For some people, including me, setting and keeping tight boundaries around our time, energy, bodies, and psyche presents a real challenge.
I grew up in a bossy, often angry family that rarely, if ever, asked: “How do you feel?”
It wasn’t deemed relevant. Or I guess they assumed I’d speak up, which I rarely did.
I left my mother’s care at 14 when she was suffering from mental illness and not doing a great job with it. The stress was too much for me.
So I did set a boundary and a major one, early. But every time I hear the Cat Stevens song, Father and Son, it wrings my heart — the father pleading, “Stay, stay” and the son replying “I have to go.”
Sometimes you just do.
But it also matters when it comes to work.
Americans – with the worst/cheapest/nastiest labor policies possible — are used to working like dogs, not taking vacations or sick days, working in “at will” states where you can be legally fired for no reason at all.
So setting boundaries is just very difficult in a culture that expects us to be on and eagerly available pretty much all the time.
Last week, I walked away from a writing assignment worth $1,250 with a new-to-me editor at a major website.
I’m not thrilled about this. I have done this three times in my career, when the stress outweighed the income.
That’s a significant loss of income for us and was only possible because we have savings.
It’s not a habit of mine to bail on work!
But nor is it a habit to work with editors or others who are unpleasant or disrespectful.
I could have stayed.
I could have kept working on this story.
These days, decades into my career, I make my mental health the priority.
Setting and keeping a boundary can mean changing the dynamics of a relationship, or ending it entirely.
It comes at a cost, and has consequences, sometimes those we don’t expect or can’t foresee.
the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.
In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
Maybe like some of you, I’ve been a bit shocked — before reading this story — at how little I have felt the normal drive to work and work and work.
It isn’t just about income, as Grant says:
The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.
We are privileged to not have the burdens of massive debt or kids or grand-kids or parents to support. We have savings. A recent lucrative and easy assignment out of the blue paid enough, (rare but lovely!) I could coast for even a few months.
And so I have been.
I’ve been focused instead on some work in our apartment, with managing a sudden and unexpected arrival of my late mother’s belongings and art from British Columbia, with trying to sell a book proposal seven agents have already rejected, (and managing my battered ego as I try to decide whether to just give up or not), and with slowly healing a sprained wrist and knee from a bad fall March 12.
Plus a lot of medical tests and for now, I’m fine.
My small win?
I’ve become addicted to the NYT Spelling Bee, an online daily challenge making words using some or all of that day’s seven letters. Some days are a lot easier than others — a recent one had 66 words! Whew.
Jose and I recently joined a new gym and it’s huge and spotless and welcoming and I am re-starting my routines, with a set of quite challenging weight exercises set for me by a trainer.
I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.
Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.
We’re coming up on a year of the pandemic and I can’t see getting access to a vaccination for months — even as Jose and I newly qualify.
I’ve been trying for months to find an agent who wants to represent my book proposal. I’m extremely frustrated at how slow this process is and how it feels like begging for attention — it is — even after having already sold and published two books with major publishers.
The fantasy is that agents are cool, smart, helpful.
Some are just…really rude. Like the one I was referred to a few years ago, at a fancy New York City agency. I described the book I hoped to produce and he warned me not to be…shrill. For Christ’s sake.
Then the one this year, also referred by a friend, who hadn’t even bothered to look at my work or realize I had already published twice before.
The lack of respect is appalling, fed by the thousands and thousands of people desperate for a book deal. It’s not pretty.
There are a few ways to find an agent. If you have friends who write in your genre, and are generous, several will offer you a referral to theirs, who may or may not want your book or not be a fit. Or you go find books similar to yours and see who the agent was the author thanked and try them. Or…cold pitch strangers.
None of which is quick or easy or fun.
I’ve also been facing a battery of medical tests to determine why my blood has excess iron. Turns out I have a genetic mutation that causes it but still have to have an MRI of my liver to make sure there isn’t another reason as well. The solution to the former is 16th century — blood-letting!
And I have been trying and trying and trying to lose weight, starting with intermittent fasting November 1. I see my GP Feb. 23 and will see what progress, if any, this has made for my health.
Add to this pile ‘o stress the loss or fading of several friendships.
I know COVID has affected many people, if not their health, their attention span or ability to spare time for others. But it’s hard to go through this much stuff all at once without people to talk to, so I’ve been over-burdening my husband. I very rarely cry, but it’s been a time of tears here recently.
And none of this, objectively, is terrible.
No one but me cares if I sell this damn book
Only my GP cares if I lose weight.
The liver issue won’t require surgery.
And we are very lucky to have work and savings and no one else dependent on us, as so many are.
But I’m cooked.
Only after writing it all down, getting it out of my head, did I realize that trying to manage three damn difficult things at the same time — each of which is slow as hell and anxiety-producing and the successful outcome of which is, to some degree, beyond my control — is so tiring.
Yes, I’m impatient!
I work my ass off and I’m generally used to succeeding,
I loathe failing.
Like everyone, I hate medical surprises; I had no clue my liver was weird. No symptoms. This all showed up thanks to a routine blood test.
I really hate grovelling to find an agent — meeting repeated rejection — watching everyone crow on social media about their book, movie and TV deals.
War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.
By Caitlin Kelly
It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.
A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.
The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.
A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.
If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?
If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.
A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.
This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.
Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.
When they are human.
In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.
I began to dread it.
I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”
It’s human beings.
The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.
Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.
Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.
To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.
Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.
I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.
My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.
I have never seen such shitty behavior.
The past two weeks made me snap.
First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.
Then stalk me on Twitter.
In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.
From now on, I’m just walking.
This is, a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.
Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.
Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.
I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.
I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.
Not so much.
My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.
But I feel so much more fragile.
Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.
It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.
We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.
So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.
I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.
But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.
I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.
But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.
If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.
By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.
Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.
I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.
Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.
I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.
I need to go find this stuff myself!
Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)
I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.
Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.
If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.
But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me — a terrible choice for mental health.
My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.
I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”
People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.
They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.
In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.
No one stared into their phones.
No one stared into their laptop.
No one was rushing off to something more important.
What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.
The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.
He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.
He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.
He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.
There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.
What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?
Been there, lived it and hated it.
I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.
Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.
How to cope:
We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.
We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.
We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!
The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.
Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist.
The C.D.C. reported last year that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average of 12.6 per 100,000. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, all states where isolation can be common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks.
In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide.
In September, mental health experts, community volunteers and law enforcement officers gathered in Casper to discuss possible solutions. Among the participants was Bobbi Barrasso, the wife of Senator John Barrasso, who has made suicide prevention a personal and political mission.
“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up.”
…The realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.
This story hit home for me.
In 1988-89, I spent 18 months living in Lebanon, New Hampshire (now, shockingly, plagued by an epidemic of heroin addiction), a small town of about 10,000 close to the much more affluent town of Hanover, NH, home to Dartmouth College. I moved there to follow my then boyfriend (later husband) in his medical residency at Dartmouth, a four-year commitment.
I was excited. I had only lived downtown, and/or in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Paris. I was really curious about small-town life and looked forward to trying it — but barely lasted a year before I was really in fear of losing my mental health. No exaggeration.
It was the worst time of my life.
We were broke, trying to live (and own two cars) on his salary of $22,000, the nation’s poorest-paying medical residency and my savings. I had no job and there were none to be found.
There was no Internet then. The winter was brutally long and cold. We had no friends or family nearby and every social overture I made was ignored or went unreciprocated.
Everyone was married or pregnant and/or had kids. We were “only” living together, not yet even engaged, which (!?) seemed scandalous to others our age, even students who’d moved there from other large cities.
The only time our phone rang, a voice would say “I need a windshield” — we had inherited the former number for Upper Valley Glass.
I know. That sounds funny.
I became almost agoraphobic because everywhere we went, alone or together, we were socially invisible. Plus, ambitious as hell, I was professionally dying on the vine. Journalism is incredibly competitive and staying out of it for even a year or two is never a great idea.
I had left my country, close friends, a well-paid newspaper job and a gorgeous apartment.
The stifling pressure to conform to some really weird 1950s-era ideal of behavior was crazy. I was criticized — by a friend! — for choosing bright green rubber boots instead of sensible brown or black. And coming from Montreal, a vibrant, bilingual, sophisticated city, the region’s dominant ethos of Yankee self-denial was alien, all these women wearing no makeup or perfume or anything with a visible shape to it.
I had never felt so out of place, not even when I lived in France or Mexico.
Yes, we had a nice apartment. Yes, the countryside was gorgeous. Yes, I actually enjoyed attending the local auction every Friday and learned a lot about antiques.
But I fled to New York within 18 months of arriving there; I would never have made it through another three years there.
For the past 25 years I’ve lived in a small town, but one only 25 miles from Manhattan. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy, quick access to one of the busiest and most challenging cities in the world — with the beauty and silence that also recharges and refreshes me. I know enough people here now I’m always seeing someone I know at the gym or the post office or the grocery stores. but without feeling stifled or excluded.
Do you live in a rural or isolated area or small town?
But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.
It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.
I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.
Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.
According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.
For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.
For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.
I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.
Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.
The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.
Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.
Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.
And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)
A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.
But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.
I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…
No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!
Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)
But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.
Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.
Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:
“You can’t be a normal human being.”
By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.
Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.
But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.
Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.
I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.
How about you?
Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?
Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?