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I’ve been away.

It’s been awhile since I posted, and I’m thinking I’m too late for the June #WIPMarathon check-in (sorry, gang!). I haven’t actually been away from home anywhere, as the title might suggest (apart from last weekend in London to see the 5 remaining Monty Python members do their thing *loves*).

Time has been crawling because I’ve been unwell. Probably more unwell than I’ve ever been, and it’s kept me pretty preoccupied. Off and on since March, I’ve been struggling with anxiety and some of its more unpleasant physical symptoms, which I believed was stress and tension-related. After escalating, a doctor told me two weeks in a row that it was “just anxiety.” (Aside: if you struggle with anxiety at any level, never let someone tell you it’s “just” anxiety. Anxiety is a Thing. It’s a Big Thing. And just because you can’t quantify it with a urine sample or X-ray, it’s there just as much as a virus or a broken limb).

Doctors told me to get therapy, take anti-depressants. I felt like food was frequently getting stuck in my esophagus, and believed it WAS just anxiety, and I was overly stressed about my chosen direction in life, and how I feel I’m failing and flailing.

Finally, after several weeks and untold hours spent in panic attacks and attempts at deep breathing and everything else you can think of, when another doctor heard that I wasn’t eating solid foods, he referred me a hospital. Three weeks later, I had an endoscopy (which I thought I didn’t need, since there was nothing wrong with my stomach).

Yes, there was! I have mild gastritis. I was biopsied for further issues, but that came back negative. Apparently (and I will be getting a second opinion, just because of the length of this and how much it’s affected me), gastritis can cause acid reflux, and reflux can cause swallowing difficulties. I’m on medication to calm the acid, and slowly starting to eat softer solids and gain some weight back.

It’s not quite as simple as popping some Tums and getting on with my day. But it’s slowly getting better. I can’t wait to be able to sit down to a plate of chicken wings or a steak and salad without flinching, but that might be awhile. The feeling of having food stuck in your esophagus and chest — especially when you don’t know what’s causing it — is the scariest thing I’ve ever been through. I’m so grateful it doesn’t appear to be anything more serious than reflux. But I’m on the heavy-duty stuff, so here’s hoping it clears up soon. Thank you, God, for getting me back on my feet.

* * *

As for the “just anxiety”, that’s a separate issue I’m getting under control through a fantastic book by Dr. David Burns, and the support and love of dear friends who’ve shown me how much they care. Ultimately, one of the biggest stressors of my life in recent years is something I need to come to grips with in my own head and heart.

I graduated 2010 with the belief that my hard work, my 1st class degree, and all the extracurricular work I put in around the degree, would FINALLY enable me to feel good about myself, at last. To get a place on a career ladder, work my tail off, and have self-respect, and feel that other people saw me as a contributing human being. That I could do something that *mattered* to me.

It’s 2014 now, and I never did get that film job. If you read my blog back in the day, you’ll know I chronicled the difficulty of getting an industry job as a mature American grad in the UK (despite having graduated over here with work experience to boot). I didn’t have the contacts that kids who grew up here had, and I seemed to have the *worst* timing. Whatever it was, every interview ended with, “You were this close.”

Follow that with rededicating myself to writing, and two completed manuscripts. The type-A perfectionist in me, who struggles with distorted thoughts I’m just now learning about, such as “fortune-telling”, “all-or-nothing thinking”, “mental filters”, “mind-reading”, “magnification”, and “emotional reasoning”, felt that her worth was dependent on what others thought of her writing, because in the end, that’s all I’ve got left. I’ve tried so many paths in my life, and I honestly, truly believe that writing is the thing I love most, that I think about every day, that I itch to do.

But lately, I’ve been away, because of fear, and comparison to every published author out there. Recently I finished reading a series that blew me away — it has flaws, some sort of big, actually, but the writing is dreamlike and gorgeous and the plot lassoed my heart and danced across the sky with it. It shook me, and did everything I love about a good book.

And it made me feel awful. Like, I-will-never-amount-to-anything awful. Reading a great book should inspire a writer, surely, not make her want to throw her hands up.

I think a lot of my anxiety (that wasn’t related to physical symptoms) has been related to this. I was praying about it earlier today, as I have been for weeks and months and even years. If this isn’t the path God wants for me, I want to know. I want that desire taken away. This afternoon I tried to sit down to revise something for a second shot at it, and it felt contrived. I went to bed.

I woke up with a song in my head, and I felt lighter, because I think I finally realised that my writing is my writing. I can love someone else’s writing so much that it hurts, but it can never be mine. Nor should it. My favourite authors inspire me. And I’ve always said that my goal is to inspire others in the same way that my favourites have inspired me.

I’ve never said my goal was to write just like them, be compared to them, try to puzzle out their secret mega-mystery tactics like a combination lock.

A quiet voice reminded me, I need to just be me, the me I was made to be, and write the best that me can write. A great story should inspire me to find my own great stories, and polish the ones I have — never write their great stories. Because they can’t write mine, either. I have to shut out the voice that says, “But you’re not (enter awesome author here) and you NEVER WILL BE so quit trying!”. It’s true I need to quit trying to be anyone but me, but that voice isn’t rooting for me to keep honing my own voice, either.

So I’ve been away, but I’m finding my way back, soon.

“Remember what the Monty Python boys say…”

“What, ‘always look on the bright side of life’?”

“No. ‘Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition’!”

– Sliding Doors


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Anxiety and speed bumps

Lately, my main goal in life has been to “look for the best.” My favourite passage in the Bible is Philippians 4:4-9. Whatever you may believe, this passage still holds water. I’ll let you look it up yourself if you’re not familiar, but what I get out of it is the recommendation to focus on the good things in life. Fill your mind with positives, with what’s right, and pure, and hopeful. Whatever you believe, I think it’s true that if you focus on the negatives, you’ll feel rubbish. Plain and simple. If you look for the positives, you’ll start to find them, while releasing tension at the same time.

It’s not easy. Especially for someone who’s struggled all her life with anxiety. I’ll be blunt. It sucks. It’s horrible knowing that worrying and stress does me MORE harm than 99.9% of the things I worry about, which rarely, if ever, come to pass. But something in my head has always tried to assure me that if I worry, I’ll be on top of the problem. I’ll nip it in the bud before it blooms.

So. Not. True.

I’ve learned that preparation and caution ready us and keep us alert to dangers and behaviors that invite them — and there’s nothing wrong with those.

But worry over things I can’t control, things I’m guessing so-and-so might be thinking about me, the behavior of others, the weird pain that the internet wants to tell me means I have 2 minutes to live — none of this gets me anywhere. It seems pretty obvious, right?

The problem is, a person can know this intellectually but still struggle to turn the worry off.

This is how worry makes me feel. Armless, and helpless.
This is how worry makes me feel. Armless, and helpless.

As someone who believes in God, I’ve found this a vexing lifelong struggle. God encourages us, tells us not to worry. If the Creator of the universe and every hair on my head is suggesting I don’t worry, I should probably listen, right?

Then why is it so hard sometimes?

When someone doesn’t call when they say they will, when a weird ailment comes out of nowhere, when my dreams get thwarted one more time, my brain decides it’s a great opportunity to drive me and everyone around me mad with pointless anxiety.

Enter a few (very minor) health problems recently. I’ll list one: bronchitis which I had for 2 months. It left a lingering cough, and all this made me worry it was something more, something worse. The positive in all this is that I now know I’ll never again take breathing for granted. I now wake up in the morning and am grateful for oxygen, and that my lungs are working and not wheezing. So there’s that.

It finally dawned on me that the little problems we encounter daily can add stress, which enhances already-present worries, which lead to anxiety, which manifests itself in various physical ways, be it panic attacks, tense muscles, palpitations, etc.

So one thing I recently read might help: look at daily problems as speed bumps rather than “problems.” You can either slow down for speed bumps, or you can take them at full speed, do damage to your car and possibly yourself, and look foolish in the process. But if you look at all these daily problems as growth opportunities, you can calmly decide what action to take that will get you through the problem in the most effective and graceful manner.

I think “graceful” is the key. I can continue to face problems with my typical worry reaction, giving myself headaches and stomachaches and tension, and get bent out of shape . . . or I can slow down, decide on an effective, graceful solution, and get through it without regretting my reaction the next day.

I really want to remember this, and hope that when the next speed bump comes (because they never stop), I’ll choose the latter.

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Dealing with Hope Deferred

One day in California I decided to visit Paradise since my life felt pretty far from it at the time…

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (NIV)

So says Proverbs 13:12. I don’t think the author meant to infer that every desire we have should be fulfilled, because.. well, there’s not enough room here to explain why that just wouldn’t work. But I think there’s an obvious truth here. Have you ever had hope deferred? Something you’ve been waiting for, or hoping for, or working towards, and the more time goes on, the more determined you get…. but also, the more bits of your soul seem to crumble around the edges with disappointment. It could be a promotion, a job, a reconciliation, healing, a relationship, a book deal. Whatever. I think it’s safe to say most people can relate to this proverb, and when these soul-deep longings are finally fulfilled, it feels like new life has sprung forth, giving us new energy for the next task or goal.

But when there’s nothing but deferral happening, that energy dissipates. When you keep getting your hopes up and that goal hasn’t manifested, it’s to me the worst kind of frustration. The only help I’ve found is knowing you’ve done all you can today, and focusing on being busy with everything else in your life. I need to focus all my attention onto the next task at hand. Doesn’t mean my hope and goal is sorted yet. It’s not. But focusing on that deferral is only going to cause distress. In other words, get busy doing other things, when you’ve done all you can for that day.

When I lived in California, I went through a really rough patch. It was a time when I had to face a lot of unfortunate choices, particularly about my education and career path (i.e. I needed to be on one!). But when I visited the UK on a solo holiday, in a last-ditch attempt to figure myself out and get away from my rut, I discovered that this was where I felt more alive than anywhere.

Fast-forward through the hottest summer in memory when I worked three jobs to save money (ugh – waitressing at Macaroni Grill – so stressful and my last food service job ever!), and a miracle took place than enabled me to see the hope I had in me – for another chance at university and at proving I could commit to something, follow through and honestly apply myself – be fulfilled. I was able to move to England and enrol on a 3-year BA. I worked my butt off because I felt like I had more to prove then everyone else on the course, most people being about 10 years younger than me. I was a bit too hard on myself at times (see my previous blog on perfectionism), but I needed to prove to myself that I could be successful. Even if getting top marks isn’t the be all and end all, to me, at that time, that was the biggest goal I had, and I achieved it. So my hope of moving to the UK and finishing a degree was fulfilled, and I felt like I was on top of the world during the entire three+ years watching that hope come together.

All that to say, during the hardest times I’ve ever had, I never dreamed I’d get to be where I am now and I’m grateful. When I look back on that most difficult period, despite the stress at the time I know I survived and came through the other side better for it by each morning being thankful for the day – no matter how tired or under pressure I was – and focus all my strength on just that day. I don’t know how I did it. I think it was only by God’s grace, seriously, because I am sooo weak, and to look back and see me do that – well, it wasn’t me, that’s for sure.

So the hopes I’m currently dealing with have more at stake, but I’m so blessed to be where I am now (where I never dreamed I’d be 10 years ago). I achieved two of my biggest dreams before I hit 30, and for that I’m more thankful than I can describe. I’m here today because I made it through that rough patch of hopes deferred.

But if you’re alive, you have hopes, so of course I’ve got more.

Some days I struggle a lot with patience. Lately, it’s been a roller coaster. My desire to see my hopes give me stability and security is currently at serious odds with the truths I’ve read recently in a great book called HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND START LIVING  by Dale Carnegie. I highly recommend it. When I first saw it on the shelf I thought it was written just for me. I’ve read it through twice now, and it’s strengthened my belief that I can learn to balance my hopes. Carnegie makes no claims to his advice being original; in fact, he states early on that it’s a collection of common sense ideas put into practice by the people he’s met, and how it worked for them. Nothing new here. But the way it’s written makes me think, “DUH! Why is it so hard to do these things sometimes?”

I won’t go into all the awesomeness this book has to offer (or quote from others) here since this post is already mega-long. But one thing that relates to the hope-deferred theme is this: the idea that this day will never dawn again (I know, duh, right?). Carnegie quotes a poem by Indian dramatist Kalidasa. Google the whole thing, it’s beautiful, but this is what stood out to me:

“Yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

The first chapter is one of the best. It focuses on the simple idea of having no anxiety for tomorrow, and I think this poem explains why. When we get to tomorrow – the tomorrow we’re anxious for – if we lived today well, we can look back in contentment. Even if a hope didn’t come to pass on that day. So that means we need to live today well. When I get to tomorrow, I’d rather be able to look back on the previous day as full of productivity, positivity, good memories and a GLADNESS that I lived it the way I did. It’s only one day. Surely I can do that; surely I can put down my heavy heart of deferred hopes and just focus on my blessings, and let hope be positive. I’d rather look back on today and know I was content, rather than see I spent it wringing my hands about the “when”s of my hopes. That won’t make tomorrow any better.

It’s hard to be patient when you start thinking, “But this and this so THIS should happen!” But if you can’t force something to happen of your own accord, and you’re doing everything in your power and you’re at the limit of your ability to reach your goal, there comes the point where you have to just stop giving the “when” question any thought. It’s not easy, but I think in times like this when I’m working towards and waiting on a lot of things – particularly things mostly outside of my control – the best option is to try overcoming the anxiety with making today a day you’ll be happy with tomorrow.

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