When February hits.

Today, I said these words to one of my classes:

I cannot care about your education more than you do. Not anymore. I cannot carry your education–all 25 of you in this class–on my back while you bear none of the load. It is exhausting. You have to care just a little bit. You have to start carrying some of the care, too, some of the work. I’m glad I scheduled work for you to do independently because I’m not sure I want to stand up here in front of you anymore today.

Melodramatic, perhaps, but here we are. I said it, quietly and calmly, in my squeaky, nasally, congested teacher voice, emphatic hand gestures and all. And I meant it. I truly am quite tired–tired of feeling and caring and carrying so much. Not that I’m going to stop. But the fatigue is undoubtedly there.

I have all these grand ideas about teaching kids. I have these expansive conceptual plans, these statements of inquiry, these activities and some differentiation and intentional scaffolding. The students will learn how to analyze literature, and they will write with impeccable grammar, and when I teach them, they will be inspired to love learning, and–and yet, on the daily, I am met with the reality of my job. 20-30 students. And their stories. And their struggles. And their sufficiencies and inadequacies, confusion, fatigue. And their fears and doubts and apathy and angst. And I’m just me.

I have all these grand ideas about the kind of wife I want to be. The kind of friend. The kind of daughter. The kind of Jesus-follower. The kind of writer. Reader. Homemaker. Artist. And lately I’ve been feeling the heavy weight of just in, “I’m just me.”

Just me. I am just me. I am not any of the things that I wish I could be–the ever present, ever reliable, social and outgoing, giving and generous friend. The present and giving, supportive and selfless wife. The dedicated lover of art and the written word. The writer of words that expresses herself in meaningful, redemptive ways. The Christ-follower that champions truth and justice and mercy and grace and meets needs.

And don’t even get me started on teaching.

(I’m told we all feel like shitty teachers for the first few years; great. I have a long few years ahead of me, I guess.)

I feel so utterly inadequate to meet their needs in the way I feel called to, in the way I need to. How can I  give them the education they will need when I hardly know how to plan my lessons or curriculum? Do I have the brain power and knowledge it takes to teach them well, the social energy to get to know them, the emotional capacity to love them? When they move on to senior year or junior year, what the hell will they have learned from me? Do I have what it takes to be the teacher I want and need to be?

Yes? I mean, I surely hope so. I care, so maybe that’s enough for year one.

But they get to me from time to time–the students, I mean. I don’t let them see it, but I’ve been hurt by them before. And I get angry with them. Their incessant phone use irks me to no end, and the the way they flippantly ignore their work, the way they interrupt me or ignore me baffles me. Beyond that, I fall short in so many ways, and I can’t help but wonder if I’m failing them; I don’t grade their work expediently because I spend most of my time planning what I’m going to teach them that I don’t have the time I need to grade what they turn in to me. I don’t communicate as clearly as I would like. I’m inconsistent in enforcing classroom norms and policies. I’m not strict enough with behavior, but maybe I grade too hard. I’m too much this, too little that. To be honest, I’m not sure this paragraph will ever end; I think I could write a novel cataloging my type and severity all of the insufficiencies that plague my perfectionist mind.

Eh, it is what it is, and truth be told, I know this disillusionment and depression will pass, but it sucks when it’s here. I’m stuck here for a bit, and I just have to ride the wave. I knew teaching would do this to me; it’s one of the reasons I hesitated entering the profession for as long as I did. Can my mental health handle this? Am I mentally strong enough, despite the anxiety, despite the depression, to push through the inevitable triggering of emotions and still be a good teacher and more importantly, a healthy person? A friend? A present wife? And in the future, a loving and mindful mother?

I caught the respiratory bug that’s going around, so I was out on Monday. It was the head-cold, sure, but it was also the crippling depression and heavy anxiety that left me falling in and out of crying spells–the blinding, meandering kind that never really truly resolve but just sort of… Halt. It was like I was wringing myself out. A long, painful process that was cathartic and clarifying and much needed.

“It’s February,” I’m told. “The students look miserable, but it’s not because of you,” I’m told. “Don’t take it personally.”

Harumph. “Oh, I’ll try not to,” I say, knowing full well how that will probably go. (Cue eye roll here.) Sometimes I think my depression and anxiety make the “not taking things personally” stuff a bit harder for me–not to mention my personality (perfectionist, people-pleaser, peace-keeper, high-achiever, obsessive, sensitive…)

I told Nick once after a particularly depressive and anxious day of teaching, “I feel like this career makes more sense for someone without depression and anxiety. Teaching would be just a bit easier if I wasn’t weighed down by my own mental shit.”

Nick laughed. “Pretty sure everything in your life would be a bit easier for you if you weren’t weighed down by your own mental shit.”

I found it oddly comforting, really. In a way, it was an acknowledgement of the day-in and day-out battles I fight against myself and my own mind–of no true fault of my own. And it was also a challenge for me to accept, like he was saying, “Yeah, but what good are ‘easier’ things? They don’t make you stronger, and you’re gonna be tough as nails after this!”

Tough as nails, maybe, but not indestructible. But truth is, I’m never going to the completely unflappable, impenetratable, indomitable woman that is unaffected or unperturbed by the pressures around her, no matter how much I try to posture as such or how much I want to be. I’m simply not. And part of me is really bugged by that. My job is going to inevitably affect me in big ways.

But maybe there is a strength in being affected and allowing yourself to heal from that affection. And maybe, when February hits, you let it do its worst, but you come back swinging whenever you can.

(But really, though, when is spring break?)

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journal entry | sleep.

I haven’t been sleeping.

Oh, this happens from time to time, but my familiarity with it doesn’t make me any less frustrated when it shows up. I’m sure it’s stress, I’m sure it’s anxiety, I’m sure it’s depression, I’m sure it’s the pain in my muscles and joints, I’m sure it doesn’t really matter what it is because I just miss sleeping.

Nevertheless, here is where I am, and here is where I’ll stay until the loop closes itself up and I’m back to the part of the cycle where I sleep a bit better, where I’m in a bit less pain. Or maybe this loop will never close up again. I don’t know. I’m always wondering if this will be the time when the loop never closes back up, the time when it is no longer a cycle of pain and flared unhealth but a consistency of it. I don’t know. I just don’t. There’s so much I don’t know.

And the questions I have don’t have answers. Perhaps I need to get used to it. But: I want so much more than a month or so of feeling good. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. But maybe it is. Maybe I’m presumptuous. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely.

I am. Maybe I should ask what that point is and actually listen for the answer. I ask all these questions about my future, my health, my life, my body, my mind. Me. Me, myself, and I.

Or maybe the point is that there is none. Sometimes things just are or are not, just exist or do not exist, happen or do not happen, heal or do not heal.

It’s logical, but sad and wrong, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well. It’s so easy to close in on yourself, to lock up. To say no to going out, to say no to community and friendship even. It is easy to say no to letting people in, to letting them see you and know you. And it’s hard to stop smiling and laughing and maybe let them see you cry, and it’s exhausting to step outside of yourself, to forget about the pain you feel so intimately and truly and persistently and to wear someone else’s pain.

I’m reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and in it, she says,

“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.”

Bad things have happened to people I love. Of course! And I have felt for them. With them, even. I know how hard it is to love someone who is in constant pain. I know how difficult it is to see them walk like there’s broken glass underfoot, like there are brambles woven into their skeleton, like their muscles are made of rusted iron, like their mind is made of different stuff.

I’m also afraid sometimes, late at night when I’m trying to sleep or perhaps early in the morning when I wonder if the day will be better or worse than yesterday, that I know how difficult it is to experience those things firsthand. So I often I wonder if, when I see them if I am seeing my future. I wonder, is this how my loved ones will feel when they see me? I wonder, is this how my feet will move, my mind will churn, my hands will swell, my body will burn? And I wonder, is this how my children will look at me and wonder?

Perhaps the point is, since I know how hard it is to love someone in pain–or rather, or and, how hard it is to see a loved one in pain–

I am afraid to be the one in pain that is hard to love, the one whose pain pains others. I’m afraid to be sick and to be loved in all the ways that might be shown because I know. Because out of all the things I do not know, there is one measly sad truth that I do know: I know what it’s like on both ends, and it is work.

Maybe I’ve swallowed the empathy I feel toward them and made it about me again. Maybe I’m not really wearing their pain to share in their suffering but to process my own personal baggage. Probably the latter. It happens involuntarily. I don’t try to make their suffering about me, I swear. But it’s easier to imagine myself wearing their pain than it is to process what I see when they wear it. Let’s see, does this joint pain justify my sleeplessness? And this depression–does it match my inability to get out of bed in the morning or have consistent, intentional conversation with the people I care about? What of this fatigue? Does it work with the general malaise I already have? How would I wear this out to the store? To church? With my future children?

Me, myself, and I. Is that empathy? Or is it projection? Or even worse, is it a hijacking of their hurt? A filibuster to reframe and revert their experience?

Leslie Jamison also writes,

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”

Maybe trying their pain is not empathy. Maybe wondering about my future with their pain is not empathy; maybe it’s burglary. But this burglary of experience feels sensical to me as I live with earlier versions of it. If I am well on my way to sharing the experiences anyway, why not try them on for size first, see how things feel, acclimate myself to the textures and structures? It’s logical.

Logical–but that doesn’t necessarily mean good or right or kind or loving.

It’s logical, but sad, how easy it is to become selfish when you don’t feel well.

I spend much of my time self-preserving. It makes sense that I would preserve emotional stasis.

Logical, but sad, and not always good or right or kind of loving.

Mom tells me that I turn into Spock when my emotions threaten to overtake me. Yes. I do. It’s only logical. It only makes sense to resist that which exhausts or empties us.

But not always good or right or kind or loving. I’m still learning what it looks like to take care of myself and also take care of others. To fill my cup but also let it spill over. To surrender to the intense need to retreat from time to time but eventually remember to put myself back out there. To need a good friend while also being a good friend.

To go to sleep at night but be willing to wake up in the middle of the night, pack my bags, and leave my worst self for my better. And then maybe go back to sleep.

But the problem is, I haven’t been sleeping in the first place.

journal entry | Today’s meaning is–

“We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead.”
Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

Life is game of meaning-making.

It’s a game in which the rules change, day to day, moment to moment.

Some days, like today, I win by immersing myself in work that is immediate and purposeful, in thoughts that are healthy. I go grocery shopping; the meaning there is easy to make: we need food. I update my resume; the meaning there is: I need a job in the fall.

Some days are game-changers, and I lose on those days.

The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom speaks to the game-changing moments: “How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?”

Translation: how can I find motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning when there is no external motivation (meaning) to get up in the morning, and how can I self-create motivation (meaning) when I am uncertain that I have the raw materials to do so? When I am almost certain that the world is made up of matter that does not matter, how can I assert that I am any different?

Some days, we are empty. Depression is a slow leak, a hissingly sinister removal of energy and joy and contentment, confidence, serenity, and self. The laws of physics, of science, of the empirical world tell us the truth: our finite humanity cannot make something out of nothing. The laws of faith, of theology, of God, and Creation, Jesus, and the gospel tell us the truth, too: the infinite divinity of the One, Alpha & Omega did, in fact, make something out of nothing–a rather grand something out of an original and desolate nothing–and His fingerprints linger.

So. Do we surrender to the void that depression offers, the nothing it has made out of our something? Or do we choose to believe the universe is churning and burning with meaningfulness? Do we resolve to notice the fingerprints of God, these speckled, freckled, pied points of meaning?

We do our feeble best to choose the latter. We do our feeble best.

Monday, March 7th, 6:53 am: Today’s meaning is being coaxed from hiding with the promise of a warm cup of coffee that I will sip slowly, siphoning for meaning in every atom of taste because I simply cannot be late to work again. Today’s meaning is: good employees show up to work on time, and I am a good employee, so I must show up to work on time. Today’s meaning is the transitive property and a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 8th, 4:45 pm: Today’s meaning is a paradox. I am at once thankful and burdened by the work day.

Thankful, because for 8 to 9 hours, meaning envelops me; I need not exhaust myself trying to make it. Each hour, 23 or 24 or 25 bundles of energetic, humanoid little fingerprints of Divine Meaning surround me; they say my name, and I answer, and there is cosmic–and all other kinds of–balance. What do you need? is my voice’s answer, but my soul whispers, Thank you for meaning; thank you for making meaning. I teach them. Subject, verb, object–semantically, grammatically complete. Today’s meaning is semantic, grammatical. 

Burdened, because I feel lost and numb at home. I know that as soon as sleep comes, restlessness will follow, and then the morning, and then work, and then again, the fatigue and numbness that feels much like a void. Climbing the same mountain day after day feels less like a worthy feat and more like the curse of Cartaphilus.

Wednesday, March 9th, 7:13: Today’s meaning is loneliness. Today’s meaning is by my self. Today’s meaning is, then, self-care. Today’s meaning is acknowledging the darkness of it all so I have no excuse but to turn on the light.

Today’s meaning is a warm bath, a decent work-out, and the intentional choice to feel.

Thursday, March 10th, 6:05 pm: Today, meaning peered down at me, two inquisitive eyes of the bird in my backyard that was strikingly blue, a sapphire atop a grey sky, deadened brown grass, leafless trees–a colorless afternoon. I gasped. It flew away. I cried.

Today’s meaning trumpeted in a phone call from my mother and father. It announced itself in my own thought: How did she know to call? It came oozing out of the words my mom said when I picked up: You’ve been on my mind. What is going on? It seeped out of me like a feverish sweat as I told them, Hope seems foolish, and so do the words, “It will get better.”

Today’s meaning was nourished by angry tears, invigorated by a splash of cold water, and framed by the reminder, I am lonely, but I am not alone.

Friday, March 11th, 1:02 pm: Today’s meaning is to prove to myself that I can do it–it being the next minute, then the next, and the next, and the next. Today’s meaning is mind-trick over matter, a placebo of meaning to tide me over until some true, cataclysmic, prescribed meaning comes. The pharmacy is fresh out.

Saturday, March 12th, 9:34 pm: Today’s meaning is presence and pressing on, the pressing of formless thoughts to the synapses to the fingers to the keys to the formed words. It is presence and engagement in the consciousness of the human mind, the will to create and make. It is the opting for life in all its simplicity and mediocrity and ho-humness, in the aisles of grocery shelves, the satisfaction of a car wash, the eating of a meal, and the utter miracle of the inheritance of our aliveness being the burden and beauty of our consciousness.

It is life and being alive.

“. . . presence is a dance, not a meditation; an engagement, not an emptying. Being present . . . is being intentionally present for the sake of reasons you deem meaningful.”
-Eric Maisel, The Van Gogh Blues

 

a journal entry. | it’s not you.

It’s not you. It’s me.

I want to be consistent. Really.

I want to wake up when my alarm goes off and greet the morning like the abundant blessing it is. Really.

I want to show up to work early. I have plans to do so. Really.

I want to keep the promises I make to you, to myself. I want to be better than I was yesterday, to be reliable, dependable, motivated, responsible, communicative. Really.

I want to create, to write, to read. Really.

I want to be incredibly productive, to go above and beyond, to impress and wow and awe, to show you all I’ve got. Really.

I want to show up at your place when I say I will, to do something about my own loneliness by getting out and talking to people once in a while. Really.

But right now, I’m all sorts of this way and none of that.

I want to tell you that the reason I am inconsistent is because most of my energy is focused on staying afloat, and treading water sometimes means letting the current take control for a time.

I want to tell you that I don’t always see the morning as a blessing because at least when I’m asleep, I don’t feel anxiety gnawing away at my self-confidence or depression eroding my self-worth. I’m tired, and the morning reminds me of that.

I want to tell you that my plans to show up early turn into plans to show up on time turn into plans just to show up because–well, to be honest, I don’t know how it happens.

I want to tell you depression and anxiety are humbling at best, crippling at worst, and disorienting always, and some days being better than yesterday means just being today.

I want to tell you that creating is an emptying of yourself, and some days I am stingy with myself; writing is like ripping off a scab, and some days blood makes me woozy; reading is words and meaning and story, and some days I’ve had a heavy dosing of all three and don’t need any more.

I want to tell you that I can’t even meet my own standards of excellence at this point because lately, just do enough to get by is the most self-motivation I can muster.

I want to tell you that when I bow out, cop out, no-show it’s not you–it’s me and this cloud of murky moods and its inconvenient demands.

I want to tell you that when that depression commercial about the wind-up doll plays, I want to scream because it is so seriously spot-on that it pisses me off on a bad day and makes me cry on a good one.

I want to tell you, “Lately, I’m depressed, which is why I’ve been all sorts of this way and not that, so can I lean on you for a bit?”

But I’m afraid of what you might say.

No. No, that’s not all of it. I’m afraid of what you might think.

No. Still not all of it.

I’m afraid that what you might say might just be pity or concern. I’m afraid that what you might say might be a veneer to cover up what you might think. I’m afraid what you might think is, “Wow, excuses much?” or “Wow, suck it up!” or “Wow, you poor thing.”

I’m terrified of looking weak. I’m terrified of making excuses. I don’t want you to treat me differently. So really, it’s not you. It’s me.

I just want you to know that I am often wrestling with myself, and that’s why I am all sorts of this way and not that.

It’s not you. It’s me.