Anxiety

“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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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*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.

Europe Dunn Right Episode 1: When the Worst Thing Becomes the Best Thing

We started our great European adventure in the Atlanta airport. We’d bought tickets with Air Canada that flew from Atlanta to Toronto and then on into Istanbul. Our plan was to spent 12 hours in Istanbul, doing a mad dash through the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque before continuing on to Athens. Over the past few years Istanbul has become a source of fascination for me, so when I found out that the cheapest way into Europe was to fly through Istanbul, I was all about it.

We spent the night in Atlanta so we’d be able to arrive at the airport bright and early before our 11 AM flight. We were among the first people to check in. When we checked in we were told that we had no seat assignments, but not to worry because they would be assigned at the gate. We got coffee, went to our gate and read for a while, waiting for an agent to appear.

When the agent showed up, we politely asked for seat assignments. She said to sit down and wait and she would give them to us as soon as she had them. We politely and patiently sat down. 30 minutes later, we checked back in with her and were given the same answer. I tried to be calm, but I was starting to get nervous.

A few minutes later the gate agent announced that the boarding process was beginning. We stood at the desk and said, “We still don’t have seat assignments.” She asked us to wait just a minute until she was done boarding these people. At this point it became clear to me that we were not getting on this flight. As the final passengers boarded the plane, the gate agent finally told us, “You purchased tickets, but not seats, so we’ll have to put you on the next flight.”

I collapsed into a chair where I tried to do deep breathing exercises while popping anxiety pills. In spite of being fairly well-traveled and very flexible in many ways, I am not good with travel delays or changes in travel plans. Any type of travel where there is the potential to miss a connection–a flight, a train, etc.–makes me physically anxious. And when things go wrong, even though they are usually fixable, I freak out.

Once everyone had boarded our flight and the door was closed, we waited for the gate agent to give us a new itinerary. The best they could do was a flight that got us into Istanbul late in the afternoon–not leaving enough time for us to leave the airport and see anything before our evening flight to Athens. We asked if we could just fly directly to Athens since we wouldn’t have time to see anything in Istanbul anyway, but the gate agent said she could only book us tickets to our original destination. I angry-tweeted at Air Canada for a while while being very polite to the gate agent. We were both disappointed to realize we’d miss this whole day of our trip and end up spending two full days sitting in airports.

And then, the agent had us sign the paperwork for the airline to send us compensation for being involuntarily removed from our flight. Because we’d been bumped from that international flight, the airline sent us large checks (not travel vouchers). When we added everything up later we realized these checks covered almost exactly half of the cost of our entire 18 day trip to Europe. Which means we got a 1/2 priced trip to Europe.

I know. We’re still in shock.

The thing that seemed like the WORST THING EVER to the anxious traveler in me turned out to be an enormous blessing.

We flew to Toronto and then to Istanbul where we sat in the airport for about five hours before flying on to Athens. Since Jonathan’s luggage didn’t make it to Istanbul, we got to spend part of that time getting him Turkish boxers and t-shirts to tide him over until his bag arrived.

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Here’s Jonathan, killing time in the International Departures lounge in the Istanbul airport, waiting until we can check in for our flight to Athens.

I can’t finish this post without talking about how close to home it hit to hear about the Istanbul airport bombing, just 3 weeks after we’d been there. I think about the 36 people who died and the 147 more who were injured and know that it could so easily have been us. I am grateful for our safety, but I do not believe we are entitled to it any more than anyone else.  Today Turkey erupted into chaos as the military attempted a coup. I can’t help but thing of all the lives that have been and will be lost as the government and military struggle. I pray for peace and it feels inadequate. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

 

 

 

 

To Write Truth on My Arms

On Saturday I got a new tattoo, lyrics from a song I love crawling down my forearm from elbow to wrist,inked in carefully crafted, one-of- a-kind lettering designed for me by a dear friend. It says, “I will hold on hope.”

When you tattoo words on your arms, people ask questions. They want to know “Why these words? What do they mean?” And there is no simple explanation, no easy way to describe everything these words mean to me, and everything the song they come from represents.

Last Wednesday night I woke up to the sound of gunshots. Three sharp staccato cracks and then the squeal of tires and the roar of an engine. I lay in my bed, heart pounding, afraid to move, mind racing through possibilities. A domestic dispute? A drug deal gone wrong? Or maybe it wasn’t really gunshots at all. How did I even know what gunshots sounded like? But minutes later, when the police lights pulsed through my bedroom window like a beacon, I understood that what I’d heard really was a gun and it really was just yards away from my bedroom. Panic wrapped its fingers around me like a vice as we took our pillows and crept upstairs into the loft in the dark, trying to escape the flashing blue lights without attracting attention. I folded my body onto the short end of the sectional, knees pressed into my chest, trying to make myself as small as possible, thinking about how much I miss living in a place where I never felt threatened, where I was never suspicious of my neighbors or worried for my safety.

For several anxious days afterwards I flinched at every loud noise or flash of motion caught in my periphery. My body trembled and my teeth chattered with chills produced by the excess adrenaline coursing through me. The days blurred together until, with a little medication and a lot of prayer and some serious support from my husband, I started to relax back into my life.

There are many things I cannot control about my circumstances. There are many things I cannot control about my own body. But I believe that I have the power to choose what defines me. Each of my tattoos represents a truth about who I am and who I hope to be. “I will hold on hope,” is both a truth and a resolution. I will not be defined by anxiety and I will not settle into a unfulfilling life because I’ve given up on dreaming for a greater one. I will choose hope.

Later on in this song come the lyrics, “But I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it’s meant to be.” Like with any form of art, I’m sure there are different interpretations of this song, but to me, these words are powerful. They express the restless energy I have felt for most of my life–the tension I feel between the life that’s expected of me and the life I dream of. I believe that I can live my life “as it’s meant to be.” I believe that even as I struggle with anxiety and depression, I can choose hope. So I hold on.

I hold onto the hope that the broken parts of me can be made whole, that I can grow strong through struggle, and that I can find the freedom to live my life honestly and authentically, as it’s meant to be, even if it looks different from the lives of those around me.

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My mom went with me to get my tattoo…which was an experience I could never have imagined in a million years. If you know my family, you’ll know what I mean.

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The lyrics are taken from the Mumford & Sons song, “The Cave.”
The font was hand lettered for me by my dear friend Asharae Kroll.

Disappearing Tricks: Life With Anxiety

When I was still a child, I learned the secret of how to disappear.

This was something of a miracle because I had always been too loud and too rough, with dirty fingernails and chronically bruised shins and a long golden ponytail that whipped around my waist when I ran. The only time that I was quiet was when I was reading. And I read the way some people breathe – necessarily and without effort. When I read, I traveled through time and space and in and out of reality. I returned to my own world fuzzy-headed, unsure of the line between what was real and what I’d imagined.

This ability to escape through books was a treasure, but one day, I discovered that there were other ways to leave reality behind. I could do it anytime I needed to.

I was born craving approval. From my earliest memories, I wanted to achieve perfection with every fiber of my being. I believed that I deserved love and acceptance because I made the best grades and won all of the awards and obeyed my parents and made everyone in my class laugh. But I was a child, and like all children, there were times when I got in trouble.

When a teacher or my parents corrected me, I was devastated. I lived to please and when I didn’t I felt physically sick with the knowledge that I’d disappointed them. My heart would race until my chest hurt and my stomach would clench and I would imagine myself breaking into a thousand pieces. My body would shake and I would chant to myself, “I’m not here. I’m not here. I’m not here.” And then one day, I wasn’t.

Or at least, part of me wasn’t. It was as if I was no longer quite connected to my body. I could hear my father’s words of anger and disappointment, but they seemed to be coming from a long way off. I was sitting across from him at the kitchen table, but I was also floating somewhere up in the corner of the room watching myself with cool detachment, protected from the intensity of his disappointment and no longer on the verge of breaking.

This, I discovered, was an incredible skill. I now had the power to remove myself from whatever situations proved too stressful or upsetting to handle, and no one else would even know. I had learned to disappear in plain sight.

I became so good at disappearing that I forgot how to stay put. I now know that this is called disassociating, but at the time I heard it called “zoning out.” I got into such a habit of disassociating that I found myself doing it not only when my stress level skyrocketed, but also when I was bored, upset, or feeling anything else I didn’t want to be feeling.

All of this disappearing started to affect my memory. Although I graduated from high school only ten years ago, I have almost no memories of that entire chunk of my life, most of which I spent observing myself from a long way off. High school was possibly the most stressful time of my life as I tried to maintain perfect grades and perfect behavior while constantly trying to earn the approval of my parents, my teachers, my church leaders, and my friends. I lived in a state of constant and severe anxiety, which I didn’t even recognize as abnormal.

I’d suffered from chronic tension headaches from the time I was in elementary school, but during my freshman year of college I developed a heart arrhythmia. It came and went, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. It felt like my heart would skip a beat, followed by an extra hard double-beat at the end of the overlong pause. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because each heartbeat was so strong it felt like it was echoing through my body, rattling my teeth, and making my limbs throb. “Premature Ventricular Contractions” the doctor said. Triggered by stress and anxiety. I told the doctor I wasn’t stressed or anxious about anything and that it must be something else. He said to drink a lot of water, replenish my electrolytes, and lay off of caffeine.

Around the same time I started having stomach problems that I still struggle with. For weeks or even months at a time I would have chronic stomachaches that weren’t affected by what I ate or didn’t eat, by how much I exercised or how much caffeine I drank. My belly bloated and swelled until I looked like I was a solid 5 months pregnant, and most of the time I was in constant pain. This would last for long stretches of time until one day, just as unexpectedly as it came, it would stop, and I would live normally for weeks or months with no issues. I had learned to live with extreme amounts of stress so well that I honestly could not see a pattern of my anxiety correlating with my stomach problems.

There were other physical signs that something was going on, but I simply didn’t recognize them as abnormal. I remember dozens of times when I would meet with a professor, spend time with a friend I found difficult to please, have some sort of confrontation, or be forced to participate in some activity that I didn’t want to do, and my whole body would tremble so hard that my teeth chattered. I would sweat through my clothes, the kind of sweat that stains, and afterwards, when I relaxed, my whole body would ache from the tension I’d been carrying. Now I realize that this was from an extreme amount of adrenaline my anxious body was releasing to help me get through an overwhelming situation, but at the time it never occurred to me that this was abnormal.

It wasn’t until last spring, as we began preparing to move back to the States after two years in Korea, that I was finally able to recognize all of this for what it was – anxiety. As I started looking for a job and a place to live in the US, I was blindsided by a series of panic attacks that would strike without warning – at home, on the bus, at work. My heart would pound and I would feel like I was being stabbed through the chest as fears I didn’t know I had raced through my head. I thought we’d die in Korea and never make it back, or that we’d get back and not be able to find a place to live, or that I wouldn’t be able to find a job and we’d spend all of our savings and not be able to pay our bills and be miserable. Often these panic episodes would start completely unprovoked as I went about my normal routine. I never knew when they might hit and I couldn’t escape them by disassociating, and that was part of what made them so utterly terrifying.

The panic attacks were new territory for me. I’d never thought of myself as an anxious person. I knew people who were anxious – people who could twist themselves up in worry over things that had never even entered my head. I always wanted to take those friends by the shoulders, maybe shake them a little, and remind them to RELAX. And suddenly, I found myself unable to relax. I wasn’t intentionally stirring up an anxiety and worry in myself; it was rising up out of the place it had been hiding for years.

The panic attacks had one positive effect – they made me recognize anxiety for the first time and to realize that what I had been experiencing for so long wasn’t healthy or normal. As I started to look back over my life, I could see that anxiety had been my constant companion since childhood. I could see it in the way I chewed my fingernails bloody and how I laid in my bed at night as a second grader, praying for Jesus to return before I woke up. I could see it in the host of unidentifiable ailments, each one a physical manifestation of a level of stress that my mind and my heart simply couldn’t handle.

Even though I was starting to see a pattern of anxiety in my life, I still thought the panic attacks were associated with the move and that once we’d settled down back in America they would subside. It’s been six months since we returned to the US and while the attacks have lessened, they haven’t disappeared. Sometimes we have to cancel plans last minute because I’m suddenly seized with the conviction that my husband will die if he leaves the house, and for the present I no longer stand in line at the bank or visit movie theaters because these places are triggers for me.

I know that this all sounds very dramatic and maybe a bit depressing, but ironically, I’m feeling more and more hopeful. See, there is freedom in calling something by its name. Sometimes naming the thing takes away some of its power. When the panic attacks started, I couldn’t understand where they were coming from or why, and I felt powerless against them. Now I understand that anxiety has been part of my DNA all along. I understand that my habit of dissociating and my health issues have been a subconscious way of dealing with an unusually high level of anxiety from a very young age.

Anxiety for me is mental and physical—it is not a conscious decision and it is not something I can make go away through force of will—but it is also profoundly spiritual. Learning to manage anxiety requires my letting go of the need to manipulate my circumstances and control every outcome. The anxiety itself may never go away (though I pray that it does), but I am coming to understand that I have a weapon that can keep me from being overwhelmed. Along with therapy for my mind and medication for my body, there is a remedy for my spirit and it’s called Truth.

Anxiety shouts with a loud voice, but Truth always speaks louder.

Truth says that the peace of God which transcends understanding will guard my heart and my mind.

Truth says those who trust in the Lord will be kept in perfect peace.

Truth says, “Fear not, for I am with you!” time and time again.

Truth is giving me the courage to stay put instead of disappearing. It’s teaching me to accept my weaknesses and my limitations and to rely on a strength greater than my own. And it’s teaching me how to live well in a world where I’m not always in control.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

The Things I Carry from 2015 and my One Word for 2016

I lived a hundred different lives in 2015. The adventurous expat, the patient teacher, the homesick little girl, the intrepid world traveler, the anxiety-ridden dependent, the supportive wife, the optimistic partner, the heartbroken friend. I have felt a hundred incongruous emotions — hopeful and discouraged, excited and apathetic, inspired and utterly disengaged, generous and self-protective, joyful and bitterly sad. I’ve traveled through 7 countries and made a 6,000 mile move. Each separate life and identity is self-contained like a square on a quilt, inextricably connected to the whole and meaningless without it.

I move forward into 2016 marked by the experiences of this past year and of all the years that came before it. I carry them with me like the very cells of my body. Who I am today is shaped by what I did yesterday and last year and in the years before that. But who I will be tomorrow depends on what I choose to do with today.

There are dozens of ways I’d like to change, but when I think of all the things I need to do better I don’t feel inspired to step into a new year – I feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start. I need to eat better, to exercise more, to drink more water, to be less selfish, to love better, to make more time for writing, to travel, to explore, to learn a new language or skill, to be a better friend, to volunteer, to blog more consistently, to stop whining so much, to pray more, to be more organized.

Last year I abandoned my list of resolutions in favor of just One Word. The idea of One Word is to get rid of your list and to choose a single word to focus on for a whole year. “One word that sums up who you want to be and how you want to live.”

In 2015, I chose the word “Wholehearted.” It was a big word that encompassed an entire way of looking at the world. I’m not finished with wholeheartedness – becoming wholehearted is a lifelong journey – but I have chosen a new word to represent 2016. My word is Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” Mindfulness is something I profess to believe in deeply, but fail to put into practice.

From the time I was a young child I learned to disassociate. This began as a coping mechanism for me, a way of dealing with my anxiety, but it grew into a habit. There is a restlessness in me that causes me to grow bored and discontented easily, and when I’m no longer entertained, challenged, or excited, I tend to disengage.

There is nothing more terrifying to me than the thought of living an ordinary life, but most of life is made of ordinary moments. How much of mine do I miss by checking out and simply going through the motions while I dream of being somewhere else? This year, I want to learn to be present for my own life.

The poet Mary Oliver writes often about what it means to pay attention to the world. In her famous poem “The Summer Day” she writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I believe that nothing is without meaning if we only pay attention to it. And I believe that I can waste my one wild and precious life not through big mistakes, but through day after day of failing to pay attention and just going through the motions.

I am setting my intention this year on just one thing – growing in Mindfulness. I will choose to be present for my every day life. I want to learn to see the extraordinary wrapped up in my ordinary days and to collect evidences of grace that shine true even when the days are dark.

If you’ve chosen One Word for 2016, leave a comment below and share what you chose and what it means to you. 

Header image via: The Huffington Post

What’s Saving My Life Right Now: Update

Back in February I wrote a post called “What’s Saving My Life Right Now.” This question comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. Taylor tells the story of a time when she was asked to speak on this topic. At first it seemed like an unusual thing for a priest-turned-professor to speak about, but as she composed her speech, she realized it was powerful to reflect on the graces of a particular season. She made a note to ask herself this question from time to time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things in my life that are hard: missing Korea, experiencing constant rejection on the job front, continuing to struggle with a chronic ear infection I’ve had since July, having to pack up and move (again!) in a few weeks, the return of my panic attacks, and now this huge natural disaster in my new city.

I would be quick to extend compassion and grace to anyone else in this situation, but I find that It’s difficult for me to give myself that same measure of grace. I feel that it is not OK that I haven’t figured out a stable job situation, that I can’t get over this ear infection (which is costing a small fortune in doctor’s bills), that some days I am utterly overwhelmed by daily life when I am so very fortunate compared to many. Life is short and precious and I don’t want to spend mine feeling overwhelmed and hopeless when there is so much beauty I could be enjoying. There is a disconnect between the life I want to lead and the life I find myself living.

I wrote recently about my experience with the Lord’s Prayer — about asking for daily bread and receiving manna just for one day. Two days ago, manna came in the form of a letter from a reader named Steph who just moved to the middle-of-nowhere Texas after several years in South Africa. In so many ways, we are leading parallel lives. Like me, she moved to the US for her husband to go to graduate school. Like me, she is having trouble acclimating. Like me, she is unsuccessfully looking for a job that won’t kill her soul. Basically, we’re the same person. But in her letter she reminded me of the value of focusing on the things she loves about where she is and what she’s doing. She reminded me of some of the things that I love about being back in America. Her letter inspired me to do an update on what’s saving my life right now.

Here’s my list. Leave me a comment about what’s saving your life right now. I’m a collector of ordinary grace.

  • The library. The public library system in Columbia rocks my socks. It’s similar to Raleigh’s library system in which there are many smaller branches scattered around the county, but the full collection is extensive. You can easily request any book you are interested in and have it delivered to your closest branch so you don’t have to drive all over town to get a particular book. There is also an extensive collection of audiobooks (which I love listening to when I’m spending time in the car running errands) and dvds (including full seasons of TV shows). And it is all free!!!!

  • My bathtub. After two years of showering in a wet room where my shower head was connected to my sink, I am grateful for both a separate shower with a curtain and especially for a tub where I can sit with a book and relax.
    bubble bath
  • Fall candles. In the last year or so I’ve really gotten into scents, both in terms of perfumes and house scents. In my opinion, fall candles are the best of all the candles. My favorites right now are Leaves, Pumpkin Pie, and Marshmallow Fireside from Bath and Body Works and my Tobacco Vanilla one from Paddywax.
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  • My cats. I’d forgotten how much joy those little jerks bring to my life. Even when their demands for attention disrupt my day, I can’t help loving those warm little bodies curled up against me and t their ability to make a game out of anything, like systematically pushing things off the counter or stealing twist ties from the kitchen and later drowning them in their water bowl so they are good and dead.

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    If you try to take this twist tie, I will murder you in your sleep.

  • Friends. Being in Columbia has allowed us to see many of our friends more often than we did in Korea, but even more often than we did before in America. We’ve seen our good friends in Charlotte three times in the two months we’ve been here. I’ve seen all of my college roommates twice, my best friend from childhood once, and I’ll see another of my best friends from home this coming weekend. I’ve also started to make new friends in Columbia through my friend Lorien’s Bible study, through the church we’ve been attending, and through Jonathan’s program. These friendships are gifts and they make life brighter.
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Everyone should have friends to go to IKEA with.