Category Archives: Growing

Sliding Doors: An exercise in “What If”

“Pieces” self portrait

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Like there’s another version of me living simultaneously while I live my own life. She’s the same age. Her appearance is relatively the same. But somewhere along my lifeline, she and I took different paths. I am living out this fate, and she is living out another. 

I’ve always tried to steer clear of asking what if. It never seems to serve any purpose other than cause unneeded longing and regret. But, after the last few years, and all of the sudden changes, my mind is sputtering to catch up. I’m left with the feeling of… displacement. This what if exercise is definitely risk to me emotionally. If played out fully, I hope it will help me sweep the shattered bits back over into my dustpan. 

This past year, I can’t help but feel as though I’m in the wrong life. I can’t shake it. 

imagine what another version of life might be now. I dive into the best and worst of my soul twin, and play out her footsteps. 

I sort through the details of her life. There is hurt, longing, and regret of unfulfilled dreams that come along with playing out these fantasies. I’m afraid of going through the looking glass. How deeply will this cut me? But in the end, I hope the exercise will help in some way. 

It’s like the movie Sliding Doors; I imagine myself making one different choice and living out my life in a parallel universe. 

In one reality, I’m still married. I never fell down those stairs in 2004, we had 2 amazing children, and I have the career in psychology I once hoped for. In this reality, I’m just as outgoing, adventurous and fun-loving as I was at 20. This version of me loves her work, she loves helping people in new and experimental ways, and if she ever finds time, she hopes to write a book about her work some day. I imagine her life busily driving her children to baseball and soccer, standing back stage smiling at ballet recitals, and taking pictures at music festivals with her beautiful family. She loves her children and husband unconditionally, they have a house filled with laughter, and they show her love and affection in return. Every couple months she sells handmade jewelry at an art fair- this is when she feels most like herself. Even though she counsels others effectively, she never had time to resolve the issues from her own childhood, and it shows now in her behavior with her/my parents. She empathizes well with her patients, but she doesn’t understand their suffering, and is frustrated when she can’t fix their problems. Her family stopped going to church and volunteering together- she deeply regrets that for her kids. 

Maybe I chose differently after high school graduation, and followed my dream of aid and mission work. Another Mary has been living in a far-off village building wells and working with abused young women for several years. She has collected a different language for every country she has lived in, and always looks forward to her next project. She never married, and rarely regrets the decision to stay single and forgo becoming a mother. She is strong and healthy, but tired, and isn’t quite sure where home is anymore. She wishes she could fly back to the states each time a friend or family member asks her to come to their wedding, birthday…or hospital bedside. She lives a life most can’t understand, but she wouldn’t trade her life of service for anyone else’s. 

There’s yet another version of me who never moved away from New York City. She stayed on the path to pursue an art career. This version of me has short, messy bleach blonde hair, and wears an old motorcycle jacket she stole from an ex boyfriend. She works at her friend’s bakery so she can pay her bills. This Mary struggles with depression, but the angst feeds her art so she doesn’t get help. The mental illness ruins her romantic relationships, so she’s lonely in a big city. She has a modest art following online, and has a large network of colorful friends who keep her very busy. She sings in an indie band for fun, writes art reviews for a small magazine, and volunteers teaching sewing classes to inner city youth on the weekends. In her heart, she hoped she would have found more success by now, but tries to remind herself, art isn’t about accolades. 

I imagined my existence if I had been born into one of the many communities of the world where healthcare is nearly non-existent. Like most of the world, I wouldn’t have been born into priveledge, with affordable doctors nearby. I wouldn’t have had wholesome food to eat daily, and may have been exposed to the elements, civil war, and sexual acts of violence against girls. If I had developed the very same condition at 22, I wouldn’t be alive at 35. That version of me wouldn’t exist. I would have died a slow, painful death, like so many others with the same diseases that we in the US call “chronic,” and manage day to day, other parts of the world calls them “terminal”. 


The door slides again. I step back through the wormhole. 
I’m here in my life. In my own body. In my own bed. In my own reality. There is no other fate than mine. There is no other Mary.

This was a challenging, yet powerful exercise- but it did hurt. There were others I didn’t write about here. In the end, it was a success, I did shake off that alternate dimension feeling. 

This is the life that was set aside for me. In all of the realities I could imagine, this is the only one where I’ve been molded, strengthened, and shaped to conquer my specific challenges. I am the person whose eyes are prepared to see unique beauty only I might see. I’ll leave only one set of footprints behind when I’m gone. 

There is no wormhole I’ll ever slip into. No sliding door waiting for me to step through and merge into my rightful life. 

I’m not entitled to any other existence. 

This is my one and only life, with all of its shortcomings, pains, privileges, hopes, and unknown future. 

It’s not over yet.

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Chronic Resilience and Learned Optimism

Learning Resilience and Optimism. Coping with chronic illness.

My sister manages a student property center near one of the best universities in the country. It is known that more students from that school will withdraw due to psychological breakdowns and will have more suicide attempts than any other area college. She has already had several incidents this year at her property alone that ended with students being checked into the hospital for said reasons. They are all the most elite academics, but now, they are in competition with one another. Once the valedictorian of his high school is currently struggling to pass his college courses. So why are even the best and brightest failing to cope with the pressures of life?

I’ve been reading the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. There was an entire revolution in psychological treatment called “Positive Psychology” which began after he wrote this breakthrough book in 1990. Before that, psychological practices were geared toward treating mental illness. Seligman asks the question, why aren’t people fulfilled and thriving when we know more about human behavior than ever before? Now, psychologists and counselors help people to become more than just not-sick, but actually thrive.

In his book, Learned Optimism, he theorizes why there is more depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug addiction than ever before when we live in a happiness-driven society. He believes it is much, much more than public awareness of mental health driving diagnoses. Children were once taught how to overcome obstacles and persevere, but teaching practices have shifted to the current focus of boosting self-confidence regardless of efforts. He proposes that individuals of prior generations were raised to believe they were surrounded by various types of support, and that sense of community has been lost today. In the past, people realized that their support system shared responsibility for every success, failure, and overall person they became. Because there was an awareness that outside forces contributed to their lives, when their hard work paid off, they were sharing their triumphs; when they failed, they wouldn’t fall too far or stay down too long as they had a safety net.

In the past, Americans valued country, faith in government and patriotism. People were raised connected to a personal faith in God, organized religion provided a community, connection with family was the cornerstone of society, and people were inclined to make close connections inside of their local communities. Just the sheer idea that others believe in you can be the difference between a devastating pitfall that derails your life and a curve ball which you can bounce back from. Today, we don’t grow up ingrained with the same surrounding support system, lasting connections, or faith in God and country.

Society teaches that your successes are your own to take pride in and celebrate. You are paving your own way in this world. There is a great focus on self-determination, but the tools for coping with inevitable life failures are incredibly lacking. We are taught that personal responsibility and success is everything, but when we fail (as we all do), the personal fallout can be devastating.

I was already planning to write this piece on Learned Optimism when I happened to read an article on Resilience and was surprised to find that the number one quality suggested in becoming more resilient is to create the same types of support that past generations grew up with (as in Learned Optimism). Surrounding yourself with close connections, friends, family members, becoming more connected to faith, plugging into community, and making permanent, lasting relationships with “people who affirm you, recognize your strengths, natural, innate abilities, and provide the support and acceptance you need” will increase your resilience [Mary J. Yerkes].

Other ways to become more resilient: accept good enough, focus on what you can control, find meaning in life, accept advice from your loved ones, take care of yourself, ask for/accept help, don’t be surprised when life changes suddenly, expect things to eventually get better, set goals you can achieve, laugh. Being resilient isn’t about silencing yourself through turmoil or ignoring your emotions, but resiliency is a method of utilizing multiple positive coping strategies along with a mindset that is postured to “roll with the punches.”

The author of Learned Optimism says, “If we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that failure is our fault, it will undermine everything we do.” Pessimists feel personally responsible in all success and failure, and helpless to make changes. This thinking leads to tendencies for depression, anxiety, and chronic pessimists are more likely to have health troubles later in life. Does this mean that society’s focus on self-reliance and self-esteem is creating generations of pessimists?  The good news is, both resilience and optimism can be learned!

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Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Chronic Resilience: An Interview with Danea Horn by Toni Bernhard

10 Tips for Building Resilience in the Face of Chronic Illness by Mary J. Yerkes

Do Higher Levels of Resilience Buffer the Deleterious Impact of Chronic Illness on Disability in Later Life?

A Season of Waiting

10996053_10204217591452391_1532425959343231769_nWaiting is never a simple task. If you ask me if I am a patient person, I will say that I am patient with others, but have difficulty being patient with myself.

You might be waiting for an important test result to come in, for doctors to finally diagnose you after years of unexplained illness, for the medication trial to become available, or you might be waiting to see if your surgery heals without additional complications. You might be waiting for a loved one to return safely from a dangerous trip overseas, for important news about your finances, or you might be waiting to see if your friend will recover from cancer.

Waiting is a helpless feeling, no matter how much we can “help” the situation…the feeling that we are not the ones in control of the outcome makes us feel useless. Not knowing the outcome causes anxious, nervous impatient feelings that, for me come in waves which are accompanied by a racing mind.

For a person who started out bread to be the go-to person for fixing and fast problem solving, it seems life instead has been teaching me about patience, seeking guidance and waiting out storms. Instead of giving me problems to solve, I have problems that can only be solved through the healing of time.

Even though it is a useless feeling to wait, wait, wait, I don’t believe in waiting we are supposed to throw our hands up and stop seeking guidance. There are always more calls we can make, more specialists we can see, ways we can take care of our health, and people we can reach out to. But, if you have been waiting on something that weighs on your heart, there is only so much you can do to push the pace of the answer you so desire. Sometimes we can spin ourselves into a frenzy trying to get the answer we want to come to us faster, when some things are out of our hands. Praying, quietly seeking guidance and listening are also useful actions- though exceedingly more difficult to choose.

I am waiting for some very important answers in my life right now…Some answers that will forever change life as I know it to be. Maybe you remember a stretch of time like that from your past, and how you felt. How did you fill those long days waiting for tomorrow? Because of so many years of chronic illness, it feels as though waiting has been a regular part of life. Life with chronic illness teaches us to find the good, useful, and gratitude inside of the seemingly unlivable. These years of health struggles have taught me to lean into my faith and seek spiritual guidance. I am so grateful for the support and wisdom from those I respect, and I hope to be molded during this trial – what is God teaching me in this moment? …Because nothing is ever wasted.

Earlier this year, I wrote that “strength comes at the step we are on. Not weeks or months ahead.” As I work on waiting, and asking for patience, I try not to dwell on what challenges might come tomorrow. If you remember, my opening post for 2015 was a “No Fear Campaign.” It makes me want to shake my head when I think of the year God has been preparing me for!

About waiting, many say, “Just give it to God” as though it is as simple as forgetting about your heartache with your spouse, or your worries with your family, or your daily physical struggle with health that I know so many reading this are living with. I’m sorry if anyone has said that to you without compassion for what you are going through.

The past couple weeks have felt like an avalanche in many ways. When all of the rubble and dirt fell over me, and I went sliding down the hillside into the valley with the mound, even though I’m covered in a whole pile of dark unanswered questions, underneath, I’m praying, and studying, and being still (listening). Hopefully, this trial of waiting will lead to growth from that soil and rubble. My story is not finished. God is not through with me. Waiting is not doing nothing, waiting can be the most growing period in a person’s life. I am asking to be transformed during a time in limbo.

What did you do or what did you learn while you were in a season of limbo?

“Patience is power.

Patience is not an absence of action;

rather it is “timing”

it waits on the right time to act,

for the right principles

and in the right way.”

― Fulton J. Sheen

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

“What we are waiting for is not as important as what happens to us while we are waiting. Trust the process.”

― Mandy Hale

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