When It Stinks: Thoughts for Hard Times

The storm grabbed ahold of everything and turned the world sideways and then upside down outside my window. Sheets of rain whipped at the panes, and the treetops howled in the wind. But inside it was warm and I sat protected by firm white walls and a sturdy roof.

Amidst the noise, I heard a knock at the door and when I opened it, I saw a pale face emerge from the dark. It was a young woman. Her dark hair was soaking wet and she was afraid. I looked into her pleading eyes and saw something eerily familiar.

I quickly ushered her in, and removed her wet coat, placing a reassuring hand on her back. She seemed to relax once inside the safety of my house. We stood there for a moment, looking at each other pensively. She smiled, and then I woke up.

This dream came at the tail end of an excruciating experience – three weeks of insomnia.

People stop sleeping for lots of reasons; physical, chemical and hormonal imbalances, stress, a change in lifestyle or excessive use of stimulants can all buck us off the Z’s. What was beneath my insomnia was anxiety. It gripped my throat at unpredictable times and forced me to stay in high alert, worrying about everything. The longer I went without sleep, the more my mind ran ragged with awful thoughts and the tighter my throat felt. Sleep (or lack thereof) became such a fearful experience for me that I’d dread nighttime. Long before the sun would set, I’d get pangs of panic in my stomach just from knowing that in a few hours I’d have to face another night of agony.

If you’re going through a hard time right now and especially if you’re having trouble sleeping, I want to tell you that this is TEMPORARY. I didn’t believe it when my doctor and loved ones told me this, but I wish I had, because they were right.

Around week two, I started having some irrational yet very real thoughts. I feared that I’d never again be the carefree and grounded person I once was. I wondered if I was going insane. I worried that I was broken and as my insomnia carried on, I worried I was becoming a burden to my loved ones. I’ve never felt so far from everything sacred – the people I love, my dreams, my work and most of all, my confidence.

Needless to say, boy have I learned a lot in the past few months!

In case it wasn’t obvious, shit’s been going down. One of the (tough) joys of being human is learning how to make shit into all sorts of useful things like poems, and artwork, and lasting relationships, and breakthroughs, and maybe even a special tonic that heals the deepest parts of yourself over a long period of time. The good news is that I’m currently in the metaphorical kitchen trying my hand at making all of these. If you are too, I want to give you a fist bump AND a hug. It takes courage, and you are a warrior for sticking with it! 

Here are some thoughts about things I’ve been learning lately:

1. Shit stinks, but it’s totally worth the stink if you can trust it’s the fertilizer growing your future (stronger, wiser and more powerful) self.

2. It will pass. Everything – every feeling, thought, fear, doubt and painful experience – will at some point pass. But we rarely have control over when it will pass. Trying to control when it will pass is when things get really messy. Which brings me to #3.

3. Control is overrated. Give in. Admit defeat. There are higher powers at work, and sometimes that’s god (or the universe, or your soul, or whatever you look to that is bigger than your ego self), and other time’s that’s your body. Let them work it out on their own time, and try to let go of it all needing to be a certain way (right now!).

4. If someone offers you a shoulder to lean on during your darkest hours/days/weeks/months, say yes please, thank you, and I love you! Trust that they wouldn’t offer it if they didn’t mean it, and let yourself be taken care of for a change. This means you have to BE VULNERABLE. In doing so, you will be taking one of the most important steps to getting back to wellness.

5. Did I mention vulnerability heals? Talk to your friends and family. Reach out to other people who have been through something similar. Be honest and let them know what you’re struggling with. I was blown away by how many close friends of mine had been through periods of sleeplessness and severe anxiety, but I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t opened up to them about my own. Just knowing they could empathize was incredibly comforting, and they had awesome advice! More on vulnerability here.

6. Something will work eventually. Keep researching and experimenting. Never give up! What has worked for me has been a combination of meditation, exercise, supplements and acupuncture.

7. You don’t have to be in mint condition in order to have fun. My boyfriend and I took our first trip together after I hadn’t slept for two weeks, and surprise – I had a ton of fun! Even though I was still very anxious and very sleep deprived, continuing with our vacation plans was the right thing to do. The trip gave me the boost of positive energy I needed and reminded me that life is still a verb even when shit’s really hard and you want to just sit down and not move for a very long time.

8. Actually, it turns out that sitting down and not moving for a short, focused amount of time is really, really good for you, especially if you’re prone to anxiety, depression or sleep difficulties. I’m currently taking a mindfulness meditation class, and it’s helping me tremendously. Here’s an article on the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, based on a study conducted at Northern Arizona University.

9. You don’t have to believe your thoughts. I’ve been learning that everyone has painful or fearful thoughts but whether or not you listen to them is the key differentiator between a person experiencing anxiety and someone who isn’t. If a thought isn’t helpful, then it can be labeled as just a thought, not THE TRUTH. I’m told this takes a lot of practice to master, but it’s worth the time and effort to come even remotely close to that. Just imagine if you could hear your thoughts and let them drift by without the struggle of analyzing them or worrying about what they’re telling you every minute of every day. Not to state the obvious, but it would feel really, really good.

10. In order to feel joy, you must be willing to feel discomfort. Resisting and avoiding discomfort or pain shuts down your ability to feel all the good stuff. Flex new muscles and sit with the icky feelings. They will transform you and then move on, because that’s what they were meant to do.

I started this post with a description of a dream I had because I think it holds important symbolism. In the dream, I am both the person running from the storm and the wise one who opens the door and provides a safe shelter. You are both of those people two. So the question is, how can you encourage your wise self to open the door and comfort your fearful self? And what would they say if they could speak to one another?

“Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.” -Isak Dinesen

 

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The Tiniest Motions

There are many roads we travel just once, and there are others we visit again and again. This afternoon, like so many afternoons before, I heard the sound of a voice abandoned. And as I headed out the door to walk in the park, I felt that familiar tingle of a road I recognize. It is such a good thing to remember it – the call to pay attention and abandon the self. To be absorbed into something greater and to make note of the world unfolding, transforming itself into something new every moment.

I’m reminded that we can also be transformed.

This I know to be true: no matter how far I run, or fly, or hide from the work, it’s always there waiting. The pen calling to be used, the imagination painting meaning, the heart saying, go deeper. How did it become so difficult to record? And so difficult to be still enough?

No matter; this is a post about returning: changed, but ready to work again.

Author Anne Lamott writes, “It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness — having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God as parts of life…”

And when life feels off track, it is just as easy to lose our way. We can run in circles searching for what has changed, and how to fix it, but that rarely leads us home. Oftentimes, we just have to be patient, and forge ahead a day at a time until we can see the light again.

“Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it… Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice…”

As Lamott writes, it is by the tiniest motions that we can find the road again that leads us back to our whole selves.

Meanwhile, I’ve been attempting to leap and sprint, or build a new road altogether. And let me say from personal experience, it doesn’t do much good to take arms against your life like that. Sure, there’s always a time for fighting the good fight, but not the bad one. Not the self-defeating one that demands “change now!”

“If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching,” Lamott wisely points out.

Wouldn’t life be sweet if we could trust that gentle, slow hand that threads the needle, drives it into the dark fabric and brings it up again, changed and refreshed? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to forget the need of knowing how it all turns out? The truth is that moment by moment, we have the opportunity to be amazed and to stay awake.

So in honor of the tiniest motions, here is a very tiny poem, and with it, the recovery of a stitch:

What more am I
than the observer
of mottled sunlight
casting amber waves
across the kitchen cabinet,
and a bowl split open,
bleeding pink,
revealing the tender ribs
of the sky?

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When the Leaves Fall: Loss, Grief & Facing Tomorrow

It was almost a typical Monday. I woke up, drove to work, sat down at my desk, and sipped a cup of hot coffee. One thing that was definitely different than the previous Monday was the weather: dark gray clouds, ominous with the smell of rain, hovered outside the window. It was the Fall Equinox after all, and nature was fittingly showing off her punctuality.

I felt as if I had gone to bed the night before still in the dreamy arms of summer, only to wake up at fall’s feet a day later. But that wasn’t the only thing that caught me off guard. That morning, a message from a friend in Europe was waiting in my inbox with a request I couldn’t have anticipated.

She asked me to write a love letter to a family member who needed something to hold onto — a reason to keep going after the sudden death of her best friend had turned everything painfully inside out, and upside down.

I was stunned first, and then sad second, and then I got down to business. I spent two days thinking about what I’d write. What could I possibly say that could help?

I don’t have the answers; that’s the first conclusion I came to. And although I’ve been wracked with grief myself at the loss of several friends over the past few years, and most recently, my beloved writing mentor, I’m aware that loss touches us in such different and personal ways. There is no “one-size-fits-all” advice to give when it comes to grief. And yet, I was being asked to offer something to a stranger that would somehow encourage her to keep moving forward and still find the beauty in living.

This is not the only person that has been brought to my attention who is currently experiencing loss and change. At this time of year especially, it feels as if a hand has silently grasped the veil of summer’s illusions and pulled it aside, revealing a plainer, much harsher truth. Relationships are ending. Paths are shifting. Souls are departing. But just as there is no problem that exists without a solution, the shadow of life cannot exist without light. These illusions are being shaken loose so we can reconnect with our most primal existence and remember that life is a yin and yang of life and death, love and suffering.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” -Khalil Gibran

It goes without saying that it’s a tough time for many. The only salve I know of is to take hands with those you love and share the load. We’re in this together.

And in that spirit, I sat on my blue and white bedspread and wrote my 28th* love letter, which I promptly sent through the internet to a country approximately 5, 298 miles away.

With the permission of my friend, I’ve pasted it below. Please note that I’ve changed the name of the letter’s recipient in order to protect her privacy. My hope is that if you are reading this, and you too are suffering a loss of great proportion, this helps ease some of the pain, if even for a few minutes.

Birds Flying

Dear Anna,

I met your sister in a hostel just over a year ago. When I saw her from across the room, she was a glowing mass of passion and energy – a force of spirit. And I am so glad I got to travel with her. Out of her love for you, Anna, she asked me if I’d write you a love letter, because she tells me you are going through a very difficult time — an unimaginably painful time.

I’ve been thinking about you for the last two days, wondering how I can possibly comfort you with my words when you must be feeling as if the world has torn a piece right out of your heart. Darling, I want to tell you that the only beautiful thing that comes from loss is this: you feel your beating heart, albeit its being full of sadness and grief, it’s yours, and it’s beating for a reason. There’s a purpose for your soul here on earth, and this immense trial in your life may be a part of it. Perhaps now some comfort will come from reading other people’s stories of loss. Look to those who have been torn open, but somehow made it through to the other side. Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” is one of those people. She writes matter-of-factly about the process of grief:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” -Cheryl Strayed

My advice is to let the grief exist. No need to fight it. This is your experience, and it’s real, and it’s valid. It’s also 100% natural. There’s no one way to feel grief, so don’t believe the books that tell you about the stages and try to estimate how long it will take to move on. This isn’t a matter of logicality; it’s a deeply personal matter of the heart. The process of grief is one of the core experiences that makes you human and connects you to people all across the globe who also know what it feels like to have lost someone they loved very much.

As difficult as it feels now, one day you will wake up with a little less pain than the day before. Gradually, after many days and months, and years, you will gain a strength you never knew you were capable of. And that strength will guide you to put one foot in front of the other and practice living again, until one day, you’ll feel love bloom in your heart, and you will risk caring about another person as much as you did about your friend. This is how you will know that you’re healing.

Until then, darling, there will be a lot of very difficult days. Unfortunately, no one can protect you from them, so you just have to hold onto what good things you can (like your family, a big oak tree, a walk by a stream, your favorite music, etc.) and ride your emotions like the brave woman you are. You are surrounded by people who love you and want to be there for you. Take their hands when you can. You don’t ever have to do this on your own; although no one can take the pain away, sharing your thoughts and feelings with others will help a lot.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, you will find a way to make peace with your friend leaving too soon. But in order for acceptance to come, you’ll have to do some soul searching and reading, and deep thinking about what you think life and death are about, and find a way of making sense of things for yourself. This might take a very long time, and understandably so. It’s okay to ask god, or friends, or family, or yourself the same questions over and over again, and not have any immediate answers. Humans spend their lifetimes trying to understand why things are the way they are.

Still, it won’t change the fact that they are the way they are. And that’s why sorting it out the best you can by establishing your own philosophy will give you a very important pathway to navigate your sadness by. This is what spirituality and religion exist for – they provide a light for you to walk beneath when you are lost in unimaginable darkness.

And on that topic, the universe cannot exist without light. What that means is there will be good things to come for you, Anna. This is not the end. It’s just the beginning of something different. You will get through to the other side.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to you. You are experiencing one of the most difficult aspects of being alive, and it fucking sucks. That is undeniable.

But the light is still all around you and within you, and someday soon, you’ll be able to see it again; of this, I am 100% certain!

Love to you,
Abby

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.