Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

Month: May, 2016

This Is What Healing Looks Like

This is what healing looks like. It comes in fits and starts.

* * *

I know I am asleep. I know I am dreaming. But it feels so real and I let myself just sink into it. Sink into him. I have not dreamt about him in a long time but I still know his embrace by heart. I had memorized each muscle in his arms and the way each one felt holding me close to him and in my sleep it all comes back so clearly. Instead of pulling away, I just want to rest. So I do. I breathe him in and let him hold me and bury my body deeper into his chest until I can feel all the strength there too. His hand comes up to stroke my hair on the top of my head in just the spot I love and I exhale peacefully.

Then he starts speaking and he is saying the words I know are not true but are only too real. The words it took me a long time and a lot of work to untangle myself from. But he is speaking them so gently and sweetly. They are almost like a bedtime story. And I start to feel that feeling my therapist called “dissonance” – where the way things appear and the way I feel are not matching up and warning bells are going off. “No, no,” I say. “That’s not the way it was. Please, darling, just tell me the truth. I can stay here if you just tell me what really happened.” But he continues telling me the stories I cannot hear again and I pull away and wake up. In my groggy first wakefulness I am aware of two competing but equally strong emotions – a deep sense of loss and a deep sense of relief and I sit in the realness of the tension.

* * *

I take a chance on myself and on someone else and really on “dating in the age of Tindr” and go on a first date. My first first date in a long time and I wonder if I am ready or if I remember how to do this and then laugh because well, I was not very good at it the first time around either. So I decide not to have any expectations (good or bad) and I am pleasantly surprised by the human (though not romantic) connection we find by talking about our passions (mutual and separate) and my faith in humanity is restored a little more.

* * *

I have the same dream again but I do not linger this time because I know I will not truly find rest here. I wake up a little angry and a little sad and a little proud of myself for resisting the desire for a false sense of peace and security however brief and fleeting. I am also really curious. One of the things I have discovered in the last couple years is that I work out most of my emotions in pictures. Why does this picture keep returning to me? What am I processing through this image? Where am I? Do I feel tall and strong or weak and hunched over? What do I need? Where is God in this picture? I sit down to write but no words come so I put the picture aside and just lean into the questions.

* * *

One of my dear friends – who embodies life and vitality like few people I know – invites me to her showcase. I already had plans but something about this felt really important and was glad when I was able to find space to attend. Her beauty and vulnerability (along with the rest of the performers) lights up the stage and screen as she boldly and fearlessly shares her truth. I am energized and moved and a little bit in awe. There is something about the human soul when so transparently revealed that cannot help but humble me. I think we can get a glimpse of the Divine in the revealing of a fellow human’s soul. There is so much real and so much true and so much human. It feels holy.

* * *

I thought I had dealt with all the ghosts in this part of town. Slowly, gently, but intentionally I had met them all like “bosses” in a video game. Each new ghost I dealt with was a level up. I do not know if I had forgotten this one or if it had seemed too large to confront before now. Somehow I had managed to not drive down this part of this road for over two years and suddenly without warning I am forced to deal with the largest and most intimidating ghost of them all. The one that still has the power to send shivers up my back and call into question so much I thought I knew about me and us and love and life.

On the outside it looks like an on-trend furniture store. I try to reassure myself it is just a commercial space. It does not have the power to keep my heart chained to the past but my mind flashes back to the sweet but deadly words and the tender touch of my dream and I feel sick. Questions that will probably never be answered rush to the surface. There was a time when these questions would have overwhelmed me. This time I cry. I let myself feel all the fear and all the sadness and all the anger and all the pain and all the loss. I reveal my soul to me and to God as nakedly as I can. Then I breathe and leave the big, bad ghost behind reciting Rilke almost like a mantra.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

* * *

I sit down to write and the words and pictures of the past week come tumbling out. One after another. I do not know if I see meaning but I see healing. It comes in fits and starts. Some days I feel miles along in the journey and other days I feel like I have barely taken a few steps. But everyday feels purposeful and everyday feels real so I just keep walking.

Depression – From the Outside

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and the dear ones I love who have struggled and those who still struggle with clinical depression.

I do not know what depression feels like. I know how it feels to be very sad. I know how it feels to be very tired. I know what it is like to be discouraged. I have wanted to give up so I know what that feels like too. But I have not had to live with day-in and day-out depression so I do not know what it feels like.

I know what depression looks like. It looks exhausting. It looks overwhelming. It looks really, really hard. Sometimes it looks really brave. And sometimes it looks really sad.

I know what it feels like to love someone fighting hard against depression. I know what it feels like to love someone who is overcome by depression. I know what it feels like to want to hug away all the bad feelings. I know what it feels like to want to do absolutely anything to make you feel happy and loved and encouraged and strong.

In my attempt to love my dear ones with depression, I have smothered. I have retreated. I have been scared. I have been pushy. I have listened. I have shouted. I have given up. And I have come back again.

I do not know what depression feels like but I love you. I do not want to fix you but I do want to understand you better. If there is anything I can do to help ease the pain or help carry the burden, let me know. I want you to feel loved and seen and valued because you so are. 

Anxiety – From the Inside Looking Out

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am sharing a little bit of my story. I am not a mental health professional so please read this only as my personal experience. It is not meant to be prescriptive in any way.

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I did not know for most of my life that I suffered from chronic anxiety. I thought everyone felt nervous. I thought everyone trembled a little when they first walked into a room of strangers. I thought we all had to intentionally breathe slowly and deeply when on stage or in front of a group of people to keep from hyperventilating.

I did not know that panic attacks where your heart is beating too fast and you feel alternately dizzy and wanting to vomit were abnormal. I did not know that it is rare to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from some nameless illogical fear. I thought we all had to deal with that. I thought everyone lived with a strong internal pressure to perform well in order to feel liked and accepted. I thought everyone immediately imagined the worst possible outcome to every situation in vivid detail. I thought we all expected every good thing to end abruptly and live preparing ourselves for that outcome.

Most people who knew me, even those who knew me best, never realized the anxiety I was living with. I was really good at managing it. Somehow I taught myself all kinds of coping mechanisms so that I had very few external indicators of chronic anxiety. (Actually, many of the coping mechanisms were things that psychologists recommend for healthily managing symptoms.) I was just never dealing with the underlying problem because I did not know it was there. Since I thought this was everyone’s experience, I never even thought to mention it. To me, it would have been like discussing what it feels like to breathe.

I slowly became aware that maybe not everyone lives with anxiety when I was in college. I remember a conversation with a friend where she was describing a panic attack and talking about how bizarre and frightening the experience was. I was confused. Her description sounded fairly commonplace based on my experiences but being the empathetic listener that I am, I didn’t question or challenge her. I just filed it away as interesting that she experienced a panic attack as an unusual event.

Some people close to me started noticing that I would get tense or silent in certain situations and asked if I was afraid. I did not recognize anxiety as fear so I would say no, I was just feeling shy or nervous or something. A few people even closer started asking me about anxiety and “being high strung” but once again, I did not have anything to compare it to so I shrugged them off. And only a couple people very close to me asked me, “What’s wrong? Do you need help?”

But as I very slowly became aware that these feelings and way of living are not the norm or expected, I became more afraid. I was in denial about the anxiety I was living with because I did not know how to address it and I did not know what healthy felt like. For me, being a peaceful person meant being a person who did not fight. I did not realize that peace is something that can permeate your being from the inside out.

Finally, after a series of very personally traumatic events, including betrayal, divorce, abandonment, and many of my worst imagined fears actually becoming reality, my fear and anxiety reached such a high point that managing the external indicators was taking all of the emotional and much of the physical energy I had. I reached a point where I just could not live that way anymore. My years of learned coping mechanisms were not helping anymore.

I knew I needed help and found a therapist and a therapy method that is very effective for me and started working really hard at addressing both the symptoms AND the underlying anxiety and trauma. I brought it all to therapy sessions. I was intentional with the therapy homework every week and I was seeing results. I also spent a lot of time reading, praying, meditating, and introspecting.

But I also just let go. Of a lot of things.  I did the hard work but I also trusted God and my community to help me through the process instead of thinking I could handle it all on my own. I was tired of managing the constant anxiety and stress. I was tired of the internal pressure to perform. It was awful to live predicting every possible negative outcome to every situation. I could not keep muscling my way through every new uncomfortable situation ignoring all the warning bells going off in my head. I just could not feel responsible for everything all the time anymore. I lived 1 minute at a time and then 5 minutes and then 10 minutes until I worked my way up to being able to think about my life a month at a time and then a year at a time until I could start to imagine and plan and look forward to a future without fear and anxiety overwhelming me.

Here is the thing about living in anxiety management mode for that many years – you get strong. Some of that strength is good. You learn how to keep working and performing well even when you do not feel like it. You learn to be aware of potential problems and come up with solutions quickly. But much of that “strength” is really just a hardening or calcification of really important emotional needs and indicators. I was so used to being afraid and nervous that in situations where I actually needed to be wary and cautious, I just ignored those feelings. I was so used to being on edge that in situations where I actually could relax and just be present, I did not know how. Externally I appeared to be enjoying myself and often I actually was but almost always with anxiety lurking at the edges ready to spring into action at the slightest indication of problems.

So I let parts of me that were “strong” before, get weak. I let some of my attention to details go. I actually became surprised when problems arose. I stopped feeling personally responsible when people around me are hurting or upset.  And in doing that, other parts of me started to strengthen. I am getting better at solving problems in the moment instead of having a myriad of solutions already prepared going into a situation. I am able to be more emotionally present and aware to respond to people and situations. And my “warning bells” are becoming more reliable as I am learning to pay attention to situations and relationships that I may actually need to withdraw from for my own health and safety instead of just sucking it up and suffering through it.

From what I understand, the level of anxiety I was living with was quite minor compared to what many others live with. All I know is that even if it was minor, it was still overwhelming and sapped so much life from me. Sometimes I wish I had known sooner that I did not have to live that way. I wonder how much life I missed out on experiencing just because I was managing situations rather than being fully present in the moment. It is a sobering thought and one that keeps me moving forward toward health and wholeness. I do not want to go back.

About six months ago I experienced my first panic attack in more than a year. Even though the triggers that caused it were pretty predictable, it startled me and caught me off guard. I had become so used to not experiencing panic attacks regularly that as soon as it was over I started crying. (Something I very rarely did after panic attacks in the past.) It was an awful feeling but also an unfamiliar feeling. I was crying for the pain I had lived with for so long and also with relief that it was now an unfamiliar pain. But I was also worried that I had just been set back many months in my healing and recovery. I called my mom and she reassured me, “Don’t worry. You are stronger now. You will probably bounce back much more quickly than you used to.” She was right. The anxiety and fear that lingers after panic attacks receded much more quickly. I was concerned that it would trigger more regular panic attacks again, but thankfully, it has not.

I am thankful for the peace I have already found and I imagine that my healing and recovery from anxiety will continue for many more years. It may be something that I will need to be intentional about for the rest of my life. But I can imagine a future free of fear and anxiety and in all of the outcomes I spent so much time predicting, that is something I never did before.

Impermanent

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This was my home. I get on that same bus and the road I used to take every day feels so familiar that I forget to pay attention to what is new. So much is still the same. The places where the bus veers sharply to the left or the right. The spots where the traffic is always heavy and we crawl for a mile or two and I have memorized the font and wording of every sign for those blocks. I swear there are even mile markers for where the bus driver must honk his horn. Some things about the space are so familiar that I feel rather than look to find my way across streets and up hills.

But this is not my home anymore and there is something new and unfamiliar as well. Some of the shops are different. The train where I spent hours of my life is in a period of indefinite reconstruction. Newer restaurants have replaced the old new restaurants. The roads seem fuller. The energy in the street feels different too. There is an anxious feeling pervading the streets I never noticed before. The former energetic optimism seems replaced by something a little more insidious.

I am different too and I wonder how much it is the space that has changed and how much it is me that has changed. Maybe it feels like there are more people in the street because I have been living in a city where no one is ever on the street. Maybe I never noticed the anxiety before because I also used to live in a constantly anxious state. Maybe the optimism feels replaced because some of my own former wide-eyed excitement for the future has given way to a more knowledgeable and less innocent outlook.

But just being here again is good. It is an old city. Some historians date its settlement as far back as the 7th century BC. It has seen so many upheavals and settlements. So many dynasties come and go. So many families grow up and die out. You can feel it in the air. The quiet certainty that comes with that many years of just being. If you stop to think about it, you quickly become aware of your smallness. Just a blip on a long timeline. A drop of water in a great ocean. An ocean that never feels far from this city built on not one but two peninsulas. The city feels settled in a way that people never do.

There is one building in this great city that my heart and mind return to often even when I am on the other side of the world. It is one of the oldest buildings I have ever stood in and it feels like hallowed ground from the first step inside its large ancient doors. Early visitors in the 6th and 7th centuries AD described it as visiting heaven because they had never seen an earthly sight like it. Kings have been coronated, princes named, and queens married here. Once upon a time, I even added my own little dot to the history of the space by accepting the proposal and ring of a young lover on bended knee in a quiet conclave with light streaming through glass like a blessing down on us.

When I am far away, I wander through the space like a ghost trying to remember and feel the grandeur of the space. Being there in the flesh, I take in the height and breadth of the ceiling and it still takes my breath away. I study each stone that make up the 1,200 year old mosaics again and again trying to absorb the time and the patience of the craftsman and wondering if he had any idea how long his art would endure. How his images would continue to inspire and move visitors into the 21st century. How one young woman would gain strength and peace by re-visiting them over and over again.

I want to feel anchored and tethered to this world but so often I feel like at any moment I could just float away. I feel too light and connected by too few strings. I want to feel solid and rooted. Is that a decision I make or is that something that will come with more age and experience? Or will I always feel like a visitor? Like a looker-on of history and permanence?