Let them see you sweat.

I recently joined a gym.  For the last three weeks I have gone faithfully at least three times each week.  I’ve scheduled time on my calendar during my workdays and I have kept the appointment.  I have decided that my health is a non-negotiable and that when I have a date with myself, I will show up.  

This only happened after I learned, deep down, that I’ve had the order of things backwards for a long time.  You see, I used to think: When I start getting more fit and less flabby, I will love myself.  And now I think: I love myself.  Period.  And what follows is this: When you love someone, you take good care of her.  You take her to the doctor.  You feed her food that makes her body feel good and work at its best.  You let her rest when she is tired.  You help her body get strong and you give her whatever permission she needs to be well.  

(And, it also took a dear person, an angel, really, to sneak into my calendar and hold time.  And sneak me brochures and prices of nearby gyms.  You know who you are.  You plant the seeds at just the right time.)

And as beautiful as that is, loving myself is hard to do sometimes when I walk in there.  It’s a super-friendly place.  I chose it only after looking at lots of options.  I like it.  The staff is great.  All that.  But me? I’m very different than I was the last time I seriously worked out in a real gym.  I remember my strength and conditioning class at Liberty High School, back when I was, well, in HIGH SCHOOL and training for track and tennis and basketball.  And I was fast and I was strong.  And now?  That isn’t the story anymore. I’m a little uncomfortable with myself.  It’s like I’ve shown up to this date with myself and I get there and the gal looks WAY different than I had imagined.  30 pounds heavier, a lot slower around the track, and not bench pressing like she used to.  It’s like a bad on-line dating experience.  Expectations are no match for reality.  

I’ve noticed one thought, one narrative that keeps showing up when I’m at the gym: I don’t want others to think it’s hard for me.  Which is so bizarre–because this is a place that is actually dedicated to the pursuit of challenge.  People come here to literally give themselves a hard time, to push limits, to stretch themselves, all to get stronger and build endurance.  People come here to sweat.  And I don’t want them to see me sweat.   AT THE GYM.  So I’m poised on the stationary bike like a princess just taking it easy.  Or doing leg extensions and trying to make sure I’m not too breathy since I’m only lifting, like, 4 pounds.  I tried to bench press 15 pounds yesterday and was shaking from the weight.  Puh-lease!  I look around hoping no one sees my shaky hands or the tiny weights.   

I don’t want anyone to think it’s hard for me.  

And there it is.  That sentence has two parts:  I don’t want anyone to think…..it’s hard for me.  I struggle so much with wanting to control what others think of me.  And I struggle so much with thinking that if I was really good, then nothing would be hard for me.  I don’t like others to see me sweat.  Or maybe I don’t like coming face to face with the reality that some stuff is beyond my capacity.  Maybe I don’t like that I have limits.  That I’m human.  It’s all a bit too…vulnerable for me. 

When a colleague gives me critical feedback on a paper I wrote, I cringe.  When someone on our staff questions a decision I made, I get scared.  When I don’t know an answer that I think I should know, I am embarrased.  Somehow, somewhere, I have connected love and acceptance with perfetion.  And not just perfection, but perfection with ease.  When I’m effortlessly strong and good and competent at all things big and small, then I will be worthy of love and acceptance.  I have to say, this is not ideal.  This is a hard gig to keep up for longer than, say, 12 seconds at a time.  

So far I’ve loved myself enough to keep showing up.  And then I get there and I am asked to love myself in my weakness, in my struggle, in my confusion about gym equipment.  I am asked to love my 35 year old self.  I am asked if I will come back tomorrow.  I am asked if I only love this gal if she’s perfect or if I’ll take a chance on showing up again tomorrow and facing my limits again.  I say yes.   I’ll keep showing up.  Because the right question isn’t “what do I want them to think of me?”  The question is “how do I want to live in this moment?”  Do I want to live scared and, as Brene’ Brown says, “hustling for my own worthiness?” or do I want to live out of deep, unconditional love?  Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, asks: “If Love could speak, what would it say?” I think Love would say “Let them see you sweat, darling.  And here, have some water to cool you off.”

What’s most important.

My oldest son, 7, asked me a question today while I was folding laundry (my second least favorite household chore, next to putting the laundry away). “Mom, what is the most important thing?” I paused, looked at him with my most curious glance, and asked him what he meant. He meant: what matters most?

I pause. If I couldn’t speak and he could assess what mattered most to me based only on my actions, what would he see? Some days, he would see that what matters most is that people like and approve of me. Some days, he’d see that what matters most is that I’m right. Some days he’d probably say what matters most to me is getting everywhere on time. I think that how we live each moment is an exact expression of what matters most to us then. And that what matters most to us in all these moments rarely matches the stuff we spout out when we’re trying to impress others about what great people we are.

Back to the moment with my kiddo. I said: “Everyone answers that question differently. Some people will say that their health is the most important thing–because if you’re not healthy, you can’t do what you love. Some will say that their work is the most important thing. Some say God. Some say family. I’m curious about you. What’s most important to you?”

He said, “God. Then my family. Then, my life.” I stopped folding and just gave him my most solid mom look and said those things were all on my list too.

(I’d like to say I should get 3 mom points for this moment. Which should make up for the 3 mom points I lost this week at the elementary school at orientation when he told his new principal that his mom overslept and he ate cheetos and chocolate milk for breakfast and played video games while he waited on his mother to get up.)

I try hard not to make up ‘supposed tos’ when they aren’t useful. Like, what good moms are supposed to do with their children on weekends or cook for dinner. How many times am I supposed to give my kids a bath? Go out with my friends? Leave town without my family? What are the rules, universe?! Just tell me what I’m supposed to do! Supposed tos are short-cuts to answers that keep us oriented outward, away from our own wisdom and intuition. I’ve tried to avoid over-using them with my boys so they know that their compass is the life inside them, not some directioness dot that keeps changing position in the evolving social climate.

So I don’t believe I’ve ever said to my son: “This is how you’re supposed to care about things: God, then family, then yourself.” We’ve been searching for a church home lately and a little out of touch with a regular sanctuary (though we have church all the time in other places). So I was surprised to hear him say this since it’s the kind of a thing he’d hear about in that Sunday School class he’s not going to. And I was really hopeful that it is what is really true to his own heart.

He starts second grade tomorrow. He’s walking into a new school, one much bigger than the primary school he attended for Kindergarten and first grade. This is the year, per his teacher’s welcome note, that he transitions from “learning to read to reading to learn.” It feels big to me. And so I told him two things before I kissed him goodnight: First, there are so many people who love and care for him and who will watch over him. Me, dad, bus drivers, older kids, teachers, librarians, God–God is always with you. And second, that he’s got a big, good, brave heart (because we also believe that God lives in us) and he can choose to do stuff that matches his heart or he can choose to do stuff that matches other kids (or the ‘supposed tos’.) Doing the right thing means doing the thing that matches what is most important to him.

I reminded him: You are loved. You have the divine with you and in you. You can trust yourself.

Three lessons I have spent my life learning over and over again.

Integrity–the actual definition of it–is about being whole. It’s about having all things aligned. That what we say lines up with what we do, for istance. What I didn’t tell my son in the dining room today was that sometimes what we say is most important to us doesn’t always match how we live. A year ago I was in a group of colleagues saying that my health was really important to me. And a quick inventory of my behavior demonstrated that it was actually at the bottom of my list. No annual physical in years; prescriptions lapsing without a care; no regular exercise in months; a diet that did not make me feel well; and a pretty consistent neglect of my own body and mind. Neglect is a strong word–and it’s what a professional would have called it if I were talking about how I treated a child. But since it was my own body, it was perfectly acceptable.

Big things happen when we tell ourselves the truth. Miracles happen when we love ourselves through our own lack of integrity.

What would happen if for an entire day, I lived as though I really believed I was loved no matter what, I have the divine in me, and I can trust myself? How would I handle being hurt by a colleague’s rude remarks? How would I handle praise or a wonderful gift? How would I react to a bad diagnosis? How would I talk to my kids after they misbehave in public? With whom would I spend my time?

I invite you to join me in getting honest with yourself this week about what matters most. What do you say matters most? How do your moments and days match that? And when you see the big, gaping holes, respond to yourself with love bigger than all the gaps you see. When you see that what you thought was most important was your family yet every moment you spent with them you were actually on your phone scrolling through facebook. When you see that what you thought was most important was showing kindness and yet you were too afraid to make eye contact with the homeless man at the library. Respond to yourself with love. Miracles will happen in your heart when you get brave enough to tell yourself the truth and when you get soft enough to love yourself through it.

A Depression Story

My story of depression is one story of hundreds of thousands of stories.  I tell it for one main reason: once we name something, once we step outside of it by speaking it, we gain power over it.  The storyteller gets to shape the narrative even as the narrative shapes her.  There’s another reason to tell my truth: maybe others can borrow strength from my story.   At church this week we recited a Canadian statement of faith, the first line of which is “We are not alone in this world.”  Yes.

My depression story officially began when I was 16, though I had a hunch that something was out of whack much earlier than that. Sixteen was the year that I got official help–from a doctor, therapist, and pharmacist and pastor.

The help I got was kind and gentle and compassionate. The help I got was from people who loved and cared about me and who were smart about how brains worked. They did not place blame for my ‘ disease’ as they called it; they did not indicate that I should feel shame. They gave me a safe space to talk about it.

And I was grateful for the help. I was grateful, mostly, that someone was listening to what was happening, affirming that it wasn’t how I had to feel forever, and that there was a way ‘out.’

Yet, I was not sure the help I got was the right help. I hated taking the pill.  I hated telling my friends I was depressed.  Crazy.  I felt shame.  I felt like it was a part of me that I should hide.  I knew it was more than that and was curious, but was weak and was doing what all the experts said.  They treated a mental illness. They had a recipe for sadness and irritability and negative thoughts and anxiety. Their recipe was an SSRI (Prozac, 20 mg daily), counseling, prayer. Their recipe was designed to help my body have more of this neurotransmitter that I clearly lacked, to have space to talk about all the things that must have led to the disappearance of the neurotransmitter, and some spiritual intervention that would help me know, I guess, that I was loved enough for someone to intervene to the heavens on my behalf.

This has been the recipe for the last 19 years of my life. This recipe, when I’ve followed it, has kept my depression at bay.  The alleviation of my symptoms has been really helpful.  And it has come with its own consequences.  Side effects.   And most disturbing, the actual truth that the depression was still there.  Underneath the prozac, my body was still not well.  It was still tired and weak and foggy.  So for 19 years, I’ve turned the volume down on tired and weak and foggy.  But what I really longed for was to actually be alive and well and clear.

This recipe–the recipe that contains drugs that mute symptoms and that gives therapy for changing thoughts and behaviors–it forgets a really basic question that no one–no doctor, no psychiatrist, no counselor, no nurse, no pastor, noone in 19 years ever, ever asked: why does Amanda’s body not make enough of this essential thing, serotonin, that she needs to feel good? No one asked anything about my physical body. So they were creating a recipe that would alter my mind–and I knew all along that my depression was in my body.

Before I move on, do you notice the disconnect? Do you notice how strange it is that everyone isolated my ‘disease’ to my mind? That we even talk about the mind and body as two separate things? There’s this assumption that is so deep we hardly notice it anymore: the mind is powerful and is in charge of everything. And can be treated separately from the body–as if the mind were located somewhere outside of our physical selves, in a command center miles away.  Last time I checked, my mind was actually attached in really permanent ways to my body, and is, in fact, part of it.

No expert ever acted as though the two were connected.  No one asked me the one question that would assure me they understood that my mind was actually a part of my physical body–and that my whole body needed attention.

It wasn’t because they didn’t have clues.  Oh, I gave them clues. Every single person with whom I’ve shared my depression story has heard the same line from me when I give them the symptoms: “It never starts with sadness. I’m great with sadness. I feel it, I value it, I learn from it, I embrace it, and I eventually allow it to pass. It always, every time, starts with physical fatigue. I’m really tired. I’m so tired in my body that all I want to do is sleep. I’m compelled to sleep. I nap all the time. I go to bed early. I sleep late. I sleep so much that the next thing that happens is that my appetite goes away. It’s like I’m hibernating. It’s like all I need is rest and I have no need for nourishment. I physically shut down. And going days and days like that starts to take a toll on my mind. What I first notice in my thoughts is not sadness or anxiety, but simple fogginess–like I can’t remember what I just read in a book or I kind of glaze over when people are talking to me. And all that means that I feel incredibly weak–physically unable to do anything of value. So I withdraw. Because going out with friends is a real chore. Reading is a chore. Eating is a chore. So I’m alone, lonely, foggy, weak. So when anything at all stressful happens, I am so exhausted that I feel I can’t take it. And the only expression of help-seeking I have left in me is to weep in isolation. Or, to get in my car and drive. I would do that a lot. Because I wouldn’t want to be this way in front of people. Because I’ve built an identity on being competent and bright and witty and wise. And to let anyone really see me weak and weepy and foggy was too much. So I’d drive.   I would hide.  I would think “I just don’t want to be anywhere right now.” And so driving would allow me to be in between places. There was great comfort in that for me in my darkest days. And one time, a sophomore in college (before the death of my brother, not after), I drove in the dark. And I was in so much physical pain, I was suffering so much. I wanted someone to help me, but I didn’t want the same kind of help. I wanted help for my body. I wanted, too, a good and socially acceptable reason to be ‘nowhere’ for a while. So I turned my headlights off as I was driving at midnight down a two-lane road between Richmond and Bedford. I wanted someone to crash into me. I wanted my body to feel alive again–and I wanted to get help and I wanted to do both in a way that wasn’t so shameful. And if we’re all honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that a woman in a hospital bed from a car crash is much more OK than a woman in a hospital bed because she’s crazy.

A car came by and I quickly and quietly turned my lights back on and I found my way back home to Bedford, VA.  I screamed in pain as I drove.  I got home about 2am.  I slept on the couch and told my mom I’d talk to her in the morning. We did talk in the morning and I told her what I did and she called for help and I did end up in the hospital. The hospital for crazy people. At 18 years old, I was locked on a long hallway of middle-aged people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, multiple personalities, and drug addictions. I did not feel safe. I did not feel loved. I was not allowed to go outside.  I was not allowed to do any of the things that would actually help me feel well.  I found my way out of there only by promising I’d return to the treatment plan.  So I did.  Prozac, counseling.

There are more of these stories, though not all lead to the hospital. There is the story of being so paralyzed on the job in my twenties that I literally couldn’t get out of the car and go into a conference.  There is the story of post-partum depression that left me unable to feed, clothe, or play with my first-born son for most of his third month of life. My story has lots of smaller stories of depression. And every single one of them begins with fatigue. Not sadness.

Just about a month ago, at age 35, I went to another doctor. I tried again telling my story and saying: Prozac helps, it really does. And counseling helps, sort of. But I think there’s more to it. And I want to really be well, to be all the things my body is capable of being. And I think that taking this medicine is missing something really big.  And–I think that this idea that I need a way ‘out’ of depression is sort of missing the point.  I think I need a way INTO the depression because I think it has something to tell me–and not just about my mind or my circumstances, but about my physical body.  My body doesn’t feel well and can’t do the things that bring me joy and I think that this depression can actually help tell the story about why.  So maybe, please, can we listen to it instead of make it easier to ignore?

And for the first time in my 19 years of seeking help, someone listened. Someone asked, “I wonder what is going on in your body that you’re not feeling well?” Someone accepted my symptoms and didn’t expect my symptoms to fit their diagnostic manual and instead asked what was behind those symptoms. Someone said, instead of treating the lack of chemical XYZ, let’s get really curious about why your body seems to lack it and let’s support your body in making what it’s supposed to make all on its own. And for almost three hours, this doctor and nurse team listened to my story from day one of my life (literally, from the day of my birth) to the present. They mapped out my symptoms, major life events, and other details. And they’ve tested my blood, my spit, even my shit.  (I mean, if dogs can get a stool sample once a year, why not, right?)   And they’ve gotten all the clues about why my body is so worn out that it has failed to produce (or adequately process) all sorts of hormones and nutrients and minerals. And all of those things we can start to re-balance with the foods I eat and the way I take care of my body.  So my body gave the doctors all the clues they needed.  It was there all along, running through my veins.  My body had a story to tell that the mind could never express.

I am Prozac-free today after almost 3 months of this deep inquiry into my body. After about a 3-week period of adjustment off of the medicine–during which I was a bonafide MESS–I am experiencing health like I must have had as a kid. I have a healthy appetite. I eat good food when I’m hungry and I quit eating when I’m full. I do not want to take a nap. I finish my days at work with energy to contribute to my family. I’m able to give baths and cook dinner and play outside.  This is a miracle.

There’s more to this story–and I will surely feel compelled to write it soon. For now, I want to say that I am most grateful for the spirit in me that would not give up–that believed there were answers worth getting.  I am grateful for the friend who planted the seed about this branch of medicine (functional medicine or integrative medicine–which I would officially like to call real medicine).  I am grateful for a tiny little medical community that exists in some corners of the world that asks the harder questions.   Gratful that they go beyond “what pill can alleviate these symptoms” to “what is behind these symptoms and what story is that telling us?”

I’m grateful that I did not end my life before I found out a way to really live. I’m grateful that the help I got was given in love.

Running on a parallel path beside my gratitude is a path of deep grief. For the 19 years I believed a story that I’m crazy, poorly-designed, defective.  For the days I slept or was in a fog or was suffering, I am sad.  For the moments of my kids’ lives I’ve missed.  For the hudreds of thousands of people who are also living in a story that says they are not worth asking the hard questions about.  For the thousands of children in Virginia today taking enormous amounts of mind-altering medication and believing that their minds are ill; that they are weak, not quite right, problematic. For the countless adolescents and young adults and middle-age people and elderly people who are living inside a story that says they aren’t enough. For all who have not been given the help that says they have a story worth hearing.   That a way ‘out’ is less helpful than a way IN to their stories.  That their bodies have amazing, healing stories to tell.  I grieve for you and I grieve for me. So I tell my story. You aren’t alone. And you are powerful beyond all the labels and cures you’ve been given.

More to come.