For many of us, the holiday season offers a second, or possibly third or fourth opportunity (depending how often a family gathers and how many family configurations exist) to try again and focus on what's really important at this time of year: cultivating a sense of gratitude whenever possible, practicing the art of self-preservation/care, and doing what we can to not make anything worse. For me, that sums up a good enough family gathering.
It's time to return to the holiday classics...including my personal guide to having a GOOD ENOUGH holiday season!
If I go by the arrival Christmas merchandise on shelves and the first time I hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" over a store’s sound system, the “most wonderful time of the year” begins in mid-September, and kicks off in earnest the day after Halloween.
Even so, I obstinately persist in defining “the holidays” as beginning around Thanksgiving and ending soon after New Year’s Day. As an adult, I’ve generally found that these six weeks stir up challenging emotions, as well moments of joy and togetherness. Sometimes simultaneously.
But when I’ve struggled with depression during the “hap-happiest season of all,” I become trapped in what a friend of mine describes as a “web of bad.” Really bad. Each crushing thought becomes twisted with another, and another. The silken threads of self-judgement intertwine and grow stronger. The web becomes bigger, stickier, and harder to escape. And everyone around me seems like they are on a different planet. A very merry planet.
Over the years, I’ve become aware that I’m not alone in my trepidation, or outright dread, of the holiday season. So I’ll be rolling out a series of blog posts as part of “Dawn’s Personal Guide to Having a Good Enough Holiday Season!”
But I get the happy thing. The hopeful thing. We count down from midnight, a new year starts, and we all get a do-over. It's our chance to move forward with new determination, to renew our commitments to our goals, or to make new ones. Of course, I'm talking about:
At some point, I stopped making New Year's resolutions. I opted out. It felt like a setup. I've come to realize that I wasn't just being negative or ornery.
I softened a bit towards resolutions when my Mom mentioned the idea of just picking a word, like setting an intention for the year. I let the idea rattle around for a while, and then I chose:
Show up (two words, I know) resonated for me. It felt straightforward and powerful. Show up like being present, in this moment. Show up like, getting somewhere. Show up on time-ish.
I started to think of it as a battle cry, not just my word(s) for 2017.
OK. I've got my word(s): SHOW UP. I broke it down:
I used to always push push push myself to show up for other people, which made it hard to understand what I needed to be well.
If I don't show up for my alone time, I get worn out and not surprisingly, start to resist going back out into the world even more. A smart and perceptive friend of mine once responded my angst about not being able to get off my couch and do everything I expected myself to do by asking me: "Is that you can't get off the couch, or that you don't want to? Those are two different things." I'd never given myself the space to consider that question.
Now I try to be more curious and not get all whacked out judgemental when I feel resistance to heading out into the world, especially when there are lots people wherever I'm trying to go. So that's good. But the fact remains that most of my life occurs out in the wider world.
Sometimes, I think my current resistance to showing up is all tangled with my struggles with severe depression, even though it's been years since I've been sick.
I'm definitely making progress with understanding why the showing up thing is so hard. And understanding why something happens is nice and can be useful, but I can't wait around until everything make sense to get done what I want to do in the world.
SO WHAT WORKS?
I think I stopped with the New Year's resolutions because I wasn't able to imagine my desire to change rooted in something other than shame and self-contempt. And I felt stuck, like there was no way to move forward without dragging myself back under.
In a rack on the end of one of the aisles, I saw this magazine cover:
A lot of what I'm writing about here comes from what I've learned through my participation in a group practicing the principles of Systems Centered Theory (SCT). It's legit and research-based, and if you're interested in learning more, I've provided you with a couple of links to get you started at the end of this post! (It's my interpretation, though -- not officially sanctioned!)
I'm also an grown-up who has had the privilege and joy of being involved in some wonderful families lives over the last 35 years or so, as a babysitter, daycare provider, older cousin, pre-school teacher, family friend, and nanny. I’m not an expert, or a therapist. But when I spend time with kids who have big feelings, I feel a LOT of empathy. And I believe that creating a space where kids feel safe riding that wave of emotion is really important.
I really want the children in my life to be able to start building emotional resilience when they are little, and skip the part where they lose touch with their feelings in the first place.
The thing is, feelings are not convenient, for kids OR adults. They show up at awkward times, like when we are in a hurry, or around people we want to impress. I really do get that, and how hard it is to create space for kids to experience their emotions. I feel a lot of empathy for primary caregivers too.
My Mom, aka Joanne Dreyer, remembers when she held the power to fix whatever made me sad.
As I got older, my painful feelings were no longer something my Mom could fix.
It probably wouldn't have been effective for my Mom to yell at or verbally threaten the kids who hurt my feelings, which she found frustrating. Possessing the same mama-bear sense of protection, I too have to refrain myself from seeking out and scaring kids who make the children I love sad.
When my mom realized that she'd lost her superpower, she felt really sad. It took a long time for her to let go of the idea that she was supposed to be able to fix things for her kids. The urge to fix things hasn't gone away, she says. But there's not that same kind of grief.
LEARNING TO RIDE THE WAVES
Intuitively, kids learn which feelings are acceptable and valued by their families and communities, and the ones that are going cause a disturbance to the cultural ecosystem. Since as a kid, our survival is dependent on the stability of our environment, (not unlike the ecosystem of our physical environment), we all figure out how to sustain life on our particular patch of earth. This all happens before we're four years old.
I didn't want my Mom to feel sad, ever. And I definitely didn't want to be the one who made her sad. And It's not like my Mom sat down with me one day and said: "Hey, don't get sad, OK? Because that makes me sad." And my Oma (grandmother) never said anything like that to her, but my Mom intuited the same message.
Looking back, I think that feeling of sadness itself wasn't really the issue. It was our bone-deep conviction that if we gave sadness any space, opened that particular door even a crack, we'd all drown in a tsunami of grief.
Which I've learned isn't true.
Feelings come in waves. Each wave has a beginning, middle, and an end. We might experience a wave of feeling as unbearable, but it's not. It's the feelings that are buried deep that cast a specter across generations.
It wasn't until I was an adult that my Oma, Mom, and me had the language to talk about these tacit agreements we'd made with one another. We also came to understand that our family's history with depression. Likely, genetics play their part. But my Mom and I both believe that unexpressed grief or sadness seeped in at the cellular level my great-grandmother, to my Oma, to my Mom, and to me.
My Oma only hinted at the emotional cost of her painful childhood and early adulthood. My Mom and I only remember her crying a few times in her life. Oma passed away a couple of years ago, with those feelings still bound up in her body. The difference for my Mom and me is that we both still have a chance to learn to ride the waves -- to move beyond how we learned to survive as a child, before we possessed the autonomy to make different choices.
I like to think that Oma, and her mother, free of both physical and emotional pain, is somewhere rooting for my mom and I to explore the world of our feelings beyond the paths we know so well.
Here is something I never considered before I studied SCT:
What a relief. Once I understood this useful fact, I was able to let go of a lot of fear and step forward into the realm of deeply uncomfortable feelings. Like anger.
I remember the first time I experienced anger in my SCT group. Heather, one of the leaders, said: how big would you need to be to hold all that anger?
I thought about it. Then I started to feel the anger fill my body.
When I realized that experiencing my anger would actually help me be more effective in managing my emotions, and lead to making effective choices in how I managed my interactions with the people or groups of people that had made me angry, I was all like, wow.
Yvonne M. Agazarian (of SCT fame) has a theory: that depression may be a result of unexpressed anger going inward, instead of outward.
First, I learned to stop and check in with myself whenever I notice the experience of my feelings and my body collapsing all at once:
Then, I'd take a step back and center myself. Did I skip over something? A lot of the time, I'd find anger. I could feel it in my body. It felt amazing.
It's gotten to where I can shift back and forth between self-judgement and shaming feelings to anger, and feel my whole being react. It's really incredible to experience. My years of practice are making a real difference in my life! Woot.
As a discipline method, Time Out has fans and detractors. For some kids and caregivers, it's not that useful. For others, it works really well.
I was a nanny for sisters, ages two and six. The two-year old (I'll call her Beth) had a frequent habit of expressing her displeasure in a way that dominated any situation. She'd scream and cry, and sometimes, hit. Her older sister would get quiet. I think we all felt kind of captive to her moods.
I started to pick up Beth at the first sign of this behavior. I'd take her to Time Out, in chair I could see from whatever I'd be doing with her sister. One that had no distractions, like toys or books. I'd set the timer for two minutes (pretty standard: age=number of minutes in Time Out).
Beth would often scream louder. I didn't engage her. Logic does not work with toddlers when they are upset. (It doesn't work super-great with adults, either.) Thankfully, she believed in the magic of Time Out and didn't leave her chair.
Thankfully, Beth always calmed down before the two minutes were up. When Time Out ended, I'd go pick her up, swing her around, and say, "Oh, Beth, I'm so happy you're back!"
What started to happen is that Beth took less time to calm herself down. I'd let go of the two-minute rule, and went ahead and welcomed her back right away.
Beth's mom wasn't sure about how often I used Time Out. We'd sometimes overlap in the morning when she was getting ready to go to work. She asked me if it was necessary to put Beth in Time Out so often. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I didn't say I'd stop using it.
Pretty soon after, Beth said to her Mom, "Dawn loves me so much! She puts me in Time Out every day."
I felt so good! Not in a snarky way of her Mom was wrong and I was right. (And, technically, I didn't use it every day.) I felt good because my theory about Time Out -- that it's not a punishment, but a way for kids to just get out whatever feeling they are experiencing -- seemed to gather some credence from Beth's declaration to her Mom.
I often think that it would be great if adults could just call Time Out for themselves, or each other. And not be ashamed. It would be practical, I think. Step away from the meeting, or an argument that doesn't really seem like it's about what's being discussed. Go find a chair without any distractions. I don't think grown-ups would have to apply the age=number of minutes in Time Out for it to work, although it would be nice to have that option.
I also think that we'd all do a much better job getting along if grown-ups were encouraged to take more naps. A lot of what I've learned about myself seems to work when I use it with kids. But I've learned at least as much from the children I'm grateful -- that I've been grateful -- to have in my life. Many of whom are now adults, with kids of their own.
Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
If you feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your child's emotions and the challenge of communicating with your child effectively when her or his behavior feels out-of-control, Maureen Gomeringer, MSW, LCSW, offers Parent Child Interaction Therapy, an evidence-based treatment intended to increase a child’s sense of self-control and cooperation by strengthening the child’s trust for and connection to his parent. Click here to learn more.
Maureen provides her services through Carolina Partners in Mental Healthcare, the organization that generously supports Cracked [the blog] and Bipolar Girl Rules the World.
Several years ago, I wrote my personal declaration against the Dictatorship of Perfectionism, "The 80% Manifesto." (Check it out, here.) I've got to say it's one thing to know something to be true, and quite another to live by that truth. I battle perfectionism every single day. And a lot of the time, we're talking epic, Godzilla-Mothra battles. Sometimes I win, but it's never easy.
MY GARDEN RULES
So when I decided to start a garden, I broke down my expectations to what seemed to me to be the most basic premise I could find:
THE SEEDS IN THE GROUND
ARE MORE LIKELY TO GROW THAN
THE SEEDS THAT STAY IN THE PACKET
I know that idea seems really obvious, but it's where I wanted (and needed) to start. It's more like a Garden in the Land of 2%, I know. But it felt FUN to me. And I really, really wanted it to be fun.
THE OTHER THING: DON'T SPEND (MUCH) MONEY
That one is for a few different reasons. One, if I spent money, that would make me feel like I needed to raise my expectations from where I started. Also, I don't have a lot of money. And spending money I don't have feels stressful. Which means NOT as fun. And this garden = fun. I had nothing to lose, and I wanted to keep it that way.
THE GARDEN STATE
A lot of people don't quite believe that New Jersey is called the "Garden State" with good reason. But it's not a joke. It's for real. Every single one of the hundreds of tomatoes I ate growing up testified to this very simple fact: there is dirt, and then there is soil.
The rock solid red clay my mother encountered our first fall in North Carolina when she tried to plant tulips -- that’s dirt. She picked and scraped away a few scant inches before she dropped the bulbs into the shallow holes in disgust. That spring, tiny tulips -- about a third of the size promised by the garden catalogue -- poked their pitiful little heads out of the dirt. Those tulips were a family joke for a long time, even after my mother and father had dug up a little patch in the backyard to grow tomatoes, zucchini, and some lettuce. They brought in layers and layers of organic material to coax some kind of soil out of the dirt.
In northern New Jersey, we have soil -- dark brown, almost black, crumbly, with a deep murky smell that conjures life and decay all at once. It is soft and it sticks to your knees if you have been weeding or picking fresh lettuce, or on your pants' bottoms if you’ve been hiding among the plants listening to the grown-ups talk nearby. My mother grew up on the same land as her father, and I lived in the house she grew up in until I was eight years old. His family had farmed the land that now made up a good block of houses, bordered by Stiles Street on one side and Harding Avenue on the other. My PopPop, my grandfather, Saraphino “Ed” Truncale, received an exemption from serving in WWII in order to grow food for his country, but he joined the Army anyway. He was sent to Germany, and that is where he met Johanna Bimbose, my Oma, my grandmother.
My Oma grew up hungry. So the garden meant so many different things at once. We were fed. We were loved. We were never -- could never -- be hungry at her table. Not if she had anything to do with it.
OFF THE VINE
I wrote this poem -- "Off the Vine" -- many years ago, and read it at my PopPop's funeral. I think it gets at why planting this garden felt so important to me. And why I wanted to keep it simple. I didn't want anything to do with my garden to make me feel bad or embattled. I wanted a garden that felt like how my grandparents saw me, which had nothing to do with being perfect. Now that both PopPop and Oma have passed over, I wanted to create a space that reminded me of what it felt like to be nurtured by their love, and to see if maybe I could shine some of that light on myself.
My PopPop grew all different kinds of tomatoes -- a whole slew of vegetables, actually. But the Ramapo stuck in my mind. A couple of years ago I tried to find out if the seeds were still available, and I saw that Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, had recently reissued the seeds. That year, my Uncle Ed, who lives in New Jersey, ordered the seeds and planted them. Uncle Ed sent us photos via group text messages and we all watched as the tomato plants grew. When we came to visit, and eating those tomatoes became it's own kind of holy ritual.
So this year, I went online, and ordered seeds! And not just tomatoes!
Woah. OK, breathe. Just remember: Seeds out of the packet and into the ground. That's all we agreed to when we started this garden. Don't start freaking out. If something grows, that's a total bonus!
A really amazing friend of mine, Eri Yokoyama wanted to be an animator, but she didn't know how to draw. So she decided to teach herself how to draw by engaging in daily practice sessions, about 30 minutes each. She also completely lowered her expectations, and took a super-playful and funny approach to her learning process. (Learn more about her awesome project,and see the final animation, here.)
With my low/no expectation garden, I also wanted to cultivate a daily practice. To do something, the smallest possible thing, every day. It could be more, but just one thing would rank as a success.
COMING UP NEXT: I LOVE TO DIG + WHAT ELSE I LEARNED BEFORE I PLANTED ANYTHING
I've written about how important it is to me to "show up," both emotionally and physically in other blog posts, especially this one.
In this post, I'm focusing on physically showing up -- as in, arriving where I want or need to be in a mostly timely manner.
As I've Mentioned Before...
Take Me to the Mothership
There are three main reasons It's important that I don't mess up this Situation:
And, finally, the huge amount of shame I would feel for not being able to fulfill a very basic, reasonable commitment would make it really, really difficult for me to show up at all, even if I still was able to maintain my membership in the space.
Nobody wants me to feel ashamed, or to leave. But still. I can't just keep being inconsistent. The Mothership needs to be able to rely on me to do what I say I'll do.
I Can Accept Allie's Help in a Semi-Graceful Manner Because While I May Struggle with Showing up, I'M Also Confident that I Am A Valued And Valuable Member of This Community.
So, Being A body kind of worked.
Performing Dawn...Being Dawn
"Killing It....Dying," coined by Zoe Litaker, another awesome artist-photographer-human in the Mothership community. Check out her website!
So This Is What Being Human Looks Like?
And asking someone to have coffee with me doesn't necessarily qualify as asking for help, even if I'm feeling a little wobbly at the time. By the time I get there, the wobbly feelings might just be gone. Or not. But that's being human. Or so I hear.
KIND OF FUNNy.
Last week, I went to my first "Improv 101" class at the DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill, NC. I've suspected I'm funny for quite a long time, and I was finally ready to see if I was right. I was so excited that I accidentally showed up an hour early.
But I'm not going to write that blog post. Because I DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT ALL THAT STUFF. I JUST WANT TO RELAX AND HAVE FUN. (God, please. I exhaust myself sometimes.)
All I'm going to do here is write about this one thing we did in class.
We started off by introducing ourselves. Besides the usual stuff -- what's your name, where you're from, and "what you do when you're not pushing at the edges of your comfort zone with a group of strangers," the instructor asked us to share our spirit animal*. Except in this case, we had to pick a made up one. Like, we could combine the traits of two different animals, or give an animal magical properties.
By the time it was my turn, I'd made my decision.
My Spirit animal is an Octopus.
But that's not all.
What could possibly be more exciting for the busy ADD lady of the world than a smart, intuitive creature with the multi-tasking potential of eight limbs?
As I explained in my first dispatch from the land of my super-shiny-brain, living with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), my brain generates lots of truly excellent ideas -- fast. But if ADD renders me the Superman of brainstorming sessions, it can also work like kryptonite and drain me of my powers.
Also, I'd ask the octopus for lots and lots of shoulder and neck massages. Like, all the time.
OK. I HAVE TO TELL YOU JUST THIS ONE THING:
Kind of Lame, I know.
I'm not sure if my longing for octopod task management is just an ADD thing. I know plenty of people who could use an extra set of hands, or four extra sets of hands. (For those of you with children too young to drive: the carpool possibilities of the detached limbs occurred to me immediately.)
Over the years, I've gotten a lot better about attempting to execute a more reasonable number of ideas. I've acquired a decent set of organizational skills, and found tools that suit my particular way of engaging with the world. And I've learned how great it is to collaborate, particularly with people who bring complementary skill sets to our work. I'm confident about my abilities and don't undervalue or apologize for my work.
But lately, I've been feeling frustrated and sad. I've developed relationships with people I like and value that have opened up opportunities for me to work on projects that matter to me. And sometimes, I'm able to move forward effectively. But often, it takes so much more effort than I'd like, or that I can always sustain.
I wake up with a good sense of what needs to be accomplished to stay on track. I get out of bed. Get going. But most days, it feels like a fearsome, buzzing cloud of doom -- made up of wrong choices and potential failures -- joins me somewhere around the end of breakfast.
This cloud doesn't announce itself dramatically. It just shows up and settles in. It's just there: tinnitus of the to-do list.
I've tried fighting it: reconfiguring schedules and lists and where I work and how often I take breaks. Some things help, sure. But it the cloud also makes me angry. It doesn't make sense that this cloud exists. It feels like it belongs to a much earlier time in my life, when my struggles with depression warranted this kind of gloomy, anxious company. But depressions not the issue. Maybe it's some kind of depression hangover.
The other day, my therapist observed that I speed up -- a lot -- when I'm trying to solve some deadline quandary. That she starts to speed up, trying to help. We both surmised that the speeding up doesn't make things better.
Which makes me think that my multi-tasking octopus may not be the solution. That doing more things, faster, is not the solution. Which is annoying. Because more, faster, is one of those ideas where trying harder is the fix, and I know how to try hard. It's very important to me that people know I'm trying very hard.
But I'm at the point where I'm convinced that if trying harder would have made it better, then it would be better by now.
It's difficult to be curious when I'm afraid. But I'm trying something that is deeply counterintuitive. I'm slowing down. All the way down, to stop.
Yesterday, I sent my therapist a text:
Remember, the octopus
Everytime I think about it, I'm finding my feet. Settling in. Listening.
I'm setting timers and taking five minute breaks.
I get out my new blocks.
I play whiffle ball with my dog Lady Godiva in the back yard. I hit, she fetches. Her short game is improving. She's getting better at fielding the bunt.
I make art just to make something.
I escape for an hour to stare up at the trees as the sky grows dark.
I go to my improv class.
I do all of these things even though I have work that's overdue. Embarrassingly, painfully overdue.
It feels risky to stop. To play. To breathe. But I'm gonna try. If I fail, at least I will fail trying something new.
*I suspect that the Harry Potter universe may be somewhat responsible for transforming/appropriating the idea of spirit animals from the realm of indigenous cultures. But I'm not writing that blog post today, either.
Dawn Dreyer + special guests
Project Updates, Musings, Manifestos, Queries + Conversations
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen
For over two decades, Dawn Dreyer has worked as a writer, mixed-media documentary maker, and teacher. Since 2005, Dawn has been an outspoken advocate for herself and others with the lived experience of mental illness. Her current project is the animated documentary Bipolar Girl Rules the World.