Willoughwaves

Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.

He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.

The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.

There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.

Willoughby hugs

If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.

~

For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”

It’s not real.

But it’s a story worth imagining.

And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”

Willoughby greetings

When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.

But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?

Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.

But it actually doesn’t work that way.

The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.

Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.

Willoughby holidays

I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.

And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?

Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”

But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.

Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.

The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.

Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.

And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.

So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.

And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.

At least for me. So maybe for you?

Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.

Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.

~

Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.

Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.

In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.

In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.

It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.

Because some things are too scary. Too awful.

But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.

So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?

One last Willoughby adventure

My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.

What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?

My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.

Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.

It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.

And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.

And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.

Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.

I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.

This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.

He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.

I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.

Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.

~

Willoughby memories

I don’t know if either of these will help you.

Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;

And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.

But they’ve helped me immensely.

So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.

The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.

Do you show up for your grief?

Willoughby love

~

P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:

~

It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!

“Will I ever get better?” can be a dangerous question

Will I be ever be able to get over my anxiety?

Will the back pain ever go away?

Will I beat this addiction once and for all?

Will not having a family ever stop hurting?

Will I ever get past this struggle?

Will I ever recover?

Will I ever be healed?

I think when we identify a problem–a struggle, an injury, a trauma–that moment we realize that a little thing has turned into a big thing, and it is taking its toll on us, and we just really want it to go away–all the way away–we immediately pose a question:

Will it ever get better?

Is there a cure?

Or am I stuck with this forever?

And I’m wondering now if that is a helpful question to answer, or even to ask.

Realistically, we won’t know the answer until we’re looking back on it.

Wondering, hoping, demanding, pleading for our lives or bodies or minds or hearts to “go back” to pre-struggle/pre-trauma . . . I actually think this gets us pretty stuck.

“[The Buddha’s teaching, ‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine,’] is saying that it is our attachment to the thoughts we have of who we are that may be the impediment to living life fully, and a stubborn obstacle to any realization of who and what we actually are, and of what is important, and possible. It may be that in clinging to our self-referential ways of seeing and being, to the parts of speech we call the personal pronouns, I, me, and mine, we sustain the unexamined habit of grasping and clinging to what is not fundamental, all the while missing or forgetting what is.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses

I’ve heard that anxiety is what happens when you can’t live in the present moment–can’t just be where you are–obsessing, instead, over the daunting future.

Will I ever feel better?

The problem is, we can’t really answer the “will-I-ever” questions. The future has a tendency to do its own thing.

When we subconsciously tie our happiness and identity to “getting over” a thing, “healing,” “getting past,” we map ourselves a depressing journey.

Life before healing, fixing, getting-back . . . the now life doesn’t really count. We’re not living for now. This now sucks. I’m not supposed to feel like this. This isn’t the real me.

The days fly by as we wish them away, insisting on a “better” future to restart our living.

And as that future doesn’t come, we sink deeper into the “why”s and “if”s.

Why isn’t it getting better?

Why am I stuck here?

If I were more committed, maybe I could heal this pain.

If I weren’t so sensitive, maybe I could get over that loss.

If I had more faith . . .

If I weren’t so negative . . .

Maybe it’s you.

Yeah, maybe this is on you.

Maybe you should be better by now.

Maybe a stronger person, a better person, a cooler person, one of “those” people would’ve healed. Probably.

It’s you.

After all these years, you’re still the you that you hate.

You clearly suck at healing.

You can’t.

You blame yourself.

You feel angry with yourself.

Or if not quite anger, something along the lines of “No, Self, I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.”

I think the question “will this ever go all the way away?”–a question that only life itself as it plays out can answer, not all the guessing or hoping in the world–I think it’s a question that isn’t fair to put on ourselves. It can get us stuck in self-hurt, self-rejection, self-blame–as we push pause on our self-love and aliveness, because we can’t accept this struggling or hurting version of ourselves.

I think dwelling on that big question tends to dizzily swing us back and forth between determination and depression. “I MUST beat this” means that as long as I haven’t, I’m not good enough. And who wants to show up for a not-good-enough life?

If you look up a definition for “depression,” only half of it talks about feeling sad. That’s the half everyone knows about. The other half has nothing to do with feeling sad. The other half is about losing interest. Losing interest in activities, your life, the things you love. It all sort of stops mattering. None of it works anymore. None of it helps. None of it feels. None of it is good anymore. Nothing. Just nothing.

Depression is a complicated world, one that can’t be summed up in a 1465-word blog post. But if this “Will I ever get better?” cycle sounds familiar, I’d encourage you to consider what it does to your interest in your own life. Like your now life, not the life you think you are supposed to get to someday. Now. The you with back pain. The you that relapses. The you that suffers panic attacks. Not your “will-I-ever” you, the today you.

If your core objective in life is to become so fixed and healed and rescued that you don’t struggle anymore with the stuff you’re struggling with now . . . then each today becomes very uninteresting as you live for next-year-(if-I’m-better-by-then).

You may start passing up on activities and opportunities you used to do, because they sort of hurt and that makes you think about your struggle and that is no fun, so you’ll get back to them once you’ve beaten this.

You may find yourself opting for bed instead, more and more frequently, because that thing doesn’t feel as good while you’re in pain.

And the emotional toll from repeatedly giving it a shot, hoping that this time it will be like it used to, and then realizing no, it’s not, and maybe never will be . . . it’s exhausting.

Exhausting.

Desperately needing to be a different person is exhausting.

Disappointing.

Depressing.

Paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s explanation of the Buddha’s teaching: Clinging to our vision of who we’re supposed to be can frustrate and numb us–keep us from appreciating who we are today.

The good news is that it’s surprisingly helpful to finally admit: “Maybe this struggle is here to stay.” “Maybe I’ll always experience some pain.” “Maybe I’ll never fully be over this.” “Maybe there’s nothing I could do to fix it.”

First of all, when we stop fearfully trying to predict the permanence of something, we may find it’s grip will loosen a little. Like, not that it’s all in your head–but there’s nothing quite like “Maybe this will kill me!” to keep you hopelessly stuck in it, even when it could have improved.

But perhaps more importantly, if it really isn’t going to get better–and it really might not–admitting that this may be the rest of your life is quite freeing, in a strange way. Self-compassion starts making sense. It really is heart-breaking that you’re feeling this pain or struggling with this thing. Goodness knows you’ve tried to fix it, but it still hurts, and maybe it always will. Maybe it’s not all your fault. You don’t need blame here, you deserve support. Love. Self-care. Understanding. Acceptance. Maybe a little hug from yourself.

And as you accept today’s real you, you get to redirect your “I-can’t-do-this-life” energy into “how-can-I-do-this-life?” energy. Stop rejecting, start learning to live with, live through, live fully as the real you. Being present with yourself. Showing up for and as yourself.

What regular treatment would it take to keep doing things that I love?

Who do I need to have on my team so I can live a good life despite these impulses?

What do I want to experience in life while I carry this struggle by my side?

How often would I like to show up now even though I’m sad?

What could a beautiful, fulfilling life look like now?

Most things aren’t a death sentence–but if we decide that we absolutely can’t live with them, they sort of are.

I’m not saying that it won’t ever get better, get healed, get fixed, get corrected, that you’ll never move on, that the struggle will never be a thing of the past. Again–maybe step one in the possibility of healing is letting go of the fear and rejection. Maybe it will get better. Maybe. Maybe.

But real-big-maybe, it won’t.

So what if you gave yourself permission to be the you-with-the-thing? The you that feels that pain, that struggle?

What if you could just accept your today self, for today?

What if you stopped fighting who you are?

What if instead you loved and supported who you are?

Would that be better?

Could you give it a try?

Who knows what will happen tomorrow or next year . . .

So can you stop waiting for your life to count again?

Can you accept yourself and vibrantly be who you are now?

~

Thanks for reading! Wishing you all the self-acceptance and self-love in the world on your journey! If I can share the journey with you, throw your email below. :)

But is it REALLY okay?

#makeitok is a hashtag for those of us who want to end the stigma around mental illness. For those of us who want talking about and attending to mental health to be a normal, accepted, an “ok” part of life.

In the last few years I’ve been really impressed by the differences in the shapes and sizes of the bodies in advertising. Even cellulite is allowed now, officially.

All kinds of things that were once sort of taboo to talk about, or seen as disappointing or embarrassing, have become very widely accepted and even celebrated.

You are you, and that is okay.

That is our official policy.

And we will even design some advertising around it.

And post on Instagram about it.

. . .

I don’t actually think this is all posturing. I actually feel really hopeful about all this change.

But I do wonder, if we’re being honest–is this stuff that we’re saying is okay–is it really okay? Are we standing behind that declaration? Or are we just saying it?

Like, yes, we know deep down that each human is on their own colorful journey, that everyone will have their own struggles or their own characteristics, and that we want to be very accepting . . .

But what about the comments or conversations that don’t go on Instagram?

What about the accidental messages that are sent when the two or three heavier people in the workout class get left on the outside of the cliques?

What are people internalizing when the assumptive goals and programs the gym offers always start with something about losing weight, looking better?

Or what about when we create these communities where we hold “mental health” events and keep saying stuff like “anxiety is normal” or “it’s okay to struggle,” but then . . . you don’t actually witness anyone feeling the safety to raise their hands and say, “hey guys, I’m actually falling apart now, like in real-time, I think I need some help.” . . . ?

I live with a good amount of anxiety, and I’ll tell you what, it is not a walk in the park for my best friend who shows up for me in the anxiousest moments (you’re welcome dictionary). Anxious energy, depressed energy–it can be really difficult to be around. Your anxious friend may be on the lookout for reasons to label you a threat. Your depressed friend may not seem to appreciate you and all the love you’re showering on them, because today they literally can’t appreciate anything. And that is not easy to sit with, as the person showing up, “making it okay.”

It’s so easy–even trendy–to say “We all struggle with mental health sometimes, it’s okay that you do, too!” It feels good for a minute to raise our hands and say “Yeah, I actually have anxiety, too” and then to have a bunch of people nod their heads and say “Mmmm! Thanks for sharing!”

And these aren’t bad things. These are step 1. Step 1 used to be taboo. But step 1 has become the norm. A trend. We made it okay to at least SAY that it’s all okay.

. . .

I can’t recall in which book or talk or maybe podcast, but I heard one of my favorite authors, Jon Kabat-Zinn (who helped popularize meditation and other eastern practices and ideas in the western world) express some concern over the trendiness of yoga: It’s fantastic that it’s more accepted and accessible now, but as the west becomes drenched in yoga classes and yoga workouts–are we losing some of the deep, life-changing principles that have been at yoga’s core for centuries?

In other words: Everyone “does yoga” now. But . . . how much depth in yoga traditions is being forgotten or neglected?

It’s an unfortunate side effect of trends–one that maybe we can work to mitigate: The popularization of good, true, loving principles is wonderful, but the more popular the message, the easier it is to posture, to put on a show, but to go no further than lip service.

When that happens in areas where people have felt left out or ashamed–personality, interests, sexual identity, poverty, mental illness, weight and body-type, race or ethnicity, abilities . . . the list of reasons society through history has given people to feel inferior is endless–when the posturing of acceptance and inclusivity happen in areas where people have felt left out or ashamed, it can do a lot of damage.

We’ll get to that more, I promise.

. . .

So–we checked off step 1. As a society, we’re officially kind and accepting of all kinds of bodies, all kinds of minds, all kinds of all kinds.

Officially.

. . .

When was the last time someone got really raw and real with you about how they’re struggling–in this moment–let you see and hear and feel their struggle?

Were you able to make it safe for them? No matter how heavy that energy was? Or how panicky? Were you able to prove to them that they’re okay for being them, even with the raw mental health struggles?

And when you post to Instagram about how as a personal trainer you believe in the okay-ness of every different shape and size, and a new client shows up feeling relieved and hopeful now that they’ve found personal training with no shame–what expectations do you actually set with them? What messages do you give them? Do you encourage them to love and accept their right-now body? Do you talk about sets and reps like they’re punishments or the price to pay for the way they eat? Or assume they’re here for a “lifestyle change?”

Or how about as a gym owner or manager that publicly champions healthy body image, claims credit for saying “all shapes and sizes are welcome here,” and that body-sculpting isn’t the only acceptable goal for gym-goers–who are you hiring as trainers and staff? And what pressure are you putting on them to “look the part” by getting lean and toned and badass? And what comments are you making about them when you don’t think they’ll hear? And do all the special programs and challenges you offer seem to say, at their core, “You should look better”?

Okay, so we all do this. We say “I’m a good person.” “I don’t bully.” “I don’t make fun of people.” “I accept everyone.” But in some realm, some way, some context–I think we’ve all got some work to do to make this “okay” stuff ACTUALLY okay.

It’s like when a big corporate company proudly publicizes their strong commitment to inclusivity–all races and ethnicities, all differences in ability, all ages . . . but then you look inside the company and you can’t find BIPOC team members or leaders, you can’t find anyone with a disability, and it seems like older people who can’t keep up quite as easily with the new and the young are always the ones whose positions get coincidentally eliminated.

. . .

We’ve taken step 1 as a society.

We accept all kinds of differences–even ones that by definition include some extra care, like differing physical abilities or like mental illnesses.

Publicly. Loudly. Proudly.

It’s our policy.

We are accepting.

But are we actually showing true, complete, genuine, radical acceptance when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff–the little conversations, the little cliques, the goals, the decisions, the priorities, the relationships?

Posting an Instagram-vs-reality side-by-side where you proudly tell your followers “See? I have love-handles, too! Bodies are okay!” is a start. But what happens when all the rest of your posts seem dedicated to showing only the picture-perfect stuff?

And what happens when you promise the world that your community is a community where they don’t have to hide mental illness, where they can stop pretending–and then this sweet, tender kid, whose dark life story you couldn’t imagine, finally tries opening up, and it’s awkward (because it is) and it’s raw and it’s dark and it’s sad and it’s heavy, so heavy–and then next time . . . nobody really seems to have the time to listen?

We’ve got to go past step 1.

A lot of times, we do!

I don’t intend to be writing this long post about how everyone actually sucks at being accepting. We . . . we don’t. We’re learning. In some contexts we’re super good at it. In some contexts we’re still learning. Some of us mean better than others about it. Everyone’s at a different point in their kindness-journey, different baggage, different inherited prejudices, different perspectives . . . and we’ve made it a long way as a society.

Step 1–the official policy of acceptance–we’ve sort of completed. Step 2 is well underway. But it’s also, well, not underway, sometimes.

So for you and me to think about . . . where are you and I saying one thing but practicing another, proving another, implying another?

What subtle pressures as professionals, friends, parents, co-workers, social media users–what subtle pressures are we putting on people to be a certain concept of perfect? Maybe it’s even unconsciously, so the self-reflection needs to be deep.

When we tell someone it’s okay to be who they are . . . are we then proving to them that it’s okay, by regularly showing up in love and acceptance, by regularly adding to the world’s library of diverse beauty, raising the volume on celebrations of each perfectly unique and valuable life around us?

Or are we saying “It’s okay to struggle” or “It’s okay to look like that” and then unconsciously building higher walls and higher barriers, telling the story of a world where you should look like this, feel like this, own this, do this, fit in this crowd . . . ?

. . .

A little mental exercise: Put yourself in the place of someone who has grown up with the assigned (and eventually self-assigned) label “fat.” Lots of baggage with that one . . .

I’m gross. I’m not attractive. Nobody will want me. Nobody will listen to me. I can’t do all-those-things. I’m a failure.

And all of a sudden, the world starts . . . accepting them! Celebrating them!

The clothing aisles have pictures of people that actually look like me now! And all the fitness accounts are on my side finally, telling people to stop shaming me, that it’s okay to be me!

This is . . . absolutely life-changing. This is hope. This is love. This is self-love. Finally! This is peace and acceptance and happiness and hope and yes yes yes.

Maybe I’m beautiful! I AM beautiful. I am me, and people are okay with that now–I’M okay with that!

And then . . . . . . . . and then, it all starts to feel a little . . . hollow, a little empty, a little like a sad, mean trick.

Like, they’re celebrating me . . . but I don’t feel very welcome or included in that celebration. Nobody’s listening to my own story about it. Or like . . . they say I’m allowed to be this heavy, but all they want to talk to me about is how they can help me lose weight. And they still don’t want me too involved. Like, I can be their acceptance-poster-child, but I’m still too heavy to work with them or be a part of the in-crowd . . .

And then, sometimes, the “behind-closed-doors” conversations happen, and you catch wind of it.

“. . . really could afford to lose a few pounds . . .” “. . . doesn’t represent a healthy lifestyle . . .” “. . . can’t imagine treating my body that way . . .”

And now–now you’re officially on the outside again. Well, not officially, but in reality you are. And now you can’t even claim that you’re not accepted. Now you can’t even ask for compassion as a person who is labeled or misunderstood or judged, because . . . because, officially, they SAID you’re okay. They said they love you, they said they accept you, they said they celebrate you.

So now you’re back to square one, your old place of shame and loneliness. Only with a little more in the way of dashed hopes than when you started.

The world just isn’t safe for people like me. I’m fat and nobody likes that.

. . .

Does this ring true at all for you? Do you get it? Have you been on the receiving end? Do you think maybe you’ve been on the dishing end?

We SAY it’s okay for people to be who they are.

But are we actually MAKING IT okay?

Can we?

I bet we can.

Sometimes we do.

I bet we can more.

Here’s to supporting each other through radical love and acceptance.

namaste

Sad People

“Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.
‘Pathetic,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is. Pathetic.’
He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
‘As I thought,’ he said. ‘No better from THIS side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.’
There was a crackling noise in the bracken behind him, and out came Pooh.
‘Good morning, Eeyore,’ said Pooh.
‘Good morning, Pooh Bear,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘If it IS a good morning,’ he said. ‘Which I doubt,’ said he.
‘Why, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Can’t all WHAT?’ said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
‘Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. …I’m not complaining, but There It Is.'”
~ A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know if I’m a “sad” person. I’m figuring that out. I think I have been sad a lot. But I don’t know if I’m a Sad Person.

I have had stretches in my life full of everyday giddiness, high on life, can’t-stop-smiling, can’t-stop-laughing. Like life was one constant summer evening drive with the windows down. In fact, “happy” used to be the word I’d always, always use to describe myself. It was my identity.

I definitely am not always a Happy Person, though. At least not these days.

Do you think you HAVE to be a Happy Person? SHOULDN’T be a Sad Person? Maybe you’re a both. (That sounds pretty human.) What is YOUR relationship with sadness?

There is something to be said, to be acknowledged and understood, about sadness and sad people. They’re there, they’re real. I don’t know why some are mostly sadder and some are mostly happier. And like I said, I don’t know which one I am or if I’m right in the middle. Maybe that will change every year. Maybe one day it will stay one or the other. But I think the world is a better place when we acknowledge and see and accept that some people are Sad People.

I stumbled upon this little moment in a Ray Bradbury story this year, and it spoke to me, a little too directly:

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

I’d like to share a little bit of my story with sadness, because I want to tell you a few things I know about sad people.

My journey with sadness must have started very young. Maybe, like Ray Bradbury said, “no special reason.” I just remember hearing when I was growing up that I had always been a very anxious little kid. Always afraid, crying lots. Having deep, sad thoughts.

I remember as a 7-year-old having very real fears that my siblings and I must not be real Christians because we were always fighting and being mean. I tried to have a sort of one-kid intervention about it, where I made a big pronouncement of doom and despair with my 7-year-old voice, trying to be heard over all the kids-fighting-because-they’re-kids noise in the back of the station wagon, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

I sucked my thumb and slept with stuffed animals for a lot longer than was normal “for a boy” (which is a dangerous phrase). I always felt afraid and I always felt a desperate need for safety, for assurance, for comfort. I still have my tigers Jack and Dakota and Sebastian, and when I find them once in a while on my closet shelf I feel a “better” type feeling, like when I hugged them close as a kid. I hugged them a lot because I needed love and I needed safety. I had this nightmare when I was only several years old that spoke so strongly of my day-to-day fears that I can still replay the nightmare to this day: Out on a family walk in Chattanooga, I’d fall behind, my family would round a bend, and gypsies would jump out of the woods and steal me away to be their own child. (I don’t know where I learned about gypsies.)

We moved to Florida. A lot of times I couldn’t sleep. My mom found me sitting on the stairs. I explained, when she asked what was wrong, that I was just so worried about getting spinal meningitis or small pox and dying. I shared a room with a brother and two sisters, and we would stay awake planning how we could protect ourselves if a bad person broke into the house while dad and mom were away. I knew where my granddad’s Japanese WWII sword was. Swords were my thing. At first I would draw swords and then eventually I’d make swords out of old broom handles and duct tape and then one day a deacon at church said he had a jigsaw and would love to help me carve the swords so I dreamed them up and drew the outlines on old bed slats and I brought them to him and it was a good day but he also was a little rough around the edges and said some unkind words to me and it scared me and it made me sad but when I got home I had my swords. My favorite sword was a beautiful little one. Duct tape wrapped around two pencils gave the handle a handle-shape and I think I painted a red jewel on the bottom. One time I was “fooling around” with it while the family read out loud for school, so my mom told me to bring it to her, and I asked her to please, please, please not spank me with it, because I was afraid it would break, and it was my favorite sword, but she spanked me with it, and my sword broke. And I was a kind of sad-in-every-way that lasted a long, long time.

As a teenager I got sad about deeper things. Things like my imperfections. I thought it was good to beat myself up over my mistakes and my weaknesses, so I did, a lot. I felt lots of shame and stress and struggle. I worried so much about God. That wasn’t a new thing. When I was about 9 I had asked my dad how we could have gotten to the present if eternity stretched for all eternity into the past. We couldn’t have gotten to now, so it all must have started sometime, but how could God be God if he hadn’t stretched to eternity past? And who got God started? This was a deep, aching, upset-stomach kind of problem to me. But my dad explained that God is outside time, so I felt better and went back to worrying about getting kidnapped instead. In my teen years, the God fears got more complicated. How could I know that I had the right kind of faith? Not the “Lord, didn’t I know you?” only to hear God say “Depart from me, I never knew you!” kind of faith. I would lie awake night after night crying in bed, afraid of going to hell, imagining it, hoping against it, wondering, sick to my stomach. That fear never went all the way away. (“Perfect love drives out fear.” – 1 John 4:18)

If I had been my own parent and had believed in things like therapists and psychology, there was one year in particular that I would have brought kid-me to a professional. I had this awful thought where maybe God wasn’t real–and it all went downhill fast from there. For months and months and months, I could hardly eat, I could hardly sleep, I could hardly get out of bed. I couldn’t look people in the face, especially not the eyes. I truly could not smile and people commented on it. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t be happy. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t see straight, sometimes. I felt like I was walking in a tunnel. I felt like I was floating away on the outside, looking in at all the peopleish people who knew how to be people, while I was dying in my heart, desperately waiting for the world to make sense again, waiting for a thing to hold onto. I was lost and scared. All of the happy and fun things were not happy and not fun anymore. At all. Every day was awful. Every single day. For the better part of a year. It was so dark. I would shut myself in my bedroom and cry for most of every day. Think, worry, and cry. That was my life for quite a while. I was a Sad Person in a big needs-help kind of way.

In my late teen years, my sadness turned mostly toward love-stuff. Cute-girl love but also family love and friendship love and world peace love and all the feel-good stuff that we celebrate on a day like Christmas, the day I find myself writing this. I felt deeply lonely and sad about not having a lot of friends, about never really learning to have friends or to be around other people who were different from me. I felt stuck in a place where I couldn’t feel much love, and every day it felt heavy and lonely and yucky and sad. As an 18-year-old I would covertly bypass our burglar alarm so that I could sneak out of my window to take walks alone in the dark. It felt like a little bit of freedom, getting to just be me. There were really rough times where I felt like I had lost so much love and support and friendship. Where I felt like I had been rejected by almost everyone, left completely alone, broken, to navigate life by myself. I needed love, but I couldn’t trust.

Eventually I claimed the freedom to go do my life the way I wanted. Unfortunately, that freedom coincided with an unrequited-love time, and juggling that and an 18-year-long scar of sadness got really, really dark.

But then, fairly randomly I think, I learned how to be happy.

I found real, huge, giddy, outrageously GOOD happiness! And honestly, I had experienced lots of happy things or happy corners-of-life in my childhood. Playing baseball in my backyard, feeling like a world traveler as I caught a plane and the MARTA to escape to my loving friends in Atlanta, and playing all the happy songs on the piano, like Linus and Lucy. But lots, I’d play the sad songs, too. Finally, as a young adult, the sad songs started slipping into memory and every day started bursting with happiness. A beautiful girl named Lyssi. Cheese and other yummy foods not as worthy of mention as cheese. Epic movies to see. Sketch pads. A fresh, cool breeze rushing by as I ran for miles and miles. My own car to adventure in. People who were there for me and the chance to be there for people. Kind words. Hugs. Purpose, excitement, confidence, and giddy, giddy, giddy happiness.

And then more weird life things happened that shook me pretty deep and brought me back to the pretty constant hum of worry and stress and fear and doubt and sadness. Several years swung back and forth pretty regularly–actually probably pretty healthily–between being generally stressed and generally happy. I wasn’t a Sad Person, but I wasn’t the Happy Person I had been, either.

Then one summer, over a year ago now, two things happened that shook a lot of Sad loose from deep inside my heart. First, I took a trip and saw some people whom it should have been wonderful to see, and saw a bunch more people who were once my tribe. And it was not good. It was not good at all. It was hard and sad and heavy and frustrating and a little bit gross. After that trip I came back to the happy-home I had found the freedom to make, but I couldn’t shake the hurt. For months after that trip I would wake up almost every night sweating, shaking, panting, having nightmares about the sad stuff I thought I had left safely behind in my childhood. Trust started becoming hard again. I started feeling sensitive and oh-so-protective. Second that summer (and I’ve written lots about this before) I bonked my head way too hard hiking in the Colorado Rockies and I knocked even more feelings loose. If you’ve ever had a concussion or known someone who has, you might know a frequent effect is intense anxiety and emotional lows. Like “I’m crying and I don’t know why” twenty times a day. This time around for me, the emotional lows were there again, but the anxiety was so present and so forceful, I could hardly make it through the day. I became weirdly mistrusting of everything and everyone, and I constantly felt that at the next moment my whole world might come crashing down. The concussion effect on my brain lasted a surprisingly long time, especially the anxiety. But by the time I felt probably-back-to-normal, so much Sad had been shaken loose that I felt like a significantly different person than I’d been before the ordeal.

Since then, I’ve dealt with a weird and tough stretch. Over a year feeling the loss of a lot of things I had, feeling the loss of a lot of things I thought I had, figuring out stuff that many people get to figure out as a kid, like how to be angry or how to be mad or how to love someone and yourself at the same time. Thank god for therapy. When my wife asked me a few days ago who had made the biggest impact on me this year, without a second thought I knew it was the therapist I’ve been seeing. I think it’s all going to be okay. Turns out, people get anxious. Some people get anxious a lot, like to the point where you could say they “have” it. And it turns out I’m some people.

And as someone who understands the anxiety and the sadness stuff a little better now than I used to, I’ve gotten to look back and read a bunch of journals and letters from when I was a teenager and a young adult. And oh my goodness, they are DARK. Just heart-breaking. I was a deeply, deeply sad and anxious person.

And then I was a super happy-go-lucky person.

And now I’ve had a pretty sad year or two.

But I’m still so happy a lot. It’s just I’m also so sad a lot. These days, probably more sad. That’s okay right now.

And honestly, knowing all this history, I still don’t really “get” exactly how my sadness works. It’s still confusing. It’s still weird. It still acts in unexpected ways. It’s still “emotional” and acts like it. And then when I think I’ve made sense of it and suddenly it doesn’t make sense again, I keep coming back to Ray Bradbury’s words: “No special reason. . . .”

As someone who’s been a Happy Person and a Sad Person, I want to share a few things, things that I hope will make you feel some mix of not-alone-in-your-sadness and inspired-to-be-a-good-friend-to-sad-people.

First, I understand why my therapist teased that I’d be thankful for my concussion that shook loose the sadness and anxiety deep in my heart. Life is actually better when I see and accept and work with those feelings.

Second, again my therapist, he told me he doesn’t wish people lives of abundant happiness, just abundance. Abundant everything. Some days that means deep happiness. Some days it means deep love. Some days it means deep excitement. And some days–some days it means deep sadness.

Third, go see a therapist. From the bits and pieces of psychology I’ve learned, I know Ray Bradbury’s not wrong: Some people are just sad without a clear cause that therapy can fix. And it’s good for your mix of emotions to include sadness. But, there is a lot of deep, constant, unnecessary sadness that a therapist might be able to help you with. You never know till you try. For me, it’s been life saving.

Fourth, you probably should not always be happy. (Not like “please stop being happy,” but just a warning from my personal experience that, I think, if you think you’re always happy, you might need to check on yourself a bit more, a bit deeper.) You should be happy and sad and mad and scared sometimes. There are good reasons to feel all of those and all of those are normal feelings. It is a lot of pressure to tell yourself (or to tell others, or to let others tell you) that you should always be happy.

Fifth, sad people aren’t bad people who are causing problems by being sad. Many sad people learn to take care of their feelings without taking them out on other people. Mr. Rogers–Fred Rogers–said in an interview that he learned to express his angry and sad feelings through his fingers on the piano.

Sixth, and closely related, if you’re the sad one, you really can learn how to be sad in a healthy way. I’ve learned that it is okay to be sad. Sometimes the things that made you sad aren’t okay, like when you’ve been abused or bullied. And some outlets you might find for your sad feelings aren’t okay, like abusing or bullying others. But you can have healthy sadness.

Seventh, please don’t judge sad people as somehow worse, defective, rain-clouds, melodramatic, silly, not-good-enough, their-own-fault, all the blamey and rejecty labels. Each person has a story you don’t know. People have such long, complex stories! If we’re being honest, we probably don’t really know our own stories all the way. When you see someone–someone who looks sad, who looks like their life is a hard one–please find some compassion. And if you’re a sad person, same goes–please don’t judge yourself for it.

Eighth, please don’t decide for people who they are. Don’t label them as officially happy or officially sad in your book. People are people and life gets weird. When you decide for someone that they’re a Sad Person, you only make it harder. Harder for them to freely express the happy moments, harder for them to ask for support, harder for them to feel appreciated and loved, and honestly harder for them to move towards more happiness. Just as importantly, please don’t decide for someone that they’re a Happy Person. When someone knows that they are, to you, dependably happy, positive, always encouraging and inspiring and energetic and enthusiastic, it becomes an unrealistic burden. Such a burden that when sad times do come, they can’t talk about it. They can’t share. Because too many people are counting on them to not be sad. So please just don’t treat people like they’re a “Sad Person” or a “Happy Person.” Don’t set those expectations. Don’t put that pressure. Don’t plant that guilt. Just let people be people and meet them where they are, every day. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people can’t be summed up in a nutshell, pre-determined, dependably defined by a set of 4 letters, because humans can change, suddenly and drastically, and they can grow, and they will surprise you. “Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Ninth, let people be sad. Let yourself be sad. Sad is okay.

And tenth, love sad people. Instead of trying to fix them (god knows if they can’t, you can’t), love them. Instead of pressuring or guilting them or trying to change their minds, love them. Instead of tiptoeing around them on eggshells, get in the messy feelings world with them and LOVE THEM. If anything, anything, anything will ever help a Sad Person find a little more happy, it will be love. But honestly? Don’t let changing or helping them be your goal. Just love them for them, period. And if you’re sad? Love others and get love. Ask for it. Talk about it. Accept it. Trust it. Feel it. And love yourself. You are sad, but you are beautiful.

P.S. Please remember that there are more Sad People than you think. Many people–maybe most people–have learned not to talk about their sadness. Not to cry. Not to share. Some not even to think about their sadness, when they can help it. Many have learned to smile, to be excited, to have fun, to be energetic, and still, just under the surface, there is an ache. Sometimes the biggest smiles hide the deepest aches. So remember that there are many more than you think there are. And remember that they’ve learned, a lot of them, that they’re not allowed to tell you they’re sad.

P.P.S. Also, let’s all do our part in making honesty and vulnerability okay, even when that means tears. You with me? We’re all in this together.

P.P.P.S. I love putting an inspiring quote on a picture and placing it in my blog posts. And I was thinking, what could be a good, inspiring, positive message about sad people? And then I thought, why should it be positive and inspiring? Sad people are sad people. They’re there. They exist. They’re right next to us. They are us. And sometimes that, itself, just needs to be acknowledged and understood and accepted and made peace with. It should be okay.

Ray Bradbury - some people get sad young