Baby steps and struggly downward dogs

“If your legs aren’t already straight, don’t try adding this in. Don’t ever force yourself. Let your muscles and tissues grow and change over months and years.”

This morning’s yoga class felt a little different. It was very slow and mild with an emphasis on finding the edge and then not pushing it. A little was enough.

I trained with an absolutely fantastic trainer way back–it felt like studying with a guru. He really knew his stuff. Honestly I probably couldn’t have found a better source of information and direction. Except my body. My body is also would have been a great source of information for me, but I ignored its signals. After some quick progress, I pushed too far, shrugged off the pains and the not-quite-right feelings, and hit a wall. Usually it took a couple days for my muscles to feel recovered. This time, my body felt overwhelmed by pain and weakness and just . . . tension for days and days and then weeks and weeks and by the time the pain had subsided, an “I-can’t-do-that-again” preemptive pain had taken its place. And I stopped. Completely. I had tried too fast. I hadn’t listened to my body.

Maybe that speaks to you, maybe it doesn’t. Since a concussion turned my world upside down, I’ve been really surprised at just how much one person’s response to being pushed differs from another’s. Once upon a time, I was the type to push myself to the max and then past it. And it felt like I had bottomless energy.

When I was a teenager, I would bring my glove and a baseball out to the rock wall in the back. I’d wind up and throw as hard as I could. A hundred times. And then a hundred more. (For context, you’re not supposed to pitch over a hundred pitches in a row every day. Especially as a 13-year-old. That’s ridiculous.) And then I’d head inside with just as much energy as I’d had before. It worked when I was a kid.

Then I moved up to the Twin Cities and dove into running. I started with a mile or two, then six. Then 13.1 out of the blue. Somewhere around mile 11 my left hamstring didn’t really work, but with a forwarder tilt, gravity pulled me forward the last couple miles. I wasn’t ready for it, but I found ways to compensate, and so it sort of worked. My core and hip flexors were weak, but my legs were strong, so I moved 13.1 miles again and again for the joy of it. And there was so much joy. Then I learned that you can push your pace when you run. Learn to breathe through the stress. So I picked up my pace.

One evening, with Marvel film scores playing in my ears, I set out to push my 13.1 pace. Halfway through, the Winter Soldier beat dropped and my pace picked up. It was electrifying. Until about mile 10. Then my body said “Absolutely not!” and I slowed to a walk that was more like a crawl. I could hardly lift my arms. I took a shortcut home and collapsed on the couch. Dizzy. The nausea and stomach cramps hit like a tsunami. I have never, ever, ever felt that absolutely terrible after a run. In a weird way, it felt worth it, like . . . look at how hard I worked! In another way, it slowed me down. A lot. Nervousness replaced excitement, and it was a while before I tried 13.1 again.

And then I had a concussion. And I stopped moving at all for months. And the strong compensation muscles I had became weak, so nothing was ready for a run anymore. And then my head finally felt okay, so I ran a mile. Then I ran two. And then I ran 8. . . . 8! And that was the day I felt a new kind of leg and back pain that I’m still feeling three years later.

I always try things long before I’m ready.

Because that’s how you be a badass.

And it’s worked at some points in my life. For some things.

And then at other times, it doesn’t. Especially after a concussion. Or especially after getting in touch with my deepest self. Sometimes trying things before I’m ready ends up hurting or scaring or discouraging me. Knocking the wind out of me. And the attempted leap forward turns into five steps back, or fifteen if you watch closely as I subconsciously sneak further and further away from my goal because I just can’t get near that awful feeling again.

~

Pizzeria Balognett was a little hidden garden of a restaurant in the hills above Italy’s Lake Como, where they plopped down freshly picked eggplant and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and salt in front of you, whether you asked for them or not, while the pizzas baked. The pizzas were perfection. So we went back for lunch the next day, and left with at least four more pizzas boxed up to enjoy on the next day of our honeymoon. Our rental host, a British expat, stopped by our little apartment, and when he heard how many pizzas we had brought home, he grinned and said “Such Americans!”

We in America, as a culture, are maximum. Always. We’re never halfway, we’re always the most. And that can be wonderful. Like eight of the best pizzas we’ll ever eat.

I’m afraid that we as a culture push ourselves and each other a little too hard, a little too fast, though.

And it’s complicated by the fact that it seems to really work for some. So we just push. Everyone. All the way. “No pain no gain.”

~

My therapist recently congratulated me for making a fairly forceful ask in my life. The change I want to see, he explained, happens slowly. Very slowly. The bigger the change, the bigger the pushback. So sometimes a clear, hard push is needed. But not because the change should (or even could) hurry up. Just because the change needs repeated reminders and remotivating.

But then, when that push has been pushed, I need to remember that the change is still going to be a slow process. Yes, we need to push and we need pushing. And then we need to accept that the wheels will turn slowly. Sometimes they need to turn slowly. Sometimes if you force them to turn fast, it hurts a little too much, and they stop turning at all.

Like when you decide you’re an exception to the wisdom about building up to 13.1 slowly. Or like when your trainer enthusiastically shouts that “you’ve got this, keep going!” without first having a two-way discussion about what is good discomfort and what is too much overwhelm or even pain. Or like when you decide the answer to beating social anxiety or loneliness is to fill every corner of your schedule with all the people all the time. Or like when you decide it’s time to cut out every single happy food forever, starting today. Or like when you decide you want to be a reader and then force yourself through three brutally boring hours in a row and find that you can never quite pick up the book again.

~

Maybe you’re the type that changes fast. Maybe. Although if that’s how you’ve always thought of yourself, but you keep finding yourself giving up or worn down or discouraged, then maybe you also could give yourself some extra time for change, too.

Or maybe you’ve already acknowledged that you need time. That you can’t take big leaps. That baby steps are what work for you.

At risk of sounding cliche, remember the tortoise and the hare? “Slow and steady wins the race.” Because slow and steady doesn’t burn you out, injure you, freak you out, or overwhelm you.

Yoga this morning was a great reminder to let time play its part in your growth. We’re all so damn frenzied about our lives. Goals. Progress. Growth. We need to get this, fix this, stop this, change this, find this, and it needs to happen with same-day delivery!

We know better by now about about muscles and fitness. But do we accept this about our core selves, too? The core selves we so badly want to be, to grow into, to experience, to find.

Is it okay that it’s going to take me three brutally long years to learn how to express negative emotions? Is it okay that it may be summer by the time you’ve actually finished that book? Is it okay that when you join all the flexible, toned 30-year-olds at the yoga class, your downward dog will honestly look more like a malfunctioning twerk for at least a few weeks, and that you’re the only one not wearing designer joggers?

~

So what’s your thing? The change you need. The growth you’re planning. The relationship or communication skills you want to develop. The goals you’ve set for yourself. How you want to take care of your body. How you want to stretch your mind. How you want to show up for the world.

And is it okay that you may be in this “getting-there” stage for a long, long time? Maybe for the rest of your life?

And if you let the change happen slowly, do you think you may give up less?

You’re trying. That’s enough. That’s a lot, honestly. So be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard. You still want to feel safe enough to show up tomorrow. And you won’t if you push yourself past what you can be okay with today.

You’re human. And that’s going to take time.

Take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and accept where you are today.

Tomorrow can be just a little different.

<3

~

P.S. If you struggle with taking it slow and giving yourself room to grow and permission to take baby steps only–I strongly recommend looking for a slow, gentle yoga practice somewhere near you, and making showing up your only goal each time. When you soften into change, it’s amazing the pressure you find your body’s been holding, and how desperately it’s been wanting gentle care.

P.P.S. If all this slow change is too slow, look back a year or ten and see just how much it has been adding up. Keeps adding up. Trust the process.

~

Let’s grow slowly together?

My Little Broken Buddha

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My best friend gave me a little figurine of a meditating Buddha. Its head was still on.

I meditate and I really like Buddhism. In a nutshell to me, it’s about letting go of our need for things to be just-so.

Our first big excursion to the mountains since my last concussion, a long road trip to the Canadian Rockies. . . . I was really nervous as we prepared to leave, because travel is my thing and mountains are my best friend’s happy place . . . but my concussion on our last adventure had done a number on me, and each month since then had felt hard, sad, gloomy–anything-but-adventurous.

So I brought my little Buddha along. To remind me not to hold on too tightly to my expectations for the trip. To help me know that it would be okay if everything didn’t end up being just-so. Its head was still on.

Things did NOT go just-so.

Morning, middle-of-nowhere, Saskatchewan, my adventure buddy’s wrist started hurting where a few days earlier she burned it on the stove. It started getting red and it became a small bump. By the end of the day it was a not-at-all-small bump, the entire arm too painful to use much. We checked into our Canmore hotel and after several frustrating calls to insurance we drove to the local emergency room where after a quick glance the doctor hooked her up to an IV for antibiotics.

Four visits to the emergency room in three days. Fevers, dizziness, red lines starting to spread, needles, blood draws, tubes installed in my best friend’s arm, a panicky midnight outing to find a thermometer interrupted by my phone ringing and my best friend telling me that she was now shaking so violently she could hardly hold onto anything.

Honestly, it was scary as hell. I think scarier for me than for her. It got a lot worse before it got better, and I knew that an infection going bad isn’t a thing you want to experience.

Just out of the woods, day two or three–the days became a blur of emergency room and hotel room–I hopped in the car to go pick up some groceries–completely drained of every kind of energy. I grabbed my little Buddha and held it in my palm as I drove, more for its vague feeling of comfort and familiarity than for anything else.

I hopped out of the car at the grocery store and tossed my little Buddha into the center console, and heard two things bouncing around. I picked it up. Its head was gone.

*feeling when your heart sinks but even sinkier*

I broke my little Buddha. :(

And then I sort of grinned. No sh**, may as well, everything else is broken. I guess it’s exactly appropriate that my little token of not-holding-on-too-tightly broke.

At first I thought about replacing it, but more and more it seemed perfect to me that it stay broken. Because now–every time I see it on my desk–I remember just how much holding on too tightly doesn’t work. That “broken” is only “broken” in the context of my need for things to be just-so.

In the 5th century BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama lived in what is now Nepal. His family was wealthy, but he was struck by the pain and suffering he saw in the world, so he tried being intentionally-poor instead. It didn’t “work” for him, so he embraced “the middle way”–a life of moderation: not desperately seeking ease and pleasure, but also not seeking pain and self-abasement. In all this practice, he learned a lot about life and then he taught the people around him a lot about life and then he became known as “The Buddha.”

“Dharma,” the teachings of The Buddha, have at their heart the “four noble truths.” Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga. And the first three are why I love my little broken Buddha.

Dukkha: Suffering is a thing. It’s a part of life.

Samudaya: Why is suffering a thing? Because we think things are supposed to be just-so. We crave pleasure, we desperately try to control, and we hold on too tightly to what we think we want or need or love. Attachment.

“According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.” ~ Dalai Lama

Nirodha: There is an antidote to suffering: Letting go of attachments, obsessive cravings, and desperate control, and living–not in a bitter past or an anxious future–but fully in the present, one day at a time. Acceptance.

What are you holding onto too tightly?

I still bring my little broken Buddha with me whenever I go out of town or when I have a big scary thing that I think needs to go just-so.

It’s a perfect reminder not to hold on too tightly.

Things break. Things hurt. Things fade.

Life is weird, and needing it to not be weird will only lead to frustration.

But life is also beautiful. And a strange and strong beauty and peace can be felt when you let go of your need for things to be just-so. . . . when you remember not to hold on too tightly.

~

“The root of suffering is attachment.” ~ The Buddha

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I have anxiety and that’s okay

I have anxiety.

Some days I am in the zone, killing it.

I am a manager and I’m good at it.

I am great at sales and customer service.

I am great at leading projects.

I am the president of a Toastmasters club and I think I’m a good leader.

I am a really good friend to lots of people.

I have gotten straight A’s in basically every bit of education I’ve ever had.

I write a blog that lots of people read and find helpful.

I am a badass public speaker and can give a great presentation.

I make really beautiful piano music.

I have run half marathons.

People come to me for advice.

I survived and escaped a very toxic environment I grew up in and chosen to live life a different way.

I am really, really smart.

I am funny (don’t ask my friends).

I love to help people and at least sometimes I am good at it.

Some days I bury my head in the couch pillows and hyperventilate.

Some days I spend the entire day near-panicking about what would be the best way to spend the day.

Some days I randomly start crying.

Some days I feel this non-stop heavy sadness.

Some days I worry myself sick that I might get sick and die soon.

Some days I am pretty sure my whole life might be a lie, that the people who said they love me, who are supposed to love me, really don’t.

Some days I feel like crying when someone lovingly teases me because I honestly don’t get that it’s teasing.

Some days I worry that lots of people are actually unhappy with me and are out to get me. That if I’m not a good enough leader, I’ll suddenly be surprised by getting booted out the door. That if I don’t make friends or family happy, they’ll tell everyone I’m a bad person.

Some days I worry that I’m actually some really hopelessly awful person.

Some days I’m afraid that I’m just “one of those people” who will never quite be good enough, always find a way to fail.

Some days I feel like I’m floating away and I can’t reach out and grab the world I know, it’s too far gone, and I’m just stuck floating out here where nothing feels right, nothing makes sense, I can’t find anything.

Some days I lay in bed terrified and feel the room spin, and feel like the ceiling is fading away, and I stop seeing what’s around me.

Some days I can feel the *thump* *thump* *thump* of my heart beating really hard and fast and all I can feel is that my heart can’t keep up with the intense panicky drowning “Oh no” feeling.

Some days everything feels yucky and sad and scary and I finally sit down on the floor and cry and cry.

Some days I see people who always make me happy, and I realize that they probably don’t really like me, that they probably are just nice about it.

Some days I try to smile and be in a good mood and be super friendly, but I truly can’t, so I just want to get alone.

Some days everyone and everything is unsafe.

If I had to describe anxiety, as I’ve personally experienced it, in one sentence, it would go something like this: Watching in terror as everything you need, everything you thought you had, floats just out of your reach, and in its place, all-the-danger surrounds you.

Some mental illness is so serious that someone can hardly function. Some mental illness leaves people functioning well some days, struggling on others. And some mental illness injects a little bit of struggle and sadness into a mostly thriving life.

Minds are weird things. And whether someone has a diagnosed mental illness or just happens to deal with the weird stuff that happens in the mind of a human–whether someone feels good 90% of the time or 10% of the time, or maybe 0% of the time–whether someone has a severe anxiety disorder with regular anxiety attacks, or someone “just” gets pretty anxious pretty often–it is okay that you struggle. And it is okay to SAY that you struggle.

Some mental illness just happens, because you just happened to be born with a brain that functions a certain way.

Some mental illness happens because of a thing that happens to your body, like a disease, or like a traumatic injury.

Some mental illness happens because of sudden trauma, experiencing something like watching someone die, being assaulted, being molested or raped, or watching while some tragedy unfolds.

Some mental illness happens because of a life full of trauma, like emotional or physical abuse from your parents, or like growing up with a belief system that makes the world a dangerous place, or like getting bullied a bunch as a kid for being different.

Some mental illness gets better. Some gets worse. Some just sits there.

I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety as much as I do. I’ve had a professional tell me I have anxiety, but I’m not really sure if it counted as an official diagnosis of a disorder, or if it just was a statement that it’s something I deal with that doesn’t quite warrant a label. Actually, maybe it shouldn’t need to warrant a label. Maybe you don’t have to be this-far-broken to be able to talk about being broken.

I had two concussions in the last few years, and the second one sent my anxiety through the roof and it hasn’t quite come all the way back to where it was–or where I imagined it was–back when life felt more “normal.”

I started seeing a therapist after my second concussion, and very quickly he helped me realize that it was probably a good thing for my mental and emotional health that I had my anxiety and my feelings shaken up a bit so I couldn’t keep stuffing them.

I learned that I’ve naturally always had a very codependent personality in all areas of my life. I felt like my feelings weren’t important, which helped to bury my anxiety. Sort of. Until I realized that no matter how much I tried to make everyone happy, I would never stop being anxious about it.

I wish I could say that I have anxiety because of the 18 or 19 years I lived in a home that I think was full of very damaging abuse.

But I’m not sure, because I always heard from my mom that I was always a super anxious kid. (I wish she had gotten me some help about it.)

I cried pretty constantly through most of my childhood. I worried constantly about getting sick and dying. I lay awake many nights worrying that I’d end up in hell for eternity, picturing what it would feel like. I sucked my thumb long past the rest of my siblings, because it was soothing and safe. I asked my younger brother to hold my hand when he slept in the bunk above me so that I wouldn’t feel alone. And like I said, I cried. A lot.

Knowing what I’ve learned as an adult about the mind, I can identify significant anxiety attacks I had as a kid. And I remember one year I spent over half the year crying and panicking alone in my room most of every single day.

So I don’t know. Was I born with anxiety? Probably. Did an unhealthy childhood make it so much worse? Definitely. Has it actually gotten worse since my concussions? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely gotten clearer and tougher to deal with.

I’m a pretty normal person, I think. If you know me well, you probably know me as generally positive and fun. I look like I’ve got my stuff together.

You probably haven’t seen me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

A lot of mental illness, people can handle well. You can try not to take it out on everyone around you, you can keep it together while you’re in public and not make a scene, you can differentiate between situations where it’s safe and appropriate to open up about your feelings or where you need to be professional, respectful, or just get stuff done.

So you probably won’t see me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

You probably won’t see almost anybody do that.

Which means when it happens to you, you might think you’re the only one. You might think you’re not normal, you’re not okay, you’re a failure, that nobody would like the real you.

Saying all of this is not comfortable or fun at all. I don’t want attention for it. I don’t want to be treated like I’ve got it especially bad, because, all in all, I don’t. I’m not making a statement about me.

I wanted to share all of this just because this shitty life stuff needs to be okay. Okay to experience and okay to talk about.

If you have intense anxiety or mild anxiety, you are not alone and you’re not weird and you’re not stuck hiding. Lots of people will love you and help you, just like you want to love and help them.

If you struggle with other mental illnesses, like depression, you are not alone. You’re not weird. You can be real about it.

I don’t want to minimize the seriousness and impact of some extreme mental illnesses. For example, some people have such severe mental illness that they can’t function well enough or consistently enough to take care of themselves, and they need real help–from family, from society, from community. Some people have such severe depression that they literally can’t find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, such severe OCD that no matter how hard they try, they can’t stop washing their hands even when their skin is falling off. I don’t want to downplay how much caring support and attention we should be giving those who genuinely can’t make it through without physical, financial, tangible help.

But I honestly think that struggling with mental health is a pretty universal thing. Mild or severe.

And sometimes we just need to know that it is okay, and we need the people around us to know that it is okay. Sometimes the mind and feelings just get weird.

I challenge you to treat your mental health just like your physical health. That means when you need to see a mental health doctor, see a mental health doctor. You go for a physical once a year. Why do we save mental health help for when we’re at the end of our rope? Let’s make mental health care normal.

Don’t be afraid to be real about yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for friendship. Don’t be afraid that your struggles–little or big–with mental health make you less.

A surprisingly huge number of us are right there with you.

We’re all in this together.

#makeitok

P.S. It’s okay to say “me, too.” It’s also okay to NOT say “me, too.” You can be as open or as private as you need. Just know you’re not alone, and you can at least talk to someone.

P.P.S. I wrote this a couple months ago and didn’t post it about 10 times before I finally decided to. I want to help others know they’re not alone, help others have a safe space to be exactly who they are deep down–that’s my passion. It doesn’t mean that it’s “better” to be public about your mental health. So again, there’s no pressure and no need to be vocal. You be you. Just know that who you are is okay.

“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

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you’re not alone

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

A year later (compassion: we all have some crappy things we need people to understand)

Yesterday I felt really upset and sad that I got a concussion last year. A year–seems like this should be done now, right? When I had my first concussion, everything felt pretty normal again a few months later. This time, it’s been almost a year, and I don’t feel like myself.

I think the last of the physical and mental effects wore off months ago–at least the effects directly from the concussion–but I’m still trying to get past the after-effects of those first effects. Like when you go from running miles and miles every week to suddenly hardly being able to go for walks. Now my head isn’t keeping me from going for runs. Now I just can’t go for runs because I lost so much strength and didn’t realize how slowly I needed to work back into exercise, so I screwed up my back. And I’ve discovered along the way bad habits I’ve always had that have made my back so weak and vulnerable to begin with. Or now my head isn’t making the world seem foggy, confusing, or dangerous. But all the days and weeks and months of extreme anxiety added up and left me feeling scared and on edge and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than I used to feel.

Yesterday all I wanted to do was go to the gym or go out for a run, but I felt self-conscious and weak and frustrated, and running isn’t the healthiest exercise for my back these days. I thought about how fit and active I was a year ago. I had worked hard to be as healthy as I was. It was great. I was always up for anything! It was a part of my identity. Why the hell did that day have to happen? It still sucks.

One silver lining is that all the anxious days made me pay more attention to myself deep down, though that doesn’t always feel like a good change. Another silver lining is that I think I feel more compassion and acceptance than I used to–for myself and for other people. I guess I get that no matter how much you wish you were exactly your dream self, sometimes life has other plans. Or sometimes life just throws a curveball at you, and not everyone is going to find the strength to head in the right direction every day. Some days just giving in to the weakness or the pessimism feels like … well it doesn’t feel good, but it just happens anyway. Like eating your feelings. I think I understand even better now, that people don’t just live screwed up lives because they want to, or because they have bad attitudes. People are fragile. Fragile AF. But we’re also strong, so I decided to go to the gym anyway, and I set a few healthiness goals for August 16–the one year mark since I bonked my head.

Silver lining or no, though–sometimes life has its crappy moments. Crappy days. Crappy happenings, that can leave you feeling weak and frustrated, uninspired, lonely, misunderstood, just … sad.

I think we all need each other to understand each other in times like that.

I spent a lot of yesterday thinking of how much my concussion last year changed my life. I felt embarrassed, because … come on. Right? But I know a concussion can mess with your life pretty long-term. Especially repeat concussions. I think mostly they’re not the end of the world. But I think a lot of people don’t give each other or themselves the benefit of the doubt–space to feel and heal.

And it’s not just concussions–and it’s not just a few of us. PTSD, losing a loved one, sexual abuse, auto-immune diseases, bullying, losing a job, miscarrying your baby, depression, addiction, loneliness, feeling betrayed, verbal and emotional abuse, chronic migraines, cancer…

I think it’s always worth telling each other how these things affect us. Being open and honest about the darkness we sometimes feel. And then, like Lyssi helped me with yesterday, helping each other reflect on the good things we still have, too.

I wanted to re-post something I wrote in January about some of the unexpected effects of dealing with a concussion, along with something Lyssi wrote about it, too.

I also want to encourage everyone I know to learn about all the different hard-things that your people go through. And to share your own. We’re all in this together. Nobody has to be a hero. Mostly we just need some love and understanding. So ask and listen, and speak up, too.

12 Things That Happen When You Get a Concussion

A Glimpse Into My World of Slow Concussion Recovery

What’s your story you want people to understand?

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