The Unknown, The Unexpected

cranium-2028555_1280Life is full of unknowns, the unexpected. Sometimes those unknowns and unexpected things are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re exciting and sometimes they’re scary. I had one of those scary experiences recently—when I found out I might have cancer. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced—especially since my mind automatically started playing out the worst-case scenario over and over in my head. I kept seeing the doctor telling me I only had so long to live. Waiting to go back to the doctor, waiting for the biopsy, waiting for the results of the biopsy was agonizing. Excruciating. It was so hard to focus, so hard to be present. I kept obsessing about how I would tell my kids, what I would want my ex to know with raising the kids on his own. I couldn’t stop wondering how it would affect my relationship with my boyfriend—a man I love, want to marry and spend the rest of my life with—a life that could be cut short. There were times the fear and panic took over, and I’d find myself sobbing on the floor, feeling so alone. But there were also times of incredible peace and comfort as I chose to turn to my Father in Heaven and my Savior, Jesus Christ. That is a huge part of how I have survived mental illness for so many years. As difficult as mental illness is, as much as I wish I could just be completely free of it, I’m also grateful for what it has taught me and how it has prepared me for other hard things in life.

Some people ask, “Why?” when hit with one of those hard, difficult unknowns. Anytime I hear someone ask, “Why me?” or, “Why them?” I ask, “Why not you? Why not them? What makes you so special that you shouldn’t have to suffer the way everyone else does. Because everyone suffers.” It’s true. Every single person in this world suffers and struggles, and who are we to say that our suffering or our struggles are greater than someone else’s? During my own time of uncertainty I never asked why. Instead I turned to another lesson learned from living with mental illness. I told myself to look for the things I could learn from this. And beyond that, I told myself that if I did have cancer I was going to make sure my kids saw the beauty in life, the things to be grateful for. I would want them to learn from the experience, to grow, to discover how it could help them rather than ask why or blame God.

As scary and agonizing as it was to wait and wonder it was even more relieving and exciting to find out the biopsy came back negative—to find out I didn’t have cancer. But I’ve been trying to keep those lessons and moments of peace I had with me. Sometimes it’s hard. Everyday life can get so busy and distracting. That’s one reason I write—to remember. To look back and remember what I’ve learned. To look back and remember what to be grateful for. To look back and remember the hard times, but also the beautiful ones.

Controlling My Fears

I let fear drive my life for so many years. As a child I believed there really were monsters hiding under the bed. When I was six or seven I had this poster hung above my bed depicting various fairytale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Every night I forcibly reminded myself not to look at the poster before I turned the light out because I just knew if I looked at the Big Bad Wolf he would jump out of the poster and eat me.

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Fear never really went away. I always imagined the worst happening so I often never tried. If I did, there was always someone there to catch me when I fell. Even as an adult I was an extremely dependent person. If I was afraid to do something I convinced others—my parents, my husband—to do it for me.

Getting divorced forced me to become independent, which is actually a lesson I have been so grateful for. It has been incredibly empowering knowing that I can do things, that I can take care of myself, my kids, my house. Of course I have needed help. We all need help at times. A few weeks ago my washing machine broke. I couldn’t fix it, but I did reach out, seeking help, and one of my friends came to the rescue. He figured out that it simply needed a new part. So I ordered it, then he came back and installed it for me. When I was married I would have left everything up to my ex. Asking for help and calling someone on the phone were things I feared, so I wouldn’t have done them. I would have stayed in my comfy, cozy bubble and let someone else do all the hard stuff.

It has been a difficult lesson to learn, and I still often find myself initially giving into my fears. However, I recently made up my own form of exposure therapy, I suppose you could say.

There is a waterpark near my house that my kids and I love to go to in the summer. One of the waterslides has a pitch black tunnel in it. This summer was the first time I had ever gone it, and boy did I freak out! My very first time on it I had a panic attack, especially as I thought about how scared my son would be going down it. He came out smiling and excited! I came out trembling and nearly unable to breathe. I was never going on that waterslide again! But the next time we went to the waterpark my six-year-old wanted to go on the tunnel slide, so I forced myself to go on it as well. I decided I no longer wanted fear to guide my decisions in life.

Even though I know what the waterslide is like it still freaks me out every time I go on it. I hate the utter darkness, hate not being able to see where I’m going. Each time I enter that tunnel fear grips me in its dark, icy tendrils. Every. Single. Time. My chest tightens, my heart pounds, and my throat closes to where I can barely breathe. But I make myself go on it, usually several times, to remind myself that fear will no longer control me. I will control my fears.

My Own Life Lessons

I’ve been reading Life Lessons in the Band Room, a book my high school band director recently published, just after he retired. So far I’ve been loving it and highly recommend it. You can check it out here.

The book has brought back so many memories from my time in marching band, things I had completely forgotten about and probably would never have remembered, otherwise. This morning I read from chapter 6, The Power of Choices, and from within the chapter, Choosing Hard Things. For those who have followed my blog from the beginning, you could probably guess that this section of the chapter spoke to me. I’ve written before about doing hard things. My own personal mantra or saying for my life, ever since I gave birth to my first child, has been, “You can do hard things.” In reading this chapter, I realized that marching band was probably one of the first lessons I really got in realizing that I could, indeed, do hard things.

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In the book, Steven Hendricks describes how hard marching band is. “. . . can you play that well while marching around a football field? Can you play while concentrating on moving forward, backward, and sideways? Can you play and successfully navigate through a drill that requires you to memorize eighty-plus coordinates? Can you learn to separate your lower body from your upper body so you are an athlete and a musician at the same time? Finally, can you do all of this and trust every other kid on the field to do his or her job so you don’t have to worry about running into someone or falling over a prop that was misplaced? Marching band is hard!”

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It really is hard! I remember being so excited to start marching band. I had neighbors and friends of my brother’s who had done it and all loved it. Summer band was okay. Most of the time we marched in a straight line, and I could handle that. But learning the field show for fall competition season just about killed me! And I was a pretty decent flute player! I had sat first or second chair throughout most of junior high band, but I struggled so much with being able to play and march at the same time. I remember being embarrassed at how much help I needed from my section leader at band camp. As the season wore on I got better. I could play a little bit while marching. But I wasn’t going to give up. I loved band, and I loved playing my flute. By the time our very last competition came that year I was able to play the entire field show while marching the show at the same time. I was so happy! And by the time my junior year of marching band came, I had no problems. It’s strange to look back on it now and wonder why I struggled so much. I even went on to become the flute/piccolo section leader my senior year. Even though it was easier by then, I can still say with complete honesty that marching band is hard! But it was so worth it. I still look back on it, nearly twenty years later, and can say it was one of the best experiences of my life.

In the same chapter, Steve talks about how people often choose easy things over hard things. This was definitely me for much of my life. I always did really well in school, got good grades, graduated with high honors, got scholarships to college. A huge part of that was because I worked my butt off, but some of it was also because I chose the easy way within my classes. I chose to read books or write papers on subjects I knew would be easy for me. Then, during my third year of college, for some reason I decided to challenge myself.

Instead of a final test in my Native American Lit. class we had a final paper to write. I automatically thought of the easiest thing I could write. However, I figured I should go out with a bang. I had known since I was in ninth grade that I wanted to major in English. There I was, at college, starting my upper division courses in English, and I realized it wasn’t right for me anymore. So I decided to change schools and change my major. This was going to be the last Lit. paper I ever wrote. So I chose to go with a tougher topic, using a literary theory I didn’t feel I understood super well, but that I knew my professor appreciated. Writing that paper was harder than any other one I had ever written. It took so much time, and I stressed about it so much. When I finally finished and turned it in I decided I would be happy with a C on it. I couldn’t believe it when I picked it up during finals week and saw a 90 on it. I got an A-! It was the hardest paper I had ever written, but it was the best paper I had ever written as well. And my professor had seen that. I still am just as happy today as I was then that I chose the hard over the easy. It yet again proved to me that I could do hard things.

Probably my favorite quote from Steve in this chapter is when he talks about all the kids who make the choice to do marching band despite how hard it is. He asks why we choose to do hard things. “We do them because the reward for doing hard things is so much greater than the reward for doing easy things. We do it because it prepares us for the hard things that will inevitably arise in the future.” I know this is true. I know I wouldn’t have felt the sort of accomplishment I did on my paper had I written something easy. There are so many things I wouldn’t have learned, experiences I wouldn’t have been able to cherish, had I given up and not continued doing marching band, something that was hard. And I know these experiences do help us. We can allow ourselves to grow and add upon what we’ve already been through.

Giving natural childbirth to my daughter a little over eleven years ago was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. Giving natural childbirth to my son a little less than four-and-a-half years later was even harder. He was a lot bigger! Even though it was painful and so, so, so incredibly hard, it was so, so, so worth it! Those were the two best days of my life! Not just because I had brought these beautiful beings into the world, but because I had chosen to do something hard, and I still use those experiences to help me do hard things to this day. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I now believe choosing to do marching band, choosing to stretch and challenge myself with that lit. paper, helped me believe that I could do other hard things, like giving natural childbirth, which helps me do hard things now.

As I’ve said before, doing hard things, such as dealing with mental illness, might not be pretty. Trust me, giving birth, whether natural or not, is never pretty! With my son, I screamed, and I cried, like I scream, and I cry through some of the difficulties life throws at me now. That’s okay. You don’t have to do those hard things in a pretty or perfect way or in any certain timeframe. You just have to do them. And you can. You can do hard things.

A note about the pictures: They are pictures of pictures. That tells you how old I am! My high school marching band days were before the era of digital cameras, and my scanner isn’t working. So pictures of pictures. The first one is a shot of us on the field at a competition my senior year of high school. The second one is of me leading a sectional before a competition when I was section leader. Such good memories!

Life Lesson Learned

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a retirement event for my high school band director. Band was huge at my high school. We had student officers and dance royalty who did band. I even knew cheerleaders who gave up cheerleading to do band or color guard. It has one of the most successful band programs in the state. A huge part of this is because of a motivated, dedicated and loving band director.

Over the last week I’ve been thinking about my time in marching band. I think about it often—yes even seventeen years later! I can still say it was one of the best experiences of my life. Besides being able to play and be a part of some amazing music, which was food to my soul, I met some of my best friends from band. One of the most valuable experiences I gained, however, was leadership skills.

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I had never really been in a leadership position before, other than as a president in my Young Women’s class at church when I was twelve or thirteen. I had always been a shy, quiet person. As I got into high school I didn’t want to be that person anymore because I didn’t feel as though it was me anymore, yet I could never find the courage to break out of the mold that I felt others had formed for me. I had to live up to other’s expectations of who I was. I thought I had qualities that would make me a good leader, but I wasn’t sure how to, or if I ever did, show it. I was a fairly good flute player, not the best, but good, but that wasn’t necessarily enough to be a section leader, which was something I wanted so badly my senior year of high school.

When it came time to vote for section leaders as I approached that last year of high school I was afraid people would only see my mental illness instead of seeing me—that they would see it as a hinderance and something that made me not good enough. I guess I forgot what amazing people they were because they were able to see past it, they did see me, and I was voted as section leader.

What an amazing experience it was! I came to love each of those girls—yes, I had twenty-nine girls under me! However, the band director and I sometimes had our differences. Part way through the competition season I became upset about a decision he made. Without going into the whole long story, I pretty much defied him and rebelled against what I was supposed to do. I was this hippie-like character after all!

Obviously I ended up getting into a lot of trouble for it. As the band director was discussing my discipline he suggested taking me out as section leader and putting someone else in. The thought was devastating. He asked me what I thought about that. “Well, you have to do what you have to do,” I said, “but I will tell you that (said person) isn’t a good leader.” He thought for a second, laughed then told me, “You’re right. She’s not. I’m not going to do that.”

I did end up having to explain to the band that afternoon at rehearsal what had happened and apologize, which was extremely embarrassing, but I got to stay in as section leader. Knowing that he had that kind of faith in me, despite the fact that I had messed up, meant so much to me. It still means so much to me. And it has become an incredible life lesson as well.

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I can use this as it applies to parenting. When a child does something wrong, it’s okay to reprimand and discipline, but it’s also important to let them know you still love them and have faith in them. Let them know that even though you are disappointed they did the wrong thing you know they are still good and of worth and can do better.

I can use this when looking at mental illness. Sometimes we have setbacks, but that doesn’t mean we have failed and need to be completely devastated. Awhile ago I had a very low point in my life. I had lost all hope. But guess what? I got it back. I kept going, I kept trying, and I got it back. Just because I hit rock bottom didn’t mean that was the end. I had to have faith in myself. And I did. I picked myself up and tried again. And right now I’m in an incredibly good place mentally, emotionally and physically.

I’m so grateful for a band director who was able to see past my deficiencies and continue to let me grow and develop and do something that meant the world to me. And I’m grateful for the lesson it taught me, that I’m still gleaning from.

Inspiration

Life has been busy and crazy lately. I guess life is always busy and crazy. My mind has been swarmed with so many other things I’ve been neglecting my writing. Sometimes that’s just life, too, I suppose. But here is a poem I wrote last spring, then recently revised with the help of a good friend.

Inspiration Along the River

I seek inspiration along the river,
a place I’ve never been before.

The cold bites into my skin with its
razor sharp fangs . . .

But I stay.

Two slate-gray water ouzels bob
on rocks and logs near river’s edge
—up, down, up, down—

then dip their heads, bodies,
fluttering wings,
bathing in the frigid river.

Their dance weaves a lesson
I know I must learn right here,
right now.

The pricks, the stings,
the icy blasts of life
can cleanse and strengthen.

And so I reach to embrace the cold—

seeping in to renew my soul.

Try Again

Today I listened to a song by Audiomachine called Try Again Tomorrow. It got me thinking about something that’s been on my mind for awhile now, and I figured it was time to finally write about it.

We’ve all heard the famous quote Yoda tells Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, right? “Do, or do not. There is no try.” I recently watched a movie on Mindfulness (another subject I’ll probably get to one of these days) that used this quote. I really love the other concepts Mindfulness teaches, and I love Yoda and Star Wars, but this quote has always sort of bugged me.

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The way I look at it, if there is only doing or not doing, then there’s only success or failure, and that would mean I fail A LOT. Mental illness makes “doing” so much harder. Sometimes I don’t do, but not for lack of trying. Really, trying is an act of doing, isn’t it? I’m sure we all also know the proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Today I tried getting my son to play a board or card game with me. He didn’t want to. But the fact that I was even able to motivate myself enough to try was huge! I’ve been in a very bad place lately. My depression, anxiety and OCD have all been extremely debilitating. I’ve retreated to getting lost in books or watching shows on my computer, leaving my son to play games on his tablet all afternoon. I feel horrible when I do that, feel like I’m being the worst mom in the world, but my mental illness is so bad, I don’t do anything about it. But today I tried, and just because I wasn’t successful, doesn’t mean I won’t be tomorrow.

And beyond that, maybe it isn’t always about succeeding or failing. Maybe it’s about the journey, the lessons, about simply living life. But that’s a whole other subject, worthy of its own post. Stay tuned . . . !