Thinking: A Dangerous Habit.

I saw the tweet and it woke up the central cynic system of my brain: “Find three good things to look forward to this year.”

Don’t get me wrong–I am usually a fan of the Action for Happiness group. The work they do is important and helpful. I have their app and every afternoon my watch buzzes with a reminder to be gentler with myself, with others, to look for good instead of dwelling on the awful.

But the call to action on January 1, 2021 was too much. And yet, I stewed over it all morning.

“Three good things,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not a fortune teller. I have no trips planned. I have no life planned. And so little changes in my life from year to year anyway. Look forward to…what the hell.”

Last year? I had tons to look forward to. Trips, musicals, dinners, time with friends all over the country. It still hurts to think about the lost trips sometimes–there was about a 70% chance I was going to ride along in an RV with my sister and niece from Alaska to the lower 48. I actually mustered up the radical self-care to use two personal days and planned a trip to New York to see friends and museums. Two months into 2020, another friend snagged tickets for “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center, and I started planning a summer DC/New York trip.

Three things I looked forward to in 2020. Three things that never happened.

So I hope it’s understandable that my initial reaction to AFH’s initial 2021 task sent me into a bit of cynical rage. Why look forward to things that probably won’t even happen? Isn’t that a recipe for disappointment and depression? But the longer I stewed, something changed.

(As Stueve says, thinking is a dangerous habit.)

What if the three things I look forward to in 2021 aren’t exactly…things? Or events? What if the things to look forward to are more ethereal, more abstract?

Can I look forward to a deeper practice of grace–not only toward other people, but also toward myself?

Can I look forward to a continued minimizing and organizing of my life–possessions, apps–toward a maximizing of spending my time and resources purposefully?

Can I look forward to my to-read pile of books, my to-see list of films, my to-listen-to Friday Morning Soundtracks?

For many, January 1, 2021 is fraught for a variety of reasons. The panic from facing a blank slate of the coming year. The collective trauma from what we, humanity, have witnessed the past year. The pressure to change and mold ourselves into someone that–let’s be real–might only serve the people profiting off what we purchase to make those changes.

If you are feeling any of that, I understand and am holding space for you to feel and process as you need. And if and when you are ready to consider finding even one thing to look forward to this year, maybe move from the concrete to the abstract and see if that helps.

It’s worth a try. You are worth the try.

Happy New Year.

Sooooo…whatcha doin’?

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Sunday night, I pulled out a notebook and wrote at the top of a page, “What is a sustainable routine?”

I need routines as part of my cognitive behavior therapy so teaching high school is actually a really great place for me, what with a bell schedule telling me what to do at what time, including eating lunch.

But what do I do when I don’t have a bell schedule or students?

I sketched out a possible sustainable routine on that piece of paper Sunday night, and adhered to about half of it yesterday. Today, not at all.

It’s not like I’m lacking for things to do; I have plenty of options. So. Many. Options. And maybe that’s part of the problem–the “paradox of choice.” Maybe limiting my options is a good step.

Or maybe what I need to do is take a step back for a day or two, breathe, give myself some time and grace to adapt to the current situation.

I go through something similar every summer–when the school year ends and my routine is taken away, it takes me about two weeks to recalibrate and find an acceptable balance. But I always know that it’s coming–May 1 hits, and I start thinking about summer contingency plans to manage my mental health.

This particular moment though? I saw it coming, but the same way I see summer storms–off in the distance with a chance that it might break to the north and miss me completely. Except this storm hit.

I’m not throwing out my Sunday scrawlings just yet–I think I created a manageable system for when I am ready for it to take hold.

My point is this: if you too are feeling unmoored, maybe even guilty for not creating a routinized life for yourself or your family, take a breath. We’ve not been here before. As my friend Matt keeps reminding me, “There is no playbook for this.”

And if you can’t give yourself a little patience or grace right now, contact me. I’ll give you some of mine.

Be Aware of Your Default.

I came home from school today with a list of 10 things I needed/wanted to do, and here I am, five hours later and dizzy from an evening of tracking what feels like a million news cycles, still with that list of 10 things staring me in the face.

There’s so much we don’t know right now, and whenever we don’t know something, the default reactions tend to not be so positive. Fear. Anger. Hate.

Image result for fear anger hate dark side gif

The whole principle of default is that it’s easy. It’s comfortable. It’s what we are used to. But I think right now, as hard as it might be, we need to work on switching our default.

To be clear: I am a firm believer in listening to county and state health departments and following their recommendations. Hand washing, self-quarantining when asked, and yes, bigger things like canceling events that we might have been looking forward to. All of those things (except maybe the hand washing) make me a little bit angry. But you see what Yoda says about anger.

So how to switch the default? In addition to the measures we might need to take for safeguarding our physical health, we need to also safeguard our mental health. How does that happen in an uncertain time like this? I have a couple of ideas.

  1. Reach out to people over email, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, whatever. Catch up with someone you’ve been neglecting. Check in on other humans. Do not forget other humans. If you’re able to, look at their faces and hear their voices. Text if you must, but if you can, connect visually.
  2. Create something. Write poems, write songs, write a book, read a book, make music, draw stick figures on the back of an envelope, pick up a Frozen 2 coloring book and splurge on the 64-pack of Crayolas the next time you venture out.
  3. Meditate. Oh my goodness, meditate. MEDITATE. Maybe even try some yoga. I hear Yoga with Adriene on YouTube is really fantastic.
  4. Donate money, if you are able, to organizations in your community that will need resources, since giving your time might not be possible. Fun fact: food banks can do more with your money than they can with your cans and boxes of food.
  5. Laugh with the people you can laugh with. Send memes, gifs, TikToks, watch Parks and Rec (for the 20th time), but for the love of all that is holy, don’t forget to laugh. This is probably hardest because of the fear and uncertainty. Don’t make light of the gravity of the situation, but I’m certain that every day I can find something to make me and my loved ones laugh.
  6. Attack that to-do list that you ignore because “life keeps happening.” Even if it’s something small like wiping down your baseboards (something that I hate doing but I also hate looking at the dust buildup), pick a task or two that will give you a sense of satisfaction.

These feel like such scary, uncertain times. And though he is fictional, I believe Yoda when he says hate leads to suffering. No matter the fear or anger you might feel right now, don’t let it lead to hate and suffering. Inoculate yourself against that, in whatever way works best for you.

Might I suggest a Star Wars marathon?

January is more than half over, or how to get past New Year Failures

As many people do at the beginning of the year, I reflected a bit on what I wanted to accomplish in 2020. I’ve been listening to Kate Hanley’s podcast and her New Year’s episodes offered such a different approach to goal setting as a year starts that I decided to try it.

One suggestion Hanley offered in an episode was to routinely check in with what plans you make on Jan. 1. That doesn’t seem like an extraordinary task, but it’s one that I haven’t really employed, well, ever. So I set an event in my calendar to check in every Sunday night. The first Sunday, I was proud of my dedication.

This Sunday, not so much. So I did something fairly revolutionary, and something I think Hanley would approve of (not that I need her approval, but you know what I mean): I reassessed.

I took a good 30 minutes and read everything I wrote those first days of January. I reflected as to whether they were truly sustainable actions. I felt pretty good about two actionable tasks, less good about the others. I thought, what do I really *need* in order to have a more peaceful life? Because at the end of the day, that’s what I want 2020 to be about.

I narrowed down to three things I need to do daily. But then I realized that keeping those three things in my phone or in my journal won’t help me when I come home from rehearsal, completely wiped out, or from school, completed brain dead.

So I did something uncharacteristic: I used fancy post-it notes that I reserve for other people, and used them for me. I put them in places I’ll see when I get home, and thanks to the fabulous Emily McDowell, I also get a nice little positive message at the top of each note.

So if, like me, you woke up this morning and realized that January is nearly over and you’ve already given up on something you set out to accomplish Jan. 1, let me offer this gentle advice: reassess. Don’t berate yourself, and don’t give up. Adjust. And if you can, make yourself concrete reminders, instead of leaving those plans languishing in your Notes app or a journal. Whether it’s Jan. 1 or 20 or the end of September, you can always reassess and adjust.

Punctuation matters…notice how the connotation changes based on the punctuation. #GrammarNerd

Hang in there…

If you or someone you know is in need of immediate mental health assistance, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

A year ago, I was quite sick. I didn’t want to admit to anyone how sick I was, including myself, and it wasn’t until I almost drove myself to the hospital that I realized how sick I was.

As I was stopped at a red light, deciding whether to turn left and drive home or go straight and drive to the hospital, I knew I needed more consistent care.

Every other time I’d gone to therapy, I realized, it was for an acute, immediate need. And once that need seemed to resolve, I’d shake hands with the therapist that helped me survive, and move on, never addressing the larger issues at play with my depression.

Somehow, (friends, family) I got through the one-two punch of holidays and the musical, and once the show closed, I set about finding a therapist that would treat me for the long haul.

Last night before I went to bed, I looked around my home. No dishes in the sink. No clutter on my dining room table. Blankets on my couches neatly draped. Laundry washed, dried, folded and put away.

I thought about this time last year, and while I was never living in squalor, I wasn’t taking care of a lot of small things that add up to making a big difference in my quality of life.

I hate doing almost all of those things.

So in the spirit of this post that has gone somewhat viral off and on for the past couple of years, I present you with:

A List Of Things I Hate Doing But Do Anyway Because They Help Keep Me Alive (not-comprehensive).

  1. Using a meditation app morning and night.
  2. Doing my dishes every evening.
  3. Creating daily to-do lists of 5-7 tasks, and completing all tasks.
  4. Planning all meals a month at a time.
  5. Meal prepping on Sundays.
  6. Budgeting once a week.
  7. Putting away my shoes every night.
  8. Only spend two nights a week at home.
  9. Forgiving myself for creating lists that aren’t in multiples of 5

Holidays are hard. Life is hard. And when I look back on the past decade, one triumph is our collective culture’s admission that talking about mental health helps to destigmatize it. It’s easy for me to write posts like this; it’s harder to click ‘publish.’

But I’m publishing anyway, because right now, at 8:05 p.m. on a Friday night five days before Christmas, I don’t feel like I want to die. Despite this year’s heartbreak, despite major personal shifts, despite not accomplishing everything I wanted to this year (and decade), I’m feeling okay.

But I know someone in this world might not be feeling okay. And I guess I hope that this, or some other brave writer’s work, finds its way to that someone, and that they hang on for one more second, one more minute, one more hour, until those time segments become days and weeks and years.

For a great podcast doing excellent work to destigmatize mental illness, check out The Hilarious World of Depression.