For most of my adult life, I’ve suffered from various forms of mental illness. I’ve had over 20 years of eating disorders, 15 years of on and off depression, and lifelong challenges with anxiety. I’ve also struggled to cope with several other traits, that while not mental illness, are often misunderstood and shamed by our culture at large – like high sensitivity, distractibility/ADD, insecurity, and low self esteem. I’ve felt terribly guilty about these traits, as if I should simply be able to will myself into being different. (To put it another way, I’ve felt insecure about feeling insecure.)
There have been other contributing factors – chronic stress, the exhaustion of raising a large family, and financial problems – that created a perfect storm for all my challenges to coalesce and create a sticky, mucky stew that I’ve earnestly tried to climb my way out of.
Yes, I’ve made progress. Yes, I’ve seen changes. And yet as the years go by, I’ll be honest – I don’t like the fact that I’m still – after all this work, and all this time – having to cope with anxiety, or depression, or a spinning, stressed out brain. In other words, I have felt frustrated that I am still human. Deep sigh – I’m still in process.
Today, I can chuckle at this. But a few weeks ago, I was not laughing about this; I was weeping.
If I examine some of my deeply held beliefs, I can see that I approached my healing journey with a very closed fist – a fist that held tightly onto rigid, narrow, high expectations. My expectations went something like this: If I do all the right things (you know, forgive and let go and take the high road and yada, yada, yada), and undertake this healing journey (God knows it is not easy,) then I want a reward, my just desserts. I want a guarantee that I will not hurt anymore: that I will be wealthy and happy and healthy and loved. I want a guarantee that my anxiety, depression and more will just go away.
When I didn’t receive these things I blamed myself. I took my lack of perfection (the fact that I still hurt and have hurts to care for) to mean, “There’s something wrong with me.” This, my friends, is suffering.
My thinking went something like this:
I pray, I do yoga, I pour my heart out to God, I meditate, I look at my stuff, I practice forgiveness, I surrender, I do all the “right” things. And I feel like an abysmmal failure, as if I’ve failed some test from God, that I do all these things, and that I’m still me. Still me with my brokenness and my anxiety that rears up and my tender heart and my insecurities.
I thought if I did all these things I could be a being of just pure light, of pure radiance, and all my human messiness would fall away. It is a subtle, perhaps the most subtle, form of control. In the wake of this control – or rather my lack of it – I feel ashamed. I feel perhaps the deepest shame, a spiritual shame, that I’m failing life 101 and it’s all my fault. I feel like I’ve flunked some spiritual test because I haven’t created my life in the way that I’ve wanted it to be.
If I’m honest, I can see that my personal and spiritual seeking was about trying to overcome my pain, not care for it. In so many words, to make it Go. Away. Now and forever. I hated it. Just hated it. I hated the dark muck of depression, the panicky spiral of anxiety, the wobbly feet of insecurity.
And I have come to see that as long as I am relating to my pain from that place – a bargain of, “If I care for you, will you go away?” – I will suffer. I will feel guilty, like I’m being punished, and ashamed, like it’s all my fault.
So as I sat last week, with fresh grief in my heart and tears dripping onto my keyboard, I bowed to my pain. I surrendered towards it. I said, “It’s okay anxiety, I love you. It’s okay depression, I will care for you. It’s okay sensitivity, I’m here.”
I want, so desperately, to stop the war – the war with myself. When I turn towards my pain and ask it, What do you need from me? It says, “Just allow me to be. Stop judging me. Stop blaming me. Please, oh, please, just care for me.”
My sorrow helped me find a new perspective: maybe my deepest pain, all my mental health challenges, all the anxiety and depression and food stuff, is intentional. Purposeful. Something to learn to love. If I don’t love these parts of me, who will? If I don’t care for them, who will want to? If I don’t open my heart, how can I expect others to?
So today my practice is this: letting go of my attachment to expectations. Letting go of my focus on the externals (how my life looks from the outside.) Letting go of this need to do something only if it guarantees a positive outcome. Letting go of control.
Can I care for my pain, just to care for it – simply because it’s a very kind thing to do for myself?
To care this deeply means to surrender.
We feel ashamed because we can’t control. We can’t control the challenges in our lives, the pain that needs healing, we can’t even control our emotions – they just arise.
But this shame is based on a false truth: that we should be able to control. We were never meant to control life in this way.
Perhaps viewing my mental health challenges, my inherent sensitivity, my humanity itself as something I can control with enough spiritual practice is unkind. Perhaps if I surrendered to it, instead, I may find a much gentler – and wiser – way of relating to it. And perhaps in this kindness, I will find a freedom, a peace, a peace even in the midst of anxiety, or sadness or sensitivity.
When I stop judging my insecurity, my anxiety, my depression, and just allow it to be, I feel free. I feel free because I’m not so tense, fighting against myself. I don’t blame or punish myself for feeling sad or lonely, I reach out for support. I don’t feel so caught in, “It’s all my fault.” Instead, I surrender to the wisdom of detachment. As my friend Deidre says, “It couldn’t have happened any other way.” To surrender to the messiness of life and say, “It couldn’t have happened any other way” is another way of saying, “You did the very best you could.”
This morning the Beloved whispers to me, “Oh, Karly, you were never meant to be in control. You were never meant to take on so much. You were never meant to carry so many burdens. Let go, dear child. Let go.”
There is so much about life that is not in our control. Do we have the courage to let go, to accept this, and to open to grace? This journey, as all journeys do, comes back to love. Can I love all of me – even the dark, most painful bits? Even my very, very messy humanity – humanity that may never go away?
Can I surrender? Can I stop looking at my healing journey as a finish line – whose end is a perfect Karly – and instead accept that there are parts of me that may not change? Can I be okay with that?
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but befriending and caring for our human messiness – rather than controlling it – is what creates the space to relate differently to it. Something powerful shifts inside when I no longer look at my challenges as something to control, but something to care for. It’s a different kind of relationship with these frightened, hurting parts of myself – a relationship that is kind rather than self abandoning.
Rumi put it this way:
Learn the alchemy true human beings know:
the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.
Perhaps our brokenness – our humanity – is the call that brings us back to love. We fight against it and try to evolve out of it and try to make it go away or hide it and then, exhausted and discouraged, we return to love. Can we just love ourselves, right now, in this moment? In this moment where we’re feeling afraid, or anxious, or distracted, or lonely, or sad, or discouraged?
May we all remember who we are: fully valuable, enough and worthy with all our tender humanity. The New Testament says, “the truth shall set you free.” This is what I know to be true: that each and every one of us is lovable, is worthy, is precious, just as we are – with all our human muck, all our mental health challenges, and all our pain.
We are wonderfully and beautifully made, and we are good; very, very good.
Needing some hands-on help?
If you’d like to read more about my journey of acceptance with depression and anxiety, you may enjoy these posts here:
- Making peace with our imperfection, an audio blog on my acceptance on depression
- How I befriended depression with kindness
- Loving where you’re at (an example of what befriending anxiety looks like)
- Healing the shame that keeps you stuck
To learn more about tools like acceptance, dropping blame and shame, and befriending emotions, try my overeating program, Heal Overeating: Untangled, 12 audio sessions to create emotional healing from food.