saw this guy playing his Alpine horn. Like you do. Life made.

We got back from Germany in early July and things started kicking into high gear for me at work as I worked on orientation materials and on finding placements for a brand new group of students. Unfortunately, after our return, I started a slow slide back into a depression that ate up most of the fall. The last weekend of July I squeezed in a long weekend with my college roommates up at my friend Anna’s family lake house in Wisconsin. This is a place with years of memories for us since we all started going there together during college. We’ve made it back almost every year since graduating even as we’ve moved and married and started having kids. It’s really pretty amazing.

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In August, school started back up just in time for the total solar eclipse. Our city was precisely in the path of the totality so it was an enormous event. It was one of the most moving and awe-inspiring things I’ve ever experienced and probably will ever experience. I ugly cried. I still cry every time I watch our video footage (I tried to upload the video, but my site won’t let me!)

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Over Labor Day weekend my mom came for another visit. This time we went to Asheville for a few days where we went apple picking and to a vineyard and stayed in a cozy cabin. At the end of the weekend we drove to Charlotte where we joined my sister-in-law to see Ed Sheeran in concert. I ugly cried. Perhaps you are seeing a theme here? I obviously adore Ed Sheeran, but also, he gives a fantastic concert. It is just him and his loop pedal and his adorable personality and it was so much fun.

At the end of September some of our best friends who live in Charlotte welcomed their first baby into the world. We spent several weekends in October kissing his sweet cheeks. (The baby’s, obviously). On one of those weekends, Nest Fest happened to be going on just outside of Charlotte. My friend Asharae (one of the dearest and most talented souls I know) was already there, so I felt destined to go. And I got to meet Anne Bogel (Modern Mrs. Darcy) and Tsh Oxenreider. And they signed their books for me. And took pictures with me. And I geeked out.

This fall I made a new friend at work who is one of those people I just clicked with immediately and it was like we’d known each other forever. She has been an unexpected blessing that has made many of my days brighter.

In November I came out of the depression I had been in since July. In celebration, I got a new tattoo. Daffodils are symbols of new life and Jonathan said I couldn’t get any more words. We also traveled to Ohio for Thanksgiving with my in-laws. My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and I did our traditional Black Friday shopping with gusto. Sure it was shameless consumerism, but we did it TOGETHER so that should count for something! When I returned from Thanksgiving break, my students surprised me with a little Christmas tree they got for my office complete with hand-decorated ornaments that each of them had made for me. I died of cuteness.

At the beginning of December I turned 30. This boggles my mind as I still routinely do things like fall to the floor in a limp pile and cry because I am “too hungry to eat,” but the official documents say it is true. One of my students even made me a cake! In celebration of this milestone, we had planned a trip to Disneyworld and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which we took as soon as school finished for the semester. It was, well, magical. We spent one day at Harry Potter, one day in the Magic Kingdom, and a final day at Epcot. The icing on the cake was that our final Disney experience was seeing the Christmas candlelight procession where they read the Christmas story from the Bible and sing all the great songs. The day that we were there, the celebrity host who was doing all of the narration was Neil Patrick Harris. It was Leg -en – wait for it – dary! (That’s a HIMYM reference.) (And THAT stands for How I Met Your Mother).

When we returned from Disney, we celebrated Christmas with my entire family who (amazingly) all came up to Columbia to spend the holiday with us. We were house sitting for some friends over Christmas so my family were all able to stay together at their house which was magical. I somehow neglected to get a group picture and just have this one with my sister Anni. Just imagine 3 more faces that look just like this plus my dad.

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This year was full of so many wonderful experiences and memories, but it was also a hard year in many ways, especially in regards to my mental health. When I look back on it though, I am filled with hope when I remember how much good there was in spite of everything, and I am encouraged that the things I remember most are not the days when I lay on my office floor doing deep breathing exercises. What I remember most were these beautiful moments with family and friends, the new experiences I had, the new students I came to love, and the new lives I welcomed into this world and into my life.

There are a lot of unknowns about 2018 and as much as I love adventure, I also love being in control. Reflecting on this past year has reminded me that even though there may be difficult days ahead, there will also be beautiful ones. There will be brokenness, and there will also be divine blessings. On to the next adventure.

Favorite Books I Read This Year

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I have some reflective posts in the works coming into the new year, but I thought it might be fun to finish up 2017 with a wrap-up of what I was doing in all the time I wasn’t writing – reading all the books.

In 2017 I read 124 books (though part of me is dying to spend the rest of today reading so that I can make it 125 which somehow seems more satisfying. We’ll see how it goes). Here’s a roundup of my favorite reads of the year. Favorite for me can mean a few different things – either that I really enjoyed it for it’s entertainment value, or that I thought it was an important book because of the subject matter, or that I thought the quality of the writing was exceptional, or in some cases, all three.

I did a decent amount of reading this year on audio. Not all books are good on audio, so recommending good audiobooks is somewhat separate from recommending good books in general. I can do a separate post on that at some point if any of you are interested. But for now…

Favorite Fiction

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This was the second book I read in 2017, which meant I set the bar for the year pretty high. The book begins in Ghana in the 18th century with two women who are half-sisters, although they do not know each other. One is captured and becomes a slave, the other is married off to a wealthy English slave trader. The book follows the two sisters’ families for the next 8 generations. This is a heartbreaking but incredibly important and well-crafted book that shows the ways that slavery and dehumanization impact generations far into the future. It’s not a happy book, but it is unforgettable. Trigger Warnings for violence and sexual assault
The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses  Louise Penny. These are the latest three in the (ongoing) Chief Inspector Gamache series. They just keep getting better and better. I love that these are set in Canada rather than New York or England. I love the richness of the characters and the world Penny has created. I love Armand Gamache and I want to be his best friend. That is all.
The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett. In a close-knit black community in Southern California, seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is left grieving and confused after her mother’s suicide. She finds comfort in the arms of the pastor’s twenty-one year old son, Luke. But her unplanned pregnancy, and the measures the community takes to cover it up, will haunt Nadia for the rest of her life. One of the unique and compelling features of this story is the voice of “the mothers” who are the collective community of older black women from the church who sometimes step in to tell the story from their perspective.
Behold the Dreamers
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. You will probably be seeing a theme with my books by now – I tend to be most drawn in by books about how people deal with hardships, whether those are physical, emotional, economical, relational, or all of the above. This is an all of the above. Jende Jonga moves to New York City from Cameroon in search of a better life for his wife and son. He hits the jackpot when he is hired as a driver for an important Wall Street executive. Eventually, his wife Neni also finds employment with the Edwardses. But when the financial crisis hits and the Edwards family falls apart, Jende and Neni have to decide which dreams are worth fighting for.
This is How it Always IsThis is How It Always Is by Lisa Frankel. Every time I try to describe this book to people, especially more conservative people, they tend to wrinkle their noses in distaste. What is phenomenal about this book is the raw, honest way it delves into a family whose members are all trying to do the right thing, without there being any clear answer as to what the right thing is. The polarizing issue with this book is that it deals with a family whose youngest son, Claude, begins to proclaim at a very young age that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. While the central issue in this book is how Rosie and Penn (who are one of the most real and authentic couples I have seen on paper) and their three other sons, navigate how to make decisions for a child who is not old enough to make them for themselves and what happens when we keep secrets. It is a book I will think about for years to come.
Rich People ProblemsRich People Problems by Kevin Kwan. The third book in the Crazy Rich Asians series (soon to be a movie!), this is just pure voyeuristic, indulgent fun. This one happens a few years after China Rich Girlfriend when the impending death of the matriarch brings the Youngs and all of their assorted family members back to the ancestral home.
My Lady Jane
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. I do not even know how to describe this book because all descriptions sound ridiculous to the point of stupidity…and yet…it is delightful. Absurd. Hilarious. Wonderful. Exceptionally good on audio. Think Princess Bride. This team of writers decided to take a classic piece of England’s history, the story of Lady Jane Gray who ruled for only 9 days during the Tudor period. Except also, half of the characters have the ability to turn into animals. Some at will, others not so much. I cannot even tell you how much fun this was and I am delighted that the authors intend to make this a series about different “Janes.” I believe the upcoming one is a retelling of Jane Eyre.
Bear TownBeartown by Fredrik Backman. Backman became a favorite author of mine this year. I had previously read A Man Called Ove and this year I read his three other major works in translation, Beartown, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, and  Britt-Marie Was Here. I highly recommend all of these, but thought Beartown was the standout for m this year. For being a book that revolves around the fate of a junior ice hockey team (a subject I could not care less about), I found this amazingly compelling. This was partly because the real story here is about a dying town with one thing to rally around – the hockey team – and what happens when the fate of the hockey team (and therefore the town) is put in peril by the accusations of a teenage girl of violence at the hands of the team’s star player. It is an exploration of community, of rape culture, of how we choose who and what we believe and what we are willing to ignore. It is gut-wrenching, but it is also a story of courage. Trigger Warning for sexual assault.

 

The Lightkeepers.jpgThe Lightkeepers by Abbi Geni. I honestly don’t understand why nobody is talking about this book. I heard about it from my dear friend and partner in all things book-related, Lorien, but she is the only person I know who has even heard of it. This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. The writing is lyrical and haunting, but the thing that struck me most was the sense of place. Every time I picked up this book I had the sense of being transported. Miranda is a nature photographer who has come to the Farallon Islands off of the coast of California to do landscape photography. The only natural inhabitants of these stark and forbidding islands are the animals. She joins a group of biologists each of whom has come to the islands for their own purposes. The inciting incident is an assault that Miranda experiences at the hands of one of her companions. The plot thickens when her assailant’s body is found a few days later, possibly of mysterious causes. In some ways this is a mystery, but much more than a whodunit, this is a story about trust and suspicion, loss and recovery, and the power of natural beauty.
Little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng has quickly become one of my favorite up and coming authors. While not everyone would agree, my love of somewhat sad domestic dramas made her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You a favorite of mine last year. I do think Little Fires Everywhere is a little less sad, if that’s a thing for you, but hits all the same great notes of exploring the multi-dimensional relationship dynamics within a family. Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl have moved around a lot. When they move into a rental property owned by the wealthy Richardson family, Pearl becomes friends (and maybe more than friends) with their four teenage children. Meanwhile Izzy, the youngest and most misunderstood Richardson child, apprentices herself to free-spirited artist Mia. An Asian baby is found abandoned in their affluent Cleveland suburb and a prominent white family who are friends of the Richardsons attempts to adopt her, but when the birth mother comes forward and wants to take her baby back, members of the Richardson family, and Mia and Pearl, take sides. For Pearl, the adoption brings up questions about her own origins that she has never dared to ask. For others, it is questions of heritage and culture – what part of her cultural identity will an Asian child lose by being raised by white parents? This book manages to be incredibly accessible, fast-paced and engaging while dealing with a slew of complicated issues.
 

Favorite Non-Fiction

Braving the WildernessBraving the Wilderness by Brene’ Brown. Brene’ Brown has a profound way of hitting the nail right on the head. This book is very similar in tone to her last two books, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. To be completely honest, the amount of brand new content in this book was not enough to really justify an entire stand-alone book, but everything in it is so good that I still count it as a favorite of the year. The part that hit me hardest (in a good way) was when she wrote about not dehumanizing people we don’t agree with and how this has to work both ways. “Here is what I believe: 1. If you are offended or hurt when you hear Hillary Clinton or Maxine Waters calledbitch, whore, or the c-word, you should be equally offended and hurt when you hear those same words used to describe Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, or Theresa May. 2. If you felt belittled when Hillary Clinton called Trump supporters “
‘a basket of deplorables’ then you should have felt equally concerned when Eric Trump said ‘Democrats aren’t even human.’…We must never tolerate dehumanizations–the primary instrument of violence that has been used in every genocide recorded throughout history.”
51piNDg89UL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Little Princes: One Man’s Promis to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal  by Conor Grennan. Connor Grennan was a regular Joe hoping to see the world and have fun doing it. As a way to seem like less of a selfish jerk to the people back home he decided to start his trip around the world by volunteering for a few months in Nepal, because who can argue with that? In the end, the children of Nepal captured his heart and upset his entire life. You may have qualms about whether or not Grennan went about his work in the best way. You can argue that he should have worked with existing NGO’s instead of creating yet another. You could argue that there’s a bit of a “white man coming in to save the poor Nepali” to this story. I don’t care. It’s still a story about a young man who allowed himself to be moved by the needs of others to the extent that it changed his entire life. May we all be so bold in pursuing with passion the causes that are most dear to our hearts.
EvictedEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. This book was an absolutely eye-opening (and somewhat horrifying) look at the way the housing and social service system is designed so that landlords in impoverished communities directly and intentionally profit from the misfortunes of others without every giving them a fair chance to improve their situation. There are people living in my own neighborhood who I believe are in these kinds of situations and understanding everything they are up against was both enlightening and disheartening. This is such an important book, especially for people who believe that homelessness is always the product of an individual’s bad choices.
A Mother's ReckoningA Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold. I am not sure what it was that sparked a sudden interest in Columbine, but I first read Dave Cullen’s more journalistic account of exactly what happened in the Columbine shootings (which was also very interesting, especially seeing the way the media handled the situation and the blatant misinformation that has remained attached to the incident to this day) which led to this account written by shooter Dylan Klebold’s mother. This is heart-wrenching in many ways, but more than anything, it reads like a cry to other parents to recognize signs of adolescent depression which can be much different than depression in adults. At the end of the day Sue Klebold was left in one of the hardest positions of all. She lost her baby to suicide never having known the depth of pain he was in, but she also had to live with the knowledge that he had killed other children too. While she does not excuse this in any way, I think this account is truly valuable because, unlike Eric Harris, the other shooter and arguably the mastermind behind the shootings, Dylan Klebold was not a psychopath. While it is scarier to accept that “regular” people can come to such a point of pain and confusion that they could do something so horrific, it is important to understand. It is also important to remember that the loss of a life is a tragedy, no matter what the person’s sins were.
The Sound of GravelThe Sound of Gravel  by Ruth Wariner. This was my favorite nonfiction book of 2017. I admit that I have a fascination with polygamist cults. This book was riveting, not only because the situation is so bizarre and fascinating, but because the writing is exceptional. Ruth Wariner was born Ruth LeBaron, the 39th of her father’s 42 children from seven wives. This is the story of Ruth and her family trying to survive after the murder of her father, about Ruth’s growing into adulthood and awareness of all that is not right with her world and the values she has been taught to hold onto, and her eventual dramatic escape from the cult. It is mesmerizing, and heartbreaking, and hopeful. One of the most amazing things is how tenderly she writes about her mother and other adults in her life who were primarily responsible for her growing up in such an unhealthy environment. While she does not excuse their actions, she writes with an empathy that can only come from genuine forgiveness which is why I think her book is so powerful.
Hillbilly ElegyHillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. This book has received a lot of hype after making the New York Times bestseller list, partly because of its timeliness in our current political landscape. Though this is not a book about politics. It is a book about the salt of the earth people of rural Kentucky and Ohio. Vance grew up as one of these people and later went on to join the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. Returning to his childhood and the people and culture that raised him, he tenderly unpacks the beliefs and motivations of a people who believed themselves to be overlooked and unable to attain the American dream and how these feelings and ideas have played into some of the social and politcal opinions held by the vast majority of people in these communities. It is insightful and compassionate and worth the read.
You'll Grow Out of ItYou’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein. This book surprised me. With the exceptioin of the essay on porn (not my jam) I found this collection of essays, which I anticipated being mostly comic in nature, to be insightful and perceptive and to speak to the many facets of what it means to be a woman in the world today. It is fun and funny, but also full of moments that I could resonate with and it left me with a lot to think about.
Cork DorkCork Dork Bianca Bosker. This was my most recent nonfiction read and while I will admit that it took me while to work through, I still found it fascinating. If you watched and enjoyed the Netflix documentary, Somm then this is for you. Booker quit her job as a technology writer in order to delve into the world of sommeliers–the wine elitists who spend not only their careers, but nearly all of their waking hours studying, smelling, tasting, and breathing wine. She delves into their inner world until she actually joins in when she decides to dedicate herself to the task of passing the exam to become a certified sommelier.
So there you have it. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What were your favorite reads this year?

I’m Kind of a Superhero and Other Things I’ve Learned From Bipolar Depression

Last week one of my students called me out. “Mrs. Dunn. Why you in such good mood today? Last week, you seem tired. Today you are hyper. Why you so happy?” (I teach students who speak English as a second or third language).

“I’m in a good mood because it’s Friday,” I told him. “I’m excited for the weekend. Believe it or not, teachers love the weekend.” I was surprised by how perceptive my student was. The truth was that I was in a good mood because finally (finally!) the heavy fog of depression had lifted for longer than a few hours or even one good day, and I felt hope and energy and excitement that I had not felt in nearly three months.

In truth, I was in a short burst of hypomania that often comes just after a depression for me. I am Type II Bipolar which means I never experience full-blown mania with psychosis or delusional beliefs and reckless behavior, but sometimes experience a milder form of elevated mood called hypomania. My bipolar disorder is marked by very regular periods of moderate to severe depression and occasional bursts of high energy/activity accompanied by high adrenaline and impulsivity. For me, hypomania is subtle enough that it can easily be taken for just a very good mood, though it’s often accompanied by spending sprees, new tattoos, sleeping less, trying to do ALL tHE THINGS, and being increasingly social or chatty. Hypomania isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me (it ‘s sort of like what I imagine being on speed would be like) as long as I can be aware that I am experiencing an elevated mood and can keep my impulsivity in check.

Over the last nine months I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the last 12-15 years of my life. There is still so much I do not know, but here are a few things I’ve learned.

• I might never be “healed” and that is OK. Along with the “You don’t seem bipolar” comments, another common response I receive from well-meaning friends and family members is something along the lines of hoping that I will get better or believing that God can heal me. These are beautiful thoughts, and I don’t want to make light of them. I also believe in a powerful God. But it is not helpful for me to think of my illness as a condition I might suddenly be healed from. The nature of bipolar depression is that I go through seasons of depression and seasons of stability, with occasional bouts of hypomania in between. Learning that I am bipolar and that I am likely to experience bouts of depression chronically for the rest of my life has actually given me an incredible sense of hope. The best way I can describe this is that it is like having seasonal allergies. People who suffer with allergies can treat them, but there is rarely a permanent cure, so they are also not surprised when they flare up. Before I knew I was bipolar, I still experienced depression. Every time depression lifted I believed it was gone forever, and every time it came back, I believed I had failed in some cosmic way. Knowing that depression is likely to recur makes me feel intense gratitude for the stable times. It keeps me from believing that the depression is somehow my fault, and it also gives me hope when I am in those seasons because I know that they will end. In the past calendar year I had two long bouts of depression lasting a total of about 5 months. During the first depression, before I knew about being bipolar, I truly thought it might never end, and but during this most recent season, which lasted nearly three months, I knew that one day I would feel better.

• Having bipolar depression has taught me to show greater compassion, to others and to myself. I try to live believing that everyone around me is doing the best that they can. Because 98% of the time I am doing the best I can. Often it is not the right thing and it is not good enough, but I really am giving everything I’ve got. It’s not up to me to judge how hard someone else is trying based on their performance. I have no idea what’s going on inside their minds or in their personal lives, so I choose to believe that they are doing their best, just as I am doing my best. As part of self-compassion, I am learning to celebrate small victories in times when small things are taking all of my energy. I have a few encouraging pep talks for this.

o For example, “You are so awesome! You got out of bed and then you put on a shirt AND PANTS! PANTS! You could have just given up and stayed in bed all day, but instead, you are doing the thing. You even brushed your teeth. You should write that on your To-Do List and then cross it off. Cause you did that. Cause you can do things. You overachiever, you.”

• Some of the things I like most about myself are directly related to bipolar disorder. I am deeply empathetic. While I don’t get my own feelings hurt easily, I cry easily and often when I sense someone else hurting, even if that person is an actor in a commercial. It is this intense empathy that makes me good at my job and (I think?) is one of the things that my friends appreciate about me. It is also one of the things that is likely to spark depression. Often, depression begins when I have reached a level of empathy saturation I can no longer sustain. I am constantly absorbing the feelings of people around me, especially of those suffering all over the world. While that isn’t necessarily a good thing, I firmly believe that the empathy is a gift. Basically, I like to think of it as a superpower—like Dr. Charles Xavier’s except less useful.

• “I have a condition!”is a magical phrase for explaining to your husband why you have gone completely limp and are requiring him to physically drag you into the bedroom and put you to bed because you are “too tired to go to sleep.”

• I am not alone. This, mostly thanks to many of you who have told me so.

There is so much that I am still learning about myself and about how to live the fullest, richest life I can. I am not defined by my illness, and yet, it is as much a part of me as my terrible dancing and my freakishly small hands. Today I find that with all of the things that are hard about living with bipolar disorder and (perhaps even more so) wearing that label, I am profoundly grateful. I am grateful that there is an explanation for the things I feel and that it’s no longer a mystery. I am grateful for treatments and for coping strategies. I am grateful that I pushed through the fear and the shame and started talking about this, and I am grateful for all the love and understanding waiting for me here. Most of all, I am grateful for a family that is immensely supportive and for a faith that, though feeble, is still somehow enough.

“But You Don’t Seem Bipolar” and Other Things You (and My Gynecologist) Shouldn’t Say

Soon after my revelatory meeting with my psychiatrist, I embarked on that most delightful of all womanly privileges, my annual pelvic exam. This time I also had a specific mission – to discuss the potential side effects my being on the pill was having on my mental health and what alternative solutions there might be.

Along with meditation and other anxiety-reducing techniques, one of the first courses of action my psychiatrist recommended was to stop taking oral contraceptives to see if and how these seemed to influence my mental health. Since I have always found myself to be very sensitive to the pill and experienced many side effects for years, it made perfect sense to me that altering my natural hormones might have an affect on my mental health.

As is traditional, the doctor was “running late in surgery,” which gave me lots of time to build anticipation over both the exam and talking about the “b” word with someone outside of my inner circle of family and friends. My anxiety built so much that by the time the nurse took my vitals my blood pressure was high.

(Side Note: When I texted my husband to tell him about the blood pressure spike, he very thought (ful?less?)ly asked, “Why do you think you’re feeling anxious?” To which I sweetly replied, “I think it’s because a strange man is going to stick a metal object with a sharp blade on it inside of me and scrape my cervix.”)

Before the blessed event, I sat across the desk from my doctor (who, for reasons I believe are entirely self-explanatory, my friends and I refer to as “Poor Man’s Matt Damon” (PMDD)) and explained to him, “I was recently diagnosed with bipolar depression and…”

“Really?” he cut in skeptically. “But you don’t seem bipolar!”

I stared at him blankly for a minute, too stunned to think of a response. To be honest, the first thing that popped into my head was “And you don’t seem like a moron…” but thankfully I waited a beat. Finally I said, “Well, I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.”

“Huh,” he said, still not fully convinced.

I continued on, explaining my doctor’s suggestion of getting off the hormonal birth control to see if it made any difference.

“Why would that make a difference?” he pushed.

“Well…I guess…because…your hormones affect your moods. And it’s a mood disorder?” I ventured.

“Well,” he finally said, “I’m not a psychiatrist so I won’t argue with her, but I don’t know about that.”

Initial awkward conversation aside, we moved on to the most glamorous part of the ordeal, in which I put on a sexy gown essentially made of paper towels and attempted to make light, casual conversation with PMMD while he poked and prodded.

“So, I remember that you’re a writer, ” he began, no doubt having read over my chart while I was changing. “So…do you write more when you’re manic?”

I lay there looking up at the ceiling in this most vulnerable of positions, trying to ignore the cold pressure of the speculum and the heat rising to my face. I responded like I always do when I feel uncomfortable and don’t know how to show it. I laughed. I laughed like it was all a big joke. “Yes,” I said. “But of course, I do everything more when I’m manic.”

*******

While my doctor’s response was especially surprising given his career as a medical professional, the general sentiment is one I have encountered many times. Even before bipolar was part of the mix, I would mention my social anxiety to people and they would say, “But you always seem so confident. I would never guess.” When used to assure me that I can pass as normal in social situations, I honestly do appreciate this sentiment, but I have a harder time when it comes across as skepticism.

When I was first diagnosed, I felt relief and denial in equal measures. I was relieved to hear that this decade-long struggle had a name and that the regular return of depression was not a sign of weakness. In some ways it was empowering to reframe what I had thought of as recurring failure as remarkable resilience.

But as I wrote in my last post, I also had a hard time coming to terms with this word which brought with it stigma, shame, and fear. My awareness of bipolar disorder was limited to the extreme cases portrayed in movies or cited in news stories. While I now know that this disorder is a wide-ranging spectrum with many sub-types and that the experiences of people who fit under the larger mantle of “bipolar disorder” can vary tremendously, my initial understanding of it was embarrassingly narrow.

One of the things that compelled me to start writing about this was the desire to educate other people and to challenge the stigmatization of mental illness in general, and of this one in particular. To share your experience openly and honestly with someone and have them respond with doubt is incredibly invalidating, and it puts you in the strange position of actually trying to build an argument to convince someone of your suffering.

Dear Dr. PMMD, I’m glad I don’t seem bipolar. But that’s kind of the entire point.

How many people around us seem completely fine and are dying inside? How many people paste a smile on their faces while their bellies grow heavy with dread? How many people seem to keep a thousand plates spinning without every dropping one, but wake up in the night with their hearts racing, unable to breathe. How many people have a hundred friends, but no one who really knows them?

It is noble and right to reach out and to ask. But it is our high and holy calling to listen and to believe.

 

 

What Bipolar Actually Looks Like

Jonathan and I left Charlotte just as the sun was setting and a few storm clouds were rolling in. We’d spent a wonderful day with some dear friends and now we were driving the hour and a half back home. As we merged onto the interstate, the sky let loose and rain started pouring down. It was raining so hard, we couldn’t see more than 3 or 4 feet in front of us. Even though Jonathan was driving, my breaths started coming faster and my palms started to sweat. When the lightning strikes were followed by immediate crashes of thunder, I asked Jonathan to pull off at the next exit. As we inched our way towards the next off-ramp, a bolt of lightning ripped through the sheets of rain with simultaneous thunder so loud it rattled my teeth. Some almost animal instinct took over and suddenly I was screaming. Pure terror gripped every inch of my body and I shook so hard my teeth chattered. I was vaguely aware of Jonathan’s hand clamped down on my knee, but I couldn’t stop screaming and sobbing until we had pulled under the awning at a gas station a few minutes later.

Throughout this entire experience, I intellectually understood that we were not in significant danger, but my nervous system had kicked into override mode and there was no amount of reasoning that was going to turn it off. I wanted with everything in me to be OK, but I was most definitely not OK. All we could do was wait out the storm.

*****

It’s been a long time, friends.

I have wrestled with both wanting and not wanting to write this post for months. There are at least a dozen other posts I’ve wanted to write and felt that I couldn’t, because writing anything without writing this first felt dishonest. At first, I didn’t write because it took me some time to process and accept and articulate what all of this meant. And then, I didn’t write because I was afraid. I have been afraid of what you will think and how you will respond. Of the labels and the judgements you might make because of stigmas and assumptions and misunderstandings. But truthfully, my biggest fear has been of how this may impact my current job or future job prospects. I am terrified that someone will find a way to twist this honest admission of struggle into incompetence.

Over the past few weeks I’ve felt increasingly convicted that it is time to write about this, if not for myself, then maybe for one of you. I can’t be a slave to fear anymore. If writing this means that one person feels less alone, then it will be worth it.

******

In March I was officially diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and bipolar depression. The anxiety and panic disorders were old news (see panic attack because of thunderstorm), but the bipolar thing threw me for a loop. I mean, bipolar people are like, legit crazy, right?

Which is why I initially fought with my psychiatrist about it.

Dr: You’ve identified periods of depression you’ve had consistently for about 10 years, and you said you recently came out of a depression. Have you ever had a manic episode?

Me: Definitely not.

Dr: Manic episodes are characterized by decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts and ideas, talking more than usual/more quickly than usual. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities like spending sprees.

Me: I mean, yes, sometimes, maybe, for a few days or a week or whatever. After I finish being depressed. And I just feel so much better. And then I have lots of energy. And lots of ideas. But I mean, that’s only natural, right? And then I want to go shopping. But I return half of the things the next week!

Dr: Increase in goal-oriented activity?

Me: Does this sticker chart I just made for myself where I give myself stickers for things like “showering” count? (Produces sticker chart)

Dr: I’m going to say yes.

Me: Ok then.

Eventually I gave in and she explained to me that my particular bipolar disorder is a form of depression. People who suffer from depression generally fall into three categories. Category 1 are people who have a pretty normal baseline, suffer from a depressive period where they fall below the baseline, then come back to baseline. Category 2 are people who sort of exist at a consistent emotional level that is below the average baseline. And Category 3 are people who have a normal baseline and periodically dip down into depression, but sometimes instead of coming back to baseline, spike into hypomania before even-ing out. I’ll give you three guesses as to which one I am. It is also possible to experience depression and mania at the same time in a mixed episode where you feel frantic energy, like you are on speed, but also feel overwhelmingly sad. In my experience, these are the worst.

In some ways this came as a huge relief—for years I had believed that everyone else experienced the same intensity of feelings that I did, but that for some reason, I was just incapable of dealing with ordinary life, ordinary stress, and ordinary emotions the way everyone else seemed able to. The assurance that what I feel and experience is, in fact, more extreme than the average person, was somewhat comforting. To be able to say, “I’m not just bad at adulting, it’s legitimately harder for me than for some people,” was a huge relief.

In another way it brought a huge amount of shame. I was raised by strong parents, in particular a strong mother, who instilled in me the belief that willpower and discipline could cure most ailments. If I complained of cramps, she’d advise me to do crunches. If I was feeling sort of unidentifiably achy and feverish, she’d advise me to run around the block to “sweat it out.” And while she certainly acknowledges mental illness as a legitimate condition, she also believes in self-sufficiency. Her response to this situation was supportive, but something along the lines of, “You have to do what you have to do, but I believe in resilience, and someday you will too.” I couldn’t help feeling that I was lacking some critical measure of resilience that would have solved everything.

I was also ashamed of having this label fixed to me publicly. While I have written openly about anxiety, panic, and even depression, something about the specific words “bipolar disorder” felt different. Anxiety and depression are feelings that most people experience to some degree within their lifetime, even if it’s never a chronic struggle or doesn’t manifest in panic, but “bipolar” was something different. At best, it’s a punchline, and at worst, the type of condition that a Jekyll/Hyde style villain in a psychological thriller suffers from. There is a stigma associated with the word that I was not was not prepared to take on. I didn’t know how I felt about having that label, what it said about me, and how it would change the way other people viewed me.

Seven months later I can say that it has changed everything, and it is has changed nothing. A diagnosis is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is simply a name for things that have been true about me for years, how I am wired, and how my brain works. Understanding this truth about myself has given me greater self-awareness and self-compassion, but it has also challenged my own ideas about mental illness and the stigmas that go along with them.

In the deepest core of my being, I believe that courage is the antidote to fear and that bringing things into the light is the only way to live wholeheartedly. So here is some truth to combat the lies of stigma.

In case you were wondering, this is what a bipolar person actually looks like.*

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Here I am rocking pajama day for Spirit Week. Like a real adult. Responsible for molding young minds.

 

I have a meaningful job where I feel like I am impacting lives every day. I love it, and I am excellent at it.

And for the last three months I have woken up almost every day with such a incredible heaviness and sense of dread that it has been difficult to get out of bed, much less go into work.

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Serious stud.

I have been in a committed relationship with my husband for 10 years (married for 7) and I think he is the greatest human being I have ever met.

And I am often so exhausted after a day of managing my anxiety enough to fulfill all of my obligations that I can’t muster the mental or emotional energy to talk about his day or even share what happened in mine. My moods also change very rapidly, so a casual date night can turn into a SERIOUS DISCUSSION OF ALL THE PROBLEMS (INCLUDING CRYING) at the snap of a finger.

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I have wonderful friends who love me beautifully, and more than I deserve.

And I often feel worlds away from them because the reality of my every day life and what is going on in my head makes me feel like I live on a different planet than they do.

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Prague with my boo-thang

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Whitewater rafting after my brother’s wedding

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Me and my mom at a freaking ED SHEERAN CONCERT!

I love having adventures and trying new things. I think I’m a pretty fun person.

And I get a splitting headache and heart palpitations after being at large group events, like office Christmas parties or school-wide bowling. I get physically ill when traveling internationally, even though it is my favorite thing in the entire world.

I am learning to make peace with who I am.
I learning to seek help when I need it and to accept that not everything can be solved with willpower. I believe that I can learn ways to manage my mental health and for me and my loved ones to be healthier and happier, but I also accept that I may never be entirely “better.”

These October mornings, when I wake up with a pit in my stomach and a heaviness in my belly, I say to myself, “You do not have to be better. You only have to be brave. And you have been brave for so long. You are stronger than you think. You can do it again today.”

Whatever your mountain is today, please remember. You are not alone. You only have to be brave. Just for today.

_____________________________________________________________________________

*As a disclaimer, mental illness is a very individual experience, and there are many types of bipolar disorder. My symptoms and experience of bipolar disorder are not identical to someone else’s. For example, I’ve never suffered from psychosis, though many people do. My depression is primary and is heavily influenced by my anxiety. I am not in any way claiming that my experience is the definitive for people with bipolar disorder and I have no medical or professional training in dealing with these illnesses.