I wrote about my new three year’s resolution on January 4, 2015. Back then, I was so miserable with life and bored at work that I would find side projects to preoccupy myself, which only made me more unhappy. I had a pretty bad case of performance orientation, which is another way of saying that my self-worth was only associated with my productivity. I felt that I had no inherent value for being me. I was working myself into the ground just to feel like I meant something, so my new three year’s resolution was a leash I put on myself so I would stop doing the only thing I knew to boost my self-esteem — working myself to death.
I’ve referenced that post quite a few times along the way, which is pretty impressive considering most people drop their new years resolutions within a few weeks. Re-reading it now has helped me to see how much I’ve changed and where I haven’t, so I feel like reviewing some of the lessons I learned and changes I made along the way.
This is probably one of the biggest lessons I learned through the last three years. Essentially, my resolution was to create space for normal human experiences and to catch up on lost time. Contrast that with my default strategy at the time of working until I felt good about myself. By creating that space, I left my free time as a blank space and trusted that I would fill it in as the need arose. I had no idea I was going to seek counselling or to quit my job. I had no clue that important people in my life would disappear and that better people would take their place. I never imagined I would process so much trauma and get this healthy.
You need energy to solve problems. We all have a finite amount each day, and for most of us we waste it on entertainment and distraction; for me, that’s TV and reddit. It’s the part of the discourse I dislike about things like personal finance. “Just cut costs, then you’ll be rich.” The focus and attention required to examine every expenditure and income doesn’t come free. If you’re struggling to get by, it’s not just because you’re sitting around and doing nothing with your free time. You’re supporting extended family members, maybe you’re battling your own demons, maybe your job is too toxic and stressful for you to always be frugal. Those who have the capacity to help themselves look at those who can’t and think they’re lazy. Maybe the system is stacked to favour the few, who can’t see the struggles that the rest have to contend with.
There are virtuous and vicious cycles. My trauma had me stuck in a cycle where I allowed people to hurt me, then I would pick myself up and go back for more. It’s really hard to break out of a cycle, but it’s possible. Along the way, we’ve seen quite a few brave souls in this world taking a stance at great personal cost in order to break the cycle:
- Beyoncé’s Lemonade album
- Edward Snowden
I also have a virtuous cycle of writing this blog and thinking out loud. I’ve gotten amazing feedback and support from the people in my social network with only a few rotten experiences of trolls flinging mud. Maintaining a few healthy cycles keeps me out of the vicious ones.
I never knew I had anxiety and PTSD (undiagnosed, but I have the symptoms) until recently. I’ve always been able to turn on the turbo jets in order to get more work done, but never really had a plan for slowly descending back to earth. No wonder I would seize up with anxiety for some unknown reason and never knew how to work myself down except by crashing. I wrote a post called Every Day I’m Hustling where I listed things that calmed me down. I like to resort to it when I have a panic attack. I made a new friend who also has pretty bad anxiety, and it was interesting to compare experiences as I watched them have some four panic attacks in one outing.
I didn’t get the support I needed from the health care system. My previous employer wanted to play chicken with my mental health because I presume it was cheaper for me to quit than for them to help me get healthy and working again. Canada is pretty good with universal healthcare, but it’s murky with mental health. No one bats an eye when you stay home from work with a cold, but it’s not as easy to even say what kind of mental health issues you’re struggling with. Systems and agencies are all disconnected and uncoordinated, so people easily fall through the cracks despite waiting months. It looks like on a macro scale the public is opening up to the idea that mental health is important and that it needs to be treated and funded, but it’s very gradual. I don’t think it’s moving fast enough to support people in the way they need right now, but I don’t know how to speed it up. The most vulnerable people with the least energy have the hardest time getting help.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to be kind to myself. I used to treat myself brutally. I got this from my parents, who probably had to in some ways treat themselves harshly in order to sacrifice and provide a better life for their four children and the revolving door of people who they also supported.
From what I can tell, people don’t really change long-term when you crack the whip. You can easily change the behaviour for a short time, but you never get as far as changing their minds and hearts. Most genuine change comes from a place of love and kindness, when the sources of pain and strife are exposed and examined so that healing can begin, but the tradeoff is that it takes a much longer time. In my own case, kindness has helped the most in these three short years. I’ve always been my worst critic, and I never held back any kind of criticism or abuse of myself. I used to push myself so hard in the gym that I would throw up, but now I have a more holistic approach to physical and mental health as facilitated by exercise and diet. Counselling and therapy helped me to be kind to myself and to brave the murky waters of my emotions and childhood trauma, whereas cussing and yelling at myself for making mistakes only ever made me commit more mistakes.
I learned about this topic firsthand while Carrie went missing from our marriage. I would clean up the home, I would do all the groceries, I would fuss and worry about our relationships with friends and family, all sorts of stuff. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I made Carrie take care of these things in the past, like remembering people’s birthdays and other significant dates, replying to people that reached out to us to hang out or to say hello, making sure the home was fully stocked. We’re back on track now, splitting up responsibilities based on care and ability, but it was a dark period for me the last couple years. I’m terrible with finances, starting later in life with managing my own money and expenses whereas Carrie moved away from home to go to school at 18 and already held several jobs by then. I was super worried about money when I quit my job and went on EI, then lost it only to be backpaid after three months, then started a job in retail. I wanted Carrie to focus only on graduating on time, even though she was willing to take a break from school to ensure we made enough money to stay afloat. Before my resolution, the emotional labour I usually took care of was to make money, drive, and talk with Carrie, but now I see how unfair it was for me to not grocery shop, tidy, plan events with friends, share the TV, be attentive in general to the needs of our relationship. It was hard doing most of the emotional labour, but I also know that my hands aren’t clean.
The two year period where I sought counselling is what I call The Struggle. I was juggling work, Carrie’s grad program, and counselling. I could probably handle two of those at a time, but somehow I thought I was strong enough to handle all three. A lot of my worst case scenarios played out during that time, all within a fairly short timeframe, and I hit rock bottom. I stopped contact with my family, a good half-dozen friends moved away for work within a few months, Carrie had a couple terrible semesters, and I had to quit my job to preserve my mental health. All of the burdens fell on me at once with few supports in sight. I crawled out of the wreckage eventually, but it was bleak. During that time, I wrote:
Counselling made me a lot stronger than I realized. There's a confidence that comes from hitting rock bottom. You know how bad it can get, and you also know that you survived. Even though I thought I had duct taped together a nice little comfy life by my mid 20's, I almost lost it all. That's made me less afraid of the world, and it also deepens my gratitude.
What’s the meaning of suffering? One takeaway I have from all these experiences is that everybody suffers to varying degrees, and it creates common ground between us if we talk about it. The internet and technology in general have given voices to many that never had it before, which has both positive and negative impacts, but for those that are suffering, it’s a lifeline. When you mention you’re depressed on social media, someone around this world will reach out and offer assistance, whether by mentioning local resources and professionals or simply by empathizing. My blog has become a bit of a lightning rod for people who are in pain because every once in a while, I’ll get a message saying that a passage or phrase reached someone’s heart and eased their suffering. By describing what I’m going through, people can relate through one of their past experiences, or they at least know where they can turn to if it happens to them or someone they know in the future.
For those of us who don’t suffer as much, or for those times when we thrive and stop suffering, I feel it’s our responsibility to help reduce the pain and strife that others experience. Meanwhile, I have to fight the temptation to keep focusing only on myself and my inconveniences.
When your body faces a threat and gets charged up to address it, there can be an interruption, causing that energy to stay in the body even after the threat disappears. Maybe the problem resolves itself, or the person’s body backfires and freezes up because the threat is too overwhelming. I did a lot of work in therapy to discharge the heightened energy of trauma stored in my body. There’s still some leftover in my shoulders, which requires the slow painful work of strengthening the surrounding muscles and massaging out the evil and darkness. When you’re a hammer, you see everything as a nail even when it’s not. I know I’ve been traumatized multiple times, so I tend to misdiagnose others as having been traumatized as well. Even still, I think it’s a valuable lens in examining why people are the way they are. There are tons of movies predicated on a character being traumatized and resolving it by the end.
Some of you are thinking “Okay, Jon, we’ve read all this before. There’s nothing new. Why did I come here? Give me something worth my while because that was all a waste of time.” To that I would say, “Hey chill out, dude. Why are you being so critical? Go fly a kite and stop riding my ass because I’m trying to be kind to myself and not let my inner critical voices dominate my experience. But you’re still right. Here’s something new.”
Leap of Faith
If you’re constantly growing, you have to take a leap of faith every once in a while. If you’re doing it right, you’re taking big risks on a regular basis; for me, I’m taking about one a year. I’ve found that there’s really no end to these big leaps if I want to be whole. If you shy away from the opportunity, then it’ll catch up to you eventually in a longer and more costly way. It was terrifying moving homes when we were already so comfy, but we were validated only three weeks later when the #yycflood hit our old place. It was scary taking a 25% pay cut moving jobs and industries in 2014, even while the oil industry in Alberta was riding high. It was nerve-wracking to buy our home when we had already decided earlier that year to not buy any real estate. My new three year’s resolution was a scary proposition because it meant sacrificing any elevated self-esteem I would get from doing more of the work that was killing me. It was scary sharing with the world that I was sexually abused as a child.
You have to be scared. Sometimes you have to suspect that the grass is greener on the other side and go for it even though everything is telling you it’s the wrong decision. You just have to trust your gut that you’ll land safely on the other side, even when there is plenty of evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion. My three years resolution made a lot of assumptions: that I would live another three years; that Carrie would graduate; that I could find wholeness. Doing the right thing requires courage to take the leap of faith.
Was three years the right amount of time? How do I feel coming out the other side? I’m happy, and I don’t only find my self-worth in my work anymore. I derive worth and meaning from numerous areas, I do things for fun and to fulfill my life’s purpose. I know I have inherent worth and value even while doing nothing, which back then is something I could say for others but never for myself.
I don’t have the need to do important work in order to validate my existence. I don’t need to reach some title or position in order for my dad to be proud of me. I can be proud of myself even though I’m certain he’s disappointed in me now. I don’t need to attain some randomly assigned measure of greatness in order to feel accepted. I also don’t feel like I need to take a huge break to work on my problems anymore. The three years was a way of catching up on lost time, but moving forward, I can work on my problems day by day. I’m good enough the way I am, and as long as I live each day to the fullest, I’ll be okay. I’m going to follow my heart instead of my greedy eyes.