You may be the lighthouse they need

Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.

People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.

But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.

Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.

Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:

“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”

You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.

~

Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.

If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty. You want SO badly to help. And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?

I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?

Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.

Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.

I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.

So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?

If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?

~

If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.

I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”

There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.

I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.

Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.

Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.

It was beautifully depressing.

Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.

And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.

Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.

One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”

Hope.

The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.

~

Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.

And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.

Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.

Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.

And soon, you can’t help them anymore.

In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.

Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.

This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.

All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .

There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.

It’s not up to you.

And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.

But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.

Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.

Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”

~

I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.

How can I carry all this weight?

His answer? “You can’t.”

You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.

Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.

But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.

It makes your “help” worthless.

You drowning helps no one.

~

Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.

“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.

“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.

“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.

“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.

“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.

~

I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.

What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.

Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.

If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.

But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.

If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:

What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?

Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?

And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?

They don’t need someone to drown with them.

They need a lighthouse.

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