There is No Getting Rid of the Unknown

Mental Health

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I am used to things being out of my control. I teach teenagers who have helped me cultivate a level of patience that even I find impressive at times. So while I’m (still) waiting on my revision letter from my editor, it’s not impatience that’s stoking my anxiety. It’s the need to know what comes next so I can plan for how to handle it.

But, the rub is, there is no getting rid of the unknown. I can “pretend problem-solve” all day long with hypothetical scenarios I think are coming but that doesn’t actually alleviate any of my stress. In fact, it just creates more, to the point that even positive things, even things I’m genuinely excited about, are causing me anxiety.

For seven years I have blogged and written about having anxiety. I’ve written about trying to treat it, live with it, and trick it into submission. I’ve written about how it affects my creative process, how it keeps me up at night, how it haunts me in my dreams. But my anxiety is absolutely at its worst when I am in transition, moving from one phase of my life to the next. When I am shedding old skin. When I am becoming something new.

I used to think that was my intuition telling me that I was on the wrong track, that I needed to turn around, to run. And sometimes my fear is instinctual, warning me of real danger. But mostly, it’s misinformed; well-meaning but bad at communicating. The truth it wants to tell me is that these fears I’m having, the pricks of worry deep in my gut, are signs. Signaling that I’m actually getting closer to the things I want, which only feels scary because it feels good.

And…my brain can’t process good. It takes my new book deal and turns it into an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, to derail my entire career. It takes the advance money and turns it into a chance to make horrible decisions, to destroy my financial future, to become destitute. It takes my WIP and turns it into quicksand. It takes relationships and turns them into booby traps. It takes my ability to tell stories and turns them into lies, into snares that trap me in endless cycles of what ifs?

Doing this work, doing any kind of work when you have a scared child clinging to your neck and whispering terrible things in your ear is not easy. But the tighter anxiety’s hold on me, the more I cling to the hope that even if I never find balance, or a cure, or even some semblance of consistency when it comes to my mental health, I can still keep doing the work. Day by day. Pen to page. One word at a time.

This is what I can control. Not when my contract finally comes or when that first advance check hits my bank account or whether or not my editor will even like book two or if I’ll have to go on sub again or if anyone will ever buy another thing I’ve written. I can’t control most of what may come next.

Luckily, that small piece of the equation that I can control–the writing–is the most important part. That’s what I’ll keep reminding myself. In the midst of the insomnia and the nerve pain and the tension headaches. I am still in a body that can hold a pen. I am still connected to a mind that can make things up that make people smile, that make me smile. I am still telling stories from the deepest truest parts of myself. And if that’s all there is, if that’s all there will ever be, I will choose to make it enough.

Being Struck by Lightning

Mental Health, Motivation & Inspiration

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Since getting my book deal, I’ve felt this flood of creativity. Sparks of so many different ideas and not just for new stories but multimedia projects, creative giving, and new collaborations It’s like this very public validation has somehow given me permission to explore other aspects of my creative identity and I’ve found myself, a few times, being struck by an idea so big and scary that it I know it’s my heart’s desire.

I’ve spent the past four months trying to untangle my intuition from my anxiety; trying to see which fears signal that I’m actually moving closer to my goals and therefore should keep moving in that direction. But it’s hard. I’ve made so much progress. I’ve had so many setbacks. This journey of becoming is not a straight line and sometimes I worry that I’ll be stumbling the entire way.

And it feels so familiar, this hesitancy. This apprehension about what comes next. About all of the ways I might screw it up. But hasn’t writing, more than anything else, taught me that the only way to make something is just to begin.

A lot of the ideas I’ve had are in a completely different medium than the one I’m used to working in. They require me to be creative in a completely new way. To learn new skills. To reach out to strangers in order to build relationships, to ask for help. And the first thing my brain wants to do is worry and tell myself terrible stories about how it could all go wrong.

But hasn’t writing taught me that too? That failure is part of the process. A necessary part of the process. One that no forward motion can be achieved without.

So I’m going to stop waiting for the right time. I’m going to stop waiting to be ready. There is no ready. No perfect circumstances under which to create. All creativity requires a bit of risk-taking. It’s the part of the process that makes me feel alive. That’s like being struck by lightning, every dream and desire illuminated from the inside.

I want to coax out those tiny flames, letting them grow. Even if I get burned in the process.

When was the Last Time You Felt Like a Failure?

Mental Health

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I never answer the door. I never answer the phone. Why? Because I never know what to expect on the other end. I don’t like surprises. Surprises are for people with a false sense of security because they have never suffered a real tragedy their entire lives.

But, unfortunately for me, my front door has an oval glass center, which allows anyone on my front porch to see directly inside and to the exact spot where I am usually sitting on the couch watching Bravo. If I’m caught in this sacred spot when the doorbell rings, I really have no choice but to get up and answer. I don’t want to be rude, after all.

Six months ago the doorbell rang. An elderly man and I made eye contact through the glass. I opened the door.

It turned out he’d already been by and this was his second attempt because our address had been randomly selected to participate in the U.S. census survey. Now, normally I would decline to participate in things like this because I’m a millennial and do not like to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced and I sure as heck don’t like having strangers in my home. But I had also spent that morning block-walking for Beto O’Rourke’s senate campaign and the sting of having doors slammed in my face was still fresh.

So I let him inside.

He asked some preliminary questions to see whether I or my boyfriend would be chosen for the survey. It was me, of course.

At first, the questions were pretty generic, but the surveyor said they would adjust based on my answers. Boy did they. Once we got into the section on medical care the questions got really real, really fast.

In the last six months have you forgone medical care due to cost? Yes.

In the last six months have you forgone mental health care due to cost? Yes.

In the last six months have you needed to see a therapist but did not go due to cost? Yes.

On a scale of all the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never, how often do you feel anxious? Most of the time.

When was the last time you felt like a failure?

Yes, that was an actual census question generated by my previous responses. I looked across the table at my boyfriend. His eyes crinkled. He wanted to laugh. So did I. But I also wanted to cry.

See, just that week I had been in the midst of an existential crisis. I felt uncertain about my future, about my purpose, about my goals and dreams and whether or not all of my hard work would ever amount to anything. I was feeling lost. I was feeling scared. I looked at my boyfriend and said, “I feel like a failure.”

We commiserated about approaching thirty while still feeling so clueless about life. So clueless about everything. I think we may even have pulled up some of those depressing videos about space and the impossible size of the universe. You know the ones that zoom out to show the infinite number of galaxies neighboring us and as a result also show how pointless this all is; how alone we really are.

Feeling like a “failure” was strange because I didn’t even really know what that meant. What measuring stick was I using exactly? Because by all accounts, I’ve been adulting for over ten years and actually have a lot to show for it. I have my own home, a fairly new and working vehicle, a meaningful job with a steady paycheck, health insurance, an Emergency fund, a dog.

But…I don’t want to measure my life in stuff. In markers of adulthood that someone else told me were important. I want to measure my life in meaning. All of those awesome things that are the result of my hard work and determination, what do they all mean?

What do I mean? What does anything mean?

I was spiraling.

But there was also some good news. The good news was that, all those nights when I lay awake, on the verge of tears, thinking about whether or not I mattered, I wasn’t wrestling with the darkness alone. The Universe was listening. The little old man who asked me when was the last time I’d felt like a failure was proof.

These feelings, these questions tend to come and go. Every 2-3 years they come hurtling at me like a train. But the collision isn’t to knock me off course. It’s to wake me up. To help me see that going through the motions is not living. That every moment of every day I can be intentional about how I’m spending my time and with who, that I can be intentional about choosing joy, or at least curiosity on days when joy is too far away. I can be intentional about what I create and consume. I can make choices in a split second that will plunge me deeper into my own fears or liberate me from them.

I can live in the questions, be crushed under their weight, or I can stop waiting for someone else to give me the answers and give them to myself. I can give meaning to my life in ways big and small. I can decide that I matter. I matter. I matter.

Your Heart’s Desire

Mental Health, Motivation & Inspiration, Self Publishing

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About four years ago I was working in a public library, earning $12 an hour, all while cultivating this secret online identity as a self-published author. I was writing and creating constantly but something didn’t feel right.

Writing books was challenging but it had been a long time since I’d experienced a creative growth spurt and the itch to stretch myself, to learn, to grow became agonizing. So I did the only thing I knew how to do and I went back to school.

That’s the place where you learn new things, right?

I enrolled in a graduate program, stupidly took out student loans, and studied my ass off thinking that by graduation day I’d feel like a new me. A better me.

And it worked. At least for a little while. I completed my courses, survived student teaching, and got my first teaching job. That first year was a whirlwind. Every day, I showed up an hour early and stayed an hour late. I worked in the evenings and on weekends. I truly did stretch myself, learning so much about my content area, language learners, and the public education system.

Year two was also difficult. I was never short on challenges, on opportunities to grow.

Year three and the itch returned.

What am I doing here? I mean really doing? I’m not making an impact. I’m not even making a dent. The public education system is so broken. It’s so broken that no matter who you are–teacher, student, admin–no one enters this system and comes out unscathed. We are all hurt by it. Broken in ways we can’t even see.

I was starting to feel it. The weight of all of those systemic problems I would never be able to solve. The guilt and regret of allowing fear to choose this career for me. The work I do is meaningful and I’m grateful for this experience. But I’ve learned something about this feeling–this itch for something more. It doesn’t go away just because we want it to. Just because we’re living a life that is socially acceptable, adulting on a level comparable to our peers.

That feeling doesn’t go away until we ask in earnest: who am I and why am I here? And we open ourselves up to the reality, to the truth that the answers will be much bigger and much scarier than we want them to be.

But we don’t get to choose. The second we slipped into this skin we made an agreement to have the human experience.

This is the human experience–a million acts of bravery in the direction of our soul’s desire. And maybe we don’t get to decide that either–what our soul wants. But we can’t ignore that it wants. And it will continue to want, that desire beating, throbbing like a second pulse, until we give in and listen. Then follow.

And if we don’t, that spiritual nagging doesn’t just intensify. It hurts. In the places where we are supposed to be growing and changing we will begin to atrophy. We will begin to disappear.

I don’t want to disappear.

So I’m not just seeking out opportunities to be brave. I’m creating them. That means committing to a half-baked idea on a massive scale, telling people about my plans so they can hold me accountable, and creating my own curriculum for artistic growth. I’m acknowledging old fear-based patterns and disrupting them every chance I get. I’m speaking my mind more but also listening and I’m throwing money at opportunities I don’t yet feel good enough or worthy of taking advantage of.

I am following this ache like a siren song.

But even though I’m still not certain of where it leads, I must let it lead. Because the destination is my heart’s desire. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even know what that is yet. It doesn’t matter if I don’t think I deserve it yet. All I need to know is that it is mine.

Mine.

True North

Mental Health, Motivation & Inspiration

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When I think about those two big scary questions–Who am I? Why am I here?–clarity usually comes to me in flashes; in fragments I try to force together like puzzle pieces. Sometimes the burst is so bright, everything illuminated, that I feel a sense of purpose and conviction so supernatural in its potency that I know for a fact God is speaking to me. Other times, the glimpse is so brief that I feel more lost and alone than before.

Which has led me to ponder new questions: How do I find my North Star? How do I keep it in my sights through the storms, the darkness, and the doubt that follows?

For the past month these questions have consumed me and I’ve let them. Even though I’d committed to daily blogging, as long as these questions were on my mind, I felt like I didn’t know what to say. Even though I desperately wanted to finish my current WIP, as long as these questions were on my mind, the act felt useless.

Because I need to know the why.

Why was I telling this story and all the others that have been fighting for my attention lately? Why are these characters so important to me? What do I want my readers to know and feel about them? What do I want them to do with those revelations? Are there other ways I can spread my message? Am I really even clear on what that is?

Some people just want to be writers, putting out a book as often as they can, whether that’s once a year, once every two years, once every ten. Pen to page, day after day. For them, that is the work. And that is beautiful. That is admirable.

But I’ve been feeling this pull lately, this stretching of my spirit to do something…more. Not something else. Not something that isn’t still storytelling. But something more. Bigger. Greater.

For months, I’ve thought that it was my fears that were getting in the way, that my anxiety was the distraction, that my problems were caused by a lack of stamina and focus. Instead, what was getting in the way was this other voice. So faint I didn’t even realize it was there.

Maybe it wasn’t even a voice. Not in the beginning. Maybe it was more like a nudge. Move. Grow. Change. It’s okay. I am with you.

But I wasn’t listening. Because I thought I already knew the answers to those big, scary questions.

Who are you?

A writer.

Why are you here?

To tell stories.

Those answers are beautiful. They are admirable. But they are also wrong. Because they are incomplete.

Usually, when we think about our life’s purpose, we start at the macro level. We approach it with giant expectations and then we crush ourselves beneath the weight of never meeting them. If we’re a writer, we might think that we have to write a book as influential as Harry Potter. Something that cultivates the values and beliefs of an entire generation. Something that reaches the far ends of the earth. That makes us rich and famous.

But what if the key to unlocking our potential is thinking much, much smaller? Not thinking that our potential is small. Not thinking that our gifts are small. But small in the sense that we are snowflakes. That the pattern of purpose alive in me is different from the purpose that’s alive in you. That it’s the subtleties and nuance of our nature that allows us to have the greatest impact because that’s what allows us to connect with the specific people who need our gifts the most.

I think I’m starting to figure out my true gifts, and more importantly, who needs them the most. In other words, I am inching towards the real answers to those big, scary questions and as the answers loom on the horizon, I can already sense that they will be much bigger and much scarier than anything I could have ever imagined. But big and scary doesn’t always mean bad. Sometimes big and scary means joy. Sometimes big and scary means freedom.