Open and Honest

One area in my life that I’ve been pushing myself to improve is my total lack of social skills. I am an introvert almost to the extreme, and often find myself content with no other company than my few closest friends. Building new relationships is excessively difficult for me.

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I think one of the reasons I find it so hard is that I kind of hate myself. I see myself as a whiney and annoying person with nothing intelligent to add to a conversation and a waste of space in the room. I labor under the assumption that pretty much everyone else secretly agrees with my self assessment, but are too kind to tell me they’d rather I left. So I leave without being asked. I slip away to be by myself where I’ll read or write or knit or whatever.

Most of this self abasement was encouraged in my upbringing by the way the household was run, and during the darkest periods of my struggle with Depression have led me to some very ugly thoughts. Today, the people closest to me often tell me that I hate myself more than anyone else in the room. I question the complete validity of this statement, but I see what they mean anyway. It would seriously be hard for anyone to dislike me more than I do.

Building relationships with the mental handicaps of Anxiety and Depression, along with my severe introversion, is a steep upward climb, but I recently had a breakthrough that I hope will become a new pattern.

My husband and I have changed churches. Again. These past two years have been the most up, down and unsettled period of my life. Though Timothy keeps telling me that now it’s safe to settle for at least the next three years, I haven’t seen enough in writing to convince me to unpack my emotional suitcase. So when kind and friendly faces in our new church body opened their arms to welcome me, I wanted to walk into them, but also wondered what was going to happen to their presence in my life come September. How much do I open up to these people? How much do I fight against my fears of rejection, only to meet with loss on the other end? Because one thing I’ve noticed in the last few churches we’ve gone to, is that once you’re no longer a member, the people who seemed to care don’t care anymore. It’s like you’ve switched from the goth click to the cheerleaders and you’re dead to all that’s past. All the trying, all the fighting against myself to get close to strangers becomes another example of people not actually caring about me, another example of my not being worth anyone’s time.

But what I’m now realizing is that I’m half the problem, maybe even more than half. My fear of rejection keeps my relationships shallow. Why should anyone miss me when I leave the room? They don’t know me, because I fear being known.

And here I am, standing in front of a woman who wants to get to know me, and I’m stuck. Yes, I’d love to go for coffee with you. It would be good for me in so many ways, and you’re being so loving and kind, but how do I tell you that, despite my being an adult, I don’t often drive places on my own? How do I tell you that I have such crippling anxiety disorder, that I’m afraid to schedule coffee with you on a day when I can’t rely on my husband to be around to prevent me coming home to an empty house?

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My new solution. I just do. I just say it, and hope that, if you really want to get to know me, you’ll help me think of another way. So instead of just telling her the easy bit about not having access to a car, I hear myself admit to her, “I have anxiety disorder, and driving is one of my triggers. I don’t really drive more than 20 minutes by myself right now.” And she says, “I’ll pick you up.” And she says, “I can drive you to the church where your husband is.”

Another falsehood I was taught as a child was that I was never supposed to talk about my mental health issues. It’s a secret that I’m ill, meant for just me and my doctors. So the worse my condition got, the more my relationships withered, the less I wanted to try. People don’t understand, I thought. I’m in the way. They must hate me. I’m such a nuisance. I wish I wasn’t me.

The thing I’m learning, a lesson I can take with me even if we do switch to another church in six months, is that a lot people are willing to help and want to understand, but they can’t do either if I’m not willing to be honest.

Honesty. It makes sense, really. Isn’t honesty a foundational pillar of any lasting relationship?

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“It’s Braver to Have Climbed…”

Flushed from my successful six-hour road trip to Williamsburg, I decided to tackle the next fear on my list, driving alone. I used to be able to drive by myself for an hour, so that’s all I’m really shooting for. I figure an hour is enough to get me to my parents house or to visit the friends I left behind after our recent move.

I’ve been working on it in stages. I began with driving myself to the library, which is about 20 minutes away. I lengthened that by ten minutes when I started taking the long way home. It was two days since we got home from VA, and I was on my way home from the library. I’m not usually spontaneous, but as I passed the turn off for route 80 I thought of the scenic overlook three minutes down the highway. I imagined myself pulling in, taking a picture of the valley and texting it to my husband with the words:

Guess where I am! 😉 ❤

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I pulled off onto the highway. Pride flushed in my cheeks as I easily merged into traffic. I turned up ABBA and looked for my turn off. It came quickly. I slowed and began the circular assent to the parking lot. It wasn’t until I pulled in that I began to regret my decision. I felt alone and exposed, like standing naked in a den of convicts. I quickly snapped a photo of the view and ran back to my car. I locked the doors (presumably to keep out the invisible convicts), dialed my husband, then hung up after several rings because my GPS wouldn’t tell me which way home was if I was calling someone at the same time. My GPS connected. My vision blurred, and my heart melted and dripped into my stomach, making it churn.

Home was 22 minutes away. 22 minutes of highway driving. The kind I most despise. 22 minutes after I had already been alone in the car for over 30.

I exploded.

My husband called me back at about this moment. I told him I was stranded. That I was a fool. That I needed him to come get me and to stay on the phone with me the whole time until he got there. I cried and shook. Adrenaline surged through me, making me feel simultaneously chilled and hot.

The first panic attack passed as soon as Timothy was on the way. I decided to start driving, knowing that he would only be about 5 minutes behind me and I could always pull over if I needed to. He made me describe the scenery I passed, mostly wet barren trees and massive tractor trailers thundering around me at 70 miles per hour, leaving my little white Honda shuddering in their wake. When I pulled off at the next exit, my GPS decided it would be better not to turn around and get back on the highway, but to go home via strange back roads.

I exploded again.

“Pull into the shoprite,” Tim said. “I’m right behind you. Just wait for me.”

So I did. He pulled in and I threw myself into his arms, pressing my jittering adrenaline fueled hands against his chest. I let him kiss the top of my head and shush me for a minute, then I stuttered, “Do you need anything from shoprite?”

Tim laughed. We went in and picked up potatoes and apples. I was still trembling when we got out of the store and my heart was full of tears. I squeezed his hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?” he asked.

“For failing.”

Without pausing for thought, he replied, “A man who climbs a mountain and needs to be rescued, is braver than the one who never even tried to climb.”

I stopped and pressed his lips to mine, kissing him hard and long in the middle of the parking lot, not caring who saw or whose way we were in.

He’s so kind and patient and wise.

Living with anxiety and depression can utterly demoralizing at times. But I’m so thankful that God gave me this man as my copilot. Even on days like this one, when I have to fly solo,  it’s nice to know he’s in the control tower with gentle words of wisdom to help me navigate home.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015

A Road Trip with Neil and Charlotte

A few weeks ago, I posted about my struggle with anxiety disorder and depression. After which, I mentioned how I’ve been  pushing my boundaries, forcing myself to stand against the things that most frighten me

On this list is the gradual expansion of my forty-five minute radius safety bubble. I was sitting at about two and a half hours when my in-laws invited us to ride with them to Williamsburg, Virginia, six hours from home.

I’ve always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg. I love history and museums and I’ve heard that it is super pretty. Another bonus incentive was that the first days’ drive ended after 4 hours, in an overnight at my brother-in-law Ben’s house, to visit with him, Chelsea, and the kids. They have invited Timothy and me down to see them many times, but I was wasn’t ready for the drive. I hated myself each time I said no, especially since I could see how badly Timothy wanted to go. So this time, I took a deep breath, swallowed, and said, “Sure, why not.”

Driving through Pennsylvania
Driving through Pennsylvania

I spent the next few days just blocking the whole thing out of my mind. And on Friday morning, I hopped into the car with my laptop and sat there tapping away on my project for NaNoWriMo, knowing that I would probably only manage a few hundred words for the next 3 to 4 days. The ride was fairly easy, simply because I refused to think about it. I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs in my earbuds and before I knew it, we were sitting in front of Ben and Chelsea’s beautiful Yellow house.

Then I exploded.

I feel bad, because we were only there overnight, and I was like a zombie. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when he said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I hardly interacted with anyone and spent much of the time alone in our room. I stole away my husband for a while and wet his teeshirt with my tears of exhaustion. He kissed my forehead and whispered to me about how brave I was. I was so gone I barely heard him; all I could think about was the 2 to 3 hour drive we had tomorrow.

Though numb and frightened, I managed to begin a chronicle of my journey. That night, my journal entry began with this quote from Neil Gaiman’s, “Coraline.”

Because, she said. when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.

I was not relaxed when I got in the car Saturday morning. I managed to reject Ben and Chelsea’s sweet offer to end my journey there, and wait until Mom and Dad came back through on their way home. I dropped deep down inside my head, to that place where I didn’t think about what was happening. It was harder to find it this time. I held to Tim with my right hand and had my friend Steve in my left, who I texted on and off the whole trip discussing distracting nonsense like what edicts he would pass as the first global dictator. Mom and Dad were off to a wedding, so they left us at the hotel. Tim and I dropped our things and walked a half mile to Colonial Williamsburg.

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Path from the hotel to Colonial Williamsburg

I lived in each individual second, busying myself with the joy of being in a place I’d never seen before. We had a lovely walk together and ate at one of the pubs, before we went back to the hotel room. That was when it got hard. Honestly, that nice little room was the hardest place to be the whole trip. It felt like I was in the waiting room of a hospital, cold and half naked in my dressing gown, waiting for the beginning of major surgery; that surgery being the six hour ride home on Monday.

That night I opened my journal entry with another Neil Gaiman quote. This time from, “The Graveyard Book.”

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, Leave no path untaken.”

Sunday was the hardest day. I didn’t sleep Saturday night. I was too anxious. And this is not meant to imply that Sunday wasn’t fun; it was lovely. But once daylight faded to nighttime, I fell into pieces in that hotel bed. I cried and shook and paced the floor. Timothy held me and my friend Steve threw me occasional texts, asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I just wasn’t. What little sleep I got was filled with nightmares about car accidents and eternal loneliness. That night I was too screwed up to write anything in my journal.

Monday morning came. I made my journal entry early that morning, mixing quotes from Neil Gaiman and Charlotte Brontë. A fitting mixture of past and present. I read Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” about a year ago, and since then my love for his writing has bordered precariously on obsession (Not in a creepy stalker way, but in a buy-all-the-books-in-multiple-copies kind of way. The way most authors want to be loved. 😉 ). I can’t help it really. He’s a genius. He has a way of making me laugh and cry and want to be brave all at once. I’ve had that experience with other books, but he is one of the only authors that gives me that experience so consistently. And as for dear Charlotte, I often attribute my love of fiction and literature back to when she blew open my literary world at 9 years old with, “Jane Eyre.”

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Page from my journal

I did not know when we drove away at 10:45 that I we would not get home until 8:30. And it wasn’t until Tuesday that I really had the energy to fully comprehend what I’d done. I’d driven further from home than I’ve been since I was fourteen. I finally saw Colonial Williamsburg. I’d finally seen Ben and Chelsea’s house. It made me feel strong, like a warrior who cleared a battlefield of the enemy and now, weak and bloodied from the effort, silently absorbs her victory from a distant hilltop. I survived and I feel more alive than ever.

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Text Timothy sent me on Monday after I fell asleep in the car. It was a nice thing to wake up to.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Depression and Anxiety 101

I am one of many that suffer from anxiety disorder and depression. I’ve been told by friends and family that this is something you don’t talk about, but I am going to talk about it. I am tired of the forced shame from others who don’t understand what it’s like.

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I love birds. I think they’re beautiful and graceful and fun and cute, but I would never want one as a pet. How can something born to fly be truly happy in a cage? The ones whose owners shower them with love must be content, but I always imagine they know something is missing. That beyond those bars is a wide open space where they could spread their wings and feel fresh air lift them to the home they truly belong to.

When my anxiety is at its worst, I feel like a bird in a cage. It’s like I’m a prisoner within my own body, trapped where I’m forced to watch the world move, breathe, and interact without me. Depression is very similar. I’ll wake up with the inexplicable feeling that I am incapable of living today, or sometimes with the wish that I wasn’t living at all.

I spent years doing “the natural thing.” I read books on what to eat and not to eat. I cut out processed sugars, caffeine, and white flour. I tried just ignoring how I felt. (That should have worked because I wanted so badly to be well. I hated everything about how I felt and how it made me behave.) I went to pastors and preachers who encouraged me to “find my joy in the Lord” and exhorted me that anxiety is sin. All I needed to do was confess my sin and the Lord would heal me. Some of my panic attacks took place facedown on the floor, screaming aloud for God to forgive and heal me. Spiritual leaders would shake their heads and say, “You’re not truly letting go.”

I avoided medication like poison. People told me, “You can’t go on medication! You’ll get addicted and live the rest of your life doped up.” I was even trained to mistrust councilors and psychiatrists because they would just tell me it was, “all your parent’s fault.”

By the time I turned 27, my life was pathetically reduced to a sort of weary day to day drudgery. I never spent more than 10 minutes by myself. I refused to go anywhere without my husband or my mother beside me. Some evenings I would wake up choking with tears, unsure when they could have even started. My husband would hold me while I screamed and shook, rocking me gently until my body gave out and I dropped back into an exhaustion induced sleep. My friendships dwindled and died because I couldn’t give them quality time and was too ashamed to tell them why. I had an imaginary bubble of protection with a 45 minute radius from my house. Anything outside it was impossible to perform.

I was a bird in a cage.

I hated it. I hated my body. I hated what I was doing to my husband and my marriage. I hated being a burden to others and constantly demeaned myself for how selfish I was behaving. I hated being friendless. I hated the secrecy and shame. I even stopped trying to get council from other Christians, especially when I moved to a church where if someone mentioned anxiety and depression, allusion was often drawn to pill popping sinners who escaped conviction through medication. I gave up, and sat down to silently watch others live through the bars of my prison.

I was very sick. But I got sicker.

Because that’s when the depression hit, doubling in force after my miscarriage. I now hated living in general. I was too much of a burden on others. I wanted to set them free. I wanted die. I told my husband this, over and over. That I wished he hadn’t married me and had married someone normal. If it hadn’t been for my relationship with Jesus Christ, I would have attempted suicide. God and my husband’s never-ending, patient love were the only things that held me back from believing the world was better off without me.

My husband convinced me to ignore the voices and get help. I went to a councilor. I went on medication.

That was a little over a year ago. Since then, my life has filled and blossomed, slowly but beautifully. I have driven three hours from my home with my husband. I’ve seen and done things that I never dreamed I’d have the courage to experience. I’ve spent lovely long hours at home and rested in the blessed peace of being entirely alone to read and write. I rediscovered my love for life because I had the tools I needed to participate in it with everyone else.

I am not ashamed of those tools. I was sick. I am getting better now. People with Cancer should not be ashamed of chemotherapy. People with diabetes should not be ashamed of insulin.

I still have bad days and weeks and months, but they are so much better than the bad days of before. And frankly, I would rather spend the rest of my life on Prozac then crawl back into that wretched ever shrinking bubble. God gave me life to use it, for him and others. God made me because he loves me and wants to give me true joy.

This post has two audiences.

For the first: I understand how you feel, but please don’t wait to get help. Talk to someone who loves you enough to support you and just do what you have to do. Don’t wait. Never wait. Take it from someone who waited far too long.

For the second: Don’t fight against people like me getting the help we need. You don’t realize how flippant comments like, “SSRI’s are the real reason for gun violence,” do more than sting. They can tear gaping wounds into the spirit that fester and bleed for years. You don’t know who your cruelty and ignorance is preventing from getting help. And if you claim to be a Christian, it is flat out ungodly to deny help to the suffering and needy.

I would give anything to have those 27 years back, to have gone to Chris and Sarah’s wedding, to have toured Israel with my father, to not have cancelled the original plans for my honeymoon. I can’t change the past, but NO ONE is going to prevent me from living the rest of my life.

I am a bird who tasted freedom from its cage and, as God is my witness, I swear I am going to fly.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015