To just keep going is the hardest thing there is in a depressive episode, in part, because there’s no indication of when it will end. It can be hard to believe that it ever will. And if you’ve weathered multiple episodes, there’s the added knowledge that this current ordeal probably won’t be the last. It’s exhausting and well, … depressing.
With that said, persevering is usually the last thing on my mind. Instead, escape, by any means necessary, seems like the only path forward. For different people that escape might be at the bottom of a bottle, a gummy-induced high, long periods of sleep, workaholism, meddling in other people’s problems or a million other distractions. I can admit that I’ve tried a few. Really, the possibilities are endless, but they don’t really end it. And to be completely honest, I’m not sure what does.
After years of working on my mental health in therapy, learning healthy coping skills, consistently taking anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication and every kind of vitamin, moving my body to boost the feel-good chemicals in my brain and building a relationship with God, I still find myself in depressive episodes. It makes me wonder if it’s just my cross to bear in this life.
Yet, even still, I know that it could be worse, namely, because it has been. There was a time in my life when the pain of depression wasn’t an episode, but an everyday, all the time, thing.
When I remember how little it would take to send me back to those days, literally just a week without my medication, I have reason to be grateful. I’m reminded that although I’m not where I want to be, I can still thank God, because I’m definitely not where I used to be.
Depression is hard. But what’s crazy is that it’s one of the ways that I’m reminded that there is a God, especially one who cares about me. Because I’d fail if it was all on me. If I had to depend on my own smarts and resources to navigate depression, I would have left this place a long time ago. So, even though I still struggle with this really hard thing, the fact that I’m still here, that I continue to keep going without even really knowing how, is evidence of God’s fingerprints.
What about you? Is there something that you want to escape, but can’t? How do you get through it?
The last few weeks have been a lot. I’ve been under some stress that just kept building and building until, before I knew it, I was well into a depressive episode. For some reason, they usually take me by surprise.
I was having migraines every day, almost all day, for two weeks, not eating, doing the bare minimum at home and work, and withdrawing from everyone in my life before I recognized what had happened. I thought I was treading water. But in reality, the water was 100 feet above my head.
Have you ever had an experience where everything just seems to fall apart all at once?
Remember that workplace trauma I told you about? A really difficult relationship with a colleague and a reluctance to address it by leadership triggered the hell out of me. The details were different, but it felt all too familiar. And the more they dragged it out, month after month, the less safe I felt. It felt like I was being attacked, rejected, and abandoned all over again.
And I thought, “how could I be going through all of this again? Is it me? What am I doing wrong here?” And then, once I remembered that I’m not responsible for the way other people behave, including when I ask for help, I just felt alone, yet in the same place, again.
But I couldn’t just go forward like it didn’t matter. Something in my spirit wouldn’t let me. So, I set a boundary. I told leadership that I couldn’t, wouldn’t, interact with this person until they addressed the issue. Eventually, they at least had a conversation. But the sense that it wasn’t enough wouldn’t allow the burden to lift.
Around the same time, the new relationship I had developed with a tenderhearted man was beginning to shake. We were unequally yoked – two people who wanted to be together, but were walking at two entirely different paces and not always in the same direction faith-wise. I had known from the very the beginning that this was a possibility, a certainty really, but I went forward anyway. And as the relationship crumbled around us, the painful rejection I felt was compounded by my own lack of wisdom in the first place.
A week or two later, I would find myself in the middle of another break-up. It was the end of my time with my out-of-state EMDR therapist, a person whose work with me had been truly transformational. There was no blow up, no drama, the rules just wouldn’t allow it anymore. So, though we knew the end was coming, it didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. Up to that point I had been filled with dread, but it turned to grief when everything was said and done.
And finally, a dinner with an old colleague and his wife that I had hoped would have been an enjoyable experience, ended up being the exact opposite. Instead of laughing and cracking jokes with the man who regularly checked-in with me, I found myself constantly dodging questions about why I wasn’t married or had a boyfriend from his wife. And in the wake of my recent breakup, I wasn’t ready for any of it. The dinner had only been an hour and a half, but when we parted, I felt like I had spent hours being judged and had come up short.
It was A LOT to endure all at once. I thought I was maintaining – treading water. But the pain of each scenario pushed me further and further below the water’s surface. And when I finally opened my eyes and looked around, I saw that I was in a familiar place. I was failing at life – again – and that made it worse. More tired than anything else, I just wanted to give up on everything, including life itself.
Before I decided to follow Jesus, I thought that being a believer would take those negative feelings away forever. I thought I would never experience pain, make mistakes, or feel alone ever again. But in the years since, I’ve learned that isn’t true. I wish I could say that I pushed my way through the despair that I felt or that Jesus suddenly washed it all away. But neither would be true.
What I did was cry a lot, get angry with myself and God, repent and do it all over again. But there’s one thing that made the difference. When I accepted Jesus, I also accepted his spirit, the Holy Spirit, and invited them into my heart and my life. The Holy Spirit leads us in ways that we can’t always see at the time. Moment by moment the Holy Spirit directs us to the things that will comfort and restore us, even as we struggle.
It can start with something as simple as a glass of water. That bit of hydration can give us the clarity to take a shower, then lotion our bodies, have a little food, or take a nap. Bit by bit, he leads us to just keep going, one thing, one step at a time. And slowly, over time, you notice the despair lifting. It’s not a “suddenly” kind of thing, at least, it hasn’t been for me.
Boundaries is a brave new world I’ve decided to enter. It’s a journey that started years ago. Back then, I danced around the edge of this territory, letting circumstances push me across the border only when people-pleasing became entirely too much to bear. But now, sensing, acknowledging and standing ten toes down in my boundaries is an intentional choice. Why?
Because what I thought was honoring my faith and being selfless, gracious, and considerate was actually making me look and feel like a doormat – in Jesus’ name. And Jesus didn’t die for me to become a doormat.
I’ve had to make a choice about whether maintaining the comfort of others is more important than preserving my own peace. And finally, that answer is no.
Like the email that I sent to my supervisor a few weeks ago, I had another boundary-setting experience around the same time.
A colleague from the toxic workplace noted in my last post will be in a nearby city for a conference soon. He is exactly one person out of one that I still talk to from that job. He is one of very few people from that era that I’ve spoken to with any honesty or vulnerability, simply because he’s one of the even fewer people that showed that they cared through any of it. So, while it can be hard to engage with him at times because of the memories it stirs up, I value him, if for nothing else, because of his compassion towards me.
So, knowing that he’d be nearby, but that I wouldn’t be at the conference, I suggested that we have dinner at some point during his trip. But I had one condition – that it just be him and his wife. I have no interest in a reunion with anyone else and I said so. And I meant it.
It was a simple sentence ending with a period. But if that little period could have conveyed the intensity in my heart, it would have blown 5G to bits. Because I meant it with the intensity of a bomb.
I meant it with so much force, such ferocity, that I wouldn’t hesitate to say it to their faces and walk right out of the restaurant, if I arrived to a surprise gathering of old ghosts. No thank you.
It’s a level of authenticity that I wasn’t able to achieve back when everything was going down.
I used to think it made me more of a professional to not let other people’s actions and reactions deter me from the task at hand. I thought that sidestepping insults and staying on task was a skill. And by the time I made it home every day, I thought I could shake the day off like dropping my clothes in the hamper. And it’s possible that on most days, I did.
But in the aftermath of that fiasco, I was so concerned with whether I would ever find another job and not looking bitter or like an “angry black woman”, that I pushed those feelings of betrayal and abandonment down within me. I wouldn’t acknowledge them publicly, though I cried and mourned privately.
I quit, but gave a month’s notice. When the boss decided to throw me a going away party, I played it like it was too much of a fuss, instead of outright saying the “Hell No” that was thrashing around in my chest. I humored those who asked about my next steps, knowing that they only wanted to gossip about me. And on my last day, stayed late to make sure I left things in decent order for the next person.
I wasn’t being authentic. I was cool and calm on the outside, but I was raging on the inside.
I was sacrificing my mental health and well-being in the name of professionalism. But it wasn’t worth it – the PTSD nightmares, depressive episodes, and mind-bending anxiety that followed have proven that. Now, after all of the work I’ve done in therapy, I’m ready to abandon that way of living.
My unwillingness to endure extreme discomfort, just so that others are comfortable, might seem unchristian. But in this case, it’s actually progress. It’s wisdom that has been hard earned. It’s actually evidence of healing.
A couple of weeks ago, if you asked me how I was, I would have told you, joyfully, that I am in the middle of a transformation – into what, I wasn’t sure. But in the end, I knew I would be altogether different, a truly new thing.
Around the same time, I told my new supervisor, who is sharp, thoughtful, and fairly self-aware, in a carefully worded email, that, in fact, I would not be attending a webinar as I had previously agreed. This webinar featured a panel of professionals in an adjacent field who would be discussing how they – as white people – can advance racial justice and “disrupt” white held spaces and power in the industry. Specifically, I was asked to attend and report back any key takeaways for the rest of our – all white (except for me) – team.
Why? I have no idea, except that I am one of very few employees that can be tasked with anything, since consultants make up nearly half of our very small staff.
What’s the problem? It’s not an issue of pay grade, title, or status. It’s not pride. In my retraction, I said that I wasn’t comfortable following through. But it’s not really even about comfort, not entirely. It’s more than that.
In a society built to serve whiteness in every way possible, it feels … wrong to also expect marginalized people to educate or spoon-feed anything related to their experience, even steps others are taking to dismantle an oppressive system, to those who still dominate that society. It reeks of subservience and plain laziness.
To those that expect this, I offer: Why not educate yourself for yourself? Do the work of investigating, exposure, and immersion that everyone else has to do in-order to navigate this society. Share the burden. Shoot, consider it a hobby (🙄).
That subtle sense of entitlement can show up in so many different ways. But I bristle against it in all of them because, to me, it feels wrong… And by wrong, I mean, unfair and insulting.
So why did I say yes in the first place?
And this is what I haven’t told you…
I’ve had my integrity, character, professionalism, and expertise attacked in the workplace. I’m not talking about dealing with ugly rumors, office politics or the juvenile antics of middle-aged mean girls, although that’s part of the package too.
I mean the kind of attack where someone tells a lie about you to the police that, if proven to be true, could land you in jail, not just ruining your career, but revoking your freedom. And while that’s bad enough, it isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that those who were in a position to tell the truth and defend me publicly stood by and did nothing.
I could list a million reasons why the person lied about me and tried to ruin my life – bitterness, fear, jealousy, racist hatred. At least, that’s what I have been told. As for the abandonment of my supervisors, my only guess is that they feared being attacked themselves.
But in all honesty, I don’t know why anyone did what they did. I never asked. I was too busy trying not to commit murder (or assault). I was too busy trying not to be a walking stereotype. I was too busy trying not to make Jesus look bad because of his association with me. Because, while I don’t get preachy at work, I don’t hide that I rep’ Jesus either.
It took ALL of my energy to seek Jesus and do what I believe I was supposed to do in that moment, which was let him handle it. Ultimately, my name was cleared. But the whole thing was extremely hard and hurt like hell.
When I look back, I see the ease that I moved in, but didn’t feel in the moment. I see the instances where I could have easily made a different choice in one of a thousand critical moments and made things so much worse. I am sure that Jesus kept me, shielded me, even when it felt like I was taking all the blows. But years later, the pain of that experience still haunts me.
So when I am in a situation where I have to navigate white fragility, I find myself struggling to discern whether the fear, uneasiness and sometimes anger I’m feeling is a trauma response stirred up by my memories or because of a real and present danger.
So, I said yes because I was afraid to trust myself. I said yes because I hoped the pain of compliance would be easier to endure than the pain of rejection, abandonment, or being hated. I said yes because, after all I’ve seen Jesus do for me, I was still afraid to trust him to take care of me regardless of whatever happened next. But my body wouldn’t let me rest.
I couldn’t shake the sense that I had betrayed myself. So, I revoked my yes.
Via email, I said that I had changed my mind and pointed to the fact that the webinar would be recorded for anyone who was interested to review at their convenience. Period. End of sentence. No question mark. No smiley face pleading for understanding. No invitation to discuss (and possibly debate) it further.
I didn’t get a response, despite receiving a flurry of responses to other unrelated emails from the same person.
The next day, realizing that it may not have been clear why I wasn’t comfortable, I sent another email, clarifying that my retraction was due to the webinar’s subject matter. This time, I offered to discuss it.
Still, it’s been crickets over the roughly two weeks since. And I’m not sure what that means, aside from the realization that my supervisor is conflict avoidant.
Have I been ignored or accepted, if only grudgingly? I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of experience with this. Setting boundaries is new territory.
Water rises up to the edge of my eyelid, falls into my lashes, and dribbles down my cheek as I watch the screen. My mind is connecting with what I am hearing in a way that I don’t yet have words for, so the tears come. Tears of relief, joy, and hope. Tears for the end of a loooong trial that’s been hard to observe with the naked eye, but has been present all the same.
I’m listening to a nurse practitioner recount the many traumatic brain injuries she’s had through the years. Concussions in many varieties that, at different times, came with a fractured skull and cheekbone, inflammation, cuts and bruises, and debilitating migraines that shock her awake and make her throw up in the middle of the night.
I explain the evolving symptoms of my own migraines, the last remaining symptom of a concussion I suffered in a car accident a few years ago. They have improved drastically despite their lingering and, often, show-stopping presence. But when I describe the deteriorating focus and concentration that has begun to affect my work and scare the crap out of me, I point to depression. Do I feel depressed? No. But since when has any of this ever made sense? One hormone decides to call in sick, or my symptoms evolve unexpectedly, and the whole apple cart turns over.
“It’s not the depression. Your medication would’ve handled that symptom like it did the others. No, it’s the concussion. I think you have medical onset ADD – the predominantly inattentive type.” I have no idea what that means. So, I say some version of a “huh?” to the screen.
“It’s common to have worsening focus and concentratration even years after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I think the concussion has brought on the inattentiveness. Medication can help with that.” She asks me if I’ve tried “Wellbutrin”. “Yes,” I answer, and add that it made me have suicidal thoughts within hours of taking it. “I’m sensitive to medication.” She pauses, then suggests Adderall.
I listen in silence, letting it sink in. As it does, the tears come. In the next second, I wipe my cheeks, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional because this has been so hard, and you’re telling me that there’s a way out of this?”
I don’t remember much of what happened next. I learn that there’s a national shortage and that some people can become addicted. “It wouldn’t be addicting if it didn’t work,” she says. We talk about dosage and my medical history as well as my extended family’s. We end the telehealth session with an agreement to meet again in two weeks.
When the call ends, I’m bowing, sitting on my bed, and then again with my knees on the floor. Warm tears still streaming down my face, I praise God for this, whatever it is. Deliverance. A breakthrough. A resolution to an old prayer that I had only recently begun to pray again. Confirmation that I should expect good things from my Father in heaven. Maybe it was all of the above. But whatever it was, I had to offer my gratitude in praise.
The next couple of days pass in a blur. There’s a hold-up with the medication because there’s a nationwide shortage of the exact dosage for my prescription. It takes another day for the nurse to submit a new prescription for a lower dose. But my hope helps me push through the struggle at work. On the day that it is finally ready, I decide to type “Adderall” into Google, and suddenly, my hope comes crashing down around me.
I see words and phrases like “Amphetamine,” withdrawal symptoms, risk of addiction, and effects similar to Meth, and my mouth goes dry. “What the…?”
“I can’t take this,” I say to myself. “I can’t risk addiction.” And immediately, the option was off the table. But the fears of losing my job because I can’t focus and deliver tap dance their way back into the forefront of my mind.
And this is the challenge that comes with navigating any illness, the catch 22, deciding which is worse, the suffering without the medical intervention or the suffering with it. “There has to be another way,” I think to myself.
By the end of the week, I had spoken to my therapist about it – who advised me to seek a second opinion from a neurologist, asked a mentor about supplements for focus and concentration, and most importantly, asked Jesus about it – a simple question in the journal where I write my prayers.
I also endured a rainy “migraine day” that sent me into dark room rest for most of the day. But when I woke up on that sunny Friday, I felt better, drained and tired, but much better. And on the roughly hour long drive to work, I returned to a practice that I hadn’t done often enough in the new year. I listened to audio of my own voice reading verses of scripture on health, healing, and believing.
Taken from a little purple book by Joyce Meyer called: The Secret Power of Speaking God’s Word, I have scriptures covering a few topics recorded on my phone. Why? Because when I speak God’s word out of my own mouth, things change. I change.
I needed my focus to change. So I listened to my voice saying those verses and to two of my favorite RnB songs that I’ve remixed in my head to remind me of God’s love for me… “So Beautiful” and “Yes” by Musiq Soulchild over and over again as I drove to work. All of which reminded me that my God is undefeated and that the “nickname” of Jehovah Rapha (God who heals) was given for a reason. What are migraines and concussions to an all-powerful God? Crushable ants, that’s what. And I said as much along the way, ignoring how insane I might look to the surrounding drivers.
I can’t say what for sure did it. The peace of an empty and quiet office. The joy of a sunny Friday. A grateful attitude. The remembrance of the power and faithfulness of my God. Or, more likely, in my opinion, the very words themselves. But I went on to have the most productive day that I’ve ever had at this job, probably in an entire year, if not longer. And my amazement remains.
I did the practical thing. I filled the prescription. In the off chance that the neurologist agrees with the nurse, I didn’t want to wait even longer due to shortages. And maybe that’s a failure of faith, I dont know. But do I expect to use it? No. Will I forget that it’s there? Probably not, especially if the focus of that Friday never returns.
But I do expect it to return. I believe it will and will say so every day if I have to, with God’s help. Maybe the threat of an addiction will spur my mouth into action, I don’t know. And if I have to throw the pills away, then so be it. But I have been amazed, tantalized by the power of God, and I want to, need to, see it again.
It’s a cloudy winter afternoon and I’m running late. Snow is falling lightly and turning to slush on the roads. If left undisturbed for a minute or more, it turns to ice in the bitter cold. Mindful of the time, I keep pace with the cars gliding down the highway. But when I hit my exit, I realize that time shouldn’t have been my only concern. Because suddenly, I’m slipping and sliding.
My tires have hit a patch of black ice and I’m in chaos. Forgetting what I know, I hit the brakes. Wrong move. I’m beginning to spin even as my car skids forward. I turn the wheel hard to the right and then I see it – the short concrete sidewall of the ramp, less than 10 ft ahead and even more above ground. And I’m moving fast toward it. Overwhelmed and out of control, I take my hands off the wheel and close my eyes, bracing for impact.
This haunting memory is what came to mind a few weeks ago, when I spoke to my play big sister. We got caught up on what’s been happening in each other’s lives and there was much to tell. But in recent years, I’ve noticed a growing calm in my good friend’s demeanor and perspective on the events of her life. My normally boisterous and giggly friend, though still joyful, had become more subdued. The twists and turns of living don’t seem to warrant the same complicated reactions as before. Instead, everything had become very simple. I guess, having a serious illness has a way of doing that to you.
We talked about her restorative trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the calming effect of being near water and her new perspective on stress. Like the water that she watched drift in and out from the shore, she had decided to just flow. Though her body is doing things that she does not want or understand, she was accepting that she was not in control – not of her illness or her life. All she could do is her part – take her medicine, avoid stressful interactions and situations, and treat her mind and body well – because the outcome wasn’t up to her. That part was up to God. My friend was letting go, not of life, but of the illusion of control.
That cold, snowy day on black ice, I made a split decision to release control and trust God for an outcome that I would be able to recover from. I let go. And in that moment right before impact, I wasn’t panicked. I was free.
When I think about the choice to leave my toxic work environment, it almost doesn’t even feel like a choice. I feel pushed by the toxicity to go elsewhere. But I’ve vacillated between wanting to leave and wanting to be valued. And the truth is that I don’t have any control over that last part.
How people perceive me and my work or what they are willing to do in the face of racism in the workplace isn’t up to me. That responsibility is entirely their own. All I can do is make choices that value and affirm my own well-being. The choice that does that best is the one where I leave. There’s nothing left for me here and I know it.
I don’t know what my future would look like if I accept the job offer that has been the subject of my many pro and con lists. I’m not sure what to expect of this new position in a different field in a new state. A new environment, new people, and new expectations and demands means unpredictable. And in all honesty, I can’t be sure that the “new” place would be any better than the last one.
It’s a choice that challenges me to consider how I view myself and my potential as a professional. But more than that, it requires me to decide whether my faith is real or “sometimey.”
It forces me to ask myself, “do I really believe that I walk through life holding God’s hand?” And if the answer is yes, “then prove it … let go. Leave.”
In her book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce captures the gravity of this moment well. She says, “Leaving is trusting in God. Leaving is a leap of faith with no guarantee that the situation you encounter once you have left will be any more life-giving. Leaving is walking out of Egypt without the certainty that you will ever arrive in Canaan. … The lesson of leaving is not in the destination, which you may never reach, but in the journey itself.”
Leaving is a gamble. But letting go is trusting, not in myself, but in my God.
I can’t control the outcome, but I can make the choice.
I choose to trust God and journey onward to see what the end will be.
What about you? What are you choosing to let go of?
“Never underestimate the value of a good pro’s and con’s list.”
I said this to my nephew only a few days ago. He was weighing the benefits and drawbacks of a job offer at a new company against the familiar rhythms of his current job. “Make a written list,” I told him. “Write down the pros and cons of each company and job. Getting them out of your head and onto the page will free your brain up to consider the possibilities, instead of trying to keep them all straight,” I said, pointing to his head. He promised to make a list in the morning.
A few days earlier, I was in an EMDR therapy session talking about my own pro’s and con’s list. Actually, lists would be more accurate, because I had several. I had pro and con lists about whether I should leave my job, relocate to another state, and whether to accept a job offer I had received.
But this time, the release that came with getting it all down on paper had been short-lived. Instead of decluttering my brain, the multitude of options lining those pages were short-circuiting it. To say yes to the job offer, was saying yes to them all and every positive and negative outcome that came along with them. It was a lot to consider. It could be a welcome change, but change, especially of this magnitude, can be scary and is rarely ever easy.
Knowing my love for Jesus, my therapist asked me to imagine giving my list to God. I was all for it. I figured it might be a way to remove some of the pressure I had been putting on myself. So, as I watched my therapist’s index and middle fingers swing from one side of the screen to the other, I imagined giving God my lists.
With a blank expanse as the background, I imagined a large hand extended in my direction. The palm was open before me like a blossoming flower. This big hand with its firm and well-formed flesh looked strong enough to lie in, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked over and lifted the little notebook containing my lists as the hand reached forward to receive it.
At first, I imagined the hand immediately ripping the notebook to shreds. But when I reflected on what my relationship with God had shown me about God’s character so far, I knew that it wouldn’t go down that way. So, like an artist crumpling and tossing an imperfect work, I started the exchange over in my mind.
The hand embraced my little notebook with a care that I hadn’t noticed in the last scene; its fingers gently closing around the book as though it were fragile. And with that same gentle care, the hand put the notebook aside and returned its wide and empty palm before me, beckoning my own. In the next moment, I was holding God’s hand. That scene is where my mind stayed until that EMDR round ended.
Even though this had all been in my imagination, I knew that something was happening. Even though a single word hadn’t been spoken, in every action, from my hand to God’s, an exchange was taking place. I was remembering a promise that had been made.
In offering God my lists, I was asking God to take the burden of needing to make the “right” choice off of my shoulders. In laying that notebook in that outstretched palm, I was handing over control of every outcome, both positive and negative, and asking God to give me discernment and rest.
Those lists were my concerns – the questions and worries hiding in my heart and overloading my brain. Their gentle handling in God’s hands reminded me of what I already knew but had momentarily forgotten – that my concerns matter to God. God takes me and everything in my life seriously because that’s what love does.
The hand that reached out to receive and embrace my own reminded me of another point that, lost in my anxious thoughts, I had forgotten – that I’m not in this alone. God is with me, choosing to walk through whatever comes, right by my side.
Have you ever found yourself faced with a challenge that is so big and so overwhelming that you can’t tell whether you’re winning or losing?
Maybe you get sick or hurt and need to undergo a medical procedure. Thankfully, you have insurance, so you’re not responsible for most of the cost to address it. So, you use some savings, take out a loan or save your pennies to pay your deductible and co-pays.
You go to the doctor and work out a plan to fix the problem. You take test after test and exam after exam. You find yourself naked in the company of so many specialists that you wonder whether you should adjust your body count.
All of this takes a while, but eventually, you find yourself checking in at the hospital. And then, you wait. Before you know it, it’s over. You’re at home and recovering. Crisis over.
But now, as you make your way back to life as normal, something unexpected happens. You find new bills in your mailbox. Bills for this test, that exam, this specialist, and those medications. New bills arrive even as you pay the latest ones. You’re in a whirlwind, overloaded with bills for something that you thought was over and done with; something you thought was covered. And in confusion and frustration, you wonder, “Am I wasting my time? Will this ever stop?”
This is how the random flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of PTSD feel to me. No matter how much progress I think I’ve made, those two symptoms remind me that it’s not over. It’s a problem that refuses to go away, and certainly, not without a fight.
My way of fighting is to go to therapy, get enough sleep, stay on top of my medicine, workout, do things I enjoy, have alone time and time with people I love, eat well, journal and talk to God. These are the practices that have made a difference for me. But those moments when I am catapulted back into the original moment of pain feel like a setback. A big one. Beyond confusing and exhausting, it ticks me off.
It makes me angry at the people who caused the trauma. Angry at the person or situation that now reminds me of that trauma. Angry at the world for being so jacked up. Angry with myself for not being past this already. And, if I’m honest, a little angry at God too. Why? “Because I’m doing my part, aren’t I? Where is God?”
My anger temporarily blinds me to God’s many fingerprints that cover my story. Fingerprints that show up in the supports I have that are helping me heal, like therapy and friendships. But this blinding anger is a feeling that arises from some hidden bitter place in my heart, though I know better. My back and forth with PTSD makes me feel like I’m failing. And that makes me angry.
I have a friend that I appreciate and admire so very much. She’s a single mom and is working hard to raise her child to be a responsible and independent person with good character. Day in and day out, she invests every resource she has into this simple, but challenging goal. Yet, understandably, she sometimes gets overwhelmed and frustrated when the same mistakes and setbacks continue to happen again and again. Sometimes, she feels like she’s in this all alone. Sometimes, she feels like she’s failing.
One day, we were talking about a recent episode that brought those negative feelings back to the surface. And I saw something in her situation that I now see is true for me too. There’s a saying that describes it well. It says, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” In other words, she’s in the weeds.
When I look at her child, I see a person who is smart, funny, kind, considerate and well-rounded. In him, I see the totality of her efforts in a singularly beautiful form. I see it all blending and working together in even the simplest things. But I am on the outside, watching her strategic parenting from afar. And she’s too close to the details, too close to every decision, to see the effects they have on the big picture. She doesn’t see that she’s winning.
I realize that it’s true for me and PTSD too. Where I am now with PTSD is not where I was 4 years ago or even last year. Though the uninvited symptoms still show their ugly faces, in the big picture, they have less of a hold on me now than before.
Today, there are fewer episodes with intrusive thoughts. Fewer random flashbacks. Less insomnia. Little to no nightmares. Less anxiety. Less crying myself to sleep. Less stress. Less hopelessness. Less need to be hypervigilant. More confidence. More peace.
In the big picture, where I am now is progress, even if it doesn’t always look like it in the moment. And as difficult as this fight has been, it is exactly because it has been so hard that nothing could ever make me believe that I did any of that fighting on my own. When I take a step back and look at the big picture, I see that I’m winning too, with God’s help.
What about you? What problem has you unable to see the forest for the trees?
It doesn’t matter what I’m doing or where I am. I could be reading quietly or sitting at a table eating amongst friends and, in an instant, I’m transported. The book, the table, the commotion around me withdraws and instead, I am inserted into a vivid, living moment from my past. And usually, it’s a painful one. This is PTSD.
Truly, in the span of a single breath, I have flown backwards through space and time to any one of many scenes that rotate on replay in the ether of my mind. When I arrive, it’s so real that I don’t know that I’ve been anywhere else – there’s no future to speak of, just this moment, right now, and my body makes the shift.
My heartbeat quickens, pounding in my ears. My muscles tighten and my eyes narrow as I am face to face with him, her, it, the experience, again. And I feel the emotion, the same emotion that I felt the very first time, when I lived it.
It flows freely – anger, embarrassment, confusion, hurt or shock. It’s a wave that carries me along through the scene. I speak words in my mind that never make it out of my mouth. I’m trapped.
The pain is my boat, and I can’t get out. I can’t get off. In this repeated scene, I do new things, sometimes no thing, or the same thing. The one thing I never do is leave.
I can’t break away because in this moment, I don’t remember that this isn’t real. In this moment, right now, what I see, what I feel, and this scene is all there is. And it hurts.
When this haunting memory is finished with me, it departs just as quickly as it came. My racing heart is the only trace of its having passed through. My mind clears. I’m back, but I remember where I just came from.
I take deep breaths, in and out, letting the fresh O2 soften the rigidity in my body and slow the pace of my heart. Sometimes, I cry. Maybe just a few tears, sometimes more. It hurts to be dragged back through pain with no rhyme or reason. And it’s hard to explain.
How do you explain what feels like your own mind trying to take you out? How do you make that make sense? How do you make it plain without sounding too intense? This is what it is. And it’s just a regular day. If I told someone my daydreams hurt, they’d run away, afraid they’ll catch what has already caught me. So, I tell no-one. Instead, I pray.
My words speak of contradictions. Devotion and confusion. Praise and questioning. Struggle and surrender. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” flows from my heart, though I promise it’s not what I believe. But it is how I feel. And it comes with hot tears and anguish.
To this Lord that I love and whom I believe loves me my thoughts shout, “I thought you would deliver me … at least by now!” But out of my mouth comes, “Lord God help me,” in a whisper.
I seek God, believing that God IS; believing that I will be rewarded for my pursuit.
I put it all down in my journal, covering the lines and the margins. My words are addressed to all of Heaven and the hand that made it all. I let it all out and allow my tears to stain the pages.
When I am done, I feel a little better; a little lighter. But, tired too. I have no answers, yet somehow, I know that I have been heard. With that knowing comes a little peace and it is enough for now.
With those two little words, my wise, straight-dealing grandmother was telling me that pretending to have no needs, no hurts, and no complaints, wasn’t worth the trouble.
I’m not used to that idea, especially when it comes to me.
What I AM used to is appearing under control at all times. Partly a product of my introverted personality and overly analytical brain, I choose to try to understand a situation before I allow it to engage my emotions.
But truth be told, I have often skipped emotions altogether. More than the result of a deeply analytical personality, it is mainly a maladaptive coping mechanism. It’s something I do to avoid the emotional intensity that often comes with conflict. I had let my emotions take the lead before and the momentary loss of control scared me.
A simple school yard fight, that wasn’t really a fight, is what started it. It was just a little pushing and tussling before it was broken up. Though hot and intense in the moment, when the rage I felt had faded, all I was left with was embarrassment. I had completely lost it and in front of everyone.
I’ve heard it said that depression is rage turned inward and I believe it’s true. Because after that singular experience, I decided that I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone take me there again. I was going to always keep myself completely under control. And because of that decision, my anger, no matter who or what caused it, had nowhere else to go, but back in my direction.
Fast forward to adulthood and the world of work. At work, my need to not lose my cool in difficult situations turned into a warped display of strength. Somehow, not letting other people get under my skin, or even think that they had, became a victory for me. It became a twisted (and prideful) signal of professionalism and “being the bigger person.”
As I found myself increasingly in mostly white spaces, I felt my coolness during conflict stand out in sharp contrast to what I could see was expected…the angry Black woman. I saw the widened eyes and bated breath as people waited for the fireworks to start, complete with snappy insults and the obligatory neck roll.
Well, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s stereotype. I would skip over all the emotion and get to the heart of the matter or ignore it altogether. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was rapidly developing another maladaptive coping mechanism… unamused silence in the face of conflict.
It’s the approach I have taken when faced with micro-aggressions and even blatant racist hatred and sabotage in the workplace.
It’s something that I am realizing that people often mistake for weakness.
In saying “save yourself,” Ma was saying, “to hell with that.” And could I blame her? Nope. But I can’t shake that this somehow feels incomplete to me. Even if I got it all out, what about the hurt part of me? How does that get healed? It’s a question I ask wondering if my grandmother would have an answer.
In her book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce remembers crying in the safety of her office after one too many microaggressions. She wondered why, with all that her grandmother and church mothers had taught her, hadn’t she been taught how to care for herself in these painful moments.
She would eventually learn that she needed to offer herself compassion and kindness, not just a steely resolve to push through. She would realize that it was okay to need, pursue, and receive that loving attention. But what she would also realize was that those skills could not come through her grandmother and co., because they hadn’t known how to give it to themselves. It hadn’t even been an option for them, and you can’t teach what you haven’t been taught. My guess is that it was probably true for my grandmother too.
For the me that I am now, I’m seeing that saving myself must include authentically reacting to what is happening around and to me, without the hang-ups about how others will perceive my words or actions. I must give that freedom back to myself. But I also owe myself another important and related freedom… love.