I've told this story a few times before. It happened in November 2014. It was the week of Thanksgiving and I was on the verge of a 4-month battle with severe depression. I say "verge" because, even though the depression had technically set in, those first few weeks were nothing compared to the rock-bottom I would encounter throughout the months of December, January and February. Talking with my good friend Clifton, I balled my fists up and huffed at him with frustration, "I just want to go back to normal."
It was clear though that my "normal" had brought me to this destination already: tired, anxious, burnt out and unable to keep the facade of "driven, inspiring young woman" going any longer. I was at the end of myself.
"When a tree gets struck by lightning it never goes back to normal," Clifton said. "It makes a new kind of normal."
Making a new "normal" is a monotonous task. I won't sugarcoat it and make you think otherwise. When your life falls apart-- or when you realize you are in grave danger of soon holding in your hands the remains of a life that has fallen apart-- the trek towards something different isn't easy. The road is rarely paved. The signs on the trees don't give clear directions. Much of forging a new life feels like fumbling around in the darkness until you find that next patch of light that tells you, "keep going."
I only write this because I've been let down by way too many covers of Women's Health magazine before. I've bought into the "7 simple steps" and the "transformation in 8 weeks or less." I've wanted transformation, rebuilding, all of it, to be as simple as the world told me it could be. It's not though. Baby steps aren't sexy but they're real.
ROUTINE IS KING
I go through gaps in my therapy where I feel like there is nothing to talk about. Friends, let me assure you that there will alway be something to talk about. It's in those gaps that my therapist will ask me, "What's coming up?"
She knew over a month ago that I have a very busy fall coming up. I am speaking at a dozen places. I am working on a book. I am getting married in less than 3 months. It's a time of craziness.
A month ago, we started poking holes in my schedule and asking the good questions: How will you continue to work out when you're staying in hotels? What food do you want to eat on the road? When will you rest? How will you handle meal prep?
I am the sort of person who thrives on routine. I need routine to feel my best and do my best. So our mission has become this: how do we keep "normal" happening in the midst of a chaotic calendar?
Here comes a small handful of things I did to ensure my routine stays intact for the next few months:
- I went ahead and ordered a bunch of toiletries, snacks and household items in advance from Amazon Prime Pantry. This way, I am not overwhelmed when I come home from a trip because I need toilet paper or ran out of toothpaste.
- I bought extras of items like razors, toothbrushes, and even my iPhone charger so I could keep one set in my suitcase and another in my home. Losing things can seriously throw you off your A-game so why not keep extra?
- I packaged up little "snack packs" for each speaking engagement ahead. I fill quart-sized baggies from IKEA with my favorite beef jerky, granola bars, vitamins, etc. so I am prepared for every airport and rest stop I come across.
- I am planning to look at my calendar in the next few days and draw a big "NO" over some of the dates from now until December. That "NO" will symbolize a day where I cannot pour myself out through coffee dates, meetings, or social events. If I don't carve out my rest in advance then I cannot complain when the fatigue shows up at my door with a cup of coffee and a tired grin.
If you know that you are the kind of person who thrives with a routine then you will have to fight extra hard to keep that routine when things start to feel chaotic.
RECORD YOUR VICTORIES
Plain and simple, you are the sum of your victories. You've already told yourself-- for far too long-- how you don't manage to add up. What if you added something else up instead? When I was in the middle of the woods-- that severe depression that hollowed me out-- I would make lists of all the tasks I managed to accomplish. My lists held things like "did my hair" and "went to a diner" or "sent an email to Tammy."
You would think those tasks were too small. However, when I added them all up, they meant something. They meant I was living. They meant I had kept on living. They meant I hadn't gone back to bed that day. And on the days when I couldn't do anything but go back to bed, they meant that I would be able to start again. I would not have to go back to START. I could pick back up at Victory #17 or wherever I'd stopped.
RETRAIN YOUR MOUTH
I am still working on this one every day. I have a great ability to talk down to myself and belittle my own progress. I need reminders (too often) of just how powerful language is.
For a long time, I said I suffered from depression. I placed myself into a victim role when I said the word "suffer." It's not that I didn't struggle, grapple or, yes, even suffer at times. There were 2am hours full of night terrors for an entire month where I know I suffered. However, there are better ways to acknowledge my mental illness.
I deal with depression. That is what I say now. To say I "deal" with depression implies that I am handling it. I am figuring it out. I am applying new wisdom daily. I am learning the foods I should eat in large quantities that will curb my anxiety and the foods I should steer clear of. I am learning about supplements and natural treatments. I am dealing with it.
I like the idea of "dealing" with depression because it gives me more control. I deserve more control. Because here's the thing: I am not my depression. I am not defined by it or confined by it. It happened to me. It still happens to me. My depression does not, on any day of the week, give me a new name though. It will never have that sort of permission.
No mental illness, no horrific tragedy, no person who did you wrong or left you broken is allowed to name you. It does not work that way, no matter what other people tell you.
This is your life. These are your lungs. This is your space. You get to breathe here and you get control over the language that covers you. Let them be good words. Let them be kind words.