On Returning

As a Chronically Depressed Person™, I almost always have nightmares. But as I look toward returning to school, a place that I have spent much time being fairly miserable, my dreams have become much more specific (ask me about my Donald Trump tennis match for the Presidency dream sometime).

In a recent dream, I found myself walking up the stairs past my friend who passed in November. In the dream, I saw him—his face expressionless as he walked down the stairs listlessly—and in dream logic, I knew he was dead and I concluded that I was hallucinating. And I also came to the dream realization that I would hallucinate him until I left campus for good.

I am deeply apprehensive about returning—every event in the first three months of business school will hold some kind of significance that relates to him and our friendship—but also somewhat eager, looking to rip off the Band-Aid. My dream seemed like an acknowledgement of my subconscious worry that this one event will haunt me for the rest of my life.

In the past eight months, I’ve screamed and cried and raged at the world for being so cruel. It is easy for me to feel like I got the worst life has to offer, but it is also easy for me to recognize that my life has been far from terrible. In the winter, I gave a classmate of mine a ride home and asked about his day. He sighed, and said it had been tough because he had found out his friend from home had passed away. Home, for this classmate, is Yemen, and in that brief exchange I realized that my singular trauma, this awful event that had no reason, was nearly an everyday occurrence for people all over the world.

Now, comparing traumas is never a good idea and everyone’s experience is valid and meaningful. I sincerely believe that. But as I sat and ruminated over the next several months, I started to catalogue the awful events that have happened to those I know and love. Some people willingly opened up to tell me about the traumas in their lives, and I started to realize that this one event was not the definition of my being—something I had started to embody daily. It can’t be, because I had almost 29 years of life before it—and some of them were terrible and some of them were wonderful and through all of them I learned and grew and changed.

Some people say that life and/or God won’t hand you anything you can’t handle. I don’t really believe that—that assumes there’s some kind of rhyme or reason behind the terrible things that happen and the deity that I believe in is far too much of a clockmaker for that kind of hands-on involvement. No one was trying to mold me into a better worker or a better leader or a better person by having me go through something terrible. But that also doesn’t mean I can’t become a better person or build resilience because of it.

In my day to day life, I slowly am losing that once irrepressible urge to talk incessantly about this one event and this one person. If this blog shows anything, it’s that I like to put my feelings into words because it makes those feelings digestible for me, and cements them in a way that I don’t often realize is happening until I’ve clicked “Post”.

That’s not to say that I’m healed or “over it”—but more that I still have so much else to work on and figure out about myself that my brain doesn’t override any other thoughts with one presiding memory. It’s still there and it’s still raw and it still hurts and scares me. But all I can do now is give it more time, and keep trying to improve in other ways every day. And in the end, that’s what my friend would want. I can go back to school and finish my degrees because to not do so would be to dishonor him and myself by reducing us to a single date in time. He was much more than that, and so am I.

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Fake it Til You Make It and Get a Dog

This week is three months since everything happened, and it’s also Valentine’s Day, and my birthday. It’s a lot. But then, I’m a lot.

I came back from winter break and threw myself into everything with gusto. I committed myself to everything that came my way. I signed up for extra classes and extra activities. I go out when I’m invited. I avoid saying no to anything if I can help it.

I can feel myself vibrating. I don’t sleep well because I go to bed after long days of running around and my mind is still spinning. I laugh too loud and too often. I talk too much and too fast and I can’t stop myself. Everything about me is elevated. The good, the bad, the ugly.

It’s almost as if I’ve convinced myself that if I don’t stop moving, if I just keep moving and talking and going and going, I don’t have to live in my own head. I don’t have to remember the things I remember.

That would be great if it were true.

Instead, I get hit in the middle of class. Breath knocked out of me. Tears welling as I feel my entire body flush. I remember his eyes. I remember when I realized there was nothing I could do. I remember hoping I was wrong, that I had somehow missed something, and then realizing an ambulance never came and that I had been right and that I never wanted to be right again.

The grief has lessened, I think. But grief is normal and standard and I have grieved before and I will again. I watched my grandfather die in college. I noted his last breaths after we took him off the respirator. I cried and mourned and healed. This is not that.

I think, to a certain extent, the part of me that has always smiled through pain has taken over. No person in their right mind wants to see someone else suffer, and the last thing I want to do is make people feel like they are putting up with me because I am sad.

Instead, I overdo it, and now my subconscious is telling me people are putting up with me because I’m too much.

It’s similar to depression in that I’m compensating, but different because I’m not really faking it. I’m happy to be with friends, almost too happy. I’m even okay when I’m alone because I have a dog now, and she makes me laugh and smile.

But I quickly become overwhelmed and when I become overwhelmed I also become overwhelming. As my voice rises in volume so does my anxiety and I feel that everything I’m saying is wrong and that no one wants to hear me speak.

This is, as we say, sub-optimal.

Still, I know it’ll keep getting better. I’ll keep getting better. I have to. I don’t have any other choice.

I tell people my dog has helped me. She’s done more than that, I think. She’s saved me.

My friends are amazing and wonderful and they got me through the grief. But I’ve had friends my whole life, and I’ve had depression for most of it. The problem with friends is it’s easy to convince myself that they’d be better off without me.

My dog, however…

I have to get out of bed in the morning because she needs to go out. I have to go for walks and get fresh air because I want her to expend some energy and practice her leash training. I have to go to bed at a reasonable hour because she tells me when it’s time.

Even as I sit here, body aching from constantly being tense, chest tightening from all that life has thrown at me, mind racing from all that is to come and that could come, my heart is lightened by the strange magic that is my dog.

This sounds insane, I think. But it’s true. Just watching her breathe as she sleeps fills me with a giddiness that relaxes me ever so slightly. I can’t ever be mad at her. I love her completely. And I want to be here, with her.

I can’t replace the people I’ve lost. I can’t rebuild my blind trust that universe is fair. But I can love, and I do, and I am so glad to know that hasn’t gone away.

So I will keep working on myself. And try to forgive myself. And hug my dog.

Grief/Trauma

As some of you know, I recently discovered my close friend in his apartment after he had passed away from natural causes. I don’t wish to write about our relationship, as he cannot consent, but a mentor of mine reminded me it often helps me to write about what I am feeling, so here I am.

The moment I found him, it was as though cold barbed wire wrapped itself around my insides, a tangled thicket coiled from my throat to the pit of my stomach, piercing my heart and my lungs and my very soul.

Every moment is pain. And the moments that are less painful, when the coils loosen briefly, when I can laugh and smile and enjoy a second, lead to a re-tightening, a constriction of guilt and remorse and grief. I feel guilty for living. I feel guilty for taking pleasure in my life. I feel guilty for being here when he isn’t.

As both an EMT and someone focused in the behavioral health aspects of public health, I am somewhat well versed in trauma, and what it does to someone. When I went to our Counseling and Psychological Services office, they gave me a handout on trauma, something that looked like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, with words that were so familiar it burned my eyes to read them. The handout reminded me to be prepared for flashbacks. For nightmares. For insomnia. I knew this, I knew what to expect, and I watch it happening. I am two people: the rational Lillie, watching my experience, knowing it is part of what I must do to deal; and the emotional Lillie, broken, scattered, tremulous and hopeless.

I know the stages of grief. I know the signs of trauma. I see them all in myself and yet I cannot stop them. I must experience them to heal but healing requires re-breaking. I have to re-set my core self before it can heal, and the re-setting is painful beyond belief.

I am lucky to have known him. I know it, and I feel it. But still I feel myself yearning for the impossible. The bargaining stage set in, and I found myself thinking, if only I could have taken his place.

I am not religious, so the part of me that seeks meaning in something so meaningless is confusing to the rest of me, but I find myself grasping for some purpose. Some reason. Some kind of place to channel this fury and horror, something other than the gaping holes being pierced into my heart with every breath I take, every extra breath I get that he didn’t.

It will take time. I know this, and accept it, just as I fail to accept my new reality. That, too, will take time.

Every flashback, I try to replace with a good memory. Every time I notice my shaking hands, I grasp something. Every time I feel inconsolably lonely, I try to reach out.

There is no sense in this. There is no fairness.

It seems difficult to be thankful in this time, but I have received such great support. Dear friends, rushing to my side as I dealt with the police, when my legs could no longer hold me. My family, piling into a car and driving the six hours through the darkest night. Those who stayed by my side, those who check in. I would not manage without them. I would be lost.

So I will try, tomorrow, to find the thankfulness in my heart. To be grateful for what I have, and to be grateful even for what I have lost—the moments I did have, the kindness I experienced.

My pain may recede, and become bearable, become part of who I am. One day. In the distant future. But my gratitude will remain.

 

Seeking Remission

My last post was optimistic and full of hope, but to be honest, the last few months haven’t really felt that way. I spent my Christmas holiday mostly in a fog. My mother suggested that maybe the increase in my dose of antidepressants was making me numb, so I agreed to actually seek a psychiatrist’s help.

For someone with a healthy respect for mental illness and the support systems required to treat them, I’ll admit that I don’t really like psychiatrists. I had only ever seen one before I walked in to the counseling center at my undergraduate university—in 2012, when I realized how real my ideations were becoming. The psychiatrist I saw was a family member’s doctor, and I only met with her twice: once, for her to diagnose me with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and a second time as a follow up. I then switched my medication to be managed by my neurologist, and he put me on an SNRI to prevent migraines. I’d found the medication to be helpful in managing both my psychological symptoms and my physical ones, and had stayed on it since.

It was with trepidation that I used the walk-in clinic—as many of you know, I sought help from my undergrad’s counseling center but was turned away from individual counseling due to the overlong wait list—instead, I was placed in group therapy, in a group that was mostly men, and all graduate students. I was an 18-year-old freshman girl who was scared of her boyfriend and didn’t feel like eating or being awake: I wasn’t going to talk about that with that group.

Luckily, nine years later, at a different public university, my experience was better. After my intake appointment, I left with a list of therapists to check out and a psychiatric consult the next week.

I estimated that the consult would be familiar territory: explain my symptoms, confirm my anxiety diagnosis was causing my depression, and adjust my dose.

Instead, I found an inquisitive psychiatric nurse practitioner asking me about many different aspects of my life. Are you sleeping? Some, but I have constant nightmares. How is your appetite? Fine, but food doesn’t interest me much—I eat to live. How long have you been on your SNRI? Five years. And on: How are you doing in school? Are you in a relationship? How do you usually feel? How do you feel right now?

I assumed my anxiety was the underlying problem, but she saw in me something else: “I think you have fairly severe major depression.”

Many of my friends are not surprised to learn this, but somehow, I was. I always had thought my depression was a result of my anxiety, not the other way around: for some reason, my self-perception had latched onto the concept of myself as a bundle of nerves rather than a depressive person. Not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but to me, they seemed distinct.

Next, she told me, “Remember, you aren’t going to feel this way forever. It’s going to get better. We’re going to get you into remission.”

Remission. That was another word I wasn’t used to hearing in the context of my own health: to me, remission is something you want with a life-threatening illness. My illness is an imbalance of chemicals in my brain, or, if you ask many people, the result of laziness. What is remission, for major depressive disorder? Will I be on medication forever? Will I be able to stop one day?

We determined a plan of action: she raised my dose higher than it had ever been, put me on a medication that was intended to stop my nightmares, and told me to look for therapists practiced in cognitive behavioral therapy.

I didn’t realize how hard it would be.

I’ve been relatively lucky: I’ve only tried one medication in my mental health journey that just plain didn’t work. But it appeared my trusty SNRI was starting to fail me. We raised my dose and I suddenly felt more jumpy and irritable. We raised it one more time and I started having uncontrollable tremors in my hands. I started acting stupid: I spilled gasoline all over myself at a gas station. I started the microwave without ever putting food in it. I turned on the stove without lighting it.

We switched to another SNRI.

Anyone who has been on SSRIs or SNRIs can tell you the withdrawal is awful. This certainly was. Even with another SNRI in my system, I spent over two weeks light headed, with tingling running down my limbs. In one moment, I was running when the lightheadedness hit: I got dizzy, and hit the curb at an odd angle, spraining my ankle, pulling a ligament, and fracturing my foot.

I had thought I was irritable before and now it was worse: every single thing that was out of place bothered me. Every single interaction I had with my friends was suspect. I felt like they all hated me and didn’t want to hang out with me.

I’ve leveled out, since then. I went on spring break, and started working on truly relaxing. I can smile and laugh a little more easily. I have more energy—I can get out of bed in the morning, and I don’t want to get back in at lunchtime. I feel excited about the future, about my summer internship, about scheduling trips to see my friends. I’m not moving listlessly though my day: I’m starting to seize it.

Anyway, my point is:

It’s not easy.

Anyone who tells you it’s easy to fix mental illness is selling something. It’s a battle. It’s an every day battle. It requires checking in with yourself regularly. It requires patience. It requires forgiveness. It requires taking time to recognize your own bad habits and wanting to fix them. And it requires help.

I know I’ve had a lot of friends who share the struggle. I appreciate those of you who to reach out to me and offer your stories and your words of encouragement. And I want to remind you, it’s hard for everyone who shares the burden. But you’re worth the work to fix it.

 

Accountability

I haven’t written in a while, because, quite frankly, I’ve just been fatigued by the preponderance of horrible and outrageous news for…well, for the past year, as well as fatigued by life. I have interviews from six months ago, which was before I broke my collarbone and needed surgery, before I left a place I loved to move to Chapel Hill and into uncharted (for me) territory as a graduate student, and before my latest battle with depression.

I probably should have recognized the signs sooner—the aching in my bones, the struggle to rise in the morning, the listlessness with which I moved through my day-to-day life. But it’s easy to ignore the signs and symptoms of depression when hopelessness and exhaustion are prevailing for almost everyone who pays attention to the news. My disease has always been something I hide from others and myself by throwing myself into things with manufactured energy and excitement—and even I can’t distinguish my natural tendency toward goofiness and its more shrill, forced counterpart.

But part of getting older and wiser is knowing myself. Noticing that sleep is more elusive during the night and more enticing during the day. Recognizing the difference between normal sleepiness from a long day doing schoolwork and a deeper tiredness that has set itself beneath my skin and can’t be shed from a normally refreshing eight hours of sleep. Seeing the self-destructive tendencies start to take over as I push logic further down into the back of mind.

I sit a little too long in the car when I come back from running errands. I stop taking care of my basic needs. I long to reach for the pain pills my doctors gave me for surgery. I start to feel numb toward my friends and family, building barriers to protect myself, to protect them from me.

This time, I was lucky. As I laid in bed, unmoving, no longer able to ignore the despair ripping its way through my body, and my thoughts became darker, bleaker, I suddenly had a moment of self-preservation, and reached out.

Telling friends and family about my depression is difficult. I don’t want to hurt them. Even as my disease works to convince me no one cares, my heart knows the undeniable truth. It’s easier to stop talking and begin to push people away than bring them closer and risk causing them pain. But accountability is critical in managing something that can make you forget your true self. If I tell someone, I acknowledge what is happening is real. And that I need to take care of it, and of myself.

I’m lucky to have friends and family that will listen without judgment.

I’m lucky to have friends who sympathize, and friends who empathize. Friends who let me know they care even if they may not be able to fully understand, and friends who know the same demon well enough to sound a war cry.

I am lucky to be loved.

Friends, I return that love. Fiercely and without reservation. And I’m going to remember how to love myself too.

As we approach winter, and diminished sunlight, it can be harder to remember the brightness of life and sweetness of joy. For any of you that need someone, please know I am here.

Interview 14: Kelly

It’s an odd time in our history, and I’ve spent the past four months trying to put into words my own experience, but have found myself suffering from writer’s block. Every time I’ve sat down to write something, I’ve found myself unable to string sentences together.

I mentioned my mental gridlock to my dear friend Kelly, and she suggested something new: that I interview her about her own, much more tragic, current struggle. She thought it might help her to put her thoughts down, and it would give me the impetus to throw myself back into writing.

Our interview is not my typical spirituality-based discourse: instead, we are focused on grief. I have written about my own grief before, and perhaps grief is another facet of our soul’s experience, so I don’t believe it’s too far outside the realm of this blog. I have some other interviews that get back to my typical subject matter in the pipeline, but this interview really did get me back into the swing of things—I’m grateful to Kelly for that.

I’m grateful to Kelly for a lot of things. She’s the kind of friend that everyone needs but few have: a force of nature, fiercely loyal, and unflaggingly honest. She can be intimidating at times—she seems so put together and sure of herself that she must live on a different plane of existence—but she is the truest friend. She let me live with her for a month when I moved to Denver, and we had only met in person a few times—and this was after she connected me with her employer, revamped my resume, and provided me with information about how to move across the country. Kelly is funny, brilliant, and overall incredibly caring. She’s one of the few people who notices when I’m struggling with my own demons, and she’ll check in on me and invite me over when she can tell I need the company.

That’s why it’s been so hard to watch as she’s had her own dark period—you never want to watch someone you love experience a loss, especially when the loss is that of someone who chose to part with your friend. I’ve been with friends through breakups (and imagine at some point I will be with them through divorces, but I’ll hope not), and through the death of parents, but I’ve never had to watch a friend’s parent choose to exit their lives. As someone who is perhaps overly close with my own parents, I can’t imagine the pain this would bring. Even the strongest of us (as Kelly is) would break under this kind of suffering. So I’m glad we had a chance to talk about it and check in, and I’m glad to know Kelly is working on taking care of herself in a healthy way. But I’ll defer to her words to explain any further.

Interview 14: Kelly

“Sometimes it just strikes me, ‘Oh my gosh, my mom is not going to be at my wedding.'”

Me: Would you give me a thirty-second overview of what’s going on with you right now?

Kelly: So…I guess it really all started when I moved to Denver three years ago. My mom and I had been very very close my whole life. She was arguably my best friend, but moving to Denver was the first crack in our relationship, and I think she interpreted it as a betrayal that I would leave her. And so things had been tense for a while, and long story short we considered entering an investment property situation that just fell through, and it really all culminated in my mom ending our relationship. For several months over the summer I tried to repair it, and it all came to a head when I went home in September for my mom’s birthday, whereupon she announced that she would not be attending my wedding. And that was the last time I saw her. So now I’m in this weird limbo where I don’t have a relationship with my mom; my mom has, in short, rejected me, and it’s a really really weird place to be.

Me: Thank you. It’s definitely been hard to watch, as a friend, to see that, and I’m sure I still don’t even know everything you’re going through, so….let’s go over that. I’d like to know how you’ve been coping with going through this loss, when, as you’ve said, it’s a loss where the person is still alive. What have you personally been doing to try to get through it?

Kelly: I think—the first thing I did is I recognized that I needed to talk to someone professional. And so I did go to therapy, which at least affirmed that I was feeling grief in the right way; it affirmed that I was not wrong. I doubted myself through a lot of this. So that was helpful. I’ve also just sort of allowed myself to go through the stages of grief. There was denial, there was anger…I’m sort of approaching acceptance, I don’t know. And I’ve also leaned heavily on Will, my friends, and tried to be very open about it. You know, I don’t blast it on Facebook, but I try to let myself talk about it among my friends, and to talk about how I feel, or even joke about it, is sometimes an easy way to accept that it’s just a part of my life, and it’s not something I need to hide. I don’t bottle it up. But some days it catches up with me. I still have nightmares about confronting my mom or my mom confronting me. I have nightmares about friends or neighbors of my mom telling me I’m a bad daughter. So there’s definitely feelings of guilt still there. I still struggle with it.

Me: Do you find that you’re at all reflecting on your past and you’re rethinking the memories that you have? Or is it painful to look into your past? Or is it almost better?

Kelly: Maybe a little bit of all of that. Knowing what I know now about my mom and the true nature of what our relationship was, that it was not at all what I thought it was, definitely colors all my memories in a different way. I think the biggest thing was all the horses. I did competitive horseback riding and that was a huge thing that Mom and I did together, and I sort of see now that I don’t think it was even about me, I think it was about my mom wanting to do horses, and luckily I also enjoyed it too, and I wonder how that would have played out if I had not had an interest in horseback riding. And a lot of the things that she had done for me that maybe were more self-serving at the time—I don’t know, it definitely, yes, colors my memories in a different light. I do feel bitter about some things. It’s sometimes painful to look back and see what a fool I was, but…for lack of a better platitude, it is what it is.

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Guest Post: Knox’s Chapel Talk

I’m trying something new today–a dear friend of mine reached out with some words he wanted to share, and I’m honored to get to use this space for that purpose.

You may remember Knox from his interview a few years ago. He now teaches at an Episcopal boarding school for boys, where students and faculty have the opportunity to share reflections with the whole school community during morning chapel services. Knox gave a “Chapel talk” last week about applying the idea of Epiphany to our lives in a time of national transition marred by division, and I think it’s especially applicable this week as we hurtle toward a new presidency. I deeply enjoyed reading Knox’s thoughtful and illuminating speech and hope you all get as much out of it as I did. 

 

“Chapel Talk” given at Trinity-Pawling School on January 9, 2017

by Knox Sutterfield

While going for a run on New Year’s Eve, I found myself thinking about the etymology of January. Because, yes, I am a huge nerd. Somewhere in my six years of Latin, I assume, I picked up the fact that January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, of transitions, of gates and passages. And he was depicted with two faces, one looking back, the other looking forward. It’s an evocative representation and one full of meaning, especially at the turn of a new year.

The church has its own calendar, and in January, we celebrate Epiphany, or the visit of the three wise men (or kings or Magi). The word Epiphany comes from Greek, and it means a manifestation or appearance. It’s a word we sometimes use outside of church too. If you’ve had an epiphany, you’ve had a light bulb moment, an “aha!”—the sudden realization of some truth or insight.

As the Epiphany story goes, three mysterious foreigners study ancient prophecies and look to the stars for signs of hope. Following these, they, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, discover something a bit unexpected: a little boy from a small town. Not some conqueror to deliver Israel from centuries of political and military oppression. Not some fully-formed sage descending from the clouds with all the answers. But God made manifest in the most vulnerable, human way, as a little brown-skinned boy from a poor family. Yet a child who would grow up to share Truth with those around him and with us today as we look both back and forward. A child who brought light to a dark world and whose words and deeds still bring light to our world.

And I don’t know about you, but I think we need Epiphany right now. I think we need some light and truth.

This January is a time of considerable transition, as a new Congress and a new President are sworn in. It comes on the coattails of a Presidential campaign full of negativity, mistrust, polemic, and the vilification not just of the candidates but also of their supporters. And let’s be clear: there’s plenty of blame to cover the whole political spectrum.

We are walking through darkness, my friends: the darkness of division, the darkness of hateful rhetoric that alienates us from our fellow citizens—conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between. Rather than feeling like “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” it feels like we live in a country that is fractured and fractious.

I suppose elections are divisive by nature. We’re asked to choose between options, and the choice to vote for something always carries the implication of voting against something else. But division and enmity hasn’t ended with the election. Oh no, if you’re like me, it crept even into family gatherings over the holidays. Nor is it likely to end anytime soon unless there is some epiphany, some inrushing of light into this darkness. I don’t mean some earth-shattering miracle (though we can always hope for one). No, it begins with something small, and humble, and powerfully simple—but not easy.

And it can begin right here, in our daily lives.

It is up to you and me to engage each other with empathy: to listen to the hurts and needs of those who are less privileged than we are; to listen to the fears of those whose world and way of life are changing faster than they’re prepared to handle; to seek to understand people with different backgrounds and beliefs and identities, not to change their minds but simply to better know the rich tapestry of human diversity; and to speak words of kindness and inclusion when we talk with one another here and with others wherever we may go, rather than belittling and excluding those who are different or with whom we disagree.

If we do these things, we will have begun our own epiphany.

So, in this time of transition, as we, like Janus, stand looking both backward and forward, let us inhabit the threshold intentionally and encourage one another to bring light to the world in this new year.

Interview 13: Noelle

Noelle and I started at our company within a few weeks of each other. I, along with another new teammate, had been seated on the opposite side of the office from the rest of our team due to space issues, and we anxiously awaited our new compatriot in what we termed “Siberia”. And I am so grateful that she walked into our lives, bringing a breath of fresh air.

I admire Noelle for so many reasons. Her focus on mindfulness is apparent from the moment you meet her—her presence is somewhat calming, because it seems everything will be okay when you’re with her. She is grounded and thoughtful and always seems secure and confident. She knows who she is and she is true to herself. She seeks out joy in her life and she finds it.

I wanted to interview Noelle out of curiosity about my friend but also out of a desire for understanding—Noelle inspires me to be more mindful but I still have so much to learn (where Noelle is cool and collected, I am frenetic and somewhat always on-edge). Even just interviewing her, tucked away in a quiet hidden conference room at our office, brought my heart rate down. I hope everyone can take away a little bit of peace from her interview, because I know I certainly did.

Interview 13: Noelle

“I think we’re all looking for that more profound, deeper meaning of what it is to be human.”

Me: I’d like to start off by having you go through your life story in terms of religion—how you were raised, how you got to where you are now—from a high level.

Noelle: I feel like my story is funny. Neither of my parents was deeply religious. My mother came from a Jewish family and my dad came from a Protestant family, so what was really instilled in me was mostly the importance of tradition and celebration—times for family to get together. I didn’t feel like we were practicing religion—and of course this is all in retrospect, I don’t think as a kid I even knew what “practicing religion” really meant—but we just celebrated major holidays and milestones. Of course, you have to be only practicing the “fun” parts of religion if you’re both Jewish and Christian, because Jesus was not half-resurrected. There’s a conflict of belief there.  So my perspective of religion from a young age was more, “Oh, Christmas is great and fun! And bat mitzvahs are really fun, too!” and less about deeper meaning. And I wonder how much focusing on the “fun” parts of religion informed my evolving perspective as I got older. It’s funny, because in college I went through a phase where I thought, “If you are not atheist or agnostic,” to be honest, I thought, “you’re kind of stupid.”

Me: I’ve been there.

Noelle: Yeah, that was a perspective that I went through for a while. I think was what was happening there was that I was getting flooded with information. I was learning a lot. I had left my bubble of Tenafly, New Jersey and went to a liberal arts school that was all about global citizenship and celebrating differences and culture. I saw how divisive religion could be. And my coursework was laser-focused in science at that time. A discipline rooted in hard proof. I believe information overload really led me to think that way about religion. And I hate that I ever thought that, because I think that’s so silly now that I’ve found my own spiritual path. Because I think we’re all thinking about the same thing when we talk about religion or spirituality. We’re all thinking about this greater picture, and how we really do want our lives on this earth to be a little more profound than they seem from a perspective of “you’re born, you die, and that’s it.” I think we’re all looking for that more profound, deeper meaning of what it is to be human. We’re curious about what else is “out there” and how all of this craziness and chaos and inexplicable beauty even works. Who set all of this up? I think we’re all trying to answer the same questions and we’re all on that path, just in different ways. That said, I still don’t love when religion causes divisiveness – that’s a problem that I struggle with – but at the end of the day, I absolutely see why people turn to different religions to serve themselves on that path.

Me: So what brought you to that change, from being in college and thinking that way?

Noelle: I think a couple things brought me to that change. For one, I was very tied to my father’s beliefs throughout my childhood. He’s very intelligent, he’s very logical, he’s all about science, and he’s very assertive with his beliefs. Not really in the sense that everyone should believe what he believes, but more so in the sense that there’s really nothing more to this world than what science and logic can stand behind. We always look to our parents for guidance, and I think for a long time I thought, “what he says is probably right – he’s way smarter than I am!” So I do think being under his roof allowed me to hold on to that perspective for a while. But as I started to form my own curiosity about the world, I really started to depart from what my dad believes. And that’s fascinating to me, because I thought we were so similar for so long. We definitely have similarities, but in that regard we are totally on opposite ends of a spectrum. I think another thing that really helped me to evolve – kind of jumping off of that whole science/logic thing – is that I slowly started to open my eyes and realize that we as humans truly know nothing. We so definitively say what we believe we know to be true, but even from the perspective of science we have barely cracked the surface. Coming to that realization and coming into it with a lot of curiosity—I was spurred into re-evaluating many concepts that I once though were impossible or supernatural. I think my yoga practice also brought that on. Yoga is definitely religion-based, spirituality based—there’s a lot going on there. And I think one of the concepts of yoga that has really shaped my spiritual perspective is that, “What is divine if not what we are experiencing? If not us?” It’s truly inexplicable. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, when you start to think about what it means to be a human, and how complex we are. That concept is now really ingrained in me—that we’re not just “little, insignificant humans” and that there truly is divine essence within us. Bear with me, because this is going to sound really hippy-dippy, but I think a lot of my spirituality is rooted in the natural world. We as humans continually try to “beat” nature with technological advances. We place ourselves in these really dense cities where trees are few and far between and so much of what we eat isn’t really even food anymore. So much of that is in the name of efficiency and cost savings, which is pretty comical to be reflecting on considering that’s our job as Operations Innovation Analysts. But all jokes aside, I believe we have detached deeply from nature. And although we’ve created this artificial boundary between us as humans and nature, we were born out of this earth and we don’t give it enough credit. It’s what we breathe, it’s what we eat, it’s what sustains us, it is us! We are this magical manifestation of nature. So I think a lot of my spirituality has been coming into that and realizing that we are an integral part of this complex natural world. And that’s pretty significant if you ask me!

noelle

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On Being a Woman

I’d like to talk about what it is like to be a woman in today’s world. I’m going to tell some snippets of moments from my life in an attempt to explain my overarching experience. I will admit it is difficult for me to speak with a clear mind about these things, but they need to be said.

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I was once in a TSA line, wearing running tights and a long tunic. “You look good,” a male TSA agent whispered in my ear as I walked by. “Keep working out.”

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The first time I had a man grab me on the street, I was seventeen. I was walking around an outdoor mall in Atlanta with two of my friends, when all of a sudden a man grabbed my wrist forcefully. He wanted to ask me out. I stuttered, “I don’t date,” wrenched my wrist away and walked away quickly.

Another time, a man grabbed me around the waist as I walked down the street with a date. I froze, and the gentlemen I was with pushed the other man away.

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My first relationship has been chronicled here previously. A man convinced me I had no value. He hurt me and I didn’t stop him because I was afraid of him. It took me years to overcome that fear.

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At my first job out of college, I was sexually harassed by a man who was in my training class. At first, I thought he was just being friendly–he was living with his girlfriend, so I was safe. The flirtation was just typical machismo. But at some point, it changed. The way he touched me during class made the two other women (in a class of twelve) feel uncomfortable. His texts were worse. He Snapchatted a picture of me and drew a penis ejaculating onto me.

He was close with my male roommate, another trainee, and one night came back with him to our apartment, drunk. Upon discovering I had locked my door (after anticipating such an event), he banged on the door and yelled, “This was our chance!”

The fear that had been bottled up inside me had manifested in different ways. I scratched my skin off. Every morning, I woke up uncertain I would be able to make it to work. I wanted to quit and move back home.

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I Instagram the things that are said to me on dating sites, using the hashtag #lillielooksforlove. I use it to laugh at how horrible men can be, but the truth is that it scares me. The lack of respect necessary to send those kind of messages is astounding. “I once read that a pretty girl with a dirty mind is a keeper. Are you a keeper?”

It carries over to actual dating. A man tries to take things too far. I politely stop him. He tries again. I stop him, a bit more firmly. He tries again. And again and again, until I get angry. But even then, at my angriest, all I can do is try to get away. Another minute in that situation and we’ll be back to the same cycle. And at what point does he become forceful?

As women, we’ve all been there. When a man tries to put his hand somewhere and you pull it away. Or when a man tries to take your hand and put it somewhere. “Why not?” we’re asked. “Come on. Why not?”

I can be in a club, and a man will come up to dance on me, grinding his pelvis against my behind. I’ll turn around, furious, and be met with, “Why not?”

I once had a brief relationship with a coworker–our fling lasted three months. I ended it, because I was starting to have feelings for this person, and he was not interested. But it took nine months for him to stop texting me, asking me the same question. “Why not?”

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This world, this country we live in, is trying to tell us that women only serve one purpose. We need to look pretty. Act docile. Smile. And let men do what they want with us.

Sorry, men. That’s just not going to work for me.

I’m tired of being told that being pretty makes it easier if I interview with men–and harder if I interview with women. I’m tired of having men catcall me or wolf-whistle as I walk down the street–and getting the side-eye from fellow women. I’m tired of worrying about what message my outfit sends. I’m tired of worrying all the time.

It’s time to end this.

Women, now is not the time to fight with each other. We have been marginalized for too long. We are paid less, promoted less, respected less. We have to do better than the men in our workplace to be taken seriously. We’re held to a higher standard and have to juggle the need to provide thoughtful, reasonable work with the expectation that we will be cheerful and polite at all times. When we are direct, we are “bossy” or “bitches”. When we aren’t, we are overlooked.

My friends are fierce, strong women. And we are not going to take it anymore. We are going to support one another, stand up for one another, and fight for one another. If someone tries to invalidate our opinions, we will come back more forcefully. If we see injustice, we will make it right. We are going to protect ourselves and our people.

I am going to tell people when they hurt me. I am going to speak up when I hear something inappropriate. I am going to explain my plight and hope to touch the hearts of those around me.

Now, before I get called out, I want to say I’m not trying to generalize. There are decent, kind men. There are men who don’t view “feminism” as a bad word. There are men I would trust with my life, my safety, my love. I’m not trying to start a gender war. I just want to hold humanity to a higher standard.

This isn’t an us versus them. This is us, for us.

Interview 12: Tyson

Tyson is one of the most calm and collected people I have ever met. He is often quiet and spends more time listening than speaking, but when he does speak, it is softly and slowly, in a measured manner–I daresay his speech pattern is rare among our generation, and it is refreshing. He seems very selective about the moments he chooses to speak up, but when he does, you don’t want to miss it. Our coworkers are often surprised when Tyson’s humor comes out due to his quiet and unassuming nature, but you can tell from his eyes when he is about to drop a wicked one-liner that may leave his audience gasping for air–a wryness comes over his face and I make sure to tune in.

I find Tyson to be one of my favorite people to talk to due to his depth of character and multifaceted personality. He is, as another coworker described, “jacked”; he is thoughtful and kind; he is curious about others and their opinions; and he is deeply religious. I’ve known many members of the Church of Latter Day Saints in my life, but Tyson is the first one I would consider a close friend, and so I was ecstatic when he agreed to sit down to an interview. One of the things I enjoy the most about this blog is the opportunity to discuss topics that may be considered “taboo” with people I truly respect–and Tyson is completely open to conversing about his faith and what it means to him, so cutting the interview at my usual twenty-minute mark was heart-breaking–but even in those twenty minutes, I had learned so much more than I could have anticipated. Throughout the interview, Tyson’s quiet confidence and security in his beliefs became more and more evident. If I ever need someone to represent something I believe in, I want it to be Tyson. 

Interview 12: Tyson

“It’s cool to spend two years completely forgetting about yourself and focusing on the bigger picture:  God. It’s a pretty big turning point in anyone’s life. Then, you come back and jump into your regular life and you’re forever changed because of it.”

Me: So, Tyson, I don’t know if you’ve read of any of my blog, but the way I have people start out is I have them tell me a brief picture of their life story in terms of religion. So how you came to where you are currently—just tell me about your whole life!

Tyson: So…both of my parents are Mormon, or LDS.

Me: Which one’s better?

Tyson: Mormon is a term that a lot of non-members call us, but we don’t really call ourselves Mormons. We’re LDS, which means Latter Day Saints.  A “Saint” is a follower of Christ, “Latter Day” means “last days.”  I was born into it, and to some degree, a lot of my extended family are too—but a lot aren’t, as well. You’re baptized when you’re eight, not when you’re born, and it’s your choice.

Me: So like Baptists.

Tyson: Mhmm. It’s your parents’ choice as well. Some people don’t want to until later—a lot of kids are baptized at eight. It’s just an age of accountability. You go to church every Sunday, where there are Sunday school classes for kids, teenagers, adults, etc. Once you graduate high school, both boys and girls have the option, if you choose, to go on a mission. It’s not really a requirement—you’re not forced to. There might be a little bit of social pressure just because a lot of your friends might be going, but you’re not really urged to go unless it’s for the right reasons. Once you graduate from high school you see a lot of LDS kids having a little bit of a soul searching phase, trying to figure out if it’s really for them, or not, and if it’s real or if they feel that it’s true. I definitely had a phase like that. But when it came down to it, I felt like the message of the gospel that I had been taught my whole life was full, peaceful, logical, happy and it’s something that makes other people happy, so it was worth pushing off college for two years and pursuing.  So yeah, I served a two year mission, spent in service and gospel teaching and spending a lot of time in the community. Hardly any of your time is your own on a mission—you’re told what you need to be doing, but it’s kind of cool to spend two years completely forgetting about yourself and focusing on the bigger picture:  God. It’s a pretty big turning point in anyone’s life. Then, you come back and jump into your regular life and you’re forever changed because of it.  And now I’m here.

Version 2

Tyson, possibly giving me side-eye, possibly because I was trying to convince him that he should have some decaf coffee. (He politely declined).

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