Target Practice

Another spring break has come and gone.

As excited as I was to take some time off from the normal day to day and get down to the Georgia coast, I was pretty dang excited this morning dropping my kiddos back off at school. Grass is always greener, they say!

I have to bring awareness to the fact, however, that my anxiety levels have been heightened as of late. I’ve noticed the soundtrack in my head becoming stuck on the old what if and oh no and get me out of here more than I have in a while. Old triggers have been more noticeable and louder in the past month or so.

Of course I’ve been ruminating over why…but the sad truth is that the wild goose chase may not ever lead anywhere. Hormones? Stress? Diet? I mean, you could run yourself into the ground.

I did know that I had a long drive to make, and I was doubting myself pretty heavily.

I know I’ve mentioned that the way we think has a direct impact on our anxiety levels, among others factors. The truth was, the doubt and fear were starting to gain momentum on the feedback loop in my brain. This negative thought pattern sets us up for the perfect breeding ground for anxiety to grow.

The drive down was tough. The endless lanes of Atlanta’s interstates bearing the morning load of traffic was overwhelming. I squirmed in my seat and fought through it, although waves of disappointment and discouragement accompanied my endurance.

I’ve been doing so good! Why am I taking a step back? Am I falling back into my old ways?

Just like that, the lies began to try to persuade truth into my life. It’s amazing how powerful your thought life can be. The tiniest idea can manifest into a whole identity-stealing concept before you can blink.

After we arrived, I was mentally exhausted. That was hard, I mentioned to my mom without much detail. I kept going back and analyzing the failures of my drive, like it was some judged performance, although it was me who was the lone judge in this competition. I had the hardest time shaking off the worry that I was re-entering the dark pit of debilitating anxiety.

Sadly, ruminating on the negative has completely overshadowed the fact that I still successfully made the drive. I tackled Atlanta morning rush hour (which is no small feat…um, hello 16 LANES!!!), managed two children and a dog, fed everyone, made the necessary bathroom stops, all while making pretty darn good time. From an accomplishment stand point, I should be thrilled! Especially knowing that a handful of years ago, driving on the interstate with my children was my number one fear.

Hold up…I conquered my number one fear!!! How could I forget how awesome that is?!

It’s funny how you can desperately wish for an outcome for so long, and once you achieve it, there’s a point that the euphoria of success tapers off, and you begin to assimilate that once impossible task back into daily life. It just becomes normal. You try to remember why you struggled so much to do something that barely phases you anymore. It’s almost as if the anxiety never robbed you of all those years in the first place.

Until years later, when you receive an uninvited visitor.

Hey girl, haaay… so it’s been a while. Why don’t we hang out anymore? I know, I knowI was a bully. But I was just trying to keep you safe, remember? I mean, you could’ve been out living your life worry-free and having fun, but who wants to risk that?! You were safe in your little cage, thanks to me. You couldn’t drive, you couldn’t get on an airplane, go to concerts or movies or crowded restaurants, I mean ugh…what a hassle that is anyway! Why don’t we go have lunch and I’ll remind you that you can have your old fear-driven, anxiety-ridden life back? Can’t we just be friends again? Puh-leeeeeease?!

Ughhhh…there she is. My a-hole brain, trying to let herself back into my life. There I was, dwelling on the disappointing flashbacks of my lessthan-perfect drive, when I should’ve been celebrating an amazing accomplishment. That’s what the a-hole brain does; steals your joy and tries to erase the good thoughts from taking the proper front-row seat in your brain.

She even tries to stop me from writing, that little hussy. Distracting me and doubting my abilities with every passing hour. You don’t have time or no one wants to read that or why even bother, what’s the point?

All too often, I listen to her. Or I just get lazy and pick up a book or defer to the Netflix. But not today, dang it! If I have to pick up and finish this post every time I’m in carpool line, I’m gonna make it happen. So what if spring break was a full three weeks ago…no one said this was a race.

Anyway, so we have a great break, and guess what? I will have to drive back home at the end of it, because that’s how vacation works. Of course, I would rather stay and live at the beach forever, but that’s not really the most realistic life choice at the moment. So I prepare myself by trying to think more positively about my journey. I can listen to my podcasts! I get to sleep in my bed and take a shower in my own shower (we all know we get cleanest in our actual, own shower)! Maybe the traffic will be lighter than normal in McDonough (reality check: traffic is never light in McDonough, for some mysterious reason.)!

So I start my trek, the kiddos settle into the first of many hours of technology time (an utter delight to their eyes and my ears) and I get going on the podcasts. I love a good podcast lately, and a nice long drive is the perfect time to devote some attention to them. Most of my favorites are personal development podcasts, but I have everything from pop-culture to faith to current events to business psychology in my library. I kind of love all the things.

What I really love is a hearty, deep conversation, especially within the realm of faith, and more importantly, when my soul needs to be nurtured. Sometimes I just need a good soul hug. So I sat back and took a deep dive into a few of my favorites.

In one particular interview, the speaker was talking about calming her nerves before speaking publicly. When she prayed about it, she saw the image of a target on the back wall during her speech. It was there to remind her that God should be her primary focus, especially during difficult times; all she had to do was focus on Him to get her through her struggle.

This wasn’t a new idea to me, making God my focal point. My faith-walk has been a pivotal factor in overcoming anxiety. But sometimes I need a reminder, a wake-up call, a direct-line to hear His message.

About 10 minutes after listening to the target story, I got my message. I passed a billboard with a huge, white target symbol plastered across the front. I can’t remember what the advertisement was for (I know it wasn’t my beloved Target big-box department store), but it screamed to me, loud and clear.

I’ve got you. Keep your eyes on me. I will guide you home.

Traffic was horrible, as Atlanta traffic always is on a holiday weekend. It was coming up on hour six of my drive. The sun blared down on all 16 lanes of packed cars, reflecting off their roofs like shining scales on an enormous school of fish navigating through the current. I was weary. I wanted off the interstate, and I wanted off now.

Those are the moments that you realize you have a choice. You can succumb to the chaos of your lack of control, or you can focus on your target. You can get carried away by the endless waves of uncertainty or you can stay on course and follow Him home. Once you can let go and surrender that control, it’s smooth sailing.

I don’t remember the exact moment in that sea of traffic that the peace washed over me, or how I somehow received a boost of energy that helped me through those final 45 minutes, but I do remember my overwhelming gratefulness. I relaxed in my seat, smiled at the familiar scenery of my hometown out my window, and breezed on home.

Bullseye.

Like I do with every blog post, I start to narrate in my head, can’t wait to run to the computer when I get the chance to share my insight. But before my fingers even make it to the keyboard, my a-hole brain quickly shows up and tries to shut it down. You’re too tired. Nobody cares. Your thoughts aren’t really worth sharing anyway.

But then…Monday. I take my daughter to tennis practice and I hear her coach say, “Focus on the target.”

Tuesday. A friend sends me a rap video on my phone (we were trying to get pumped up for our tennis match, ok?!!) and guess what’s painted on a brick wall in the background? A white target.

Wednesday at my tennis practice. We ask our coach what we are going to work on today. “Target practice,” she says.

Fine, I think. I hear you!! Keep going. Keep your focus.

Symbols have always been a huge influence in my life. I can’t explain it, but I feel it in my spirit when something I see takes on a deeper meaning. I’ve never really heard God speak to me, but I know He can communicate in so many ways. Even though my faith has grown leaps and bounds recently, I’m a skeptic at heart, and I think God knows I need these reminders to stay the course. Sometimes they are whispers and sometimes they are roars, but I know when there’s a message waiting for me. All I have to do is be willing and ready to receive it.

So here I am, reminding you to stay the course. Focus on your target. Lean into your faith and trust the way forward. Do the hard things because they will help you grow, no matter how much you want to stay where you are. You will miss the mark, over and over again. But when you hit the bullseye…that is the moment that you realize all that target practice was worth it.

Steady your arrow, and let it fly.

You Are What You Eat

I did something a bit, well, sneaky the other night.

As we were about to turn in for the night, my husband asked if I knew where his phone was.

“Your phone? Hmmmm…” I replied.

I knew exactly where the phone was. Selfishly, however, I omitted that information. Notice I didn’t lie, right? I told you I was sneaky…

My husband loves comedy podcasts. Like a lot. Every night, falling asleep in his huge headphones, comedians help lure his thoughts away from everyday stress. In the morning, it’s news on his phone. Scanning pages and pages of headlines, the latest shocking drama or political circus act. It seems like a harmless distraction, or is it?

He also gets caught up with work calls, texts, never gets a chance to fully escape from work. Constant responsibility weighs heavy. It’s a sacrifice, sure, but he truly loves the push and pull of his work life.

I too, am guilty of the addiction of finger swiping late into the night when I need to wind down. Before I know it, I’ve gone deep into the rabbit hole; this story leads to that story leads to another story. Sometimes interesting, sometimes informative, even uplifting at times, but for the most part, distracting chatter. I’ll read an article and then get caught up in the reader comments that usually read like childish banter of I’m right/you’re wrong nanny-nanny boo-boo. Its like an all-you-can-eat buffet, you just want to keep going back for more.

A while back we talked about this in bible study, about things we tend to watch or read regularly. My friend mentioned her husband started listening to these political podcasts constantly, and she noticed a subtle change in him. He became overly worried and invested in the toxic political atmosphere according to the news, when in reality his career was nothing related to that world. He became quick to anger and criticize. Finally she suggested that he listen to something a bit less intense.

For the past few years it seems, the phone seems to become my husbands constant companion. Ok honestly, it’s that way for a lot of us. It’s a way to escape at the end of the long day, or relish those last few minutes of laying in bed in the morning. And don’t even get me started on Netflix…I mean, how fun can that be on a rainy day???

The other day, before the phone hijacking incident, I told my husband he was turning into his mamaw. Don’t get me wrong, she was an amazing, spit fire of a women. Jason tells stories of how she used to buy things from garage sales and turn around and sell them for profit. The woman could pull off one hell of a hustle. When I first met her, she was sitting with Grandpa Brian on their plaid couch, cozied up in their small living room, eyes glued to one of the 24 hour news networks.

“Jason, don’t you go bringing kids into this world, it is a scary place,” she would say, staring at that small box in her living room. She would go on with concern about how the world and humanity was doomed. How we should be worried and afraid. She didn’t venture out much from her small house in Franklin, Tennessee much in those later years; the people in the tv warned her not to. The constant, negative news feed had shaped her entire world view from that half-acre lot in suburban America.

We already struggle daily with our own interpersonal news reel, feeding us the shoulds and what ifs and whys of our daily actions. We struggle with self-compassion and positive self-talk already, so to feed ourselves more negativity from the world around us can overload until we are drowning in hopelessness. We feel a tremendous weight and burden that we don’t even need to be carrying.

I’m not saying that we need to be unaware of what’s happening in the world, because I absolutely believe that knowledge of injustices and needs around us can call us to action and unite communities, but this is more of a help me, help you situation. Like putting on our own oxygen masks before we start helping others. If we run off trying to put out fires before we’ve filled up our water tank, we won’t get very far.

I decided a few years ago, I needed to change my diet.

It wasn’t a food diet; (ok, so there is lots of science to back up that this is essential also, but this girl needs some French fries in her life!!) I needed to change the information I ingested.

I struggled with self-worth, with feeling like I was enough, with shame and guilt over my anxiety issues. But unlike those extra pounds that you can feel and see, my extra weight was internal. It made my heart and soul feel heavy with doubt and fear. Being overweight in your soul can be just as harmful to your health as in the physical sense, but most of us don’t entertain this notion as much.

So how do you start a healthy diet for the soul?

Everyone is different here. We all have things we feel are lacking, and those are the nutrients we need to feed ourselves regularly. Of course it can be as simple as doing one thing we love everyday, or using our creative gifts more often. For me, writing, music, and being out in nature pack a healthy serving of soul food, so I try to make intentional time for those as often as possible. I have friends that go for long runs or take a trip alone once a year. The other day I told the lady doing my pedicure how much I appreciated it and how I wish it was covered by health insurance. Whatever self-care you can fit into your schedule, don’t feel guilty about it.

I also read my devotional every morning, either while brushing my teeth or even more effectively, when I drink my coffee. Tying a daily habit to another only reinforces the act. I make it a priority to read the “good news” of God before reading the news of the world around me. I’ve been doing this daily for about three years, and it’s become as essential to me as breathing oxygen. My oxygen mask.

Mindfulness and being still are other daily snacks that I try to feed myself. We are constantly attacked by countless distractions, and ingesting small moments of quiet and calm can better equip us to battle that sense of feeling overwhelmed with to-do’s. Even if it’s five minutes of your day, the benefits from this habit are life-changing.

Of course, physical exercise and a healthy diet directly affect our state of mind, so it is important to pay attention here as well. But just as we try to drink enough water, take our vitamins, get our cup of coffee in daily, we can’t overlook the importance of the information we are feeding our brains and hearts, figuratively speaking. The mind-body-spirit connection is about as critical as all those crunchy yogis and preachy pastors and chill therapists say it is, and I’m so glad the “mainstream” population (whatever that generalization really means?) is starting to believe it. We can’t do life on our own, people.

So before you scroll the endless barrage of news feeds and Facebook posts and check-lists, pay attention.

Have you fed your soul first today?

I know, it sounds corny. Cheesy. Whatever you want to call it to distract you from the fact that it is essential to your health.

The night I “hid” the phone, my husband and I cuddled up and watched a show together. It reminded me of our earlier days, when smartphones weren’t even on our radar. I relished in our quality time, and my soul started to fill up. In return, I felt loved, worthy, at ease. The extra pounds of loneliness and rejection slowly started melting off. I was satisfied.

So while this isn’t a lesson in how to deceive your husband (of course I fessed up the next morning, after gushing about how much I enjoyed our quality time), it is a reminder to take notice of the “junk food” you catch yourself craving; the deficits and distractions in your life that are depriving you and draining your happiness and health. If you have to set limits and boundaries to do so, go for it.

If you find yourself hungry for happiness, craving comfort and control, thirsty for security and self-compassion, start a new diet. Find what lifts you up, take it in, feed it to yourself a little each day. It’s the most important, most delicious, most satisfying meal you will ever eat.

Just Say Yes

It was a rough start to the trip this morning.

As we took off through a barricade of storms in Atlanta, the plane once again bobbed and weaved through the turbulence, sending me once again to the edge. Zero visibility blinded my view and brought on panic.

Meanwhile, my brave daughter next to me could hardly contain her excitement. “We’re in the clouds!” she exclaimed. Unfazed by the bumps, she smiled and carried on without a care. Her joy was contagious, parting the clouds of my fear.

As we journeyed on to Denver and started making memories on the first leg of our trip, I realized just how grateful I am that I can persist through my fears. I could’ve crumbled and said no to flying at all. I could’ve foregone the excitement and anticipation of this time with my family. I could’ve just stayed in the safety of my home and never experienced a day like today, watching my children take in this beautiful scenery for the first time, their eyes wide with amazement.

I could’ve said “no”.

I could’ve said “I can’t”.

But I said YES.

Go, see, do.

Live.

The yes is not always easy. It’s not graceful or without pain or embarrassment or doubt.

But I’ll take a yes over a no any day when it comes to facing my fears.

What will your yes be?

Dear Turbulence

Ahhh, the adventures of summertime travel. We have been hoping around a ton, making precious memories along the way.

Although flying has been somewhat easier for me than in the past, I still get hung up on the same old triggers. Turbulence is a biggie. No matter how many times I seem to fly, I struggle with the unpredictable nature and lack of control when those pesky little bumps seemingly come out of nowhere.

This past flight, although it wasn’t particularly terrible, it was just constant enough to drive me to that edge where I am desperately grasping for comfort. Where I just want to make it stop. It’s so hard in these moments to slow my thoughts down to where I have trained them; the physiological response is just so quick. But obviously, I cannot control this specific situation, so I must cope.

Enter my good old friend…words.

I need to get the words out, the words that match the overwhelming feelings. They need space, a place to breathe, a way to purge this toxic negativity from my body.

You know when you are so upset at someone that you write a letter you never intend to send? That’s what I decided to do. I decided to send a note to my pal, Turbulence.

Dear Turbulence,

Hi there! It’s me again. I know we have this exchange every time I fly. I get very upset with you, you see. The way your existence in the cloud formations just happen to be in the flight path of my plane, making it bump up and down with invisible undulations in air flow, it’s all very scary and terrifying to me. Why can’t you just stay out of the way until my plane has safely passed you by? How can you be so inconsiderate? You make me very, very nervous. I’m sick of it.

Today especially, even on this very short flight, you’ve decided to hang out waaaay up high at cruising altitude, in these thin little clouds that are shielding the clear blue sky with a hazy white glow so that I can’t see anything out my window. They are bright and blinding and it’s probably annoying to the passengers next to me that I have to leave the window open since you make me so nervous. I have to see what’s going on around me, hoping that it will give me a clue to when you decide to throw a few more unwelcome bumps my way. Sure, they are small and subtle bumps, but enough to keep me on edge wondering where the bigs ones are you’re hiding. I wish you would stop being so secretive about all of this. It’s not right.

I really hope you can work on controlling yourself and stop scaring me to death. I get really stressed out and nervous when I’m flying with you just bumping me around all unpredictability. Don’t you realize how many people you are making uncomfortable up here? It’s just really rude, and I think you need to stop.

Sincerely,

Your Favorite Panicky Passenger

I know what the response will be, I can see it coming.

Dear Panicky Passenger,

I am so very sorry for your panicked state while flying with me. But please keep in mind, I’m just air. I can’t be anything else. The weather patterns and conditions made me this way. I’m here whether you want me or not. I’m not trying to scare you on purpose. I’m just being myself, and going where the wind takes me, and that’s the best I can do. I’m so sorry to hear that I make you so uncomfortable. Since I can’t do anything on my end to help you feel better, maybe there are some techniques you can learn that will help you deal with me when I’m hard at work. You could also take this up with the Global Air Current department. I regret to hear you are having issues with me, but I’m just doing my job, ma’am.

I hope that you have a pleasant flight.

My sincere apologies,

Turbulence

As usual, I make the realization that it’s not all Turbulence’s fault. It’s also my reactions that are to blame. So I write back.

Dear Turbulence,

I’m so sorry that I have placed all the blame on you again. I know you can’t help where and what you are, and it was unfair of me to make you feel badly for my discomfort. After I sent my first letter, I looked around the plane; I saw people sleeping, playing cards, reading and relaxing peacefully. No one else seemed upset enough at you to be writing you a mean letter. Everyone else must have realized and accepted that you cannot help who you are. Although it’s true that you do make some people nervous when you bump them around particularly hard, I know you don’t mean too. Like you said, you are just doing what you were meant to do.

You see, I have irrational fears that sometimes try to hijack my brain, and they cause me to enter into a state of panic. Even though there is no physical harm that your turbulance has placed me in, my brain send signals to my body that I am in danger, and it results in a vicious feedback cycle every time I feel the slightest bump. This is called a negative feedback loop. Your turbulence is also a panic trigger. There are ways to help this of course, and it is my responsibility to learn how to manage and deal with having you in my life. I’m so sorry to blame you for how I choose to react to your existence. I know you don’t mean to scare me or anybody else. It is something I continue to work on every time I fly.

Although it’s true that sometimes I don’t like you, and you make me extremely uncomfortable, I need to learn that you are a part of life. If I want to continue to travel to fun and exciting places while making wonderful travel memories, you and I are just going to need to learn to get along and trust each other. I need to trust that although you make me nervous and scared, I am not in real harm. I will try to remember that next time I want to write you a nasty letter.

Looks like the nasty letter really needs to be addressed to my brain. I’ll get to work on that right away.

Sincere Apologies,

Work in Progress

I get a final response, hopefully the last exchange we will have for awhile.

Dear Work in Progress,

Again, I’m so sorry I make you so scared. It’s true that I have no way of warning you of every bump, and yes it is true that I cannot harm you and do not intend to do so. I hope that you can work with your brain and train it to not worry so much about me. Good job at continuing to fly even when you are so nervous about it. I would hate for you to miss out on the adventures of traveling because of me. It would sadden me greatly.

I’m sorry you don’t like me, but I hope that you can learn to tolerate me. I’m really not as bad as people make me out to be. I hope that one day you’ll be like the people on the plane who are relaxing and enjoying their flight without worrying about me so much. It’s a much better way to be, I believe.

Good luck with everything. I’ll reach out to that brain of yours and give her a good talking too. She sounds like she’s got some serious trust and control issues.

Until then, keep on flying and I’ll see you next time!

Be brave my friend!

Sincerely,

Turbulence

I finish this two-sided conversation with an interesting feeling…relief, calm, and positivity. The plane continues to bump intermittently, but I find myself unfazed. I even close my eyes for a bit.

So I had an imaginary conversation with an inanimate object…and it totally worked.

It doesn’t matter how silly your coping skills are, find what works for you and go for it. Let go of the shame and stigma of your fear and give it a good talking to.

Then all of a sudden you’ll realize, with alarming clarity, that the things you’re so afraid of couldn’t talk back to you even if they tried.

The Blanket

I’m drinking coffee…on a plane!!! What?!! Who is this girl?

Many people head straight to the bar before they board an airplane, hit the Starbucks, whatever pumps them up (or calms their nerves) for the flight. Not me, I am straight-up ginger ale only up in the air.  I want to be in complete control at all times, just in case. Like I’ve said before, someone needs to be sober in case it all goes down, just in case I need to take over for the pilot or something. Yet here I am in the middle seat, next to my son; my husband and daughter in the next row, ordering coffee.  A previous panic trigger. There was a point in time where I wouldn’t drink coffee at my own house, as even the slightest elevated heart rate would start me down the worm hole of panic.

Ahhhh the dangerous desire for control.

The past couple of days I’ve really been thinking about the effects of the need for control. I’ve been a control freak most of my life it seems…which is why the fear may have started early. I want to have control to the extent that I can know what will happen next, which I’m pretty sure no one in the world has the power to do. The realization that this is utterly impossible, and that I must learn to accept that I will never have complete control in all situations, is a constant struggle.

Even my devotional passages this week have been reminding me of the importance of letting go of the desire to control every aspect of my life. I love these reminders, but then I start to feel bad about myself. Guilt creeps in. Why can’t I put all my trust in God? Is he mad at me for this? I am less deserving and worthy in His eyes because of my constant level of fear? 

So add trust issues on top of control issues I guess. I am constantly reminded to release my urge to control my life and look to Him.

“No one was ever meant to carry the burden of complete control”

Yes!!! 

Yes. As I read the words I remember this, they blanket my soul in warmth. But why then, do I end up finding myself so quickly back to feeling exposed and chilled with fear? Perhaps I didn’t remain under the blanket long enough? I didn’t let its warmth radiate deep enough?

If you are a person of faith, you realize that it is a journey. I’m a little late to the party, having not been raised going to church regularly. We did go occasionally, to different places sometimes, and every place always seemed a bit foreign, like they were speaking a language I didn’t quite understand. I wasn’t sure how to act, what to say, what was expected. I was afraid I was doing it all wrong. I went to church with friends, witnessed different types of denominations and their rituals. My stepdad is Jewish and we spent some time enjoying some of their traditions. I taught in a Catholic school for almost 10 years and can say the heck out of some Hail Marys. As intimidating as each new religious experience was, I did learn that finding God came in all shapes and sizes. For this perspective I am grateful.

But in not having a strong connection to one house of God, I told myself that I wasn’t worthy of his love. I couldn’t quote Bible verses, and was confused about whether to worship Jesus or God as a child. What if I talk to the wrong One? Do I need to choose? I had lots of questions that I was too afraid to ask. I was asked if I was saved or needed to be, and I was always unsure of how to answer. I often found I felt closest to God in nature (which is still mostly true); watching a sunset, reveling in the breeze, watching the waves on the ocean, I felt Him here. I felt close to Him through music and singing.  Did this mean I had gained his approval? Was this enough?Am I doing it right? I was never sure.

In my Bible study recently, we were asked what our relationship with God was growing up. Every answer was so different. I spoke up and explained that I felt like I was never quite worthy of knowing Him; I felt like God was one of the popular kids that didn’t want to hang out with me. I felt like a good person, like if He knew my heart he would be pleased, and I wanted Him to know that I had a desire to know him, but was also intimidated and didn’t quite know where to start. I felt like maybe I had missed the Jesus boat and was left back with the stragglers. Did I still count? Was another boat on the way?

Speaking of Bible study, the fact that I had even joined one in recent years was so unexpected for me. I always had a desire to join one, but what did I know about the Bible? Wouldn’t they look at me like maybe I was in the wrong place? Was there going to be a quiz on Bible knowledge to allow me to attend (as I’m editing this I just remembered that “Bible” is supposed to be capitalized…doh!!)? But a good friend invited me (she actually thought I already attended, haha!), and assured me that all were welcome, so in I went.

Guess what? They didn’t ask me to leave. There was no Bible verse quiz of any sort (shoot, another B I had to capitalize!!).  In fact, I was exactly the kind of person they wanted to reach. The one who felt unworthy. That felt out-of-place. They embraced me and took me in. They reminded me that there wasn’t a wrong time or a wrong way to find God. That we are all on our own personal faith journeys, and we all have our own pace.

I’m pretty sure it was with that group of amazing women that I first realized that God truly loved me, just the way I was. That I was secure and accepted with amazing Grace. I can almost pinpoint the moment. I was practically in tears about my struggles with anxiety (I could barely get through the carpool line those days without a near panic attack) and those women just took me in and lifted me up. They were the hands and feet of God (or Jesus, right?), radiating with love and acceptance. He grabbed hold of my hand and my heart and never let go.

Still, I am a skeptic by nature. I analyze things down to their core. I think and over think and think some more. Which is why sometimes I question. Sometimes I demand answers and clarity. Which when it comes to faith, you are not given.  You must turn a cheek, and dig deep within. You must walk by faith not by sight. Wow, so hard for me. But I’m still on this journey, and I’m not planning on turning around anytime soon.

There are strong nudges on this journey of faith, ones that shout and ones that seem to whisper. There are crests and valleys and moments where I struggle to understand and others where I am lost in the moment. But the most important thing I am learning is that there’s no perfect here either.  There’s no one size fits all when it comes to faith and God and your place in line for Heaven. Wherever you are, is where you should be, and He is there, waiting to meet you in that place, ready to wrap you up and cover you with love. No guilt, no shame, no doubt should preceed that absolute truth.

It was not ever meant to be our burden to carry. We are not meant to be in complete control.  The work has already been done. The price has been paid. The more we can let go and realize this, the less fear and uncertainty will stain our hearts and steal our joy.

Fear has no place when faced with love.

I turn down the little personal AC fan above my airplane seat, something small that I actually can control, and grab the thin little blanket for warmth. I cover up, sit back and begin to relax in the security of that warm, tiny blanket.

Maybe I should order another cup of coffee? I’m not flying the plane, after all.

Fake News

Cognitive distortions. What are they? Why are they important? Are you speaking Italian?!!

“Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but only make us feel bad about ourselves.”

To put it simply, it’s like fake news. It’s the stories we continue to tell ourselves that aren’t true. And they can affect every aspect of our lives negatively if we don’t keep them in check.

Throughout my years of therapy I’d been handed many wordy, overwhelming worksheets and charts that explained all this, but with my brain already struggling to make sense of anything during that stressful time, I yearned for someone to tell it to me straight, like a friend would. I needed a friend in that dark time in my life, one who understood the frustration and confusion and complexity of it all. That’s my goal, my service to you. I will do my best to provide that valuable insight as only a friend would.

Over the next couple weeks I’m going to break down the 15 most common thought distortions as simply as I can. All of us have struggled with negative self-talk at some point or another, whether we realize it or not. Those of us who have struggled with anxiety and depression have carried the crushing weight of negative thought patterns without even knowing it. Luckily for us, neuroscience has proved that the brain has the ability to change, just like any muscle in our body. This is called neuroplasticity. If we do the exercises, we can potentially “build” our brain muscles and improve our mental health and well-being.

But like anything in life, it’s not an easy fix. If you start a workout program to try to loose weight, it takes time, right? You don’t see results right away. You may get discouraged and want to quit. Same goes for retraining our thoughts. It takes time and effort to see results. It also takes persistence and maintenance work. The first step is learning what areas we need to work on.

Our bodies yearn for balance in order to thrive. If we are off-balance in one or more aspects of our lives, we start to suffer. Stress takes over and we begin to deteriorate. There are so many pieces to the puzzle. But training our thought patterns to work for us and not against us, is just as important as taking care of our physical bodies.

Lately I feel I’ve been slipping ever so slowly back into old thought patterns. It’s a tricky thing to realize, but when those old familiar panic triggers start to flare up and creep into my day to day, I know that I need to get to work.

For example, the other day I was driving somewhere, and I felt my nerves start to fire up and my thoughts drift off to that place of fear and panic. It was an old, deep-rooted trigger (one of hundreds my mind had mapped out over years of uncontrolled anxiety). A certain stretch of road was all it took to bring me back to that place. It happened so fast. My throat dried up, I started desperately grasping for something to steady my fearful thoughts. When I am quickly flooded with panic, I feel like I can’t get enough air. I crack the window, turn down the AC, fumble for a sip of water. These impulsive reactions that are hard to explain, but it’s just the coping mechanisms my brain tells my body when it is triggered by a negative feedback loop. 

Ten years ago, when I didn’t know what was going on in my brain, I would’ve completely panicked.  My body would’ve been taken over with terrifying, uncomfortable sensations; heart racing, arms and legs tingling, unable to breathe, dizziness, tight jaw, dry mouth.  All while trying to maintain a vehicle on a busy interstate. I would’ve ruminated all day on what had happened, felt tremendous shame and isolation, and wondered how I was ever going to live like this. Oh, and I wouldn’t have mentioned it to anyone. Looking back, it’s no wonder I was afraid to drive on the highway for years!

Today, however, there is no mystery in all this. I know what I’m dealing with, exactly what cruel trick my mind is trying to play on me, and even though this is not a welcome battle in my mind, I have to remember how to manage this bombardment of fake news that is flooding my brain. I dig into my toolbox at that moment; I reach for my lavender oil, take some deep breaths, intentionally switch my train of thoughts to the positive. I practice present-moment awareness and become an observor to my surroundings; the feel of the steering wheel, the music, the cool air blowing from the vents. Most importantly I remember not to stop the anxiety from happening, but give it space to rise and fall, knowing that it will end as quickly as it began. This is the hardest part, trusting this process. But it has been a vital part of changing my feedback loop to be able to manage these moments of panic that will always be lurking around a dark corner. It is disappointing and discouraging to be back in this dark, scary place, but now that I’ve found ways to deal with my anxiety constructively, I must trust that I can do it again.

These moments are discouraging, sure, but they are invaluable messages that remind me that I need to get to work. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no cure for anxiety, only management. It will creep back in, but I have the power and the tools to keep it from taking over as much as it has in the past.

The mind is a funny, fickle little thing. It can trick you into thinking all sorts of false realities. It can make you think you are in real danger when in fact you are not. Worry, dread, phobias, panic: all contrived stories we tell ourselves, all fake news. So how do we keep these scary stories tucked away, up high on a shelf, witholding the urge to reach for them?

Again, we circle back to good old cognitive distortions.

Let’s think of an example so that we can explore the different types of distortions. Let’s say there’s a high-school girl named Sarah. Sarah has just moved across town and is starting at a new school. She is extremely self-conscience already and is nervous about this new environment. On one of her first days there, she has to stand up in front of one of her classes and introduce herself. Here are some of the thoughts going on in her head when she is told she has to do this.

“Oh my gosh, if I don’t do this perfectly, I am ruined!” – All or Nothing Thinking (Black and White Thinking)

“Ugh I should’ve worn a cuter outfit! I look so lame” – Mental Filter (discounting the positive and focusing on the negative)

“The other kids will think I am so dumb. I’m going to have no friends. ” –Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading and Fortune Telling)

“I am so humiliated, so I must be an idiot.” –Emotional Reasoning (thinking that because we feel a certain way that it’s true)

“I am such a loser.” –Labeling (assigning labels to ourselves or others)

“I always make a fool out of myself”-Overgeneralization (seeing a pattern based on a single event)

“My hair looks pretty good today, but that just doesn’t matter anyway.” –Discounting the Positive

“I am never going to have any friends at this school.” –Magnification (catastrophising)

“I should have never agreed to do this. I must be sure to never to do this again.” –Should/Must/Ought statements

“I must’ve done something wrong to deserve this kind of embarrassment.” –Personalization/self-blame

Do you see what poor Sarah has done to herself? She has let her mind take this one small moment and turn it against her. She feels terrible and self-defeated. Yes, talking in front of people is one of the most anxiety-producing things a person can do, but the way we think about it has the tendency to make it either better or worse. Wouldn’t you want to know how to cope with public speaking in a more helpful way?

It is so much harder for a teenager to hone in and dissect this dangerous way of thinking, as their brains are still developing. But knowing what I know now, I wish I had these tools as a child! What a difference a mindfulness practice would’ve made!

Pay attention to your thoughts towards yourself and towards other. Do you find yourself falling into any of these mind traps? I know I still struggle daily. But once we can start recognizing our unhelpful thoughts, we can work at changing them for the better. It takes time and patience, but it can be done!

Don’t let your mind betray you. With the right tools and a little practice, you will find yourself at the winning end of the battle in your mind!

And no, that’s not a distorted thought. 😉

My Mind is Playing Tricks On Me

You are what you think.

Mind over matter.

Think it, be it.

Yes, you’ve heard the phrases, but the idea is the same…our thoughts help shape who we are.

After the trauma and shame of the first few years of my panic attacks started to taper off, I found myself wanting to know more about them. Certainly this occurrence didn’t come without a biological explanation, right? This wasn’t some random crazy voodoo that was making me feel like I was dying all the time, was it? Knowledge is power, and I was determined to get to the bottom of my seemingly broken brain.

So I started to research and read every panic attack and anxiety/depression book that was out there. It was overwhelming, and I got all hung up and intimidated by the big fancy psychological terms and charts and graphs and exercises, finding myself discouraged yet again. Would I ever find out how to understand what was wrong with me?!!

It’s been 15 years since my first panic attack, and it’s been a journey to say the least. But in that time I have definitely gained a better grip on what exactly makes the brain pull these kind of pranks on us. I’ve found that logical explanations based on neuroscience and psychology can really bring a light to the darkness of anxiety.

Let’s start with our cognitive behavior.

When you her the word cognitive, what do you think of? Looks fancy, right? The word cognitive simply refers to our conscious intellectual activity, such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering. It’s basically using our conscious brain in reference to our daily lives. When we think a thought, recall a moment, try to solve a problem, we are being cognitive. Our conscious thoughts, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complexity of our mind.

Good old Sigmund Freud conjured up the earliest concept of the three levels of the human mind, which in their complexity are not capable of being scientifically proven, but widely accepted among psychologists as the standard example of how our thoughts are used and stored. This is often referred to as the “iceberg theory” (hence my clever reference above).

Our conscious thoughts, which guide us through our day to day, are just a fraction of what lies beneath the surface. In our subconscious, we store the emotions and associations tied to these thoughts beyond much of our control, based on recent experiences or behaviors. The unconscious level is the deepest and hardest to reach, where blocked-out trauma, carnal human needs, and old forgotten memories reside. For more analysis and explanation, here is a great article that breaks it down.

When you suffer from panic attacks, your number one goal is to make them stop. As I’ve learned and mentioned before, you can manage them, but you will never be able to completely stop them. This is where acceptance is key. You can, however, greatly improve the frequency and intensity of your panic attacks in many different ways. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of my favorite tools in my anxiety toolbox, and I hope it can help you, too.

When you suffer with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and so on, there is some type of faulty informational feedback loop in your mind that is giving you false or negative thoughts that can impair your everyday quality of life. Basically, what CBT claims is that by working to change your thought patterns, you can change your behavior. There are varying CBT exercises that can help with this theory.

I’m going to try to break it down for you as best I can over the next couple of weeks. Next time, I will explore Cognitive Distortions. When I learned about these, it was a game-changer for me. There is a lot to cover, but all I can do is offer what has best helped me, in the hopes that it can help others as well.

Most importantly, if you are in a place of suffering right now, give yourself a break and realize that you are not alone in this. Whether they choose to share it or hide behind a mask of perfection, so many others around you are struggling with similar issues. Don’t be too quick to judge a person from the outside, as you would not wish that for yourself.

We all have weaknesses. We just have to learn to own them and see them for what they are. If we want change, we have to do the work. If we want to love, we have to love ourselves. If we want to help others, we have to share our stories.

I am learning to trust the journey even when I do not understand it.”

-Mila Bron

We may not ever fully understand our journeys, but don’t lose hope. Lean in and trust what comes. You are stronger than you think.

Lift the Shade

Happy New Year!

After realizing that it was January 3rd and my outdoor Christmas lights were still on, I reluctantly pulled the plug and slowly started the process of un-decorating.  It’s been frigid cold here in the Southeast (they are predicting snow in Savannah!!!) and it’s been pajamas for days here in the house. The kids have been sleeping in until 9 am and we’ve all got a serious case of the lazies, which is going to make going back to school tomorrow seem impossible.  But, the world keeps turning, and a new year has begun.  So it goes.

I haven’t blogged in forever, and it’s been looming over my head like more of a chore than a necessity.  Since having both kids in school, I’m not sure what I’ve filled my time with, but I’ve kept myself busy.  I’ve missed writing, but haven’t been able to find the inspiration or drive to start typing. My anxiety has been pretty much under control; a quiet, distant memory at least for now, which has meant even less motivation to write. I had all these grand plans for starting an anxiety support group and producing more in-depth blogging to help those struggling with mental illness, but somehow I’ve side-stepped and found myself focused on more mundane efforts (volunteering, organizing the house, workout classes, Christmas perfection coordinator!?!). Life has been moving at a steady, undramatic pace (ok, minus the usual holiday drama).

Last night, however, I felt a shift. I woke up at some odd hour with a pang of longing, an urge to get up and get the words out. I briefly entertained the idea of popping up immediately and opening my computer with wild fervor (like in the movies!) but I decided going back to sleep was more my speed.  So here I am, after another pajama day, finally getting down to it.

I got news the other day that a friend of a friend had taken her own life.  I didn’t get much of the story, but as I browsed over her obituary on Facebook, took in her beautiful smile and pondered over the sweet words describing her kind spirit, I was struck.  She was about my age, married, strikingly beautiful with a successful career.  She looked like someone who had it all together. I sent a text expressing my condolonces to my friend; the girls had been good friends in college.  She said they had just been in Mexico a couple months ago with a group of friends, but she showed no signs of distress. To gaze upon that picture of her sparkling smile and to know that there was so much silent suffering behind it, that beauty and perfection weren’t enough, was a tragedy.

Her story lit a fire in me, and I knew in that instant that I needed to get back to work.  There are too many people out there, quietly struggling with mental illness, to ignore the cause. Too many beautiful souls smiling through their pain. Too many lives that need saving. I can’t sit back and let it go any longer.

Not long after hearing her story, I heard of another young life taken by choice, a close family friend of a friend who’s son had played baseball with hers. He was only 19.

Although there’s no statistical proof that the holidays have an impact of increased suicide rates (this is generally a myth), it can be a hard, lonely time for many.  If loneliness isn’t the problem, there is added holiday stress, financial burdens, family issues, and little down time.  The self-inflicted perfectionists (guilty as charged!) may not sleep until the last present is wrapped and decoration hung.  Top all that off with colder weather and less sunlight and the holidays can be a bit heavy for some.

There is a disconnect in understanding between those who have struggled with anxiety and depression and those who have only heard stories about it.  To realize that you are in need of serious help is either too embarassing and hard to accept or simply just too complicated to self-diagnose. I’m fortunate to have had only a small taste of depression (I’ve had more acute struggles with anxiety and panic), but once you’ve had a taste, you will never forget it.  It’s a disease that causes your own mind to deceive you, to tell you such enormous lies that you begin to question everything, even your own existance.  It is both tragic and infuritating, and it has the potential to affect us all in one way or another. We owe it to ourselves, and to our loved ones, to make an effort to understand and tame this monster.  There’s no easy answer here, but compassion and understanding are huge bridges towards healing.

That being said, it’s a two-way street.  If someone is unwilling to share, to speak up out of their silence, it will remain that way…silent.  You must be vulnerable in your truth. I opened up about my struggles with mental illness and it has granted me such tremendous freedom.  It is not a crutch or an excuse or a plea for sympathy, but simply a way out of silent suffering.  Ownership and acceptance and transparency can change your life, as scary as it may seem.

Another one of the most freeing things I’ve learned in my journey with anxiety is to give yourself permission to fail.  If you always want everything to be perfect, you will most definitely always fall short.  The pressure of perfection is suffocating. Forgive yourself. Laugh at yourself.  Love yourself no matter what. If you can’t, find the courage to learn how. If it means asking for help to find your courage, that’s okay. Asking for help takes a tremendous amount of courage in itself, even though some may fear perceived weakness.

But listen up, here’s some news for you; if someone calls you weak, guess what? Who gives a shit?!!! (I praise this phrase in one of my previous blog posts, and it still proves to be one of my favorites, although it’s usually just said in my head)!!! Keep on doing whatever you need to become secure in your worthiness. No apologies.

Yes, I still have lots of work to do.  We all do in one way or another.  But I can’t sit back and watch another tragedy without at least trying to do the best I can to help others.  It is my purpose and my duty.  I can’t be responsible for each persons journey, but I can help make a positive impact as much as possible.  I can lend an ear over a cup of coffee or a walk or a simple phone call.  I can take the profound darkness I’ve felt in my past and use it for good.  I have ears that hear and a mouth that speaks and a heart that loves.

So this year, if you see me around, or if you think you need to talk, or if you’re not sure if you need to talk but just need to cry or laugh or hug me, my door is open.  There is no story too silly or embarassing that will phase me.  I’ve been afraid to sit at a stoplight before, I’m still afraid of the dark, and I’ve gone into panic attacks on the most G-rated Disney rides.  I still shutter at the thought of being on a subway, in a crowded room or even just driving a car full of people around. I am working hard at being comfortable being uncomfortable, but it is slow going. There is no shame here, people. If it bothers you, it’s legit.  You can talk about it.  I’m here for you.

Let’s make this year the best ever.  Fear and shame and darkness will fall victim to your light. Just let go and let the shade lift, friend. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…

You are so worth it. 

Up in the Air

*Fear of flying continues to be one of the most common anxieties today. I wrote this post a couple of months ago while flying home to Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL. I know that all you fearful flyers will be able to relate! I’m working on it…and I know you are too! With every flight I try to practice leaning in to my anxiety, which gets me one step closer to actually being able to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!

Another day, another flight. I have flown more lately than I have in years, and its a bit of a paradox for me. I can’t think of a place more terrifying and yet more utterly exhilarating than up above the clouds in an airplane. It’s truly one of the few places where I can almost completely surrender control, simply due to the fact that I have no other choice. For this challenge and opportunity I am thankful, but still uncomfortable.

One thing I’ve learned on my anxiety journey is that the hard things not only make us stronger, they bring us one step closer to healing . When I choose to lean in and deal with the discomfort of turbulence; when I ride the surges of panic that try to take over, I can begin to relax into my role. I can pleasantly sink into the fact that my only responsibility is to sit, watch a movie and have a drink or two (even if it is only ginger ale, nonetheless). No one needs me to fly the plane. No one needs me to explain turbulence to them to get through it. I have realized that what I thought was so hard may only be so due to my negative way of thinking. I can groom my thoughts, train them up, turn lemons into lemonade. I am in control of that choice. I can continue to battle with this invisible monster of fear (which, in turn, feeds it), or I can turn my back to it, and move forward.

Sure enough, there’s good reason for my self-pep talk. As I cling to these words of encouragement, I feel myself slipping back into the spiral of dread as we fly into impending storm clouds ahead. Visibility goes from clear to zero. This is the place I hate. The place where I have to trust without seeing. The place that tests my deepest level of faith. The bumps come; the invisible, unpredictable roller coaster of air shakes me to my core. 

I realize this is why I’m so scared of total darkness; I want to see what’s ahead, what surrounds me. Dark water slides, roller coasters, I even freaked out once on the People Mover at the Magic Kingdom it was so dark. Don’t even think about putting me on Space Mountain. No, ma’am.

Although it’s not dark during our flight, the concept of fear is the same; I have no control over what’s in front of me. This seems to only occur physically and spatially; conceptual control of things in my life are usually less anxiety provoking. Recently I’ve found that watching YouTube videos of amusement park rides helps me mentally prepare myself for what to expect, (really, I think I’ve watched every Disney ride ever made. Yes I’m a dork.) but there is no such life-hack when it comes to airplane trips. You are simply a slave to the wind and weather.

As we fly onward towards huge grey storm clouds, I grasp to remember my own words…Give. Up. Control. Turn my back to fear. Why is it so much harder to do in the moment? The answer, of course, is due to the discomfort that the physical symptoms of panic bring in my body’s quick response to stressful situations (again, in people with panic disorder, the fight or flight response is a bit disabled). But I persist, because this hellish place is where the magic happens. Where you become tolerant and patient. Where you look fear in the eye and say…I see you. I acknowledge your existence. But I don’t need you. You will not help me in this situation. So thank you for visiting, but you are not welcome here today. 

A friend told me recently that she loves turbulence. I looked at her like she had three heads. She also loves roller coasters, so I guess that makes sense.  This is a totally foreign idea to me. You love turbulence? To me that’s like saying you love jumping off buildings. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it for what it was; the same event viewed in two different perspectives. The same definition, simply experienced a different way.

You mean the same thing that terrifies me is same thing people love?!!
  Yes, the event is exactly the same, it is only the perception of the event that is different. What a shift in thought.

Yes, my heart is racing and I’m starting to get some hot flashes. This is not relaxing by any degree. But turbulence, which is just weather-related changes in air flow (a.k.a, invisible roller coaster that I loathe) is not out to get me.  The event has no more risk to it because of the way I view it than the person next to me. I’m pretty darn sure a plane has never crashed from turbulence (okay, so knock on wood just in case) just like the doctor tells you that no baby will die from crying it out when you’re trying to sleep train, although your motherly instincts make you feel otherwise.  I try to see the turbulence for the event that it is, rather than emotionally analyzing and constantly worrying about the discomfort it brings. This is easier said than done, but each time I practice, it gets a little bit better.

We are emotionally driven beings, complex in nature and sensitive to the world around us, some more than others. Certain things frighten and unnerve us that others don’t even blink at. But that’s a beautiful thing; it’s what makes us human, it’s what make us want to work together to find common ground. It’s what motivates us to seek community and support when we need it. If we all walked around with perfect, needless lives, how could we achieve purpose and meaning? We were not meant to live that way.  Our struggles drive connection and enable empathy.

Just like that, we are through the storm and making our way closer to home. One thing to remember about moments of panic, rest assured, is that they will always, always END. With the threatening clouds behind us now, I gaze down onto the ground below.  I notice a field filled with tiny glimmering specks, what are those? I stare closer.

Headstones. It’s a cemetery.
It screams up at me, not in a morbid, dark way but an enlightening one.  The sun illuminates each marble slab, creating a sparkling, enchanting display from the ground below.

You up there! Yes, you! You’re doing it! You’re living! You are alive! Don’t take this life for granted. This is your one chance. Don’t let fear steal your joy and hold you captive. Don’t waste your time on the enemy of fear. Keep moving forward. Live your life. Right. Now. 

That’s all we can do. Whether we’re up in the air or down on the ground, we journey on.
Okay, I just looked out the airplane window and no lie, there’s a rainbow below me. I can’t make this stuff up, people.

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You can’t have the rainbow without the rain. 

I see the runway ahead of me. This was not an easy ride, but it wasn’t meant to be. We are not guaranteed a smooth ride through this life. But we press on, we do the work, and if we’re lucky (or perhaps just a little insightful), we will find rainbows behind the rain.

Shirts That Say Things

Right now they are all the rage. You know what I’m talking about…the shirts. The ones with all the words. The statement tees. 

I have a bunch…Mind Over Matter. Keep Calm and (fill-in-the-blank). Good Times and Tan Lines. But First…Coffee. Namast’ay At Home. I Really Want Abs (…olutely all the tacos). 

Okay, that last one still makes me laugh pretty hard.

I like statement tees. They’re cute and fun, a playful way to express yourself. But I yearn for more. I want more than a few catchy phrases hinting at your life’s story. I want the whole story.

When I started struggling with this anxiety stuff, I remember wishing for a shirt that would explain this silent illness to people around me. I would appear calm and put together while crumbling on the inside. There was a disconnect, a fear of showing my true emotions, and shame and frustration in explaining it to people. Yes, I’m laughing and engaging in conversation with you, but I’m also starting to freak out because it’s getting kind of hot in this elevator and I am terrified of having a panic attack but I don’t want to be rude and interrupt you and I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand or care anyway so I’ll just sit here and act like everything is okay so you won’t think less of me but hiding my emotions makes me panic more so that’s why I am fidgety and nervous and taking deep breaths and sweating but please go on and ignore me and act like everything is totally fine. 

Phew. Try putting that on a shirt.

We are lucky enough to be heading out on vacation today. So of course I’m spending the morning at the airport, immersed in a sea of people. I do love the vast variety of people passing by, although sometimes the crowds can be a bit unnerving. All the while, I am vividly aware that my eyes are only witnessing what’s on the surface, and what I see is a fraction of what lies underneath.

I long for their stories. I want to know where they are going. Where they have been. I want to know their fears, what ails them, what their dreams are. I want to know what makes them human.

Of course, compassion is not always my first response . Take the guy behind me in his car the other day, impatiently honking and throwing his hands up while waiting for me to turn left at a busy intersection; he most certainly did not receive my compassionate thoughts at first. And I may have taken a liiiiitle longer to turn with the hopes of teaching him a quick lesson in patience. But beyond my spiteful reaction, I stop to wonder the reason behind his frustration. There’s always more to the story.

Think of the people you encounter everyday, the ones you pass judgment on without knowing so much as their outward appearance or spoken words. What story do they have to tell? Would it help us to understand their words or actions? Their appearance? Their attitude?

Some of them may not want to share their stories. They may be too painful to relive, or perceived as too shameful. They may believe they are all alone in their suffering, without an empathetic ear in the world.

If they only knew.

There is almost always someone else, someone who knows, who can empathize. They ache for a story to parallel their own. It’s out there, just often hidden in the most unexpected places, covered up and buried by the demons of pride and fear.

I’ve been trying something new lately. Whenever someone on the street asks me for money, I ask them, what’s your story? How did you get here? Okay, so I’ve only ever been brave enough to ask two people. The answers were short, generic even…lost my job, health went south, couldn’t pay the bills. But still I wonder…is there more? And does anyone care? How does it feel to be in their shoes? To be ignored and essentially forgotten? Do they even want to try? Am I insensitive to ask? Is their life’s story any of my business? And what can I do about it anyway?

It’s easier to walk by. Some would probably argue that it’s safer too. But these are people. And we as humans ourselves know that there are a lot of long, hard hours logged into being a living, breathing soul. As passers-by we only witness seconds of a full life lived. This is fascinating to me.

So again, what can I do? 

I think the most important thing I could do, that we all can do, is the easiest.

We can listen. 

We can stop and take the time to hear their story, their journey. It costs nothing to us but time, compassion, and a little patience.

And I don’t just mean the homeless guy on the streets, people. The people who need to be heard the most are often the ones you would never, ever guess. The neighbor with the perfectly manicured yard and a house that would make Joanna Gaines jealous. The mom at church whose family looks like they walked straight out of a catalog. The company president who is driving that brand new car.

What you see isn’t always what you get. The people that seem the most put together on the outside are often the ones who are falling apart on the inside.

Perhaps they are afraid, worried that any hint of internal issues may signal weakness and result in social separation and isolation. Maybe their outward appearance is their shield, a powerful suit of armor against the truth that suffocates them. Maybe to them, anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

I drove by a church the other day that had one of the best signs I’d ever seen. It said, Perfect People Not Allowed. It made me want to visit right then. I don’t remember anything else about the church, but that sign was all I needed.  This is the message I needed, that we all need.

No one is perfect. Come as you are. We are all worthy of love. 

If only we were all required to wear a shirt with those words. A shirt that sent the message that no matter what your story, you are important . I could argue that it should be our uniform for being human.

Don’t be afraid to share your story.  Even if the words aren’t printed on your shirt for the world to see, they are still there, imprinted on your heart.  Their content is what makes you unlike anyone else in the world, and yet so much like so many.  Your story can be a bridge, a new pathway, a shining light.  No matter what your statement is, just go ahead and put on that t-shirt. Do not apologize for it.  Wear it proudly and know that it was custom-made just for you.