Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things that Make Me Itch

"Troubles are urgent. They ask for direct action. … By contrast, worries often say more about the worrier than about the world." --James Gilkey (1934)
I was bitten by bedbugs once, in a hotel in New Jersey. I was sharing a room with my siblings, and to my annoyance, none of them got bitten, so they thought I made it up. The bites didn't show up until a few days later, and they were itchy for weeks, and the whole thing was gross. I made my husband bear witness to each newly discovered bite.

Bedbugs are terrible for people with anxiety issues. All hotels become suspect. Every minor itch is a bedbug bite. Suitcases are now vessels that usher the plague into your home.

To my great sadness, bugs love me. There is a mosquito convention every time I step outside in the summer. This problem is compounded by the fact that I am exceedingly reactive to bug bites. And this problem, in turn, is compounded by the fact that I am extremely neurotic about itchiness. After a dreamy but bug-filled college summer at Cedar Creek Natural History area, my bosses handed out flimsy certificates to the assembled ecology nerds with superlatives like "Best at Plant Identification" and "Most Cheerful Early In the Morning." My award: "Most Obsessed with Things That Make You Itch." I was embarrassed and slightly incensed, but they were right.

Just writing this is making me itch.
Writer and graphic artist Andrew Kuo shares my concern about bedbugs, according to his "Wheel of Worry" piece shown below. Here's what I would like to say to him about this: "Andrew, as shown by this diagram, we are the same inside our brains, except you are a super great artist. I too worry about bedbugs and money and loneliness, either directly or indirectly, when falling asleep. I also worry about how much I worry. Can't say that I worry about the Knicks, however, since I am missing the gene that makes you care about sports." 

I have learned that, in order to be tolerable friends and companions, neurotic folks like myself must develop self-awareness and a sense of humor. As James Gilkey rightly observed (see quote at top), our worries, obsessions and quirks are an (often unflattering) mirror into our inner lives. If we take them too seriously, we become self-absorbed, boring, and other ugly things.

Are bedbugs and mosquitoes really taking over the world? Maybe, depending on your news source, but mostly not. Instead, is Katherine obsessed with Things That Make You Itch? Ummmm, yes.

As explained in my mental health debut post, I have few real troubles. People observing my life might observe: "There's one lucky lady." And they would be right, of course. I am terribly lucky, and am trying to appreciate and pass along some of this good fortune. As I do my inner work some of the anxiety falls away, and I have longer periods of inner quiet, and rest, and joy. Everything is awesome...until I get another bug bite.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Showing Up on Easter

Yesterday was Easter and I am generally a fan. We neglected to do the Easter Bunny for our kids, partly because everyone was worn out from a total of four rounds of hunting for (and bickering over) plastic eggs. Also partly because I am deeply spiritual, even religious, in my own progressive-hippie-non-traditional way, and I simply find the Easter Bunny uninspiring.

Following on its pagan roots, Easter is about the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. It is about rising from the ashes, in big and small ways, over and over and over again. At our church yesterday, this reading from Victoria Weinstein of PeaceBang particularly blew me away:
"The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again, every year. Roll up your sleeves.

He's not coming back, you know. Christ is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him, we who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he and all the saints did--we who cry for justice in their insistent voices--we who love and we who serve...

And so it is you and I who must feast with them, must say the grace and pass the food and set them free from prison and treat each one so tenderly as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort to make it back from heaven, or from hell but certainly from death to be by our side."
Wow. What would it look like, to treat each person we encounter as if they had just returned from death, or at least a long journey, or a life-threatening illness? How much joy could we share by telling the truth about all the small deaths and rebirths happening in our lives, every day? Would we, finally, become gentler with ourselves and each other? Would we then embody the love we all so desperately seek?

This morning I'm emerging from a rough week of anxiety laced with depression. At least I think I'm emerging, it's still too early to say. Yesterday afternoon found me taking an emergency nap to stave off escalating inner tension and sadness. Meanwhile, my husband was building a go-cart with our two kids, because he is awesome, and because he was making room for me to have all the feelings.

I felt better after the nap and a glass of wine, though I drank it with some guilt at the knowledge that alcohol only postpones my anxiety. I felt better still after a long Facetime call with my parents, my original touchstones and beloved friends. Then I was able to show up, here in north Florida with my family on this Easter. I rode the newly constructed go-cart down the "big hill" with my kids, and then put them to bed with a calm heart. I even had enough energy left to help "eat the bad dreams" to settle the three-year-old to sleep.

I'm proud of rallying last night. Against the grand backdrop of Easter, it's not much. But in the interest of being gentler with myself, I choose to see this as one of many small moments of rebirth, in which I choose to show up for my husband, my kids, my life--sometimes even with the gratitude they deserve. By telling this small truth, I make it so.

Photo credit

Friday, April 18, 2014


Every couple of years or so I find myself searching for my calling. This is generally prompted by a major transition and often makes little practical sense.

For example: upon completion of my graduate degree, I accepted a full-time job in my field. This was a major victory for my ambitious side, with plenty of accompanying pride and excitement. But as I moved through this change, it felt wrong. Like even though I had won the prize job, I was veering off-course.

I started talking quietly about switching fields. The wildest thought was that I would quit the professional world and become some sort of spiritual healer. Slightly more realistically, I talked about pursuing another graduate degree to do some kind of alternative-medicine-bodywork. Over the previous few years, my alternative-medicine-bodyworkers (AMBs) had been a huge part of my support system. My husband and I would often travel from central to western North Carolina, spending many hours and lots of money on their services. They were my doctors, my therapists, my friends. They were my church, when I had no church.

All this because I was scared, and my arms hurt from computer use, and my body hurt from fancy work clothes, and my heart hurt from trying to act the "right" way.

It made some sense, then, that during a difficult transition I would want to fully enter the AMB world. In their world you could be funky and comfortable, and everyone's hurts were honored.

My AMB friends told me later that when I first started seeing them, all they could see was my emotional pain, and the real me was barely visible. It's true. I was desperate for relief from all sorts of pain. I had tried almost everything else and nothing had worked. But my AMBs believed in my pain, and they believed--they were certain--that I could get better, without regular medical care. I needed them to fix me, and believed that they could. They gave me hope. So I did pretty much anything they said, including purchase lots of their time and many bottles of pricey supplements.

As part of my prescribed path to health, I also made drastic changes to my diet. No refined sugar or alcohol for two years. It was healthy, but also rigid, which satisfied/exacerbated my compulsive tendencies. I was a terrible guest during this period, and often cranky (sorry).

Eventually my physical hurts did get better, partly due to all this AMB stuff and partly due to the simple passage of time. But my emotional/spiritual hurts were still there, and they are still there. With each major transition, I feel unmoored again, wondering if I'm on the right path.

Am I just terrible at change? Is my brain wired for periodic searching and discontent, or is there a message in here somewhere?

Today is Good Friday, the darkest day of the Week of Transformation (Holy Week). It's a day of remembered suffering and shared humanity. And so, on this day especially I ask: what good can come from hurts and brokenness--mine, yours, ours? What transformation do we really seek?

Suggestions welcome.

Photo Credit

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Root Canal

I had a root canal last Wednesday. It slowly became necessary after I cracked a tooth while chewing gum a couple of months ago. The subsequent filling was not enough, and the ache in my jaw slowly increased. The doctor was extremely competent, and I felt no pain during the procedure.  But I was scared. "Root canal" is commonly used to describe the most intense physical pain, and I expected the worst.

The whole experience reminded me of having my wisdom teeth extracted at age 20. In the days leading up to the procedure, and even as I sat in the dental chair waiting for it to begin, I felt detached. Like this was no big deal, and I had it all under control. I woke up several hours later sobbing desperately. My mom told me that as my consciousness receded I was frantically repeating: "I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared." I was a total mess recovering from the procedure, even more sensitive to noise than usual.

That scared part is still there. Depending on the day, it can feel more or less distant, sometimes buried deep and other times right at the surface.

My genius of a therapist uses an unusual method wherein you identify the various parts of yourself and listen to what they need to tell you. For me this has been a profound and also hilarious process with an increasingly colorful cast of characters. There is the ambitious one, the planner, the intellectual one, the sad one, the artist, the joyful one, etc. When I close my eyes and focus inward, I can see each of them, and (importantly!) they can see me. The actual me. The quiet, strong, grown-up me who has been asleep at the wheel for a long time, allowing these characters to run the show.

Some of my internal characters are in charge of protecting the weaker ones. Yesterday I met the crossing guard, all official in her uniform with stop sign and whistle. She was blocking the path to another character who seemed to be in distress. As I paid attention to the crossing guard, her shape began to shift, changing quickly into a dark hooded figure with black eyes, and then back again. She wanted me to see that she can be scary herself. It is her job to frighten away the bad guys.

My therapist tells me that there are often several protector characters that we have put in place over time to protect ourselves from our own pain and fear. Sometimes there are a whole army of them, and you have to invite each one to reveal itself and learn to trust you before you can move on. Toward the end of my session yesterday it became clear that the crossing guard was actually a child herself, maybe six or eight years old, with long blond hair. She was a master of costumes, and of bravery, but she was tired of doing her job alone for so many years. She decided she could trust me -- the real, central, essence of me -- enough to take a break and go play.

At the beginning of Lent I attended an Ash Wednesday service at our church. Like most everything at our church, it was wildly non-traditional and wildly beautiful. Our ministers invited us to use these 40 days for soul work. They invited us to go into the wilderness of our hearts, of nature, and of society. They told us that this work was holy; that by fixing ourselves, we would help heal our community.

I cried through the entire service. I cried so much that I had to sacrifice my scarf for tears and nose-blowing. It was cleansing, and also embarrassing. As I left the service that night, one thought was clear: "I have to change. It is time for me to change."

As we approach the end of Lent, I am a bit amazed at what has happened. The past 40-ish days have been like a giant spring cleaning for the soul. I started working with my genius therapist, identifying and freeing parts of myself long ignored. I came out of the mental health closet as part of a call for truth-telling essays, hopefully freeing others in the process. And I had a root canal, which literally extracted an old part of me that is no longer useful.

Into the wild, indeed.

This is a strange process of transformation. It is painful, and it is holy. I am scared, and I am thankful.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Soul Work

In my last post, which was really my first post, I came out of the mental health closet. This was one of my most extreme acts of vulnerability to date. And so far, people have received my messy, beautiful truth so kindly.  

My best friend wrote: "You are more than the sum of your anxious and ambitious parts."

A family member offered a prayer: "May your journey become easier and easier - until the trudging becomes floating."

And from my sister: "only good can come from honesty".

Each of these touches me deeply. Each shines a bright, warm light on the broken places and memories that I had closed off in the dark.

Messages of support have come from all over, representing even those times and former relationships that make me cringe in self-criticism. A friend from high school said she remembers me as an "all around fun, joyful, curious, sensitive (in a good way) and full-of-light person".  This truly blew me away. My own memory of myself during that period is that I was critical and kind of an outsider, faking my way into acceptance. Because many of my childhood and high school friendships faded, I assumed that others remembered me the same way. What kindness, then, for this friend to reflect back to me a light-hearted version of myself from the past. 

We are all responsible for figuring out our own selves, and fixing our own shit. Because it turns out that if you can't handle your own self then you can't handle much at all.

Unfortunately, it seems that we can only figure ourselves out through risk and vulnerability, as the ultra-wise truth-tellers Brene Brown and Glennon Melton have discovered. They are both empowering others to come forward into the light, and many of us are going for it. Doesn't mean we aren't scared. But here's why we bother (from the Momastery blog): 
"Our sacred scared is our deepest fear- the one we hide because we think that if anyone knew about it they wouldn’t love us anymore. What we find when we share our sacred scared is that it’s the very thing we should be sharing more. Because our sacred scared is the key that unlocks our humanity. When we share it, people love us more because we’ve given them permission to love themselves more. Sharing our sacred scared is like handing a world full of messy, waiting people an invitation to show up as they are."
It took me all of the last 35 years to name and share my sacred scared. I guess that is the first step. I'm just beginning to discover the corrupting power of my inner critic, and to see those parts of me that have been exiled. It's time to invite them each back into the light.

This is difficult "soul work," and so it is holy. We cannot feel the God inside ourselves when we are all broken and hidden. We cannot do our best work in the world when we are riddled with holes.

I don't expect to be perfect. Actually, I don't even want to be perfect anymore. That is impossible, and also would be kind of boring. But I would like to live without shame, and maybe shine a light forward for some others as well.

Walk with me, friends. I have a feeling there is some awesome stuff up ahead.

Photo credit

Monday, April 7, 2014

Keep Practicing--My Messy, Beautiful

Wonder-Full Stories was born a few years ago out of my deep hunger for inspiration and hope. I sought to reclaim a sense of wonder by sharing stories of our beautiful, messy world. I wrote as a curator, inserting little of myself. My energy for the project fizzled after three posts.

Now, a few years later, I wonder whether I might find and spread some hope through a riskier method: by sharing my own messy, beautiful self.

This may be my one-and-only post of this type. I'm writing this over my internal nay-sayers ("First world problems!") and out of gratitude for the honesty of others. I'm writing this because it seems important, and because Lent is the best time for "soul work." And because, as Glennon says, we are all in this together.

I am a highly educated married mother of two. My husband and I are employed and we generally enjoy our work. We are financially stable, with a loving community of family and friends near and far. I have a meaningful spiritual life, and the time and flexibility and resources to take care of myself. I have not been the victim of mental or physical abuse. All four of us are basically healthy.

All of this privilege and blessing...and yet. On many days, I am still not okay, and sometimes I'm barely functional.

I've struggled my whole life with anxiety, depression and hyper-sensitivity. (My inner critic says: Guilt! Shame! Others are truly suffering and I am whiny and weak!) It has taken me thirty-five years, seven therapists, Zoloft and countless hours of reflection, meditation and loving conversation to acknowledge this truth.

Many days, it takes almost nothing to launch me into a place of churning stomach, tight throat and exhaustion. The first loud noise or minor worry of the day, and I feel out of control, compelled to erase and re-write my to-do list. Over time, anxiety has manifested physically as severe acid reflux and TMJ. Compulsive tendencies have driven me to over-work and ignore pain, leading to a (temporarily) debilitating overuse injury and various chronic pain problems. Hypersensitivity makes me irritable and rather high-maintenance. And my closest loved ones bear the brunt.

I am the gifted child who can't fall asleep at night because she is so worried about how tired she will be the next day if she can't fall asleep right away. I am the middle-schooler panicked from the stresses of bullying and gossip and back-stabbing. I am the broken-hearted teenager desperate after the end of an unhealthy relationship. I am the urbanite who never adjusts to the bruising noises and smells of the city. I am the college kid who loses a semester and some good friends to hours and hours of crying and neediness. I am the young professional who can't tolerate being touched and collapses into tears every night due to the stresses of a rather good job. I am the new mother who almost vomits from crying due to postpartum anxiety, and yet does not seek mental health support.

And I am also the star student and prized employee. I am the swim team captain, the choreographer and the a cappella group leader. I am the Most Likely To Succeed (whatever that means). I am the successful professional and small business-owner. I am the best friend, the loving daughter/sister and the faithful wife. I am a great mom.

I get that it is okay, maybe even desirable, and certainly unavoidable, to be flawed--even deeply so. To be imperfect is to be human; I get that. But I am still rather appalled by my own imperfections. I have not learned how to reconcile my ambition and my sensitivity. I blow through my own limits, and suffer the consequences, constantly.

A few weeks ago I started working with therapist number eight, and am tentatively very excited about her. I don't know where our work together is headed, and am impatient with the process as usual. But this person definitely showed up at the right time. I hope she can help me learn to approach my days more gently. And also to be mindful of my limits... and if it's not too much to ask, to maybe figure out how in the hell I can put my sensitivity to good use.

Our son plays Suzuki violin, which is equal parts awesome and ridiculously challenging (kind of like life, as it turns out). Whenever he gets frustrated, I ask him: "Why do we practice?" And he responds, as we have taught him, and sometimes with a groan: "To make it easier."

And there it is, the truth and the challenge: that it is our job to do hard things and to keep practicing. I am currently pretty tired of my own self and my own issues (so selfish and boring!) and also of practicing. But I do find consistent and increasing joy, maybe even inspiration, in things like dancing, humor, and honesty. My hope is that the joyful list will grow while the anxiety list shrinks, and that I will eventually know more internal quiet than internal strife. May it be so, for all of us.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!