if you’re going through hell (keep going)

As someone who has always favored stability over uncertainty, I’ve been feeling totally unbalanced by the number of changes that have happened over the past few months. Some of these changes have been truly amazing (marrying the love of my life, starting (and almost finishing) an awesome internship working with some of the most wonderful, supportive people I have ever met, adopting a crazy but adorable dog) and others less amazing (losing my modest but important income at the end of my grad assistantship in May, having my chronic pain go from “manageable” to “barely tolerable”, having my marriage be a bit more long-distance than originally planned, losing some of the function in my hand thanks to some broken bones and torn ligaments), but change in general can make me feel like I’m treading water and barely keeping my head afloat.

A week from Friday, I’ll be leaving my amazing internship and heading up to Maine. I’ll be going from having a lovely little place to live and a job (well, an unpaid internship) to, as of now, a friend’s couch and a continuing job search. This means more changes–lots of them–very quickly: destabilizing my living conditions, figuring out how to move more stuff (wedding gifts: awesome, yet so bulky!) with less space in the car (because dog), trying to find an apartment without (as of this writing) a job offer to figure out the budget, finding a new vet, trying to see my own doctor to figure out the cluster-you-know-what of my own health, adjusting the pup to a new place and a new routine as Husband heads back to school and I (hopefully!) head into work, trying to re-establish a support system of friends so that we don’t all go off the walls. Needless to say, my anxiety is through the roof, bringing my stress-induced pain levels along with it. I’m holding regularly-scheduled prayer circles to hold off the stress-induced migraines; all are welcome to join in.

UnFortunately, there is a time and place for showing how anxious you are, and (fun fact) working as a therapist with traumatized children is really not one of them. My general rule of thumb: these kids have been through enough crap, so they definitely do not need my crap on top of it. Noooope nope nope they do not. So there might be a lot of this going on in the moment from when they leave my office to when I close the door behind them:

but the rule is that from the minute they enter the office to the moment they leave, my problems are not in the room. I’m there for them, they’re what matters, etc, etc. That’s how it works. My job is to be there for my kids, to listen to them, and to let them feel like they’re first. They have had plenty of time being second (or third or fourth or fifth or not even listed) priority, and I want to make sure they have at least one hour of the week where someone is there just for them.

To help out on this venture and to get more positive thinking into my life, I went and downloaded the Transform Your Life: A Year of Awareness app. It’s a nifty little app that gives you an inspiring quote and a daily assignment to try and incorporate the quote into your life for that day. Cheesy? Yep, 100%, but it gives me a moment of thoughtfulness in the mornings when the alarm chimes and I read the quote or think about the daily message. And I’m getting to the point where a few moments of positivity are enough to give me a boost for at least an hour or two, which can be the difference between actually getting some progress notes done or just putting my head down on my desk and being dead for a few minutes. So, yes. Mindfulness. Hooray.

On August 5th, the quote was one from good ol’ Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The day’s assignment: “Today, whatever you’re going through, keep going–and smile!”

toothless2bsmilez

(AM I SMILING YET. AM I DOING THE THING.)

Being told to smile when I’m not happy is one of those things that makes me want to hit my head against a desk. I have always been of the belief that you don’t owe anyone a smile. Now, again, given my line of work, I’m also not going to go around looking like Grumpy Cat (who is apparently totally misunderstood, poor critter), but putting a big smile on my face that a kid who is hyper-alert (which almost all my clients are) is going to see through in a millisecond and then get suspicious over isn’t the solution, either. But the first part of the assignment, I like.

In health fields, particularly mental health and trauma fields, we talk a lot about resilience. There’s a lot of back-and-forth about the definition of resilience–is it a construct, a characteristic, a process, an outcome, etc–but to me, what it really boils down to is the essence of that quote: resilience is going on when you’re going through hell. And “hell” comes in all shapes and sizes–medical trauma, social trauma, emotional trauma, physical trauma, illness, abuse, mental health, adjustments, pain, relationships, conflicts, the list goes on forever–but to be resilient is to go through it. And that doesn’t always mean taking on your issues head on, solving every problem you’re facing all at once. Sometimes it’s taking a breath before you respond to a statement that made you angry. Sometimes it’s going to work even though your body hurts and your social anxiety is through the roof. Sometimes it’s making it home and watching Netflix instead of having a cigarette or a drink. Sometimes it’s having one glass of wine instead of four. Sometimes, it’s just getting out of bed.

There’s a sense of freedom that comes with acknowledging the quiet forms resilience can take. We put a lot of emphasis on boldly tackling issues, even in the language we use to describe resilience: “power through” your problems, “face your problems head-on”, etc. In fact, acknowledging personal struggle without also providing a list of the things you’re doing to counteract those struggles is often seen as asking for sympathy, or just whining. For those with chronic struggles, people get sick of hearing about the same things: “Aren’t you over that, yet?” To own the softer forms of resistance, to say, honestly, “I can’t solve this, but I am still trying, and I’m getting through every day, and that’s enough” gives a certain sense of release, like letting out a breath you’ve been holding so long your chest has started to hurt. It’s a good feeling, even though your ribs still hurt for a few moments until you’ve really started breathing again, and then you wonder why you ever stopped.

Last week, I was sitting with one of my clients, working on a puzzle, nursing a headache and trying not to think about the epic to-do list that’s been building up in the margins of my planner.  After a few moments of working in silence–my usually-quiet client had just spoken for almost four minutes straight, and was taking some time to recover from her surprising moment of verbosity–my client said, “Miss Shelly, you seem tired today.”

In clinical practice, there’s a line between appropriate and inappropriate self-disclosure. When working with kids, you need to be even more careful about this line. But kids are often more perceptive than adults, and if you’re trying to hide something from a kid who’s hyper-vigilant, they’ll figure it out, and it’ll hurt their feelings. This particular client has had to deal with a lot of dishonest adults, and I didn’t want to be one more of those. I put my puzzle piece down. “I am tired,” I said. “There’s some stuff going on for me at home that is a little stressful, and it makes me feel tired.”

My client looked at me. “I feel that sometimes, too,” she said. Apparently satisfied with this part of the conversation, she turned back to working on the puzzle.

A few moments later, she turned back to me. “What do you do when you can’t fix it?”

“You do your best,” I said. I handed her another puzzle piece and she tried to slot it into place upside-down, then reversed it and put it into the picture correctly. “And then you try again.”

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