Therapy is a form of self-care

My oldest has been going to therapy for a few months and has had a great experience with it so far and says everybody needs therapy. He’s paying out of his own pocket to see an out-of-network provider and I can see that it’s already helping him, especially with anxiety.

I haven’t previously had great experiences with therapists, but considering that it’s one of my top two possible future career paths, I still believe in the value of the field.

So now I have to put my money where my mouth is, except not really. We’ve met our maximum out-of-pocket already for the year and everything in-network is covered at 100 percent now. My insurance actually covers therapy; our previous insurances for more than a decade had not. The specific psychologist I want to see is actually in network, which means I have no valid reason not to go.

Since we’ve hit our max out of pocket for the year, I’m also doing something that scares me a lot: going to see a cardiologist again. My mom had her heart attack at just eight years older than I am now and I’m afraid of finding out how much I’m at risk. I’m afraid of having to make changes. But I’m more afraid of having a heart attack, so I’m not running away from it anymore.

The thing that’s weird about seeking therapy now, though, is that this is the first time I will have ever seen a therapist when I wasn’t depressed or in a crisis.

My depression is well-managed by medication. I’ve trained my brain enough that I don’t often feel anxiety or have panic attacks like I once did. I’m already working so much on trying to become a better person and establish boundaries and keep my emotions under control.

In fact, before I called my insurance to find out if the out-of-pocket maximum applied to mental health providers, I had decided maybe I’d be fine without it if it wasn’t covered.

But it is, so I literally have no good reason to avoid it. And I want to keep working on myself. Going to therapy is strictly an act of self-care.

And really, even though I’m not depressed or in crisis and all my relationships are good, I can still come up with things to talk about.

Like the fact that my husband has cancer.

Like the fact that I’m officially disabled and that means I may have to put some of my dreams permanently on the shelf.

Like the fact that my kids are all adults or nearly so and I don’t know how I’ll adjust to the fact that my primary role of the past 21 years is slowing down.

Like the fact that I still miss my friend even though I was right to walk away.

Like the fact that I have a career that keeps me isolated but my health leaves me few alternatives.

Like some issues from my upbringing that are still affecting me even if I’ve acknowledged them.

I’m sure I’ll find things to discuss and I’m sure I’ll benefit from it. Even therapists go to therapy themselves and they know a lot more about how to fix themselves than I do.

Just because I’m not in crisis doesn’t mean I have an excuse to avoid it. In fact, I’m actually looking at it as something I’m doing for self-care. I’ve also been invited by a friend to go to yoga and I think I’m going to do that, too. Self-care isn’t bubble baths and pedicures; it’s doing things that are good for you even if they’re not necessarily easy.

It’s about believing that you have a right to pursue things that better yourself, even if it inconveniences others. Especially as mothers, we’re taught to put ourselves last. Putting myself first feels so selfish, even though I know my family will benefit from me being my best. The fact is that I’m not as needed as much as I think I am, and that’s ultimately a good thing. Surely they can spare me a few hours a week.

It’s all about wanting to be the best version of myself that I can be. Even if it challenges me, even if it pushes me outside my comfort zone, I have to do stuff that’s healthy for me.

Now I just have to keep telling myself I believe that and not look for excuses to opt out. It’s sometimes hard to believe I have a right to do things just for myself. I think that’s another topic for therapy, too.

A love story

When I first got married, my mom told me she hoped that I would have a lifelong fairytale romance.

At the time, I found that kind of unrealistic. I was 20 and my husband was 21 when we got married. We were best friends above all else with a phenomenal connection and I knew I needed him in my life forever. But I was never the little girl who dreamed of a fairytale wedding, straight out of Disney. In fact, I didn’t dream of my wedding day at all. And when we got married, my husband wasn’t particularly romantic and the way we came to the decision to marry ranks up there among the least romantic marriage proposals of all time.

We both had a lot of growing up to do when we got married. He was wary of marriage, a child of divorce who didn’t really have a positive model of marriage. I came from two parents who had been seemingly happily married for 20 years but didn’t show me much about how their marriage worked.

We also both had gigantic chips on our shoulders about the way we had been raised and life in general. Mine was particularly huge; I was so angry with my parents that it was beyond irrational. It shocks me now to think that I was ever that angry. We moved 1300 miles away from our families right after getting married and I often think that distance from family and the legal piece of paper kept us together in the first few years. We were both fairly selfish and immature; I would say I was more so than him.

For us, it was that deep friendship and easy companionship that kept us together. Fortunately, we waited four years to have our first child because neither of us would have been good parents before that. When we did have kids, he went into hyper-responsibility mode by working a lot because that was the example his stepdad had given him. I was profoundly depressed after the birth of my first child, something that didn’t let up for years, made worse because I was so alone with my husband working so much.

We never were the angry, name-calling, plate-smashing kind of couple, even at our worst. Instead, we were more likely to have only cursory interactions, burying our dissatisfactions deep within ourselves, sometimes sniping at each other under stress.

But in the intervening years, our mutual loyalty to each other grew into a deep love. After he revealed his longtime porn addiction three years ago, he worked on facing his own inner demons. His method for transformation was through his Catholic faith. I didn’t share the faith but learned to be grateful that it helped him so much.

Although the revelation of his hidden addiction explained so much about our marriage up until that point, it was one of the most painful things I ever went through. But it also strengthened us more than anything else. He had always worked hard to provide for our family and we had always been close and we enjoyed spending time together.

But after the total honesty on his part, he also changed and became the kind of fairytale husband I never dared to dream of. He started showing that he deeply valued me and calling me his beautiful bride, which he had never said before. I often briefly wake up to him kissing my forehead when he gets up to get ready for work. He sends occasional random texts saying I’m the best thing that ever happened to him.

He even gave me a cute nickname, his “little bird”, loosely taken from Matthew 6:26, the Bible verse about birds not needing to worry about how they’ll be fed because God will meet their needs. He gave me that nickname because I used to always be so worried and it was a reminder not to worry because everything would be okay. It may sound silly, but in doing so, it helped me work to overcome my anxiety (specifically about money.) Now its a nickname that doesn’t really apply to my anxiety anymore but still makes me feel treasured and cared for.

Once I started working on my issues, I came to love him as affectionately and deeply as he loved me. It’s true what people say: you have to start to love yourself before you can truly love others. He was part of how I learned to love myself, though learning to love myself is an ongoing process.

And I started working on how to be truly respectful of him, something I admit I didn’t always understand. Now I wouldn’t dream of wanting to criticize him or say something sarcastic about him or make a joke at his expense anymore, but unfortunately that wasn’t always the case. I started to really look at how I was treating him, which was less than it could have been.

It’s funny in a way because we had always had a pretty good marriage. We were two very imperfect people who nonetheless saw enough good in each other that we were able to be best friends and constant companions, even in the times when we were each too broken to understand what love really was and how deep it could go.

I don’t know what other people’s marriages are like enough to know if we just finally caught up to where other people start, or if what we have is rare. What I do know is that we both became completely vulnerable to each other as a result of working on ourselves and that transformed a best friendship into a deep, fulfilling, irreplaceable love. I guess in the end, my mom’s wish for me ended up coming true after all.

“It’s like a long book that you never want to end” – Pam Halpert in “The Office” finale, about her romance with her husband Jim

 

Jealousy, judgment, and the real reason friendships end

No one tells you that ending a close friendship will haunt you for so long, even if you initiated it for the sake of your health and know it was the right thing to do.

I think everybody has some jealousy of others. It’s a normal human emotion that can only be overcome with a lot of work on yourself. Admitting your jealousies does not mean that you can’t get past them or that you hold resentments against another person. Instead, admitting jealousy is just being open about it. You can only work through the things you acknowledge. Pretending you don’t have any jealousies means they go unaddressed.

Similarly, I think everyone is a little bit judgmental in their own way. I’ve lost friends who were very open-minded about sexuality but super judgmental about people going to church, for example. Again, it’s a normal and common human trait to judge. It can be overcome with a lot of effort or peace with yourself but it’s not easy.

My religious struggles have always been within myself, as I tried to work out what I believed. I never pushed religion on anyone in the slightest. How could I, when I wasn’t sure what I believed myself? It was just one place I sought answers and ultimately didn’t find them there, anyway.

I always believe people can change but sometimes it’s not enough. You don’t owe anyone endless chances if they’re bad for you. I had to let a friend go last year, not because I was jealous or judgmental of her, and not because I wasn’t giving her a chance to change. And I still miss her anyway.

Though I suppose maybe that was true that I was done waiting for her to change, but it wasn’t for the reasons she thought. It was completely about not seeing much change in her drama and anger. My husband pointed out that she was the only friend I was consistently scared to see, which isn’t supposed to be part of friendships. But it was her anger that scared me away, not my jealousy or insecurity.

I had to protect myself. I was frequently abandoned (or outright attacked, in the case of when I moved down here) when I most needed a friend. If something really good happened to me, she was extremely jealous and usually used that time to attack.

She frequently had crises that she needed to work through with someone immediately and I was always there. It was the intensity and urgency of her reactions that made it more than just being a listening ear. Responding to it made me feel stressed out. It was taking a toll on my mental and physical health. I have tendencies of trying to be the rescuer and I fell into that role too often. That was my issue and I couldn’t resolve it in a friendship with her.

It wasn’t just the frequent crises that made me decide to cut it off, though, because we had been friends for almost 20 years. It’s that I never knew when she would blow up and attack me with messages upon messages calling me names and accusing me of things that weren’t true. I needed to see progress made toward emotional stability and self-awareness on her part and I just wasn’t seeing the effort.

We also talked a lot about our various health problems (I joined in with my own, which I admit), which made me feel sicker and more scared of my health. I complained more and felt more miserable because our conversations were so focused on it.

But she said I wasn’t being honest when I wrote here that we just grew apart. At the time, I said we were just too different. And that was the truth: I always struggled to keep conversations going that weren’t about our problems because our interests were too different. All that was true and I was just trying to be mature in saying no one was to blame.

Still, she was right that I had other reasons I wasn’t talking about. It wasn’t because I was jealous of her privileged upbringing, like she believed. I just had enough of her being angry and constantly in crisis mode. But there was no point in telling her that because she was too angry to really listen to me.

Almost 20 years and it was still the same. I was just done. And once I’m done with someone that’s usually final.

I am trying hard to change and improve myself. I examine myself and my motives a lot, which isn’t always easy. I’m trying to get in touch with my own feelings. A lot of people who know me well say they can tell that I’m changing and that my moods are more stable. I have to keep working on that because my first priority is myself and trying to be a better person. I have relatively few close friends, but they’re people I trust and our conversations aren’t shallow or focused on complaining.

I was always the first to apologize after our huge blowout fights, some months later whenever I missed her. But I can’t this time and I don’t think she’ll ever do it herself either. I don’t know if she even does regret how she went off on me. She said I wasn’t letting her change, but the fact that she went off on me like she did was proof that she hadn’t changed. Her explosive anger has always been my biggest issue with her.

I still love her and miss her but I have to prioritize myself. If someone makes me feel worse rather than better, I can’t have that in my life, especially right now. I’m pretty tough and can get through things without a crowd of friends; I often process things better that way. To be honest, I can’t imagine she would offer much comfort as my husband is going through chemo, the scariest time of my life.

I wish she had learned to control her rage and didn’t always resort to using things I told her against me, but I hope that someday she will change those things for the sake of others in her life. It would’ve been nice if the friendship wasn’t so lopsided with me always doing more for her than she did for me, too. But I don’t think that will happen and it’s sometimes hard to let go.

I doubt she’ll ever apologize to me for the torrent of abuse she unleashed on me last year, though I would welcome it. But for all I know, she still thinks I wronged her. But I have to prioritize my own health and if something is bad for it, I have to focus on my own healing first. Even if that means letting go of someone I love. I finally gave myself closure.

Balance and self-care

As we come to terms with my husband’s cancer, and to a lesser degree, my disability for my progressive illness, one thing has become painfully clear: my husband and I both suck at self-care. Our entire lifestyle was centered around poor self-care.

We each failed to find balance in our own ways, though we were both prone to overwork. One thing my middle child says often is that he learned from us what not to do, because neither my husband nor I have been really good at just sitting still and taking time for leisure. My son would rather have a low-paying job and more time for himself than pursue a high-pressure career.

On the one hand, his view of our lifestyle as a warning also means he is the least concerned with success out of his siblings. And while he’s really stepped up with helping the household and never missed a day of work when he had a seasonal job last fall, he probably has the weakest work ethic of all our kids. But he’s also the most relaxed.

It’s definitely one of those messages you don’t realize you’re sending until you see the results of it, but it’s now pretty clear to all of us. Working hard is important, absolutely. But failure to seek balance is also not only a bad thing, it might be actually detrimental to your health.

Does that mean I blame overwork and inadequate self-care for my MS or for my husband’s cancer? No, of course not. I’ve had MS symptoms for 18 years (even though I only got diagnosed 6 years ago) and my husband has a long family history of cancer.

At the same time, I think our lack of self-care and balance was so extreme that it was like tossing a match in a very dry forest.

It wasn’t that we had bad habits like smoking (which we did, but gave up years ago) or heavy drinking. No, our issue was the same that many people have: the glorification of being busy.

We’d stay up way too late, not prioritizing sleep. My husband used to frequently say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” which now takes on a much more ominous tone. I’ve known very few people who push themselves quite as hard as he did. It was how he was raised and he took his responsibilities to me and the kids very seriously, so taking care of himself was way down on the priority list.

While my requirement for more sleep than I wanted to get was one of the most obvious symptoms of my MS, I still tried to push beyond it for years. I had bad habits (particularly of not getting enough sleep) that were harming me and I had to give them up. It hasn’t been easy.

I also had been that way for years. Even when I was 16, I had a full-time nanny job in the summer and worked part-time at a restaurant. I didn’t see anything wrong with that and my parents endorsed it, even though I was working 60-70 hours a week.

I still don’t know how I managed to get through even two months of a full-time job last year because I was constantly extremely sleep-deprived. I was still freelancing on the side, too, so I’d come home from work exhausted, take a nap, then write articles.

Right before my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I was still thinking I could be a full-time grad student and part-time freelance writer, despite not having anywhere near that many usable hours in a day anymore. I was still ignoring my limitations and thinking I could push myself harder.

And yet, even now, I still look at the people I know who claim they function great on four hours’ sleep a night with admiration and awe, rarely stopping to think that they might be full of shit. But it’s hard to break that decades-long habit of shortchanging myself.

Look at our culture, at how we are likely to brag about how little sleep we got, how much coffee we’re consuming, how few days we took off, how little we’re taking care of ourselves. It’s almost like a very twisted competition we voluntarily signed up for, in which rest means you lose.

When was the last time you heard a conversation where people were talking about how well they take care of themselves? I know that in my workplace experiences in recent years, people bragged about how little they slept, how much they worked, how much alcohol they drank.

Cancer has made rest a necessary part of our lives now. My husband’s in bed at a good time every night and naps whenever he needs it. I nap whenever I need it, too, though I still often resent needing to do it.

We’re learning to change our default habits. Now it’s about saying that getting enough sleep just isn’t optional anymore. For me, it’s that a very hot summer means I need more sleep to counteract the effects. It’s about saying no to that less healthy but more convenient dinner and opting for something with more vegetables. It’s about saying that sorry, two hours of shopping is our physical limit. It’s about making the kids pitch in with housework a bit more instead of doing it all by ourselves as a default.

Sometimes it’s even about just sitting and reading a book. Not because we’re taking a class or trying to study for some certification, but just because it’s okay to have a little bit of leisure time.

It’s a hard change to make and we’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. But finding some balance is no longer optional. I’m starting to think it might literally be a matter of life or death.

Anxiety, religion, and finding calm

I was reading through some of my old blog entries and noticed that it’s now been almost six months or so since I stopped forcing the issue of religion at all and accepted that it’s just not for me.

The part I realized that surprised me: I found the freedom from anxiety and peace that I was always seeking from religion–but I found it within myself.

Perhaps ironically, it was getting a very Catholic tattoo of the Miraculous Medal that was the turning point. It led to me finally giving up on the tortured struggle I’d been putting myself through for nine years.

When I gave myself permission to let go of trying so hard to believe something that I mostly didn’t that I shifted my focus to developing my own sense of inner peace. I do have a pretty strong sense of my true self and the reason for the years-long religious struggle was because I was fighting against what I really believed.

I don’t have anything against people who choose to believe. I think that it’s really childish to look down on people just because they’re Christian. But as much as I wish I could be a devout believer of an organized religion, I’m just not–that’s not the way I’m wired. I still have a few Catholic practices and sacramentals around my home because that’s a largely cultural thing that brings me some comfort.

But I had a really interesting revelation yesterday. I realized that even though I have moments when I’m scared of my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I am also calm about it.

That doesn’t mean that I never acknowledge the potential gravity of the situation. That doesn’t mean I never cry about it. I don’t even know that I can adequately explain the difference, other than to say that my reaction is free of the anxiety and panic it would have caused in me a year or two ago.

I don’t think it’s because of the medication I’m taking, although I’m sure that doesn’t hurt. In truth, my medication helps my depression. But I had to retrain my brain to fix my anxiety.

Somewhere along the way, I learned that my anxiety was almost always an over-reaction to things that hadn’t happened yet. I let my thoughts of “what if” run away from me, which kept me in an almost perpetual state of panic. Even if I wasn’t in panic mode, it took almost nothing to get me there.

My oldest, who also deals with anxiety and is seeing a therapist (about which I’m SO proud), often talked with me about our mutual tendencies toward what we called catastrophizing. We both had habits — which I’m sure he learned from me, in addition to sharing a genetic component — of assessing a situation and assuming the worst possible outcome, despite a lack of evidence.

We started to gently point it out to each other when the other was doing it. Like most cognitive distortions, I’ve learned that it’s often a habit that can be unlearned with some consistent effort. He has also made a lot of progress.

How you react to anxiety–whether your own or others’–either amplifies it or defuses it. If I overreacted to his anxiety (which I sometimes did in a misguided effort to validate him), I actually gave him more reason to believe that anxiety was a justified reaction.

Being mostly free of the anxiety that was once almost crippling is giving me the sense of peace within myself that I always wanted to find in religion.

But because I’ve also started to honor my true self, I’m no longer bothered by other people’s practice of religion. My husband finds Catholicism very helpful and comforting to him, especially as he’s going through chemo and cancer. I’m fully supportive of him doing what brings him peace. Sometimes I wish it also brought me the same peace, but I no longer beat myself up over the fact that it doesn’t.

I’m grateful that I started doing this work on myself. Really, it started more than a year ago, when I realized I was better off with a much smaller circle so I could focus on healing than to be around people who were actively discouraging it. I’ve read elsewhere that when you want to work on healing yourself, you won’t be able to bring everybody with you. But I at least hope that someday they too will do the same work.

The cool thing is that as you grow, your feeling of peace gets stronger. You discover that you are indeed strong enough to handle things like being permanently disabled with a progressive illness and a husband with cancer. Because your peace is inside you, it never leaves.

All those corny things you read about becoming your own best friend are true. It changes all your closest relationships, too: you just deeply appreciate all of them in a way you couldn’t before. You no longer feel desperate and needy but more like they complement you. If I’ve made this much progress in less than a year, I’m excited to see how things will change with more time. How I’ll react if true disasters do happen.

But so far, my husband’s cancer is the biggest test of my anxiety-management skills. And other than a few scary moments, I really do feel calm and at peace.

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.

Nature vs medicine

I saw that someone recently read one of my old posts. Whenever I see that people have done that, I like to go back and reread what I wrote before and reflect on it.

In the post, I was wondering if I really needed disability and if my symptoms would go away if I got off all medications and started exercising more. The truth is not quite that simple.

I’ve discovered that the most important factor is actually sleep (or lack thereof.) When I have jobs with standard office hours, that’s so contrary to my natural body clock that it causes my insomnia. I get anxious that I won’t wake up on time and that anxiety reaches a point where it’s so strong that even sleeping pills won’t override it. Voila: no sleep and the whole cycle of pain and fatigue begins again or gets worse.

I’ve tried to change my schedule to no avail; I’ve been this way since I was a young kid. I could resolve it with a job that works on almost any other schedule, but few other schedules pay well (unless they’re in fields I can’t do) and it takes away time I usually spend with the family. Not sure how to address that.

But the medication question is something else entirely. For me, I realize that the question isn’t nature vs. medication, as though those are the only two choices. I just needed to be on different medications.

First of all, I had to stop taking so many muscle relaxers. They were too sedating. True, I have quite a bit more pain in my legs now. But I’m learning to work around it. I suffer but in a way that has a worthwhile trade-off.

But I also had to start taking new medications. I’m probably not taking any fewer meds than I was before. I feel vaguely ashamed of that, like I wouldn’t need any meds if I were determined enough. However, the truth isn’t like that for me.

My disease-modifying drug Tecfidera works by reducing inflammation, which means that it makes me better in itself. My brain is already much clearer and less foggy after only a month on it. My cognitive symptoms are better, though that benefit disappears if I don’t get enough sleep.

I finally have medication that’s effectively treating my depression, which has been extremely rare in my past experience. But this drug cocktail (which includes both an antidepressant and low doses of two other drugs, including one for my seizures) seems to work well together.

As a result, I can finally do the exercise I need. The exercise does help. But at this point, I can only exercise as much as I do (walking about 25-30 miles a week) because of my medications. I was too depressed to do so before, even though I wanted to do it.

I also still take a handful of other supplements that are supposed to help MS, like high-dose Vitamin D, biotin, and B12. I see that all these things work together.

I’m working on other things to help as well: meditation/prayer, journaling, setting goals. I try to keep my stress low and get enough sleep. And I’m also trying to cut out junk food and eat more fruits and veggies.

I find that feeling well isn’t just about taking pills and then doing nothing else to get better. I can’t get better with just the pills alone.

I realize how much the natural health camp has influenced me because I feel incredibly guilty for taking meds. Like I took a cop-out because I was too lazy to do things the hard way. But in truth, the only thing that matters is that I can do the right stuff now.

And for better or worse, I need the pills to do well enough that I can take it from there. Trying to get well when I was so mentally foggy and fatigued, before I took the meds, was like trying to run if someone throws a heavy blanket over your head and you can’t see anything or move freely.

Does this mean I don’t really need disability? That remains to be seen. I’d still greatly love to work and to go back to grad school. But I don’t know yet if I can. I’m just glad that I’m starting to feel a bit less miserable.

Borderline personality secrets

I think I’m more likely to use my masters degree in a social work or rehab setting than as strictly as a private personal therapist. That said, though, I’ve come up with some thoughts about borderline personality disorder based on all my research about it, people I’ve known with it, and traits in myself.

First of all, the label is really useless. As evidenced by the fictional portrayal on “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” knowing that one has been given the label can cause despair…especially if you go online and research it. Everything you read about it says it’s supposedly so incurable.

I disagree. Maybe I’m overly naive because I never met enough of the criteria to be officially diagnosed with it, but I had a couple traits. And what I have to say is that it’s a battle with yourself, definitely. But it’s one that I believe can be won if you put in consistent effort.

You have to be willing to examine yourself and your behavior. That can be painful, especially if you unintentionally hurt people. Here’s what I do know for sure about that: hurt people hurt people. Scratch the surface of someone who’s angry and difficult to be around and there’s almost always some kind of trauma.

That doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to that behavior in someone else. If it’s destructive to you, know that they’re the only ones who can fix themselves. If you’re a “fixer” or “problem solver” type like I am, well, I see a lot of pain in your future until you can get some distance. You can’t and shouldn’t try to fix anyone else, especially at the expense of yourself.

At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean the person who’s been labeled “borderline” or has the behaviors is unfixable. It’s just an inside job that only the person can do for themselves.

The place to start is learning to moderate your emotional reactions. I know that when you’re coming from a place of intense pain, the idea that you can control that feeling sounds laughable. But it’s true, and with a combination of meditation and journaling and specific Dialectical Behavioral Therapy exercises, you can reduce the intensity of your experiences.

I know a lot of people with these issues feel that being told they can change their reactions is a failure to be truly accepted as they are. But it’s actually the opposite because it’s a form of self-love to realize that the approval you’re so desperately seeking is within you. The one who’s in pain has to accept themselves. Once they do, they realize that the intensity of their emotions is not who they are as a person.

But the thing is that you can’t make anybody change until they’re ready, and I believe that’s what is at the root of why borderline and other personality disorders are said to be untreatable. People have to want treatment. You have to be willing to give up the extreme highs if you also want to stop experiencing the extreme lows. That doesn’t mean things will become boring. But I know that some of the borderline people I’ve known did indeed think stability would be boring.

The other thing you have to do if you really want to heal from these issues is to stop being afraid to face pain. Particularly for people who have faced significant pain or trauma, they often fear that all suffering will feel as bad as their worst moments. That’s usually not true. But even to the extent that it might be, when you’re facing it with the goal of eliminating it, it’s a more controlled environment. The pain has a purpose and is shorter-lived.

Sadly I don’t think there’s any way to get better without being willing to face your pain and without the willingness to give up the extreme highs. I know the extreme highs can feel really good. That heightened state of passion and euphoria feels like a drug. But like any drug, you have to come down. You can’t seek a constant high.

Everything in nature seeks balance. That’s why if you have extremely high feelings of euphoria, you’ll also have to have devastating lows to balance it out. The pendulum always swings back.

But when you seek balance and seek calm, you don’t get as far from center. That doesn’t mean you don’t ever have moments of either happiness or sadness. Just that when you have one, you don’t have to brace for the extreme backlash to follow.

I believe that nearly everyone is fixable. The question is, do they really want to do what it takes to be fixed?

Complex PTSD, borderline personality disorder and the value of labels

Sometimes labels are good and necessary if they can help us find the right treatment. But I’m also not entirely sure they’re helpful, either, and may be overused.

I’ve read a lot about the link between Complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and how the difference between the two can be complicated even for therapists to distinguish.

My husband often thinks that my interest in the topic of personality disorders is unhealthy, especially since I’m so often trying to diagnose myself with one. I can kind of see his point.

The truth is that aspects of my childhood were pretty fucked up. I have since made peace with and forgiven my parents because I now understand that they were doing the best they knew how and didn’t intend to hurt me. At the same time, that forgiveness doesn’t erase the fact that some things I experienced did hurt me in lasting ways.

Socially, my environment was even worse. Being one of the brightest but poorest kids in a wealthy magnet school exposed me to a lot of bullying. I very definitely have complex PTSD from that, no questions about it.

These things are now my issues to heal from. Blaming people won’t fix me. Recognizing where my struggles came from just points me in a direction for healing.

My meeting with the neuropsychologist last week was also very enlightening. He said that given my verbal IQ, if I’d had a more nurturing home environment and my talents were allowed to bloom at school (rather than being the reason for my bullying, causing me to hide them), I likely would have grown up to become very professionally successful. He said that I had a very strong core capability that, properly developed, would have enabled me to earn graduate degrees and have a career that used them.

The ironic thing is that I wanted to be a doctor when my oldest child was a baby, but I thought I was too old to get started at 24. (Ha!) I still regret that I didn’t do it; I would’ve been good at it. And I have a theory that my MS wouldn’t have required me to stop working if I had gone that route.

When I went back to finish my degree, I graduated magna cum laude and I very definitely wanted to go on to even earn a doctorate. I never intended to stop at a bachelor’s degree but I did. That now leaves me with what all of my kids see as a “useless degree,” a cautionary tale rather than an achievement.

But the opportunities for grad school just weren’t there. Not where we lived at the time and it would have taken a Herculean effort to relocate for school with a husband, three kids, and no money. My husband and I talked about this extensively at the time. It was a dream I had to consciously give up.

And my brain was already so used to the cycle of trying and getting defeated that I couldn’t overcome it at that point.

Graduating college with a 3.76 and thinking I’d go on to graduate school and a great career got my hopes up. Being stuck in that crappy town and not being able to get any job until I got in part-time at Starbucks 8 months after graduation was par for the course of my life. The success in school was the anomaly.

It’s really clear why I’m depressed. Maybe I truly have had dysthymia/”persistent depressive disorder” since kindergarten. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that needs to be drugged all to hell until I can’t feel anything anymore.

Maybe I have a personality disorder because I need a lot of reassurance and fear rejection and I just really want to be liked but expect that I won’t be.

Or maybe it’s that I was a plant potted in hostile soil, trying hard to bloom and flourish in spite of where I was and what I was up against.

Getting back down here to Texas where there are more job opportunities was part of my perpetual effort to keep getting back up and trying again. I went really big that time. I had some crucial help from friends, but like college, it was also a time where I put in a huge amount of effort to achieve a goal.

Yet somehow I wound up back at home again with a low-paying patchwork “job” that I didn’t want. Just like in the place I left.

Up until my horrific MS relapse in August 2017, I was still trying to rebuild. I still had hope that I could do something with my life that mattered. I got my acceptance into a Masters of Social Work program while I was lying in the hospital. I obviously had to turn it down. At first, I thought I was just postponing it, but now it’s pretty clear that I’m not going back.

The degree of memory loss this disease has caused me has pretty firmly nailed shut the doors to grad school and all my career plans.

If I’m depressed, is that really biochemical? Or am I just still in mourning? Things were always hard, ever since I was a young kid. And I always kept getting back up, heroically trying anyway. Fighting against whatever harsh circumstances I was put into. And it doesn’t look like that will change for me anytime soon.

So bringing this back to the topic at hand: does it really matter what label you give to someone with mental illness? You may see the outward manifestation of it and that might be very disruptive and unpleasant. But if you scratch the surface, there’s almost always some type of unhealed trauma. There’s almost always some other explanation.

In earlier generations, there was less awareness of personality disorders. Anais Nin, for example, is a textbook case of histrionic personality disorder. She was manipulative and selfish and thought her diaries were fascinating just because they were her thoughts. She cheated on people repeatedly, even being married to two men at once. Her incestuous relationship with her father was clearly the trauma that explained why her behavior was so destructive to others. But back then, they just said she was “eccentric” and “libertine.”

The grandfather I knew who had now-obvious undiagnosed and untreated PTSD upon returning from the war just terrorized his family. They didn’t know what PTSD was back then. There wasn’t any psychological support for him or his family. It just was what it was and they just tried to cope.

I don’t actually think any more people have personality disorders now than they did before. (I do think that certain things in our modern culture celebrate traits that could be called narcissistic, though. Selfie culture is normalized but not healthy.)

We do have more depression now, in part because our social support networks have all eroded. And because the internet (lovely, lovely internet…) has made it easier to be isolated and have hundreds of “friends” we may never meet.

But I believe the same basic traits have always been present in society. There have always been people who jumped from one relationship to another in short succession, but now we might look for other coexisting traits so we can assign a label like borderline personality disorder. It’s still considered largely incurable, so what is the point of the label?

We don’t have more personality-disordered people now. We’ve just come up with ways to classify people who have always existed. The people who could be defined as having these “disorders” always thought they were fine the way they were before. Even if their traits made their lives harder and caused pain to their loved ones, it was just who they were. In that regard, most people with so-called personality disorders haven’t changed much. The people who don’t want help won’t seek it out.

But the worst thing is seeing any of these traits in yourself and wanting to get rid of them. Sometimes all that requires is time to grow up and mature a little bit. But sometimes it also needs therapy, lots and lots of therapy. And this society’s mental health fabric is absolute shit, so only people with enough disposable income will get the help they need. And the rest of us are left fighting hard against occasional suicidal impulses, trying our best with sketchy DIY treatments that don’t work very well.

The rest of us will muddle along, trying to get better, trying to both cause and experience less pain. If that’s you, like it is me, I don’t have any good advice. But in case nobody’s told you today, it’s okay. It’s all okay. You’re doing the best you can in a world that’s sometimes pretty harsh. Breathe.