The Strength to Be Happy

Even on the brightest days shadows lurk around leery corners. As the sun crosses the afternoon sky the grays creepily grow over lush grass until night arrives and the world is shaded in darkness. This is the best metaphor I can think to describe my slow decent back into anxiety. Lately I have found myself more influenced by the adverse memories of my past than by my dreams for the future, whereas a couple years ago I was a bright and vibrant woman who was coping well with what life threw at her and had big expectations for herself. I remember a time when I was virtually free of anxiety and how I began to take a clear mind for granted. I miss that bliss immensely at times.

Over the past year or so, becoming more aware of newer nervous habits and a rise in panic attacks and other anxiety-related problems, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with myself. Why is this happening to me? I was doing so well, and it is unfair that after working so hard I’m regressing into a nutball. Ever the psychologist, I am always analyzing and discovering new things about myself. It is amazing the things you can learn about your life and habits just by thinking. In the back of my mind though, I know the answer. I had identified my problem a few years ago but never allowed myself to come to terms with it. This blog post, whether it is read or not, is my attempt at trying to understand the pain I was put through and hopefully begin some kind of road to healing. I have never talked about this before, not even with my family or my closest friends, but as my anxiety and stress reach levels that are clearly unhealthy I know I need to, and I know that writing is the only way  will be able to.

Imagine yourself in elementary school when you are still so young and all you want is to make friends, run around, and play in the dirt. Imagine you do make a friend and that person remains as such through the rest of elementary school, middle school, and high school. Somewhere along the line the upgrade to “best friend” is made. You are inseparable. You are known as a pair, an entity, and when one is seen alone it often leads to the question, “Where is the other one?” Imagine late nights, football games, movies, and laughter. Inside jokes, vacations, bad decisions and no secrets. For all intents and purposes it is a perfect friendship.

Now imagine cruel words, power plays, and mocking tones. Imagine that one person that you trusted with everything being the one person sending you home in tears at the end of the day. Imagine every day, for seven years, being made to feel stupid, unpretty, and not good enough. I honestly hope that you can’t imagine it, because it is not a feeling that I would wish on anyone. It isn’t fun to be afraid to be yourself. I didn’t even know who “myself” was until college granted me freedom away from this friend’s judgement.

I often hear the words, “Don’t worry so much” and “Try to relax.” Do you know how hard it is to not worry and to relax when every day for a huge portion of your life everything you did was “wrong”? I am so sensitive to what others are thinking and feeling because for a very long time I was constantly on extremely thin ice, afraid of saying something that might prompt rebuke. I worry about others before myself because, heaven forbid I said or did something to make myself happy, I would be reprimanded. If I said something silly and innocuous it was thrown in my face, and if I didn’t say something because I was afraid of the reaction I’d get I’d be yelled at. Basically I was punished for everything. Good or bad, right or wrong, a big deal or not. To give you an idea, on one occasion I was criticized for the way I drank my water and on another I was admonished for wanting pancakes. I was given the silent treatment for a few days after a birthday because my dad surprised me with tickets to see RENT and at my mother’s funeral I still remember the looks I received from this friend, almost as if the words “Could you stop being so mopey?” were right there ready to drive a knife through my stomach. For a long time following this I pushed people away and didn’t open up about my feelings very much because the thought of being so vulnerable made me feel sick to my stomach. To a point it still does, sitting here typing this I can feel the pit rising. I tip my hat to anyone who can make it through seven years of emotional abuse at the hands of a once trusted companion and not have any scars.

There is one moment I will never forget. In my freshman year of high school myself, this friend, and another mutual friend (who remains my bestie to this day) joined the committee to design and build the Homecoming float. The theme that year was Disney movies, and the freshman class had chosen Beauty and the Beast. This was exciting for me because Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favorite. When I was little I watched it so much that my mom called me “Belle,” a moniker that has since been lost to me and I miss from time to time. While discussing how the group would decide who would play the leading lady, my bestie jokingly leaned over to me and said, “You should be Belle! It’s your nickname anyway!” I smiled and laughed appreciatively, having no intention of actually putting my name in the running. To this, my friend turned and scoffed, “You? Yeah, okay.” It felt like a little dagger had been shoved through my heart. Maybe on its own this doesn’t seem like much, but several similar instances building up every day over several years starts to beat down your psyche. You actually do begin to feel like you’re not good enough. Now I am strong enough to defend myself, or simply not care, but at the delicate teenage age when all you want is acceptance I would take the sticks and stones before the words.

There is one thing I’m sure you’re thinking at this point, “Why did you put up with it? Why didn’t you just end the friendship and leave?” I completely understand why you would ask. I used to wonder the same thing upon hearing similar stories. The best I can say is because you don’t realize what is happening until you are so deep into the situation that you are afraid of the repercussions should you try to break free. It isn’t something that starts suddenly. The first time some unkind words are said you hardly notice. The second time you may think, “Oh, he/she is just having a bad day.” As it goes on you place the blame on other things, like their home life or personal problems. A couple years in you being to crave their approval because you remember when you had a healthy friendship and you want to get back to that place, but despite your efforts to make the person happy things only get worse. I didn’t know that I was actually afraid of my friend until about the sixth or seventh year of this behavior when I found myself deliberately not telling my friend things just to avoid potential criticism. Going into college I couldn’t interact with people because I was afraid of judgement. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized how lucky I was, because I did have some people in my life who would never dream of hurting me and wanted nothing more than to see me smile. It also wasn’t until my sophomore year that I realized what I had tolerated for seven years, and it wasn’t until last night (I graduate college over a year ago now, to give you a reference of time) that it hit me so hard I actually broke down and cried. I’m tired of feeling emotionally restrained because someone else chose to take their pain out on me. I’m tired of feeling dumb, unpretty, and unconfident when I have no reason to and, most of all, I am tired of letting my past define me. I want that strength to forgive and move on. I want the strength to be happy. Maybe this is a good start? Maybe I don’t have to fear the darkness, because dawn is only a few hours away.

Unapologetically You

© Noelle Kraft Photography

© Noelle Kraft Photography

Everyone at some point (or points) in their life goes through a period of re-evaluation. This time is characterized by bouts of self-reflection and critical examination of your deepest thoughts and desires. I, so far, have had exactly three such occurrences.

The first is a rather mundane story. It occurred toward the end of my senior year of high school in the view of an impending graduation. I struggled with the same questions everyone does: Who am I? What am I supposed to be? Did I choose the right university? Is it okay that I want to take a year off before I further my degree? I did take a year off, and to this day I don’t regret it. I heard a lot of the mildly irritating comment, “You know most people who take a year off don’t usually go back to school, right?” However, despite these words ringing in my ears, I never doubted my decision. After all, I know myself best.

The second period of revelation came about during the winter break of my sophomore year of college. It had been about five months since my mother passed away and I was, as anyone would be, feeling lost, confused, and sad. Up until that point I had struggled through college. I tried several different majors to no avail and the added burden of knowing I was running out of general electives was weighing on my mind. I spent the month and a half or so that I was home from school between semesters in deep thought. What am I supposed to do? What would make me happy? I discovered things about myself that I had never known before and still stick with me, all because I took the time to think. I ended up returning for spring semester with a smile on my face and conviction in my heart. The first moment I got I declared psychology as my major and loved it. Is it what I’m doing now? No, but I wouldn’t take it back.

The past few months I have been working through my third stretch of self-discovery. Many people get a little blue during the winter months, but piling on additional stressors this year made it particularly unforgiving for me. Those of you plagued with anxiety will know how dangerous it is to be left alone with your own thoughts, especially during times of mental and emotional strain. It’s something that is difficult to understand if you do not suffer from anxiety, but if one bad little thought enters your mind and you don’t have something to distract you it will begin to fester. The more you think about it the more your mind will begin to blow it out of proportion. Eventually you will know that what you are thinking is crazy and unrealistic, but you can’t make the thoughts go away. The more you try to handle it yourself, the worse it gets. At one point my encumbered mind was so overwhelmed it drove me to cry myself to sleep every night for a week. Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone this. I have the bad habit of pushing people away when I need them the most. I knew that friends would help me feel better, but when I’m upset I’m less likely to talk to people. I don’t even give them the chance to make me smile or laugh, though I know everyone in my life would be more than happy to do so.

But then one day it was gone. All the anxiety and stress and depression I had been fighting left me in one liberating exhale that I still can’t explain. It was like a movie when the rain suddenly stops and the clouds clear away to reveal the bright sunlight. A few days later it tried to creep back in, but with all of the strength I could muster I refused to allow it to consume my mind again. I don’t know what suddenly caused the storms to dispel and I may never will. But if I had to guess, I would say a person. The right person walking into your life at the right time and saying all of the things you never knew you needed to hear can have a stronger impact than either of you realize. The person may never know what they did for me: their words reached me when no one else’s could. They didn’t know I was suffering emotionally and weren’t intentionally trying to brighten my spirits, they were just being themselves and for whatever reason it was exactly what I needed. I could never see them again and still I will never forget them.

Today was the best I’ve felt since December. I hiked with a friend and enjoyed the warmer weather, something so simple but for some reason today was soulful. Today I felt so unapologetically me. Are things perfect? No. But I can handle it. I’ve proven to myself many times that I’m strong and can conquer life’s curve balls. I’m not sure why I ever doubted that.

So here is my advice for the oncoming spring: Be completely, whole-heartedly, and unapologetically you. Help others, live and breathe your passions, smile, and find what makes waking up in the morning worth it.

Omg hai! How R U LOL <3

We are privileged. We live in a world now that even 30 years ago may have seemed like something from science fiction. In fact, the inventor of the mobile phone credits Star Trek’s TOS communicator for giving him the inspiration to create the tiny handheld device (That’s right, guys, you can thank TV for that little rectangle that’s glued to your hand). We can connect with anyone, look up anything, and pretty much experience the entire world without leaving our bed. The technological advancements that we have made are mind blowing – covering everything from daily activities to space exploration to medical equipment. If you haven’t taken the time to appreciate all of the years of hard work and scientific breakthroughs that have gone into creating that little piece of technology that you use to look up cat videos and take selfies you really should. It’s safe to say, I think, that we are pretty lucky to live in today’s world. Indoor plumbing, heating, tech out the wazoo, but what has this done to us?

I’m sure we have all had this experience:  you are hanging out with a friend and start to become frustrated when they won’t put their phone down. I’ve been guilty of it, every one of my friends has been guilty of it, but if it’s so annoying then why do we continue to do it? Why are those bright little screens so addicting, and why are they more important than preserving the beauty of making a personal connection? The greatest moments I’ve shared with people have not been through a text message, but instead came from the laughter of two individuals growing in friendship. Technology has single-handedly stolen from us what makes us human: intimacy.

Think about it. There is a level of connection that humans reach which cannot be achieved by any other creature. Your cat cannot tell you when she wants to be when she grows up, and two butterflies can’t confide in each other their deepest secrets. What makes us different is our ability to relate and empathize, to understand and sympathize – to be intimate with someone (Just to clarify, I don’t say “intimacy” to refer to what happens between the sheets. But you knew that. I think? Yes.).

The loss of intimacy that has resulted from technology is scary enough when you think about it, but even more terrifying is the assimilation that has been caused by it. I call to your attention:

“The Basic White Girl.”

I’ll bet the second you read that a mental image appeared in your head. It is probably something along the lines of a bleached blonde who tanned a little too and is long sitting with her friend outside of a coffee shop. There is some combination of UGGs, leggings, and North Faces going on there, and there are definitely pumpkin spiced lattes. They are both on their phones while holding a conversation that is full of annoying laughs, “Oh my God,” and “I can’t even.” Am I right? If I’m not then I’m probably close.

Technology has made it so easy to connect with people that it makes it even easier to lose your individuality. When you can constantly keep in touch with people at every hour of the day, doesn’t it make sense that you would begin to think and act more like each other? That little phrase that I am constantly hearing from men “All girls are the same!” is starting to make sense now, isn’t it?

Speaking of men, aren’t all guys the same, too? That’s what I hear, anyway. Of course, it isn’t true. Just like all girls aren’t the same. But along the way there may have been some morally-loose men that made friends (it happens), and then those friends made friends (which also happens), etc. That morally-loose quality is not solely spread by technology, but technology is a conductor. Think of college, for instance:  Morally-loose Johnny texts bookworm Ronny to come to a party. Ronny refuses on account of there being a test in the morning, but after some not-so-gentle prodding from Johnny he gives in and decides to forgo his studies. At the party he has fun, drinks, meets Basic White Girl, maybe gets lucky, and is praised in his endeavors in texts the next day from Johnny who says, “Good job, bro! That chick was so hot!” Next time Ronny is asked to go to a party, he might be more inclined to because of this positive reinforcement. Every time Ronny goes out he is praised by Johnny, and the next thing you know he is partying with the best of them. And you know what? Eventually Ronny will find a new friend and the trend will continue.

Assimilation isn’t always a problem, right? Of course not. It feels good to be liked. It feels good to fit in. I’m not condemning it in the slightest, but it occasionally has unfortunate outcomes. There is a different matter that is a bigger problem than this, however, and that is objectification. Not just of women, but of men as well (since people seem to forget that it is a two-way street). With the world online now it isn’t hard to find something to get your libido humming with just a few keystrokes. There are a million and one ways this is damaging that I can go into, but that might be for another blog post. My point is, technology makes it so easy to find a sexual conquest and even easier to be rewarded for it. But when did getting to know a woman’s body become more important than getting to know her mind? When did “sexy” and “hot” become interchangeable with “beautiful” and “handsome”? I’ll admit, some guys are very nice to look at. Any girl who says otherwise is lying. But I have never been more attracted to a man than when he is talking to me about the things he is passionate about. Do you know what is most alluring in a person? Individuality. Passion. Ambition. Intellect. Talent.

All of the things that you can miss when you are looking at your phone.

When One Door Closes…

There’s something incredible that happens as you get older. At first aging may seem like a cage that gets smaller each time you pass another year, trapping you in the prison of shortening time and making you feel suffocated. To an extent this feeling never completely goes away, but with the oncoming of maturity also comes emotional liberation.

As children we are not ready for this experience. Childhood is meant for fun and exploration, naivete and learning our limits, and discovering the differences between right and wrong. The journey to this feeling of freedom begins in our adolescence at the first moment we start wondering what other people are thinking when they look at us. In its youth, this feeling seems like a fairytale. Around the time a pre-teen sets out on the awkward road of physical changes and self-discovery they are entirely self-centered and obsessed with fitting in. There are some people who may refute this, and to an extent everyone’s experience is subjective, but at the same time every person has the deeply-rooted need to be liked. As a teenager this need is your world. It isn’t anyone’s fault, it is a right of passage and a burden we must carry as we make our way to adulthood. You will say things that you don’t believe in order to make your friends like you, hold your tongue to avoid “tattling” on people that you want to fit in with, set aside activities that seem childish or uncool, and at some point you will say those words that every parent dreads hearing, “I don’t tell you everything that happens in my life anymore.”

Everyone hates this stage. Siblings, parents, strangers in the mall, and probably even you. I’ll admit that I think back to my teenage years sometimes and roll my eyes at myself. However, things start to change a little bit around the age of 18. Instead of wanting to fit in, you want good company. You desire to surround yourself with people that you like so that you have the option of actually being yourself. You are finishing high school and moving onward to college (or work, etc.) and maybe subconsciously you start to realize that the high school drama that you used to keep yourself in the center of now begins to feel like a waste of time and energy? You break out the classic Disney movies and reminisce about your childhood, then the next day at school aren’t afraid to say to your friends, “I watched The Lion King last night for the first time in years, I cried so hard!” Somewhere along the line the word No becomes okay to say if you are protecting your own well-being, and while your parents might still be embarrassing on some level you are starting to feel like enough of an adult to talk to them as an equal.

The next four years or so welcome forth affective autonomy. Your life changes drastically after high school whether you go to college or not:  more freedom, new friends, more responsibility, etc. There comes a moment amongst all of this change and turmoil where you realize that you no longer care. I don’t mean this in a bad way, rather I mean that the idea that others are always watching and judging you no longer bears a weight on your mind. You begin to do things you want to do because you want to do them. You start to learn and appreciate new things, make friends with incredible people you never imagined meeting, and when you get dressed in the morning you put on clothes that make you feel good rather than clothes that will make others like you. Your relationships turn into quality friendships, and you start to understand that petty drama and fake personalities are not something that you have time or space for. It is along with all of this that you also begin to feel that quality really is better than quantity, and that you will be a happier person in the long run by allowing people in your life that you want there and ignoring those that poison your mind.

This is the path I’ve traveled over the last 10 years of my life. Now when I think back to my awkward teen years I sigh and wonder why it was ever worth it for me to care so much. I’ve learned that it’s okay that I like both shopping and football, baking and playing The Legend of Zelda, doing my hair and bing-watching Netflix in my pjs while eating cookies out of my TARDIS cookie jar, and being girly around some people and nerdy around others. Even more amazing is that this liberation gives you the energy to learn things about yourself you never even thought about before. For instance, only recently did I realize how picky I am about the people I let into my life. I can tell within couple minutes of talking to someone for the first time whether a friendship with them is a good idea, and if I decide that I want a person around I will fight to keep their friendship and I will give them everything I can. This revelation is something that I never would have come across when I was 16, but learning about it now has allowed me to strengthen preexisting and new relationships.

There is a point to this whole story. As a teenager your eyesight is so narrow it seems like high school is all there is and ever will be. After you leave you realize how big and amazing the world really is, and how worth it it is to get through those difficult years so you have the opportunity to make your reality something wonderful. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by good people in middle school and high school that made it a relatively good experience for me, but there are other people who aren’t so lucky. Those people are who I am talking to today. High school isn’t everything. Whatever else it is that is holding you down isn’t everything. The world is so much bigger, so much wilder and so much more invigorating. Maybe it is hard now, but it gets better, and after are you are free from those chains you have the ability to make your life what you want it to be. I waited longer than I would have wanted to to make this realization, don’t make the same mistake. Think about this now. Revisit old hobbies, make a list of new things you want to try and places you want to go, have all of this ready so the day you feel that door open you can step through with a smile make the most of it.