The Winter of My Discontent

I’m sitting in my living room with the sun streaming through the window. It feels warm on my face and I close my eyes in an effort to take it in fully, soak it up, hold onto it. This is a rare moment of peace these days. A moment when it feels like things are going to be okay. There’s room to breath. The sun is shining…all is well in the world.

This has been—and may continue to be—‘the winter of my discontent.’ (I’m sure Shakespeare will be cool with me borrowing that line from “Richard III”.) But for those of us on the positive thinking track, it appears negative, ungrateful, destructive. Many days I have shut myself off from the world believing I should feel better. Other times I’ve written about it and then felt guilty for focusing on it. Truthfully I’m just trying to learn how to navigate—an ultimately accept—this is a part of my life.

As early as middle school I can remember having these feelings—fear, anxiety, depression–and wondering what was wrong with me. In my 20s and 30s I took anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications to quell the thoughts and feelings that seemed too dark to face. But taking medication to ‘fix’ the problem left me feeling like there was something wrong with me. So I stopped. It’s been almost 14 years since I used those drugs to get through the difficult times.

But something else has happened; something more insidious than the low moods themselves. Over the years and in the reading of self-help books too numerous to count, I am back to believing there is something wrong with me; that I need to be fixed.

I do believe positive thinking can be vey helpful. I’ve seen it in my own life. But the downside of taking positive thinking too far is that when I’m feeling angry, fearful, frustrated, or sad, I beat myself up. Mentally and emotionally I kick my own ass. And I gotta tell you…it’s exhausting!

What do we say to someone who’s feeling down? “I hope you feel better soon,” right? Because we believe (myself included) that ‘feeling better’ is the goal. But what if ‘better’ is part of the continuum between suffering and joy? Neither one of those states is superior to the other. They are equal participants in the human condition. What if we could say instead, “I love you no matter how you feel and I’m here if you need someone to listen”? What if we (and by we I mean I) could be more accepting? Especially of those feelings that are uncomfortable to us.

Moods are just like the tides…they follow nature’s rhythm. Sometimes they’re high, sometimes they’re low. But you don’t think there’s something wrong with the ocean just because the tide is out. And if it feels like it’s been low tide for far too long, don’t worry. High tide will return when it’s supposed to. In the meantime, think of all the treasures there are to discover when the tide is out—seashells, creatures of all kinds, the occasional message in a bottle.

The treasure I have found is writing.

Writing, for me, has become a way to talk about the things I don’t really know how to deal with. It’s also my way of finding ‘my people.’ Not as a vehicle to commiserate or feel sorry for myself. But just to feel heard and understood. This is how I can do something constructive with what I’ve learned; how I can help those who have similar struggles and feel like no one understands them. I write about my life to say, “I get you…and there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Like me, you may be sensitive and not realize it, feel things more deeply than other people and not know why. That’s okay. Really.

For most of my life I’ve tried to understand what I thought was wrong with me so I could fix it and be like other people I’ve admired. But now I’m taking a different approach. I’m learning to find more acceptance and love for myself. To be honest about what I’m feeling or thinking and not force it to be any different. To realize this is the way I am and I don’t need to apologize for it. It might not always be pretty or seem ‘in control’, and that’s just fine.

The irony is in accepting the parts of myself I’ve worked so diligently to fix, I realize more and more there was nothing wrong with me to begin with. And in the wise words of The Beatles…I’m learning to “Let it be.”

**This post is in memory of Debbie Ford who taught me to accept all of me…the good and the bad, the light and the dark. She believed our gifts are in the shadows. And it is only in accepting the whole of who we are that we will really become all that we are meant to be. I am forever grateful for that lesson and for the many other ways she changed my life. Wherever you are, Debbie, I hope you realize the impact you have made on the world. But most of all I hope you know how much you are loved.**


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What If Anxiety Is the Messenger?

I woke up feeling anxious today. Again. This is not something new. Anxiety and I are old friends. And though it’s been away for a while, it seems to have come back for an extended visit. It is not a welcome guest.

I did what I so often do in this situation…I pulled the covers over my head and tried to sleep. It’s an old habit. But ignoring anxiety does not make it go away. Neither does staying busy, eating, watching TV, exercising, shopping…or any number of things I’ve done over the years to try to numb those feelings. Oh sure, any one of those things can distract me from my racing heart or that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach…for the moment. But nothing takes away the anxiety. Believe me…I’ve tried.

I am somewhat of an expert on this subject. I can remember having these feelings as far back as junior high school. I was often anxious, worrisome, fearful. As a child I was afraid of growing up, growing old, dying. As I got older I worried about doing well in school, getting in trouble, making a fool of myself. Even now I fear making a mistake, upsetting someone, not being good enough.

Off and on in my 20s and 30s I took medication to control my anxiety. I believed there was something wrong with me that medication could fix. If I could just stop the anxiety, I would be fine, right? But I began to wonder, what if anxiety isn’t the problem? In the last several years, I have realized anxiety is the symptom of something deeper. And I have recently begun to consider those feelings serve a purpose I haven’t been willing to acknowledge before now.

What would you do if the smoke alarm in your house went off? I’m not talking about when it goes off because you were burning dinner or you lit a fire without opening the damper (not that this has ever happened to me). I mean, if it woke you in the middle of the night from a dead sleep. Would your first reaction be to take the batteries out so it would stop making noise? Would you put a pillow over your head and go back to sleep? Or would you realize it was a warning that something was on fire? At the very least common sense tells you to check it out first, right?

Anxiety, or any other ‘negative’ emotion, is like your own internal alarm system. It’s factory installed to let you know when you’re doing something that’s not in your own best interest. Or when you’re not taking good care of yourself. Or when you’re ignoring that child inside you who just wants your attention. Whether the fear is real, or imagined, or based on a belief you have from your past, it is still trying to tell you something. I have not been a good listener.

Yesterday I woke up in a panic. Heart racing, shortness of breath kind of panic. This week my company was closed and as usual, I had a long list of things I wanted to accomplish during my time off work. But, as so often happens, I have lacked the motivation to do much of anything.

I often feel like being productive and checking things off my list is time well spent. While I get down on myself if I’m relaxing, reflecting…just doing nothing. I know myself well enough to know I need my down time, but by society’s standards, it just doesn’t feel productive. And I continue to buy into that. I have long held the belief that if I could just get it all together, I could relax. If my house is clean and the laundry’s done and I’ve exercised and paid the bills and gone grocery shopping and gotten organized…then I deserve to relax. Then I could actually enjoy it.

But is that really true? Am I ever going to get to the point of crossing everything off my to do list? Unlikely.

Recently there have been two sides to anxiety. One is the fear that if I don’t accomplish everything on my list while I’m off work and have the time, I’ll kick myself later. The other is I have a very demanding job and am exhausted. I don’t want to push myself during my time off the way I have to push myself at work. It’s a double-edged sword and it seems no matter which one I choose, I can’t win. But what if, instead of trying to figure out what to do, I just listened to that anxiety and what it is here to teach me?

If anxiety is the messenger, then maybe the message is to let go of perfectionism. Be okay with being wrong, making mistakes, not getting everything done, being lazy. To slow down. Stop for a moment. Just be.

I have been so busy with work and the holidays, I have gotten away from my daily meditation practice. Those few minutes each day help calm and center me, but it’s the first thing that goes when I feel like my time is limited. Maybe anxiety is reminding me to get back to that. Maybe all there is to do right now is stop fighting these feelings and just settle into them. To be still for fifteen minutes and listen. Just listen.

While I don’t like it, I know there is a purpose for anxiety and that getting rid of it, doesn’t solve the problem. Anxiety is the teacher. And little by little I’m learning the lesson.