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.

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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.

Where I See Purple, You See Blue

Perception is a funny thing. It varies so much that it is possible no one ever views anything exactly the same way as anyone else. Where one person sees a cloud in the shape of a sailboat, another might see it in the shape of a puppy or a flower. Two people from two different cultures can look at the exact same color and where one will see purple, the other will see blue. What’s right for one can be wrong for another, and what’s tasty to you may be unsatisfying for me. Perception is born out of the accumulation of experience, and since even twin siblings can encounter different challenges from the moment they are born I hope it is safe to say that that no two perceptions are alike.

This includes our perceptions of other people.

You are walking down a busy city street. Car horns are blaring as soon as lights turn green and citizens bustle around you hurriedly trying to make it to their meetings and lunch dates. The air smells of car fumes and the occasional tree sits up against the edge of the sidewalk to add some color to the grey urban scheme. Every piece of the scenery, every person around you, it has a purpose that you unconsciously take in as you stay true to your long strides toward your destination. But then you pass a man. He sits alone on the sidewalk, his dark eyes weary from a long life and his back pressed against the brick wall of the apartment complex behind him. A gray, scraggly beard falls from his chin, and his clothes are torn and old. Beside him is a tin can, filled with a couple dollars and a few quarters from passerby. He says nothing, and is too tired to raise his eyes and look at the countless people who stroll by without paying him mind.

In the split second it takes you to decide whether or not to add to the collection in the tin can, you will have already made a hundred perceptions about this man. Is he poor? Homeless? Lazy? Unlucky? A drug addict? An alcoholic? Disabled? All of the above? Or none? What is his age? Is the money for himself or someone else? Is he going to use it for food? Surely he could find a job, can’t he? The list goes on and on, and all of the questions are answered in the blink of an eye. Your conclusion drawn from these questions is what will make you decide whether or not to give this man money, and you answer all of them without even asking his name. That is how the human mind works. It is amazing and terrifying, the things we can assume about other people in the time it takes to snap our fingers. Not only that, every conclusion that you make before you either keep walking or drop a dollar is the result of past experience. Every person’s answer to these questions will be different because no two people are the same. Some will give money, but many also won’t, and the reasons they have for doing one or the other will all slightly differ from each other.

To get my point across, this was a more extreme example of the powers of perception. Even more incredible than this though is your perceptions of yourself and how they can differ from others. No on knows you better than you, right? Maybe, but maybe not. In the past where I have seen myself as being helpful, others have seen me as a brown-nose. In the present where I see myself as being selfish, other people furrow their brows and ask me what on Earth I’m talking about. You can spend your whole like identifying yourself one way, and then in that split second someone else can shatter those perceptions. Or something else can happen, they can become even stronger than they were before. That’s the thing about perceptions:  they are stubborn and ours have to be the right ones. I’m pretty? Yeah, okay, no one ever said that until I lost weight. I’m talented? Sure, because this one drawing out of 50 turned out decent. I’m smart? Right, ask my brothers that and they will tell you a different story. I am the daughter of Aristotle and Plato. I like facts, and the facts say that I am not as pretty as her, or as talented as them, or as smart as him. You could be the smartest, most beautiful, and most talented person that God ever had the joy of creating, but if you don’t believe it yourself then it isn’t really true, is it?

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I don’t want replies that say, “But you ARE beautiful and talented and blah blah blah.” They only thing that will get is a polite “thank you” while I go on and continue to see myself my way. No, I’m writing this because even though I don’t think I am the smartest, the most beautiful, or the most talented, I still like myself. I didn’t always, but I learned to, and when I learned to I started to like others as well and I started to see more beauty in the world around me. Perceptions of your world start with your perceptions of you, and you can’t love others until you learn to love yourself.

So where you see a crier, I see sensitivity. Where you see a weak girl, I see a strong woman. Where you see purple, I see blue.

Do what you love, and love what you do

I’ve been asked quite a few times, “What do you do to keep yourself from going crazy?”  My answer to this question is always the same:  “Hobbies.”  After this, the conversation continues in the same way no matter who I am talking to:

“Is there anything you do that makes you feel really at peace with yourself and makes you forget about everything else?”

“No.”

“Everyone has something, you should try to find what works for you.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

This is very simple advice and is easier said than done, but the point that I try to make when a friend asks me this question is deeper.  When I feel overwhelmed with life’s challenges, the only thing that I have found I can do is to escape the stress by diving into activities that make me forget the world.  I’m fortunate to have found more than one such pastime.  Photography may be my favorite, because there is nothing more calming to me than grabbing my camera and walking out into nature (though in times when I am feeling more irritated than overwhelmed it helps more to sit myself in front of my Playstation for a few hours instead).  Passions like these are important.  How are you supposed to enjoy life when you dwell on the negatives?  When you find something that you do for yourself and love so profoundly, it makes life worth all of the irritants.

I’m not saying that you should drop several hundred dollars on a camera and trek out in to the woods, but it is important for you to have something that makes the world stop turning for a few hours, or even just a few minutes.  If you feel as though you do not have a passion that does this for you then maybe you are lucky, because this means you have the universe at your finger tips waiting to be explored.  You never know what it could be that your soul is drawn to, so try everything.  Try cooking, try writing, try running, try carpentry, try playing an instrument, try volunteering, try anything you can think of.  Try everything you’ve always wanted to try and everything that you have never considered.  Not only will you learn more about yourself on the journey, but it is rewarding to find the passion that allows your soul to silence your mind.  When you learn how to let go of your stressors and fill your time with things that move you, you will become a happier person who is more in love with life and with yourself than you thought you could be.  This is my promise to you.