fear

Don’t write about me.
You don’t have the heart or the guts or the courage
To persist for very long before you melt
Like plastic in the fire.
I will consume you.
I will destroy you.
You will grow weak and you will grow thin.
I will watch you collapse into yourself.
And I will not give you a second thought.

Don’t write about me.
I’ve let you believe for quite some time
You have me tamed
Under control, nice and neat
Exactly where you want me.
But I am chaos,
And I am proud.
If I please, I will run wild.
I will torment you
Until all will has left your body,
Until your throat is too dry to scream,
And you are just a thread.

Don’t write about me.
You don’t have the words
So the sensations,
They will seep from your face,
A nice, slow stream at first
But they will change to roaring waters.
Before you know it, you’ll be drowning.
They will sprout from your stomach,
Little seedlings, small and delicate,
Full of promise.
But they will grow into tangled vines,
Strong and wicked.
And they will grab you by the wrists and by the ankles,
And they will tear you limb by limb.

Don’t write about me.
Let me sit under your skin
Like I have since you were young,
Taking me with you where you went,
Me always humming, never gone.
A parasitic symbiosis.
Don’t you summon me or I will come.
I will emerge and I will conquer.
I will stomp and I will crush you.
Unrelenting, unforgiving.
You will lie crumpled at my feet.
Mostly nothing, hardly there.
A more miserable existence.

Don’t write about me.
I am your master, you are not mine.
You’d like to think it opposite,
But any fences, any locks, and any walls
You’ve used to keep me out
I’ve mercifully let you have–
A false sense of stability.
It’s done you well, but do not tempt me.
I am cruel and I am vicious.
And you will wish
You’d let me be.

Don’t write about me.
I am greedy and I am hungry.
Bottomless and boundless,
I will swallow you whole.
I will lick my lips and ask for more
And more and more
Until you have nothing left to give,
Until you have nothing left to be
But haunted.

Don’t write about me.
I will shatter every light you’ve ever witnessed
And blow out every star.
I will hunt you in a darkness
Blacker than you could describe.
I will grab you by the heart
As its beat grow loud and rapid.
I will shake it as I speak every nightmare that’s laid dormant into life
Right before your wide eyes.
They will be vivid and they will be graphic.
They will stain your retinas with their smiles.
Forever circling you as we dance,
Their movements unpredictable and violent.
And you will never dream again.

Don’t write about me.

Please.

getting there pt 2

Enough time has passed that anyone who had read part one of this had probably forgotten I wrote a part one to begin with.

You can catch up here if you don’t mind typos I’m still too lazy to go back and change (honestly, if you do mind typos, this site is not the one for you): https://missalissaann.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/getting-there-pt-1/

I don’t feel like summarizing it, so can you just go back and skim it or something?

Now that you’re back I’ll fast forward to the winter months of the spring semester of my sophomore year of college, which was 2013.

Freshman year had been fun. I had pushed outside of my comfort zone and met a lot of new people including some of the amazing friends I still have today. I didn’t do anything crazy or immature, which sometimes I regret every now and then. But I still had a lot of fun. I had spurts of what I see now as wonky brain periods. It was nothing too paralyzing; I still felt Jesus’ presence strongly. At that point, I had come to understand there was points in my life where I felt kind of sad for no reason and that eventually it went away.

I was living in an apartment with my childhood best friend, involved in a tiny campus church which was home to my hilarious, weird friends who played nonsensical pranks on each other, and part of a small group my husband and his friend had started which was home to my sweet, normal friends.

I had a spark inside me for understanding and living the gospel. I was fascinated and energetic about it. It was further kept lit by a new best friend I met freshman year. We had long talks about what we were learning and how we were growing while we killed the planet driving loops around town or kept busy walking around campus exasperated by slow walkers. Both my community group through my campus church and my small group provided excellent discussions that challenged me and fed me intellectually and spiritually. I actually hadn’t planned on going to church when I got to campus. Like I said in Part 1, I’m pretty much over my snobby, critical attitude toward church now—though I still do have spiritual authority issues I’m trying to work through—but at the time it was the last place I wanted to be. Some reasons, I think, were valid. I had some wounds that needed to be healed, needed some room to think for myself. Other reasons were, as much as past me would hate for present me to admit, just me being a judgmental asshole. But Jesus brought these two groups to me. I met the pastor of my church at a training for my summer-after-high-school job, and a boy who word-vomited his life story to me minutes after meeting me invited me to his small group (I later married that boy). The point is I didn’t quite get away from Christian culture, though it was different than the one I’d grown up in.

I was taking an introduction to social work class at the time. I think I was already toying with the idea of switching my major (it was plant sciences at the time). In this class, we learned about different areas of social work (I had had no idea there were so many). We were talking about social workers in the mental health field. As the speaker, who was a counselor, talked about their experience and expertise, God told me, I think you should go see a counselor. Back when I had been doing so bad in high school, I had thought about how it might be helpful to go to a counselor and talk about the float trip trauma, but didn’t want my parents to badger me about what was wrong if I brought it up (I was so dramatic about keeping every nook and cranny of my emotions private—heaven forbid my parents try to talk to me!). But when God brought it up during that class, my immediate response was, “No, but thank you!” I assumed it was to talk about the float trip, which I felt I was pretty much over. Looking back, I think I also wanted to forget I had ever felt so terrible. I didn’t want to dig up things that were doing just fine buried and under control.

It’s funny, but God is usually right about things. Maybe something in that class had stirred up the past, bolted into the storage room of my mind, dug through the restricted areas and found long abandoned feelings of hopelessness and fear, and returned to the forefront to spill them all over everything. I fought it as long as I could, but eventually the wonky brain made itself at home.

It’s hard to explain what it was like, maybe because I’m lazy and maybe because I’m afraid in my search for the words, I’ll unleash some sort of curse which strikes me those messy feelings once more. It’s also difficult to put it all in chronological order. These feelings and thoughts were less linear than they were scribbles all over a page. This time and the months following, even after I did meet with a counselor (I’ll elaborate more soon), were filled with a lot this:

The heaviness of depression, sleeping too much, not having the energy to do anything. The feelings of worthlessness and guilt. They were piercing. I easily can recall the first time I realized they were back. I had accidently eating a meal I thought was mine, but was my roommates. Upon her asking and me realizing my mistake, I felt engulfed in embarrassment, shame, and rage at myself.  I could tell she was annoyed but, really, by no means ready to hold a grudge about it. It was an accident; it was a freaking salad. Yet I walked to my room, collapsing in tears, beating myself up to no end about it. How could you do something so dumb? Stupid bitch. Wonky brain warps your thoughts like that. I also remember being scared and surprised, because I didn’t think I was capable of that twisted vision, looking at or treating myself that way anymore. I thought Jesus had solved all that.

I had trouble getting to sleep and then slept for too long, always needing a nap no matter how long I’d slept the night before. It was hard to find motivation to work on school, to do things with friends. I tried reaching out the God, but there was nothing from the other end.  That was the worst part. This spiritual force that had been my companion, my healer, my confidant the past couple of years had vanished. I can’t really recall every feeling that alone. I felt alone, of course, before I knew Jesus, but to have that presence removed felt somehow worse. On one hand, I returned to my old conclusions that silence from God was due to something I wasn’t doing enough of or a belief I didn’t have quite correct. This was mostly at night. I would be tormented to the wee hours of the morning, terrified of falling asleep without all my doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted. My church upbringing and natural personality was inclined toward hell and brimstone, of remaining theologically sound (as well as perfectly pious). I was paranoid about falling asleep with some sort of misunderstanding about the truth or some sort of wrong attitude about God which would result in me being thrown into hell (pretty fucked up, right?).

In other ways, I felt the burning pain of betrayal. Where was God, anyway? He had told me I wouldn’t be alone anymore, that we were family, that I could trust him. [By the way, I do cringe at how God is always he­—let’s not go down that rabbit trail today—but it’s such a habit for me to talk in this gendered way that for me to try to edit and reword it in this post would feel awkward to me. But it is on my radar, just so you know]. Funny way to treat someone you love, to abandon them when they need you the most. I was angry and throbbing from the pain.

I did make an appointment with a counselor eventually. My first stop was the student health center at my university since it was free. They got me in relatively quickly.  I only had to wait a week or so. Only that week felt like a year. It was excruciating. I was so nervous about going, not being sure what to expect, not knowing what I would say, wondering if I’d be able to actually open up emotionally, fearing if I did open up it would be like unleashing a flood of emotions I couldn’t regain control of, worrying I was either being dramatic or that there was something terribly wrong with me, and terrified it wouldn’t help meaning I would trapped in this state forever.

It was not helpful. It was just an assessment, which I didn’t realize is pretty typical for a first appointment. It was not some deep discussion and the counselor seemed to be mentally diagnosing me with something related to hearing voices as I talked about God (can I really blame her?). When the appointment was over and I was told I wouldn’t be able to get in for another couple of months (it was close to spring midterms when everyone’s mental issues flares up), I was completely thrown off and decided not to schedule another one. If this week waiting had been a nightmare, how could I stand to wait another few months?

When I got into my car, I started sobbing. I began to drive one of my familiar routes on the country highways outside of town. When my thoughts began to race and my body entered high alert anxiety mode, as it had routinely began to do,  it was the only thing I knew of to calm me down in the slightest (Sorry, mother earth—I’ve found better coping mechanism now). I was wearing a ring my mom had given me a few years prior that said, “Fear not, for I am always with you. -Jesus” What a fucking joke, I thought. I had sought and sought God in every way I knew how, studiously and in stillness, crying out in complete desperation. Yet I had time and time again received no words, none of that spiritual comfort I had been spoiled with. I decided when I got far enough out of town, I was going to stop and throw the stupid ring as far as I could.

Not to be anti-climactic, but I didn’t end up throwing the ring, maybe for a spiritual just-in-case reason or maybe because my mom gave it to me and I’m sentimental like that. But I did stop wearing it and seeking God’s relief quite as often though far from completely.

My brain got wonkier and wonkier. My thoughts were chaotic, dark, and tangled. I felt helpless.

It go so bad that I *gasp* opened up to my parents (who, by the way, are the sweetest, least judgmental, biggest-open-armed people I know, if that tells you anything about my refusal to talk about my emotions) because I need to ask if our insurance covered counseling. They were supportive and my uncle recommended someone he had gone to college with. I was pretty skeptical about trying her out. While I had not enjoyed the student health center’s professional looking at me like I was crazy when I talked about talking with God, the last thing I could stomach was some feel-good, cheesy Christian counselor judging me or, worse, throwing bible verses at me as a treatment.

I scheduled it anyway. What did I have to lose? I was nervous, of course, just like the time before. She was awesome. She made me feel as much as ease as was possible for me at the time. She was a Christian, but never pressured me religiously. She was very professional and I miss her (she retired). She was older than my parents but probably not  enough to be my grandmother. I thought this might mean she would be a little out of touch, but she wasn’t. She was the best counselor I’ve had. She did a good job of listening to understand then asking more questions to understand further and then collaborating with me to brainstorm what to do, contributing her expertise as needed. I never felt like she was waiting for me to get done talking so she could give me all the solutions. I felt so exposed sitting on her couch at first, someone giving me their full attention. She was paid to do this; I didn’t have to worry about talking about myself too much or scaring her with my darker thoughts. I couldn’t avoid talking about myself by asking a bunch of questions about her. I felt safe, and that was very important to me.

Some appointments later, she asked me if I had considered taking medication. My immediate response, just like that original suggestion to see a counselor, was, Nope! The idea of medicine interfering my brain scared me—just think of all the things that could go wrong.

It was helpful to go to counseling, but it wasn’t enough. My anxiety was at an all time high. Not just about faith, but about everything. As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I have a big fear of people breaking into my home. My roommate stayed with her boyfriend a lot at the time, so I essentially lived by myself. I could never relax at night. It’s like my body automatically entered flight or fight mode when it got dark. Every little sound made me jump, and the lack of sleep didn’t help my wonky brain. It was miserable. Then I would sleep all day, which maybe me feel like a lazy piece of shit. I had no time management skills or any understanding of how to motivate myself or how to find hacks for my short attention span. So I wasn’t doing great at school. There was some sort of mental block to do anything productive, like go to the grocery store or exercise, which of course was good for me.

It was also around this time the idea snuck up on me slowly (but then soon consumed me) that either God wasn’t real or God wasn’t as good as I had previously thought. How else could he have left me? How else could all the evil in the world go on and on? It was scary to admit this was how I felt, but it was true. Eventually I got to the point where I realized there was no finding truth without being truthful about how I felt.

And I did want the truth about life, about God, the peace that comes with the confidence of a well-research decision, but it seemed impossible to find. It was draining to keep thinking about it and sifting it through the overload of information and possibility.  I was overwhelmed but couldn’t let it go for even a minute, couldn’t settle down, couldn’t catch my breath. I was wearing myself thin. I didn’t want to keep adhering to a false belief but didn’t want to give up on something that was true. What could I do? My brain was a computer with too many tabs open, my soul was shaky, aching arms weighed down by an unreasonable amount of grocery bags that just needed to be unloaded in one trip, my heart was an old, broken down car trying to drive cross country, and my body, well, I don’t have a good analogy for it but it was simultaneously unable to relax and was also too exhausted to function properly.

I don’t know that most people would have guessed much was wrong. When around my funny friends, I had a lot of fun, I was quirky, mischievous, and thoughtful, but the second things were quiet or I was alone, I was back to this hell I couldn’t escape.

In the fall, it got so bad I decided I was going to kill myself. It was different than in high school, when my suicidal came and went only when I was too worked up to think clearly and left when I could. This time around, it came to me slowly, this conclusion there was no other way to make the excruciating chaos in my brain end. Not to glorify, but I remember it vividly, sitting in the tub after a shower and calmly resigning that I had tried what I could, that some people get dysfunctional brains and there’s not much you can do about it. It was like I did some sort of eerie assessment which decided I had exhausted all options and it was better to not live than to live like this. I wanted to plan it out, thought,  so it looked like an accident, that way my parents and friends wouldn’t blame themselves and wonder what they could have done. [By the way, if you feel this way, please know you are not alone, that things can getter, that there will be help soon if there isn’t now, that the national suicide hotline is open 24/7—you can call at 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741]

Obviously, I didn’t end up killing myself. As I was in the planning stage, a friend spoke at small group, and while I don’t even remember what he said, it impacted me in a way that swayed me not to end anything just yet. [There were also several other long-term crucial factors and important moments created by my parents, brother, friends, and spiritual leaders but those deserve their own post] I didn’t automatically feel a ton better; I just made the choice to not kill myself, at least for the time being. I decided to stop wishing God would mystically take care of and just do it myself—another shower time revelation. I wasn’t sure how, but I tried to detach from myself, pretend Alissa was someone else and I was her caretaker. That mindset helped some and it led to my decision in February of 2014 to try an anti-depressant, Zoloft.

It was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was stuck in a dark, musty, scary basement with broken legs and arms, counseling and the preventative and coping strategies I learned from my counselor (and God and blogs) were stairs we built as a way out of the basement, and those pills were the casts that helped those bones heal so I could actually utilize the stairs. I don’t regret taking them, I’m not embarrassed that I took them, and, while I do think they can be overprescribed and used instead of working through issues in some cases, I wholeheartedly believe the notion that it is spiritually wrong to use them is complete bull shit. My decision not to kill myself would have fizzled and I probably wouldn’t be here.

There were some side effects in the first few months of taking Zoloft, like night sweats, becoming more forgetful, and losing my appetite to the point I had force myself. Even after those beginning months, my appetite didn’t go all the way back to normal.

The side effects were worth it to me. I started to sleep normally, started to be able to focus on other things, felt like I was coming back to life. The brain power that had previous been being syphoned into fueling my never ending anxiety could be used to creatively problem-solve through those anxieties and other wonky brain symptoms. Since I wasn’t exhausted emotionally and mentally all the time, my depression started to disappear. It wasn’t a pill I took to feel happy; it doesn’t work that way. It was a pill that turned the faucet of my anxiety off so I could learn how to fix the water pipes on my own without being submerged in the waters of wonky brain at the same time.

It was during some of the darkest months before Zoloft that I began writing at the encouragement of my counselor. I created this blog , but didn’t share it with anyone I knew other than my counselor (if you ever read this, I can’t thank you enough for everything). I liked the idea of someone out there reading my thoughts, as long as it wasn’t someone I’d ever have to face. Sometime after I started getting better I shared the link on Facebook, because I had written some not mental health post that I felt was important share, whatever it was. I can tell when people go back and creep on the posts from when I was doing really bad and never thought I’d share the blog. I can’t see who read them which make it’s almost weirder. Sometimes I think about deleting those posts, but really they are part of who I was and therefore part of who I am today. Feel free to creep. I’ve had a handful of people admit they went back and read them all. Flattering and embarrassing (but mostly flattering)! It’s shifted now, my writing. Now that I’m not usually in crisis mode, I like to write about ways I learned to manage my wonky brain.

I only took Zoloft for about 8 months before I felt balanced enough to try going off it, which I think was also a good decision to me—though some people need to take medication forever, and that’s valid and brave too. I realize counseling and medicine is not a financial option for a lot of people, which is a shame. It’s also part of why it’s so important to me I write about my wonky brain and how I manage it.

Wonky brain made me feel alone, ashamed, and helpless. On top of counseling, online article and forums where people wrote about practical things they did to manage their mental health is something I’m grateful I had access to. They made me feel less alone, less ashamed, and less helpless. I had felt more in charge and capable of running my life instead of having it run me. I want to play that kind of role for someone else now I’ve made progress.

By the way, God had showed back up here and there before Zoloft, in fact I felt his encouragement to try it, and before the suicidal weeks, but it wasn’t the same. Mostly I was bitter about him leaving me alone when I was in need. It took me a really long time to process what I think and feel about that, to not be emotionally distant, and to let down my spiritual guard. Truth is something I’m forever shuffling towards. But that’s a blog for another day. I’ve already sat in Panera and then Dunkin’ Donuts for long enough I’m starting to feel weird about it.

There you have it, folks: part two of me getting there. Wherever, there is.

Bigger and Smaller

I feel things very deeply and any genuine connection with others that ends up being temporary is hard for me handle. I want things to last forever. Whenever they don’t, I try to push that memory away from my heart, so I can view it for brief moments on a rare occasion or two in a nostalgic yet emotionally distant way.  So, I’m not sure why this memory has wedged its way into the forefront of my mind to tear me up today.

*

Three summers ago, I spent a summer in an intern immersion program with Wold Relief Nashville (a refugee resettlement agency that has since closed because of budget cuts on the organization’s national level due to, well, everyone is pretty aware of the political climate right now).

We had to raise money for the internship, which I had never had to do before. I only bring it up, because in my process of asking for money, I informed people I would have a blog over that summer to keep them updated on my experiences. In doing so, I’m pretty sure I talked about going to Nashville to “love on” refugees, which I feel kind of yucky about saying now. How pretentious of me. Okay, I’m definitely getting sidetracked (would it truly be an Alissa blog without going down a few rabbit trails?), but the reason I feel yucky about the term “love on” is it, in my view now, implies this power dynamic over the recipients of this love. I guess it seems a little patronizing to assume my privileged self’s love was the answer to some other groups problems or that I was doing something noble. Don’t get me wrong, I can sincerely say I didn’t go in the internship for God’s/people’s approval or to convert everybody, but simply because I wanted to help people who had been screwed over by life, I was intrigued by my Google search on refugees, and my gut told me I was supposed to go for it. But still, I feel yucky about that “love on ” part. What I should have said is I was going Nashville to learn a bunch of things, teach a few things, play a lot of soccer while wearing jeans in 100 degree weather, help drive people to appointments, and to be granted the privilege of friendship with fascinating and humbling people.

I actually don’t know what the point is, but that wasn’t it. So back to the part where I mentioned I would have a summer blog. I did, in fact, create that blog and went to great efforts to make sure I had the *perfect* picture for the banner. However, other than my introductory post while I was raising money before I left for Nashville, I did not publish on it. Not once. I meant well, but I just never did. I was busy and also not disciplined. Now days, I wouldn’t make that promise to write, because I know how I am about following through on that sort of thing and also I have come to terms with the fact it takes me quite a long time to process my experiences (hence this post being three years late).

So, lovely humans who gave me money (seriously, thank you so much–I was forever changed by that summer) and checked by blog pointlessly (seriously, I’m sorry–I’m the worst), this is for you:

And by “this” I mean my recollection of the first time I got to know a refugee family.

They were from Cuba and had only been in the United States for two months. I was from a small Midwestern town and had been in Nashville for 24 hours. They lived at the apartment complex myself and the other five interns would live. But to quote the end of Chapter 1 in any Captain Underpants book, “before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story.”

The six of us had spent the day in the first part of a refugee simulation. We met at the agency with our suitcases, learned about the refugee process, and were each given a personal refugee profile. We were given clothes common to the culture our profile was from and forced to wear them (which felt sort of weird too, a little culturally disrespectful, but I get where the agency was coming from–we stood out from the rest of society) as we trudged for what felt like a bazillion miles in the heat. We were on what I think I remember being a prayer walk along roads in the area of Nashville we’d be living. The main part I remember is being thirsty, wishing I could take off the cultural outfit I was wearing on top of my own, and stopping at Walgreen’s to go to bathroom. I probably could have had a more spiritual attitude.

We had been told we could only take five items with us for this overnight simulation and that we couldn’t bring our phones (a detail, among others, we all agreed we’d probably leave out when talking to our parents). I don’t really even remember exactly what I brought with me, other than a water bottle I begrudgingly (though I think I hid it fairly well) shared with the girls who didn’t bring one.

Also that day we were taken to a large ethnic grocery store of some sort with a Mexican food truck outside of it and given a small amount of cash with which to feed all of us, not knowing how many more meals we’d have to use it on. Eventually, one of the staff members came and picked us up and dropped us off at the refugee families’ homes. He then informed us we’d be spending the night and he left.

This is where the Cuban family comes in, the family whose doorstep we were left on. It was comprised of a mother and father, and their three kids: a 15 year old daughter, Cailida (names of the kids have been changed), a 9 year old daughter, Anesia, and a 7 year old son, Eladio. I don’t remember a whole about the parents, other than they had kind eyes, wore big smiles, and were extremely hospitable to us.

It’s the kids I really remember. You would never guess Cailida was 15. She acted much older, like she was 18 or 19. he laughed a lot, the cutest giggle you could imagine, and her smile was absolutely contagious. Anesia had fluffy bangs that were also sweaty. She was sweet but she was also tough and did not take crap from anyone. I saw her flip off some of the Mexican children who lived at the apartment complex as she rode by on her bike once. She just shrugged when she noticed me, and Cailido explained that Mexican children and the Cuban children did not get along. And then there was Eladio, my sweet Eladio.

When we first arrived at their house, Eladio watched us curiously, careful to avoid too much eye contact, in a calculated careless way that boys his age do when receiving attention from older girls. But I would catch him looking at us and raise my eyebrows, making a number of ridiculous faces when no one else was looking. Eventually I broke him, he laughed, and we become quick friends despite the language barrier. Remember how I said I try not to think with my heart about some memories? He is one of them. I don’t even like writing about him right now—I’m afraid I’ll start crying. I miss him. He was so cute, with his dark hair and dark eyes, always a sparkle of mischief in them.

They fed us food and we tried to ask each other questions. They asked if we were Christians, and told us they were Christians too. We spent most of the evening outside. The air was hot and thick, but much better than inside their house which they did not air condition. Eladio begged us to play soccer, the first of many games that summer. He loved anything involving a soccer ball and was very gracious when it came to my lack of skills in this department. He was constantly shaking his head to let me know it was okay after I’d accidentally kick the ball in the most inconvenient direction and sheepishly yell lo siento!. The tennis courts, where we went to play soccer, were full of kids from multiple countries playing soccer as well, riding bikes, and playing tag–I don’t think I ever saw a single person playing tennis there. The younger children found us amusing and delightful, though some of the older boys cast suspicious glances. For having had such an exhausting day, I was also energized, happy, excited for what the summer would bring.

Despite the fact we’d sleep on the floor of a hot living room (remember the part about no air conditioning?) belonging to people we’d met only hours before that night, I’d sleep like a rock. Before we went to bed, we sang together. It is one of my favorite memories of the summer. The family had a Spanish worship songbook from church, and we sang Open the Eyes of My Heart, in English and then in Spanish.  Santo, santo, santo… I can still hear Cailida’s beautiful voice mixed Anesia and Eladio’s childish ones. Sometimes you can feel a moment etching itself into your mind, into your heart, right as it’s happening. This was one of those. A few minutes after we’d said good-night, Eladio shyly return to request we all pray together, in English and Spanish. We held hands and I remember feeling so alive.

The next day we were off to finish the simulation, but that night was just the beginning of our friendship with the Cuban family that summer. In the following months, we would invite each other over to our apartments for dinners. We’d take goofy selfies–I made this one face where I blew out my cheeks and crossed my eyes which the family adored; they treated me like I was God’s gift to comedy every time I did it and would request it all the time. We’d take a trip to the mall with the three children and a few other refugee teens, where we’d try on goofy sunglasses a take a picture with a big, stuffed oso. We’d play a more soccer than a summer traveling team. Eladio and I would become better buddies than ever. Another one of those etched in memories: during a break between playing a ball game and playing yet another ball game, Eladio and I sat on the curb, tracing letters in the dirt with little sticks as we taught each other our alphabets. My heart’s too soft to think about that memory too much.

That very first night, though, was important not just because of the friendship it formed, but also because it was the first time by world got bigger and smaller.

Bigger. I was seeing with my own eyes people from another country, another life, another culture, another language. They had lived (and were living) stories very different from my own while their friends and family in Cuba were too. At that very second, everywhere on earth, on the same dang earth as me, people were living stories of all different kinds. Smaller. I saw the life that was in my Cuban friends. It was the life that was in me, the light I see in my parent’s eyes, in my friends’, and in my neighbors’ who all look like me. How amazing to think that life was also present in someone so different than myself, was also alive back in the people in Cuba, was pulsing through all humankind globally.

*

That was just the first time, just the beginning. My world still keeps getting bigger and smaller. I keep meeting and making friendships with others, mostly refugees, who began their stories in other countries and are continuing their stories, starting new chapters, here. I learn about their religions,their customs, their foods. I’m told and read about the conflicts and nightmares in their home countries and the refugee camps. I admire their traditional clothing and listen to their strange languages. And the world seems so big. But I also see in their eyes, hear in their laughter and their jokes, witness in their tears, and sense in their love for their children: the life that is in us all.

And the world seems so small.

So, though it’s a little late, thank you to the people who donated their money so I could meet Cailida, Anesia, and Eladio. And thank you, my Cuban friends, for letting me stay in your home and share in your life for a little bit. Without you my world would still be too small and too big.

 

tips for when someone you love has wonky brain

Having someone you love battle with depression and/or anxiety (aka wonky brain around this blog) can be heart wrenching and heavy, especially if it’s a particularly bad or long season of it. I imagine it can feel extra overwhelming if you’ve never dealt with wonky brain or if you’ve never dealt with it to the extent the person you love is.

But let’s start by getting this out of the way: It’s probably not your fault their brain is wonky and it’s not your fault if it’s not getting better. I say probably because if we’re being technical, if you’re being abusive or a generally yucky person to them…then it might be your fault. You might want to reconsider your understanding of love and might think about finding ways to get your insides better so you can treat people you love better.

So, it’s not your fault. But there are things you can do to make that person you love feel loved and potentially assist them in functioning until they can go back to doing that by themselves. And I’m going to share a few of them with you. I would like to add though that while I do have a bachelor of social work, I am not a mental health professional. The tips I’m going to share with you are based on my own times of wonkiness and what helped me, what I needed. Everyone is different. You know the person you love, you likely have way more insight into them than I do (trust yourself). But maybe sharing what has been/is good from people in my life when I’ve been/am wonky, will give you a tiny bit of foundation to work with.

Help me with the basics.

Wonky brain can be paralyzing. The simplest tasks like making dinner, washing the dishes, getting ready for the day or for bed can seem too intimidating to bear. It doesn’t make sense, but when my brain gets wonky, it’s comparable to using a grandparent’s computer. It’s agonizingly slow and keeps freezing, even when you’re only trying to click the start menu. In times like these, as patronizing as it might seem for you to do, I really need you to drag me to grocery store to buy food I will realistically eat/make in this wonky spell. Help me pick out some healthy food and also some freezer meals that I can zap in the microwave (something is better than nothing) when my brain is freezing. Drag me to fill up my car with gas. Help me do my laundry, take out my trash, do my dishes. When I’m depressed,  all these things begin to pile up, which makes doing them seem even more daunting and makes me feel so rotten. Do them with me. Help me get that inspiring fresh start. It can be empowering. This applies to lots of “basic” things that don’t feel so basic to a wonky brain. I remember feeling really sluggish and bad, and my mom made adult me eat a bowl of cereal and go to bed. It’s what I needed. The fact you would care enough to help me with these not so glamorous things means so much to me and makes me feel cared for. Don’t underestimate the simplest acts of love.

Ask what me what I need.

You are an expert on your loved one, but they are even more of an expert. If mental health has never been a struggle of yours, you might assume that person needs you to give an inspiring speech or give them a kick in the rear, when all they really need is a hug or kind text message or to go on a walk. I remember going through a pretty bad existential crisis (I seem to always be in one, in one way or another) that had made my anxiety, and therefore my depression, sky rocket. One my best friends, after I had tried to articulate my thoughts, asked me, “What can I do?” She couldn’t really relate to what I was going through, with my wonky brain or with my crisis. But she loved me and genuinely wanted to know what she could do. So she asked! It made me dig deep and think about what I needed and it gave her insight into a tangible way she could help. It was good for both of us. I still remember that moment clearly. I felt very loved. And love cannot be underestimated.

Don’t come with an agenda.

We can tell. No matter how well meaning you are, it can hurt deeply if it feels like you have come with an agenda. If your loved one (and you) is a person of faith, they might be carrying some serious doubts about God’s existence, goodness, or love for them. If you’re coming with the agenda of convincing them God is real, God is good, having faith in God, you’re probably just making things worse. They probably already feel bad or conflicted about having those thoughts, and it ends up coming across like you care more about their belief in that moment than you do about them. Without meaning to, it can add this expectation that unless they agree with you, you’ll give up on them. It’s natural to wrestle with these things when your brain is wonky. If you’re a person of faith, than I assume you believe God is good and God is truth. If God is truth, God can be scrutinized and survive. If God is just, God will reward the person who seeks truth. If God is steadfast love, your loved one is safe in their doubt, in their resentment. Let them lay all the anger and criticism before God. Maybe your loved one will really benefit from the scripture or sermons you share. Like I said, you know your loved one more than I do.

I remember the greatest human assets in my worst season of wonky brain were those who listened to my ramblings and didn’t look at me differently. They didn’t come with an agenda to make sure I stayed the “ideal” person of faith in my trials, convincing me of a light my eyes were too broken to see. They simply sat with me in the dark and let me share the warmth of their light. My parents did a lot of listening over the phone back then. I recall fiddling with my sleeve and saying out loud for the first time to one of my friends (now husband) that I wasn’t sure God was real and that if God was real, I wasn’t sure how good that God could be. He didn’t look at me different. He just looked at me with kindness, with love. It shook me, thawed me, in a good way. Don’t underestimate love.

Brainstorm actions with me.

Having a wonky brain can make a person feel helpless. I can be pretty mean to myself when I’m wonky. I feel like I can’t do anything right, sometimes anything at all. As I said earlier, the simplest of things can seem daunting. Help me brainstorm ways to make these things or the things I’m afraid of/depressed about, seem a little bit easier to tackle. For example, if I’m lonely, help me brainstorm places I can meet people. If I’m afraid to talk to people in class or at work, help me set a goal to look one person in the eye. If I need to see a counselor, help me set a goal to call or email 3 centers to try to make an appointment. And when I say a goal, I mean assist your loved one in making a comically low goal to meet within a set amount of time. I say comically low because to you, making a call to a counselor might be easy as pie, but to your loved one, it might be the most courageous thing they have done in quite some time. And taking a microscopic step and then celebrating it is often the fuel needed to take a little bit bigger of a step. It can also make a day or week seem like it has more purpose. They are the captain of their ship. They get to navigate, but you can help give them some ideas of where to go and how to get there. Your presence at the wheel is valuable. Don’t underestimate love.

Tell me things you like about my brain.

When I’m wonky, I get mad at my brain. I hate my brain. I wish my brain were different, I feel like it’s broken. One time my husband told me, “I like your brain. It makes me laugh.” He wasn’t trying to be profound. He was just being matter of fact. But that stuck with me. It was like glue that seeped down into some of the cracks and held part of me together.  Tell your loved one what you love about the very brain that’s giving them so much trouble. Maybe you like the music or words their brains writes. Maybe you like the art or food it creates. Maybe you like the stories or jokes it tells. Or the deep conversations it lets you have with that person. I don’t think it’s possible for you to tell them too many things you love about their brain. You don’t have to persuade them to love their brain right thing, but do remind them that their wonky brain is also a loved brain, even if it’s not by them. Don’t underestimate love.

{Side note: I didn’t intend for this whole “don’t underestimate love” thing to be a theme, but I guess it naturally is, isn’t it? So what are you waiting for? Go love that wonky-brained soul you care so deeply about!}

 

Inspirational Women – International Women’s Day

I know many incredible and inspiring women. For starters, I was raised by one. And my parents’ mothers are another two. The family I was born into and the family I married into is home to them. I’ve gone to school or church with them, worked for and with them, and had them as clients. It would take me days to write about every inspiring woman I know! So for International Women’s Day, I’d like to tell you about three, though I have chosen to withhold names.

***

X is a single mother. Every morning, she walks her rambunctious daughter to daycare, about half a mile. From there she walks further to the bus stop where she waits for her less than glamorous ride to work. She works a fast-paced job that’s hard on her body, especially her back. After hours of that, she then she gets on the bus, walks to the daycare, and walks home, with her daughter chatting her ears off. Every day she does this, rain or snow, 100 degrees or 5 degrees. She entertains her daughter, listens to Frozen song renditions unless she can hardly take it, cooks their dinner, goes crazy trying to put that spunky kid of hers to bed, and wakes up to do it all again the next day. She loves, protects, and works for her daughter with a ferocity I hope to achieve when I have kids of my own. Without getting too much into her personal life, I can at least tell you she has seen the unthinkable, she has survived tragedy, and she still somehow seems to be thrown curve ball after curve ball. She is weathered, so, so weathered; but at her core she is as strong as steel and she perseveres.

She is role model for women everywhere. I am proud to know her by name.

Y is a fearless leader. Whether she comes by it naturally or not, life has forged her to be. Her husband developed memory problems that make it hard for him to work. So she works seven days a week, holding two jobs just to provide the basics for her big family. No exaggeration, this woman probably spends at least 12 hours every week getting to and from her jobs on the bus. Just like X, she works jobs that are hard on the body. They aren’t fun. But her little ones need food on the table and clothes on their back. She does it for their present and for their future. Because of her husband’s memory issues, it’s actually almost like she has an extra child. Y is crazy outgoing. She is one of those people who isn’t afraid to try something new. She is hungry to learn and show off what’s she learned, not taking the time to worry if she might not get it perfectly right. I want to be like that. She tries to better herself to create a better life for her family. And don’t even dare consider going to her house and not eating her homemade food. She won’t have it–or you trying to leave without taking all the leftovers with you.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am honored to learn from her.

Z is theatrical and hilarious. It’s hard to imagine having a conversation with her, even on the most serious topics, without being made to laugh at some point. She is sweet and sincere, and she’s raised her four children, who she insists on calling her “babies” despite the fact the two oldest ones are in high school, to be just as sweet and sincere. Each one of them has their mother’s kind sparkle in their eyes.  She pours her affection onto her them. Z may struggle to tell her babies no when they beg for pizza for dinner again, but she diligently teaches them right from wrong, to be respectful, and to make sure they stay away from peers whose parents haven’t taught them these things. Her husband, her babies’ father, was murdered. She was helpless to stop it, and she doesn’t have any other family nearby. So she raises and feeds her babies alone, carrying a heartbreak, a heartache, I can’t bare to think about for very long. That broken heart of hers is gold though. She could be freezing to death and she would give you the coat off her back. She wouldn’t even think twice. I need that kind of heart.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am humbled to be touched by her kindness.

***

Besides sharing the commonality of being three of the most inspiring women I know, all of them also all happen to be Muslim and all happen to be refugees. Despite how this might make them very different from you, I think you will find the same spirit in these women as you do in the very women you find inspiring in your own life.

Happy International Women’s Day! May we always celebrate the women who teach us right from wrong, show us how to work and love hard, and make us, our lives, and the world better, stronger, braver.

Momma, this post is for you. It is you I recognize in every inspiring woman I meet.

Are they sad?

“The people in the churches – what are they thinking about it? Are they sad? Do they know?”

My friend and co-worker, Yusuf, posed these questions this afternoon when I and another friend and co-worker, Nicole, met Yusuf to help him with a project for his English class he attends in the evening.

“Well…” Nicole and I paused, a little unsure of how to go about explaining the complexities of politics and the American church and wanting to avoid saying anything that might make our faith looked bad to our Somali Muslim friend.

We attempted to explain how most people in churches know, but that it’s a little all over the board. Some Christians are sad and angry. “They feel that way because of what Jesus says about loving your neighbor as yourself,” we told him. That part was easy. But how do we explain to our dear friend that some Christian’s don’t give a rat’s ass about him at all? Some would turn their noses up at him because he is black. Some would tense up when they heard his accent. Some would turn him away because he is Muslim. It doesn’t matter that he would give him the shirt off his back. They’re afraid. And people fall everywhere in between these two extremes.

We told him that some people have never met anyone different than themselves and that makes them very scared, and that fear can make them lash out in hate.

He then told us he was reading comments on Facebook articles last night. “Oh no, it is not good,” he told us. My heart sank. It’s hard for privileged, white American me to read ugly comments sections on posts, but what must my sweet friend Yusuf feel?

Yusuf quickly moved on to making a silly joke about his project, forever our office’s class clown, despite the solemnity of his and his community’s current situation, so it was too late, but what I wanted to say was, “Yusuf, Jesus wouldn’t have been afraid of you.

***

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[Christians, as you speak and write and share… please be aware that all kinds of ears are listening and all kind of eyes are reading.
The whole world is watching you.]

Trying to Understand

I work very hard and consciously to try to understand and empathize with people, especially people I disagree with. It’s partially because my parents raised me to think critically and challenge my own opinions. It’s also because I hang my hat in more than one world. Particularly relevant to my emotions today: I was raised in a homogeneous, politically conservative Christian environment and now work at a refugee resettlement agency which resettles families from multiple continents, Christians, Muslims, and nonreligious alike.

In order to maintain good relationships and keep conversations peaceful, I do a lot of listening, a lot of trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes to get insight onto why they hold the opinions or fears they do, a lot of devil’s advocacy with myself, a lot of awkward laughing, a lot of reassuring myself they probably didn’t mean that joke, a lot of clenching my jaw through patronizing rants from people who don’t bother fact-checking anything.

And honestly sometimes it is very difficult and exhausting-emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually-to continue to stretch and bend to try to understand people who themselves do not-who refuse-to try to understand.  But yet I plow through and listen and process and I labor to understand and respect them.

Then on days like today it feels like I’ve been stripping and stripping away nasty layers only to find there is no better explanation, no additional insight that lets me excuse their cold behavior or cruel words. I just find hate. I just find evil lies. I just find the laziness of the mind and heart that makes those hate and lies grow like weeds.

And as I desperately search for another angle and try on another pair of disgusting shoes, I replay the times they made me laugh, the good memories we have made together, the qualities that made me care about them in the first place, wishing I had that kind of heart that turns cold in times like these. But I don’t. I have the heart that slowly cracks then falls violently  and painfully apart, again and again and again and again.

It’s rare that this happens, but today I am tired of trying to understand.

I am tired of being rudely brushed off when I politely try to correct misconceptions about the very job I do 40 hours a week and the people I work with Monday through Friday from people who can’t even correctly define what a refugee is, much less explain the refugee process. I am tired of getting over snarky comments about the woman in the hijab, when I know the woman in the hijab. I have seen her nurse her baby. She has cried in my office. She has made me try her baklava. I am tired of having people who have never met a Muslim condescendingly and incorrectly summarize Islam to me from an article they read on a xenophobic website, when I am the one who has been learning about it directly from Muslims themselves for over a year. I have been asking the questions. I have been listening to the answers. I am tired of  reaching for reasons to excuse the inability to state a stance without unnecessarily directing nastiness toward people I love deeply, people whose character would put you to shame.

Don’t you see it?

You are being terribly ugly. It is not your perceived enemies. It is you. You are being ugly and there really is nothing more to it.