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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

It is hard for me to know what it is I want to say. This might be because I have a brain injury, or then again, it might be because I’ve recently gone through a traumatic experience that is hard to talk about. I revolve around this question–is this a brain injury issue or something else?–several times every day.

I didn’t know anything about concussions a month ago, except that you’re not supposed to sleep through the night with one. Only that might not be true because I slept through the night eight hours after sustaining a serious one and didn’t die. Hooray?

I mean, yeah, definitely hooray. I really really really don’t want to die right now. There were times when I was in such bad shape I was asking to make sure someone would take care of Nala if something happened to me and trying to give instructions about reaching my sister, who is off on her annual silent retreat right now and therefore complicated to reach. We (we being mostly myself and my friends Sara and Tony, who are two of the best people I know) tried to downplay it a bit on social media because freaking everyone out didn’t seem like the thing to do, however much I personally was freaking out, but now things have gotten a bit better, I will say things were pretty bad. They are still not great, although I look great and if you have seen me, I might have seemed great, and when I have company to distract me, I am certainly greater than I am the rest of the time.

One thing about concussions I didn’t know is that concussions can cause mood swings, anxiety, depression, you name it. Like, BIG GIGANTIC MOOD SWINGS. Like, I am in so much pain and it is very early in the morning and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know who to call so instead I will just cry for an hour straight type of mood swings. Combine those swings with cognitive impairment that makes it almost impossible to engage in critical thinking or make decisions and things get very interesting indeed.

In case you haven’t gotten it, by interesting I mean nightmarish.

Focus in on me that morning, in pain and sleepless in the dark in what felt like the middle of the night but was probably more like five a.m., questioning myself, my life, and the decisions I’d made that had led to me lying there, terrified and alone. What, then, did my life amount to? I suddenly wasn’t sure. It seemed as if every other person on the planet was an impossible distance from me.

I questioned my recent move. I questioned all the time I’ve spent writing books that practically nobody has read. I didn’t question relationship choices, but I did feel terribly sad. All that time and effort fostering connections with other people, and there I was, so confused I couldn’t figure out if there was anybody I could call who would be okay hearing from me at that time of night and in that terrified state of mind. I wanted my sister very badly.

I thought of this blog, and I thought, “That has been some good work, even if hardly anyone reads it.” I thought of Nala and how devoted we are to one another. I thought of integrity and courage–even a faltering courage, which is what I was experiencing at the time–and love. So there was some comfort.

Eventually I did call a friend, cried for another half an hour on the phone, and said I wanted to go to the doctor. Voluntarily. I voluntarily thought it was a good idea. (For context, I hate going to the doctor. I never want to go. Sometimes I force myself because going to the doctor is part of being an adult.) I kept coming back to the panic of knowing I couldn’t do this, and the only answer I could come up with for not being able to do it was to get some help.

When the advice nurse told me to go in, I was relieved. If the doctors could do something to alleviate in any way even one of my symptoms, I thought it would be worth the horror that is Urgent Care when you have a concussion and are super confused and light and noise sensitive and about ten seconds away from bursting into tears at any given point and also have neck and back injuries that make sitting in their uncomfortable chairs a particularly unpleasant kind of torture. That is how awful I felt. When the nurse brought out the needle to take a blood sample and get me started on the IV, I again felt relieved, even though I have a lifelong phobia of needles. And indeed, he had to make two tries to get the IV going because of my teeny tiny veins. Whatever, I thought. It was so worth it. Anything to lessen the pain. Anything to blunt my awareness that I was about to go in for tests to show whether my brain was bleeding and the knowledge, given to me by surreptitious forays into the internet, that if it was, there was brain surgery in my near future. I told Patrick, who was with me during the wait, that if I went into brain surgery, THEN he had permission to contact my sister.

There was no brain bleeding. I want to say thank goodness, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it. Instead there was me trying to get all the information I needed from the doctor even though I was confused and exhausted and not even with it enough to think to take notes or record the conversation. But hey! I had already figured out how to take cab to Urgent Care, and that had only taken me an hour of dithering.

Even doctors don’t seem to quite get how disorienting having a concussion can be. When your primary means of self-definition is your brain and suddenly your brain isn’t working right, it feels like the bottom has fallen out from under you. Suddenly easy problems seem completely insurmountable and normal stresses want to consume you whole. And it’s not like brain injury is a particularly normal stress anyway.

Today marks the three-week anniversary of my car accident. Like I said, I am doing somewhat better. I have good days and not-so-good days. Yesterday was pretty bad, today is better. I have recovered some of the cognitive function I was missing, which is a relief, although I still become easily overwhelmed with decision-making. I am no longer stuttering or pausing as much between words, and the sound and light sensitivity have improved. I still have spikes of anxiety. I still have sudden weird memory gaps. I still lack focus. I still have frequent terrible headaches. My neck really hurts. When the pain is bad, I become more confused. I’m exhausted all the time, and I usually need an afternoon nap. If I don’t get enough to eat and drink, things can go downhill quite quickly.

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Me today. Turns out concussions aren’t always very visble injuries.

But I am here, and I am very grateful for that.

Next time I am well enough to write, I will tell you about the help I’ve been receiving and how it feels like a miracle.

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In fact, at times they have been fairly noteworthy for their badness. People have been quick to offer silver linings, which, thanks, I’ve got that covered. But sometimes you’ve just got to accept that some bad stuff is happening, and that in the present moment, things are difficult.

And I felt a lot of doubt. What, I thought, was the point of putting so much effort into all this personal development if it was still possible for me to be taking this many serious emotional hits within a short period of time? I was fighting disillusionment and asking A LOT of questions.

Here is what I learned:

I learned that you can’t control how other people behave, how other people treat you, or a whole host of potential crap that life can throw at you. You can only control how you choose to respond to these situations.

I learned that sometimes people deeply disappoint you, and that sucks, and there’s nothing you can do about it except take care of you.

I learned what it feels like to say a more effortless no. I’ve been saying so much no lately. No, this is not acceptable. No, we can’t just ignore this. No, you can’t erase my reality. No, I can’t do that thing. No, I can’t deal with complicated logistics right now. No, I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for that. No, I can’t make yet another decision right now. No, I’m not going to show up when you’re not. No no no no no.

It turns out it’s a lot easier to say no when your plate is full to capacity. Because then some of the requests (and demands) take on a slightly absurd quality or are just obviously impossible, and those are the ones to which I say no. Almost always without guilt, I might add. Which is fucking fantastic.

I learned that how someone else chooses to treat me does not have to affect how I feel about myself.

I learned that some mistakes are correctable.

I learned that some people surprise you in a great way.

I learned the power of being done.

I learned that even when you’re having trouble feeling grateful, the reasons for you to be grateful are still right there.

I let go of a lot of things I’d been holding onto for a loooong time. And I stopped trying so hard to make everyone except me comfortable. And guess what! It turns out I like being comfortable too. Who knew.

I learned that there are lots of reasons to get your life in order, even though that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to trouble. Because whatever is happening on the outside, you’ve still got whatever you’ve built on the inside. And even through these last few hard months, there have been so many bright spots. There’s this year’s book, and I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I love this book so hard, and its imperfections and difficulties only make me love it more. There’s Nala, who decided on her own to morph into a lap dog in order to better support me. There’s some of my best friends, both local and not, both new and old, who have shown up in all kinds of ways. There are concerts and books and musicals and plays and albums and T.V. shows and museum exhibits. And dancing. I  had one of the best dancing nights of my life last weekend.

And there’s planning for a future I am incredibly excited about.

At one point back in March, one of my close friends said something like, “Amy, I know things are hard right now, but I think you’re going through a big period of change, and it’s going to be amazing for you in the end.” As soon as he said that, I felt a lot better. Change was all around me, and it seemed so dark, and I was so tired. But being reminded that the light was there, that maybe it wasn’t even that far away anymore, I tightened my jaw and I kept going.

And now here I am. There is sun on my face. And more clearly than ever before, I know who I am and what I want. No wishy-washiness, no compromises, no vision clouded by fear and misplaced empathy.

All right then. Let’s do this thing.

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Once upon a time I was talking to someone about my writing. And this person said to me, “Yeah, but if you don’t succeed in a year or so, you’d probably quit and try something else, right?”

And I thought to myself, “Wow, we are really not on the same page here. In fact, we are so far apart I don’t know that there’s anything I can do to change that.”

So when I recently read an essay by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, I was happy to see the following:

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, “I’m going to give it a couple of years.” You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul.”

I don’t know about the “should” in that statement, but for me, the sentiment is true. I’ve been a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing music and lyrics. This impulse to write is so deeply buried in who I am, I don’t have the first idea how I’d extricate it. Nor would I want to.

Because commitment matters. As Elizabeth Bear says, “…to succeed at a thing–a job, a relationship–in the long term, the thing is: You Must Commit, even though commitment is scary.”

I used to joke that I had commitment issues because I like to take a bit of time before I commit. I’m a “stick my toe in the water to test the temperature” kind of person, and then I hesitate at the first step or two of the pool, thinking about how cold the water is and wondering if this is actually a good idea, and then suddenly I rush all the way in, and I’m done. I’m committed.

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I even hesitated a little bit about adopting this cutie.

But the reason I like to take my time is because once I commit, I AM COMMITTED. And I will put everything I have into whatever it is. So being a little cautious at the beginning is an important protective measure.

Do I think this means I make better decisions? I have no idea. It’s part of my temperament, more than anything else. And I still make mistakes, and I still have failures, and I still make commitments I wish I hadn’t made, not because of failure so much as because the price I paid was too high.

Ultimately I think commitment requires a lot of trust: trust in whatever or whoever you’re committing to, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, trust in yourself. Trust that you can be there–really show up–for yourself. Trust that you can brave the storms and survive the failures. Trust that you can keep learning, that you can keep adjusting, that you can keep in touch with the things that matter to you. Trust that you can leave old commitments behind if it is time. Trust, even, that you can keep trusting instead of clamming up so tight it will become impossible to function in an open-hearted way. (Or, if that’s where you are, that you can figure out how to begin opening that heart back up.)

And finally, trust that we can’t always know and yet we must act anyway. None of us know what the future will bring. We can do our research and collect data, we can try things out, we can discuss the pros and cons, but ultimately, at that point of commitment, there is a LEAP. That leap is unavoidable. And it is terrifying. And it is glorious.

So if I had actually answered the question this person had asked me instead of being polite, I would have said, “What? No, are you kidding? I took the leap to write seriously years ago, and so far it has been a fabulous decision. It’s not always easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t know when or if I’ll succeed in the way I want. But NO REGRETS. On the contrary, I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this at all. And I really doubt I’ll stop in a year’s time, whatever happens. I kind of doubt I’ll ever stop. I guess we’ll find out.”

Here’s to that glory.

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I’ve always considered myself to be a brave person.

Not physically brave. And given that a sprained toe that is supposed to take two to three weeks to heal is for me taking three months and counting, you can maybe begin to see why. I’ve got a different risk/reward ratio going on there.

But emotionally brave, absolutely.

In college it was about a ten minute walk down to the music building from where I lived. I’d be trundling downhill to go to an audition, and I wasn’t the hot shit in the music department AT ALL, so I knew the odds of me getting anything were incredibly slim at best. And in my head, I’d think, “This is absolutely insane. Why am I doing this? I could just turn around right now and go home. That is a real option for me.” And then I’d think, “Yup. And now I’m going to audition, goddamnit.”

And I wouldn’t get the part, but it kind of didn’t matter because I’d won just by showing up prepared and doing my thing. (It also kind of did matter, but after a while you get used to rejection so that it’s just this normal crappy thing that happens a lot.)

It actually became a point of pride for me, that if something made me frightened (except for physical things because I also care about self-preservation), I would make myself do it.

Recently, someone pointed out that often bravery is an action of willpower, and a lightbulb went off for me. No wonder I think I’m brave! I have willpower up the wazoo!  And I’m very, very good at getting myself to do the things I’ve decided I want or need to do.

What does this photo have to do with being brave, Amy? I have no idea, but I like it, so there you go.

What does this photo have to do with being brave, Amy? I have no idea, but I like it, so there you go.

Anyway, lately I’ve been having some trouble being brave, which is unusual for me, but, well, it’s happening. I’m having to use all my willpower, which I hardly ever do, and I’m still really struggling. Like tonight, I have to do this thing–have a conversation, actually–and thinking about it makes me feel literally ill, that’s how afraid I am to do it. But this is a great chance to notice some concrete ways to cultivate bravery, right? Right.

For instance, I know I want to avoid this conversation. It would be so easy to just…not do it. So I’ve made concrete plans around it to make it easier to do it than to not do it. And I’m writing about it here, and by the time this post publishes tomorrow morning, I’d better have done it. So I have created some built-in accountability. Yes, I could cancel the plans and I could change this post, but the effort of having to do those things will encourage me to stick to the original plan.

I’m trying to stay in touch with reality. Because reality is, this conversation does not have the power to destroy my life. Not even close. So thinking about unrelated stuff in my life that I’m happy about is actually really helpful for staying grounded and keeping perspective. Likewise, I’m doing my best to think about the conversation going well and all the reasons it might go well, and to avoid thinking too hard about the conversation going poorly. Aka I’m practicing positivity.

I’m doing my best to keep it simple. I find it’s really important when making plans to set goals I can actually meet. I don’t mean that you have to set easy goals, but rather realistic goals. Writing a novel, for example, is not easy, but I can make a plan to write a novel that, based on past experience, I’m pretty confident I can follow. So for this conversation, my goals are to show up and ask for one thing. It’s not going to be easy to ask for the one thing, and it doesn’t help that I hate asking for anything, but I’m pretty sure I can do it because at least it’s only one.

I’m being kind with myself. I’m using up so much willpower right now, that means I don’t have a lot of it left over for other things. Which means I’m not being super productive right now. But I’m being passably productive, and everything important is being taken care of, and that’s good enough.

And finally, I’m quite happy to lean on some good old-fashioned stubbornness, of which I always have a large supply.

I still think I’m a brave person. I think I will go, and I will feel queasy, and I will stammer a whole bunch, and I will have this conversation.

Just because bravery isn’t always easy or flashy or elegant or clean doesn’t make it any less true.

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I feel very protective of my close friends.

I forget this is true until one of them tells me a story of some awful thing someone else has done to them. And I don’t even have to think about it. I want to tell them how amazing they are and how much they don’t deserve that kind of behavior, and I want to listen to them vent if they think that will make them feel better, and I want to validate the hell out of them.

And I’m angry on their behalf. Much angrier than I would be if the same thing happened to me. And none of the weird delayed reaction anger either. I’m pretty much angry right away. Angry and sometimes indignant.

One time a close friend of mine called me up on the phone with this story of some really bizarre and inappropriate behavior of a mutual acquaintance of ours. And I realized this mutual acquaintance could, no doubt, use his access to me to make things even worse for my friend. And I knew the mutual acquaintance would have no qualms in doing so.

I decided then and there to let that mutual acquaintance go. It was one of the easiest interpersonal decisions ever. If there had been inappropriate behavior directed towards myself, I would have agonized over it, and wondered if I was being reasonable, and wondered if I needed to give some more benefits of the doubt, and worried about possible repercussions and burned bridges, and worried about what people would think, and wondered if it was somehow all my fault. But because it was about my friend, doing the right thing was easy. To this day, I think about the boundary I set with satisfaction and zero doubt.

This, then, is what it means to become your own best friend. It can be a powerful thought experiment. It is advocating for yourself the way you would advocate for your actual best friends. It is wanting for yourself the kind of respect and appropriateness you would want for your actual best friends. It is stopping and telling yourself the story of what’s going on right now as if the story was happening to your best friend instead of to you, and then noticing the difference in reaction and allowing that to guide you accordingly.

And it is also about learning to see and appreciate yourself the way your best friends see and appreciate you. I think my best friends are fabulous. I am blown away on a regular basis by all their good qualities, and I feel so lucky to know them and have them in my life. I love hearing about what they’re doing, their successes and their failures, their joys and their sorrows. I want them to be happy, of course, but when they are having a hard time, I see how courageous they are. I see how hard they’re trying. I see the risks they are taking. I see how deeply they feel and care. And I admire them so hard.

To be my own best friend, I need to admire myself that hard. To be my own best friend, I need to be blown away by my strengths, not only be bogged down by considering my weaknesses. To be my own best friend, I need to remember that my hard times don’t automatically reflect poorly on me.

To be my own best friend, I need to embrace the idea of being as protective of myself as I am of the other people I love.

One of my amazing besties!

One of my amazing besties!

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I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.

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*

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.

*

The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

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I care very deeply about documenting the process of change.

Whenever I think about change, I think about the montage scene. Actually, I think of one specific montage scene: the one in Dirty Dancing when Jennifer Grey learns, through much trial and error, how to ballroom dance well enough to fill in for a professional. That is my quintessential montage scene.

But as useful as the montage scene is, it fails on some fundamental level to reflect the reality of change: that it is slow, and it is hard, and it is filled with doubt and confusion and setbacks, and it hurts. If you’re learning how to dance, it really hurts. Your thighs hurt, and your calves hurt, and your low back hurts because your posture kind of sucks, and your weak ankle aches, and the morning after your first time dancing, you can barely crawl out of bed, it hurts so bad.

The montage scene doesn’t really show the pain, and it doesn’t really show the duration, either. Change takes so much time. Even once you get it, or at least think you do, you often have to realize it all over again a month later, or six months later, or two years later. And each time, there’s this “Aha” moment, and each time it feels important, and each time you move forward, and each time there is still further forward that you could go.

Which is to say, I feel incredibly proud of the personal change I’ve been able to accomplish, symbolized by the tweet Ferrett made back in February. I am proud of it the way I’m proud I started a business. I’m proud of it the way I imagine I’ll be proud when my first novel hits the shelves someday. It is a major accomplishment for me.

And yet. There is still further forward for me to go. I am not magically finished, not suddenly foolproof at the art of not giving a fuck. No, what has happened is that I’ve made visible progress, and that is awesome. Meanwhile the work continues.

Last week I talked about feeling tired in dating. And a lot of that fatigue is tied up, for me, in the act of presentation. Which is all tied in to me still being invested in things of which I’d rather let go. I’ve got this act down. I am tactful, I am diplomatic, I can listen to a subject for half an hour without expressing an actual opinion. If I sense any discomfort in the other person, I act instantly to defuse it. I smooth, I smile, I charm, and I would certainly never admit to what I’m saying in this paragraph right now. Except maybe as a little joke that would probably fly under the radar.

Here’s the thing, you guys. I have taught myself over this last three years to rein this set of skills back when I’m with my trusted friends. I am so much more likely now to tell my friends how I really feel, what I really think. But when I am nervous or uncomfortable or, I don’t know, dating, it is so easy to turn it all back on without even thinking about it.

It feels easier. It isn’t though. Over time, it becomes exhausting. It feels heavy. It keeps me awake at night.

It doesn’t work.

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And it’s not even real. That’s not how I feel anymore. I don’t want a relationship that begins in such a lopsided way. I don’t feel like I need to apologize for who I am or what I like or what has happened in the past. I don’t even feel bad about the boundaries I’ve needed to set. If people don’t want to like me for those things, that’s their prerogative. I don’t need to convince them otherwise. I just want to be me.

And I can. How beautiful is that?

So I was on the phone with this guy who was asking me on a date. And we were chatting because we hardly know each other. And I chose not to flip that stupid switch. And at one point he said, “It’s funny that I called to ask you on a date and now here we are chatting about our divorces.”

And I said, “Well, you know, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to do my best to be straightforward and open about things. How do you think it’s going so far?”

It was a good conversation. And you know what? I wasn’t exhausted at the end.

This here is another piece of change, clicking into place.

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