A realistic self image

I live in hiking and backpacking country. In my mind I am a hiker. I am cool and sporty like the people in the Patagonia ads. Lean, athletic and tan I embark on outdoor adventures, my happy face tanned, barely glistening with sweat. My legs are capable of scaling tall peaks without fatigue. In this fantasy there are no bugs, no need for awkward outdoor bathroom breaks and plenty of snacks to go around.

Recently I embarked on a two State, two national park tour with a friend. There was plenty of wildlife and beautiful scenery to view from our car windows. However,  many of the parks best features required some physical exertion to see them. We hiked up walkways to view magnificent thermal features. We inched down steep walkways to glorious waterfalls and trekked miles of trails around peaceful glacial lakes. It was pure joy seeing some spectacular natural wonders.

Ok. I’m lying. It wasn’t spectacular because I’m out of shape and I don’t look like a Patagonia ad. I huffed and puffed up hills barely the size of molehills and swore in my head up the steeper ones.  My face was covered in sweat and my feet were chaffed and dirty while in sandals. When they were in hiking boots they collected unsightly blisters like warts on a toad. I began every hike wondering how long it would take for me to get back to the car and air conditioning. I looked at gorgeous views wondering why I didn’t just pay the $3 for a postcard of that view instead of walking the trails with my bug repellent and bear spray. I viewed fit hikers with disdain and envy, secretly considering tripping them as they sprinted up the trail ahead of me leaving me behind, single on a ski lift.

It appears I am not a good hiker. Snack stands, gift shops, indoor bathrooms and visitor centers are more my speed.

Often the image we have of ourselves we have is not accurate.  In my mind I’m a slow thinker, bad writer and overweight behemoth. The facts don’t support those thoughts any more than they support me being hiker.  I’m a great thinker, an above average writer and not a behemoth.

This week be kind to yourself and accurate about who you really are. Congratulate yourself on your good and giving self and realistic about your negative thoughts.  Chances are your week will be better if you make a commitment to look at your mental mirror with clarity and grace.

A nope rope

I hate snakes. All snakes. Big, little, poisonous, tame, domestic and exotic.  All snakes. I recently saw a meme that referred to them as a “nope rope”. In my estimation that is the perfect name for them.

As a photographer I am always looking for great places to shoot photos. I found a local park that has swinging bridges, streams and lots of green background. I was enthralled until I saw a saw a sign that read “rattle snake habitat”. Let me tell you, on my first trip around the park I could  barely enjoy it because I was listening for rattlers and watching my every step as if landmines were embedded in the trail. I really hate snakes.

I have now been to the park four times and have yet to see or hear a snake. With every trip I’m getting more confident, cocky even, now walking off the trail to get the perfect viewpoint of my subject. There have been no snakes, allowing me to enjoy the journey. My fear has lessened as my comfort level has increased.

Relationships offers us many “nope rope” opportunities. Relationships can be filled with poisons and danger. What does one do when a relationship is cause for concern? Do we wade into potential snake filled landscape with fear or with cautious regard. One approach to a questionable relationship is to familiarize yourself with that person until the threat is either confirmed or alleviated. Another option is to avoid the relationship all together, treating it like a landmine, potentially missing a good relationship all together.  Wisdom is needed to make that choice.

The challenge of opening ones self to potential harm is what lies in the balance; the scorched earth of hurt feelings and emotional damage. However, I once was told that the way to treat people is to assume the good in every person when engaging them.  Give them the benefit of the doubt, offering grace and understanding as an offering of love.  Offer people the best until someone proves themselves worthy or unworthy of your love. Avoid the snakes but enjoy the scenery of the journey.

The Human Spirit

One of my favorite characters in childhood literature was Amelia Bedelia, the bumbling maid who made lots of mistakes but always managed to come out on the right side of them. I loved Pippi Longstocking, who lived an adventurous life in spite of having no parents. Jo from Little Women and Laura Ingals from Little House on the prairie were my heros.  I admired all those spirited girls.

As an adult I love to read books about real people and their enduring human spirit.  People who defy the odds to live a life of fullness and promise. I recently read about a holocaust survivor and marveled at her resiliency in spite of facing evil imprisonment and torture. Last week on a plane ride I watched a story of a survivor of slavery and how he overcame unimaginable cruelty and unevenly stacked odds to become a free man. I love survivors.

A trauma therapist told me once “Jill, I don’t know what primordial pool your ancestors crawled out from but you were made to survive.” I was taken back by the comment, not feeling much like a survivor.

I didn’t always want to survive. I wanted to live the perfect life that I perceived other people had. I considered my friends and their wonderful families and felt like I was getting the ass end of the deal living in an abusive and controlling household. I longed for a life not lived in fear and drama. I was suicidal as a teenager because I couldn’t imagine a way out of the life I was living. At many stages of my life I have wondered why I had to bear the brunt of other’s cruelty. As an adult I have had many days when I simply didn’t want to live or walk the roads laid out before me. I have wanted to be normal, for life to be simple and for the pain to stop.

But the fact is, life offers all of us circumstances that challenge our spirit and resiliency. There is no x factor in survival. It is a personal journey for which I have few answers and many questions. Our challenges come in varying degrees of difficulty that we cannot compare those to one another.  What causes one person to survive feels like a roll of the dice, a luck of the draw.

All I know is the singular factor that has given me strength and courage is my faith. All that I am is upheld by that. Often people ask me how I could still have faith when so many people have let me down. Faith in something bigger than myself gives me purpose and this fills me with understanding that I exist for more than myself.

This is my road, my journey and faith is what has kept me alive until now.

Our relationship – things to know

I worry about the relationships in my life. I know that having a relationship with someone who has mental illness can be a challenge so I complied a few thoughts. This is a lexicon, a cipher on relating to me. Maybe it applies to somebody else you know!!

On relating to people with mental illness:

1. We are different from other people and we know it. Our lives have given us perspectives and reactions that others may not understand. We can’t ignore it, hide it or camouflage it. We already know we are different. It is ok if you know it too.

2. We want you to welcome us as full participants in life, despite our disabilities. Living a life with mental illness does not make us less capable of dealing with the world, it just makes us very aware of how we need to approach the world in order to feel safe in it.

3. We know our illness make us challenging to deal with. Please look beyond nightmares, panics, mood swings and limitations to see the real us.

4. We hope you’ll stay in our relationship but we don’t really believe that you will. This distrust was born out of trauma and is a learned response. Thank you for all your reassurance that you are going to be there for us in the long haul.

5. We need people who are like us and people who are not like us. Diversity helps all of us to understand our sameness in a world where we feel very different from everybody else. Don’t extract yourself from our lives just because we are different.

6. Sometimes we need relationships that pursue us because we aren’t sure we are worthy of your friendship or love. Mental illness can take a toll on self esteem so any extra effort from our friends and family means the world.

7.The first sign of anger, frustration, displeasure or disaster in our relationship will be terrifying. We have little understanding that people can work through tough situations in a relationship and survive it. We’ll come out fighting but inside we are sure its the end of a relationship. Abandonment is real and relationships bring out our worst and best. We cling strongly to those who attach to us and despair when those relationships go away.

8.Self care can cause us to be unpredictable. We may decide on a moments notice that we need a day to ourselves or don’t feel like we can handle the pressure of people.. This is not about you even though it causes you disappointment. This is about us taking care of ourselves.

9. We may joke about medication but it is a daily battle for most of us. We are grateful for their effectiveness on our diseases but have a loathing for the side effects and even for needing them every day. Thanks for understanding that we aren’t just trying to pop a pill to cure our problems. Its not our crutch. We really would rather deal without them.

10. We are not our disease illness or trauma. We are not a category. We are individuals who love, try, fail and triumph. Allow us the dignity of being all these things without crediting our disability for all of who we are.

Finally,  we love you but it may be hard for us to show it. Medications and mental illness can dull or intensify the reactions and responses of an individual so while we really want to express our love and appreciation for you it may not come out as expressive as we want.

Please be patient with us.

Mental Breakdown

I had a mental breakdown.  Fueled by the stress of many jobs, family and internal emotional distress I completely broke down. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t remember conversations I was in the middle of. I had trouble remembering faces and names of long standing friends. I would spend hours driving around trying to remember what it is I was supposed to do. My brain became useless for anything but surviving from day to day.Because of all the stress I couldn’t sleep. I was mixing vodka and xanex in unsuccessful attempts to get some rest and relief.  I masked all this for as long as I could. And then I couldn’t.

Four years ago I had a busy church, charity work, a business consulting job, writing gigs and an occasional photography business.  In addition we had four busy teenagers with lives filled with music, sports and church activities. I worked hard from early morning until early morning. I cleaned the house in the middle of the night, often mopping and doing laundry until 1-2 in the morning. I worked until my chest hurt and would curl up in a ball on my office floor until it stopped.

Since a young age I have worked to exhaustion. Church, school, work, family – balancing it all precariously and not always successfully.  When I was in high school a science teacher told me that I was not the kind of person who burned a candle at both ends but the kind who broke the candle in two and burned all four.  For the entirety of my life people have asked me what I was running away from that I would work that hard.

I resented those kinds of comments because I loved working and loved my jobs.  I was good at them and they gave me deep satisfaction. The real question isn’t if I loved working it is WHY I loved to work so much and why I needed to keep up that busy pace. I was convinced I wasn’t running from anything, until I crashed.

Working hard wasn’t without it’s benefits. People gave me accolades and recognition for being successful and working so hard. I was highly regarded in my work but I was, in fact, running. Running hard to out run a burden I carried with me everywhere I went.

After four years of intense treatment I now know that I was in fact running. My busyness kept the emotional pain of a tragic childhood from me. If I was busy I didn’t have time to consider myself.  But then I couldn’t outrun the past anymore.  My brain and nervous system won’t allow it. I was arrested by crippling emotional pain and fatigue.

My brain will never recover from that breakdown. My memory hasn’t returned to full capacity and my concentration remains stilted. I struggle to read a book, trying to remember characters from page turn to page turn.  Throughout the day I often have to pause to remember details that should  be easy to recall. I exhaust easily and cannot handle groups of people or lots of frantic activity. I have to make accommodations just to go out in public and interact with the world.  I have been repeatedly warned that if I crash again I will not come back to even the working capacity that I am at now so I work significantly less. I work smarter and I focus on my own self care.

But I am missing a part of my self esteem. I found value in being known and receiving atta-girls from my work.  My other-esteem craves someone to call me out and pat me on the back for something. I feel like I have disappeared from the sight of the living, breathing, thriving world.

I want to be happier, more settled and more satisfied with my new way of life but that will be a longer time coming. I will wait for that patiently.