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Lights in the Darkness

May 10, 2016

When sitting in the darkness of pain and mental anguish, it felt like the only safe place was to build a blanket fort and hide out. You remember the ones we made as children stealing (or borrowing) all the sofa cushions, all the blankets and trying to make our own little haven with popcorn, soda, your favorite stuffed animal and book. In your fort, nobody could be mean, tell you what to do, or allow you to question your value. However, when we were little we may not have been contemplating the big questions in life and our mental state. All we knew is that the blanket fort made us feel better.

As an adult, while a blanket fort can still be made, we can’t unfortunately hide out until life is better. We have to leave the house to go to work, put on the happy face and pretend that life is all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. From my post “The Slippery Slope”, I was pretty crap at pretending. Everyone knew something was wrong and I just couldn’t find the way to say “I’m in extreme physical and mental pain. I don’t know how to get out of this hole. And I’m taking a path that I’m not proud of.” Maybe it is just me, but these sentences don’t feel acceptable to say at work. I mean you are supposed to be professional and have your sh!t together.

Then with my friends, I felt like the constant whiner. I didn’t want to keep being the broken record saying the same thing over and over again and not making any forward progress. Oh sure friends and family state that is what they are there for, but for better or worse I often think if you aren’t doing something to pick yourself up then quit complaining about it. And seriously after a while people are ready for you to be over your crap and move on or at least stop talking to them about it.  Based on this self-talk, I didn’t reach out to any friends or family.  I hid out in my fort wanting the world to fade away.

Whether I consciously was trying to pick myself up or find some flickers of light in my dark world, I read. Many of you don’t know that I’m a voracious reader. I read everything: fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, medical journals, fluff magazines, etc. I read it all and I love it. I was a really good reader in my blanket fort. One book wouldn’t do for me, I had to go in with at least 3-5 books to keep me occupied. Just like swimming for hours on end, I can read for hours and sometimes days straight if the book is engaging enough. In my reading, I came across 3 particular books that became little fireflies blinking in the darkness. I thought I would share in case these books could bring wonder and joy to others.

Book 1 – Furiously Happy by Jennifer Lawson
Furiously HappyI originally chose this book completely by the cover photo. I mean look at that smiling raccoon. And then the title – FURIOUSLY HAPPY. I was far from happy let alone furiously happy. I was more furious. But the raccoon had me hooked and I found the book in my Powell’s basket and soon in the car. When I got home, I tentatively opened the book not sure exactly what to expect and I found myself genuinely laughing. Not the fake chuckle that I was using in public, but a real laugh. I was only reading the accolades on why to read the book. (Note: yes, I even read these sections in books). Then I began to read the book and I laughed until I cried and I also just cried. Jennifer documents her mental diseases with such clarity, humility and with such funny anecdotes that it is hard not to be sucked in.

When she started talking about how society rallies around people who are diagnosed with cancer and talk to these people about fighting the good fight and being a hero. Heads are shaved in solidarity. With mental illness, it is different. You are shunned. People look away or are uncomfortable if you state that you see a therapist or that you are a little bit crazy. We aren’t survivors, there is no head shaving. People don’t say to cancer victims – just be happy. There are no ribbons. Jennifer talks about starting the silver ribbon movement to help connect with others who are fighting mental illness or have been touched by mental illness. She went on to state that she almost accomplished it too, but then she was too depressed to get out of bed to go to her craft room and even look for the silver ribbon. All I could think was “YES!! I get that.”

Then she also has this amazing theory about spoons and how many spoons we have in our basket to accomplish tasks every day. People with mental illness have just been allotted a few less spoons therefore we have to be very careful where we use them.

I loved this book. I’ve read it already 3 times and I bought the audio book that is narrated by Jennifer. I felt in some way that I knew her and she in turn knew what I was going through. Also she reminded me of one of my dearest friends that I hadn’t seen because I spent most of my free time in my blanket fort. And it was really good to genuinely laugh again. – A firefly in the darkness.

Book 2 – Healing Back Pain – The Mind Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno
This book was recommended by a friend of a friend. Since I’m not one to turn down a book recommendation, I went and picked it up. I was recommended to read the reviews before buying the book. (Besides a voracious reader, I’m also a rule follower. Shocking I’m sure to many of you!) So I read the reviews. Many were like reading/watching a televangelist where people were miraculously cured after reading the book. Pain that was chronic and debilitating magically disappeared as the readers finished the book. Needless to say I was skeptical, but again I was off the happy yellow brick road and what was the harm in reading a book. I read the book. I can’t say that I was cured, but the pain was better. I began to understand that by hiding the “unacceptable” feelings and emotions like anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, my body was manifesting it in the only way possible, through physical pain. I started to just write quick statements, words, pictures to give voice to what I was feeling. The journal, if I could really call it that, is ugly. It is mostly just chicken scratches, but I started to feel the tightness ease in my back. There was some relief.

Maybe it is just voodoo, but I do believe that the mind has a lot of power that we are only beginning to understand. And I felt better after reading this book. Do I think all of my back pain is psychosomatic, no because as I was told I’m an aging athlete that does an extreme sport that requires a lot of repetitive motion. (SIDE NOTE: I was mildly offended when my doctor told me this.) But was some of my pain caused by stress, anger and any other society unacceptable emotion, I do believe yes. Again reading this book brought that to light for me. Time well spent in the blanket fort.

Book 3 – Rising Strong by Brene Brown
The last book was also a recommendation from a dear friend. My friend kept posting this book cover on Facebook while she was in her version of the blanket fort. I began to think, if it is working for this amazing woman, why don’t I read some of this Brene Brown? This book seemed to combine the rawness of Jennifer Lawson’s stories and the medical recommendations of Dr. Sarno and put it into a practice that I could use right away. She helped me understand that when we don’t use our words we fill in interactions with our own stories. Stories that are usually influenced by or reflect our personal insecurities or believed flaws. It is Brene that states what we do when we are face down in the arena is very very important. What stories have we told ourselves? How do we get to not necessarily the truth but a better version of the story where we can engage with people and move forward? She talks a lot about taking time to write the shitty first draft of the story. Get it down on paper so that it doesn’t sit and fester in your head. Then take time to reflect and look at it. What are the facts in the story, where have I filled in the blanks in the story with my perceptions, what and how am I going to move forward.

My shitty first draft was a lot of woe is me and that I didn’t have value if I wasn’t swimming. I know now that is not the case. It was a really shitty first draft. I have spent time wrestling in the arena with this story. I believe it is getting better with each new draft that I build. It has helped me engage with myself and people in new ways. Sometimes I do wish that humans weren’t made to be social animals because then the blanket fort would be ok to live in and I wouldn’t feel so out of sorts in social settings. But again this book provided some light in the darkness.

There you have it. Even in the darkness there can be flickers of light. For me they came from these 3 books. In them, I found some joy, a new way to engage with my subconscious and with the world at large. Through these readings and practices, I’ve found my way back into the pool and had some success. Recently, I completed a 4 hour open water training swim in 66 degree water. It was the longest I’ve been in the water for a very long time. It went mostly well. My back kicked up some arguments but nothing that wasn’t manageable. Besides finding my way into the water, I’ve also found my way out of my fort. Sure it is for moments at a time and I still feel safer in its warmth than out, but I’ve started to engage in life again. I’ve started to leave the dark pain treatment path behind and find healthier methods of restorative yoga, therapy and lots of rest and recovery.

I know that I still have a long way to go to get out of the arena. However, I don’t feel like I’m face down anymore. Some days I’m on my hands and knees and some days I get a foot underneath myself. I know that this will be a process and I will have stumbles and be face down again. My hope is that with these new books, techniques and professionals helping me that I won’t be tasting the dirt for as long as I did. As with any mental or physical pain, I’m learning that it can be cyclical and that it is OK at times to build a blanket fort, get your favorite stuffed animal and settle in with a good book for a recuperative rest.

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3 Responses to “Lights in the Darkness”

  1. Michelle B. says:

    Thank you Michelle, for sharing your experience and continuing journey and for the book referrals! I’m not usually one for ‘self help’ books (because I have no follow through)but I will be getting two of these today. I once heard you speak to a triathlon group and felt a kinship with you at that time (it’s the super cool name) and now I am experiencing that again as you describe a situation similar to one I am still working through on a month to month basis. Thank you for reaching out and sharing with all of us and bringing this issue to light as it is a very real struggle that no one talks about. The stigma needs to be broken. Keep sharing, keep taking support where you find it, and keep on keeping. Corny but true. And know that you have company, you just never know who is in the same boat bouncing back and forth between putting on the public face and hiding in the blanket fort (with a stack of books). 🙂

  2. Michelle B. says:

    shoot,that was supposed to be a smiley face!

  3. Sarah Schneiderman says:

    Thank you for this post and the book recommendations. I’ve requested “Furiously Happy” and “Rising Strong” from my local library and look forward to reading them.

    Congratulations on the four hour swim. Hope you felt okay the few days following the swim.

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