Missing moms and the cult of fertility

Buckle up: this is probably going to be long because it’s about mental health, fertility cult mindsets within the Catholic Church, and abortion and contraception.

So I found out yesterday that a woman I had met a couple times at various Catholic events when I lived in Michigan has gone missing. We’ll call her Mary, even though that’s not her real name, just because I don’t want this to be findable.

Mary just up and took off at 3 a.m. the night before last. Nobody can find her or reach her. There are now literally over a thousand people joining the search. Her cell phone was left at home and she disabled the OnStar feature in her car. She left a note. Wherever she went, it appears that she left voluntarily and really doesn’t want to be found. I guess I will have to wait and see when and where she turns up.

I met Mary through Stephanie, the woman who stepped in to be my kids’ godparent when we joined the Catholic church. We couldn’t find anyone else that we knew to do it, so a stranger volunteered.

Right away, Stephanie started introducing me to her other Catholic friends–including Mary. I’ve often said that it was the behavior of other Catholics online which led to my fairly quick disillusionment with the Church. But if I’m really honest, it was Stephanie and the friends she introduced me to, because I was not at all like them and had no desire to be.

They were all following the official teachings of the church to the letter, with a lot of their own conservative views thrown in. All were practicing NFP, a form of family planning that usually results in having lots of babies spaced closely together. Very Old School Catholic. They were also politically very conservative, very anti-abortion in every circumstance, homeschooled their kids, and felt that God ordained a woman’s true purpose to be staying home with her kids. Stephanie’s FB profile actually lists her employer as God.

I had a part-time job in a library and Stephanie asked me very early on when (not if) I was planning on quitting the job to stay home with the kids. I had to defend why I only had 3 kids, the youngest of whom was 7 years old at the time. The fact that my husband had a vasectomy (actually two, because the first one failed and that’s how we ended up with baby #3) sort of got a pass because it was a decision we made long before joining the Catholic Church. (More on that later.)

So back to Mary. She has 8 kids now, the youngest of whom is an older infant. She’s homeschooling. Her husband is reputed to be “a little controlling.” Anything else I can say about her is speculation and I’m trying to avoid that.

What I will say is that I think it’s very hard to defend having 8 kids in this day and age. Stephanie herself recently had #6, all of which were by C-section. There isn’t an exact number of C-sections that’s the safe upper limit but experts say that the health risks of repeated C-sections increase with each subsequent surgical birth. It seems irresponsible to put your own safety at risk (and potentially depriving your kids of a mother) just so you can have as many kids as you think God wants you to have.

The truth is that if Mary did indeed intentionally go missing, which it currently looks like she did, I understand it. Some women–maybe even most women–cannot take care of that many children alone without it taking a toll on their mental and physical health.

The other truth which my husband and I have discussed is that even if he hadn’t had that second vasectomy, I don’t think we would have wanted to go the NFP route after converting to the religion anyway. Poverty seems to go hand in hand with having a lot of kids in most cases that I’ve seen. We struggled enough to support the kids we did have, let alone doubling their number. It wasn’t a matter of being wealthy or not; it was that we could barely afford to support even three kids.

I do have health concerns about the pill and some non-religious sources support me on that. At the same time, I think that having 6-8 children or more is irresponsible for many reasons, from the development of each individual child to the health of the planet.

Even if I couldn’t personally tolerate the side effects of taking the pill, I don’t think it or contraception are evil. I’m sometimes conflicted about abortion but I still think it should be legal. I used to be quite the pro-choice crusader and I think that at heart I still am.

I think that the stance of the Catholic Church on this issue is detrimental to everyone. Quite honestly, I think it amounts to a fertility cult.

But even if I think it hurts men and children too, I think it’s most detrimental to women by far. Having 3 babies in 5 years left me with very fragile mental health for a good number of years. I know for sure that I would not have been able to handle having even more and I would have snapped in some form or another.

Regardless of what happened to Mary, I think that promoting an ideal of having a bunch of kids, staying home with them, and homeschooling them is a lifestyle not everyone is cut out to handle. I think more women doing so are more unhappy with it than they want to admit. But if you feel that doing so is ordained by God, how can you admit that it makes you miserable?

A tale of two therapists

I debated whether or not to write about this but figured it was worth updating after previous discussions of my previous experience with therapy.

It may be too soon to make an official pronouncement but I saw the new therapist yesterday and my gut instinct based on her background seemed to have been correct.

She was right in all the ways the other one was not, at least in terms of what I’m looking for. After going over the basic terms of what her obligations are (HIPAA, legal issues, etc) she actually interviewed me about my background and took extensive notes. That didn’t happen with my previous therapist and I liked it, so we were already off to a good start.

I was already planning to tell her what I hoped to gain from therapy, which was something I realized I hadn’t done with the previous therapist and should have. But the new therapist asked me what my goals from therapy were before I had to bring it up on my own.

I told her that I’d been doing a lot of work on my own, but that I still was having trouble with coping mechanisms (especially regarding fear) and self-esteem issues. What I really liked is that she’s very solution-focused and used the things I told her about my interests in giving me suggestions for coping mechanisms.

The previous therapist had me down for the same weekly appointment indefinitely until I decided to stop. This therapist said that she typically sees people every week in the beginning, then usually begins to taper off to less-frequent sessions as the client feels ready to do so. I really liked that a lot because it seems more like she wants to give me the tools to manage things on my own, which is exactly what I want.

As another point of contrast, every appointment with the previous therapist had me sobbing as I talked about my problems. Other than the catharsis of crying, I didn’t find that helpful–especially because she then gave me completely inapplicable advice because she didn’t understand my background or interests.

I personally don’t find it helpful to talk about my problems a lot, and that was one of the biggest issues with the friendship I had to end. I certainly can and will talk about my problems at length in a setting where that seems expected, but I find it doesn’t ever help me feel better. That doesn’t mean I’m stuffing down my problems or refusing to deal with them; it’s just a state where I don’t find it helpful to be stuck.

By contrast, I only choked up once and had to blink away tears as I told the new therapist about my husband’s stage IV cancer and how scared I felt. There was no drawn-out sobbing like with the other therapist. I didn’t feel like I had to suppress it; I just didn’t feel like it would have been productive to break down. She did have a box of tissues in her room, but not right on the couch like my other therapist did.

She actually gave me actionable tips at the end of the appointment of small steps I could take before the next appointment, which felt very helpful. I was also surprised that she validated social media as a legitimate source of friendship and support in conjunction with face-to-face contacts, too. She wasn’t trying to strongly push me into being more extroverted than I’m comfortable with.

I’m sure these are just two different approaches to therapy and some people would feel more comfortable with the first therapist’s style. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. And this particular therapist made me think again about the possibility of becoming a therapist myself someday if I need to go back to work full time in the future.

I’m more of a solution-focused type of person so it makes sense that I would want a therapist to help support me in that. And I’m relieved to know that not all therapists have to be the same, because I know that if I were to ever become a therapist, I’d want to be more like the new one I’ve found.

Breaking up with a therapist

I just told my therapist I didn’t plan on returning. It was a scary step, although made easier by the fact that I have another appointment with a new therapist next week.

It felt really brave for me to tell her I didn’t think I would be back because it didn’t feel like the right fit, though. There was a time when I would have made excuses or tried to hedge my way out of it. It was difficult to not just tell her I was skipping this week’s appointment and leave the door open until I see whether or not I like the new therapist better.

Ultimately, I decided that I need to find the right therapist or even not go at all if I can’t find the right one. This therapist consistently made me feel worse after I left, which seems like a pretty big warning sign. I always felt kinda judged, which is not something you want to feel from a therapist.

More importantly, I felt like she just gave (mostly inapplicable) advice and didn’t leave me with actionable suggestions I could work on.

I don’t know if what I’m looking for can ultimately be found, though. I’ve never had a really good experience with therapy but I still believe it can work anyway.

I want a therapist who challenges me but who usually makes me leave feeling better about myself or at least more empowered.

Rather than telling me what to do, I want one who takes my life circumstances into account before offering suggestions that I might want to consider.

For example, when I say I’m worried about how I’ll make it when my husband’s gone, I want a therapist to help me get to the root of those fears and give me confidence that I can get through it. I want to be given tools I can use now when the fear comes up. Instead of telling me to meet with a certified financial planner and double my husband’s life insurance (the latter of which is literally not possible with a spouse with cancer), I want to address fears and coping mechanisms.

I want to be given strategies to find in myself the strength to get through whatever challenges I face, including this one.

Even though I know what I want and it doesn’t seem that difficult of an expectation from a therapist, it’s hard not to feel discouraged that so far I haven’t been able to find it.

So I’m going in a different direction this time. Rather than seeing a PsyD who’s an upper-middle-class white woman, I’ll be seeing a masters-level black woman. I’m not sure the demographics will make a difference and my expectations of a therapist should make it so that demographics wouldn’t matter.

Can I find what I’m looking for? I hold out hope that I can. It felt brave to admit that this wasn’t it. I just hope I’m only looking for the right fit, not searching for the unicorn of therapists.

Introverts unite

Have you ever noticed that the world seems geared toward the extroverts? I’ve found lots of people online who are proud to be introverts, which is a nice change of pace. Most of the time, the stories we’re told are that there’s something wrong with being an introvert and that we should all try to become more extroverted.

Usually it’s the extroverts telling us that, of course. They want us to be more like them. Notice there isn’t a similarly vocal contingent of introverts telling extroverts to maybe be a little less loud and draining.

The funny thing is that I’m not even that introverted. I genuinely like talking to people and tend to be at my best when I see a few different people each day. But it has to be the right environment–I can’t generally handle loudness for long–and I always enjoy my time alone.

So on a related note, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that my therapist just isn’t a good fit for me and I’m trying to schedule an appointment with a different one. My therapist is a self-described extrovert and most of her suggestions to me are either things I’m not interested in or really want to avoid.

I don’t think she gets the difference between introverts and extroverts, even though her bio said she had specific experience working with Highly Sensitive People. That definitely describes me based on this test, but her suggestions are extremely overwhelming to me. I don’t think she gets what it’s really like to be an introvert or sensitive, but I do get the sense that she thinks my life would be better if I could just be more of an extrovert.

It’s true that extroverts have some good qualities and that they often have an easier time making friends. They’re often the kind of outgoing, charming people that others tend to like. But I don’t think the solution is to try to make introverts change their entire personality type.

There are a lot of other reasons why I don’t think she’s the right therapist for me. Like her insistence that I had to get my husband to start writing notes and taking videos for after he’s gone. That seems way premature, given that he’s still undergoing chemo to try to knock out the cancer. He was upset by the suggestion and I understand why. He needs to be as positive as possible at this stage.

She also wasn’t anywhere near the ballpark of what I was looking for when I said I was worried about my kids’ struggles to figure out what to do with their lives. She took a tough love approach and said I should tell them to get a job or move out. That’s not the kind of parent I’ve ever been or want to be.

Realistically, I expect that they’ll find their ways sooner rather than later. None of them want to live at home forever. But given how many people are still living at home well into their 20s, given the economy and cost of housing, I don’t think her approach is realistic. And I’m certainly not going to risk my (still relatively young) kids becoming homeless if I kick them out for not having jobs.

My 21-year-old has only been out of work for less than 2 months and is trying to sort out gender transition and name change stuff. My 18-year-old wants to get his driver’s license before he gets a job because he doesn’t like being dependent for rides. If he still hasn’t made progress by the end of the year, we’ll have a more serious talk. Plus a big part of his lack of progress is due to the relative chaos of chemo schedules and how that affects family life.

I just feel like my therapist is not a good fit and is trying to change me into being something other than what I really am. I want a therapist who gently nudges me to be better, not one who tells me what to do. And I especially want one who affirms that I’m okay as an introvert and don’t have to try to become an extrovert to be happier.

The limits of positive thinking

I was discussing the book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America in the comments and thought it deserved a full exploration in itself.

If you’re naturally prone to pessimism and depression like I am, the concept of positive thinking has some merit. I’ve learned that I can stop low moods from blowing up into days-long depressions by stopping my train of thought before it derails. It’s a concept I’ve written about a bit that I call “catastrophizing,” taking one bad thought or worry and running away with it.

I can often choose to stop that process and avoid a lot of the depressions and anxiety attacks I used to experience. In that sense, the reminder that we can control our thoughts has some validity. Certainly, if you also focus on having gratitude for the good things in your life, you can train your brain to notice more of them.

But there’s also the concept of “toxic positivity,” which Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in the above book about her experience with breast cancer. This toxic positivity is also super big among a lot of evangelical types like Joel Osteen, who preaches that you’ll be blessed with wealth as long as you give generously to church. This prosperity gospel has no basis in either the Gospel of Jesus or the laws of reality.

There are a lot of people who say “good vibes only” or people who are big into the Law of Attraction (another type of woo) who discourage negative thoughts. But the effect of those kinds of statements makes you feel like your thoughts are illegitimate, which encourages repression and isn’t healthy.

Mental illness is one thing and there’s only a certain amount of control you can have over those processes.

Then there are things like your spouse having cancer, which just isn’t the kind of situation you can positive-vibe your way out of.

The Law of Attraction suggests that you have control over everything that happens to you. While it’s true that your thoughts are powerful, they’re not that powerful. The Law of Attraction says that all deaths are a form of suicide, for example, which is just ludicrous.

Louise Hay, one of the main promoters of the Law of Attraction as it relates to health, believed that cancer was caused by “deep hurt, longstanding resentments, carrying hatreds, deep secrets eating away at the self.” Ultimately, this is no different than saying that cancer can be cured by apricot kernels or a macrobiotic diet. It’s victim-blaming, saying that the randomness of cancer is one’s own fault.

I had a discussion with my husband last night about religious perspectives about death. As a Catholic, he believes that you can offer up your sufferings to unite with Jesus’ on the cross. Your suffering can be redemptive for others as well. Those were some of the aspects of Catholicism that I always found hardest to understand: both the concept of substitutionary atonement at all and how you could “offer up” your own suffering to lessen that of others. Suffering isn’t a transaction.

My beliefs have always leaned more toward the Buddhist. I tend to believe that life is truly random, suffering is an inevitable part of life, and that when we die, we are ultimately at peace. I believe we are made of energy and that when we die, that energy returns to the universe.

But yet when I lost my favorite cat at a tragically young age due to illness, I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t know how to place it into perspective so my grieving process was messy. Having had no experience in how to handle death in a healthy way, I just let myself feel all those horribly painful emotions, which I think was the most natural thing for me to do.

I had him cremated and made what my oldest called a shrine, with the cat’s urn of ashes and a shadow box with his picture and paw print and lock of fur. I placed it where I could see it from my office, where I spend the most time.

Then one day some months later, I felt comfortable moving his urn and the shadow box into a less prominent place in my office. I realized I had processed enough of the grief that I could think about my beloved cat without crying. I no longer feel as much like I was robbed of time with him, but grateful to have had the joy he brought to me for so long.

And I realized that’s the answer to how to deal with death according to my own spiritual beliefs. You can’t run away from the pain, even though it’s intense and it feels at times like it will overwhelm you. You have to cry and let yourself feel sad until the day when it hurts a little less. You’ll come through it on the other side changed.

We’re mired in this culture of “good vibes only” and #blessed and we collectively run away from any unpleasant emotions. Even little kids are taught to stop crying when they get hurt, told that whatever happened to them wasn’t that bad. It’s like we’re so uncomfortable even seeing unpleasant emotions in others that we teach kids that it’s not okay to feel them, either. Our culture teaches that we should run away from pain, that it’s undignified to show it.

That’s yet another way in which I differed from my own parents in how I brought up my kids. Whereas my dad would scowl and make some negative comment about my little nephew crying when he got hurt in T-ball, I always tried to validate what my kids were feeling. I didn’t bribe them with a treat to make them feel better, nor did I overdo a dramatic reaction. I tried to react to them getting hurt as a part of life that was okay to cry over, but that they could get through it, too.

I realized that I had been trying to squash my feelings about my husband’s cancer so that I could be more positive for him. I do believe that a positive mindset does help in recovery and I don’t want to be a source of negativity. But suppressing my scary feelings when they come up only makes them seem bigger and scarier.

We should let ourselves feel what we feel. Yes, we can sometimes stop ourselves from overdramatizing our bad feelings and avoid further unnecessary suffering. But repressing bad feelings and trying to convince ourselves that everything feels great when it doesn’t is really just lying to ourselves.

It extends beyond the individual, too. Not only are we collectively encouraged to deny the bad things going on in our own lives, we also look away from the suffering of others, like the atrocities at the border. There’s no amount of positive thinking that will get children out of cages, no amount of Law of Attraction that says they had control over being there. Our entire American culture is based on looking away from that which makes us uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of your friends go quiet when you’re grieving.

Sometimes life is just random and sometimes it really doesn’t feel good. Toxic positivity is just another form of telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without seeing if they even have bootstraps. The more we try to “look on the bright side” of things, the more we invalidate real suffering–both our own and others’.




Finding peace as a depressed parent

Obviously I struck a chord with the last post about being a parent who deals with depression, given the larger than usual number of page views. What I take from that is that I’m definitely not alone.

But if the post seemed a bit gloomy, I think it’s also important to present the other side of the issue: hope.

I believe that most people do the best that they’re able, given the circumstances they have. Maybe that’s naive, but I do tend to believe the best in people.

I’m sure there’s some percentage of the population that truly doesn’t care how they affect others and don’t care about being better. But I think that if you’re reading this and feeling bad about how your depression affected your loved ones, you’re obviously not in that category of those who don’t care.

If you care about how your depression affected the people you love, it can be almost unbearable to think about. That’s actually a good reaction because it means you want to do better. And you can.

But the truth is that nearly every parent messes up their kids in some way. Maybe some people more or less than others, depending on their resources and self-awareness and self-actualization.

I’ve honestly never met anybody who didn’t have some complaints about their parents at some point in their life, whether their parents were too strict or too smothering or too distant. (For the sake of this post, I’m leaving out those whose parents were abusive, just because that’s not a topic I can take on today. But I know you’re out there and I see you and validate you.)

Even people I’ve known who would otherwise say they had good childhoods were still affected when their parents got divorced, for example. Most of us are scarred in some way. What matters is that you learn lessons from how you grew up and change what needs to be changed. As the saying goes, either you get bitter or you get better.

None of this is to say that all decisions are equal or that we can do anything we want to our kids because they’re resilient. Some of us have addictions, whether to the internet or spending or alcohol, that damage our families. Those usually have roots in how we grew up, too–they’re all part of the same effort to emotionally escape the uncomfortable parts of life. Like anything else, though, once you’re aware of it, you can change it.

But what I am also saying is that eventually we have to forgive ourselves for messing up, for not being the people we wanted to be or the parents we wanted to be.

I may not have done everything right as a parent. My kids may have been affected by my depression. But I’m proud of a lot of the things I did do as a parent, too.

I wanted them to know that home was a safe place without a lot of fighting or instability. I was honest about my mistakes (in an age-appropriate way, of course) and I apologized for the things I did wrong. I wanted them to have a good moral compass and to be helpful and compassionate toward others. I wanted there to be a distinction between adult and child, not that one was more important than the other but to keep the roles of each separate.

I didn’t want them to be selfish or greedy but to appreciate all that they had. I wanted them to have a sense that as family, we’re all in this together and everybody has some responsibility. I wanted my kids to gain the competence and confidence from knowing how to do things for themselves. So far, I can say that I feel like a success in all these regards.

I do also think there’s a way to improve yourself, even if you’re not in a place where you can access good therapy or find appropriate medication. You can start some type of mindfulness practice, whether it’s reflective journaling or meditation or prayer or yoga.

I’m living proof that if you put effort into mindfulness practices, it will change you. If you read some spiritual or mindfulness types of books or even websites or books about recovery, it will change your focus. (I’m really loving Russell Brand’s Recovery, which I think is very valuable reading despite being personally unsure about the 12-step aspect and only having “soft” addictions of my own.)

You can’t keep doing what you’ve always done and expect anything to change. You have to put in a little bit of work to get better–even if at times all you can really do is a little bit of work on yourself.

Once you start the work on yourself, the results won’t be instant. Depending on how much you hurt people, it may take a while for them to trust you. Don’t let that faze you; just keep getting better. And when you do begin that work, protect it. You can’t be around negative influences or you’ll fall back into negativity, too.

But what I can say, especially if you’re a parent living with mental illness of some sort, people will notice the work you do on yourself and the results from it. That especially includes your kids. It’s never too late to start trying to learn how to be more in touch with your emotions, to be calmer, to experience less fear, to be more stable. And the benefits of that work are far-reaching and will be a positive role model for your kids. It could potentially change things for generations to come.

Forgive yourself. Then get to work on getting better.

Depression and parenting

I know I just wrote the other day about reflections on my parenting and the fact that my oldest feels like his childhood was magical. And I should probably be re-reading that right now.

But instead, I’m thinking about the effects it had on my kids to grow up with a mom who had untreated depression and garden-variety mental illness. There are so many studies out there about how detrimental it is to grow up with a depressed and anxious mother.

I did try to get treatment, but so many of them either didn’t work or I didn’t like the side effects. Ironically, now that I’m on effective treatment, I can see more clearly that I needed it all along. Choosing to be ill because I didn’t like the side effects of medication wasn’t fair to my kids or my husband. At the time, I thought I had everything under control without medication, but looking back, I can see that I didn’t. I was fooling myself to the detriment of my family.

They say that kids who grow up with depressed mothers are more likely to have depression or anxiety themselves, and what a surprise that my kids do. Even though I’m now modeling how to take care of myself, I wish I had done so sooner for their benefit.

I’ve always had this mentality that I should be able to pick myself up by my bootstraps and just not be depressed, even though it doesn’t work that way. I’m now getting social security disability not only for my multiple sclerosis but also for my depression.

Yet I’ve never really taken my depression all that seriously. And right or wrong, I’ve perceived that nobody else who knew me took it very seriously either. If my parents knew, I believe they were probably too depressed themselves to know how to help me. I am also pretty sure, based on things she’s said, that my sister thought I should just bootstrap myself out of it.

There was even another mom in the online mom’s group I was a part of for nearly 20 years. She was on disability for mental illness and people always tried to build her up and tell her how brave she was, etc. Why wasn’t anyone telling me the same? These moms knew I was depressed, often suicidally so — in fact, that’s what led to them funding my move back here. So I can’t say that they didn’t care because they obviously did. I just wonder if they, too, thought I could bootstrap my way out of it with a change of scenery.

Looking back, I can see that I was already pretty sick when I moved here. But I got worse because of the MS pretty shortly thereafter, and depression is itself a major symptom of MS.

I don’t blame anyone for anything. I’ve forgiven my parents years ago for the things they did that weren’t so great. I understand now that they were doing their best and sometimes made the wrong call, just as I have. I now recognize a lot of what I grew up with as the result of their untreated depression.

They chose to put me in a harsher social environment with people who were not my economic peers so I could have a better education. When you have a bright kid but not a lot of money, it’s hard to know what to do. I ended up doing the same with my kids and it was similarly as hard on them as it was on me.

How can I hold a grudge against my parents when I ended up largely doing the same thing with my kids? Their hearts really were in the right place, as mine was, even if in many cases the outcome of what they did had an unintentionally detrimental effect.

Even when I’ve told a couple people I thought were my friends about traumatic things in my childhood, it wasn’t to try to get them to feel sorry for me or to suggest that I was still resentful about those things. I just thought I was sharing things that would explain a little more about why some things were triggers for me.

I don’t think anyone else is responsible for me but myself. Do I have things in my childhood that kinda messed me up? Sure, but I think most people do. And I’ve been working for the past several years quite intently on trying to move past them and get better.

But the hardest part of seeing more clearly and starting to get better is that you also see your mistakes. And I feel like my biggest mistake by far was allowing my depression and anxiety to go untreated for so long. I hope it’s not too late to undo some of the damage that has done to my kids.

When it feels like nobody loves you

When it feels like nobody loves you, it’s usually a sign that you don’t love yourself enough. But the answer isn’t that you need to find new people. It’s to realize that you’re looking in the wrong place for your validation.

Recently, one of my very best friends was briefly back in town after having moved out of state. She and I made plans to get together, which I really looked forward to because I hadn’t seen her in over a year.

At the literal last minute, she had to cancel our plans. And honestly, I was pretty crushed. I really wanted to see her. I knew that because of how far away she lives, it may be years before I have another chance.

But I had to pull myself out of my first reaction of extreme disappointment. It turned out that the reason for her canceling had nothing to do with me at all. She had some really genuinely shitty things happen that day that made her feel like she just couldn’t face anyone, even someone she wanted to see (i.e. me.)

See, most of my closest friends have some tendencies toward depression and anxiety. Many people have those problems, and I have them too. Like seeks like. So I get that.

Yes, I’ve been guilty of isolating myself to “protect” others from my depression. I often assume that people just don’t want to deal with it. There are also certain people who just exacerbate my anxiety, so I try to limit time around them to protect my own mental health. I have had outbursts over seemingly small things, though not as often recently.

But this brings me to another story. I’ve loved a friend for years and still do, but I can’t have her in my life until she works on healing herself. In a very large way, she’s part of why I want to become a therapist.

She is loved by so many people but usually feels unloved. She feels like she gives more love than what is returned to her, though I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I usually did not feel particularly loved by her, I just felt like I was disappointing her.

The difference is that she gets deeply attached to people, often very early after meeting them. She gets excited about meeting a new person she likes and feels very strongly bonded to them, maybe more quickly than the other person feels. This puts a lot of pressure on the other person and makes her more likely to be hurt.

If anyone needs time to deal with their own stuff and tells her no or backs off for a bit, she feels unloved and wonders what’s wrong with her. In truth, nothing’s wrong with her, other than how much she needs from others and how she reacts when people can’t meet her needs.

Because she looks to her friends and loved ones to validate her, rather than being able to validate herself, she’s very sensitive to rejection. When she feels rejected, she often gets hatefully mean. But overall, she’s not a bad person, just needs more from people than anyone can give.

I’ve observed this repeated spiral of idealizing someone, wanting to spend every minute talking with them, then feeling unloved when the other person has too much on their plate and needs to step back. Or taking it very personally if someone is having a bad day of their own and doesn’t have time for her.

Being almost aggressively needy in this way pushes people away. It’s not her big personality, which can be a lot of fun, that’s pushing people away. It’s that others have to protect themselves from burnout. Almost nobody can meet that high level of need. It’s very draining.

When you think about it, nearly everyone has their own problems they’re dealing with. Sometimes they just can’t take on more, even of people they love. Sometimes they don’t find it helpful to commiserate but instead, need to deal with their own stuff on their own terms.

Because as with my story of my friend visiting from out of state, her not having time for me wasn’t actually a rejection of me at all. She was just in an emotional place where she had to deal with her own feelings and with the shit going on in her own life. I gently tried to convince her that going out might make her feel better, but she had her own coping mechanisms that were different. And that’s okay. She owes more to herself than she does to me.

If you have friends who have any sort of mental illness at all, they’re going to be even more prone to burnout. If they’re working on addressing their own mental health issues (as I am), that often makes them less able to take on someone else’s, not more.

But being burned out and needing time to get yourself right isn’t a rejection of the other people who would like to be with you. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that someone will always be there for you, at any moment of night or day. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that someone won’t ever cancel plans with you.

A lot of those things are just boundaries and self-care. People can love you very much, even unconditionally, and still set boundaries. In fact, it’s healthier when they do set boundaries because they are prioritizing themselves and their own mental health.

Putting myself first is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever learned and sometimes it’s still a struggle. I’m learning how to set boundaries to protect my own mental and physical health.

I’ve learned that nobody else can make me whole–only I can do that. Incidentally, I find that the more I work on loving myself, the better I am at loving others, too. But loving others includes, yes, boundaries. As they say, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

If I look to other people to make me feel whole and to fill in where I feel empty or lonely or bored, inevitably they will let me down.

Ultimately, nobody can be there 100 percent of the time for someone else unless they put their own needs last. And that’s not unconditional love. That’s actually really emotionally unhealthy.

I will forever wish I could have helped my friend. I still miss her and probably always will. I just couldn’t meet her particular definition of unconditional love because too often it meant ignoring my own needs in favor of trying to meet hers.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to help others find strength in themselves through therapy. I’m making a lot of progress with setting boundaries with people and I think I’m doing well in understanding why people do what they do.

Whether I can help them become comfortable with meeting more of their own needs–which ultimately requires comfort with self and with distress–remains to be seen. Luckily I have two years of training ahead to help me learn that.

It’s the memory that hides

I’ve heard it said that there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth.

It takes a great deal of self-awareness to recognize your own role in things that happen to you. After all, we all tend to be the good guys in our own stories. If something bad happens, it’s a natural tendency to blame the other person.

It’s funny how memory works this way, too. I discovered yesterday that my husband’s view of the events that led to me moving here are quite different from how I remember them. His view is much less flattering toward me than the nearly-heroic way I saw myself. Ultimately, that’s now inconsequential because we decided years ago to move on from the unchangeable past. But there were definitely times when our different perceptions of the same event were a huge roadblock to understanding each other.

I’m working hard on the need to let go of being right. Because the truth is that being right is just ego. If you can prove yourself right but you damage a relationship in the process, was it really worth the win?

In reality, because we all see events from our own unique perspectives, it’s often difficult to determine one definitive “right” answer anyway. Sure, if it’s a matter of fact, like whether or not something existed, that can be proven. Perhaps the better question is why it needs to be proven and at what cost. But if it’s a matter of differing perspectives or opinions, you can’t really prove yourself right.

The other side of that coin, however, is that the need to be right can be a defense mechanism built up after years of having your reality questioned. Or more accurately, having someone tell you that you can’t trust your own perceptions, that you might not feel what you think you feel. Having someone invalidate your reality is one of the biggest mindfucks there is. I experienced it for the vast majority of my life.

It’s extremely hard to come back from that and say that you don’t need to be right. When you’ve been taught to distrust yourself, proving yourself right feels like self-defense, like you have to fight for your right to have your own views and perceptions.

But ultimately, we’re all still rulers of our own little one-person kingdoms. No matter how much you love and need the people around you, in the end you are really all that you have. So you have to learn to like yourself, to be comfortable alone, to be resilient and capable of figuring things out on your own.

If you’re always depending on other people to help you, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling disappointed. People will always let you down, even if they don’t mean to. They can’t read your mind and they give you the most they have to offer. Almost always, you’ll reach a point where people can only help so much, and then you have to take it from there and rely on yourself. Trying to take care of one’s own self is hard enough without also carrying the emotional responsibility for fixing someone else.

I have been working hard to learn to trust myself and to rely on myself. It’s funny that relying on myself feels less scary as my confidence in myself increases.

At the same time, change is a slow process. I can accept myself more than I did before but I still have bad days. My biggest challenge is learning that it’s not my job to fix other people. That’s potentially problematic given what I want to do as a career. Since I want to be a counselor or social worker in some capacity, I need to continue working on developing boundaries (to reference my last post.)

Because ultimately, feeling responsible for fixing other people isn’t healthy, especially when they don’t want the help. I beat my head against the figurative wall repeatedly for years, trying to fix the same person. I saw so much potential in this person but they did not want to change. It was frustrating and hard to see their frequent pain in reaction to having so many crises and making so little effort to change that.

When you feel others’ pain intensely, you naturally want to help them avoid feeling that pain again. But that’s not your job; that’s your ego. Thinking that you can help other people learn lessons before they’re ready is a sign of one unhealthy helper-type person.

The reason I call myself “conflict girl” is because I always see things from multiple angles and perspectives. On the one hand, I think that will make me an excellent fit for the counseling field. I recognize that other people can arrive at completely different conclusions from mine and still be right because of all the factors that went into their side of the story. (At least, I can do that as an outside observer. It’s a lot harder in personal relationships, though I’ve made a lot of progress on that, too.)

Nobody’s definitively right or wrong, yet everybody is, depending on your perspective. But on the other hand, I have to keep developing a stronger sense of self so that I don’t have as much invested in needing to be right. Needing to be right inevitably means someone also has to be wrong, putting the “right” person above the other. The goal is to get ego out of the way and be okay with yourself, even if people think untrue things about you.

I also need to keep working on meditation and prayer and journaling to keep my ego in check. To confidently stand in my truth while not needing to be right about things of which I’m certain.

I need to learn how to be healthy and whole and I keep working toward that goal. I’m much better than I was five years ago, let alone ten or twenty years ago. I hope I’ll be able to say the same five more years from now.

Setting boundaries

I suck at many aspects of setting boundaries. Typically, if someone’s behavior bothers me, I’m more likely to just distance myself from them than to establish that imaginary fence of boundaries.

Setting boundaries requires effort because they will inevitably be challenged and you have to deal with the fallout if people don’t react well to them. When you grow up in an environment where you don’t see people having appropriate boundaries, it’s scary to think of standing up for yourself because you think you’ll lose people.

My failure to set boundaries hurt a lot of my relationships. I saw it most in a couple of friendships and in my relationship with my mom. I had a couple friends over the years who wanted me to be available to them 24/7. I know it’s very reasonable to set limits on your time and not respond to every issue. But I couldn’t stick up for myself and say that.

With my mom, it was really bad early in my marriage. She would often try to guilt-trip me into doing things I didn’t want to do. Or she’d call me, wanting to fight, saying that the whole family agreed with her that I was an ungrateful brat.

I felt like I couldn’t win with my parents because it was never clear what was expected of me, they just told me what I was doing wrong. That’s an area where we all would have benefited from some healthy and appropriate boundaries and some open communication.

I’d sometimes try to set some boundaries–like when my best friend at the time was calling me 5 or 6 times a day while I was working in an office on the Dow breast implant lawsuits. That was not an environment where personal calls were really permitted unless it was an emergency. I tried to tell her the calls were too much. But when I got some pushback, I dropped it–and eventually her, too.

From a string of bad dating experiences in high school where I let myself get pressured into sexual things I didn’t want to do, to not standing up for myself when my oldest child was very hurtful to me, it’s clear all over the place that I needed to set and enforce boundaries. Boundaries can solve a lot of problems. The absence of them creates problems.

Yet setting boundaries often doesn’t feel good. The people you need to establish boundaries with are often the very same people who react badly to them. That’s usually because your relationship has a dynamic where one person behaves badly and the other one just takes it. When you flip the script, it often goes poorly.

But this goes both ways. Being a person with poor boundaries doesn’t just mean I let people push me around; it also means that I’ve been prone to pushing others around at times in the past. When that’s the only model you’ve ever really seen for wielding power, your views get kinda skewed.

I realize that people have set boundaries with me as well when I was being too needy or annoying. They were much needed boundaries, even if I didn’t like them.

The harder part is realizing that I had a big part in the ending of many friendships because of my lack of boundaries. Just as I found it easier to walk away from people than set boundaries with them, I can guess that people likely did the same with me.

Nobody wants to be that obnoxious person who’s hard to be friends with. But sometimes we are that obnoxious person, especially if we haven’t even acknowledged our problems (let alone tried to heal from them.)

So I’m working on getting better. In recent years, when I’ve had things that felt like crises, I’ve worked on dealing with more of them on my own. When I do reach out to someone, I keep my complaints more limited in intensity and duration than I used to.

I’ve figured out that just because something feels like an emergency to me, it doesn’t mean others will see it the same way. The fact that they don’t see my emergency as their emergency to deal with doesn’t mean they’re not my friend. It means they have healthy boundaries.

Even people who deeply care about you can get burned out of supporting you through constant crises. Eventually you either need to stop having so many crises or to realize that other people can’t solve them for you.

I’m learning to keep my emotions calmer than they used to be. That’s been a process I’ve worked on for at least a couple years and is still ongoing. I can tell I’m getting better, but I can also tell I’ll still be working on it for a long time.

I used to think these things were like an on/off switch: that as soon as you decided to change, everything was instantly all good, forever. The people you pissed off before would come running back. The people in your life who needed boundaries would automatically respect them.

But the truth is that it’s more of a gradual unfolding. Setting boundaries requires first believing that you have the right to have them. Tolerating behaviors that you said you wouldn’t usually means you don’t feel you have the right to enforce them.

Or you think that people will leave you if you set boundaries with them. And for sure, some people will leave rather than change their behavior. But the ones who don’t leave are the ones who truly respect you or are willing to work on it with you.

You can’t undo the past. You can’t fix all relationships that were damaged by a lack of boundaries, yours or theirs. If you were the one who didn’t respect boundaries (as I have been at times in the past), you don’t necessarily get to have a relationship with them again.

The challenge is to learn from that so it doesn’t happen again in all your relationships. To get over your defensiveness and moderate your reactions to distress. To realize that if you set boundaries with someone or they set them with you, it doesn’t mean they dislike you or vice-versa.

But some of us weren’t brought up knowing how to do this. Many of us weren’t raised with any kind of emotional intelligence and are trying to figure it out now. We don’t want to be toxic people even if we acknowledge having some toxic traits. It’s really the commitment to keep getting better that counts; not just saying words but doing the work to respond well to boundaries and having the self-respect to set them.

Even if what you learned was screwed up, the only true failure is refusal to change.