Shadow Monsters (Rescuing the Muse, Part 7)

When I wake, I have the sense that it is morning, though I can’t see much light beyond the distant canopy of trees. Everything is covered in that twilight gloom that makes it difficult to gather much detail from your surroundings. I peer awkwardly around me as I sit by the cold embers of my fire and wait for the world to grow brighter as I nibble on a measly breakfast. I am already hungry, but I know I must be careful with my supplies.

The longer I wait, the more the heavy realization sinks in that the world won’t be getting much brighter today. I sigh and sling my pack over my shoulder as I carefully make my way farther down the dirt path. This will have to do for today. I set a decent pace as I wander along the trail, forcing my mind to stay on the task at hand. It isn’t until late morning when the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand on end and I get that needling feeling that someone is watching me. I cast my eyes into the woods surrounding me, hoping I can catch a glimpse of my hidden companion. But the trees remain still, and my stalker stays hidden in the shadows.

There is a whisper about me, though when I stop to listen I cannot make out any words. Is it the wind? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I have only been away from the village for a short time, surely I am not already imagining things. Is that the secret of these treacherous woods that the locals would not tell me: does everyone who steps foot in here go mad?

“What makes you think the woods have anything to do with it? Surely all those people were mad before they set foot in these lands,” a voice whispered in my ear, stretching out the s’s like a snake. I nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned in a quick circle, arm outstretched to catch my foe. But nothing was there, my fingers passed through mere air. A soft chuckle met my ears as I stood frozen in place.

“Oh, my dear child, tut, tut, there is no catching what you cannot see. Surely you know that by now,” it crowed from my left. I stared intently at the spot, waiting for something, anything- a flash of movement. But there was only a shadow across the path, a dark and murky splotch of air in the empty void between myself and the distant trees.

My blood turned to ice with dawning realization. I had heard of these phantoms before, these dangerous creatures that pass through the world unseen. They were the Shadows that sang songs of despair and disdain int our ears. They reveled in self-loathing, luxuriated in anxiety and hate. They were the monsters that were impossible to fight, the ones that found a crumb of weakness within the soul and held tightly to it. They were the worst nightmares and the most hidden of fears.

The shadow cackled softly, a low growling sound, “Ah, so I see you have heard of me,” he responded, though I had never uttered a word. These creatures were dangerous for this very fact: you could not fool them because they could instinctively feel the nature of your thoughts, could read the quickening pulse of your heart. They could taste your fear, and knew your sadness. They could become as much a part of you as your big toe.

“You, my sweet adventurer are an apple ripe for the picking. So brave of you to wander willingly into my home. Tell me, young fly, what is it like to finally meet a spider? Can you feel my web ensnaring you?” Every syllable dripped with barely concealed mirth as he gloated.

How do you fight a monster that can see inside your soul? How do you combat something that knows every secret you harbor in your heart? How do you move forward when the fear they inspire leaves your muscles rigid and unmoving? “You can’t,” the shadow whispered, closer now.

They say that for a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and come completely undone. It dissolves it’s very cells so that it can reorganize them into a new form. This transformation cannot be easy, and it certainly doesn’t sound pain free. It is not the quiet little nap we envision; but change never is. There is action roiling below the surface that many could never even fathom with a cursory glance. I often wonder if the caterpillar knows what is in store for it when it feels that urge to wrap itself up tightly in the safe confines of its cocoon. When it enters that darkness, does it know what it will being undoing? Does it know what it will become?

Every single one of us carries a shadow self: the darkness within our cocoon that we must learn to embrace and work through if we ever wish to grow into something more than what we are. It is one of the hardest battles we will ever wage, primarily because we often don’t recognize what we are fighting. These shadow voices are so deeply ingrained in who we are that we often can’t differentiate their voices from our own. To fight these shadows we must recognize them and pull them into the light. We must scrape away at the years of detritus until we are able to unearth the core of their existence. At the heart of every shadow is a seed, a core belief that we have struggled with repeatedly over the years until they grew far too complex for us to simply manage.

It is far easier to recognize the symptoms of our monster than to acknowledge what it truly is. For me, my monster tended to present itself in stuttering steps and lack of follow-through. It was found in good intentions that were never acted upon or not fully invested in. It was the big dreams that I shied away from when action was required. It was the career I feel into thirteen years ago and never left, even though the passion started to ebb. It was the promotions I applied for and got, even though I knew they were a mistake- but I thought I was supposed to want them. It was the schooling I put on pause when I was dealing with medical issue, but never returned to after they resolved. It’s the novels I never sent to publishers, the way I still hide my computer screen from my partner, even though I’ll send these words out into the ether. It’s the way I cling to a 9 to 5 job because it feels secure, even though my heart pulls me somewhere else. It’s in the way I shrug my shoulders and say “I’ll go back to school when I know what I want to do with my life,” when the truth is: I’ve known my direction for a long time, I just never feel comfortable saying it out loud. Over and over again I have battled with these inner demons without realized that they are all the same monster, just wearing different masks.

The core of my shadow is a lack of confidence in my own abilities, it is a fear of failing. I have never once taken the risk of betting on myself, even though I will go all-in for anyone else. I care too much what other people think, and I always have. I question my instincts and my dreams over and over again until I talk myself out of them. I was a girl with goals and hopes that were larger than life. And in theory I believed in them; at least, I thought I believed in them. But when it came to action, I shied away. I turned down a different road that was paved and well-lit even though I could feel the winds calling me across that other field and through the brambles. I knew I wasn’t living my authentic life, I was settling for a safe life. I convinced myself that the life I was living was good enough; and on those days when it wasn’t, I told myself that it was okay- this was only temporary, and I would figure it out. But I knew all along that those were just words with no backbone.

I don’t know where this fear came from. I’m sure a really good therapist could help me figure it out, but alas- that is another step that I have always hesitated to take (even though I strongly encourage everyone to see one because mental health is important). It’s like I’m afraid of confirming my worst fears. If don’t try, then I can keep dreaming and I don’t have to face the fact that I’m not good enough. I don’t have to worry that I quit a great job to follow a dream that died and left me…where? What is the worst that could happen? What am I afraid of?

For once let’s be honest. I am not weak. No, every time my back has been pushed to the wall, I have proven that I could fight. I am capable of pushing myself beyond the limits I thought I had. When my world cracked and swallowed me whole, I climbed back out all on my own. I kept living when every fiber inside of me demanded to know why I should even bother. I walked through my own personal hell and came out the other side carrying buckets of water for those still engulfed in the flames. I am afraid of failing, and yet every time I was forced to give it my all: I succeeded. When my world crumbled below my feet, I rebuilt beautiful things in that rubble. This fear that I have: this fear of not being good enough, of not being strong enough: it’s unfounded. It’s a lie. It’s a whisper that the shadows desperately want me to believe because it’s the only foothold they have.

To confront your shadow, you must name it. You must stare it straight in the eyes and do whatever it is warning you against. If it’s telling you not to create because you might not be any good- do it anyway. And even if it is awful: stick that work in a frame and place it on your desk with pride. Because it is not just your lopsided attempt of a hedgehog drawing: no, it’s the proverbial sword that you used to slay your monster.

The shadow will not go away overnight. It will be with you for days, weeks, perhaps years. But it will not always control you if you continue to push back against every inch of ground it tries to take. Sometimes all you will gain are tiny steps: actually, it is pretty much always tiny steps. You are going to fight the shadow with a matchstick and not a flamethrower, but my dear, you will win if you are persistent. You will shine that light on every square inch of the monster until he has no where else he can hide.

My matches? They’re small- but they’re working. I started my silly art challenge last week. I am drawing not-so-stellar pictures that I am sharing with you right here on the internet where literally anyone can find them for the rest of eternity. And as cavalier as I like I to act when doing this- it is absolutely terrifying to share a vulnerability, to give you a piece of me that feels weak and unprepared. But it makes me stronger. It erases that fear. Because what is the worst that has happened since I started sharing them? Nothing. No one has even said an unkind word. And even if they did- so what? That speaks more about them than it does about me. Who cares when I’ve found something I enjoy doing in my spare time? And hey- I can always get better. This is just a start.

My other matches? This blog, for one. I’ve started and restarted it for years, but this feels different somehow. My mentality towards my work has shifted. And it feels so damn good to be writing again, and to be so brutally honest with myself while doing so. And even if no one else reads another word I write: that’s okay. Because this is something I’ve always done for me, and this is something I will continue to do simply because I want to.

I’ve spent time refocusing on the things that I enjoy. I’ve reevaluated what I like and don’t like about my job. I’ve researched new learning opportunities and degree programs that could help me move forward with my life. I’ve begun making the financial arrangements required for a future shift. I’ve admitted my fears and my lack of direction. I’ve opened up with those close to me about the things I really want to do with my life and my fears surrounding them. And I’m finally doing something about it. My scrappy side is coming out, and she is one tough little cookie. I’m working on changing my inner dialog so that I stop telling myself I can’t do the things that I love. Perhaps these dreams won’t turn out exactly as I hoped, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lead me somewhere even better; that doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in my story.

This week I’ll continue on that path. I’ll write awkward sentences and draw some abstract art. I’ll drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods to feed my brain. I’ll spend more time with my motivational self-help books and career guides, and I’ll consider new paths that I never truly let myself examine before. I’ll light one little matchstick after another until the shadow is a memory. That’s the only way to fight this little war.

I could feel the icy grip of tentacles closing around me, hear the whispered shouts and screams of his former victims as he pulled at me, trying to suck me into his realm, to sap the life right out of me. There was no one here to rescue me, not a soul who would know where to look. My Muse would stay locked in that tower forever, thinking I had given up on her.

No, this couldn’t be how it ended. The good guys are supposed to win, they are supposed to climb the mountain, reach the summit, be the hero of their own story. They aren’t supposed to die on an anonymous path in the middle of the woods. This is not how the story goes. I slowly reached for my pack, fighting against the fog that was clouding my brain. The shadow was too focused on his imminent success to even notice the subtle shift in my thoughts, the hardening edge of determination creeping into my mind. I reached for the tiny splinter of wood and struck the match.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Out of the Ashes (the growth of a seed)

When a forest is burned, what grows back often does not resemble what was lost. The searing flames cut away the old, they leave the soil barren and empty. But in this emptiness a miracle takes place; something new is given a chance to live. The seeds that had remained buried and dormant for so long are granted the space they need to struggle for the light. It may be months before you see them peek out from the wreckage, but they always emerge. Humans are more similar to the forests than we ever dare admit.
It is an inevitable reality that we all must walk through the flames; it is the price we pay to truly live. Often times the person who emerges from the fire is far different than the one who stepped into it. Six months ago I was shattered. I stumbled through my days wondering how the world could still turn even though it had cracked. And yet now, the first green sprouts are beginning to bloom.

There is pain in the loss, in the knowledge of what can no longer be. But there is a power too, when you realize that the worst has happened and you are still alive. You find a new purpose to fill your empty spaces, you pay tribute to the person you were before, and you learn to love the one you are rebuilding. It is not an easy process to grow a forest again on scorched land. It takes patience and kindness in a world that doesn’t always foster those two ideals.

When you find yourself lost in that barren landscape, one question echoes through the emptiness: what will you allow to grow in that broken place? This is the distinction between us and the forests we love- we get a choice to foster and cultivate what is left when the world changes us.

Give yourself permission to grow again, do not clutch the arid landscape of your life before. This is perhaps the hardest thing you will ever have to do; to acknowledge your pain and the way it has transformed you, to forgive, and to take the first steps towards healing. It will take time; all beautiful things do. But you are worth it, your journey is not done.

You have to feel it- everything, though there are days you may think you will break under the pressure of it all. The only way to grow is to let those rains wash over you. If you fight it, tuck it away, run from it- the pain will only make you hard and bitter to the world. But opening up to it will transform you.

Often those who have been through the worst that the world can offer are the ones who show the deepest kindness and compassion. These are the ones who will willingly step back into the flames carrying buckets of water to create a path for those still lost in the fire. These are the ones who took their broken pieces and patched them together with gold; they respect and acknowledge their damage, and are made all the more beautiful for it. Growth is not easy; it will be the greatest struggle of your life. But give yourself permission to do it anyway.

I struggled for a long time. It took me six months to realize that I was angry with myself for things I could not control. It took me half a year to acknowledge that I wasn’t willing to let myself heal, that I didn’t think I deserved it. I was carrying around so much grief, and I didn’t know what to do with it all. But you see, grief is really just love overflowing. I needed a place to put it. So I decided to start with me.

I sat down and wrote myself a letter. I acknowledged my pain, why I was so angry. And I forgave myself. I was finally ready to take that step. And then I did the thing that had scared for half a year: I gave myself permission to continue on with my life. I won’t say that I ‘let go’ of what happened or that I ‘moved on’ because I don’t think that’s always possible. I didn’t want to move on because that felt like forgetting; and that is something I won’t ever be okay with. But I acknowledged that these broken fragments are pieces of me that will always be here. I am a kinder person for them. The journey is only just beginning, and it takes effort every single day to keep growing, to show myself love and kindness, to remind myself that I deserve both. I was burned to the ground, but I survived; and now it is time embrace the girl who was strong enough to grow from the ashes.

Falling for Change

September is officially here, ushering in the prospect of change that I have been so desperate for. I carry the excited hope in my heart: fall is just around the corner. It’s hard to believe right now; we are in the midst of yet another 100+ degree heatwave. Our forests are dry as a bone, and instead of our usual rain, I have ash falling from the sky into my backyard. The forest fires are raging and we are getting desperate for our summer to come to a close.

I tend to change with the seasons; following an internal rhythm that dances through my veins. I get anxious when I try to fight it, when I become too complacent, too comfortable in my skin. My restless spirit begins to pace; it feels like my soul itself will break through my skin if I don’t do something new. And so I must heed the song of the Pied Piper playing music in my heart, I have no choice.

Some decisions are reckless and poorly thought out; like when I couldn’t stand catching my long hair on everything, so I convinced my fiancé to chop off three inches with kitchen scissors as we stood on the back patio. I simply couldn’t wait a moment longer; I was frustrated and just done with it all. It felt amazing, actually. He did a good job. That was the first change. As it turns out, it was a bit symbolic. I’ve always been one of those people who is all or nothing, zero or a hundred; I’m in or I’m out. Well, my friends, I’ve glanced at the cards, and I am all in.

I took a leap and started the process to get back into school; I stopped before finishing my degree a decade ago. It’s the decision I have always regretted, the one that makes my heart sink every time I think of it. I love my job, but I’m not living up to my potential, I’m not finding the fulfillment that I once did. The problem is, that I don’t really have the tools in my kit to make me competitive in the job market anymore. I grew too comfortable in my niche. It’s time to fix that. It’s time to do what I was meant to do with my life. I have to stop handing out excuses like they’re lollipops. It’s time to invest in my own future and do what needs to be done. I’m older now, I have the wisdom and motivation to do it the right way. It’s terrifying; I haven’t been in school for ten years. But that’s exactly why I need to go back. These regrets I carry; they’ve turned into monsters that hide under my bed and lurk in my closet. I will never be at peace until I turn on the light and confront them.

I’m learning to invest in myself again; to find the core of my personal dissatisfaction and face it head on. It’s painful to shine a light into all of your dark corners. It’s uncomfortable when you turn a critical eye on the choices you have made and recognize why you made them. But it’s necessary if you ever want to grow beyond the person you are today. I’ve found that I get lost in cyclical thinking; breaking these habits is hard, finding the right headspace for change is not meant to be easy. But it’s worth it. I’ve been lost in the usual patterns, treading water in my daily life. I’m not really sure what changed, but I just grew sick of it; all of it. Something inside snapped and I just couldn’t watch myself living the exact same day over and over again. I wasn’t happy with the way I was spending my time, I wasn’t happy with work, I wasn’t happy with my body. I just wasn’t happy. And I wanted to blame circumstances for it. I wanted to point the finger and rid myself of the guilt that was weighing me down. After all, it couldn’t be my fault. I wanted to be happy, it was the world that wasn’t letting me. There just wasn’t enough time in the day, I would say. The muse isn’t with me. I’m too tired to work out. Eating healthy is just so expensive and time consuming. My coworkers take too much time off and I’m burnt out picking up the slack. School is too expensive, it’s been too long, I don’t have time. I had an excuse for everything. And yet I knew that the real culprit was me; I was being lazy. I was depressed and would rather curl up into my rut instead searching for a way to climb out. I went into hibernation and didn’t notice. I made excuses and I let myself wallow in them. Because for a while it was easier. It was easier to stew in my melancholy than to change. I was accustomed to my complacency, it was the easy way out. Until it wasn’t.

My soul grew restless, I felt my heart pulling me towards change, willing me to do something, anything out of my routine. I couldn’t sit there complaining to myself anymore; my words were useless. So I got up, and I did something. I cut my hair, I applied to school, I started working out, I bought fresh groceries, I went and hiked through a cave with my two best friends. I started writing again.

The first few steps were the hardest; getting up to put on my workout clothes was tough, but when I felt the sweat on my arms, when my legs were shaking and my face was beet red; I felt amazing. Because doing something- even something painful- will always feel so much better than sitting there thinking about it. My tummy is still chubby, my muscles are still weak and my arms won’t be ready for tank tops anytime soon; but I’m doing something, I’m trying. And right now- that’s all I need to do.

The world is slowly changing, and I must follow. The leaves will soon wear their masks of bright colors, dressing up the trees in their season’s best. The air will grow cold, crisp and fresh, the morning frost will stain the grass a sparking white. The rain will come and wash away the scorched earth that this summer has wrought. The world will find the gentle peace that comes with the coming season, easing away from the ravenous passions of the last.

Change can be so beautiful when we are willing to embrace it. This is going to be a gorgeous year, built for new adventures, I can feel it in my blood, pounding through my veins, breathing life into my soul. I’m falling in love with this new life I’m creating, I’m falling in love with the season that has always helped me find myself again. I missed this old road, I feel enriched to have found it again.

May you find all that you are looking for, my friends. May you peer fearlessly into your own soul and find the road that will lead you where your heart belongs. This life we were gifted with; it is pointless if we stand here stagnant. Never be afraid of those winds of change. Never be afraid to travel down that road. Success or failure- it doesn’t matter- the point is that you walked that path, you found where it led, and you learned from it, simply because you dared to brave the risks of taking that chance. Embrace the change, enjoy the season; because none will ever be quite like this one.

I’m a Writer, I’m a Runner (and how they are the same damn thing)

I am not a natural runner, never have been, never will be. This is a fact that used to make me rage internally. I wanted to be that girl; there's a version of myself that I envision in some alternate reality in a galaxy far, far away. She's fit, lean, and ready to jog a marathon on a whim with a smile on her face and a light glistening of sweat that makes her look slightly magical as opposed to gross and smelly. The reality is far less appealing. I huff, I puff, I scrunch my brows into pained concentration. My hair jettisons out into a frizzy halo and the color of my face could rival the ripest tomato. I don't have any real form to speak of and could probably be confused with Phoebe from Friends as she's rushing to Central Perk. I am not a pretty runner. I don't say that to be modest or cheeky, it's true. When I was younger I even stopped for a while after being made fun of for it- my brittle self-esteem at that awkward age could not quite take it, so I avoided partaking in the activity for years- at least not when other people might see me.

phoebe-running-style-o

And so everyone who knew me was quite shocked when I agreed to take part in a multi-day, two-hundred (ish) mile relay race. I was dreading it, if I'm being honest, but I had a team of eleven other people who were depending on me- peer pressure can be a truly motivating force.

A few things happened that I never expected while I was out there on those roads, pushing through mental roadblocks and physical limitations, taking a pounding from the relentless sun and basking in the beauty of a star filled sky. I fell in love with this difficult challenge that forced me to find a sense of grit we lose in this world of modern convenience.

I didn't think I could do it- I went into the challenge simply hoping to survive long enough to cross that finish line. But there's something refreshingly human in the desire to prove yourself wrong; when you dig deep and find that resilient spirit you tucked away so many years ago. There's something empowering when you stand there staring at your own expectations of what you are capable of, holding your weaknesses in your hands and smashing them to the ground with a war cry of your own invention. There is something invigorating when you find a shard of strength you didn't know you had embedded deep your soul; that moment when you realize you actually did the one thing you always thought would be impossible. You become a fighter, you become more than you were yesterday.

There is something that we always seem to forget about grit and strength; contrary to what Instagram would have us believe- it is not always pretty, it does not always look empowering, and things do not suddenly become easy simply because you have changed your frame of mind. You don't suddenly morph into Mulan and start kicking ass without an ounce of trouble. I did more than I thought possible- but I still looked like a burnt puffer fish running down those roads. I was still in pain, my muscles screamed, my lungs went into panic mode. I still had to fight for ever inch of ground I gained, and I had to keep up a constant dialog with my own brain to convince it that my body could keep pushing. Success does not come easily, it does not always look like those inspirational pictures with the cliche captions on Pinterest. Life is messy, it is hard, and you will have to fight for all of it.

When you are out there pounding the pavement with no other distractions to steal your precious attention; your mind starts to wander into places you don't often visit. You find yourself searching for inspiration, for a reason to keep on moving forward. As I was out there on the road I thought a lot about life and what I wanted from it (apart from surviving to the finish). I thought about this past year and all of the steps that I have and have not taken towards my dreams. I thought about school, about work, about my writing. And I realized how similar my running and my writing actually were; it made each step a tiny bit easier when I realized that I already knew how to do this. I find my grit when I'm writing, I push myself, I battle with my inner critic who wants me to quit- I silence that voice. I knew how to run because I knew how to write. Knowing the patterns of the struggle reminded me that I know how to overcome them.

They say that running just entails putting one foot in front of the other, and writing is merely stringing words in a row. And yet to those who love them, they are so much more than that. These two completely different hobbies require the same frame of mind. You have to want it, you have to push, you have to fight for every advantage. And the enemy you are going up against isn't some scary monster- all too often it is that little voice in your own head saying 'you can't do this, you aren't good enough, why bother? Just stop.' You have to fight that voice with everything inside of you even when you don't believe your own inspiring words, even when you start to fall for those lies that little voice tells.

I'm a master of excuses. I can come up with ten thousand three hundred and thirty two reasons not to do something- each one more creative than the last. I do this on days I should be writing, and I especially do this on days when I'm supposed to hit that pavement. And yet with both the real struggle is simply beginning. Once you start- the world is fine, and you might as well keep on going. You have to fight the urge to be comfortable, you have to be willing to push yourself when you don't want to. You have to want it more than you want the bubble you hide in.

You have to be willing to put in the work if you want it to look effortless. I wrote a lot of horrible pieces when I started- and sometimes I still do (a lot of times). I had to keep practicing, putting words to paper as a foundation. I knew that I could sculpt it later, but I needed something tangible to work with. I had to start if I wanted to get better. It's easy to read a book and say 'I will never be that good, I am not that talented.' It's easy to forget that you are witnessing merely the tip of the ice burg that author has carved. There were months of awful work behind that. There were first drafts that were painful and difficult. There was editing and redrafting and polishing- all to create this little collection of pages that look so effortlessly beautiful.

Running is no different; it does not come easy to most people. When you see them on the road cruising along like they're floating on air- that's because they worked for it. You didn't see all of those months when they were gasping for air and pushing to reach the next telephone pole. You didn't see the struggle, you are witnessing the outcome of their hard work. They had days where the road kicked their ass, they had a time when the idea of running an entire mile without stopping seemed impossible. They had weeks where they didn't feel like they were improving at all. They would push just a little bit farther every day. They had to fight to make it look so easy, and truthfully, inside they are probably still waging that war as you watch them. These big rewards were not meant to be easy, these dreams are not ones you will accomplish unless you truly and deeply want it.

You will have to work hard, even when every piece of you is resisting. Writing when the muse is with you; that is the most beautiful time for any author- when the words flow freely like a raging river and the characters transform into living being right before your eyes. Writing is easy when the stars align just for you. But the truth is, this won't happen often. Most of your time will be spent pushing through the mental roadblock, and that fickle little muse will be off indulging some other wayward fancy. You will have to carry the story on your own. You will have to find something inside of you that pushes you forward, something that will keep you sitting there stringing one word behind another. Out on that road you will find the same thing. There is a period where the steps are easy and the pace is fast; you could go in for miles- so it seems. You feel great and your mind is keenly in tune with your body. Perhaps you have someone near you to keep you motivated; I do my best running at the beginning of a race when you are surrounded in a pack of likeminded individuals embarking on the same adventure- I beat personal records right in that sweet spot. But it doesn't always feel like that. In fact, a lot running (for me) consists of an inner dialog that I cannot turn off. It's my voice yelling to reach that next marker, to push it just a little bit farther. Most of it- for me- is hard work. A lot of really hard work.

When I did that relay- about eighty percent of the time I was not pleased with being there. It hurt- my muscles ached, there was a stitch in my side that would not go away, the sun left me parched, my face was so red police officers were actually concerned for my safety, and I was breathing like an elephant in need of an inhaler. It was not glamorous, it was not this magical moment that the fitness vloggers out there would lead you to believe. Pixie dust might sprinkle itself on them when they hit the road with their running shoes on, but not this Princess. But I was still out there. I was still fighting for every step, every inch, every mile with every fiber of my body. I didn't quit. Just like I don't quite writing when it's hard and the muse is gone.

The thing that I love about these two very different adventures; they both make me feel alive. They both push me to do things I would never typically attempt. They force me to see things from new eyes and to turn that gaze back on myself, to see me for who I truly am when my shell had been broken open and I am just a girl losing her way through life.

I am a writer; I spend my time telling stories, weaving together inspiring tales of flawed people. But this time- just this once- I got to be the character in my own story. I got to be the one to push myself, believing I was crazy the entire time. I got to have an adventure. I ate at a place called Bob's Burgers (if you've seen the animated show, then this might make you smile- they were delicious and the waitress was amazing). I also got locked in the restaurant after closing on accident. I stood in the Puget Sound as freezing cold water lapped at my knees watching the sunset with five amazing people. I walked to the dock in the middle of the night and sat on the stairs that lead to nowhere, drinking in the sights of the lights glinting from the opposite shore. I danced in a phone booth wearing a sloth costume. I ran to the Canadian border and set foot in another country (albeit fleetingly). I slept on the floor of a high school with a few hundred strangers. I crossed Deception Pass at two in the morning (albeit in a van- running it was not my challenge to face this year). I listened to my shoes hit the pavement as I ran through fields in the middle of night with nothing but my thoughts to keep my company. I found peace in a crazy world during one of the most exciting challenges I've been privy to in a long time. I cheered for strangers and had those who've never met me shout out words of encouragement (and the cowbells, oh how could I forget the cowbells). I crossed that finish line. And when I was done I stood on the back of the ferry and watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen- I immersed myself in it so much that I didn't even stop to get a picture (sorry friends, but I suspect it's something that just wouldn't have come out quite the same when you weren't in person). I celebrated with wine from a can, like a classy lady.

I fell in love with something that scared me. Just like with my writing, I was reminded how important real adventures are in this short time we have on earth. I was forced to truly look into myself and ask if I was the person I wanted to be- and how could I reach out to that girl? My stories taught me how to be inspired and brave; but it took a real adventure to show me what I was capable of. These two things are not so different. When used together, they can help one another thrive. My stories helped my running, and my running is helping me live more stories. I have more grit than I realized. I am stronger than I thought. Writing an adventure can be a beautiful thing, but do not forget to live them as well.

Crossed-Wires: Anxiety in Overdrive

Sometimes I think that whoever wired my brain used the wrong schematic. They took the plans and flipped them upside down. They crossed the red wire with the blue wire, and thus I was born- an odd little duck in a world full of geese. I am a collection of juxtaposed ideals tied together with a pretty bow of contradiction. I am an enigma, even to myself some days.

For a long time I didn’t know that there were different types of anxiety. I saw one of my best friends fight every day to simply function the way that many of us take for granted. I knew what a battle it was for her to just get out of bed, get dressed, and make it through a day at the office. I still remember the last time she willingly engaged in a conversation with me- where she was convinced that I was only speaking to her out of pity, she refused to believe that I genuinely cared. I know what a battle with debilitating, soul-crushing anxiety looks like. But I did not fit that description. It felt disingenuous to claim a seat within those ranks. So there I was, struggling with an enemy that had no face, no name; a phantom that perhaps existed only for me. 

I’ve always known that I reacted a bit differently to the world than other people. The older I got, the more insistent my internal dialogue became. A small part of me was aware that I was being overly-critical, that I was looking too deeply, that I was causing problems where none existed. But I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t self-correct my thoughts and my fears. I was a runaway train slipping off the rails. And truthfully, that’s a feeling that has never completely gone away.

I was always envious of those people who appeared to flit through life so effortlessly; the ones who could make random conversations with perfect strangers. I was jealous of the people who were good at making friends, the ones who didn’t turn bright red at the drop of a hat. I wanted to be like them; I wanted to crack a joke without getting tongue-tied over the punch line. I wanted to be able to order something in the drive-thru without rehearsing it to myself before the person’s voice broke out over the speaker asking me what I would like today. I wanted to simply not feel a rise of panic inside when I saw someone approach me. Truthfully, I think it’s a bit of a wonder that I have managed to maintain friendships at this point. After all, it took me an entire year to really even start speaking to people where I worked. They politely say I was just shy; but that’s a rather simplified answer. It takes me a long time to get to know people because I can’t get out of my own head.

I can put on a smiling face, I can make conversation when it’s required of me; you might not even notice the way I nervously tap my fingers together as we talk, or the way my toes bop in my shoes. Perhaps you think I’m trying to flirt when I play with my hair- not realizing that it’s just another outlet for that fight-or-flight energy that takes over my body. Since my rapidly firing neurons can’t seem to distinguish a pleasant conversation from a life-threatening lion attack; I have to find these inconspicuous outlets for my energy.

I will berate myself for days if I stutter or stumble on a word. I will replay a conversation over and over again in vivid detail if your reaction to my comments wasnt what I had anticipated. I will dissect every word and every gesture, I will tear myself apart trying to find the deficiency in our interaction. Because I know it’s not you- it has to be me. And next time we speak, you may wonder why I appear more guarded, why I look to the ground so often- it’s because inside I’m insecure and, honestly, terrified that I will mess up again.

You’ll probably see me on my phone during down time; sitting in my car before work listening to an audiobook while playing a game, or reading my kindle while waiting for dinner to cook. Perhaps you’ll catch me scrolling through social media while I wait at the doctor’s office. You may dismiss it as the actions of a millennial who simply can’t unplug from the technology she wears on her hip. But if I were honest- I would tell you that my reasons are a bit different than you would expect. I don’t do it because I’m incapable of unplugging; I do it because I’m trying to tether my anxieties to the ground so they can’t carry my away. Idleness is dangerous for me; when my brain has too much free time, it starts going down dark alleys and jumping on trick staircases. When I have too much time on my hands, then the internal panic is able to catch up with me. I’ll suffocate on the fear if I’m not careful. So I stay busy, I tread water because I’m afraid I’ll drown if I slow down. I am constantly moving because I know what it’s like to fall down that rabbit hole; and it terrifies me. 

When life starts to overwhelm me, then I start to lose myself in more tasks and random occupations. For example, since January of this year I have read over 115 books. That isn’t because I’m an avid reader with a personal challenge- it’s because reading is one of my outlets; when the world goes wild I get lost in a book.

Sometimes I think that’s why I love writing so much; it’s a sense of control I can feel when so little in life makes sense. I can edit and rewrite my character’s words until they shine. I can choose their flaws and their reactions. I can decide what battles they will face. I can write the story I want to read, I can create the people I want to know. For just a few fleeting pages I can become someone else. I don’t have to be my own worst enemy. And for once, all of those worst case scenarios that dance through my brain and torment me- they come in handy. Because worst case scenarios are a writer’s best fodder. I can take my own fears and construct something dangerous and enthralling. I can take the worst of me and force it to serve a beautiful purpose.

Anxiety is not romantic, my neurotic moments are not charming or adorable, contrary to what the movies would like you to believe. I look for the silver lining because I have to; because if I thought this internal pain and struggle was completely pointless- I would probably lose my mind completely. Telling myself that it might somehow assist my creative process is how I have learned to accept it. I can’t change the way that my brain is wired. I cannot convince my innate responses that I am not in life-threatening danger when I am ordering a burger at Red Robin. I am who I am. Some days I am okay with this, and some days it makes me want to pound the ground with my fists and cry.

For some people anxiety is a palpable shroud that hangs around their shoulders. For others, it is hidden behind smiles and avid productivity. Some people can’t get out of bed in the morning, and others can’t slow down in fear that they will fall apart. I move constantly; I stay busy and focused from the moment I wake up until I drop to sleep in the middle of a page. Its bittersweet to always be moving; and yet I miss the days when I would just sit there and breathe deeply, focusing only on myself and the way my body moved in the world. I miss viewing downtime as a luxury, not something to be afraid of. I constantly make to-do lists to get me through the day; because I find comfort in having a plan. It will consist of little things; read the paper, check emails, read ten pages, ten minutes on Facebook, research, write for 30 minutes. I intentionally put more on the page than I can accomplish because that means I won’t risk having extra time at the end of the day. 

You will never know the struggles a person is facing, or the reasons they act the way that they do- not unless you really watch what they are doing, not just listening to what they are saying. We need more compassion in the world, we need to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best that we can with the tools that we have available. Just because a person does not respond to the world the way that you would expect doesn’t mean that they aren’t still going through more than you can see on the surface. Sometimes we can’t help our eccentricities. For those who suffer through the various forms of anxiety, simple daily activities can seem like insurmountable obstacles. Just because a person isn’t falling apart on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t still fighting those same demons. I look like I have it all together- but my big secret is that I don’t. I have to focus on one day at a time, I have to fight for every step. My anxiety and I are inextricably intertwined. As much as I like to pretend it is some other entity that influences me- I know that it is just another facet of the woman I am. I was wired differently; but hopefully I will be a better person for it.

I Will Never be ‘Normal’ (and how I inadvertently discovered ice cream tacos)

I have always had an idea in my head of the type of woman that I wanted to become. I pushed aside all of my personal phobias and eccentricities; I don’t know if I thought I would grow out of them, or if I believed that I could simply will them into nonexistence. If I stopped acknowledging my flaws, perhaps they would just disappear. I knew that the person I was didn’t align with the bold woman that I envisioned to grow into. I was going to be that shooting star; a bright, intelligent woman with style to boot. I was going to be clever, I wouldn’t be afraid to dance in a crowded room, I would jump at any and all opportunities. I would have a thousand stories for the hundreds of off-the-wall experiences I had. I was going to be fun, sparkly and spontaneous. Impromptu midnight drive to the coast so we can watch the sunrise? Bring it on. Skinny dipping at the lake- why the hell not. Learning a new dance in a room full of stranger? I thought you’d never ask.

I didn’t expect to be the way that I am, wrapped up in my own little shell like a turtle. I didn’t anticipate that my tongue would still tie at the most inconvenient moments, forcing my face to turn ketchup red as I scurried away to internally berate myself. I didn’t think that twenty-seven year-old me would still be intimately familiar with the flash of panic that raced through my nervous system at the mere prospect of being left alone in the room with another person to partake in that dreaded act known as small talk. I didn’t think my hands would still get clammy and my voice would get quiet when I made a comment and didn’t get immediate responses. I didn’t think that adult Katie would still be fighting the same demons that I raged against ten years ago. No, I did not think that these would be daily struggles in my life.

I am a master in the arts of self-sabotage. I am a creature deeply in love with her comforts. Tonight I knew exactly what my plans were going to be when I got home from work. I was just settling into the rare treat of a hot bubble bath coupled with a good book I’ve waited all day to read. And then a wrench came flying, smashing right through my meticulously well-laid plans. My fiancé knocked on the door and let me know that his friend reached out and invited us to meet them at a cool foodie place over in Portland. And we would have to leave right away. You see, his best friend got engaged last weekend, and today his fiancé got a promotion at work- they wanted to celebrate, and they wanted to share that moment with us. I am ashamed to admit that I actually hesitated. One part of me was bouncing up and down screaming, ‘yes, it’s Friday night, let’s go do this! Where are my boots?’

But then there is the other voice. It’s a quiet but persistent little creature. It twists my stomach in knots as it stand awkwardly in the corner, tugging on my sleeve and whispering to me that it’s not a good idea- I’ll just say something stupid, there will be those awful moments of complete silence and wouldn’t it be so much better to just ignore the entire world while I hide with my bubbles and book? This is the voice that takes my self-esteem, crumples it up into a little ball like it’s nothing ore than a piece of tarnished notebook paper, tosses it on the ground and then drives a Zamboni overtop of it. Twice. And then takes a match and lights it on fire for good measure- all with an apologetic little frown. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Inside Out,’ I like to picture Sadness- turning everything she touches blue. That’s what my little voice is like, she is the unofficial face for all of my anxieties.

The rational part of me understands that my fears are generally unfounded, but emotions can easily overpower any and all rational thought. It is a battle that I am not always well equipped to fight. I had hoped that if I started pushing myself out of my comfort zone, that the fear would stop and I could learn how to function like a relatively well-adjusted adult. But alas, that is not how this war is won. It must be fought one battle at a time. I have to learn to push myself out that door no matter how many times that little voice inside tried to throw herself on the ground kicking and screaming at me to turn around and go put my pajamas back on like a good little girl.

And yet tonight, I took a deep breath and said okay. Because I knew it was the right thing to do, I knew that I would have fun once I got out of my own head, and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t. You see, I have one fear that is actually bigger than my fear of all forms of social interaction- and that would be the fear of watching my anxieties slowly erode all of the relationships that mean anything to me. Because sadly, that has happened in the past. This is a tragic tale I am all too familiar with, a lesson I have learned too late- one that I do not wish to breathe fresh life into.

So I put on my cute jacket and my new necklace. And I started typing this post in the car as my fiancé loudly sang his new favorite song ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ as we drove to Portland. And you knew what happened? We had a great time. We hung out, we talked, we laughed, we ate some awesome food (including an ice cream taco- what? Yes, you heard me right- a waffle cone ‘taco shell’ with ice cream inside, drizzled with magic shell chocolate sauce to keep the whole mess contained). Tonight we did what normal people do. And it felt fantastic. Because I forced myself to get out of my own way. Because I chose to control my anxiety instead of letting it dictate my life for me. And that little voice inside? She was too busy happily munching ice cream to poke at me.

Tonight I won a small battle in a war that I have to fight every single day. And you know what? I’m proud of myself. Because for one night I did what everyone else does, and I enjoyed myself. Growing up I always had an idea of the type of woman that I wanted to be. But it wasn’t realistic. I am not that perky picture-perfect spontaneous woman. I like to have at least a semblance of control over the situations that I put myself. But that doesn’t mean that I have to hide in my house and avoid the world. It just means that I have to try a little bit harder to get myself out that door. It means that I have to force a smile until I start to feel a real one forming. It means that I have to laugh and joke until I feel the tension ease from my shoulders, until the sickening knots in my stomach begin to untangle. It means that I have to be stronger than I ever imagined, it means that I have to fight. And you know what? I am so proud of the woman that I have become. I am not the woman that I had always envisioned, but I am stronger than she ever could have been. I am awkward and quirky, I am nerdy and passionate, I dance even though I have no rhythm. But I force myself to step out of my comfort zone to truly live my life every single day. So yes, I am proud of the neurotic mess that I am. I am unapologetically me- and that is the best battle I have ever won.

 

Don’t Let Fear Rule You (The Social Anxiety Win)

I came to the realization a long time ago that my social anxiety will never be ‘cured.’ It is as much a part of me as my freckles, the scar on my lip, or my affinity for Harry Potter. Much like my fear of heights, I can face it, I can find a work-around; but the fear itself does not change. There are no magical solutions that will make me forget to be anxious. There is nothing that will stop my heart from racing, nothing that will keep me from analyzing every word I say and every move they make. No, these things will not change. But I have to fight through them anyways. Some days I am prepared for the battle, and some days I am holding that white flag high above my head (or more appropriately- on the door that I have locked myself behind).

I can’t even begin to explain the frustration that starts to build up after a long week of uncomfortable moments with people that could be fantastic to get to know- if I could only get out of my own way. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would be without it; who would I have become if this wasn’t always following behind me like a damn shadow? I have never been a big fan of ‘normal,’ and in most situations I don’t even know what that word is supposed to mean. But there are days where I would give anything to just feel normal. I wish I could understand what it’s like to step into a room and feel genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting new people, not terrified that these new people might not like me. Is it kind of like walking into a library full of new books? Full of possibilities, and promises of new adventures? What is it like when fear doesn’t rule over you with an iron fist? What is it like when you can walk into a party and not feel like you are stepping into your own personal battlefield? Tell me friends, what does it feel like to be normal?

I’ve been feeling closed off the past few weeks, no matter how hard I’ve been trying at this ‘social’ thing. The distance has been palpable, and I haven’t really known what to do about it. I keep trying- I’ve been making plans, racking my brain to initiate conversations, smiled when I wanted to turn tail and run. I even made plans for an overnight trip with another couple. I have been avoiding all thoughts of this potential adventure, because otherwise I might just start having a panic attack right here where I sit. Surprisingly, my efforts have actually been paying off- I was even able to hold a few lengthy conversations with a superior at work who has traditionally made me feel notoriously awkward. That’s right my friends- full conversations with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But all week it felt like work, desperately grasping at conversation starters. So when Saturday hit, I had mixed feelings. We were invited to a BBQ by a friend. There were only going to be a couple of people that I knew, and, more importantly, I was going to be meeting the wife of one of my fiancé’s best friends for the first time. She is a master at the ‘girl thing,’ it’s what she does for a living, and I am a twenty seven year old who still hasn’t completely figured out eye liner. I know she’s nice, but would we really have anything in common? I wanted to make a good impression, but I was nervous- very nervous. As it turns out, my anxiety was unwarranted- she wasn’t able to make it, and therefore I was left to my own devices with the other strangers.

There are rare instances where you just hit it off with people and all of the awkwardness quickly goes out the window. BBQ night turned into one of those nights, and for the first time in a long time I got a taste of what it felt like to be a normal social person. There were seven of us total, which, as it turns out, is a pretty good number to keep conversations going without it getting too overwhelming. It was interesting- these were seven very different people with very different life stories and experiences. We had some military, all but two had undergone some major relocations throughout their lives. Everyone had stories, and everyone felt comfortable telling them. It was liberating (and the steady supply of beer didn’t exactly hurt my social game). I was able to talk without too much fear of what people thought, I told stories and people actually laughed. I felt like I was a part of something; a rare moment that I crave with all my soul.

Perhaps I am not as far gone as I thought I was. Perhaps its just a matter of finding people that you don’t have to force a conversation with. Perhaps its simply a matter of learning to relax and let go of those internal filters. Maybe the stars aligned just right or I was abducted by aliens and they implanted these really nice memories instead. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I went. And perhaps next adventure, the terrifyingovernight trip, wont be as scary as I have feared. There’s only one way to find out: take a deep breath and jump.