May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and I helped to host a very special event in my town, which I am really proud of. Cozie & Safe: An Evening Of Arts And Awareness took place at Cozie Cafe of Fair Lawn NJ. The café featured mental health themed art on the walls from local artists. We had live music, poetry, prose, mental health resources, and speakers from local organizations. The community came together to to discuss and destigmatize mental health experiences, and to create space for artistic self expression.
Here I am... Doin' my thing.
Looks like a pretty confident chick, right?
The truth is when I look at this picture, I can hardly believe it's me. And if you could hear the continuous judging, self-critiquing voices in my head, you would wonder too how on earth I could ever get up and speak (let alone sing!) in front of a room full of people. As excited as I was to put together this event, in the weeks leading up to it, I was also really scared. I was "scited" as my favorite author Glennon Doyle likes to say. Both scared and excited.
But truthfully, that doesn't quite cover it. Over the last year or so, I have been slowly coming to terms with what I lovingly call - my anxiety story. I don't appreciate or condone how we've been led to identify with and stay so closely tethered to our symptoms by saying things like "I have anxiety." So I won't do it here. This is a story about how and why the sensation of anxiety presents in my body.
Specifically over the last five months, the criticizing (even at times berating) voices in my head had gotten SO loud. It was really hard season. But, I am on the other side now, and I am integrating what was revealed by the shadow/trauma that needed so desperately to show itself and be released.
At the Cozie & Safe Mental Health event, I shared this piece of prose (which I guess is what you call something that isn't quite an essay or poetry, but is also more edited than just a journal entry :P). It's about my experience over the last few months, which I am absolutely referring to as a dark night of the soul.
My brand of anxiety stems from a deep engrained feeling of not being enough. For many reasons, and by no one's deliberate doing, as a child I got the loud and clear message that anything less than perfect was unacceptable. That my value is determined by my productivity and how much I can prioritize other people over myself. That my life's purpose is basically to fulfill everyone's expectations, even if that interferes with my needs and my truth.
I'm splat in the middle of a slow unlearning of these untrue yet deep-seeded beliefs. It feels like I'm vomiting it all up in slow motion. And as I do so, I grieve for the girl who is so scared to put herself first, to take up space, to make herself known.
The funny part is that those who know me may have a hard time believing that I struggle with self trust and confidence. I've always been known as the blunt bitch who always speaks her mind. My need for approval and striving for perfection awarded my great success in the corporate world. So as my titles changed and my bank account grew, I even had myself fooled for a long while. But, my anxiety was just disguised as ambition and drive, when it was really more about fear and obedience. As I mentioned, I had been taught to be a very "good girl", after all.
And fast forward, now I've even surprised myself by stepping into the spotlight as a singer, podcast host, and as an entrepreneur. I feel a sharp pulling resistance in my belly even as I announce those accolades, and hear a subtle yet forceful voice questioning "who do you even think you are?".
But I've come a long way despite the resistant I battle, enough that I have definitely begun to ruffle plenty of feathers. Because after all, those old, outdated belief systems didn't come from nowhere. There are still people in my life presently who take issue with me simply being me. And in quieter moments, the judging voices of disapproval begin to make themselves heard. They grow louder and louder, and when I really slow down and listen, I am surprised to hear not theirs, but my own voice.
My wounded inner child - scrawny, wet and shaking - orders me around for fear of stepping out of line, becoming the outsider, and being deprived of love. Her voice is louder than ever these days, and much harder to tune out, which is why this release of trauma is such a slow, slow leak.
Just below the surface of anxiety is fear. And when I dig into where that fear comes from I move to anger. Anger is usually a sign that boundaries have been crossed. So it’s time to draw some more solid lines around who I am and who I am not.
I thank God and Yoga for the awareness of what am and am not. For my ability to make the distinction between the truth and the story, the fear and the love.
Whatever it is that happened in the past, that created the story, that initiated the fear. I am not that.
I am Love.
And It Is Safe To Be Me.
That was a lot, I know. It was a vulnerable share, as intended, because I KNOW it's a common story that so many of us struggle with. Let's start sharing our truth and start our collective healing process around guilt and shame.
As much as I am a mental wellness advocate and I like to think I am generally good with words, one of the things that I've struggled with is finding the right words to say when people are actively grieving, or actively experiencing an intense emotion. I know that I'm not the only one with that "flaw". But I think the reason is that in most cases, there isn't much to say. Words aren't the number one requirement. Presence is. Just Being there. So if what you read above brought on an emotion or sensation inside of you, just know that I am with you. And it's okay to just sit with it, because we are doing just that together.
Self Care sustained me through this dark night of the soul, which included bodywork, energy work, talk therapy, gut health, community, and even a bit of plant medicine! I say "sustained me" and not "saved me" for a reason. There was no one to save. I was not in any real danger. The anxiety was a trauma response. And just like in those intense moments of high emotion, instead of trying to save myself (or self medicate or distract), I needed to sit with it. To listen, to self nurture, to establish again and again - I am safe. To allow the energy move, and to eventually release.
The night I wrote this, I had actually used my weed pen a little bit just to relax, and I was singing loudly while driving home. I was freely belting some song I know well without a care to how it sounded. I could feel my vocals vibrating in my chest as I sang and it felt like an internal massage. And then within minutes, I was in tears. I had dropped in, more firmly connected to my Higher Self, enough that I suddenly felt the guilt I had been experiencing all week long, but this time in a different way.
The guilt was of course about not meeting set expectations. My sister in law had just given birth to her second baby, and I felt intense angst about not making time to see my new niece over the weekend. No one had asked, no one had pressured. They didn't need to. The "good girl" guidelines that were set out for me as a women and mother were deeply engrained many years ago.
If I didn't make it out there, what does that make me? A bad aunt because I am missing crucial early moments and babies grow insanely fast at that stage. A bad sister in law because I should be offering to help. A bad mother because as a mother, I should know better, right? NOTHING had happened, and these judgements were already present nonetheless. I had a busy weekend ahead filled with things like necessary quality time with family, installing art for the above mentioned mental health event, and a women's circle, which was what I really needed at this stage in my healing. Next, I caught myself attempting to validate the importance of these plans. But, what if sitting on the couch all weekend was what I really needed? Would a tired, overwhelmed mom resting on the weekend instead of prioritizing others be wrong as well?
I heard the inner judgement as I had before so many times, but this time it was somehow outside of me, instead of inside of me. So I was able to take a look at it and examine. What I saw brought on the tears. And I sobbed and grieved for the fearful little girl inside me who's so desperately trying to do the right thing, and ONLY the "right thing" EVER, even if the "more ME thing" is at stake.
This was the first time I could really see the "anxiety" outside of me, and dissect where it was coming from. In a way, anxiety is a pre-cursor to the guilt/shame I may feel if I step outside the box of expectations. That moment was made possible by cannabis, and this is an example of it's medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
Growing up with an alcoholic parent, having a best friend who was diagnosed as bipolar, and being a highly sensitive person, I have always empathized with those struggling mentally and emotionally for any reason. However, having learned so much since then, in retrospect I can now see how I was still stigmatizing the mental "ill", by categorizing people. In my mind, there was a dividing line between the "mentally strong" and the "mentally ill". I don't shame myself for having that mentality in the past, because it was just a product of the messaging I absorbed. That same polarized messaging ultimately prevented me from identifying the disordered thinking that I myself experience, which leads to symptoms of stress and anxiety.
We ALL struggle with our mental health, at one point or another. Some of us more frequently and more intensely. We ALL have trauma. Some of us more chronic or developmental, some of us more acute or shock trauma. We are all collectively both struggling and healing.
Dividing people into categories of "Mentally ill" and "Mentally strong" is just another form of segregation, meant to keep us diagnosed (labeled/in boxes), disconnected (from our bodies and also polarized in our individual experiences), and distanced (preventing co-regulation, and collective healing). It's a system that is meant to keep us sick. The world has come a long way with the overall conversation and destigmatizing around mental health, but we still have a LONG way to go.
My mental health story is rooted in feeling safe to be me, despite the stories of who I "should" be. And I know I am not the only one. What is your mental health story? How does is show up and what is it rooted in?
If you struggle with self love, self trust, a LOUD obnoxious inner critic - I want to hear from you! As I continue to integrate what I have learned from my own experience, I would love to hear about yours as well, since sharing my truth with like-minded friends is the single most therapeutic part of how I am moving through and growing from all of this.
Do you ever beat yourself up about things like being making a mistake at work, eating more than your share of dessert, or forgetting it was wear red day at your kids school? Have you ever paused and thought- why do I treat myself this way? I am in the process creating a "Taming Your Inner Critic" women's group coaching program, which is meant to help women unravel from blocks such as: self judgement, self criticism, second guessing, negative self talk, imposter syndrome, guilt, and shame. I would love to know if this is something you'd benefit from and if so, WHEN should I offer this (this summer? fall?)
Given the news this week of the horrific murder of 19 children in Texas, and the intensity of our collective emotional state right now, I will just these leave this here.
* You are not alone. I am here with you.
* Your emotions are not only valid, but they can inform the need for change.
* Support is available to you, be it the medical, professional or holistic type.
If the emotions you are experiencing are overwhelming and impeding your ability to be present in your body or move through your day, please don't hesitate to get help. Please reach out if you need any direction or guidance.
Mental Health Is Health.
I love you.