On my long drive home from holidays spent in Ottawa, my heart full to the brim and my mind at peace, I found myself thinking clearly and from a grounded place, for the first time in a little while.
The holidays have often been a difficult time for me. From my late teenage years when the recent divorce of my parents meant a brake in traditions, to years spent working in healthcare when I had to work through the holidays, to spending last Christmas eve and day in the ER with my dad … it’s been a while since I’ve had somewhat normal holidays.
So I was immensely grateful when my workplace allowed me to travel home to Southern Ontario for the holidays despite the pandemic and our workplace policy against travel for non-essential reasons. I’ll be honest though, this visit to Ottawa was more of a mental health necessity, rather than a fun holiday getaway.
In November, for what felt like a long while (but may actually only have been a week or two), I felt a definitive dip in my mood and energy. I entered what I like to call, a dark season. I mostly struggled with this on weekday evenings, when I would come home from work and essentially make diner, then spend the rest of my evenings binge-watching Gilmore Girls. Cognitively, I know that these low-key evenings aren’t inherently “bad”. Yet allowing myself to slow down and have a few “lazy” weeks stirred up a lot of stories in my head.
You see, my biggest battle during those few weeks was not the lack of energy itself. My biggest battle was coping with the relentless narratives that dominated my waking mind. This narrative of being lazy, gross, unproductive, unappealing … filled with shame. I really struggled to befriend myself as I navigated this minefield of self-deprecating stories.
Three big stories came up during this time.
The first was that my roommate must be so annoyed with me. During those few weeks, my emotional body was certain that she saw me as lazy, gross and that she surely wished I was different … or not there at all. This constant assault of intrusive thoughts made me feel uncomfortable and so ashamed of my behavior. The silly thing is, I realized (even as this narrative was playing itself out in head) that this was not based on any actual facts. My roommate never said or behaved in anyway to suggest that she was annoyed. So, why was my brain constantly barrating me with such thoughts?! Well, we all have these narratives about ourselves, beliefs about who we are … so I’ve realized that a strong belief I hold (mostly unconsciously) is that others must think of me as lazy.
The second story is triggered by this feeling I get every time I enter a low, a dark season. It’s this sense of familiarity, but also of disappointment and sadness. “Fuck, I am here again. What is wrong with me … why can’t I just not feel this way”. It’s (not so) funny how, every time a dark season ends, part of me thinks “THIS will be the last one ever. I’m good now. I’ve learned my lesson and I know what to do to prevent this from happening again. We’re good”. Inevitably, another dark season rolls around (as seasons do), and this story comes up again that I have failed at preventing this season from arriving. Sigh.
The third story kinda ties the first two together. It’s this sense of responsibility I feel every time I enter a new dark season. Not responsibility in the way of “I am responsible to respond to this experience” (because I am responsible and I do respond). No, it’s this heavy, massive feeling that it’s my fault that I feel this way. That somehow, I failed to prevent it from happening. Surely, I did not try hard enough. Surely, I got distracted by life and missed the warning signs of this impending dark season. How could I be SO foolish?! What follows is an assault of thoughts about what I MUST do to handle this situation, and conquer these dark seasons once and for all. Because if it’s my fault that this dark season came, then surely there must be a way to prevent it. I just have to fix it, or fix myself. I need to do more, do better, try harder. Come on Michele, you’re better than this …
This story that I need to fix myself has been a part of my narrative likely since I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 14. I think it was also reinforced over the years as I witnessed relationships fail (because my brain was quick to blame myself and my dark seasons for the failure of relationships – please refer to my blog post about The Breakup). I think it also has some roots in my parent’s marriage and divorce, and my dad’s own struggles with depression. Regardless of where this story comes from and what has shaped and reinforced it, what is clear to me is that it’s deeply engrained in my brain, and even my identity.
When I look back at my life, I notice that I’ve always strived to be outwardly successful. One may say an overachiever, and definitely a people-pleaser (once again, please refer to my previous 3-part series on Confessions of a People Pleaser). Please don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing bad with striving, having goals and being successful. I just think it’s important to look at the forces that drive us towards these things. Because there is very much a trend of self-improvement in our world and especially on social media. And I have eaten that shit up.
I have totally fallen prey to this idea that I’m just missing one last thing until I can feel whole again. Until I can be worthy of happiness – that true, deep, unwavering contentment.
But again, looking back at my life, I realize I’ve been on this treadmill of achievements and “next best thing” for a while now. And I’ve been good at it! And that’s great … but I am now starting to realize that I need to separate my chase of growth from my sense of worth. I need to stop believing this lie that I can rid myself of these unworthy feelings by just trying a bit harder. Because I’ve tried damn hard, and that hasn’t worked.
So if that’s not it … well, now what?
I think the work begins in authentically getting in touch with our feelings and emotions, and the stories that we attach to them (as I’ve done above).
So many of us struggle with unhelpful behaviours. Behaviours that are even quite destructive. It’s not like anyone consciously chooses to engage in these self-destructive behaviours … I don’t believe that shit anymore. I still have a reflex thought, when I see someone struggling with unhelpful behaviours (be it dating the same assholes over and over again, addiction of any kind, depression, fear of committed relationships, etc) that they obviously just aren’t trying hard enough. But I know better now. It’s not that people aren’t trying hard enough, it’s not that I am not trying hard enough … it’s that this shit is hard. And mostly, it’s that the underlying feeling for most of us is SHAME.
Shame because we believe this story that it’s our fault, and that we aren’t trying hard enough. Because we believe that these dark seasons come due to a lack of effort on our part. Yet shame is what keeps us from actually moving forward. Shame prevents us from reaching out for help. It’s so crucial to reach out for help and bring someone else into our inner world, because it will be much easier for someone on the outside to point out the gaps in our stories. Removed from the emotional pull of things, someone on the outside can easily call bullshit on our stories and help us realize that these stories are not facts. They’re just stories in our heads.
When we can start to realize that stories are just that … stories, then we can start to untangle ourselves from them.
Once we realize that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and why we feel the way we feel, are mostly untrue, it becomes easier to handle the arrival of dark seasons. Because we all have them, dark seasons. Some of us may struggle with more frequent, more intense dark seasons … and that feels unfair but I suppose that’s just the way it is.
The work for me is very much grounded in recognizing these stories, and re-writing them.
Last summer, while I was solo camping and enjoying a psilocybin-induced trip, I noticed a large mushroom that had emerged from the ground. It was evident because it had pushed a whole layer of soil out of its way as it grew. In that moment, I had a deep appreciation for the power of reincarnation. The power of being born again. And by extension the significance of cycles, of phases, of seasons. I realized that life in general is made up of cycles and that this is just the way of nature.
So with this idea in mind, it’s a bit easier for me to welcome the dark seasons of my life. Maybe I can start to re-write the stories in my head. So when I find myself in the midst of a dark season again, instead of telling myself “fuck, I am here again”, maybe I can start to think “hey … I am here again. This place that I know well, this place that almost feels like home”. Maybe I can start to see these dark seasons as just a part of my natural, human experience.