Last week I fell down a metaphorical hole. It started innocently with a story that I thought might be worth submitting to a magazine. That decision, though, left me without a blog post for the day. Suddenly, I was spiraling into all sorts of judgments around failing to meet my goals, You’re never going to succeed Jen if you can’t get your posts up consistently.
I tried self-compassion, but I couldn’t seem to pop out of this disappointment in myself looping around in my head. I found it hard to write, which just exacerbated my self-loathing. The next day it seemed to get worse. What was going on?
That afternoon, I joined a friend’s family for a sunset schooner cruise that I thought might pull me out of my malaise. Instead, however, it seemed to set me up for otherwise innocuous moments pulling me further down the hole.
On the hour drive to Annapolis, I sat in the far back of the minivan with my friend’s stepson, who’s 14. He shared some struggles he’s having and asked my advice. I felt honored by his trust.
At the docks, our conversation continued and he asked me what happened to my ex and I answered rather flippantly, my response ending with how “men, separated from wives who initiated the divorce, have a hard time letting go of taking care of their wives.”
My friend walked up as I made this last statement and I knew when I saw her, I’ve shared too much. It was not the first time I’d worried about it. She told me, “sometimes it can be hard to remember he’s only 14.”
She was right. He’s an empathetic listener and shares his stepmom’s skills at asking questions. Instead of acknowledging that, however, and laughing at my tendency to often have a leaky filter, I simply went a little further into my hole of self-flagellation. As if my statement somehow ruined this boy’s life rather than is, perhaps, the reason he shares with me in the first place. I tend to treat him the same as everyone else.
Since I was already descending, I found it easy to put myself down a little further after I jokingly said to my friend’s husband, “Thanks. Dad,” after he picked up the tab. Yes, I was just trying to hide my insecurity about him paying the bill with a sarcastic comment. Yet again, instead of laughing at myself and my insecurities, I worried, Did I just insult him?
One small bit of shame led to the next. I had a few strong beers over the evening, but after the hour drive home to my friend’s place, I felt sober. So, although they offered me a bed, I drove home. Except when I arrived home, I questioned my decision, not because I felt drunk, but because I questioned whether after three strong beers I could have sobered up after only an hour. This final bit of self-doubt brought me to a place where I couldn’t see any of my behavior in a rational light. No one is ever going to invite me anywhere anymore.
I woke up at 3:30 a.m. reliving each seemingly shame filled moment. I’ve been reading Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion, so I tried one of the techniques she mentioned. I stroked my arms and told myself, it’s going to be okay. You’re going through a hard time right now and everything’s hitting you in a rough way. I repeated I love you and accept you just as you are until I feel asleep.
I felt exhausted all the next day. This is why I don’t drink much anymore. The exhaustion made it that much harder to overcome my sadness, fogginess, and lethargy and I still couldn’t write. So I fell back to my happiness resolutions: I cleaned some clutter out of my closet, which gave me a jolt of oxytocin. A good friend checked in with me because she hadn’t heard from me in a couple days and after telling her what I was struggling with, she pushed me to meditate and pray. That evening, I motivated myself to go out to say goodbye to a friend moving away despite the magnetic pull of my couch.
While out, I described my internal struggle to a couple friends and they could all relate. We each had our own name for rehashing every little thing we think we did wrong — mine is “shame hangover,” which I’ve coopted from Brene Brown. It includes the sense that these shame places are reality, even when they’re just built up in our minds. Talking to these friends reminded me that I’m not alone either in my feelings or how I deal with them and that despite my worries, my friends care about me; they do not see me as a failure. I went home feeling much lighter.
The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to work and I’ve maintained that feeling since. It’s remarkable to me to see how difficult it was for me to write during those three days of being down. Now that I’m on the other side, I’ve managed three blog posts in two days.
It’s almost hard for me to recognize who I was on those days. Each little moment built on the last until none of my reactions were based on reality, but built out of my mind’s perceptions of events. Rather than remember I’m good, but human and make mistakes, I seemed to perceive myself as if I needed to beat the bad out.
I don’t understand where this shame spiral came from. It’s possible that it was a manifestation of grief over my brother’s death only three months ago. Grief can present itself in unexpected ways. Yet it wasn’t a new place for me. Nonetheless, it took me by surprise because I haven’t been there for a while. I feel like I’ve made so much progress in loving myself and trusting in the love of others. Most of the time I seem able to keep life and my own foibles in perspective and even laugh about them.
I appreciate, however, that I pushed myself to do the things that helped pull me out of the darkness — a bit of time on house projects and clearing out clutter, talking and spending time with friends, and meditation and prayer. I’m also improving at observing my reactions in a way that I believe in the future will give me a little more space to remember my goodness and my humanness. So that I can simply laugh or acknowledge my mistakes and make a correction. I know that these dark moments probably won’t disappear. But I do believe the lessons I’m learning will help me to recover from them quicker.