Since starting this MSW program, I’ve been working on re-framing my thoughts. It’s a skill we work into therapy sessions with clients/patients and it’s a life skill that makes huge differences.
This means that I’ve been working on re-wording things like “life is coming at me” to something like “I’m choosing how I react, how I respond, etc”.
And sometimes it goes well. Some days I can say “this is just a bad day. It’s okay to be upset, but it is a bad situation not a bad life.” and it isn’t a lie.
Other days, it comes out more like “I know that I can survive this, but I’m not feeling confident in my abilities right now. I will survive, but this isn’t ideal.”
This week has been the latter.
The hardest part of being in a practicum setting is finding balance. Personal life and professional life are pulled in a lot of weird directions. If I’m not at my best during practicum (internship) time, I’m doing a disservice to my patients and also my supervisor, school and career field.
But I can’t just walk away from my “real” life the minute I walk into the hospital doors.
This is the basic premise of my novel, A Book About Life. How do you deal with your personal life when other people’s lives directly depend on your ability to be “well-adjusted”?
And I want you to know that it’s freaking hard.
But that’s the thing about “real life”. It’s not something you can neatly pack away in a bubble. Real life is something that you experience all the time-in all capacities. Would it be nice to occasionally be able to close off parts of your baggage and trauma? Sure! But in the long run, it’s healthier to work through your “stuff” as it comes.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying you should be grateful it’s happening to you (see what I mean-it just needs re-framed). I’m saying that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and like you’re struggling. Because that’s how you learn to keep going.
I’ve been working away as hard as I can, my folks. I work part time, I go to school full time, I also do my clinical internship in an emergency department. And that’s been such a whirlwind adventure for me that 3 days a week I survive on coffee and fruit flavored water and a granola bar. It’s a wild time, but it’s also the first time I’ve actually felt steady.
Which kinda brings us to this super cool thing that happened.
I was working on a patient case and they’d made a comment about someone they know being able to wear a corset and look like a pin-up model. They then looked at me and said something along the lines of “not to make you jealous, life isn’t fair sometimes”. And I immediately responded with “hey, no judgments here”.
And from the outside, it might have looked like I brushed it off, that I wasn’t going to let it bother me and that I was otherwise not going near that subject of conversation.
I’m a big person. My tummy is a fluffy thing that I grew myself. And from the outside looking in, I take up space. It’s not like I’m unaware of this.
But as I drove in to school this morning (and it’s an hour drive-I have a long time to think), I processed what it was that I’d been feeling in that moment. I replayed it in my mind a few times, thought about how I was feeling this morning and realized that I wasn’t offended. I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t any shame or guilt based emotion.
I was relieved.
I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to convince myself that I don’t have to look like a movie star to be valid. That skinny and pretty (by society’s standards) are not the price I pay to exist. And for so long, it was going through the motions. Saying things I didn’t believe, laughing things off and then immediately running home to work out or skip dinner or eat nothing but salad for the next three days.
And this time?
This time is different. I’m healthy. I sure do eat salads. And I drink less than a soda a month. I drink over half a gallon of water every day. I’m more active now than I’ve ever been. And I’m still a big person.
But the thing that changed, was me. For the first time in my whole life, I love who I am. I’m not ashamed that I take up more space than other people-because that is not the ruler to measure my self-worth. I am kind, I am hard-working. I am sincere. I love coffee. Those are the things that make me up-not other people’s perceptions.
I’m gonna be honest. I didn’t think I’d ever reach this part. I always assumed that I would lose a bunch of weight and then spend the rest of life keeping it off-like some disease I had to constantly worry about.
But being fat (there, I said it) isn’t the worst life I could lead. I love who I am, as I am. Right now. No qualifiers, no conditions. I’m doing an awesome job, just being me.
And for the very first time, I actually believe that.
I started my clinical year last week and I’m going to be honest with you-I have scarcely felt so overwhelmed. I went to practicum (internship for social work), class and I came away with a to-do list so long that I wasn’t sure I could do it.
I was ready to throw in the towel. And so close to being finished. Why?
I like to feel like I’m set up for success. Newness isn’t so bad. Change isn’t so bad. But when there aren’t clear expectations, I feel that I am not going into a scenario where I am capable of winning, I feel overwhelmed and frustrated. That sets me up for failure, day one.
But that’s not the reason I’m writing. I have no intention of complaining for a whole blog about how life isn’t fair. What I want to do is address the steps I took to remedy the situation.
Anyone can feel overwhelmed. Anyone can feel like they can’t be successful. And that doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, or that they were wrong to hire you. It means you’re human.
I came to realize that much of my problems could be boiled down into very simple categories: schedule, organization and expectations. From there, the reasons why I was feeling un-successful came to life. I didn’t feel like I had enough time with my schedule to finish all my class work (schedule/expectations). I didn’t feel like I had a good grasp of the layout of the hospital (organization). I didn’t feel like I could pinpoint the needs of each place I was headed for my practicum (organization/expectation). And the list goes on like that.
The answer, oddly enough, was the same for all of them. Self-advocacy.
I took my supervision time and came prepared with a list of questions related to those things. What changes could be made to my schedule to better accommodate my work/school expectations? What resources were available to help me understand the workings of each department I would be going to? How can I better map out where the “important” places are? Who are my question people? Where can I put my things if I need to? Lunch spaces? Things like that.
And then the work began. It is one thing to bring the questions. It is another thing entirely to get the answers that you need. And trust me, I’m non-confrontational so I don’t love demanding answers. But I knew it would help me if I became a little more decisive. And thankfully my field instructor is great and I have access to a delightful amount of social workers who know far more than I do. And we haggled. What would allow me to be useful to my placement, while also being helpful to me?
A phrase I heard a lot over the past year is “closed mouths don’t get fed”. And I don’t know if I agree with it in a literal sense, but if I’d spent my time dealing with things that didn’t make me feel successful, I would not have a successful placement. I would set myself up to fail. Instead, I chose to open my mouth and say you know, this isn’t working for me-can we try a different way?
I feel like this is a great interview question experience. A couple years ago, I might have let the discomfort consume me. But now I am able to take charge of my own experience. I have the tools, I am prepared to lead myself to success.
Because that’s the thing. Your success is on you. You can’t be a passive actor in your own story. If you’re not taking charge, even when that makes you uncomfortable, other people are going to tell you how to live your life. And you’ll miss out, burn out and never find a way to make yourself happy.
So go out there. Advocate for yourself. Take chances. Make mistakes. And get social worked.
This past week I had the discomfort of making space for my grief. It was Semik on Thursday and that’s gonna take a minute to unpack. So let’s dig in, shall we? This story is one that I have never told in its entirety before, and may not ever do so again.
Semik is a Slavic tradition of memorial and rituals for the dead who were taken before their time. Think of it much like the Slavic version of Dia de los Muertos or All Hallows. Add in some ritual fasting and fertility festival and you have yourself one exhausted grad student.
I lost a friend to suicide a year ago this week. On the day of Semik, actually. Which made this year all the more potent. I had to sit with my grief and go through the process. And let me tell you-holding space for your grief is not only exhausting, it’s the only way to go.
Instead of my normally bubbly self, my field instructor mentioned my reserved silence. I told her what was going on and she checked in with me a couple times again after that. I gave my clients all I could and I went to work and survived. I made peace with my pain. I gave myself permission to cry. And that was the only thing I could do.
So why am I talking about it now?
Because I am human. And no matter what exactly that means, grief is a tie that binds. Everyone will experience it in their own time and manner. And being less than a year from my licensure as a LMSW, I know that if I can’t make space for authenticity, I can’t do my job.
So if you’re feeling broken. If you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you’re struggling with your grief, your sadness, your fear. You aren’t alone in these. You are surviving and thriving-whether it looks like it or not.
Grief can come down on you like a wave while you’re drowning in an ocean. It can crush you into nonexistence and bring you to your knees. It will grind you down.
I read once that grief is just love with nowhere to go. I’d add regret to that as well. And guilt.
It was June 13 of last year and I couldn’t sleep. I had tried everything but I couldn’t settle my thoughts. I decided to pull up some guided meditations to “force reset” my brain. I listened to a couple without much luck and then settled on a shamanic drumming meditation. I’d never done one before but figured I had nothing to lose.
In the course of this 30 minute meditation, I felt myself relax and begin drifting. I was coming to the end of the meditation and was somewhere between awake and asleep-that place where you know you’re not quite either but you’re closer to sleep than awake. And as I began preparing for the end of the recording I heard the words “Come find me.”
I ripped the headphones out of my ears and tossed my iPad across the bed. Instead of being in the place of tranquility, as I had been moments before, my heart was racing, my body surging with adrenaline. What had that been? Was it part of the recording? (I went back and checked much later-it wasn’t.) It took ages to fall asleep after that.
The next morning I had a message from a friend asking if I’d heard about a mutual friend. I said I had just talked to her, that we’d been discussing a new student group she wanted to start. He asked if I had checked my email. I said I hadn’t. So I logged in.
And there it was. A death notice. The night before, around the time of my meditation, our mutual friend had died by suicide.
If I could accurately describe the way the world moved from under me, I would. It was like the universe shifted a fraction of an inch and I had stayed still. I became nauseous and despondent.
Come find me.
Had it been her? Did I believe that? What if I did? What did that mean?
In the days coming I became so overwhelmed with the need to protect myself from further destruction that I hid every sharp object. I talked to every friend I had ever had a mental health conversation with. I made preparations for my own safety and sanity. I was terrified that this was something that would come down on me if I didn’t protect myself in every way possible.
And on the morning of her funeral, I couldn’t find it in me to go. I got a text from someone who had promised to be my moral support asking where I was. I said I was running late and would be there soon.
“You weren’t there for her in life, so you might as well be there for her funeral.” I said to myself. I got in the car and sped the whole way there. It was the first Catholic funeral I had ever been to.
I carried that guilt with me for a year. And this week, I passed it into the universe. I made peace with my grief and let go.
Tonight there was a lightning storm where I live. The first I’ve seen since I moved from Ohio.
Do I understand this as a sign? Sure I do. Because that’s who I am -the pagan girl who thrives in the storms, who is called She Who Guides the Water. Do I miss her? Of course I do. The third person in my life taken by suicide. The third too many.
Hold space for your grief. Give it a place to go. Don’t let it consume you.
We are all in this together, folks. Tomorrow is a brighter day. We just have to make it there.
I’m talking the worst, most stressful week of my life. Every
day was a new shit show, with another round of “What in the world is going on?”
But in times of great stress and trials, I’ve discovered my
Each day I woke up wondering what other shoe would drop,
each night I went to bed defeated.
I woke up and made fresh coffee, some espresso with creamer
and instead of drinking the whole thing down, I poured some into the cup I use
for ancestor offerings. I begged for safety and happiness and success.
The next day, I did the same with drip-pot coffee, black. Then hot tea.
I remembered what Brene Brown said in her Netflix special:
If you’re in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked.
I thought about all the things I learned as an MSW student. All the things I learned about how to deal with crises. About life. And I started putting those to use. Breathing techniques, meditations, anxiety work. I worked the program, my friends. I learned to trust and accept and validate my emotions, without letting them beat me down. I let myself cry, and worked through it. I gave myself room to be.
I went to supervision and reframed my situation. How lucky am I that I have options to stress over. To have the knowledge about what to do. To only experience one week of crisis-as opposed to one lifetime.
And I stopped waiting for the shoes to fall. I stopped
expecting the world to crumble around me.
Instead, I gave myself permission to be human. I asked for
help, I apologized for slacking in a spiritual way. I hoped for better things.
I focused on finding the balance between the negative and positive, the dark
and the light. And while I tried to allow myself to thrive, I found I wasn’t as
preoccupied with the stressful terrors that plagued my days.
Slowly-and we’re talking snail pace-I reframed my experience
to create a more objective picture. I let my reactions be reactions-not
reality. I let go. I learned how to exist in the stress, to fight in the arena.
And yes, I got my ass kicked. But sometimes the lesson you
need to learn has to come when you have been stripped of all your reservations.
I can’t neglect parts of myself just because I think I know better. Putting coffee out for the ancestors and the spirits in the good times is great, but brushing them off in the bad times is arrogant. Make space and time for your spirituality, your mental well-being. Make space for your emotions. Make space for yourself. You deserve to live your life. And that life may be hard at times. But you can make it through. You have to step back and believe. Then get back in the arena and keep fighting.
Past me had a very smart idea, that I think I need to keep coming back to.
I know a bunch of people believe that Mercury Retrograde is a bunch of hooey, and that’s fine. This post is for me. I don’t think of it as a cosmic scapegoat that you can blame when you’re being less than optimal. I view it as light shining through the cracks in your life, in the various aspects that need work.
For me, this has been communication (as is rightly so) but communication with not only other people, but myself as well.
Lately my life has played out like the theme song from FRIENDS:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way. Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, Your love life’s DOA. It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear. When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month Or even your year…
I keep circling back tot he negative. The things that don’t work, won’t work, can’t seem to go right. And I think that’s super human to be that way sometimes. You can only see so far into the tunnel and you have to keep trying to move forward even when that’s the last thing you want to do.
I made a decision that has long term consequences this week. I was miserable-the kind that comes from pushing way beyond what you can handle. Every little stressor was getting to me, every moment too much to handle. By the time I’d had my third panic attack of the week, I knew I was in over my head. So I looked at my arm, where my tattoo waits faithfully and I made a choice.
I wish for this.
It wasn’t something I could say honestly at the time and I promised myself that I would make changes when I couldn’t say it and mean it. So I did. I got out of the crappy situation. I chose my health and happiness over everything else.
Because sometimes self-care feels like the most selfish thing you can do-but you need to do it anyway.
So I’m back to the beginning. I’m ready to try a new path. I know I will be facing a lot of uphill battles, but that’s okay.
This quote came back into my life recently and I’ve relied on it as much as I have my tattoo. Because this life, it’s not fair. It’s not something that you reach a level of “better” and everything works out, smooth and good. It’s messy. It’s painful. It’s confusing and frustrating and beautiful and glorious. But you only get this one life.
So my challenge to the world, to myself, this week (and beyond) is to find the thing that makes you unhappy: your job, your major, your self-care habits, your wardrobe, whatever it is. And make a change. Yes, it’s scary. It’s hard. It’s brutal sometimes. But this is life. And if you only get one, would you rather spend it miserable or would you rather take chances that makes you happier?
It’s time to discuss the past year. Or more realistically, let’s call this blog the one where I discuss what happened this past year that made me not want to blog anymore. Because it’s a story worth telling. But in order to tell it, we’re going to have to back up. To last year.
Picture it: 2017, the world was growing accustomed to changes, and not all of them good. Little old me was graduating with a bachelors in cultural anthropology and I was headed to law school to complete a dual degree: a JD (law)/MSW (social work masters). That summer I threw myself into every money making scheme I could so that we could afford the move across 1000 (a little less, actually) miles of uncharted wilderness (well, America, really). I said goodbye to the people who had been there, for every hiccup and misstep in my life and trudged out in search of something new, in search of myself.
The first day of law school was postponed for the eclipse (which was overcast, so we didn’t actually get to see it). But surely, this was the sign I was waiting for…right?
Day one: the theme of the day should have been “You will probably want to kill yourself more than once, and we know that. It’s a sign you’re in law school. You’ll probably also develop a severe drinking problem. Also totally expected.” That’s honestly all I remember from the first day. And that should have been a sign in-and-of itself. But I trudged on.
Grades in law school aren’t like undergrad or most other post-bac programs. You aren’t graded on how well you understood the subject, but how well everyone else understood in comparison to you. Therefore, you could get a 98% on a test (you won’t) and normally, you’d see an “A” at the top. But in law school, if everyone else got a 99% or a 100% (they won’t), then you’ve failed the test. [Realistically, the highest score was a 35% and that’s an “A”).
So finals came around and I hit rough patch after rough patch (including taking a test so delirious from a food allergy that I was hallucinating) and grades came back. Talk about a hit to the ego. I took the break to reset from the havoc that was first semester and tried to throw myself into second semester. I did not go out, I did not engage in social activities. I stayed home and studied. I stayed at the school and studied. Every weekend (and I mean EVERY) you would find me, nose in a book, looking for nuggets of knowledge that I needed. I would get to class hours early to do more reading and prepping. And that continued for 16 weeks. I studied for finals 16-18 hours a day. For two weeks.
But by February, just six and a half months after the journey began, I no longer felt like myself. My major complaint (my presenting problem): I felt like a robot. No hobbies, no way to break myself away from the grueling gauntlet that was first year law school. No more being myself. Just torture. And that’s when I kept hoping that I would get hit by a bus. I wasn’t actively suicidal, I just wouldn’t have stopped it from happening. And as much as I knew that that was not okay, I just thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. So when second semester grades came in and I was placed on academic probation (for insufficient grades), the final straw broke.
All that hard work, only to be told “not good enough”. I received the notice on official letterhead that read more like “You should reconsider being a lawyer” than “you need to take these remedial classes”. I told myself that I would start my MSW in the fall and I just needed a break from law school. That was the first week of May.
June 13, I was on Snapchat with a law friend who asked if I’d talked to a 2L (second year) friend in a while. I said I had, and that she was excited about starting an animal law group. He told me to check my email. Sure enough, I had an email from the Dean, telling the school she’d died the night before. And as I read the obituary, I knew what words they weren’t saying. She’d died, but it wasn’t an accidental event.
I wondered if I would be next. I wondered what separated me from her. I wondered if law school was worth it. And ultimately I decided, no. I looked at my tattoo, the compass in my life. I didn’t sign up for four years of pain and torture and hating myself. I kept telling myself that if there was some way I could prove that “it” was worth it, I would stay. But I deserve to be happy, to value life and to wake up to a life I wish for.
I was so nervous about starting a new program (because of my experience with law school) that on the first day, I made an appointment with the on-campus counselor. I was a wreck, a shell of a person. No coping tools worked, I’d burnt through them all trying to just survive. I’d lost my sense of self.
I put off telling my parents until I had made up my mind officially. I’d still harbored a hope that maybe with time, I could be more ambient towards the idea of coming back. But each time I walked into the law school and it made me sick to my stomach. I knew I wasn’t going to ever go back.
And I couldn’t bring myself to write, to be myself until I decided what it was that I even wanted out of life. I had to stop blogging because I didn’t know who I was, figuratively.
I’m starting 2019 clean. I’ve got goals, personal and professional, and I know that I’m still turning into who I will be, but it’s a better life than I would have had before.
In 2019, I’m
-getting to work with undocumented victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking and stalking
-publishing my book
-getting to work in the emergency department of a hospital as a student clinical social worker
-taking care of myself, as a complex, multi-faceted human being
-living (and making steps towards) the life I wish for
And I hope, with all I have to hope, that you find the courage to be yourself, to be authentically you. That you make the hard decisions because you know that you’re not giving yourself the ability to grow and thrive. You deserve it. I promise.