The Good and the Bad

Life is full of contrasts. The other day, I was reading a book to one of the children I nanny, and it talked about how we shouldn’t hate the dark, because without it, we would never know when we had the light turned on. We have great things, and we have awful things, and sometimes we have average things, too. But life isn’t really life without all of them together. We need the dark to know what light is, and we need the light to understand the dark. And sometimes in these contrasts, we can find answers, or new ways of looking at old problems. We can gain context for interpreting them, for coping with them. We can grow through them, good and bad.

 

As some of you might know already, I am engaged! I will always look back on the moment that Shane asked me to marry him as one of the happiest moments of my life. It’s a level of pure, inexpressible joy that I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience. Every “congratulations”, every time I get to tell the story again, every spreadsheet we fill in as we start planning a wedding together, brings me another burst of this total full-heart happiness. My life is full of a new light, and it shines so bright alongside the contrasting darkness I have been learning to move through.

When I first moved to North Carolina, I knew that I needed to see a therapist. The experience of finally being in an emotionally supportive and healthy relationship forced perspective and allowed me to see how unhealthy other parts of my life had become, or maybe always had been. The contrast was undeniable. I started to share pieces of my life, of my story, that I had never shared before. Or that I had tried to, but unsuccessfully. And I experienced two more feelings I never thought that I would ever experience: support and validation. With encouragement from Shane, I found an amazing therapist, and after dumping my soul out into a puddle on the floor of her office, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For the first time in my life, I was able to be honest with myself about how truly awful and lasting some of my experiences have been. The emotional abuse and trauma I experienced, starting in childhood and carrying on until I stopped it at 23, was so impactful that I have this disorder, this label, that means my brain – my life – has been forever altered by the trauma I lived through.

I’m doing my best to learn about PTSD, as much and as often as I can, but I’m clearly not a doctor and wouldn’t call myself qualified to define it for anybody. I do know how it has impacted my life, though. It affects me in unexpected ways, sometimes small and sometimes overwhelmingly large. For one, I forget everything. I forget to do majorly important tasks, even with several reminders. I forget words in the middle of sentences. I forget names. I forget where I put the phone I’m speaking into. And, as it turns out, that is all because my hippocampus was actually physically damaged by the trauma I experienced as a child. My PTSD broke my memory. Literally. An overload of cortisol and noradrenaline (which occurs when significant and sustained trauma is experienced) have shrunk certain parts of my hippocampus, parts responsible for retention, memory, and language. I’m bad at remembering, and I’m never going to get good, because my brain is literally actually damaged.

And that is a very hard thing to know. Some days I feel like I am absolutely capable of overcoming this. I feel empowered, and strong, and like a total badass for surviving an awful childhood and coming out the other side. And then other times, I remember that a piece of my brain has quite literally shrunk. That I have a greater chance of dying due to a cardiovascular condition. That I’m much more likely to have gastrointestinal issues or musculoskeletal problems, or many more physical conditions. Not to mention the dramatically increased chance of suffering from depression or anxiety, of committing suicide, or of developing a substance-abuse problem. It is so disheartening to know that my body, my mind, and my actual brain are all irrevocably changed in harmful and impactful ways because I experienced awful things, things over which I had no control. It’s hard not to feel like my abusers are still here, still hurting me. The ramifications of their abuse lingers, and will continue to linger, and no amount of going to therapy or taking depression medication or doing yoga is going to give me back the missing pieces of my hippocampus.

And I know that’s not a positive or optimistic way of looking at it. I know I’ve just gone on about perspective, and contrast. About how we need the bad to feel how good the good is. And I promise, I’ll come back to that. But sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, when my google search is full of questions that have plenty of answers and no solutions, all I have left is to sit with the knowledge that I, like my hippocampus, am a shrunken version of what I could have been. As my brain and personhood were developing, my growth was stunted, squished, and diminished. And I can’t get it back. There’s no cure for a shrunken hippocampus, or for a stunted emotional development. And I can go to therapy, and do my endless painful worksheets, but at the end of the day I’m not going to remember why I came into this room in the first place. I’m going to realize that what I started writing fifteen minutes ago is not what I’m writing anymore. I’m going to apologize before thanking somebody, because I’m going to feel like needing anything worth gratitude is an imposition that necessitates remorse. And when somebody accidentally breaks a cup or a plate, I’m going to need at least fifteen minutes to take deep breaths and remind myself that I’m safe.

What I’m trying to say is that coping with this new diagnosis has been very, very hard. It’s jarring to move between the feelings of bliss I have when I’m thinking about marrying my best friend, and the feelings of hopelessness I experience when I have another incapacitating flashback. It’s strange to experience such strong and overpowering and totally opposite sets of emotions. But, in a way, it’s helpful, too.

 

When my fiancé and I have an argument that never escalates to yelling, that ends in a feeling of caring and resolution, I am thankful and proud in a way that I know I would not be if I hadn’t lived so long believing that kind of conversation was not possible. When I need his help, and he doesn’t tear me down, when he’s simply there and willing to help me however he can because he loves me, I feel overwhelming gratitude because this is new to me, and I didn’t know if I would ever have it. This joy that I feel when we are together, it fills me up. It explodes out of me in bright yellow fireworks. It makes me cry, and dance, and laugh. It is overwhelming in its depth, its completeness. And I’m not saying that I couldn’t feel this happy if I hadn’t experienced so much pain. But I know that I wouldn’t be so absolutely thankful for it, for every second of it, if it wasn’t a feeling I never thought I could have before now.

And it doesn’t stop there, with my fiancé, with our new life together. I am able to deeply feel the love and selfless support that my father and step-mother show me. I’m blown away each time they give so freely, simply because they want me to be happy. I am able to appreciate the innocence and laughter of the children I nanny, the wild and unburdened imaginations they possess. When I throw out my arms and pretend to be a bird, or when we go on a bear hunt together through the corners of the house, I am able to feel so grateful that childlike wonder doesn’t have to end when you grow up. I’m able to value each chance I have to play with them and feel like a child again. I am able to be so so thankful for my future parents-in-law and the wonderful, kind open arms with which they have welcomed me into the family. And, maybe more than anything else, I’m thankful that I’ve come through it all. I’m thankful that I have the resources to go to therapy, the support system to lean on as I learn to manage the symptoms of PTSD, the conviction to work harder every day to improve my mental health, and the voice and strength to talk about what I’ve gone through. I am so privileged to be standing where I am today, to be getting the help that I need to recover from my past, and I feel infinitely grateful to be able to share this experience and know it will not impact my safety.

 

            If I’ve learned anything from therapy, it’s that every emotion gets a seat at the table. I’m learning how to feel angry, how to unpack my sadness, and how to manage my fear. These are valid, and important. Ignoring them doesn’t make me happier, or make my life better. What does is learning to embrace them all, and then deeply, emphatically appreciate the happiness. Yes, I have experienced some awful things. I have felt deeply, overwhelmingly, crushingly sad, and angry, and hopeless. But when I gained the capacity to feel those things so fully, I also gained the capacity to truly appreciate how big and bright the happiness can be. Living with PTSD is always going to be painful, but living with the person I love most is always going to be wonderful. Putting in the work to heal will always be hard, but laughing with my fiancé will always be easy. Speaking out about my past and my mental health will always be terrifying, but knowing that I might just help someone else going through the same thing will always be empowering. And I think, maybe, I can live with the hard if it means being able to know that.

When Vacations Go Awry

There are times in life when, despite hours (and hours and hours) of careful, thoughtful planning, things do not go the way they should. Regardless of your meticulously-bulleted itinerary, your well-researched list of restaurants and local attractions, and your overly-packed suitcase (okay, okay, suitcases), life has a habit of getting in the way. Which explains why, on my second-favorite holiday (because, you know, Christmas), I found myself writing this blog post from bed instead of eating hot dogs and waving sparklers.

I spent the Fourth of July in Denver with my boyfriend (Shane). He and I spent months planning this trip. Long distance relationships are rough, so we poured all of our restless energy and excitement into carefully mapping out our Denver Adventure™. I would drive down, he would fly in, I’d meet him at the airport and tackle him in a hug. We had several restaurants we wanted to try, along with a few local attractions to visit – most notably the zoo and museum, a pair that we planned on visiting back-to-back on a day we dubbed “Zoo-seum Day.” Yeah, we’re that couple. We planned on rounding out Zoo-seum Day with an evening of fireworks at Independence Eve, an annual Denver celebration. I packed snacks and sunscreen and a picnic blanket and a patriotic shirt and wine and – well, suffice it to say I basically filled the entire backseat of my car. I was ready.

When Zoo-seum Day arrived, Shane and I packed up my car and set out for part one of our adventure. We had planned on getting to the zoo as close as possible to nine (when they opened) so that we could beat the crowds. We should have known what the day would become when we finally pulled in to our fourth-level parking spot at 10:45AM and battled a throng of stroller-wielding families to exit the parking garage. After a few more kerfuffles piled on, we decided to abandon the zoo and visit the aquarium instead. The Denver aquarium was fantastic – they had a great mix of fish and lots of themed exhibits (everyone knows how I love a good theme). Most importantly, we made friends with some of the cutest otters in the world and I didn’t even otter-nap one to bring home. I’m such an adult. By the time we were nearing the exit, though, Shane was growing weary. We grabbed some food, came back to the hotel, and promptly fell asleep. Apparently, he’d caught the cold I’d been battling for a week or so. The perks of being a Nanny.

The world's cutest dog with his new best friend, the otter.

The world’s cutest dog with his new best friend, the otter.

When we woke up from our nap, I was prepared to enter Caregiver Mode™ and help him through the evening. That is, until I saw the several missed calls and texts from my mom. I’ll give you the short version of this story in the interest of time and feels. My mom was cat-sitting for me, and my cat had become very sick at some point in the day. Very, very, sick. After a few hours of phone calls between Shane, my mom, the veterinarian, and myself, the vet put my sweet kitty down while my mom held her. She could have waited until I got back, but it would have been an incredibly painful week for my sweet girl. So, battling the runniest nose I’ve ever seen and a killer sore throat, Shane spent his evening taking care of me instead. He talked to the vet when I couldn’t stop crying enough to speak, he helped me work through the emotions to reach a decision, and when it was all over, he let me cry on his shoulder and did his best to make me laugh (his best is very good, and I laughed a lot).

The next day, we both knew we wouldn’t be feeling up to any Fourth of July celebrations, despite it being one of the greatest holidays ever. So instead, we spent our morning watching How I Met Your Mother and eating crepes we had delivered to the hotel room. Eventually, thanks to some nap-related energy, we finished off the day by walking to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner and margaritas. We’ve since decided that celebrating America’s birthday by eating Mexican food is going to be our tradition. It wasn’t even close to the celebration I had carefully planned, but it ended up being the most fantastic day.

The Great American Celebration

The Great American Celebration

I’m a planner. I like organization, order, and color-coordination. I love maps and itineraries and Yelp reviews. I like being able to feel like I’m in control of how my day goes, but life doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you skip the zoo and meet cute otters instead. Sometimes you catch a cold. Sometimes bad things happen when you’re very far from home and you have to do your best to deal with it. I’ll be honest, if all of these things happened to me on an average day, I would probably lose my mind. And yet, when they all happened on what was supposed to be the culminating day of my vacation, I didn’t panic. I didn’t lose my cool. I didn’t cry over the spilt plans. Instead, I leaned on the person I was with and learned something about our relationship that no Zoo-seum Day could ever teach: we work, even when life isn’t a fun adventure. In fact, we work well.

If you spend all of your time focusing on making things exactly what you think they should be, there’s no room for making the most of what actually happens. And sometimes, the most is much more than you had planned in the first place.

We Can Be Both

Words are powerful because we give them power.

I’m a college student working towards my degrees in Secondary English Education and K-12 Reading Education. Words are a big deal to me. It should come as no surprise, then, that when a professor recently asked a group of us to choose an adjective for ourselves, I was ready. I love words, and I know the ones that belong to me. I chose “spirited.” My classmates, with whom I’ve been spending time for about a month now, were given an opportunity to consider my word before offering alternates if they did not agree. Much to my surprise, one immediately raised his hand.

“No offense, but that’s the opposite of the word I would pick for you,” he began. I tried my best to reserve offense, but we all know that “no offense” usually precedes a statement that will inevitably be, well, offensive.

“You’re quiet, and respectful, and so nice,” he continued. My offense faded a bit into the background. “You clearly think of other people before you speak. That’s the opposite of spirited, that’s gentle.”

His “no offense” comment may have morphed into a compliment, but I was still a bit unsettled by his words. I went home and thought about it all night, and all morning today, and I’ve finally realized why.

He believes, based on his comments, that somebody who identifies as “spirited” cannot also be kind, quiet, considerate, or gentle. In fact, he sees gentle as the opposite of spirited. But is that the case? Are these antonyms? My inner English nerd was on the case and rushed to the dictionary.

The dictionary app on my laptop defines gentle as follows: “Mild in temperament or behavior; kind or tender: he was a gentle, sensitive man.” Okay, so far so good. Gentle is decidedly not an offensive identifier. Spirited, then, is someone who is “full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination: a spirited campaigner for women’s rights.” Again, nothing offensive about that.

I may be wrong here, but nothing about those two definitions strikes me as particularly opposing. These words may not be synonyms, but they certainly aren’t antonyms either. In fact, I find the definitions rather complementary. A person who could describe themselves as both spirited and gentle seems like someone that I would very much like to be friends with. So why does this classmate of mine find these adjectives so contrasting?

Well, I can’t tell you for sure. I can’t read his mind, or interview him on the subject, or psycho-analyze him. What I can do, however, is speculate (something that us English nerds know how to do). Our society has created the understanding that if you want to be spirited, bold, and enthusiastic (and, as a result, powerful or influential or listened to), you cannot be gentle. You cannot be kind. You cannot be tender. And if you want to be kind, tender, and gentle, you will not be thought of as spirited or enthusiastic or determined. And I’m not just pulling this out of nowhere – you can see this in the media, in books and movies, as personified by leaders and politicians, perpetuated by protesters and bloggers and alt-right website owners. According to public perception, the Venn diagram of these two words is just a couple of separate circles on a page.

I would like to, respectfully, light this understanding on fire. Because, and no offense here to the kid in my class, it is just plain wrong. According to my dictionary, the opposite of gentle is actually brutal. And the opposite of spirited? Lifeless. I do not want to live in a world where my only choices are to be gentle but lifeless, or spirited but brutal. That world is dark, divided, and unproductive. In fact, it looks a lot like the world we live in right now. But it doesn’t have to! Our world can be light, united, and productive!

I think that this misconception that gentleness cannot accompany spirit is leading to a world full of people leaning into their spirit and, because they think that they must, into brutality. If they have an opinion, they are going to beat you over the head with it until you agree with them. We all know these people. We have all been these people. We’ve all yelled at the friend with whom we disagree, or posted the joke on Facebook that slams the other side, or watched the news network that calls anyone different from them idiotic or dangerous or wrong. There is no gentleness here, but for us to move forward as a country we have to find it.

I’m not perfect, and I have been that person more times than I haven’t. I’ve embraced my brutality, and my anger, on the quest to being spirited. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that it has never worked. Not once. Nobody has ever listened to me because I yelled loud enough, or lobbed the perfect insult, or let anger take over my mind. No, the moments that I was able to reach people were moments of gentleness. The moments where I reflected and chose to embrace my kindness and my tenderness were the moments that I was able to reach out and affect others. And I did not have to sacrifice my spirit to achieve those moments. I let the emotions work together, hand in hand, to speak with kindness and compassion and enthusiasm and determination. I was both gentle and spirited. I can be both. We can be both.

I’m not going to tell you what to do. However, I am going to make a commitment to let gentleness and spiritedness coexist more regularly in my life. These words are not antonyms, so I’m going to stop treating them like they are. I’m going to stop believing that to be heard I have to be angry, and that to be gentle I have to be silent. That doesn’t mean that I won’t speak up with passion against injustice or for progress. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my beliefs or be silent about what matters. It just means that when I do speak, I’m going to speak with love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”