Look at Our Unintentional Pumpkin Patch

Once upon a time, we had jack-o-lanterns that were beginning to rot. Being the lazy landscapers and environmentalists that we are, we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone and fill in a hole in our yard by composting our rotting pumpkins and leaves in this hole.

Fast forward several months, and I came home one day to discover an enormous puddle of water coming out of my laundry room. When the plumbers arrived, they walked the perimeter of the house looking for the access point to the main pipe. Upon reaching a conclusion as to the likely best source of access, they proceeded to dig.

“Oh!” he said, “This is a pumpkin hole!”

“Ummm, yeah. So, we were actually trying to fill in that hole in the yard, but now I’m guessing that’s not the best idea???” I replied sheepishly.

I wonder how often the plumbers tell the story about the lady with the jack-o-lantern corpses buried in her yard.

Fast forward several more months, and one day we noticed that a hardy, little plant had sprouted. Intrigued, we didn’t weed it or mow over it. We just let it be.

Now, look at it! It’s a monster of a pumpkin vine with the beginnings of the tiniest pumpkin.

So, all I’m saying is that if this pumpkin vine can grow this strong and healthy in a hole that apparently leads to the sewer line after having been torn up and dug up by plumbers, then perhaps something equally strong and healthy can grow in us as we endure the upheaval of this fertilizer storm we call 2020.

Your Pandemic Experience and Trauma

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

“My anxiety has gone up so much since things started opening back up” is a refrain that I’ve heard quite a bit this past week or so. 

“I know! Me too! This is the week of quarantine that my hair has started to fall out,” has been my typical reply. 

Globally, we call it a pandemic. Nationally, we will grudgingly admit that what we are experiencing is a crisis. Collectively as well as individually, I only have one name for what we are all experiencing: trauma. 

I’m no history buff, but as I have studied and trained in the art and science of healing trauma, I’ve been asked to explore a few lessons in history. We all recognize war as a trauma that will lead to PTSD, and it is the psychological symptoms of soldiers that sparked a big push in trauma research. As veterans began to tell their stories of trauma, the story in many cases proceeded down two lines. First, it was the story about the actual trauma of war. Second, it was the story of returning to a deeply divided homeland with two warring sides of social and political ideologies. 

Many times in the history of our nation, Americans- soldiers and civilians, individually and collectively- have had to endure and survive the experience of actual war or living in a time of war, while also having to endure and survive the chaos and turmoil of peaceful protests turned violent and of hate speech flowing freely in the town and national squares and free press. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Not only are we enduring and surviving a global pandemic that has threatened and taken lives, we are also enduring and surviving the chaos and turmoil of a deeply divided homeland where hate speech flows freely in the town and national squares as well as in the media, where peaceful protests erupt into violence, and armed protests pose a highly observable threat to life on top of the invisible threat to life we were already trying to reckon with. 

Thanks to the years of research and the soldiers who participated in those early studies, we are now able to recognize the symptoms of trauma in other populations and related to other life-threatening events. This is why when people tell me that they are having panic attacks in stores or that their blood pressure is at an all time high, I can recognize the physiological arousal symptoms of trauma. When people tell me that they are having disturbing dreams or straight up nightmares, I can check off the sleep disturbance criteria of trauma. When I hear stories about avoiding places, people, or activities due to the anxiety it causes during this global pandemic, and I know that this meets some of the behavioral criteria of trauma. 

When I see heated debates that amount to nothing more than character assassinations over cloth masks, I want to gently insert myself and request that all parties take a deep breath and notice what is going on in their bodies. Because, that my dear, anxious friend, is what we call being triggered and responding from a place of unacknowledged and unhealed trauma. With that being said, I’m going to propose to all of us, individually and collectively, that this is too much for anyone. There is not a single central nervous system in the land that is immune to being completely overwhelmed by this. This is trauma, and it will leave its mark in us all. You will likely notice some symptoms in your body, in your mood, and in your behaviors. This is to be expected. Your body and mind are trying to help you survive. 

Thankfully, the years of research have also taught us some things about healing trauma, the first step of which is to call it what it is: trauma. Since I cannot do justice nor is it my intent try to resolve the effects of trauma, of war, or of the deep wounds we hold as a nation or as individuals in one short post, my hope is that some part of this story has helped you to recognize and name some of your own experiences during a global and national crisis. Even more, I hope it has helped you to understand that much of what you are experiencing is a normal response to an overwhelming event. 

My hope is to open up a conversation that is helpful, and since this is a big topic and full of nuance, detail, and personal experience, I’d love to continue the conversation. So far, I’ve only been able to talk about trauma and the current crisis in a very general, very abbreviated way, so if there is something you’d like to discuss more, please leave a comment in the comment section. 

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Considering the New Normal for a Very Long Summer

Last time, I left you in terrible suspense about whether or not we would obtain lightbulbs for our kitchen before the sun went down, so I’m going to let you know that we did not receive the light bulbs for 5 days after the order was placed. I was forced to cook our beef tenderloin in less than optimal lighting that night, and I think that might be the epitome of first world problems. 

We picked up the long-awaited light bulbs a couple of nights ago, and replaced only one of the burned out bulbs. As it would turn out, we have grown accustomed to the mood lighting provided by 2 out of the 4 bulbs and found any more light than that offensive to our eyes and spirits during this time, so we have yet to replace the remaining 2 burned out bulbs. Maybe this is our version of flying flags at half mast; we express our Corona grief by illuminating our kitchen at only half capacity. 

Wheelchair
A work in progress…

In other news, there is now a wheelchair taking up residence in my driveway, which is by far the most exotic item my child has brought home from her exploits in the neighborhood. The neighborhood girl gang spent an entire morning embellishing the wheelchair with beads and stickers and by attaching pieces of old trophies to the handlebars. The piece de resistance, however, is the string of brightly colored flags one would generally find at a car lot wrapped around the entirety of this neighborhood art project. 

Obviously, this called for a socially-distanced parade, and the entire day was spent by all the neighborhood children riding up and down the hill of the neighborhood. In all my fantasies about being a parent, I never once expected that I would have to help negotiate taking turns and lecture about sharing in regards to a wheelchair. All I can really say is that Corona parenting is trippy, y’all. 

By the end of the weekend, there were plans for a neighborhood socially-distanced lemonade stand, cupcake bake-off, and Olympic competitions. Once again, I am reminded that this neighborhood and the spirit of not only looking out for each other but also enjoying each other is a real blessing, and yet, somewhere in all that planning for activities that are usually saved for the summer, it hit me: this is it. This is the new normal. This is how it is now and for the foreseeable future, and something about that felt very sobering.

You see, we have been one-day-at-a-timing this thing for what feels like an eternity. Our school assignments come in one day at a time. My work schedule has changed almost daily as the needs of my clients have changed. It seems that we’ve all been holding our breath until this thing passes, much like I find myself holding my breath in Walmart if I find that I have no other option but to walk past another person in the aisle. And, well, neither one of those things is sustainable long-term. At some point, I’m going to need to breathe, and we’re all going to need to make some plans beyond what snacks we’re going to eat tomorrow. 

This realization ended up being the theme for the week, as I spoke with various people about their impending return to work or a choice they were having to make about a potential trip. The fact of the matter is, the mandated, universal protocols that we should all be following are beginning to fade, and we are being released into the world with only our homemade masks and our good judgement and common sense. God help us, right?! Things are so much easier when clear lines are drawn and so much harder when we must make judgement calls. 

My mind has been busy this week, trying to wrap itself around what this new normal may look like for this little family. I’ve been trying to imagine how comfortable I might feel eating in a restaurant or going to the gym surrounded by masked faces and gloved hands. More immediately, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around taking my child into a store for the first time, because she is spending most of her time barefoot right now and the shipping of those shoes I ordered weeks ago keeps being delayed. At the rate she is growing, by the time the shoes actually arrive, there is a good chance they won’t fit anymore. Pretty soon, the aid of a measuring tool and the ability to try some shoes on her actual feet is going to be necessary, so what good judgement and common sense looks like in that scenario has been my mental gymnastics for the week. 

It makes me grateful that the new TV I ordered arrived in time for an end of the week respite. If only shoes would arrive as quickly as televisions, but at this juncture, perhaps a new TV will keep us from actually needing to put on shoes for a little while longer. Our brains are very tired from navigating the unknowns and uncertainties of this interesting and odd time we are living in, and a little time being entertained with little effort required from us is exactly what is needed.

After all, we need to be rested for the next round of weekend wheelchair parades, national lemonade day celebrations, and cupcake competitions…and whatever else gets dreamed up this weekend. Here’s to new normals and neighborhood entertainment: may they keep us sane during a very long summer.

 

Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker

I just finished an early copy of Jen Hatmaker’s new book: Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, and I cannot remember the last time a book kept my eyes full of tears for so many reasons.
She went deep with the authenticity and spoke to the wounds we all carry as women, and she also kept us howling with laughter at the totally relatable challenges of life. In the end, she empowered us in a truly loving way to LET GO of the all the lies holding us back, to courageously step into our true natures, and to go into the world and carry out our very real purposes.
And listen, this was no short-lived, sugary sweet inspirational message that is powerful today and worn off by tomorrow. Oh no, this message was the kind that digs deep, sticks in your heart and mind, and wrestles with you until you come out the other side a more whole version yourself.
If you are looking for something of substance that will genuinely engage you in some transformative work, you will find it here.

Filling My Heart Through Trauma-Informed Weight Loss

Heart Jar

At the New Year, I set an intention to create a practice of embodiment and decided to re-evaluate what I was doing to manage my weight given what I have come to know about trauma. We all seem to understand that stress and trauma impact the way we eat and the way our bodies metabolize what we eat, and yet, we all still seem to suffer under the delusion that weight loss is something that is performance-based, will power dependent, and a commentary on our moral character. Wanting to avoid this seemingly universal pitfall, I decided that if I were going to try to lose weight again, the way that I did it was going to have to feed my soul somehow. 

When it comes to trauma, the issues around eating and weight are the symptoms and not the problem. The real problem is the unhealed trauma. When we focus solely on addressing the symptoms, we fail to address the real problem and therefore find ourselves stuck in a pattern of disappointment and failure when we can’t keep the weight off. Life is short, friends, and I don’t want to spend one more second of it inside of this negative pattern, so I set out to find a way to address the real issues that would result in real healing and then hopefully translate into lifelong healthy habits and a healthy weight to match. 

To me, creating a lifelong habit begins with keeping it simple and easy. Basically, we begin with what we already have and already know. I began by returning to a habit of tracking my meals in the Fitness Pal app. I wasn’t really worried about meeting the goals set by the app, I just wanted to be mindful of what I was eating and how often. This is the only habit I focused on for a week.

At the end of the week, I had lost a pound, so I spent some time reflecting on what I had done that week that felt healing to me. This was the week that I had hit my breaking point with the clutter in my house, particularly on our table. I had spent the previous weekend re-arranging the furniture in 3 rooms in our house so that we had a more functional space. As we lived in our new arrangement that week, we ate more meals together and those meal times were less rushed and much more pleasant. 

I decided that being mindful of these things was going to be a super important part of the process if it was going to be successful, and so I created a little therapeutic exercise out of it. I took an empty jewelry-sized gift box and filled it with small, decorative stones. They represent the things that are keeping me stuck, holding me back, and preventing me from obtaining my healthy goals. I also took a glass jar shaped like a heart, and it is waiting for me to fill it up with new, healthy thoughts, habits, and intentions. The idea is that with each pound lost, I take a stone from the pile of “dead weight”, hold it in my hand while I mindfully let go of what was working against me, and then as I place it in my heart, I mindfully fill my heart with the new healthy habit.

For the first week where I rearranged the furniture in my house, I practiced this mindfulness technique by setting the intention that I was letting go of cluttered, unworkable space and filling my heart with ordered, workable space. Obviously, that is a big project that can’t be completed overnight, but with the intention set, I’ve found that I really do make it a priority to get a little bit done each week.

The next week, I continued the pattern of being mindful by tracking my meals, still not worrying too much about meeting calorie goals or tracking macros or any of that. I continued to try to create order and workable space a little bit at a time. When I lost another pound at the end of that week, I again reflected upon what felt healing to me that week, and it was my confirmation into the Episcople church after spending several years without a faith community. That week as I picked up a stone from the pile and held it in my hand, I set the intention that I was letting go of isolation and filling my heart with community.

I continued into the 3rd week being mindful of what and how often I was eating and prioritizing orderly space and community. The third week was much more difficult. I started physical therapy for issues in my neck and back and had been in a great deal of pain. When I lost a pound, I set the intention that was releasing physical pain and filling my heart with a practice of attending to and caring for the pain. What I have learned as I have been mindful of the pain is that my body craves carbs and sugar when it is in pain and sleep deprived. I’ve also learned that pain is an enormous trigger to past trauma and the old patterns of compulsive behaviors, like eating my feelings. 

Being aware that all of those things are working inside of my mind-body system, I have had much more realistic expectations for my health this week. As in, I do not expect to lose weight this week. I won’t be surprised or devastated if I gain a little of the weight back. While I have continued to mindfully track my meals, my focus has been on managing my pain by making sure I’m taking my medicines on time, doing my physical therapy exercises, that I’m practicing correct posture, that I’m spending quality time with my heating pad, and that I’m keeping appointments with my therapist. It’s ok if I don’t lose weight this week; my body may have other priorities right now. And if I continue to be mindful about my nutrition, I won’t get way off track and will be much more able to jump back into losing weight when my pain is managed. 

I have found myself to be much more grounded with this exercise when it comes to my health and weight. My expectations feel more in line with reality, and honestly, I feel like I am actually working towards healing my body rather than punishing it or pushing it to perform a certain way. There is no restricting or withholding from myself in this way of doing things. In fact, it is more like I’m giving myself a gift each time. I’m filling my heart with something that will benefit my whole life for the long haul and not a superficial band-aid fix. 

This is my sincere wish for everyone who has experienced trauma and its effects on the body: to be grounded, healthy, happy, and healed. May we all give ourselves such a lovely gift in whatever ways that we can. If we are going to lose the weight of anything, let it be the weight of stress, hurt, and pain. If we are to gain anything, let it be peace and healing.

 

Thoughts of Faith or Errors in Thinking?

lilian-dibbern-GX1Dz9cZHc0-unsplash
Photo by Lilian Dibbern on Unsplash

If, like me, you were raised in the church, then I’m sure at some point you became aware of the Christian dialogue around suffering and negative experiences. This dialogue can range anywhere between warm, emotionally-laden sentimentality to cold judgment and blame. As a result, I have noticed that people of faith often struggle with how to think about, feel about, and respond to the negative events that occur in their lives, whether those events are stressful seasons or full-blown traumatic events. By the time they arrive to the therapy couch, their poor minds are full to the brim with platitudes, judgments, superficial encouragement, and scriptures taken out of context and sloppily applied to their situation. They are exhausted from the mental gymnastics of trying to be faithful in the middle of trial. I’m hoping today that we can unpack some of that dynamic and bring some peace to weary minds. 

First, let’s talk about how negative experiences are part and parcel of life. They are universal experiences that happen to us all, and no one exits this life without experiencing a few hard times. Yet, people of faith often struggle with some magical thinking around this concept, attributing a minor infraction on their part to be the cause of misfortune, large or small. Typically, I will kindly point out that I must in the presence of a person of great power if they are able to control the world that way, and yes, that kind of power and responsibility is likely to produce a great deal of stress. 

Light sarcasm and humor aside, the error in this thinking typically runs along the lines of a belief that says “If I would have been a better person, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened to me”. Whew, talk about pressure! But unfortunately, this thinking error typically doesn’t travel alone. It is often accompanied by another belief that says “Since it did happen to me, I must be bad”, and with that, along comes the final belief in this trifecta of self-blame that says, “Since I am bad enough for this thing to happen to me, I really must deserve it”. And with that, my faithful friend is buried beneath the heaviest pile of shame and undeserved blame a human can endure. 

With this new belief system in place in the mind, now every negative event is filtered through it. Over time, this becomes a negative feedback loop that reinforces the belief and creates behaviors to prove that the belief is true. People may struggle with this for months, years, or decades before reaching out for help. Sadly, some never do reach out and spend a lifetime under the enormous weight of shame. I hope to prevent that fate for as many people as possible, so may I offer you a few new thoughts if you find yourself nodding in recognition of any part of the pattern I’ve mentioned above?

First of all, know that your Creator wired you in such a mind-blowingly beautiful way to manage negative experiences that helps you survive, cope, and heal. Built inside of you is everything you need to preserve your well-being and survive under stress. Even your negative emotions serve their purposes inside of this mechanism, as they are the warning bell that sends the necessary systems into action to act for your protection and safety. 

Second, you are doing nothing wrong and everything right when you experience those negative emotions and uncomfortable sensations. When we try to shut down the first sign of discomfort or anxiety, we are disrupting that holy and life-giving mechanism that is working towards managing, mitigating, and mending the stressful, painful, or traumatic stimuli. 

Finally, allow the process to do its good work in you. We are better served by accepting the reality of the negative situation, calling it what it is, and allowing (even welcoming) the temporary, uncomfortable emotions and negative states and letting them do their work. Ride the wave, baby. Once the wave has crested (and it always does), engage in some serious self-care individually and inside of a safe, connected community. 

You don’t have to carry the weight of the world, friends of faith. Jesus was human, too. He knows about riding the waves the negative experiences, and he set a pretty great example of how to care for oneself during those stressful seasons. Whether he was retreating to the mountains for some alone time, reclining at a table with his closest friends, or spending time in prayer and meditation, all of those practices were serving a very human need for healing and managing stress. I mean, the man also did a fair amount of walking, so you even have a case for cardio, if that’s your thing. 

Over all, my wish for people of faith is to experience the peace and freedom promised by an active, healthy spiritual life. I really believe the first step in that direction is checking our thoughts and making sure that they are in line with the reality of our human experiences and limits, as well as our faith experiences. If the process of unpacking those thoughts starts to feel a little confusing or entirely overwhelming, then reach out for support from a trusted source, be it a trusted member of your faith community or a professional therapist. I promise you won’t regret the journey.

 

 

Building Me

Build_Bracelet

As a psychotherapist, personality is a topic that comes up frequently in my conversations with clients. Over the years, I’ve noticed that it is not uncommon for people to critically judge their innate personality traits as flaws in their character rather than perceive these traits as useful information about their identities. Therefore, I spend a significant amount of time helping clients to remove these critical self-judgements and learn to appreciate their attributes for the strengths and limits that they are. 

Recently, at the end of a week full of personality and identity work, I became curious about my own personality profile. I wondered if anything had changed, given that I am now 5 years into my journey of recovery. I often joke that I feel like I have been 400 different people in my lifetime, and I guess a part of me wanted to know if there was any truth to that. The only way I could think of measuring that change would be to break out the ol’ Myers-Briggs again and see where I stood, so I logged onto the test that I often recommend and completed the inventory again.

Personality tends to be pretty static across the lifetime, so you may wonder why I would even entertain the notion that my profile would change. My curiosity was based on the fact that while I have always scored as a clear, died-in-the-wool introvert at 80% on the introversion-extraversion scale, the other scales didn’t come out as clearly defined. This was especially true for the thinking versus feeling scale, on which I scored a 49-51 split. 

Given the ENORMOUS amount of effort that I have put forth in my recovery to actually *feel* my feelings rather than think my feelings, I wanted to know if that moved the needle at all in how I see the world and respond to my environment. Perhaps some anxiety was beneath my curiosity, as I found myself entertaining concerns that indulging some of my intellectual interests may have inadvertently canceled out all the work I’ve done on feeling my feelings and trying (mostly unsuccessfully so far) to be in my body rather than in my head. Basically, I wanted some indication that all this work I’ve been doing on myself was having some sort of effect. 

When I reached the end of the test and clicked submit, I was actually surprised, but more so,  pleased to see that I had once again scored as an INFP. Even as I continued to read through the profile and was reminded of the fact that this personality profile makes up only 4% of the population and is one of the profiles that is most often misunderstood by others, I didn’t let that dash my feelings of hope. Because, well, first of all, that whole misunderstood thing is a true story and I have plenty of experience to back that up. Second, the percentages of my scores for each scale had become more clearly defined. No more riding the fence for this girl. I’ve officially crossed over into the land of 4%, where I’m sure “my people” live. 

I honestly didn’t expect those results to feel as deeply satisfying as they did. Whatever concerns I took with me into the re-taking of this assessment were resolved with these scores. Whatever doubts I had lingering in the back of mind about whether or not all of this work I have been putting into my recovery was yielding results were put to rest. The numbers tell me that everything I have done, from the small and mundane habit changes to the enormously challenging emotional overhauls, has been effective. 

In fact, it deepened my identity. Within the community of trauma recovery, we talk a great deal about healing trauma as a way of coming home to ourselves, and I believe that appears to be what is at work within me. The work of recovery hasn’t taken me to the other side of a personality spectrum, essentially swapping out an “old me” with a “new me”; it has strengthened the me that was always there- the core that had become hidden as layer after layer of trauma, of trying to manage the expectations of others, and of people-pleasing piled on top of me. 

This discovery was a really lovely way to begin the new year. If I am to resolve anything for 2020, it is simply going to be “more me”. Being the 4% oddball that I am, my word for the year doesn’t come to me at the New Year, it comes to me on my birthday, so I am 6 months into the year of “build”. In those 6 months, I have been actively building career and community, so it only seems fitting that the last 6 months of my 39th year would focus on building me. 

After all, a truer sense of self is the best gift I could give myself on my 40th birthday, don’t you agree?