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 Snake’s Message: Time to Shed Your Skin

The sun had cast a glowing veil across pine boughs and river rocks, and the day was calling me to wake up. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, grabbed a sweatshirt, and headed outside.

“Where are you going?” my sister called after me.

“To say good morning to the river!” I called back over my shoulder, already making strides across the grass to the river path.

Last week, my family and I stayed in a cabin along the South Umpqua River in Southern Oregon.

I was cheerfully greeted by a bubbling, rolling stream of silver-blue water, careening over rocks, tickling grasses along the bank, and exuding the freshest smelling air that made me want to breathe it in deep. I spied the perfect sitting rock, where a natural smooth bowl was beckoning, and settled into a comfy perch, facing upstream, so I could watch the water dance. Closing my eyes, I felt the sunlight stream across my skin and warm me. When I opened my eyes again, hundreds of tiny winged creatures were floating above the water, catching the rays on their wings like glimmering jewels. At first, I imagined they were fairies, but on second thought, they were probably just crane flies or some related species. Nonetheless, the scene was breathtaking.

I reached up and stretched my arms, feeling quite content. And as I stretched, I happened to glance over my right shoulder, and spotted a long snakeskin arched around a small rock under the lip of a large boulder. I went to investigate, and sure enough, withdrew a beautiful black and gray snakeskin, almost completely intact.

Whenever I come across an animal or insect, whether in real life or in a dream, I trust it brings with it some sort of message or significance. The snakeskin appeared across my path at the perfect time, reminding me that old thought patterns, fears, and unresolved hurts from the past must be shed in order to make room for new life. I had already begun this process, as you may have read the poem I posted a few weeks ago about releasing memories. Seeing the snakeskin confirmed I am on the right path.

Oftentimes we desire new opportunities and experiences, yet they remain out of reach until we do the work of shedding our old skin of beliefs that no longer serve our dreams and highest good. As the snake reminds us, in order for transformation to take place, we have to release the past and be willing to enter the unknown with fresh skin. This undoubtedly requires us to be vulnerable. And although there is great power in vulnerability, it isn’t always the most comfortable feeling.

Fellow blogger Kelly C. Wells writes:

“‘You’ve heard the phrase ‘feeling comfortable in your own skin.’ Never is this more difficult when you are in a life transition and learning to take on a new identity. However, it’s important to know that being uncomfortable is not a sign that you are lost, powerless, or disconnected.

The best example of this in the natural world is when a snake sheds its skin. During the shedding process, the snake is visibly uncomfortable and unproductive. It doesn’t eat; it is irritated and sluggish, devoting all of its energy to this one task of ridding the old to make room for the new.

Why is the snake shedding? To grow into a larger, more capable and more evolved body and existence. While snakes do this physically, we as human beings metaphorically shed our own skin when it is time to grow personally, professionally, or spiritually.”

At the end of the week, before it was time to return home to Portland, I went back to the river and returned the snakeskin to the place where I originally found it, offering my thanks for its vital message. Feeling both grateful and tickled by the gift offered that first morning along on the river, I am more certain than ever that wisdom is all around us and an ever-present resource we can be nourished by, if we just open our hearts and minds to receive it.

What beautiful things will enter your world once you shed your old skin and make space for new experiences?

South Umpqua River, Oregon

South Umpqua River, Oregon

The view from the cabin's front porch.

The view from the cabin’s front porch.

In Honor of Valentine’s Day: The Road to Compassion & How Being Bullied Turned Out to be a Blessing

This is a special post for Valentine’s Day, centered on the theme of compassion, one of the most powerful and transformational forms of love in this world. It’s not necessarily an emotion we’re born with, but instead something we develop through the breaking open of ourselves and our hearts. Just like the lotus that unfurls gorgeous petals from the mud, compassion is an alchemical force that expands the heart to encompass others. It’s a healing agent that only multiplies when acted upon.

COMPASSION: the feeling of empathy for others; the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help. (Wikipedia)

Something you may not know about me is that I was badly bullied for more than a year when I was a little girl in elementary school. My experience recently came up in a conversation with a friend when I shared with her the story of Colin, a boy who told his mother he didn’t have any friends. Colin struggles socially, in part due to a disability. He eats lunch alone in the office every day because the other kids don’t like him and won’t let him sit nearby. His mother had wanted to organize a birthday party for him next month and was heartbroken when she heard the truth about Colin’s experiences at school. In response his mother started a Facebook page with the intention to show Colin that he is loved. In a matter of weeks, the page has gained over one million followers and his story has gone viral. Colin’s mother plans to surprise him on his birthday with all the wonderful comments people have left him from across the globe.

When I read about Colin’s story, two things struck me: we happen to have the same birthday and he is about to turn 11, just two years older than I was when I suffered significant anxiety and sadness each day at school due to the teasing and bullying of some of my peers. My heart dropped at the thought of his loneliness and teetering self-worth. So I wrote to him on the Facebook page and told him a shorter version of the story I’m going to share with you.

“But why did they pick on you?” my friend asked. It was such a direct question and one I hadn’t thought about in many years; I was caught off guard and paused to take a breath. A sharp pang shot through my torso as an image appeared of my 9-year-old self crying each day after school as my bewildered mother looked on, wanting nothing more than to protect her daughter from social humiliation and emotional pain at such a fragile stage of life – a stage when self-esteem either buds or shrinks due to the direct impact of external forces, such as peer approval.

There is no clear answer to my friend’s question, because bullying is rarely about the victim, and almost always about the power the victimizer gains from minimizing another person. In other words, it wasn’t as if I had done something to warrant the attacks. I was just a sensitive and kind girl who was an easy target because I let the taunting affect me. And could anyone blame me? I was in the valley of girlhood, awkward in my skin, feeling the societal pressures of fitting in, the high expectations of beauty, and just barely beginning to know myself. As soon as peers criticized me and my appearance, my self-worth plummeted. Since I’ve always been someone who wears my emotions on my face, my perpetrators could see the instant result of their efforts and they got an ego-boost from that.

Thankfully, my parents, although distressed about the situation, were incredibly supportive (which is more than I can say about my teachers and the school’s administration). Ultimately, they decided to move me to a new school to turn a page and get me into a safer space. Although I was apprehensive at first, it turned out to be the fresh start I needed, and the wounds of the bullying gradually dissipated, replaced by normal coming-of-age joys like sleepover parties, getting my ears pierced, going on my first movie date and buying my first music album. The following year, I purposefully went to a middle school where I knew my elementary tormentors wouldn’t be. And something amazing happened. I made friends – lots of them. I played team sports, I joined choir, and I thrived in my classes. Over time, I grew into a stronger person with a deep sense of justice, individuality and awareness for the wellbeing of those around me.

I began feeling what I now know is compassion. As a result, I actively stood up to peers who treated others poorly, and comforted their victims. I regularly befriended the underdog in school, offering words of encouragement and kindness to those I knew felt left out. After all, I had been through what they went through and I knew it wasn’t right, and moreover, that no one deserved to feel like they’re worth less than they are.

Through Colin’s story and revisiting my own, I’ve come to the conclusion that being bullied as a kid actually turned out to be a great blessing. I am so thankful that I feel for others and know that my heart is big enough to hold so many. Although it is at times painful to feel empathy because a little of another’s pain then becomes my own, I choose to stay open-hearted, or compassionate, because it enriches life and feels right. The truth is, I believe in love. Not just the romantic, gushy kind you might have with a significant other, but the heart-opening, spirit-uplifting, moving-humanity-forward kind that we can have with a perfect stranger. Moments of love like this make life worth living. And they’re contagious, that’s the best part! Compassion shared just grows and grows and grows and grows until it has reached farther than you can ever calculate, moving from person to person, touching lives.

Keep in mind that any kindness you show others will be returned to you ten-fold. I believe this because I’ve witnessed it. Just tonight I received a beautiful letter out of the blue from a friend across the country who I haven’t seen in over a year. In her letter, she described how I’m making a difference in her life through writing on this very blog. Wow. There are several words to describe how that feels to hear, but here’s the first that comes to mind: affirming.

Whatever you do this Valentine’s Day, I hope it involves loving. That’s what it’s all about after all, and not just the holiday, but life in general!

I’ll leave you with a photo of a few Valentines cards I made for friends and family during my lunch break today at work 🙂 Love is in the air — I can feel it! Can you??

A few of my Handmade Valentines Day Cards

A few of my Handmade Valentines Day Cards