I know this will be very difficult to believe, but when I was a child, I was often grounded.
For the most part, these punishments were not warranted for anything I actually did. I was an honor roll earning, rule-following, teacher-pleasing, National Honor Society card carrying, Div I-bound swimming, “good girl”, who did not touch her first drop of alcohol until after high school graduation. I made good choices.
What came out of my mouth, however, was not always … agreeable. Cooperative. Pleasant. Again, I know this is difficult to believe.
And so, I often found myself stuck in my room, disallowed from television, then Atari and Nintendo and the phone, and later, Friday and Saturday social events, As this was before the advent of the internet and cell phones, it was very isolating. Not long into my childhood, my mother discovered a personality trait that enabled her to make my punishments that much more
She wouldn’t tell me how long I was grounded for.
You see, my mother realized that it wasn’t so much the actual punishment that could get under my skin (although I didn’t enjoy it), rather what made me absolutely lose my shit was the limbo of not knowing how long the winter of my discontent would last.
It was not only the loss of control and power in my life (the restricted activities and social life), but the ignorance of not knowing when it would end. I walked around daily in a heightened state of misery and anxiety, not only from the dearth of pleasurable pursuits, but without the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
It was equal parts brilliant and evil. Nicely played, mom. Well done.
I did not outgrow this mindset in adulthood, and it was one of many contributing factors to the onset of my PTSD. The combination of a (perceived) complete loss of control over nearly all facets of my life, with the uncertainty of when and how it would all be resolved, was crippling for me. I worked on this issue for a couple years in therapy: the roots of the tendencies, the manifestations of the emotions, and coping strategies for how to gracefully navigate future situations that might elicit or trigger these reactions.
I’m a lot better. I’m also still very much a work in progress.
Which brings me to this year. This year has been tough. I have told many people in my life over the past few months that, for the first time since the early days of 3 children under the age of 5, I feel like I just. can’t. do. it. I thought by year 18 as a working mom, I would be somewhat immune to the tidal waves of stress. Not that I thought I wouldn’t still be exhausted and busy and stressed out, but that I wouldn’t have those days upon days of feeling like, as my mom used to say, “I want to get in the car and drive down 95. And just keep going.”
I’m trying to reflect on why I’m feeling so strung out. Yes, I have 3 teenagers to parent on top of a very busy and demanding full time job. So I’m busy. But I also have a fantastic marriage, wonderful friends, a stable financial situation (I don’t worry about basic necessities, so #blessed), a job that I actually enjoy and find fulfilling 90% of the time, and last but not least, my physical health.
Life should be good. Life is good. Except…
What I have realized is that there is a cosmic convergence this year of several life situations that are both 1. completely outside my control and 2. I have no idea how and when they will be resolved. They are not insignificant issues, and some of the most important people in my life are grappling with them. In short, there is a huge amount of uncertainty and distress for several members of my most inner and cherished circle, and I have no idea where to go with all of that.
Loss of control. Lack of clarity as to what I’m dealing with. No idea as to when it will be resolved. My 4-decades-long potent cocktail for despair.
I’m working on it. I’m practicing my self-talk, and mantras, and gratitude. I’m running. I’m seeing my therapist. I’m reminding myself that I have been through far, far worse, and my batting average of survival is 100%, and so is that of everyone on my team, for that matter. I’m telling myself that in the grand scheme of the beautiful, miserable, heartbreaking, terrifying and ecstatic joy ride that is existence, my problems are not that big.
I’m trying not to complain. I don’t always succeed. But I’m trying.
Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.
“How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long! Gosh, I thought of you all day on Sunday. My dear friend <redacted>’s friend killed herself on Saturday night after learning that her husband had been having an affair with her best friend.”
She went on with some additional details, the two teenage sons left motherless, the years of marital counseling that were ultimately an exercise in futility, details I barely heard through the roaring train echoing through my head. Embarrassed, I hastily wiped away the tears that had immediately sprung into my eyes without warning before she even finished the first sentence. I took a few deep breaths, willing my pulse to slow and hands to steady while she murmured sadly, “I just kept thinking of your strength. I remember you all those years ago, how you put one foot in front of the other. Do you know what strength that takes?”
Yes. I know.
It’s been two weeks since that conversation, and I can’t get that nameless, faceless woman out of my head. I’ve thought of her, that woman I never met and did not know, as I’m running. Watching a television show. Playing with my dogs. Having dinner with my girlfriends. Doing the laundry. That woman who was so blindsided by despair and devastation that she couldn’t imagine spending one. more. minute. with the agonizing, searing hot pain inside her. Seeing the mind movies, concocted by her own insidious imagination, unbidden and certainly unwanted, but ceaseless in their loop. The replayed conversations, with their subtexts now uncovered, like subtitles in a foreign film, only you didn’t realize upon first viewing that you didn’t speak the language.
It is a foolish and useless desire, but I wish I had known her, or rather, she had known me. I wonder, pointlessly and perhaps, arrogantly, if the outcome would have been different if she knew of someone who had walked through the fire and come out the other side, charred and scarred but alive. I think that I would have gone to her house and held her hand, sat with her on the bathroom floor, and said “you want to die and you might feel this way every second of every minute of every hour for weeks or months but you will not feel this way forever.”
I could make her that promise with confidence, and maybe, just maybe, she would believe it. And if she didn’t, I would say it differently, emphatically, repeatedly, until she did.
I want to be like Holden Caulfield, catching women if they come too close to the brink of double betrayal insanity, keeping them safe from the rabbit holes of their own madness.
The sad truth, of course, is that just like no one can stop children from losing their innocence, no one can heal or fix anyone else. Ultimately, I had to do all the hard work, all by myself, stop my own self from going over the cliff.
But a little piece of me wants to believe that if that woman just knew of another mere mortal, an ordinary woman with no superpowers to speak of, who could draw on reservoirs of strength and courage and fortitude she never believed existed within, that maybe she could have held on until she discovered her own.
Even though this blog is mainly about running and triathlons and pretending to be an athlete in my middle age, I’ve found my most enthusiastic and loyal readers are women who connect with PTSD (or, as I like to reclaim on my good days, post traumatic growth). Seven years after my divorce, and five years after taking down my previous blog, I still regularly get emails and communication through social media from women about infidelity and divorce. Sometimes it is a mother, or sister, worried about a family member going through the discovery phase; sometimes it is a heartbroken or angry betrayed spouse herself, either struggling to get through the next hour, or battling to let go of the rage and fear and sadness after many years.
While the circumstances and backgrounds differ, the women have a strikingly similar plea: tell me it’s going to be okay. Remind me that it gets better. Reassure me that there is life after this. Tell me that I, too, can have that happily ever after.
Happily every after? Oh dear. What type of snow job have I been pulling in this corner of the internet?
I would love to tell you that, with enough time, all heartache and trauma ceases to exist. That falling in love with a new man, even several years into a very happy and healthy relationship, magically erases the scars left from profound deceit and betrayal. That children are so resilient that divorces don’t leave scars, no matter how much they are loved and protected. I would love to tell you that PTSD can be “cured” with therapy and medication, guaranteed never to rear its ugly head again.
I wish more than anything that was all true. But it’s not. Or at least, not in my case.
I’ve been in a hell of a storm since 2017 very nearly began. Well, more accurately, according to my therapist, I’ve either been in a storm or battening down the hatches since 2010, because the delightful thing about not being able to go cold turkey is that you never really get a chance to heal. You can smooth those rough edges over, strengthen those coping skills, and even fool yourself that the horizon is clear, but it’s not, not really.
And so, relapses happen. They happen to many. The alcoholic takes “just one” drink, the drug addict takes “just one” hit, the panic attacks and insomnia and intrusive thoughts say this is “just one” bad week. Only before you know it, weeks turn into months, and one day you get on the scale and realize you lost 5 pounds. You get on the treadmill and can’t run a mile when just two months ago you ran a half marathon. You get up in the morning and can’t remember the last time you slept for more than a few hours at night.
So you get yourself back on the therapist’s couch.
Thinking goddammit but I got over this. Thinking that you thought the worst was over, but you failed to take into account that it can always get worse. Rookie mistake, and god knows, you’re not a rookie, so now you’ve relapsed and feel like a fool.
But, here’s the thing. The women who are asking me to tell them it gets better? That it’s going to be okay? I can honestly say that while happily ever after is illusory, and there’s no such thing as unicorns and fairy tales, it absolutely and totally does get better and it will be okay.
How do I know? Because there’s only one real rock bottom. And once you’ve hit it, I mean really hit it, you never go there again. You might relapse, you might bungee jump down and spring back after your face hovers, inches, millimeters from that concrete floor that could shatter your bones, but you will never hit it again. Want to know why? Want to know how I know?
Because once you’ve clawed your way back from rock bottom, you know you can do it again.
In 2010, when my then-husband told me he was leaving, and the truth slowly came trickling out over the course of several months in Chinese water torture fashion, I completely lost my shit (I’m sure there’s a better, more clinical DSM-V term, but let’s go with that). I had never felt so unmoored, so alone, so without any hope or vision for my future. There was no manual for this insanity. I was trapped in a bad Jerry Springer episode, only there was no “off” button on the remote, no channel to change. My entire life, forwards and backwards, ceased to exist; my identity – that of a wife, a best friend, a partner – stripped from me; my most beloved and cherished role as a mother downgraded to a 70% position, without my input or consent.
It was gone, all gone. They talk about a light at the end of the tunnel? All I saw was a yawning black chasm.
That was my rock bottom. I will never hit that again. I know now that I can survive. Once you know that? Really know that? It’s etched in your soul.
Sure, relapses happen. I have returned to therapy after a 4 year hiatus, brushing up on those coping skills, reminding myself of how to deal with the PTSD triggers that will assuredly not abate for another 5 years. I’m circling my wagons, conserving my energy and finances, following professional advice, both therapeutic and legal.
Recovery does not mean that the struggle ceases to exist. Recovery is about knowing that you can fight the good fight, and that if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. That there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and taking comfort in the knowledge that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.
Ultimately, it’s about faith. Hope, instead of hopelessness.The belief, no matter how shaky it feels some days, that rock bottom only hits once.
*This post inspired by Glennon Doyle Melton’s article.
For 2017, I am blogging my way through Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Read here to see my intro post.
Lighten Up – Parenthood
For April, Rubin focused on parenthood, specifically her effort to “lighten up” when it came to parenting her (at the time of writing) two young daughters.
I totally get this. Parenting babies, toddlers and preschoolers is hard, y’all. I’m a decade out from it, but trust me, I haven’t forgotten. Rubin writes of the research, “Marital satisfaction nose-dives after the first child is born and picks up again once the children leave home” (91).
Picks up again once the children leave home.
I know when the kids are young, and you haven’t slept in
years months, and you’re cooking dinner with a baby on your hip and one wrapped around your knees, and you are, literally, assisting little human beings with their shit and snot, that the thought of those little people having the independence to wipe their own asses, never mind make their own snacks, seems so intoxicating and alluring that anytime in the future seems like a better alternative.
People, I survived the early years of three offspring delivered in a 4 year span. They eventually grew older, started sleeping and taking care of their own bowel movements, and I had several blissful intermediary years of post-early childhood but pre-adolescence. Those were the magical years.
I now have 3 teenagers living at home. To follow up on Rubin’s notes about the impact of children in general on happiness at home, “Marital satisfaction, which typically declines over the course of marriage, reaches its all-time low when the oldest child reaches adolescence.” To put it simply, if having kids at home is stressful and exhausting and on a day to day basis lowers general levels of happiness, then having teenagers at home is the bottom of the barrel.
Let it be said, before I go any further, that I actually have really good kids. I mean, I hit the jackpot. Furthermore, after working with teenagers for nearly 20 years, I’m going to make the claim that I *get* teenagers more than the average parent. So I have a leg up.
I’m not sure how “light” my load is.
Here is the problem with me (and I totally own this as my own dysfunction). I just can’t not worry,
nag remind, obsess, stress, and perseverate over any little box that is left unchecked. It’s not even so much that I want to control the outcome, rather once something is on my radar, on my to-do list (even if it’s not my list, but someone in my orbit), I can’t let go of it until it’s taken care of.
Let me give you an example.
My oldest child was recently invited to apply for the National Honor Society. He was given the invitation to apply on a Friday, with a Wednesday deadline to declare his intention. So the 5 days went something like this:
Friday: Me to him: “So what do you think? Do you want to go for it?” Him: “I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
Sunday afternoon: Me to him: “Don’t forget you need to decide by Wednesday.”
Monday after school: Me to him: “Have you made a decision about National Honor Society? You need to decide by Wednesday.” Him: “Um. No. Still thinking about it.”
Tuesday morning before school: “Okay, so you’re going to your Dad’s tonight. Don’t forget that application is due on Wednesday if you want to apply.” Him, noncommittally, “Mmm”
Wednesday afternoon: Me to him: “So what did you do about National Honor Society?” Him: “Meh. I didn’t apply.”
First, slow clap to my oldest for his A+ game on dealing with a type A mother. But more importantly, while I disagree with his choice not to apply, I really wasn’t ever pressuring him on what to do. The decision was all his. I just needed to get it off my list. Now imagine this times 3 very busy children with a myriad of activities. A husband, who loves to be helpful and take things “off my list” but doesn’t quite have my rapid-fire timeframe for checking things off.
And the kicker: 103 seniors who I shepherd through a multi-faceted senior program with multiple components, plus 30 kids in English class, plus 11 advisees.
“Light” I am not.
So, where does that leave me? Because, listen, while this project is about happiness, it’s not about fantasy. I have been like this my entire life. It’s part of the reason why I am excellent at my job, highly productive, and high achieving in multiple facets of my life. But I will also never be “laid back”. “Light”, if you will. I am okay with this. That doesn’t mean I can’t dial it back a notch.
So, I’m working on letting go. Only reminding my kids once or twice instead of daily (and yes, I know that better serves them. Again, this isn’t about me trying to helicopter parent them into a certain outcome, rather my own obsessive list-making). Trying to let Jesus take the wheel instead of feeling responsible for others’ choices (especially the 103 young adults that I am kicking, nagging, cajoling and pleading with to get across the finish line).
My goal, like Rubin, is to modify my natural proclivity for order and control so that I’m lighter. She wrote (after working on lightening up), “The difference was that, although my nature was unchanged, I had more happiness in my life each day; … through my actions I was successfully pushing myself to the high end of my inborn happiness range” (111).
For 2017, I am blogging my way through Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Read here to see my intro post.
“Happiness is a critical factor for work, and work is a critical factor for happiness” (69).
For March, Rubin focuses on work. Oh dear. This is a quagmire.
Have I mentioned before that I work at the same school where my husband is an administrator? Oh, and where all 3 of my children attend? So, with this topic, I tread lightly. Coincidentally, or not, work has also probably – no definitely – been the single biggest challenge to my overall happiness and wellbeing this year.
Again. Tiptoe through the minefield.
Here’s the thing: I am incredibly #blessed with my work situation. I know this. I work with fantastic people (love my colleagues), and am so dang proud and grateful to not only provide my kids with a topnotch independent school education, but know (really know) that they are being taught by amazing people who genuinely know their stuff, and care about my kids. I have worked alongside these people for 8 years now (and for my husband, 10); the tuition is worth every dollar.
But I have also worked my way into an overwhelming, stressful situation with a relentless pace, where I never feel like I’m getting my job either done, or done well. Without spending too much time or energy (that I don’t have. Ha!) on the details, I voluntarily agreed to take on several extra duties this year.
Now, it’s important for me to stress that none of this was forced on me by my employers. They did not demand that I teach an extra section, or create and teach an online class. I didn’t do it for the money, or for the glory or accolades. (is there either of those in education? Discuss amongst yourselves). I took on the extra responsibility and challenges because I knew it would benefit my students, and I always want to be the best educator I can be.
“March’s focus on work and happiness highlighted a tricky issue: the relationship between ambition and happiness. There’s a common belief that happiness and ambition are incompatible … Studies show that many creative, influential people in the arts and public life score above average in ‘neuroticism’ (i.e., they have a greater propensity to experience negative emotions); this discontent arguable urges them to higher achievement” (88).
I am ambitious, only not in the way that is typically admired or celebrated in our society. I don’t dislike money, of course, but no one goes into education to get wealthy. Nor do I have a desire for a title, or authority over others. I really just want to help others, serve my students well, and perform to the absolute best of my ability. Unfortunately, in my quest to do all of that in bigger, better and more creative ways, I created a situation for myself that feels just the opposite – I can’t possibly do it all, and am strung out trying to make it all work.
However, in the spirit of Rubin’s Happiness Project March goal, I am proactively trying to change my work situation for next year. In a move that is very unlike me and outside my comfort zone, I appealed to my superiors for a change in job description for next year. I am not one to ever complain or make waves in my professional life, so it was really hard for me to advocate for myself. I’m not sure how it will all play out, but they were receptive and open to the discussion, and I’m hopeful that next year will result in a happier, healthier work environment for me.
For 2017, I am blogging my way through Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Read here to see my intro post.
Rubin begins her Happiness Project in January with “Boost Energy”. She notes, “research shows, being happy energizes you, and at the same time, having more energy makes it easier for you to engage in activities – like socializing and exercise – that boost happiness” (17-18). She decides on 5 key action items that will boost her energy.
Go t0 sleep earlier
Clearly, getting more sleep will (or at least should) give you more energy. This is a tough one for me, because I actually don’t miss out on sleep (that often) by staying up late surfing the web or watching television or otherwise wasting time. I’m pretty disciplined about going to bed at an octogenarian, embarrassing-to-admit, lights-out time of 9:30-10pm. 9:15pm if it’s been a long day.
But, in my defense, that’s because my alarm is usually set to a 4:35-5:05am rise and shine time (my Friday rest-day setting is a luxurious 5:30am) so I can get up and train before school. This schedule not only limits my hours of sleep because of the early wake-up time, but then I have a long busy day beginning with exercise, then a full day of work, then usually kid activities and events before heading home to make dinner and preparing to do it all over again.
I need those 7 hours of sleep, y’all.
I don’t think going to sleep earlier is an option for me, until I’m ready for the nursing home. But, I would like to tighten up my wind-down routine. I’ve previously toyed with, and successfully engaged in for short spurts, the idea of plugging in my iPhone by 9pm to charge somewhere other than my nightstand, an arm’s reach away. Since my phone is also my alarm, I still want it in my bedroom, but I think even moving it over to my bureau would help resist that temptation to surf Twitter, IG and Facebook (lather, rinse, repeat) right before bed.
Okay, unlike a significant portion of America, I don’t need the general “get more exercise” resolution to boost my energy. I get plenty of exercise thankyouverymuch. I’m already registered for a 15k and triathlon (would like to do 1-2 more, just haven’t decided yet), and am saving up (fingers crossed) for my first marathon.
I’m guessing I work out more than the average 42 year old mom of 3.
With that said, while I often approach the recommended 10,000 steps a day before my second cup of coffee, I spend the bulk of my day fairly sedentary. Yes, I do move (I work on the 4th floor and take the stairs every day after chapel, teach 2 classes every other day, and that back parking lot is a hike #facultyproblems), but it’s also not at all unusual for 60-90 minutes to pass several times a day, and I haven’t budged from my office chair while I grade essays, lesson plan, conference with students, answer emails, etc.
It’s bothered me, for awhile, but I haven’t been motivated to really focus on it.
In an effort to get my butt up on a more regular basis, I’m activating the “move!” alarm on my Garmin. I can definitely be more active at work, and it might help me feel more energetic and alert from 7:30-4:30pm.
Toss – Restore – Organize
Rubin devotes the most space in the January chapter to her “toss-restore-organize” goal. She writes how her apartment was over-run with clutter, how she felt limited and overwhelmed and psychically drained by the rarely-worn clothes and stacks of papers. She spends several pages describing her weekends devoted to cleaning out closets and cabinets, and implementing an “evening tidy-up” (33). She enthusiastically writes how she felt “uplifted and restored by her clutter clearing” (34).
She also describes her husband as a willing and enthusiastic participant. *side eye* *throat clear*
So… I am what my husband calls a minimalist. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this summation, which is okay, since he heartily disagrees with my labeling him a hoarder.
We can agree that I embrace “cleanliness is next to Godliness”, while he trends towards “he who dies with the most crap wins”. We are not compatible in this area. At all.
Just for example, let’s compare our work areas/home offices. I use the dining room.
**I took these pictures exactly as they appeared tonight, Sun Jan 15th. There was no cleaning up or preparation for either room.**
You can see my school bag over on the hutch. That is where I deposit it, after emptying out my water bottle, lunch box, and coffee thermos, every single day. This is representative of how the dining room looks most of the time. When I pay the bills or work on my computer, I put everything on the table. Then put it all away.
Here is my husband’s library. Yes, he has his own dedicated library.
That about sums it up.
To my husband’s credit, he has improved a lot since we moved in together, and works regularly at purging. Our house might be fully purged and organized for our golden anniversary.
Tackle a nagging task
Rubin writes, “An important aspect of happiness is managing your moods, and studies show that one of the best ways to lift your mood is to engineer an easy success, such as tackling a long-delayed chore” (35). Much like the “toss-restore-organize” action plan, I don’t need much improvement in this category. I’m not by nature a procrastinator, and I can actually be too dogged in crossing off my to-do list. For example, the notion of blowing off my every-weekend chore list to relax and have a “Sunday Funday” (I hear people do that) is completely foreign to me. I am in a perpetual cycle of list-making and crossing-off.
Maybe an energy boost for me would involve being lazy? Ignoring my nagging tasks? In contemplating that, I feel a jolt of anxiety just considering it, which is certainly … energizing. I’ll have to mull that one over.
Act more energetic
Also known as, “fake it till you make it”. I am extremely familiar with this strategy; I’ve employed it effectively in parenting, in the workplace, as an athlete, and in a myriad of awkward social situations (my fellow introverts hear me). I have found that, in almost any situation, pretending that you feel a certain way, while not a magic elixir for the emotions, does help with effective implementation of the required actions. Rubin agrees; “Although a ‘fake it till you feel it’ strategy sounded hokey, I found it extremely effective” (36). .
So, by this logic, if I *act* more enthusiastic about heading off to a run or grading a stack of essays, I’ll not only have a larger reservoir of energy, but feel happier.
I’m skeptical, but for the sake of blog research, I’ll give it a shot.
Doing the Happiness Project with me? Feel free to post in comments what your action items are for January.