Depression

“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.

******

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.

Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: For Antidepressants, and for Quitting Them

Are you as excited as I am for another Thankful Thursday? These posts always touch and inspire me and I love being able to share them with you. Today’s post is especially close to my heart because today’s writer is close to my heart. Laura and her husband Josh have been our closest friends during our two years in Korea. We had the great privilege of walking with them through Laura’s entire pregnancy, the birth of their first child, and the next year of transition into parenthood. This story touched me  because I was around to witness a lot of it, but also because I too have struggled with anxiety and depression and while I’ve never experienced the hormonal havoc of childbirth, I know what it is to have your mind and body betray you in frightening ways. I’m so thankful for Laura and her family and also for God’s work in her life through a very difficult and scary time.

For Antidepressants, and for Quitting Them

It was just shy of a year ago, as the clock struck one on a humid August night in Korea, that I birthed our beautiful daughter. My mom stood at one shoulder and my husband at the other and the doctor and nurses at my feet, all urging me to push as hard as I could after 24 hours of back labor had left me exhausted and whimpering.

Laura and Gen

Laura with one month old Genevieve

Then she was here, and she was perfect. I spent the next two weeks in a tired-but-wired state of attentiveness, Mom still on one side and Josh on the other, tirelessly supporting me in those early days of nursing and changing and cuddling and kissing this miracle, as I struggled to sleep when she slept and only managed about three hours out of every 24. Other than this, I felt like everything was going really well.

Until one morning a cloud descended. The adrenaline had run out, it seemed, and the rest of my hormones were going haywire in its absence. A few extra hours of blessed sleep did finally come, but it wasn’t enough. Something was wrong and it wasn’t just exhaustion. I had postpartum depression.

Except for how suddenly I crashed, it really wasn’t much of a shock. Throughout my teens and early 20s, I lived with low-grade anxiety, a constant tension in my tummy that I didn’t realize wasn’t normal till my chill-as-one-can-be husband came along and showed me how to relax. Then we moved to Korea to teach English, and the stress of doing a new job in a new country—and trying to do it perfectly—brought that anxiety back with a vengeance. This time depression came with it.

I limped through that year with copious amounts of pizza and beer and ice cream and TV (I know, I know), as well as a lot of prayer and care from Josh and friends and family. I did learn how to be a more effective EFL teacher and how to stop trying to be a perfect one, so things got better. But the lingering fatigue left me aching to go back home to Kansas, and we did, and it was good.

Fast forward three years to the August of our daughter’s birth, and we’d been back in Korea for almost a year. This time only Josh was teaching, and I was finishing up a low-stress pregnancy as a stay-at-home-mom-to-be, in a culture and with friends I was able to fully enjoy this time around. Some nausea and heartburn notwithstanding, I felt really good and right on track for an all-natural, “ideal” delivery and postpartum experience.

Maybe it was the intense back labor that kicked my body into high gear and kept it that way for those first two weeks postpartum until I crashed. Maybe I just didn’t prioritize sleep enough in those early days. Maybe I didn’t procure exactly the right nutrients to replenish my body and help my hormones rebalance themselves. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air in our cave-like studio apartment at the end of a hot and rainy Korean summer. Maybe I was under spiritual attack in which evil voices whispered to me to toss my baby out our third-floor window so it would all just be over. Maybe it was some of all of these, or maybe I’m just wired for anxiety and depression, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent my curling into a ball day and night, my only real activities to nurse lying on my side and to choke down as much food as I could stand while my mom, husband and dad (who had since joined us) did all the diaper-changing, shopping, cooking, cleaning and loving on me and our sweet Genevieve.

Whatever the reason, it became obvious after two more weeks that fighting the PPD with food and sunshine and prayer just wasn’t cutting it (and the Lord knows we really tried). So on a rainy Wednesday morning my support group packed up me and our 4-week-old, and we all got on the bus to a mental hospital to ask for some antidepressants.

From here on out it is clear that I’m one of the lucky ones. Within days of starting a low dose of an SSRI that (please God, let it be true) seems to have done no harm to my nursling or me, my depression had eased and I was beginning to see the light. When Josh had to go back to work and my mom had extended her stay as long as she possibly could, my mother-in-law flew the thousands of miles to help us through the next few weeks, by the end of which even the anxiety had lifted and I was feeling downright happy. Our family of three started finding a “new normal” that involved leaving the house regularly, nursing in public on occasion and handling with relative serenity the caring, if nosy, advice of all the Korean grandmothers who treated us as their own.

The little white pills had pretty single-handedly brought me back to our world. So it was with intense gratitude (though certainly not always a perfect attitude) that I soaked up the next six months of motherhood while faithfully taking my meds each morning. And then spring came, and it was with cautious hope that I wondered if I might be able to wean myself off of them.

See, in addition to being a secretly anxious person most of my life, I have also been a not-so-secretly sensitive gal emotionally. I cry pretty dang easily, and while this is not always fun for those closest to me, my sensitivity and its related empathy feel like an important part of who I am.

But once on the antidepressant, I got to where I wasn’t crying ever, at all. And while no one else was complaining for sure, I missed being able to tear up during a touching movie scene or even break down a bit when something felt wrong in my world. So with the continued support of Josh and our loved ones both near and far, I decided to start cutting my dosage and see what happened.

Three months and just a few headaches and anxiety spells later, I am “drug free” and again one of the fortunate ones. It seems that my body just needed more time for the nutrition, sleep, sunshine, exercise, laughter, love and who-knows-what-else to help my hormones get back as they were meant to be, at least for now.

As an idealist, I wanted so badly to use only these “all-natural” gifts from God to bring about my healing (or even prevent illness in the first place), and it is possible I just didn’t figure out or follow through early enough with what could have allowed me to avoid the side effects and risks of manmade meds full of synthetic chemicals. But depression wasn’t waiting for me to fix things naturally, and I see the drugs as a stopgap measure, a less-than-sterile piece of cloth used as a tourniquet because you’d bleed to death waiting for a clean one to get on the scene.

I also see the hand of God behind this less-than-ideal means of grace. Even as I celebrate the fact that I don’t seem to need antidepressants anymore, I firmly believe that our Lord, who works in all the things of this broken world for good, can use even imperfect little white pills to fight the darkness and bring light.

And for that I am so very thankful.

Sweet Rhoades FamilyLaura Rhoades is wife to Josh, mom to Genevieve and photographer to women. Before moving back home in August to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, she’ll be spending her final weeks in Korea singing karaoke, soaking and scrubbing at the sauna and scarfing down as much mul naengmyeon and bingsu as possible. You can find her online at www.laurarhoades.com.

Laura Rhoades is wife to Josh, mom to Genevieve and photographer to women. Before moving back home in August to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, she’ll be spending her final weeks in Korea singing karaoke, soaking and scrubbing at the sauna and scarfing down as much mul naengmyeon and bingsu as possible. 

Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: The Problem of Good Things

Today’s Thankful Thursdays guest post comes from my friend, Meredith. Meredith is one of the people who most motivates me to keep on writing, who makes me believe that we’re doing something worthwhile here. I’ve had Meredith share here before about her experiences with purity culture, sex, and marriage and I’ve been able to guest post for her as well. It’s always an honor for me to share her words. As someone who also struggles with depression and anxiety myself, I loved this beautiful piece that looks with both honesty and hope about the power of gratitude and joy, even when it does not come easily. 

Flickr Creative Commons: John Lodder

Flickr Creative Commons: John Lodder

The Problem of Good Things

The spring caught me off guard again with its explosions of pink and boughs hung low with purple blossoms. I never remember the way sidewalks can smell like walking through a bath and body works (with the exception of those flowering trees that smell like dead fish, those are the worst).

In a new house, you never quite know what potential flora hibernates in your lawn until the spring comes. The scrappy lawn of our rental house surprised me with lilac bushes in front, a few burnt out tulips struggling through weeds at the side of the house, and even some grape hyacinths like the ones next to the raspberry bushes at my childhood home.

Best of all, a patch of violets grew in our backyard, a wild and wonderful spray of purple flowers large enough to lie in. I imagined a quintessentially hipster moment where I would retire to the violet patch wearing a linen dress with my hair wrapped in a braid around my head. Drew could bring me lemonade with a sprig of lavender and a striped paper straw bobbing in the ice.

The violets reminded me of carefree days when yard boundaries weren’t prohibitive, and I came home with grass stains on the knees of jeans and the circle marks of dandelion stems speckling my shirt. Violets made wonderful flower crowns and handfuls could easily form bouquets to hand to mothers or neighbor ladies.

But busyness set in, and every day I’d walk past the violets with a growing sense of anxiety. I feared the lawn mowers of the landscapers, the heat of the sun, and anything else that would take away the violet patch. I stopped enjoying the flowers and started fretting for them. The lilacs in the front bloomed for only a day or two, then stood with bare branches with only a few leftover buds hinting at their former glory.

I developed a sense of cynicism toward the Magnolia and the dogwood trees; I wondered at the worth of planting such things of beauty in your lawn to flower for a week out of the year or less.

Flickr Creative Commons: Kikasz

Flickr Creative Commons: Kikasz

Each day when I came home, I checked the patch of violets, daring them to last another day. No sooner would a bloom appear than I’d be predicting its death, cursing the way good things slipped through my fingers and dropped their blossoms before I had a chance to enjoy them.

I frame many good things in my life this way; I immediately wonder when and how they will disappear. I do this with the love in my marriage, my parents health, and even the small blessings of the day to day.

Living with depression, sometimes there are days of amazing clarity where I feel awake and able. But soon enough, the sun sets, and the spell is broken. With enough of these days of jubilee under my belt, I rarely enjoy them anymore. Their goodness taunts me, and reminds me to fret for a tomorrow when the weight of the world will come back.

Opening myself to joy is risky like placing a big target sign on my back, hit me with your best shot; I’m happy, I’m relaxed, I’m confident, the flowers are blooming. I imagine a set of universal scales that must balance out eventually. If the universe heaps a job promotion and remission for mom’s cancer on the good side, I’m sure the article I submitted will not be published and there will be little chance of my improv show going well.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown calls this superstitious way of thinking “foreboding joy.” Its the sense that joy is rigged, that something’s gotta give. But shutting out the good based on its predicted transience means not enjoying the wild patch of violets, means leaving the walls of our rental bare, and missing connections with people who pass through my life for an instant.

I don’t want to live this way.

So how do I respond, when joy comes for a minute, for a week, not even long enough to take a picture?

Brene Brown says this, “…the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.”

I am on a mission to bless the temporary, to baptize the instant with significance. I want to seek the Lord where he may be found and dance in the yard while the violets still bloom. I want to plant gardens of risk though I am an exile in this place and to seek out the Joshua Trees, waiting expectantly for their time to blossom.

Flickr Creative Commons: Christopher Michel

Flickr Creative Commons: Christopher Michel

And even when the blossoms fall into carpets of petals, I long to wait with open hands for the beauty of the other seasons, stark cardinals on snowy backgrounds and trees catching fire in the autumn.

Perhaps the transience of the violets makes them even more beautiful. I thought I had learned long ago that I cannot subsist only on a diet of sweet things, but today I am learning again to take on a posture of gratefulness instead of trying to hold the flowers too tightly, crushing them in my clenched fists.

Dith Bazolli small for web-33-2Meredith Bazzoli is a comedian and writer  living just outside Chicago. She spends her days as an instructional assistant on the west side of Chicago and her nights practicing and performing improv. She loves hosting and DIY projects and her tall, dark, and handsome husband Drew. Meredith loves hearing and recording other’s stories, finding glimmers in the mundane, and seeking what it means to love and follow Christ in the everyday. You can find her online at Veryrevealing.com or follow her on Twitter @MeredithBazzoli

Meredith Bazzoli is a comedian and writer  living just outside Chicago. She spends her days as an instructional assistant on the west side of Chicago and her nights practicing and performing improv. She loves hosting and DIY projects and her tall, dark, and handsome husband Drew. Meredith loves hearing and recording other’s stories, finding glimmers in the mundane, and seeking what it means to love and follow Christ in the everyday.

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.”