On March 6, 2020 I left my 8th grade social studies classroom, and my identity as a teacher, behind for the last time. Ironically just a week before quarantine sent everyone home, I went back on full time mental health leave due to returning suicidal ideation. After I tried to kill myself in October 2019, I spent the remainder of the semester on mental health leave, then returned in January as school reconvened with the end of winter break. Two months later, and the stress of teaching proved to still be too large a burden to bear while working on my mental health recovery.
Next weekend, March 6, 2021 marks exactly a year since. This year has been the most transformative year of my life. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I learned that proved to be the most important to my recovery (note: healing is not linear, and my recovery is not over. I’ll honestly probably be in “recovery” for the rest of my life):
Lesson 1: Everyone has a story in their head that centers themselves in any situation (thanks Brene Brown, for the phrasing)
Every single person has a valid and unique perspective on every single event based on several factors. A combination of our individual genetics, childhood home environment, relationships, societal context, and trauma shapes our unique perspectives. This fact is one of my favorite things about humanity. This fact is one of the reasons I love meeting and learning from others so much; it has shaped my attitude as a lifelong learner.
Something I learned in the last year as well though, is that these unique perspectives also shape our ability to communicate and enter into relationships with each other. Your unique perspective and feelings about yourself often results in you taking the actions and words of others very personally. But you’re not alone. We all do this.
Why was this such an important lesson? By recognizing that everyone comes to the table with their own individual story in their head, it allows you to lay down your defenses and open your ears. By listening to the ego story of others, you can help them (and yourself) recognize where miscommunications are happening, and actually affect real healing.
This knowledge also helped me reflect on the stories I tell myself, and recognize when my brain may be lying to me. Now when I start feeling some type of way about someone else’s words or actions I ask myself if the situation is really about me. More often than not, everyone in the situation is just stuck in their own ego.
Lesson 2: Asking directly for and sometimes just taking what you want, works
No more bullshit in my 30s. This is the mandate I have set for myself. I lived my life with such low self esteem, I never felt worthy of just asking for or taking what I wanted.
I lived my life stretched as thinly as possible so I could please everyone else. And maybe, once I proved I was worthy, someone would give me what I wanted? Maybe eventually someone would notice all my hard work and give me a gold star and my wildest dreams? Maybe, if I just played the game well enough, eventually someone would recognize I actually deserved to win?
This mindset was obviously problematic in several ways. First of all, how could anyone possibly know what I wanted if I never said it out loud? I was working my ass off, expecting some esoteric ultimate authority to just bestow me with my wildest dreams. All without even really knowing what my wildest dreams were. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t work.
Secondly, this way of thinking cast my worth completely within the control of others. It came from the self-held belief that I was inherently unworthy, and therefore needed to earn worth in order to earn anything else. Because I felt this way about myself, I put myself through a lot of bullshit. I jumped through unnecessary hoops. I got perfect GPAs that nobody cares about. I am a member of several international honors societies. I won a statewide award for excellence in education through my teacher’s union in my fourth year of teaching. I have a master’s degree in an industry I no longer want to be a part of.
And I still wanted to die. Because I still felt unworthy. Because my inherent beliefs about myself were broken. In the last year I’ve had to acknowledge this truth. And I’ve had to reckon with the fact that, if I want something, I am going to have to either ask for it directly or take it for myself. And in order to do that, I need to figure out what I actually want, and then start to believe I deserve it. I have to believe I am worthy of setting boundaries and saying “no” to people. I had to learn a whole new language around communicating my needs.
My self esteem is still not “there” yet but damn, I have come a long way. Especially recently, I have finally started to go for exactly what I want in several areas of my life. And, so far, this plan has been much more effective. Not only for getting what I want, but for maintaining a healthy work-life balance as well.
Lesson 3: Radical acceptance is everything
I know I’ve spoken about radical acceptance on this blog before. I am not exaggerating when I say that radical acceptance is everything. Radical acceptance means accepting what you cannot control or change about a situation, and then letting it go.
I am a self-identified control freak. Feeling like I am losing (or maybe never had) control triggers my anxiety and PTSD in intense ways. And I know I’m not alone. Giving up control is difficult for many people, for many valid reasons.
However, just because we want control over something, doesn’t mean we’re going to have it. The opinions and behaviors of others for example, these are not within my control. They’re not within your control either. Your child’s sexual orientation and gender identity; also not within your control. How your neighbor cuts their lawn. The efficiency of Covid-19 vaccine distribution. Whether or not someone wants to be a mother. None of these things are within your control.
By accepting what we can’t control, we free ourselves from stress over them. Because the reality is, having anxiety about something won’t give you control over it. It won’t give you the results you want. It will just give you anxiety.
By accepting what we can’t control, we free ourselves to find joy in what we already have. We free ourselves to find power in what we can control. We free ourselves in general.
During the last year of my life, I’ve not only had to learn these lessons, I’ve had to start acting on them. Full disclosure, it hasn’t been easy. Recovery is never going to be easy. Recognizing the validity of someone else’s perspective means recognizing that there is no absolute truth, and that binaries don’t exist. Asking directly for what you want takes courage and vulnerability. It takes risk. It is scary. And finally, practicing radical acceptance also means letting go of something you will most likely sorely miss. Radical acceptance triggers a grief cycle for that which you thought you always deserved (ie: a child who grows up and wants the same things you had) and find peace and joy with what you already have (ie: a joyful, self-actualized, queer child finally living their truth). However, by allowing myself the space and time to process my grief, by engaging in self reflection and self care, by relying on my support system and seeking out mental health services, I was able to learn these lessons and survive. And now that I’m 30, and I can feel these lessons sinking in, it’s almost like I’m thriving. Almost.