I’ve been making a conscious effort to appear as though I’m maintaining my mental health during the past few weeks. But on Friday, I fell apart. I only got out of bed when my puppy Jasper jumped on top of me insisting I pay attention to him.
Paying attention to Jasper always requires getting out of bed.
The rest of the day, my emotions cycled between anger and despair. I was feeling powerless in almost every aspect of my life. And I hate feeling powerless. I’ve always been someone who believes in dealing with problems instead of ignoring them. But confronting the biggest problems in my life hasn’t been working for me lately.
The impact of the new reality of social distancing due to COVID-19 is only partially to blame. The truth is, I’m struggling with a lot of negativity. One particular situation is getting progressively worse, and I’ve been foiled at every attempt to address it.
I loathe the thought that anyone describes me as helpless, but that is exactly how I was feeling yesterday. And since self pity has always been one of biggest pet peeves, feeling that only made me feel even worse.
So I did everything I could to “snap out” of my funk.
I spoke with a couple of friends who encouraged me. I did my best to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I posted silly photos celebrating National Siblings Day on Facebook. I took a couple of long walks. I ate healthy food and took my vitamins. I sent silly text messages. I reviewed the daily devotion I’d committed to read every day for Lent. And I cried. I cried a lot. And then I got mad at myself for crying.
This morning, I woke up to the sun shining and to Jasper once again jumping on me.This time, he didn’t need to drag me out of bed. I was prepared to face the day even though my circumstances were exactly the same as they were yesterday.
I’d like to say that, through some amazing self talk, I’d been able to improve my attitude. But that would be a lie. Instead, I think I needed a day of self pity and crying before I could move on.
That probably goes against the sage advice of any self-help guru. (I don’t know for sure since I’m as resistant to reading self-help books as I am to giving up, giving in or being deferential to people who don’t earn my respect.)
But yesterday, I was absorbed in self pity. And while it felt horrible and went against the essence of whom I like to believe I am, I think my psyche needed to stop fighting. For at least one day, I needed to put down the boxing gloves and just feel the pain of every punch life has been throwing at me lately.
It’s humbling to admit that, but it’s also liberating. I realize that I wasn’t giving up or giving in. I was just giving myself a break.
Life sometimes sucks, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always fix it. Sometimes we can’t laugh our way out of a bad mood or find the silver lining in the grey clouds. Sometimes we just have to hold on tightly while we ride out the crap storm with the understanding that this too shall pass. And it will pass even though it won’t happen as quickly as we’d like.
In such cases, a little self pity might actually be acceptable.
A few months ago, my daughter performed the song “I’m Breaking Down” at a state thespian competition.
Her song choice wasn’t lost on me. You see, the character who sings that song in the musical The Falsettos is named Trina.
If you’re wondering why the heck my daughter would do that, don’t worry. You’ll soon know more than you ever wanted about my mental health.
On Wednesday night, I was truly breaking down. For a while now, I’ve felt overwhelmed in so many aspects of my life.
Every. Single. Aspect.
Nothing is going as I hoped, and there’s even a scandal making national headlines that’s impacting my job. Fun times.
I’m not throwing a pity party. There are still wonderful elements of my life, like my husband. (I’ll get to him in a minute.)
Let’s just say that, overall, I’m a walking mess. And when I’m a mess, all I want is for everyone else to understand exactly how I feel – even at 3:00 in the morning when I haven’t slept because I’m so angry, frustrated, stressed and just plain pissed off at the world.
(This is where my husband comes back in.)
After speaking only to myself for hours and realizing that my own words were only making me feel worse, I needed someone who would actually reassure me. So I woke my husband up to do that. He wasn’t happy.
In fact, he said something to the effect of “nobody cares.”
With those words, I felt like the whole world was against me.
Or, in the word’s of Trina in The Falsetto’s I was “breaking down.”
I got in my car and drove out of the neighborhood. The cop sitting in the church parking lot across from my neighborhood must have been thrilled to finally see a potential revenue source, because he (she?) pulled out behind me.
My first concern was to check to see if I’d actually thrown on a bra before leaving the house.
And even though I’m pretty certain that going braless while driving isn’t illegal, there might be some people who think it is. So I chose not to push my luck.
To get the cop off my tail, I turned into the nearby hospital parking lot.
That’s when I had a flashback to a few months earlier when I was in severe pain related to degenerative disk disease. I hadn’t slept for about a week and was miserable. I ended up making not one, but two, early morning visits to the Emergency Room. On one visit, to help ease the situation, the doctors gave me a shot of Valium and sent home a few more capsules to help me sleep until my condition improved.
Here’s what I learned about taking Valium:
- I don’t stay up all night being preoccupied, worried and pissed off;
- I don’t get preoccupied, worried and pissed off at all;
- I don’t care if people understand where I’m coming from;
- I can sleep;
- I like it.
As I pulled into that hospital parking lot, the glowing emergency room sign seemed like a welcoming beacon calling me home to an simple solution. And, for just a moment, I considered going in with the same set of complaints I’d had a few months earlier. The thought of not living with my head in a constant state of turmoil was overwhelmingly compelling.
But I didn’t. Instead, I parked in a dark, out of the way spot; I cried; I freaked out a couple of nurses who were sneaking off for an illegal smoke break; and then I headed home with the same set of problems and issues bouncing around in my head.
I honestly don’t know what stopped me from seeking drugs Wednesday night. Not wearing a bra might have had a little bit to do with my choice, but not a lot.
Maybe I’ve had enough experiences in my life to know this too shall pass.
Maybe I know that the consequences wouldn’t justify the immediate relief.
Maybe I am fortunate to have a support system that, while not available at 3:00 in the morning, is still there for me.
Maybe my childhood continues to impact my life well into my fifties.
Maybe I just don’t have the predisposition for drug seeking behavior.
Whatever the reason, here’s what I do know: the gap between maybe and don’t is precariously slim. Literally anyone call fall through it in certain circumstances.
I should know. I almost did.
I am one of those people.
At the same time, I’ve been told that sometimes the behaviors that annoy us most are the ones we revert to when we are at our worst.
I was at my worst this week.
Nothing horrible or life shattering happened. I just had to deal with some difficult and taxing situations at work. By the time I got home each night, I was too exhausted to do much more than complain about how tired and stressed I was.
I deal with people who struggle to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, so I should recognize how fortunate I am to have a warm and safe home to take shelter in each night. I have friends who are struggling with serious health issues, so I should wake up grateful for a (relatively) strong body and mind. I know people who go to jobs in which their only reward is a paycheck, and I should realize that being passionate about my work is more gratifying than any financial reward.
And yet, I forget.
This week I forgot so much and complained so much about my stress that I was even starting to annoy myself.
Which is why, when my cell phone rang at 6:30 on Friday night, I almost didn’t answer it. The caller i.d. showed that a volunteer from my office was trying to reach me, and I thought I had reached maximum capacity for anything work-related. At the same time, the responsible side of my personality (the stronger one that completing despises my whining and self-pitying side) had to answer the phone.
So I answered it, and the call served as a wonderful reminder of why I should be grateful for feeling overwhelmed at times.
The volunteer actually wanted me to speak with his wife, who was also interested in being a volunteer. The couple recently retired in another state and moved to my town to be nearer to their children and grandchildren.
I’d never met the woman who I spoke with on the phone, but on a cold evening in February, she was the only person who was able put my week in perspective.
I initially tried to hurry her off the phone. After confirming when she would come in to discuss volunteer opportunities, I said, “Have a good weekend.”
She wouldn’t let me go that quickly.
“I’m just hoping you can help me,” she said.
That shut me up.
“My mother is 94 years old,” she said. ” That means I likely have 30 years of retirement ahead of me. Everyone tells you that retirement is great. No one tells you that no one values your skills anymore.”
She went on. “I used to take pride in my work. I liked contributing something. I don’t feel as though I’m doing that now.”
I told her I understood.
And I did.
I may complain about all the stress in my life, but that stress means that I’m overwhelmed by demands on my time and talents. That stress means that others depend on me and need me. That stress means that I’m valued and that others recognize how important my contributions are.
In other words, the type of stress I experienced last week is a reflection of what I value most: the ability to make a difference to others.
The woman I talked to on Friday night may or may not decide to be a volunteer at my office. But whether she does or not, she’s already made a difference in my life.
Sometimes, strangers can do that.