Depression

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.

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“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.

What’s Saving My Life Right Now

In Leaving Church Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a time she was asked to speak on the topic, “What’s saving your life right now.” Taylor says she realized this was a good question to ask herself from time to time.

My blogging friend, Cara Meredith at Be, Mama. Be, recently wrote a post answering this question (which was inspired by another blogger, Modern Mrs. Darcy) and I decided to join in.

I struggle with seasonal depression and February is often the hardest month of the year for me. The holidays have passed and we’ve returned from vacation, but it’s still cold and gray with nothing to look forward to in the near future and spring still too far off to see over the horizon. February is a month where I fight hard for the good things in my life. Writing this list of what’s saving me is a way of recognizing to the ordinary graces that get me through these days.

  1. My Yoga Pants. Yes, I know, I’m stepping into something of a hot-button area here. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it, it’s not worth it). Here’s the thing – There was Thanksgiving, then my birthday, then Christmas, then vacation and now my regular pants are like a fabric prison for my thighs and belly. But my yoga pants always love me. They stretch over my new jiggles without judgment. They whisper, “Go ahead and eat that King Cake. We’ve got you covered.” And I love them for that. (Can I just say, for 99% of women yoga pants are not about showing off our legs and butts. Yoga pants are about finding something that stretches over our legs and butts without cutting off our circulation. Amen.)
  2. Common Prayer. I started using Shane Claiborne’s collaborative book Common Prayer in my devotional time back in the fall, but I find myself clinging to it even more lately. Though they are designed to be used in a faith community (it’s called “common” prayer after all) I read the morning prayers myself each day and I find that this has helped to ground me. The book is inclusive and attempts to piece together parts of many liturgical traditions rather than just one and I really enjoy that. It has given me words to pray when I’m too tired or the days feel too heavy to find the words on my own.broadchurch_thumbnail_02_web
  3. Broadchurch. This is a BBC show that just slays me with how good it is. It’s a melancholy murder mystery kind of show that just haunts you in the best way. The second season is currently airing in the UK right now (don’t know that it’s available in the US) and thanks to using a VPN for our internet anyway, we can access it! It’s a bit torturous but so incredibly well done.
  4. blenderMy Beauty Blender. I’ve heard rave reviews about this product for a long time, but I was always kind of like, “Eh…it’s a sponge. How special can it be.” But since I’ve always wanted to be able to do my makeup to where it just looks like I have flawless skin I finally asked for it as a present for my birthday. My mother-in-law sent it to me, but the box got lost in the mail (first time this has ever happened). Finally, two months later, it showed up! I started using it. I cannot explain why this is the best thing ever, but it is. It feels like memory foam for one thing. You use it damp and just sort of pat in your foundation or concealer or whatever and it makes your face look absolutely flawless and not cakey at all. It’s seriously miraculous. I did try some similar products that weren’t the brand name beauty blenders (like the Real Techniques one) and to me there was a huge difference in the results. The real deal is worth it. I’m just bummed I didn’t find it before now.
  5. Edible cookie dough (doesn’t have raw egg – does have raw flour but I’ve eaten lots of dodgier things so that doesn’t bother me). Don’t tell my husband, but I secretly make just a teensy tiny amount of this sometimes and eat it really quickly while he’s at the gym. (shhhhh!) I admit, this is probably contributing to my needing #1 so much in my life right now.
    Cookie dough

Chock-Full of Ugly: Discontentment, Depression and Making Room for Joy

Last August my husband and I packed up our apartment, stored our belongings, sold our cars, crammed everything we thought we couldn’t live without into 4 suitcases and took a one-way flight to South Korea. We were going to teach, something neither of us had any experience doing. We didn’t know anyone in Korea and we didn’t speak the language. The plan seemed foolproof.

After three years of marriage and three years of working dead-end jobs – watching friends finish graduate school, start the careers they dreamed of, and begin buying houses and starting families, I felt stuck. I felt stuck in spite of the fact that we had moved across the country, just to try something new. I felt stuck in spite of my changing jobs every summer since college, consistently growing to hate whatever my current job was and searching for something better. I felt stuck even though I loved North Carolina, lived within meters of my best friend, had two fantastic cats, and had been able to do some traveling each year. In spite of all of that, the disquiet inside of me was unrelenting.

And so, we struck out across the sea. To a continent neither of us had stepped foot on before. To a country I’d honestly never even considered visiting. We went in pursuit of adventure and new opportunities and a fuller life. I thought living abroad would mean an end to boredom. An end to feeling trapped in the tedium of the jobs I’d held before. An end to the monotony of the ordinary American life, and an end to unhappiness and discontentment.

It took only a few months for the newness to rub off and suddenly Korea was no longer a shiny and alluring dream to chase, but a somewhat dull and ever-present reality. The novelty of being immersed in a new culture gave way to the everyday challenges of being misunderstood and the frustration of feeling like a child again, unable to properly do something as basic as ordering food in a restaurant or answering the telephone. Every small aspect of life being just a little more complicated and a little more confusing than it should be soon became exhausting instead of thrilling. As the winter came and the weather became colder and grayer, I found myself, once again, struggling. Struggling to be positive. Struggling to pull myself out of bed and head to work in the morning. Struggling to care about blow-drying my hair and dressing nicely. Struggling to eat well instead of ordering McDonald’s delivery and lying in bed until it arrived. Struggling to connect with my husband instead of sinking into my own little Downton Abbey world at the end of each day. Struggling to go through the motions of another day that is as ordinary as daily life was at home, except that now ordinary includes not understanding half of what happens around me.

Although intellectually I always understood this, it wasn’t until we’d picked up and moved across the world that I fully realized that no matter where you are, the rituals of daily life just are mundane. Even in Korea I have responsibilities. I have to get up and go to work on time. I have to do the laundry and clean the apartment and cook dinner and buy groceries. Yes, there are new things for me to explore every weekend if I want to. Yes, I have a job that doesn’t feel as pointless and soul-sucking as my marketing job did. Yes, I have opportunities to travel and see new things I never dreamed I’d see. Those are the things that make this experience the best decision we’ve ever made. But in my day to day life I can find just as many things to complain about, just as many things that weigh me down or to make me unhappy as I did back home.

For years I have wrestled with discontentment. I have been the master of convincing myself (beyond all logic and in complete contradiction to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that he had learned “to be content in every circumstance”) that the reason I was discontent was because of one particular set of circumstances or another. That life would be better when the next thing came. That I would be better. I told myself I would be content once I went to college, had a boyfriend, graduated from college, got married, stopped nannying and found a real job, moved somewhere new, quit my new job, went back to school, lost weight, had more friends, took an exciting vacation, moved abroad…

Sometimes this was true. Going away to college made me infinitely happier than I was in high school. Getting married has been the richest and best experience of my life. Quitting my marketing job helped me realize that I am not cut out for a desk job. And moving to Korea and the travel we’ve been able to do since we came has made me feel alive in a way that nothing else ever has. But in the end none of those things were a permanent fix. Three weeks or four months or a year later, there was always something else for me to be dissatisfied with.

I’m not a “sad person.” I laugh easily, and often. But those who know me best can see that there is often an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life and frustration with myself for being that way.

Because even though I have made change after change after change (and some of them have been wonderful) I have carried the root of the problem inside of me like a cancer. Living in Korea has objectively been a wonderful experience, but Korea doesn’t have the ability to make me happy. Because I brought pessimism and discontentment and a tendency towards depression here with me.

I understand the difference between happiness and joy. That happiness is temporary because it is affected by our circumstances, but joy is something you can possess even when you’re unhappy with your circumstances. But I also know that discontentment leaves very little room for joy. And for me, sometimes discontentment’s uglier cousin, depression, can fill up all the space inside of me until there isn’t any room for joy to grow.

Coming to Korea has changed me in some positive ways. I am no longer waiting for the next great thing. I no longer tell myself that I will be happier or more content when I reach the next milestone. I think of Korea, and this time living abroad, as our great adventure. I don’t in any way think life will be miserable after this, but I also feel that this may be the biggest and craziest thing we do. That there might not be a “bigger” thing after this. And I don’t want to live my life constantly looking forward to what’s ahead. I want to live a life that is full of wonder. I want to soak up beauty like a sponge and know wisdom’s voice. I want to know that things are real because I’ve seen them and touched them with my own hands. I want to be willing to give of myself with no thought to how tired it will make me. I want to learn to love the whole world. And I want to learn to love myself.

This is the life I want and yet, this winter has been dark, friends. Some days I’ve wanted to let it swallow me. To lay down in my bed and not get up again until spring. This isn’t because my life is horrible or even particularly difficult. This has nothing to do with my actual circumstances. This is because I am broken.

I’ve been depressed before. The scary kind of depressed. I’m not quite in that place. I’m not unhappy about my life– there are so many things that I am truly, deeply grateful for. I’m not incapable of feeling joy. There are many moments when I am deeply, wildly happy. The problem seems to lie in my inability to rest in that joy and let it color my more monotonous days. Many days I lack either the will or the skills to let those precious, joyful moments weigh heavier and count more than the gray sky and the sour smell of rotting kimchi on the street.

I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the fight for joy wasn’t quite so hard. When I didn’t reach the end of each day exhausted from the energy it took for me just to smile, to be kind and to stay engaged that day. I’ve tried to change. I even tried to writing 1,000 Gifts like Saint Ann Voskamp and was pretty pissed off when I was not magically transformed by gratitude. (By the way, that is not a dig at Ann Voskamp who I think is wonderful person and whose book and blog you should read.) It’s possible that this is the result of chemicals in my brain or hormones in my body misfiring, keeping me unbalanced, my whole being in turmoil because of some rogue element. But even if that’s part of it, I know deep down it’s not the whole thing. I know there is a core to this problem that is spiritual. It is a disquiet that comes being dissatisfied with myself. From the questions I have been afraid to ask. The truths I’m not always sure I believe. The prayers I pray and the ones that I don’t want to.

Here in Korea, I have been given the gift of space and the time to do some of the deep work I need to do. To wade through the muck inside of me and to start giving a voice to the questions. To start expressing the doubts. To expose the darkness I see in myself. To admit how much it scares me. To see if Grace might intervene.

I want to live an extraordinary life. But I can’t do it when I’m crammed full of ugliness . So maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the next thing to come. Maybe it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Maybe it’s time to beg Grace to show me how to carve out space for joy.

There is no failure

At the beginning of this week two of my roommates from college were in town visiting. It was the first time we’d all been together since my wedding in June. It was wonderful to see them and so strange to realize that we’ve been out of school for almost a year and how quickly that’s gone. It’s strange to think that our college experience is over and all we have left are the memories.

For the most part I had a wonderful college experience–I made lifetime friends, I learned so much academically, socially, and spiritually, I met my husband, and I learned how to drive in the snow. But what I found myself thinking about as we reminisced were the things I wish I’d done differently. The things that, if given the chance, I would do over.

During a significant portion of my jr. year I was pretty severely depressed. There was family drama happening at home, two of my roommates (the same two who were visiting this week) were studying abroad half of the year and the resulting living situation was tense and stressful. I was terribly lonely and felt that I had few friends which made me put a tremendous amount of pressure on Jonathan to be available to me anytime I wanted him. And on top of all of this, a friend of both of ours made some choices that we couldn’t understand and for which I judged him severely. For some reason, although his choices didn’t directly involve me, I took his actions as a personal offense. I handled the situation so poorly that I lost that friend and hurt someone else in the process. There are times even now that I cannot believe Jonathan still chose to marry me after seeing that.

When I reflected on these things that I wish had been different I realized that even if I were able to go back, there was very little I could have changed about the situations themselves. What I would have changed is how I responded to them. I would have stopped myself from taking responsibility for things that weren’t my responsibility (the family drama, whether or not my roommates were getting along, whether I thought my friend was making the right choice.) And then I realized that while I regret some things about that time in my life, without it I might not have changed. With it, I have the hope that in the present and in the future I will handle myself differently.

At Weight Watchers they say, “There is no failure. Only feedback.” What they mean by that is that if you have a week where you don’t make the healthiest choices, and the result is that you gain weight, you shouldn’t see the gain as a failure. Instead, it’s your body’s natural feedback to the choices you made and that feedback tells you that if this isn’t the result you want, you should make a different choice. I think in many ways the rest of life works that way too. While it does us no good to live in the past or to dwell on our mistakes, I think much of our success and growth in the future depends on our past.

I look back on that year, and on other situations over the past few years and see things that I wish I’d done differently and I am faced with a choice. I can either live a life filled with regret (and trust me, this is easy for me to do. I am the queen of beating myself up over things) or I can look at things I wish I’d done differently and do them differently. Now and in the future.

Wake-up Call

One of our kittens, Bart,  is developing a very nasty habit of sitting outside our bedroom door at 6 am and howling while clawing the carpet to bits in an attempt to get us to wake up and come out or at least let him into the bedroom. The first time he did this was last Saturday morning, our greatly-anticipated chance to sleep in. Not only was he loud and obnoxious, but I obviously didn’t want him tearing up the carpet, so my husband got up and put him into the bathroom and closed the door. Our apartment is very small and the bathroom door is directly across a narrow hallway from our bedroom door. Bart then began to hurl his body repeatedly against the bathroom door, making more noise than he had been before. After a few minutes of that we had to let him out of the bathroom where he became so emotionally distraught that he threw up on the carpet.  Needless to say, we did not get to sleep in. In fact, Bart’s ridiculous behavior inexplicably launched me into a complete emotional meltdown.

I found myself lying in bed, sobbing in frustration at this stupid little kitten who just wouldn’t shut up and let me sleep. And after I started crying, I found that I couldn’t stop. As I sobbed my way through the morning, I thought, “Why am I being so emotional? Am I going crazy?” followed quickly by, “Am I pregnant?!” which launched me into further, gut-wrenching sobs–If the cat waking me up caused this kind of trauma, imagine my response to a baby doing it every night for like 6 months straight!

I kept trying to figure out what the problem was…clearly I was not really that emotionally distraught over the cat. Annoyed and frustrated, yes, but not overwhelmed with emotion. I came up with a few things that I had been upset about over the past week or so, but really none of them mattered that much to me. I kept trying and trying to verbalize something I didn’t even understand. My sweet husband sat with me, let me cry, and tried to encourage me until I had finally worn myself out, still not really knowing what the problem was.

It took me until yesterday, 4 days later, to figure it out. Last Friday (the day before my meltdown) we had heard a rumor that Ohio State would be notifying the applicants who were accepted into their MFA program that evening. Both my husband and I are beyond ready to find out where he will be accepted and where we might end up next year. The Ohio State program was the first one to notify and if he were accepted into it we would be able to relax a little knowing we had at least one option. As Friday passed we both grew more and more anxious. By Friday evening we were both so restless we decided to go out. We went to dinner and then a movie and didn’t hear anything. By the time we went to bed we were both feeling a bit of a letdown from all of the expectation.

I was frustrated. I was frustrated that we didn’t hear anything and disappointed that the rumors had apparently been false. If I’m going to be honest though, I was more frustrated that I couldn’t control it. There was not a single thing I could do that would change the situation. I couldn’t make any of those schools make the decision I wanted. I couldn’t control how soon they made the decision or when they told us about it. We have to wait and no matter how much I hate that, I can’t do anything about it. And Saturday morning when Bart was intent on waking us up at 6 I hated it, and yet was powerless to stop him. And I couldn’t stand the feeling anymore. I exploded.

One of the things I am constantly reminding Sami of when I’m nannying is that she is not in charge. Whether she’s bossing Dylan around or trying to assert her opinion about whether or not it’s time to clean up, she’s needs to be reminded that she is not in charge. It isn’t something she likes being reminded of and sometimes when I ask her, “Sami, who’s in charge?” she will smile mischievously and say, “Me.” But no matter how much she wants it to be true, I am still the one who decides what we are having for lunch and when. I decide when it’s naptime and what activities we are going to do that day. When we go to the library, Sami chooses books and then I read through all of them and decide which ones we’ll take home with us.

It’s so silly to me when Sami tries to assert that she is in charge, contrary to all evidence. And yet, I see a great deal of myself in her. In my own, perhaps more subtle way, I have also been trying to assert control over things that I am simply not in control of and was never meant to be. And I wonder if God looks at me the way I look at Sami–smiling to himself a little at how silly this little girl is being, who thinks she can control things by sheer willpower in spite of the fact that all of her days are held in his hand.

This morning when Bart woke me up at (thank goodness!) 7:30 I was greeted by a stunning visual reminder of a simple, powerful truth. Outside my window were snowdrifts from last night’s blizzard piled up 4 feet high against the glass and I thought, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”