One Year into Recovery and Here’s What I Learned

My last day of teaching, March 6, 2020. A group hug at the end of the day with my 7th hour students (identities have been hidden for safety)

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. 

How my Triggers Slowly Unravel my Mind: a Metacognitive Case Study

Ok, so here’s how it happens:

The initial trigger is usually a miscommunication or something unexpected that makes me question a relationship.

Then I start over analyzing everything that has happened. I start building walls to “protect” myself.

These walls make me intensely fragile to any and all (even the tiniest of) triggers. And therefore the triggers start to pile up. And I start to get overwhelmed.

I start to question things that I’ve already figured out. I start to take everything personally. I make a career out of over analyzing every interaction to build evidence against myself. I obsessively try to read people’s minds and find all the places I’ve slipped up. I fall into all of the traps I’ve laid out for myself. I second guess all of the steps I’ve taken to guard myself against those traps. 

The next step is acting in ways I regret. I lash out at people when I’m really just projecting my own insecurities. I rehash every moment of my life where I’ve failed, or embarrassed myself. I make self destructive choices. I engage in self harm in several ways. 

These behaviors, and the realization that I’ve once again lost control, catalyze the synthesis of all my various anxieties into a viscous depression.

Lethargic, apathetic, exhausted. Depression will become my partner, my lover, my identity. I won’t be able to keep my eyes open for very long. I’ll need breaks from social interactions; leaving places early, going silent, wandering off to pet a dog midway through a conversation I lost track of minutes ago. Effort becomes physically taxing, sometimes even painful. Especially if I’ve successfully resisted the temptation to self harm, as the withdrawal gives me body aches. 

At which point it takes full time effort and some sincere grit to pull myself out of the hole I’ve dug. The difficult truth is: I do this to myself. This is my brain, and a combination of my genetics, and my trauma. This is me, reacting to triggers that are specific to my experience.

But here’s another truth I’ve learned:

Reacting to those triggers is not a measure of my “success” or “failure” as a good friend, a good partner, a good person.

I’m going to repeat that because I don’t entirely believe it yet.

Reacting to triggers is not a measure of success or failure.

Accepting that means accepting that I am responsible for my own mental health. That the reactions and feelings of others aren’t within my control, and often aren’t a reflection of how they feel about me.

How I’m working towards radical self-acceptance:

First and foremost, in order to accept these important truths about myself, and my mental health, and my strength, and my worth, I have to learn how to love myself. Without self love I’m never going to be able to accept anyone else’s love. Over the previous few months I’ve been slowly unearthing a fathoms deep sinkhole inside me I never knew existed. Each realization has triggered a grieving process that has not made coping with my social anxiety any easier. Each realization has simultaneously helped me recognize when my brain is lying to me because of my trauma. This is a good thing. This means every day I get better at recognizing when I’m projecting my own insecurities onto others. Which helps me catch myself like 80% of the time before I act on my anxious thoughts and become the burden I never want to be on all of my loved ones.

So I guess I need to give myself more credit. Yes, I am a fragile shell of my former self. And at the same time I’m practicing the skills I need to build the good kind of armor back around my soul. The thought patterns I need to trust my loved ones when they say they love me. To trust that their words and actions always come with the best intentions, and rarely reflect their feelings about me. 

I think my point, more than anything, is that gratitude is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found in this whole process. I didn’t realize that was the message of this post, until I arrived here myself. But, without the people in my life who are willing to hold me down regardless, I wouldn’t be alive right now. 

I’m not exaggerating for once. Suicide is always going to be present for me. A hard reality I’ve had to face is that I’ve traumatized my loved ones. I know that’s where their mind will go when I go off the rails like this. I can sense it in my partner as he starts to hover around me. He’ll become insistent on making plans for what I will do while he’s not home. I’ll get a few more random “I love you” texts than usual throughout the day. I’ll catch him staring at me, trying to hide the anxious look on his face. 

And regardless of my guilt, he stays. And so do so many others. Not all of them, but quite a few. That’s what I mean by gratitude. Regardless of my fragility, my neediness, my constant rollercoaster, I have people who stay. Who have stayed. And continue to stay. My inability to fully understand why is part of the problem to begin with, but it doesn’t mean I’m not completely, entirely, utterly grateful for those in my life who continue to carry my heavy-ass-self nevertheless.

Mental Health Maintenance

It’s weird. 

I’ve been falling apart for a while. I almost killed myself in October, but my mental breakdown started far before that. And it came in waves. Honestly, I feel like I’ve been a hot ass mess since I got raped in 2010. 

I have a brilliant support system, and everyone in my life has gotten used to my messiness by now. They have realized they can’t really count on me to show to social occasions. They’re familiar with my red, puffy, pale depression face and deadpan responses to small talk. They have come to expect my need to step away from the group to cope my way through panic attacks. They may not completely understand it, but they know. And with that, naturally comes a certain measure of emotional detachment. You see, I am not always the one who is stable enough to listen to their woes or give them advice. I have been the “broken friend” for a while, but I’ve started to own that.

The weird part is, lately I’ve been experiencing a subtle role-reversal. 

Since Covid-19 came in and turned the world upside down, I have noticed that I seem better equipped than most of the people I know to handle the anxiety and depression triggered by such a catastrophe. It’s almost like the years I’ve spent in therapy, the roller coaster I’ve been on, the personal trauma I’ve gone through, have prepared me with the skills one needs to maintain mental health through quarantine. 

Those who don’t suffer from mental illnesses (or haven’t sought help for them yet) on the other hand, have no idea how to cope with the shared trauma we are experiencing in our current context. 

All of a sudden, I have gone from being the “broken” friend to being the friend giving advice about skills that can help everyone  survive Covid-19 with their mental health intact. 

As of now, our governor is considering extending the quarantine for even longer, and I’ve had 3 of these types of conversations with my friends over a 24 hour period this week. Therefore, I thought others may benefit from some of the materials I’ve made to help myself cope. 

The links below are to downloadable google docs with journal pages I originally designed for myself. If you find them helpful, you can print and fill in the blanks, copy the prompts into your own journal, make a copy into your own drive and change it around to suit your own needs, etc. 

Scroll down below each worksheet and find a model of how I’ve filled it out for myself.

A note on sources: I created these materials myself based on what I learned by participating in a Partial Hospitalization Program at the University of Michigan Hospital. All of the skills I utilize in the worksheets are based on the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan in developing Dialectical Behavior Therapy. 

Worksheet #1 (click here to see downloadable google doc): A set of questions/prompts to journal about over your morning coffee/tea/breakfast. These prompts help me practice Radical Acceptance, help me ground myself in a purpose every day, and give me ideas on how to spend my unstructured time that day. 

Worksheet #2 (click here to see downloadable google doc): A worksheet I use for every individual emotion I struggle to cope with. I have made one of these babies for when I’m feeling depressed, anxious, socially anxious, triggered, and panicky. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but I keep my journal with me everywhere I go. And, as juvenile as it feels sometimes, I need to refer back to these pages when I’m overwhelmed with an emotion. It is not always easy to remember all your strategies “in the moment.” 

Worksheet #2 is based on a strategy I learned for reframing cognitive distortions. If you have ever gone to a therapist that practices Cognitive Behavior Therapy, examining how your thoughts impact your emotions isn’t unfamiliar to you. While engaging in this kind of therapy, I’ve come to realize that my thoughts make patterns, and specific negative thoughts are recurring. This worksheet allows you to break down the process into a reference tool for dealing with the most common negative thoughts you have. 

Unaware

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual Assault

Awareness

Month

The words feel weird in my mouth.

Obviously, I want, nay need, the world to be aware of the issues and statistics around sexual assault. I need everyone to be aware of how the intersections of our identities impact those statistics, and how institutions in our society perpetuate them. 

I guess, for me, it’s just hard to remember people are still unaware.

I’ve thought about my assault every day for the last ten years. I don’t want to, but it’s always there. Lurking in the shadows of every interaction. Stalking my mind, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce when I’m at my weakest or most vulnerable. How could people be unaware of sexual assault when mine rides around with me in my skin? Is painted on my body like scars?

I swear you can smell it on me.

Sexual Assault Awareness month is particularly poignant to me right now because a recent (less extreme? If that’s a thing) assault was the final spark that triggered this mental breakdown.

So, the last few months of my life have been consumed by the consequences and products of my assault. Therefore, I am approaching this month with all of this heavy on my mind.

I am at a point in my life where I must process through my assault in order to move forward. This became urgent recently because a new trigger from my most recent assault made it impossible to do my job. 

So here I am, trying to process and realizing the multitude of ways being sexually assaulted has impacted my life.

These realizations have led to a lot of grieving for the woman I was too afraid to be, for so many years, because of my assault. 

And this is where I’m going to unload it all. 

This is my official “victim impact statement.”

This is my love letter to the poor, broken girl that spent her 20s refusing to allow herself to feel the love she deserved:

I have had depression since puberty.

But the deep sense of self loathing that bubbled up in my throat like bile and made me want to die?

My rapist gave me that.

Oh boy, did I feel fucking stupid.

I kissed him. I drank his booze.

I went upstairs with him.

He told everyone we had sex.

I was really drunk.

Maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was? Maybe I’m being dramatic? Everyone is always telling me I’m dramatic.

Fuck, then why do I feel so dirty?

Like, that feeling you get when you have one of those gross “part-of-life” things that no one likes talking about, but it could happen to almost anyone.

That night with that boy. In the bathroom upstairs. And my eyes in the mirror.

That night is a wart. It’s a yeast infection. 

A booger.

And I can’t fucking get rid of it. 

I feel it in the moments when I’m alone with men I don’t know. In an elevator. At a gas station. A parking lot. These men are probably perfectly decent people. To me, they are a nightmare.

And then, for a while, I assumed me saying the word “no” was the trigger of the violence against me. Therefore, if I don’t tell people “no,” and I just give them what they want, I’ll be safe, yeah?

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

And, if I was worth more than my body in the first place, he never would’ve felt like he could help himself to me like a complimentary breakfast buffet at a two-star hotel. 

Ok, perfect. That’s how you’ll protect yourself. That’s your plan:

Just pretend you want all the attention from men. Hell, force yourself to want the attention. Egg it on. Tell yourself that kind of attention proves you are worth something.

Draw them in, give them what they want, make them feel good about themselves, expect nothing in return. 

This is how you establish your worth, right?

Right?

What a weird feeling it was the day I woke up and realized my body was no longer mine. 

That I had given my body up.

Made it public property.

And my sense of self was gone (or maybe I never had one?).

That was the day I almost killed myself.

And where am I in all of this now?

Well, I’m doing the seemingly impossible work of trying to reclaim my body, reclaim my power, and reclaim my sexuality.

I’m trying to reframe sex as a way to feel good, and sexuality as a way to feel good about myself. 

I’m trying to explore other things too, that make me feel fulfilled and good about myself in general.

I’m trying to turn self-loathing into self-love.

I’m trying. 

I’ve Always Been a Pain in Someone’s Ass

Something that I will always be able to admit to is that I’m a brat. I’ve never not been a brat, I always will be a brat, it’s kind of just part of who I am. I’m sincerely just a pouty mermaid at heart. At this point in my life, I am able to honor and accept my flaws.

I got a lot of grief growing up about being a brat. It’s understandable. Without any knowledge of how to set or honor boundaries, without socio-emotional education around how to compromise, express my emotions appropriately, and be diplomatic, of course my brattiness was a burden.

I’ve always been a pain in someone’s ass. 

But here’s the thing, my brain is not “normal.”  I have ADHD, anxiety, and depression. All of which manifests in my personality and made me behave in my youth “differently” than you would expect from a “normal child.”

I will never forget how scarily relatable it was in The Joker, 2019, when I watched Joaquin Phoenix write down, “The worst thing about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

The way my brain is wired made me behave in ways dominant society deems inappropriate or negative in little girls. For example, my anxiety makes it difficult for me to cope with extreme sensory experiences; bright lights, repetitive noises, tight clothing, strong smells, etc. Therefore, the fluorescent lights at school gave me severe headaches all through elementary and middle school before I had the power to dose myself with ibuprofen. My headaches made me cranky and I would often be short with people when I would respond to things, leading to being labeled with an “attitude problem” or as a “bitch.” All I desperately needed was alone time in a quiet darkened room, but I had no ability or knowledge to help me express that. 

The most difficult parts of my personality, though, are associated with my ADHD. My ADHD, although not a mental illness, is closely linked to my anxiety and depression in that it had a lot of impact on my self esteem. Therefore, a lot of the triggers I have for my anxiety and depression come from personality quirks associated with my ADHD. 

With ADHD I: zone out and get distracted easily, have moments of extreme hyperactivity, can be SUPER LOUD, have difficulty finishing tasks, can’t stay organized, get super excited over seemingly small things, exaggerate all the time, and can’t sit still. The consistent negative feedback I received as a child as a result of these quirks showed me how ill suited I was to many traditional institutions. This resulted in me suppressing all of these parts of my personality in order to be accepted by those traditional institutions. This suppression doubled down on my anxiety and depression. 

Eventually I wanted to kill myself. 

Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about: 

Example: My habit of exaggerating and getting excited about things means I am a really passionate person. This means that when I start something new, I am super passionate (ok, maybe a little obsessive) about it. Same thing goes for: new friendships, new relationships, new projects, new goals, new jobs, etc. 

It took me a lot of social missteps throughout my life to learn a balance so I don’t come on too strong.

See, social boundaries like that are something everyone assumes people just have. When really, my ADHD means I’m not necessarily naturally equipped with the understanding around those boundaries. And since everyone just expected me to know them, no one ever really taught me about them. 

I had to learn through repeated rejection.

We live in a harsh world.

Then, my anxiety and depression kicked in, and all of the sudden other peoples’ approval became tied to my self worth. I developed a mindset where I felt I had to change everything about myself to get approval, or it would prove I was worthless. I suppressed my passion for other people. I became aloof. I made relationships impossible. 

A second example: My abstract mind. 

My mind moves really quickly. I am also an extremely analytical thinker. This means I process information at an extraordinary rate. I am also able to see connections and patterns across information quickly. Basically, I am on Step E before most people finish reading and processing the directions to Step A. 

This also means I have a great ability to have empathy and see nuance because I see many different contributing factors and extenuating circumstances in every situation. I explore everything through multiple perspectives. 

Therefore, I usually want to discuss decisions, assumptions, and conclusions so we can all reach a consensus that would be best for everyone involved. 

The problem is, no one ever taught me that people in authority expect deference to their status and respect for their position when suggesting counterpoints to their confident, absolute, assertions. No one ever taught me about social politics, or about the types of bias people carry with them that will change how they look at you.

No one ever told me about the privileges I have in this regard, nor taught me how to sense in a situation when it’s actually time for me to be quiet.

I had to learn the hard way through being called a “know it all” and a “bitch.” Being told I’m “difficult,” “ abrasive.”

Or, “People would listen to you more if you just worked on your tone.”

I didn’t realize speaking to you as if I’m your equal was offensive to you.

I was taught to shut up. By the people on whom my voice was a burden.

A pain in the ass.

They used their power to stifle my voice because they didn’t like what they heard. 

People with authority over me bristled at my arguing. They became apoplectic at my persistence, and convulsed at my constant questioning. 

I learned how to turn my voice off ALL the time, just to be safe. So I could avoid upsetting what felt like everyone. 

I forced myself to come off as demur, submissive, “laid back” *cough*easy.* 

I forced myself to disappear.

I was miserable.

I almost killed myself.

We live in a harsh world.

Sidebar: Luckily I’ve started to figure out when it truly is not my turn to speak from the voices of people who have been brave enough, generous enough, and thought highly enough of me, to tell me when I need to shut up and listen. The people who shouldn’t have had to be the ones to teach me this, but did anyway. The people to whom I have unending respect and gratitude. The people whom traditional societal institutions have failed even worse than they’ve failed me. Find a list of resources to explore more diverse voices below.

“Normal” institutions and structures in our society have never served everyone, even before Corona came and fucked them up.

And I am a voice with a lot of privilege in this regard.***

But my brain is different than the “normal” student our school system is designed for. I learn differently. I have a different set of natural interpersonal skills. I am sensitive. I am intensely moral. I am passionate. I am bisexual. I live outside of binaries.

Dominant society takes what is unique about people, that which separates them from the status quo, and punishes them for it. We break people down, strip them of their joy, their culture. We force them to assimilate.

I am one of the lucky ones.

Being able to suppress everything about myself in order to be accepted by the status quo is a privilege I have, as my “otherness” is not visible. 

And even with that being the case, I still felt so alone,

unlovable, 

dirty, 

different, 

weird, 

worthless, 

broken, 

that I wanted to kill myself. 

As we approach our lives moving forward after Covid-19, I hope we can take all of this into consideration. 

Covid-19 is scary. There are so many unknowns and variables here. It really sucks to feel as though you are trapped in something you can’t get out of.

The anxiety is real. Honor that. Process that. Seek therapy. Take care of yourself, please. 

Then, when we’re ready, let’s take a critical look at our values and needs as a society moving forward. With many institutions falling apart around us we have an opportunity here. 

An opportunity to potentially build a socio-emotionally focused education system that takes mental health, learning style, race, language, LGBTQ+ status, social class, access to technology, culture, etc, into consideration when designing policies, processes, and curriculum. 

We have an opportunity to fight for a health system funded by taxes from the people who have made great shows of donating money to hospitals and other relief organizations… because maybe if the tax funding was there, the medical supplies and food would have been there before people started getting sick in the first place (gasp! But isn’t this socialism? Yes. Yes it is… But can you guess who has socialized healthcare? South Korea. Can you guess who has also successfully managed and moved past the Covid-19 pandemic? South Korea******).

I realize I am being hella idealistic here. But I feel like it’s about time someone was.

Because people who have been failed by society this whole time already know what it feels like to live in a perpetual state of anxiety and survival. So this feeling isn’t new for them…

—————————-

Over the course of my life I have felt my otherness, and therefore suppressed my otherness. I hid in my privilege and fooled even myself into thinking I was perfect. And no one called me a brat for like 15 years.

So my bratty-ass self is back and I’ve finally unleashed her full power. I will assert what I want and need because I deserve to be happy and successful as myself, just as everyone else does. I am fragile and I am sensitive and I am dramatic, and everyone is just going to have to deal with it.

This time around though, therapy has given me the skills I need to balance my many needs with my desire to love and be a good support system for others.

This time around, I have the education I need to build and maintain healthy boundaries.

This time around, I am working on how I can make myself feel seen, validated, and loved.

Just like everyone else right now, I am still in my struggle.

But I am working on it.

*** I mentioned several times above that when considering how societal institutions have failed us, I am a voice of privilege. Below you will find resources to learn about how the education and healthcare systems have failed a diverse range of voices (I figured you should hear about these experiences from the actual source:

LGBTQ+ students

LGBTQ+ healthcare

Decolonizing Reproductive Health

Weight bias in healthcare

The 1619 Project and healthcare

****** I recognize this situation is far more complex than I am making it appear here. I just want to remind you how I use hyperbole in the artistic craft of my writing. If anyone has any reliable sources on the actual details of the way South Korea handled their Covid-19 situation, comment a link?

The Soundtrack of my Trauma

TRIGGER WARNING: The following contains a description of a sexual assault. As much as I try to avoid peddling in trauma, sharing my story is something I’ve realized recently that I need to do. The following traumatic experience was the most formative experience of my young adult life. It has held me stuck, stripped me of my power, kept me from my life, and potentially ended my career.

Well, that chapter officially needs to be over. And my therapist says one way to process through trauma is exposure to it. In other words, sharing my story. Hearing it. Reading it. Discussing it. So my brain can file this information away differently and my body doesn’t have to perpetually live in fight or flight mode. Selective mutism has kept me from speaking these words out loud, even to my therapist. That hasn’t changed. I still can’t speak about these things out loud (like, literally, physically can’t). Which means I’m not going to be able to answer questions associated with this post quite yet either.

So, as usual, I’m using this online space as an experiment in being open and vulnerable, and hopefully therefore, a bridge to healing. My tarot reading this morning gave me the confidence to feel like today is the day for step 1… so here we go…

If you feel like you can’t handle reading the specifics, I see you and I respect you, thanks for stopping by.

I was in college. It was Halloween. I was dressed like a bird. Earlier that week a boy had stopped by my apartment looking for his mail as he had been the previous tenant. I thought he was cute and we flirted a little bit before he took his mail and left. Imagine my sense of it’s-a-small-world surprise when he walked into the Halloween party I was at a few days later. He immediately struck up a conversation with me. He told me I had pretty eyes and fed me a fifth of Bacardi Razz. I, on my college budget and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, had only eaten white rice that day. The alcohol quickly took control as it traveled through my empty stomach into my bloodstream. I remember talking to him. I remember kissing him. I remember following him upstairs. Then we were in the bathroom and I was sitting on the sink and he slid his hand up my skirt and took off my panties. At that point I had a breathtaking moment of lucidity where my brain cut through the alcohol fog and I realized what was about to happen. And I didn’t want it to happen. I did not want to have sex with this stranger.

I slid off the counter.

I gently pushed him away from me.

I said I needed to find my friends.

I said I was sorry

I said I had to go

I said please stop

I said I was sorry 

I pushed him away a little harder

I reached around him for the doorknob he grabbed my wrist he turned me around he pinned me against the counter he pushed up my skirt. 

From the moment of penetration on I don’t remember feeling him inside me. I remember numbness. I remember hearing his breathing in my left ear. I remember staring into my own eyes in the mirror over the dirty sink.

The next thing I remember I was waking up on the couch in my friends’ dark apartment and my friend-with-benefits-hook-up-buddy-who-really-wanted-to-be-my-boyfriend came to get me. As I descended the exterior stairs down from the third floor apartment – riding fireman style on my fwb’s shoulder – I vomited white rice everywhere. I remember looking at it and thinking “no one will even know this is vomit, it just looks like someone spilled some rice.” I laughed about it to myself.

The next morning I remembered nothing. My brain had initially blacked out everything that had taken place once the fifth of Bacardi was empty. It wasn’t until a days-later conversation with a friend who was at the party that it all came rushing back to me. You see, she revealed my rapist had come down from the bathroom that night, and told everyone in attendance we had had sex.

I went to Planned Parenthood. When they asked if there had been a recent occurrence that made me want to get tested for all STDs including HIV I told them “no.” I stopped going out with my friends and practically moved in with my fwb who was rapidly becoming my partner. I stopped eating. I cried every night. I convinced everyone it was because I missed high-school-boyfriend with whom I had broken up a couple months before. People thought I was just conflicted over my feelings for new boy. People had no idea I was falling apart. People had no idea I was going back to Planned Parenthood every 3 months to get tested for HIV. People had no idea because I never told them. I never told anyone until 2 years later after then-friend-with-benefits had turned into boyfriend and I realized that I loved him and that I was safe with him. I felt guilty keeping this secret from him, like I was damaged goods and he didn’t even know. Like keeping it from him was duping him into falling in love with someone who wasn’t worth any more than what he could get from her body.

Quarantine Activity: Working on my mental health

I’ve only ever known one type of love; love that is conditional.

This is the definitive definition of love that the voice of my anxiety worked deep into my brain, canceling out all others. Love that is conditional.

According to my anxiety, I am constantly at risk of losing the love I’ve earned, and therefore I need to work doubletime to keep that from happening. 

You could actually replace the word “love” with any word or phrase representing something I value, that I’ve earned.

“Respect.”

“Trust.”

“A reputation for being a strong teacher.”

I feel as though there is nothing inherently true about me that makes me worthy of these things. If I’ve earned it, I’ve worked for it. If I don’t keep working for it, I will lose it. I operate perpetually in a deficit mentality.

This is why I was always good at school. Once I earned a perfect GPA, I had to keep earning it. Because anything short of perfect would be a failure. Then my reputation for being a student my teachers could rely on to make their job easier, would crumble. My parents’ pride in me would crumble.

See, my perfection has always been measured in the acceptance of others. And I didn’t realize this fact until like 6 days ago. 

YA WANNA KNOW HOW, AT 29, I FINALLY REALIZED IT?

There is a specific pattern of behavior I had already identified in myself: I tend to obsessively bend over backwards to please new people that come into my life. This behavior often leads to relationships based on taking advantage of what I’m willing to do for people, rather than people knowing and loving me for who I am. 

I never really understood where this behavior came from, but once I identified it, I knew I didn’t like it. So I have been actively trying to make friends lately based on exactly who I am, rather than what I can do to make them like me (this is actually something I’ve been working on in therapy for years, prior to my mental breakdown).

And weirdly, it’s been working. I’ve met, and gotten close to, a few really cool people this way. They are genuine, interesting, both similar to and different from me, and helping me access parts of my creative side that I have been neglecting for my entire life. 

One day recently, I was having a conversation with one of my new friends about our gratitude for having found each other. And it hit me how valuable this person has become to me. Then my anxiety kicked in. 

Sidenote: on a macro-level, I also find it very sad that the realization that someone values me triggers my anxiety, rather than making me feel good about myself. But, one thing at a time… 

Once I realized this new friendship was something I wouldn’t want to lose, I became obsessed with the idea I was going to lose it (OCD)

And, let’s just say, I started acting weird.

Luckily, said new friend is a real one, and called me on it. And, after a genuine conversation (thank goodness for adult relationships) I realized this about myself:

My obsessive need to get the approval of others comes from a desperate fear of abandonment. I fear that my inability to repeatedly prove myself relevant and worthy will result in losing everything I want and love. 

This realization was suffocating.

Essentially, I had made this genuine friendship based on exactly who I am and then got terrified that wouldn’t be enough to keep it. So I started overanalyzing every single thing so I could make myself “perfect” and “exactly what he was looking for.”

But, when I started acting like that, it wasn’t what he was looking for. 

Because what he was looking for was the friend he had made. The person I was when I wasn’t desperately seeking his approval. The person I was when I was just myself (and he actually fought my bratty ass to prove this to me and get me back, which is truly incredible).

This was a powerful epiphany. 

It sucked the bottom out from under me. I was finally able to see my responsibility in the failure of most of my failed relationships (I refuse to take credit for all of them, other people can do shitty things too). I was finally able to see why a lot of my lasting relationships were ones based on using me. I can finally identify the thoughts I have that lead me to feelings and behaviors associated with this specific manifestation of my anxiety. I finally feel as though I have healthy, genuine relationships I can point to as evidence that those thoughts aren’t valid.

And, with a deep breath, I am finally able to release the stress. I can finally exhale the anxiety of never being able to make a mistake, or ask for help, or assert my needs. 

I can show people my fragile side, because now I know they won’t judge me.

Or desert me.

Or get sick of me.

So, what’s next?

Well, unfortunately, with any revelation, comes a lot of emotions. I have initiated an intense grieving process for all the years I’ve refused to allow myself to feel loved. I’ve been pretty emotional, but I have also been utilizing my skills and my support system to get me through. 

Also, self-knowledge like this doesn’t necessarily mean I am “better.” All of this doesn’t mean that I will have easy, genuine, stable relationships from now on. I still have issues with trust that I need to work on. Not to mention PTSD. And years of habit-forming in relationships that I will have to battle one trigger at a time. 

But, at this moment, I am grateful. I am grateful for the people in my life with whom I have built genuine relationships.

I am grateful for the people in my life who are showing up when I need them most and talking me through my bullshit.

I am grateful for every sip of freer air I get to take as I’m able to lift the weight of these realizations off my chest. 

Thank you for reading. 

How One Depressed Person is Coping with Social Distancing

Covid-19, Coronavirus, Social Distancing, Quarantine. Potential economic collapse. A president who can’t even speak in complete sentences. Our current context is incredibly difficult for anyone to cope with. I can only really speak from my perspective, though, and as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety I’m here to report: we are not ok. 

Holy shit, this is scary. People with anxiety are prone to catastrophizing: jumping directly to the worst-case-scenario possible in literally any situation. This is a legitimate thought distortion that many people experience during times of great stress. The general hysteria leading regular, every-day people to ransack big box stores for toilet paper, Ramen, and peanut butter is all evidence of this. 

But when you spend a good deal of your daily energy trying to keep yourself from dissolving into paranoid hysterics on a regular day, the rest of the world succumbing to those kinds of thoughts is a horrifying trigger. One tried and true method for bringing yourself back from the edge of a panic attack while catastrophizing, is trying to find evidence for how likely that worst-case-scenario would be. Usually, it is really difficult to find that evidence because our worst-case-scenarios are super unlikely. But right now, our worst-case-scenarios are what everyone else believes will happen too.

So, what the fuck do we do now?

What we’re going through as a collective is tough. As always, I have been on a little bit of a roller coaster because of it. That being said, I’m doing ok. And I want everyone to be ok. So I’m here to tell you what I’m doing, and how I’m coping; in case it helps anyone out there. No strategy will ever be 100% successful, but together we can help each other survive. 

Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance is something I learned at my partial hospitalization program I did in December. Essentially, this strategy acknowledges that fighting against painful realities achieves nothing but suffering. In other words, desperately wishing a painful aspect of your current reality out of existence achieves nothing but anxiety. If you are practicing radical acceptance you are: accepting the situation as true and final, understanding what you can and cannot control about the situation, being non-judgemental, allowing yourself to feel your negative emotions rather than pushing them away. Once you engage in radical acceptance, you free yourself from the burden of worrying about the outcome of a situation you have no control over. You allow yourself to build a reality that works for you within the boundaries of what is possible, even if it’s not ideal. 

How have I been practicing radical acceptance while social distancing? Well, we are not supposed to spend time in public, in situations with 10+ people, we shouldn’t touch our faces, or go to work, we can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. All of that is fact. I can’t change it, no matter how much I want it to not be true.

But there are things I can control about the situation. I can use the privilege of my able body and salaried position to help others however possible. On one hand, that means social distancing so I don’t contribute to others contracting something that could impact them worse than it would me. It also means giving the money I’m not spending on recreation due to business closures to those who don’t have financial privilege to get them through this mess (if you haven’t seen people posting about ways to share your disposable income with those who need it, scroll down and check the links at the bottom of this page).

I can also control how I use my time during this crisis. I could spend my days stressing about the rate my supplies are depleting, missing my friends, desperate to leave my house. Or I could see this time that’s been given to me as a gift. 

We could all really use a vacation

I want to start this section by acknowledging my privilege. I understand for many reasons this time off of work is stressful to many not in my situation (this is why I have been venmo-ing various people and organizations money for the last week). 

I also believe that if we take care of each other, and take it upon ourselves to redistribute resources to support members of our community, we all could take advantage of this time off.

Capitalism is hard, dude. Whether you believe in it or not, the colonial capitalist system we live in is not easy to navigate. There’s a lot of stress in capitalism. There’s always pressure to be the best. There’s a constant race to cover your bills and afford the material goods that prove your worth to those around you, while only ever looking out for “number one.” Our culture doesn’t value breaks. It doesn’t value down time. It doesn’t value taking time out to refuel and support your mental health. 

Well, regardless of whether or not Capitalism values it, we are all officially on a break. Seeing this time as a “break” doesn’t erase the fact that it’s scary, it’s difficult, it’s overwhelming, That being said, spending your time being scared and overwhelmed won’t fix anything either. So we’re on break. 

What have you been refusing to do because you don’t have time? What hasn’t fit into your schedule because of work and family obligations? How long has it been since you’ve taken a walk in the sunshine? How long has it been since you’ve written a poem? Or learned a new skill? Or practiced meditation? Or made a scrapbook? Or baked cookies? Or learned a new language?

Within the parameters of what will keep you and your community safe, what could you use this time for if you weren’t scared?

Let’s make art

A new friend I’ve recently gotten close to reminded me that destruction is a gift. 

This is kind of a radical idea but, what if everything falling apart was clearing the way for new growth? What if desperately clinging to the safe reality we had before is keeping us from creating something that will actually work for more of us in the future? What if accepting destruction will clear the path for creation and growth? 

Basically what I’m saying is: during this quarantine, if we’re not making art, finding ways to laugh, and orgasming as much as possible, what are we doing, really?

Links to where you should send your money (I’ll post more as I find them):

Navajo and Hopi Family Covid-19 relief fund

Help youth climate activist Daphne Frias fight Covid-19

No Kid Hungry

Unified Phoenix Service Relief Fund for people in the service industry in Phoenix going without pay right now

Donate to help Navajo families maintain their access to fresh water

Please Don’t Pop my Bubble

Until further notice, I’m on vacation. 

Va•ca•tion.

I am on medical leave from work. What that means is, the status of my mental health is so extreme it poses a significant risk to my wellbeing. My medical leave became effective 3/9, and it ends 6/12/2020. 

That means, from now until mid-June, my only job, and I mean only job, is to heal.

Even if I wanted to work at another job between now and June, I legally couldn’t (why would I want to though, really?).

I felt the need to clarify this on the record. As is natural when someone suddenly leaves their job (after several false starts), people ask questions. I have no problem being honest about the circumstances of my mental health. I will proudly defend my assertion that mental health is a worthwhile reason to take leave from work. But there is one specific “type” of question that is exhausting me.

When I say “type” of question, I am referring to the fact that in my head I’ve been lumping questions I’ve been getting into genres based on the type of information the questioner is seeking. 

The “type” of question that is exhausting me is any question having to do with one of the following categories: school, work (past or future), next school year, my students (past or future), job searching and/or applications, next steps, salaries, insurance, my “purpose.”

Questions like: “Are you returning to teach next school year?”

And, “If you don’t end up wanting to teach anymore, what’s next?”

So this post is my manifesto. My final statement of employment and social status for AT LEAST the next three months of my medical leave: 

I am on vacation. From everything.

Literally everything. 

For the next 3 months, please, please, please expect nothing but the bare minimum from me. 

I need therapy. Lots of therapy. 

And cuddles. Lots of cuddles. 

I need entire afternoons spent fully mentally and emotionally present. In a room where words and music become limbs of the same tree. A room pregnant with natural light filtering through the cloudy vibrations of combined emotional and creative energy (but like, on a spaceship).

I need new experiences that both scare and excite me. And a wide open calendar that has room for spontaneity. I need to be able to get up in the middle of the night and take a bath in the light of the full moon filtering through the west-facing windows at the back of our house. 

I need to pay my bills on time, make sure we have money to eat, and not give a damn about retirement for a hot second. 

This is what I need. And I have the time to take it. My job is still mine after this leave. No one needs me to commit one way or another to teaching next school year until June. I still feel lots of love and lots of stress about my teaching position. I really have no idea what else I want to do after teaching.

Or what kind of work I will value.

Or what kind of lifestyle I will want. 

This is the first time I have ever been off the conveyor belt. This is the first time I have the freedom to not give a fuck about any of that right now because I have the privilege of working for a set of administrators willing to support their employees. 

No one is relying on me to get it done.

No one needs me to meet a deadline.

There are no qualifications I need to earn. 

And I apologize in advance if in the next three months I become flaky. If I won’t commit to plans ahead of time. If I become forgetful, or oversleep, or take too long to respond to a text. I promise to my loved ones that I will respond. I will do you the respect and the dignity of not ghosting. I will always provide explanations for why I can’t or won’t do things, but I will never expect these explanations to be good excuses. 

I just need this vacation. I need to take a break from responsibilities and expectations. I need to learn, and explore passions, and take risks that I’ve never been willing to take before. 

Please, please don’t pop my bubble.

29 and alive af

On Saturday February 22, I turn 29. I haven’t historically been a huge “birthday person,” but this is going to be a big one. Not only will it be the last year of my 20s, but I wasn’t even sure I would make it to 29, so I’m fairly excited it’s happening.

My 20s were a hard fucking decade. I think that phenomenon is pretty common for people in general. During my 20s, I: survived sexual assault, married my partner, earned 2 degrees, got my first big girl job, bought and renovated a house, was inducted into three academic honors societies, won an award for educational excellence from the MEA, got diagnosed with anxiety, and depression, and PTSD, and ADHD, and endometriosis. I traveled the world, became an aunt twice over, helped my sister through a divorce, stood as a bridesmaid a million times, got at least 25 tattoos (I’ve honestly lost count), made friends, lost friends, survived suicide, fell in love with New Orleans jazz, started a blog, and came out as bisexual.

I’ve been so low I didn’t think I would make it out. I’ve had adventures. I’ve accomplished goals. I’ve coped with failure, death, and pain.

Those were my 20s. Doubtlessly the most formative decade of the three I’ve been alive.

And standing here, looking down the barrel of my last year of my 20s, it is difficult how to adequately express the extent of my happiness that I am still alive.

The knowledge and understanding that I almost committed suiced in October has weighed on my mind in interesting ways over the last four-ish months. Considering I had no plans to wake up on October 30, 2019, I could have never predicted the ways that fact would ultimately bring an end to many chapters of my life, and a beginning to many others.

What I can no longer do is…

Look, I made a suicide plan and scheduled a time to follow-through on it. We have a detached garage, and I therefore knew my Subaru and I could poison myself with carbon monoxide without harming my dog and cats in the process. But, on the day I was planning on doing it, I went to the hospital instead. And here I am.

I consider this event a “mental breakdown” in the very purest sense of the term. I survived my 20s by gathering up all of my symptoms from PTSD, anxiety, and depression, all of my endometriosis pain, all of my emotional needs, and shoving them deep into a well in the pit of my stomach. Within me lies a Mariana Trench packed with the ghosts of my past I refused to acknowledge. And it totally worked. I had everyone convinced that I was “normal.” Better than normal, actually. Ask my bosses and/or teachers from this time period and they would describe me as high achieving, exceeding expectations.

But as I tried to keep them captive, those ghosts fused together like the Power Rangers once they transform into that robot thing. They became stronger, angrier. A demonic beast that ate me alive and almost killed me.

And now that I’ve fought that demon, and won, I can’t lock it back up anymore. Like, I literally can’t. My brain has literally lost the ability to perform that function. I think about mental health every single day. I talk about mental health every single day. I have to. My near-suicide didn’t kill me, but it did kill my ability to suppress. I have completely lost my ability to pretend. I can no longer “fake it til I make it.”

This means I acknowledge and work through every thought distortion, every distressing emotion, and every trigger as it comes. This is exhausting. Some days it feels like all I am capable of is surviving. It also means that there are lots of things I was able to do well before, that I can’t do at all anymore.

For instance, I can’t commit to plans. I hate myself for it, but I’ve bailed kind of a lot lately. I usually make plans with someone ahead of time, and will spend the intervening days fully committed to going. But if something triggers me on the day of said plans, I bail. I have to. Because I learned the hard way that, if I don’t put my mental health first, it could kill me.

I also can’t take control in chaotic situations. Honestly, most large crowds give me anxiety right now. But, if I don’t have to be in control, if I don’t have to be the one that makes sure everyone gets home safely and nothing gets lost, I can relax. On the other hand, if I am given any kind of responsibility in chaotic situations, I completely shut down. This has made doing my job almost impossible. I don’t know how many of you have spent time in middle school lately, but it’s a pretty chaotic place. Teachers constantly need to be on guard and in control or everything will fall apart. Everything often falls apart anyway, even if we teachers think we are in control. And I cannot handle it anymore. Luckily, my coworkers and administration have been incredibly supportive. But still, every day is an uphill climb. Every morning I start back at the bottom of the hill.

What I can do now that I couldn’t before…

I can be honest. I can be the most honest version of myself possible now. This is momentous for me. I no longer have the energy to try to “get” people to like me, or impress anyone, so I don’t anymore. Obviously, I still have low self esteem. It will take much longer than four-ish months for me to topple that mountain. That being said, I no longer let it change my behavior. I no longer let my low self esteem stop me from asserting exactly what I want and need.

And I can assert myself now. My long history of perfectionism made it impossible for me to ask for help. Both in and outside of my school career, I limped my way through many things I could have made easier for myself if I would have just asked. Then, asking for help literally saved my life. I was self-aware enough to realize what I was going through was an emergency, and I reached out to a coworker who took me to the hospital. More than anything else in my life, this event made me realize it is OK to ask for help. I would love to say that asking for help is easy for me now, but that would be a lie. Still, I can ask for help now, and that is a triumph. I can assert my existence and validate my own needs. I can lean on the people in my life who have been desperate for me to do so in the face of my lifetime of fierce independence.

Finally, I can talk about and work through my emotions, rather than letting them conquer me. That demonic beast of suppressed needs that almost killed me in October? I calmed it. I gave it the validation it so desperately needed. I gave it a home in my life, and my heart, and my brain. 

I shake hands with the symptoms of my PTSD, and my anxiety, and my depression. I acknowledge their existence. I acknowledge their importance. And I allow myself to walk away.

I ask myself what I’m feeling regularly. I allow myself the time to define my emotions. I am compassionate with myself. I utilize my skills and my support system to fulfill the needs of my emotions. And I put them to bed.

Then, there’s grief…

I don’t know about anyone else, but I was never told that humans can experience grief for many types of loss; only one of which is the death of a loved-one. I have cycled through many different and unexpected iterations of the five stages of grief over and over again since October.

I’ve had to grieve my former, “perfect,” self. As I mentioned above, my ability to exceed everyone’s expectations was fueled by my ability to suppress all of my trauma, emotions, and needs. Therefore, my inability to suppress those things has resulted in a considerable drop in performance. I can no longer do the things I once did, to the standard to which I once did them. And this is really difficult for me to handle. 

Releasing myself from needing to be perfect has not taken away my feelings of failure every time I fall short. I relied on my former perfection to prove my self worth to the world. I derived self esteem from my productivity. I am currently in a time of life where self esteem and feelings of worth are running in short supply. Additionally, I no longer have my perfect performance to draw from. I therefore am experiencing an intense loss.

A loss of identity (as the “best” at whatever I’m doing). A loss of confidence in whether or not I’m still meeting expectations. A loss of confidence in how my bosses and colleagues feel about me.

Furthermore, I am daily coming to new understandings of the roots and consequences of my mental health. I have a lifetime’s worth of connections being forged in my brain as I truly analyze my emotions for the first time. These connections often result in epiphanies, often that knock me on my ass.

I’ll give you an example: while talking to my partner about something unrelated the other day, it hit me that I have spent the last decade of our relationship truly believing that I was unworthy of his love. I literally believed that I had nothing to offer a partner. I believed that, in order to keep his love, I had to prove myself worthy over and over again. I lived my life in an intense state of anxiety that, at any moment, I was under threat of losing the love of my life once he realized I couldn’t maintain the standard of domestic excellence that I was pretending I could. 

That’s fucking depressing. 

My self esteem was so low, I wasted an entire decade of life refusing to allow myself to feel loved, when I had an overabundance of love available to me.

Please tell me I don’t have to illustrate for you what I lost in this scenario.

Happy Birthday to Me

My point is that my 29th birthday is a big deal to me. This year, I will shamelessly celebrate myself to the fullest. I will be loud, outrageous, and silly. I will overdress for the bar I’m going to.

And everywhere I go, I will let everyone know that it’s my birthday.

Because it is not just a birthday. 

It is more than an anniversary of the year I was born. 

It is a symbol of the hellfire I walked through.

It is a trophy forged out of the ashes of my old life, and reborn in the phoenix of my new.