The Season of Sweater Weather

We’re finally here.  Autumn.  My favorite season of the year.

For some people, the start of summer leaves them feeling refreshed and happy.  All of that vitamin D is supposed to be good for your mental health, right?  Well, it hasn’t helped me much.

For me, fall is when I feel the most alive.  The beginning of fall is usually a little tough because it’s still sort of hot and the bees are everywhere.  But get me into October and I am living my best life.

I crave those chilly, crisp mornings and evenings and moderate weather in the afternoon.  Sweater and hoodie weather is the absolute best.  I love hiding under a warm hood and making it hard to tell that I’m probably not wearing a bra.  Okay, I still wear one most of the time, but morning school drop off?  You better believe that I’m letting the girls fly free.

And don’t even get me started on bonfires.  Cuddling under a blanket around a cozy fire soothes me in the most indescribable way.  The smell, the warmth, the crackling of the wood, making s’mores… I love it all.

My favorite holiday happens to be in the perfect time of year, too.  Halloween is what my family lives for and I won’t lie, it’s not even mid-September and I’ve already started decorating.  Scary movies and haunted houses and costumes… oh my!  I love the spooky season and always have.  And I have passed that love of Halloween down to my children.  We have declared it a holiday that is worthy of a day off from school, when it falls on a weekday.  THAT is how much we love Halloween.

I’m a big fan of hiking, camping, and visiting state parks.  And trust me when I say that I don’t enjoy these trips NEARLY as much during the summer as I do during the fall.  I hate it when sweat pours down my back and face while I’m trying my best to not only get some exercise, but also to spend some QT with nature.  It’s just not that enjoyable for me.

I love the foods that warm my belly on a cold evening.  Chili, stew, soups, chicken and noodles.  All of the comfort foods that are good for the soul.  And most of them are even agreeable to the entire family, which is a bonus.

I know that spring is technically the season of rebirth, but there’s something about fall that stirs up a newfound sense of curiosity and contentment in me.  I wake up every morning a little slower than usual, soaking in every moment before I begin my day.  And I look forward to spending my evenings snuggled up with a book or playing board or card games with Calvin.  There’s something special about it.  Simple, yet completely fulfilling.

Oddly enough, for a little over a week this month, I will be leaving my beloved fall weather in Indianapolis for a warm, sunny beach in Florida.  Out of character for me, I’m sure.  I am really looking forward to the time away, but I’m sure I will be ready to come home and enjoy everything that a midwestern fall has to bring.

But before we leave for our vacation, I am ready to have some time off with my kids and take advantage of some fun, local autumn activities.  You know, going to the pumpkin patch and the apple orchard, eating our weight in caramel apples and fried biscuits with apple butter.  Going on hikes at some of our favorite parks as the leaves begin to turn.  Heading over to a nearby church for their fall festival.  These are some of the things that make up an Indiana fall.

What does fall look like for you?  Do you enjoy it as much as I do?  Do you get sweater weather or is it still like summer where you are?  Or even maybe blizzard conditions?  What sorts of activities do you and your family take part in?

What To Write When You Feel Like You Can’t

I’ll be honest, I’m going through a lot right now.  I can’t get into it at the moment, but maybe it’s something that I’ll write about in the future.  No, it’s not really mental health related, because you all know it’s likely that I would share that if it were.  Just know that in a lot of ways, I am not okay.  I’m surviving, I’m here, but I am having a hard time.

As a result, I am struggling to find the motivation to do much of anything, let alone write.  But this is my outlet and I know deep down that once I start, I will feel at least a bit better.

But when I am having writer’s block and can’t come up with a blog post topic, what I am supposed to write.

The easy answer is journaling.

I have had a journal of some sort since I was a kid and I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping one.

I use it to keep track of my thoughts.  I use it to release my problems and attempt to let them go.  I use it to stimulate my creativity in hopes of coming up with something a little more substantial.

When it comes to journaling, I try not to put too much pressure on myself.  Sometimes I use prompts that I find online or on YouTube videos.  Sometimes I just do some “stream of consciousness” writing.  It doesn’t have to be complicated or subject specific.

I know that writing may not be for everyone, but I truly believe that everyone can benefit from at least keeping a journal.  So if you’re interested in writing but don’t know where to start, here are ten simple prompts to help you put the words on the page, whether privately or publicly.

Things that are bringing you joy.  This can be five things, ten things, whatever you want.  These do NOT have to be deep.  Think basic.  Think about little things that have brought you happiness recently.  And it’s nice to be able to revisit this subject when you’re in a funk.

Favorite music currently.  It’s no secret that I’m a lover of music.  And personally, I am always interested to know what others are listening to.  You could simply list the songs or bands that you’re digging lately or go as deep as giving a review.  Even if no one else is going to read it, it can spark something within yourself and motivate you to possibly take your writing a step further.

Where you live and things to do there.  This is particularly helpful if you allow your writing to be public.  But even if it’s not, it might remind you of the cool things that are happening around you and give you ideas on things to do.  If you do decide to share your words with others, it will help people traveling to your area find things to do.

A time that you experienced struggle.  This might not be the easiest topic to write about for some, but putting it on paper (or the screen) is a way to process things that you’ve been through and to focus on how far you’ve come.  This is a large part of the reason that I write about my history of mental illness.  Another reason is that I don’t want others to feel alone in their difficulties.  We often hide the tough things we’ve been through or the parts of ourselves that we might not want to address.  But it can be so important to share these things with others.  But if you’re not comfortable with that, that’s okay too.

Writing a letter to someone.  In the past on my blog, I have written letters to my kids in hopes that they will read them someday in the future.  I want them to know how much they’re loved and that I see wonderful things in them, no matter how small.  But you could write a letter to anyone in your life who has made an impact on you, dead or alive, whether they will ever read it or not.

A goal that you have and how you want to accomplish it.  I don’t care who you are, we all have goals.  Some are small, some are huge, some feel insurmountable.  But setting a goal and making a plan is a way to give each and every one of us a little more purpose.  Writing about it can help us stay a little more accountable and push ourselves outside of our comfort zones to accomplish something that we set our minds to.

Books that you’ve read lately.  In the same vein as sharing your favorite music, it’s a lot of fun to write about books that you’ve enjoyed (or not enjoyed) in recent months.  It can give others ideas on books that they need to pick up or even remind you of the writing styles of authors that might inspire you in your own writing.

One thing that you’ve done for someone else.  I don’t know about anyone else, but sometimes I feel kind of self centered and don’t focus on the needs of others as much as I should.  But even doing something small for someone else can remind us that others matter and deserve our attention.  It might even motivate us to help out more in our communities or reach out to others who might be struggling.

One thing that someone else has done for you.  Experiencing gratitude is an important facet of our lives.  And one way to do that is to think about a time that someone has done something nice for you.  For example, when I had Covid last December, I had some friends who bent over backwards to help and make sure that my family was taken care of, since we were quarantined and couldn’t really help ourselves.  Thinking about that often brings me to tears.  And chances are, everyone else has had a similar experience.  It reminds us how loved we are and how important we are in the lives of others.

A topic that you want to learn more about.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, we are still growing and learning every day.  We can all benefit from choosing a topic that matters to us and carving out some time to dive into it a little bit more.  It also gives us an opportunity to share our knowledge with others.  When I learn something new, I feel more fulfilled and well-rounded.  I remember that feeling from when I was in school and it’s pretty great.  And I realized that I don’t need to be in school to continue to experience that.

Writing can feel stressful and overwhelming at times, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Take the pressure off of yourself and just WRITE.

Positivity and Toxicity

First of all, I don’t want this piece to come across as demonizing all positive thinking.  It’s okay to be happy.  It’s okay to shout it from the rooftops and post it on social media.  After all, isn’t happiness what we’re all striving for?

The problem lies with toxic positivity, which is a completely different animal.  An animal that attacks the vulnerable.  An animal that looks for weakness and preys on it

I should probably start by explaining what toxic positivity actually is.  It’s the practice of dismissing a person’s negative feelings in favor of positive ones.  “Looking on the bright side”, if you will.  It might not sound as terrible as it is, but can actually be downright dangerous.

You see, struggle is a natural part of life.  It’s something that everyone experiences throughout their lives.  And it’s okay to admit when you’re in the middle of a difficult season.  Yes, even publicly.  Yes, even on social media, the platform that often lives and breathes toxic positivity.

I’ve written before about the importance of experiencing difficult emotions.  Sitting in them and REALLY feeling them.  Toxic positivity doesn’t allow you to do that.

People who are going through difficult times don’t need to be told to find the good in their situation.  Sometimes there just isn’t any good in a situation, sometimes things just suck, and that’s hard for those who obsess over positive thinking to come to terms with.

A person should never feel guilty about going through a hard time.  Experiencing it is difficult enough.  Carrying around guilt on top of that serves no one and can cause people to backpedal on their journey of overcoming adversity.

Additionally, it often prevents people from reaching out for help when they need it.  One thing I truly focus on in my relationships is being the type of person who serves as a support system to those I love.  Hell, I’m even that person for strangers.  But a real support system doesn’t throw around platitudes that are inherently useless, even if they’re well meaning.  A real support system is sometimes just there to listen to the bitching.  And yes, people are allowed to bitch.  It’s perfectly normal to need to vent and we all deserve to have someone, or several someones, in our lives who are willing to listen.

Hypothetically, let’s think about a person who is going through a deep depression.  Maybe they have recently experienced something terrible that has triggered the depression or maybe there is no identifiable reason behind it.  A person who practices toxic positivity is going to say something like “it’s not that bad” or “just look for the light at the end of the tunnel”.  But what if it really IS that bad.  What if there is no light.  Person B has just effectively minimized person A’s experiences and feelings.  Person A may be attempting to reach out for help and they were basically told that they don’t need it.  I could go on and on about ways that this situation could potentially end, but I’ll leave that to you.  But I can almost guarantee that it will not end well.

No, this example is not being overdramatic.  This is reality.  And toxic positivity fueled that.

And while we’re on the topic of what’s real, let’s talk about the beast that is social media.

I don’t know about you, but 90% of my feeds on Instagram and Facebook are these beautifully curated lives.  And when I say curated, I mean just that.  No one is happy all the time.  No one lives a perfect life.  So why are many of us hellbent on making the world think that we do?

There is no shame in struggle, and by continuing to perpetuate the culture of toxic positivity, particularly on social media, we are making people feel like their problems shouldn’t exist.  We are making them feel like their problems don’t matter.  We are making them feel like they’re alone in their struggles.  When in reality, we are ALL struggling with something.  But many of us hide it.  Many of us want to paint a pretty picture for the world to see.

In the past, I have been guilty of this.  Wearing a mask to hide what is really going on beneath the surface.  To hide the ugly parts.  And let’s face it… life is FULL of ugly parts.  And there is nothing wrong with sharing the ugly parts as well as the beautiful parts.

So here I am, advocating for REAL.  And I challenge you all to do the same.  I challenge you all to remove the mask and share your struggles.  Stop with the filters and endless editing.  Move past the need for a perfectly curated life.  Because that simply doesn’t exist and it never will.

Does this mean that you need to ignore the joy and love?  Those beautiful parts?  Absolutely not.  But balance is the key to all things, especially this.

And most importantly, change the way that you approach your relationships.  Be the friend or partner or daughter or mother who listens to the ranting and bitching, sometimes without even saying a word.  And when you DO say something, validate their feelings.  Admit that life really sucks sometimes and that you’re there for them, unconditionally.  Foster a sense of trust and support instead of judgment and dismissiveness.

In the end, the world is flawed.  Life is hard.  Sometimes things feel like they’re falling apart.  Find the people in your life who see your struggle and will help carry you.  Be that person in someone’s life, too.  Because we all deserve that.

Creating Rhythms and Routines

I don’t know about anyone else, but Covid has really thrown a wrench in my daily routine.

I was used to my kids leaving the house and going to school every day.  I was used to getting up at 6 AM and driving kids to school and then coming home to enjoy my coffee in peace before starting housework or running errands.  Before hopping on my computer to research, brainstorm, and produce content for this blog.

I did these things five days a week, like clockwork.  I had created a rhythm that worked for me and gave me a sense of stability.

Since last March, we’ve had anything but stability.   And trust me when I say that it’s been a struggle.  Maybe my biggest struggle since I began parenting nearly 17 years ago.

I was the mom that always had their kids on a schedule.  We had a routine that, more often than not, we stuck to.  So being thrown into this kind of chaotic change was something that none of us ever really adjusted to.  Maybe, in part, because I didn’t want to adjust to it.  I didn’t want this to become a new normal for my family.

My kids rarely got dressed in “real” clothes, if they even managed to change out of their pajamas at all.  They slept in later than they had been able to in years.  And as a result, they stayed up later, too.

I suppose that I could have forced them to stick to our old schedule, despite the lack of need for it.  But with everything else going on, I didn’t know if that was a battle that I wanted to fight.  Why make them wake up at 6 or 7, only to have them sit around until it was time to sign in to school?

But my younger two kids went back to school in person at the beginning of August and it’s incredible how quickly I fell back into the rhythm that I had before Covid entered our lives.  And I don’t think I had ever realized what an impact a routine has on my mental health.

I won’t lie, I had been struggling terribly.  I have been working hard with my therapist and psychiatrist and have been med compliant, but it has still been really rough.  For the most part, I was dealing with some pretty serious depression.  I couldn’t get out of bed.  I had no motivation to leave the house, only partially because of the pandemic that was happening around me.  I was struggling to keep up around the house, with the kids, and with self care.

And then sometimes, I would be thrown into a week-long manic episode that was primarily triggered by the overstimulation of being surrounded by my family all day, every day.  Well, that and feeling overwhelmed after my depressive episodes and struggling to catch up.

My moods were simply unstable.  Up and down, all over the place.  My family most definitely suffered because of it, even though they mostly tried to act like they were all okay without my mental presence.

My psychiatrist would increase one med, then another.  It seemed to help for a while and we discussed how a lot of this was probably triggered by situational things more than anything else.  But that didn’t change what was happening to me.

So I continued with therapy, as I always have.  I talked to Jenny over the phone every other week in an effort to work through everything that was going on.  Unpacking it all, coming up with solutions where I had control, and accepting when I didn’t.  Adding more tools to my toolbox of coping skills.  And I swear, if it weren’t for therapy and adequate meds, I’m unsure if I would have survived this past year and a half.

But I’m slowly putting that all behind me, as I embrace the rhythms and routines that I had lost for so long.

If you have been struggling like I have, here are a few tips to getting yourself back into the swing of life.

Get dressed.  There were many, many days during our time doing virtual schooling that I didn’t get out of my pajamas.  Sure, I was comfortable, but it sure wasn’t helping me dig myself out of my rut.  If anything, it fed my depression.  Now, I at least throw on clothes and a bra when I leave in the morning to take my kids to school.  I may not have showered yet, but at least I’m moving in the right direction.

Make your bed.  Doing this first thing in the morning makes it less inviting to crawl back into bed.  When I’m up, I want to STAY up.  Going back to bed is going to lead to my own unproductivity and if anything, is going to make me more tired.

Give yourself time to wake up and mentally prepare for the day ahead.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I need my coffee in the morning before I can truly be functional.  Maybe it’s a caffeine addiction, but maybe it’s just the need to allow myself the time to sit in peace and clear my head.  I usually allow myself two cups of coffee (though I’m trying to do one regular and one decaf to cut back on my caffeine intake) and I make an effort to eat even a little bit of breakfast, which is something that I have failed miserably at in the past.

Make your home smell good.  Whether it’s a candle, wax melts, or essential oils, having good scents around me always have a way of uplifting my mood and getting me ready for the day.

Plan dinner.  I am not someone who works well with weekly meal planning.  I need to figure it out the morning of and THEN I start to prep whatever I can ahead of time.  Thawing meat in the fridge, throwing things in the crock pot, whatever is necessary to get dinner going so I have less to worry about in the evening.  Plus, we often have places where we need to be at the typical dinner time, so planning ahead makes it easier to get it done either before or after whatever activities we have going on.

Morning must-do’s.  I have a few small things that I do pretty much immediately in the morning and that gives me a bit of gusto to get moving.  I let the dog out and feed him, feed the cat, set up my oil diffuser, water my plants (which are not abundant, but I’m slowly trying to find my green thumb, so I have to give myself credit), and turn on and prep my coffee maker.  It’s certainly not much, but I try to get this done before I start with school drop-off.  It helps wake me up and then I know I have my coffee ready to go when I get home.

Check my calendar.  I swear, phone calendars are one of the best inventions ever.  Gone are the days of the paper wall calendars and now my schedule is available at the touch of a finger.  I usually have so much going on, between appointments and activities, that I can’t keep track of what’s happening from one day to the next.  So when I’m sitting down with my coffee, I check my phone calendar to see when or if I have obligations that day so I can plan accordingly.  Doing this, rather than relying on last minute notifications, has really improved my time management skills.

Make a list.  Without a list, I tend to get VERY overwhelmed and either don’t know where to begin or start one chore and get distracted by something else that needs done.  Lists help me prioritize and give me a jumping off point.  I usually start with some general straightening of the house before I dive into actual cleaning.  My kids are notorious for leaving cups and glasses around, so putting those in the sink (before loading the dishwasher, which comes later) usually happens first thing.  I like having clear surfaces so that it’s easier for me to clean said surfaces an hour or so down the road.  Also, don’t ever feel obligated to do everything on your list.  Anything that doesn’t get done simply gets moved to the next day.  Of course I try to do as much as possible, but I’m also learning my limits and giving myself the grace to rest and relax when my body and brain tell me to.  So typically, not everything gets done.  And that’s okay.

So there you have it, Ashlie’s tips and tricks for creating rhythms and routines in your daily life.  I am by no means an expert or a life coach because lord knows I do not have my life even remotely together.  I am usually a self proclaimed hot mess express.  But these are things that keep me from drowning in the chaos of the day.  These are the things that help me maintain my mental health as much as possible.  And that is my priority above all else.  Not how my house looks to outsiders or being able to call myself productive.  It’s about keeping myself afloat.  And I can settle for that.

The Art of Feeling Sad

Have you ever heard of the term “wintering”?  If you haven’t, you’re not alone.  It was recently brought to my attention when reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat During Difficult Times by Katherine May.

In her book, winter is not just a season in the year, but it’s also a season of life.  One of struggle and sadness.  One of rejection and isolation.  One of depression, but also one of healing.

So I’ve been thinking about this concept in relation to my own life.  

First of all, I tend to hunker down and become a bit of a hermit during the winter time.  Not just because of the cold weather, but because of what winter represents to me.  A time that feeds depression and isolation.  Which is exactly what Katherine May describes.  I had been “wintering” all along, I just never realized it until now.

Some might ask, “Isn’t that the same thing as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)?”  Well, no, not really.  Typically, people who experience SAD do so only in those cold winter months and want to reject everything that it brings.  Those feelings of sadness and depression and disappointment.  But the truth about wintering is that it can happen at any time.  And wintering demands to be felt.  It brings the feelings to the surface that demand to be felt.  That you can no longer bury deep and cover up.

One of the first things that I learned in therapy is that there are primary emotions and secondary emotions.  Feelings of sadness and pain are primary emotions that we often mask with secondary emotions, like anger.  At least, for me, it was usually anger.  But another secondary emotion is false happiness.  Not true joy, but the kind of forced happiness that we are often expected to show at all times.  Because we are taught to believe that people don’t want to be around a sad person.  A “wet blanket”.

But that sadness is important.  It was never intended to be ignored.  The only way to truly heal from the pain that comes along with the sadness is to sit with it.  Really ruminate in it.  Cry if you need to.  Curl up in a ball if you need to.  And yes, isolate if you need to.

I know that feeling sad isn’t convenient.  We have lives that we have to get on with.  But we have to carve out time to experience all emotions, not just the convenient ones.  If we don’t, we will never heal.  We will never be able to move on or shed the weight of the things that hold us down.

Is the sadness magically going to go away after a half hour of sitting with it?  Probably not.  But I can guarantee that releasing it a little bit at a time does indeed make a difference.  The bag of emotions that you carry around will feel a little lighter.  The wound will slowly begin to heal each and every time you allow yourself to feel those painful things.

Contrary to what society tells us, we don’t have to wear that mask of happiness and contentment at all times.  In fact, if we’re using that mask to cover up our real feelings, we shouldn’t wear it at all.  Our needs deserve to be tended to, whatever that looks like.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not particularly fun to sit with our sadness.  It’s often painful and exhausting and overwhelming.  But sometimes we just need to let it sweep over us.  Overtake everything else that we might be experiencing.

We can’t just slap a bandage on our souls and call it a day.  That’s only a short term fix.  We have to grit our teeth and bear the pain for a little while.  Feel the true rawness of it all.

Clean that wound.  Really flush it out.  Get out all of that dirt and grime.  And then expose it to the air.  Let it go free for a little while.  It will be sensitive and sore and pretty unpleasant.  But in the end, it’s what’s best for it.  It’s the necessary beginning of the healing process.  And soon, a scab will begin to form.  It’s not pretty.  In fact, it might be downright ugly.  But beneath that ugliness, something beautiful will start to grow.

So don’t think of “wintering” in its most literal sense.  Think of it as seeking out the cold and everything that comes along with it.  Feel the emotions that you’ve been hiding for so long.  The ones that maybe you were embarrassed by.  The ones that made you feel vulnerable.  The ones that hurt.  Feel them all the way down to your bones.  And then slowly let them go.  Like a balloon into a blue sky.  Watch them float away and say goodbye.

I Intend to Embrace

Here we are, at the beginning of a new year.  A year that we told ourselves would be better than the last.  I mean, it has to be, right?  Right?!?  I mean, we’re not off to a great start, but I am trying to be optimistic here.

2020, as awful as it was, taught me a lot about myself.  Spending so much time at home gave me the opportunity to do some major self reflection.  I went to some difficult places within myself and realized some truths that were a little uncomfortable at first, but ultimately, they are things that I’m learning to embrace.

So there it is… my word, my intention for the year.  Embrace.  Life is not perfect.  I am not perfect.  But there is so much good and so many things to be grateful for that I want to embrace what I have.  What is.  Who I am.

But I also want to embrace small changes that I can make.  Not lofty goals or huge endeavors, but the little things that I can do each day to improve my mental space.

I don’t have a list of these things because honestly, I think they will come to me bit by bit, as I evolve through the year.  How am I supposed to know what things I will want to change in October when it’s only January?  I can’t.  And I refuse to force myself to try, just for the sake of trying to feel productive.

We are often too quick to look for all of the things that we consider “wrong” with ourselves and our lives.  And in doing so, we ignore all that is wonderful, good, or even “just okay”.  I’m trying to be okay with “just okay”.  To embrace it.

I have always done a great job at beating myself up and tearing myself down.  About anything and everything.  My parenting, my body, my mental health, my marriage, my financial status… nothing ever felt like it was good enough.  And it was my fault that it wasn’t good enough.  But no more.  I will no longer allow myself to subscribe to that sort of unhealthy and toxic line of thinking.  DId it ever change anything for the better?  No.  If anything, it sent me into a spiral of self loathing and depression.

The tricks that my brain plays on me won’t define me.  I will not believe the lies that my brain tells me.  That there is some specific definition of “right” and that I’m constantly falling short of that.

I’m not playing that game anymore.

I’m sure that most of you have either set goals for yourself for 2021 or have done as I have and chosen a word that reflects your intentions for the year.  But no matter what those goals or words are, I am challenging you to embrace, as well.   I am challenging you to gain acceptance and give yourself permission to be who you are and live as you do without apology or explanation.

Just like I am.

This will look different for all of us.  Some of us might use positive affirmations, some of us might have to set boundaries with friends and loved ones, some of us might need to take a social media break or be more careful about what media we allow ourselves to consume.

There is no wrong way to do this.

And in a year, I would love to revisit this topic and reconnect with one another.  Because the compassion and self love that comes from this could be the change that we all need.

And In the End, I Survived

Before I begin, I want to make it abundantly clear that despite everything that has sucked this year, I have been incredibly privileged.  My husband still has his job and most of my friends and family members have remained healthy.  I know a lot of people who have not been so lucky, and I want to acknowledge that.  My heart goes out to each and every person reading this who has struggled beyond measure this year.  Your feelings are valid, whatever they may be, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Sometimes there is no joy to be found, and that just plain sucks.  I’m sorry, and I hope the coming year is better.

As the shitshow that was 2020 comes to a close, I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to throw this year in the dumpster fire and put our hope in the new year ahead.  This year has been difficult, at best, for just about everybody.  And there isn’t much positivity to reflect back on.  I didn’t accomplish much, beyond contracting Covid (a post for another time), losing my shit with online learning, acquiring a rather impressive mask collection, and gaining more than my fair share of weight.  I’ve been hanging on by a thread, but there are some very random, often superficial things that really did help me survive this hellish year.  And I want to bring attention to those.

So here it is, my own personal 2020 survival guide of sorts…

Meditation.  In a house full of people and pets who never leave, it’s not easy to find the space and privacy to just be alone with my thoughts.  But I have made it a priority and have carved out time almost every day to make it happen.  I have some apps on my phone, like Calm and Sanvello, that help with the process.  So most days, usually in the morning hours or before bed, I sit and listen to a guided meditation to relax and ground myself.

Instagram stories.  I try not to spend too much time on my phone, but scrolling through Instagram stories gets my day started off right.  Whether it’s something inspirational or something funny, they serve as good entertainment and I do my best to share my favorites with others.

Spending quality time with my family and pets.  Sure, they drive me crazy and we often feel like we’re on top of each other in our 1500 square foot house.  But Covid has encouraged us to slow down and spend more time together in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or stressful.  Whether I’m playing a game of Monopoly with Calvin, watching Jeopardy with Daniel, or snuggling with Walter and Ivy, I’m making a point to enjoy the little moments that we might not have had otherwise.

Reading.  I’m a pretty voracious reader during the best of times, but escaping into a good book while I’ve been home has truly helped my mental health.  I love physical books, but I have to say, my Kindle Paperwhite has gotten a ridiculous amount of use over the past 8 months.  Having a huge library at my fingertips, not taking up a ridiculous amount of space in my house, is incredibly convenient.  I have read some really good books while I’ve been hunkering down, so I will likely share them with you in another post.

Spotify.  Whether you want to discover new music or listen to an interesting podcast, Spotify is a must have on your phone and/or computer.  Personally, I use it on both with my well loved noise cancelling headphones or a bluetooth speaker.  I especially love it because I can listen to things while I’m busy around the house.  It breaks the monotony and makes the mundane chores a little more fun.  There are various apps for both music and podcasts, but I really like having most things in one place.  It makes things easier and more organized.  And I’m a sucker for organization.

Therapy.  This is an absolute must for me, even though it looks very different to how it used to.  My sessions have mostly consisted of phone sessions, with the occasional video chat thrown in.  I truly prefer in person sessions, as most people probably do, but I will take what I can get.  Times have been tough during this pandemic and talking to Jenny has been a lifesaver.  Literally.  She gives me an unbiased place to vent or share concerns and I always feel better after we have spent an hour talking.  I’m a firm believer that everyone needs a therapist, even if you don’t have the type of struggles that I do.  Everyone has obstacles in life and it’s a huge benefit to receive advice from someone who isn’t a family member or friend.

Konmari.  Like she did for many people, Marie Kondo encouraged me to reevaluate my possessions and methods of organization.  If I’m not saying goodbye to the things that no longer bring me joy, I’m folding my underwear and shirts in the most efficient ways.  Having my home organized gets me off to a good start every day.  And it’s easy to maintain once you start.  You don’t have to watch her Netflix series to find out what this is all about.  A quick Google search will break it down and help you along the way.

Online shopping.  Okay, maybe this isn’t the healthiest form of self care, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make me feel better when I get a package in the mail.  I don’t do it a lot because money doesn’t grow on trees, but the occasional splurge is totally worth it.  Sorry not sorry.

Sweater weather.  Fall is my favorite season and there isn’t much better than putting on a cozy sweater, drinking a cup of hot tea or cider, or hearing the leaves crunch beneath my feet.  The crisp air, the smell of nature, and the perfect fall wardrobe are what give me life as the cold and bleak time of year approaches.  I tend to turn into a bit of a grumpy hermit during the winter months, so I try to enjoy every bit of autumn that I can.

Things that smell good.  I feel like this is something that everyone can relate to.  Pleasant smells can really elevate your mood.  Incense, essential oils, wax melts, fresh air, bonfires, brewing coffee, clean laundry… these are all things that have the power to uplift me when I’m feeling down.  It’s pretty amazing what a little Nag Champa or lavender oil can do for your soul.

Journaling and planning.  I am one of those people whose brain works more effectively when I write things down.  I process them in a completely different way than I would if I simply added dates to my phone’s calendar app or made an electronic note in Evernote.  This is why I journal and use a written planner.  My therapist suggested journaling several years ago for a variety of reasons.  Organizing my thoughts, processing trauma, recognizing growth, tracking mood shifts, etc.  And using a planner helps me from getting too overwhelmed by everything that I have to do.  I use my planner to set goals, make chore lists, budget, and just keep my whole damn life organized.  I absolutely love my Legend planner, so if you’re looking for a good one, check it out.

Hiking.  There aren’t many safe things to do during these times, but hiking or walking at my favorite park is something that I feel comfortable doing.  It’s a way to get some physical activity and fresh air and spend time in nature.  Being shut in the house all the time really takes its toll after a while, so escaping to the park for a hike, either solo or with a friend, makes a huge difference for my mental health.  Doing workouts at home is a struggle for me, but I know that I need to get my body moving somehow.  Hiking is how I do that.

Devotionals.  As you may have read in my last piece, I have started on a new spiritual journey.  I’m still exploring and I probably will be for a while, but I have found a lot of peace in reading devotionals.  I received my first devotional back in 2017 from a dear friend when I was going through one of the most difficult and trying times of my life.  This was a stepping stone for me.  More recently, I have been reading Bob Goff’s books, as well as pieces and verses shared by one of my favorite bloggers, Hannah Brencher.  If you’re looking for some meaningful and life altering words, I suggest that you check both of them out.

Good food.  I haven’t always had a healthy relationship with food.  And compared to most, I probably still don’t.  But I’m working on it.  I still hate to cook, but luckily I have a husband who loves to do it and is pretty fabulous at it.  He walks a line between doing copious amounts of research and just winging it, depending on his mood.  Regardless, he always makes sure that the kids and I have bellies full of good food.  And in addition to a home cooked meal, I have really made an effort to order takeout from local, small restaurants that are struggling during these difficult times.  As a result, I have put on some weight during Covid.  I’m trying not to fixate on it, though.  I’m more sedentary than usual because I’m trying to keep myself and my family safe.  But a little weight gain isn’t going to keep me from eating some fantastic food.  It’s worth it.

Craft beer.  Visiting breweries is one of my favorite things to do when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic.  And I have admittedly still been to a few that are strictly following Covid guidelines.  But for the most part, I have been getting carryout from my local favorites.  Like restaurants, breweries are going through a rough patch and I am doing my best to support them in the safest way possible.

Camping.  For most people, real vacations didn’t happen this year.  But for me and my family, camping was a good way to get away from home while still avoiding significant risk.  It’s not perfect and you still have to be careful, but for us, it was a good place for our mental health and physical health to find some middle ground.

Friends.  Spending time with my friends this year didn’t look like it usually does, but I would say that we all made the best of it.  Between socially distanced outings while wearing masks, conversations around a bonfire, live streaming concerts in the backyard, or Zoom hangouts, I was still able to feel the presence of the people who mean the most to me.  I should also add that since having Covid, I felt their love and support even more.  My village is still there, even at a distance, and I look forward to the days when we can all be together like we used to.  But until then, we’ll carry on being cautious and making the most of the opportunities that we do have to “be together”.

And thanks to all of these things, I made it through.  We’re on the last day of 2020 and I’m still here (and still coughing).  I’m grateful to the things and people that helped me along the way, including all of you.  One day, I’d love for my blog to become a popular, heavily trafficked corner of the internet.  But until then, I will appreciate the following that I do have.  The people who read and encourage me on this journey.  I love you all.  And thank you.

Here’s to the end and to the beginning!

An Exploration of Faith

I have never really been a religious person.  Not even as a child.

I was blessed in the Church of England as a baby, but mostly out of formality’s sake.

I was loosely raised as a Christian, in that most of my extended family were practicing, but my parents and I were the ones who showed up to church services on Easter and Christmas Eve, at best.  If you saw us in a church, we were probably attending a wedding.

I owned a bible, but it went untouched, leaving the spine perfect and the cover brand new.  No highlighting or margin notes.  No dog-eared pages.  Not even a crease.

So when I went off to college and I took a world religion course, the fact that I pulled away from Christianity and questioned my belief in a higher power really should have come as no surprise to anyone.

I wasn’t invested in any religious practice to begin with, so being exposed to other religions that were equally as valid made me look at Christianity as a bit of a joke.

My college self wasn’t as humbled and was far more cynical (if you can believe that), so I’m not particularly proud of how I approached the whole thing.  The last thing I ever wanted was to hear anyone else’s “holier than thou” opinion on anything that I did, yet I decided that I was better than everyone because I took a college class that opened my eyes to a world outside of the one that I had been raised in.

I became very interested in different religions for a very brief period of time, so of course, I was a self proclaimed expert.  As everyone is in their late teens and early twenties on one subject or another.  *I* was the smart one.  I could think and look outside of the box.  

I had no strong ties to Christianity, so leaving it behind was painless.  But what was I now?  Buddhism piqued my interest for a long time, but I eventually just settled into the role of Agnostic by default, because who was I to say what was right and what was wrong.  I was a mere human with a limited time on this earth.  I wasn’t willing to commit to any particular religion that might pigeonhole me into a specific set of beliefs.

It’s easy to be lazy when you’re a self-proclaimed Agnostic.  You just throw your hands up in the air during any religious discussion and say “How the fuck am I supposed to know?!?”  I liked that approach.

As time went on, I drew a more defined line in the sand.  I was an Atheist.  As far as I was concerned, there was no God.  No deity.  There was only us and science.  There was no room in my life for anything else.

My beliefs weren’t popular among my family and many of my friends, particularly my God-fearing and well-meaning grandmother, may she rest in peace.  I was quite clearly the black sheep in the family due to my beliefs, or lack thereof.  I was okay with that and honestly, I still am.  I don’t need to fit in.  I just need to do what feels real to me.

About three years ago, my teenage daughter started expressing interest in the church and the teachings of the Bible.  She started attending youth gatherings at our community’s Christian uber-church.  Her classmates went there and they had a more contemporary approach, so it was a good fit for her.  She became immersed in the church culture and while I was a little nervous at first, I was still nothing but supportive of her on this path of religious self discovery.

And then one day, she said she wanted to be baptized.  It was and still is my firm belief that baptism is a personal, individual choice.  One that should be made when someone is old enough to understand the commitment.  So needless to say, I chose not to have any of my children baptized as babies.  This didn’t sit well with some of my family, but I made it very clear that I wasn’t opposed to baptism as a practice, but I was opposed to the blind routine of it.  As a parent, it’s not my responsibility to make that choice for my child.

So when Delanie asked to be baptized, I was a little shocked.  Did she truly understand what this meant for her?  Was this a commitment that she was willing to make?  She felt very confident in her choice, so I decided that she was old enough to know if this was right for her.

Her baptism was an incredible experience.  She was surrounded by family and friends and mentors from the church who had made a significant impact on her.  I was truly impressed by what I saw, by the outpouring of love for my child by this community.

But I also felt sad.  This was the first time that I had personally set foot in this church.  I had dropped her off and picked her up, but never gone inside.  Never met most of the people that she was spending her time with, aside from her good friends from school who were also involved in the church.  I felt like an outsider.  But ultimately, this was the bed that I had made for myself.  I chose not to be involved.  I chose to support her, but from afar.  Had this been the right thing to do?  Until this moment, I thought it was.  But now I wasn’t so sure.

The community was very welcoming.  But it soon became clear that they knew my child in a way that I didn’t.  They related to her on a level that I couldn’t.  And this both broke my heart and opened my eyes to something I had never considered before.  Maybe religion WAS something that I was interested in.  Maybe it was something that I needed in my life.  I saw how happy it made my daughter and so many others, yet it was the thing that I had rejected for many years.  Was that because I was truly confident in my beliefs or was it because I was stubborn and prideful?  I was starting to realize that it may have been the latter.

I have always considered myself an open-minded person.  Supportive and compassionate.  But I think my version of Atheism was closing me off to new possibilities and experiences for myself.  I clung so tightly to that label that it was blinding me.  And walking blindly was the one thing that I never wanted to be guilty of.  When I came to terms with the fact that this was what I was doing, I knew that something had to change.

For years, I had a very bad taste in my mouth regarding Christianity, and organized religion in general.  One that involved persecution and judgment and hate.  And yes, there are still a lot of hateful and judgmental Christians out there.  But I am also starting to see another side.  A loving and compassionate side.  A side that believes in equality and human rights.  Once I was able to see that side, I was able to let down my guard a little.  I was starting to entertain the idea that maybe religion was something that deserves another chance.

So very slowly and carefully, I began to open my eyes a little wider.  I considered things that I never had before.  I ordered a Bible and a devotional and some other books that I thought might help me on this new path.  I started to dig deeper into the religious pieces written by Christian writers that I already followed.  Research and reading never hurt anyone, after all.  And the things that I read started to fill up my heart in ways that I didn’t know were possible.

So what does this all mean?  I honestly don’t know yet.  I haven’t fully embraced Christianity as the right choice for me, but I haven’t exactly ruled it out, either.  But for now, I am just enjoying this exploration of faith.  And I think it’s okay to not have all of the answers.

The Day That Everything Changed

September 23, 2017

This is the day that I wanted to end my life.

Yes, I tried to commit suicide three years ago.  It’s a day that brings up a lot of complicated feelings for me.  Sadness.  Anger.  Disappointment.  Relief.

And it’s not lost on me that September also happens to be National Suicide Prevention Month.  Of course that didn’t cross my mind at the time, but the irony of it now is undeniable.

It’s difficult for me to remember some of the details of that day.  But others?  Others are burned into my memory despite how much I’d like them to leave my brain forever.  These are the ones that give me nightmares and make me sick to my stomach.

Bipolar disorder.  That is where this story begins and ends.  A morning that started with a severe, explosive manic episode and ended with an impulsive decision that I couldn’t take back.  A decision that landed me in the hospital for 10 days.

The same pills that are supposed to help me are the ones that I turned to in my most desperate of moments.  They’re the ones that I wanted to make me fall asleep forever.

I threw up.  I thrashed and screamed as my husband carried me out to the car.  I didn’t want help.  I just wanted it all to be over.  How dare he try to intervene?  I was doing this for him, for our kids.  They didn’t deserve a wife and mother who behaved this way.

In the car, I hit him.  I kicked the dashboard.  I tried to open the door and jump out.  I was feral, like an animal.  Or a monster.  I’m not sure which.  Or maybe the monster is just what was inside of me, causing me to act in such a way that endangered myself and my husband.

I exhausted myself as we drove to the other side of town.  My face was tight with dried tears.  My throat was raw and hoarse from screaming.  My scalp was bleeding from where I had clawed myself.  My forehead was bruised from where I had beat it into the wall.  My husband was quiet and solemn in a way that I don’t think I had ever seen him before.  I still don’t know what was running through his mind in those moments.  We haven’t really talked about it.  I think he’s just glad that it’s behind him.  But it will never truly be behind me.

We arrived at the behavioral health hospital on the opposite side of town.  I didn’t have any fight left in me, so I followed my husband without question.  Without hesitation.  I walked behind him, almost as if I were sedated.  I answered the questions at intake honestly.  Do you wish to harm yourself or others?  Yes.

They took me upstairs.  They made me remove my clothes so that they could examine my body.  I signed some papers and my husband left.  And there I was.  My new home for the next week and a half.

They took my clothes and shoes.  They gave me a gown and socks.  I was taken back to a single room that had just opened up, almost as if they were waiting for me.  They gave me a bag of toiletries.  Baby shampoo.  A basic, harmless toothbrush.  A small bar of soap.  Nothing that I could use to harm myself with.

I sat at a table in the common area, glassy-eyed and alone.  Some other patients came over and introduced themselves.  Most were there because they had also attempted suicide.  They shared their stories.  Told me about their children and other loved ones.

I was asked to join everyone as they went downstairs to the gym.  I didn’t feel like it, but I’m also a sucker for peer pressure.  I was embarrassed as I left the unit and got on the elevator, dressed in my gown and knowing where I had just come from.  We got to the gym and people played basketball and hopped around on yoga balls while I sat on the sidelines.  I felt like I was in some bizarre, alternate universe.  Where seemingly normal people are shut within the walls of a hospital.  People like me, I suppose.

We went back upstairs because dinner was approaching, but I didn’t have an appetite.  They brought me a tray anyway and gave me a menu for the next day so that I could fill in my requests.  I used a tiny stub of a pencil to write with, like the kind they give you at a golf course.  Apparently a full sized pencil could be used as a weapon.  Who knew?  Not me.  I wasn’t particularly well-versed in all of the potential ways to hurt or kill yourself.  I just knew my ways, which apparently weren’t very effective because I was still here.  I was in this place when the only thing I wanted was to be nowhere.

I slowly moved my food around with my fork.  Picked at it and took a few bites just so that they would be satisfied.

After dinner, I was told to get in line for my meds.  They gave me my old reliables (or maybe not-so-reliables), but said that changes would likely be made the next day once I met with my doctor.

I went to bed early that night, in my cold, sterile room between the clean, white sheets.  Maybe if I went to sleep, I would wake up and this would all have been a nightmare.  Instead, I woke up to a nurse coming into my room, jabbing a needle into my arm and taking blood.  This was a nightmare, but not the kind that you wake up from.  It was the kind that you have to live through.

I was woken up early by a nurse knocking on my door.  I wasn’t sure where I was at first, but it all came flooding back quickly.  It was time to begin the day, with blood pressure and temperature checks and the breakfast that I had requested the day before.  I never, I repeat NEVER, eat that early.  But since meds were coming soon and I had barely touched my food from the night before, I was able to stomach most of it.

I searched for coffee, only to find caffeine free.  Defeats the purpose of coffee, in my opinion, but maybe I would be able to trick my body into thinking that it was awake just by drinking something hot.

I waited in yet another line for meds, a routine that was really just beginning.  Pick up the tiny cup, dump it into your mouth, take a quick drink of water and open your mouth and lift your tongue.  It felt just like a movie.

Shortly after, we started our first group therapy session.  The main topic was adversity.  I looked around and sat silently, not yet ready to engage.  Luckily, I wasn’t forced to.  That would change as time passed.  I was sure of it.

During therapy, my doctor came to pull me out.  He asked a laundry list of questions.  I answered them all honestly, without elaborating.  I didn’t have the will to come up with a lie.  I barely had the will to keep breathing another day.  I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my life.  My soul had been drained from my body.  I felt like a ghost.

They changed my meds.  Started me on a new anti-psychotic and a new anti-depressant.  Adjusting to a new medication is difficult under the best of circumstances.  But my body and mind had suddenly been slammed with strong doses of drugs that turned me into a zombie.  But at least I was no longer trying to kill myself. 

It was a Sunday and we were allowed to have visitors.  My husband and one of my friends came to see me.  I was nervous and ashamed.  I didn’t want them to see me like this.  In a hospital gown.  Completely stripped down to nothingness.

My husband was allowed to bring me a bag of my things.  Clothes that fit the criteria of safety (no drawstrings, no bras with underwires), my own shampoo and makeup (that had to be kept behind the nurse’s station), books to keep me occupied.  I was so grateful for that little piece of normalcy.  Things from my real life, my old life.

I was allowed to use the phone pretty much any time, just not when we were expected to be in therapy.  It felt good to talk to my husband, but broke my heart to talk to my son, who was only 5 years old at the time.  My girls didn’t want to talk to me.  It was too hard for them.  It was probably for the best.  I had hurt them enough, traumatized them enough.  I didn’t want to do any more damage than I had already done.

The days were a blur.  Multiple group therapy sessions each day.  Some activities to stimulate or educate us, like art therapy and a visit from a dietitian.  Someone from the hospital even brought in a service dog to keep us company for a short while.

A day or so before I was released, we were taken outside to a contained area.  It was almost like prison, without the barbed wire fences.  We still had the summer heat when I went in to the hospital, but that day outside, I realized that we were now in the thick of fall, with the turning leaves and crisp breeze.  It was almost like I had entered a different world than the one I had left.  I was grateful for that time outside.  For the sunshine, a literal ray of hope.

I was discharged on October 3rd.  I was given a paper bag to pack up my things and sent home with prescriptions for the new medications that I was given.  I hated them.  I hated the way they made me feel.  But I knew that I needed them, at least for the time being, until my doctor at home decided that I was doing better and no longer needed to be on such a strong cocktail of drugs.

My husband picked me up and the moment that I walked out of the hospital, I was flooded with practically every possible emotion.  On the way home, we stopped by the pharmacy to pick up my medications.  I remember that the pharmacist told us that one of my medications was unavailable and that I would have to wait a few days for it to come in.  My husband didn’t accept that answer, knowing how important and necessary this was, and we went to a different pharmacy that had it.

He took me home and let me get settled before he went to pick up the kids.  When the kids finally came home, I didn’t know what to say to them.  My son immediately ran up to me and gave me a hug, still unsure as to why I was gone for so long.  I had never left them for more than a few days.

My girls were more apprehensive.  I wanted them to forget what had happened to me, what I had done.  It has taken countless hours of therapy for me to accept that they never will.  But they will heal from it.  And so will I.  Eventually.

The Summer That Should Have Been

Summer has come to a close and to say that it has been a season of disappointment would be an understatement.

Covid came along and destroyed a lot of things… lives, families, small businesses.  So in reality, my lack of a social life is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.  I am incredibly lucky that my family hasn’t been severely impacted by the pandemic.  My family is healthy, my husband still has his job.  Those are the things that I am immensely grateful for.

But that doesn’t mean that this is easy.

I should have been spending time with friends and family.  I should have been going to concerts.  Camping out and escaping reality for a few days, at least.  I should have been traveling with my kids.  But I haven’t had that and won’t in the foreseeable future.

Being stuck in the same walls, save for some grocery store trips and one lone camping adventure, can really take a toll on a person’s mental health.  It has for me.  Depression is setting in and has created something dark in me.  I’m morphing into a person who I thought I had left behind, who I don’t even recognize.

My cancelled summer plans are really just the icing on the cake.  It’s hard to stay happy when the things that you have looked forward to for so long are taken away.

And if you think I don’t know how petty this all sounds, you’d be wrong.  I’m aware of how privileged I am to be able to say this.  So many people are not in my position and I am trying my damndest to be conscious of that.  

But all pain is still pain.  No matter how small it may seem to those on the outside.

So here I am, the person giving you permission to vent or cry or lament about the summer that should have been, that wasn’t.  About how you’re hanging on by a thread as a parent, as a partner, or as a human being.  About how you are struggling to find joy in a world that is crumbling around you, in one capacity or another.

Wildfires.  Tropical storms.  Racially motivated killings and crimes.  Murder hornets.  A deadly virus.  These are the things that 2020 gave us that I would like to give back.  Or trade for something good.  Anything good.

But instead, the darkness continues to settle in.  I am having a hard time getting out of bed.  I am struggling to keep my family emotionally afloat.  I haven’t felt this way in a long time, but here we are.  I am seeing my therapist more frequently.  My meds have been adjusted.  I am doing what I can to pull myself out from under this cloud that had covered me and my life for the past six months.

I previously wrote about mental illness during a pandemic.  But that was early on.  Things are different now.  More desperate.  The days have become a monotonous blur and I just need something to hang on to.  To hope for or look forward to.  I’m searching for it and coming up empty.

But I know that things could be so much worse.  My husband’s boss was hospitalized with Covid and was on a ventilator.  He has endured long lasting side effects of the virus and his life will likely never be the same.  I recently found out that my aunt, uncle, and cousin who live in England were diagnosed.  They are all healthy people, so they are getting through it okay.  But that doesn’t take away the worry.

So please, take care of yourselves.  Be gentle with yourselves.  This is not easy for any of us, regardless of our circumstances.  It’s okay to not be okay.  It’s okay to be sad or angry or scared.  The uncertainty of the world is a lot to bear, but you don’t have to carry it alone.  Reach out for help.  Offer help when you can.  We’re in this together.