Taking care of others

Dear Bee,

I have a lot of friends in pain right now. It breaks my heart. Breakups, death, joblessness. It’s hard to be a stumbling, fearful young twenty-something living in this world. I’m doing what I can to be a good friend. To provide my unwavering support and my listening ear. That’s what people usually need. Nine times out of ten, people don’t want advice, even when that’s what they ask for. They just want to be heard and validated. Pain is universal, but sadly, support is not.

I have a therapist’s intuition, and I’ve had it my whole life. I’ve been a maternal figure for many , a stable force for my chaotic and unpredictable friends. I’ve always been that one that friends reach in times of need, because, for some reason, I naturally know how to listen, reframe, and offer positive encouragement. But this is a tough role that carries pressure and a sense of self-sacrifice. Taking care of others can take a toll on taking care of myself. For a long time, that was my problem. I used to shoulder the world’s pain. I would take their feelings and make them my own. Their sadness would become my sadness, turning misery into even greater misery. Last night, after spending the day with my boyfriend, I found out my friend’s uncle had passed away. Her boyfriend was being completely dismissive and manipulative towards her during this painful time. This is nothing new, as he is emotionally abusive, but I knew she needed love, even though she said she was “fine.” Oh, fine…Aka. Fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional. 

I came over, armed with flowers and candies, just in time to catch her in the middle of a huge crying spell after a catastrophic fight with her boyfriend. My guy and I took her out, sat her down, and let her talk and talk and cry and cry. Not only was she grieving death of someone she deeply cared about, but she was also grieving the demise of her relationship. I hated seeing her in this state, but I also knew we ALL get in that mindset from time to time. We ALL experience grief, sadness, fear, and anger. These are primal emotions; these are the common threads of human existence. 

I am learning how to container other people’s emotions, rather than let them consume me. This is huge for me. For example, I used to feel guilty for taking care of myself after taking care of others. I didn’t think I deserved to feel happy when others were so distraught. Last night, I realized that I could be empathetic with my friend and feel horrible with her, even to the point of crying with her, but I didn’t have to take it all home with me. I didn’t have to take it out on my boyfriend, like I used to do with my ex. I didn’t have to make her sadness mine. 

When I came home, I had some of the most passionate sex of my life and fell asleep tangled in my love’s arms. It’s okay to be grateful and happy for what I have, even if everyone doesn’t have it. I spent enough time angry and disappointed with the world. I’m not doing ANYONE a service by holding on to emotions that are not mine. This kind of thinking requires a level of self-esteem and a standard of self-worth I’ve NEVER had before. This requires knowing how to be there for people without becoming that person. Happiness is my birthright. I have the freedom to enjoy it. I experience enough pain just by living in this world-we all do. I don’t need to inflict more on myself. Nobody does. 

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Just bake me a cake for my pity party

Dear Bee,

I’ve spent the past few months trying to be grateful for you and trying to learn from you. I’ve been persistent with positivity and strength. I’ve stretched out of my comfort zones in nearly every aspect of my life to GET RID OF YOU, TO TAME YOU, TO SHUT YOU UP…why are you still here!?!? Why are you still tormenting me? And tell me, when do you plan on leaving?

Ay. Right now, I’m exhausted. I just broke down. Full on sobs. I’m tired of this.

I’m tired of you making me second-guess my life; I’m tired of you making me feel hopeless; I’m tired of the mental twist you inflict on me; I’m just goddamn tired of it all.

I’m debating getting rid of this entire blog, but I know that’s my saving grace right now. One day, I know, I KNOW, I will be grateful for everyday in this journey…and most days, I am grateful. But at this moment of time, I am just in pain. I just want OUT of recovery and OUT of this misery.

Trying to overcome an eating disorder has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have severely underestimated how much it impacted my life and how difficult it would be to heal myself from the years of torture. At times, it feels so simple. Just do A, B, and C. Don’t restrict; don’t binge; don’t compulsively exercise; don’t diet; change negative thoughts into positive ones; forgive myself if I slip….I KNOW WHAT TO DO. I can tell anyone on the street what to do. It’s common fucking sense.

And other times, it feels absolutely impossible. You have changed my genetic makeup. You have become an addiction. Will I ever be cured?

During my breakdown, I prayed. Yes, prayed. I have never believed in God, and yet, there I was talking to him, in my tiny little car, asking Him for help. I don’t even know what God means to me, but I certainly don’t believe in a higher power the way organized religion would want me to. But I wanted to feel saved. I just wanted to save me from myself.

I am ashamed that I have punished myself for this long. I am ashamed that I am ignoring EVERY resource and tool for recovery. I am ashamed that I am only listening to YOU, rather than to the hundreds of other logical explanations telling me otherwise.

Today, I ended a friendship with one of my best friends due to her deliberating alcoholism and the consequences it has had me. And part of me feels insanely guilty. Am I no different from her? I am struggling with my own addiction and unless I make some quick changes into the positive direction, I realize that I am headed into relapse. I mean, just hours after ending our friendship, I went straight to the food…and there wasn’t enough food to fill this incredible void of sadness and despair inside of me. There will never be enough food to do that.

But we are different. Unlike her, I am trying to recover. I want it more than anything. And I realize that I have slipped and messed up and made many mistakes, but I have also fully accepted the cunning nature of my disorder. I know that I need to create a new way of living and I am striving for that, whether I succeed everyday or not.

 I am still in my funk, and part of me just wants to stay in this miserable mood. I am ignoring my support system. They are all praising me, telling me how strong I am, how I made the right decision, how great of a friend I am…well, I just feel shitty. Sometimes, I doubt why people love me so much. , I know that I’m not going to let anyone comfort me right now, despite their persistent efforts. How depressing. Someone needs to bake a fucking cake for this pity party I’m having.

the “sick” role and gratitude for my best friend

Dear Bee,

When I think all of what my life can be without you, I don’t have a tangible image. But I do sense that there will be a lot of pure love and joy. A lot of spontaneity and excitement. A lot of the feelings I once felt as a child.

When I went to therapy today, we didn’t talk about you, because there wasn’t much of a need. We had spent the past two weeks heavily processing my feelings, and the sessions had been extremely tough.

They were also essential. I needed to assume the “sick role.” I needed to really let someone  take care of me and normalize my fears and mistakes, while at the same time, push me to change and better myself.

I’m not usually comfortable taking on this sick role. I’ve always been the healer–I’ve always been the ones for others to lean on, and as a result, I learned from a young age that I needed to be strong to protect myself. It’s easier if you don’t feel. And big girls don’t cry. You get the message. You cemented it into me.

But in therapy, we did talk about you in the sense of my future practicum work. I absolutely need to learn the meaning of self-care. Otherwise, not only will I burnout in my chosen profession, but I also face the risk of falling deeper into my maladaptive coping strategies. I know that if I do not learn how to really and truly grip on how I moderate stress, you will just get stronger.

I was talking about this with one of my best friends this afternoon. I’ve known this girl since I was fifteen, and in some senses, she’s the only friend I’ve ever been to take on this “sick role” with. Since we met, I have felt comfortable being fully honest and vulnerable around her without worrying about being judged or criticized. This is because she understands  the value of unconditional positive regard.

She’s an extraordinary woman.

So, here we are talking about anxiety and managing stress.

Her response: I can tell when I get anxiety. And what that happens, I know I just need to rewind, get in bed, and relax. 

So natural, right? She’s such a healthy and adjusted young woman, someone whom I’ve always admired (and not just because she knows how to manage her anxiety!) She takes care of her needs without relying on anyone else to do so. She does what feels good and avoids what doesn’t. Simple as that. She refuses to settle for less than what she deserves, and frankly, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about it. This girl chases her dreams, and once a pursuit no longer serves her, she finds another option.

They say you are the sum of the people you surround yourself with: In this recovery process, I am learning to associate myself with the people who make me feel good, confident, and happy instead of those who make me feel dragged down, guilty, or insecure. I’ve spent so many years clinging onto the wrong friendships.

Today, I told her about this blog and I gave her the link to it. And even though she knows so much about my life, this is such a raw exposure into the private world I hid from most of the people I know. But she loves and accepts me for who I am and wants me to continue healing myself. She holds me in high regard and treasures our friendship as much as I do.

So if you’re reading this, my lovely and beautiful friend, thank you.

I’ve thanked you for MANY different things over the span of our friendship, but I don’t know if I’ve ever truly thanked you for just fully loving me, flaws, perks, and all. You inspire me to treat myself with the same kindness, respect, and love you treat yourself with. Keep shining because you have such an extraordinary soul. I am so grateful for our friendship, right down to the red scribbles.

We are who we surround ourselves with

Dear Bee,

After a few days of feeling sluggish and upset, I feel like things are going so well right now. Thank you for stepping out of the way and letting me live my life. I know that’s incredibly hard for you to do, so I want to emphasize how important it is for me to actually focus on things OTHER than you. What a revolutionary concept, right?!

Anyway, in spite of some friendship discourse, I’ve really noticed how my eating disorder maintained and stimulated some rather dysfunctional relationships. For instance, I now notice certain trends in the people I tend to associate with. On one hand, I have amazing friends who make me feel better about myself, support while simultaneously challenge me, and make me excited about life and what it has to offer. And on the other hand, I have a few select friends who seem to make me feel worse about myself, depend on me for rescue and guidance, and make me feel like life isn’t supposed to feel this complicated.

In my classes and training, we are often asked to reflect why we want to be therapists. Understanding the emotions and reasoning behind this career decision is crucial in the exploration of our own backgrounds and experiences. The running joke is that people go into helping professions to help themselves. There is some truth to this stereotype. Most of us leaning towards this career want to learn about ourselves, better ourselves, and share that wisdom, courage, and empathy with others who seek it as well.

I think I want to become a therapist simply because I subconsciously (and inappropriately) assumed that role with so many people in my life. And because of that I deeply felt a need to connect and help others in need. My eating disorder shamed and pigeonholed me into my own sickness; instead of focusing inward, I chose to direct my attention to others who were more emotionally unstable. With my love and support, naturally, these individuals were instantly attracted and used me as a crutch.

To summarize some of the dynamics I once shared:

-a clingy, overprotective best friend in junior high

-an insecure best friend in high school who struggled with anxiety and self-harm

-a controlling and possessive best friend/love interest in college

-a jealous,attention-seeking ex-boyfriend who struggled with codependency

-an insecure best friend struggling from alcoholism and depression

Clearly, I fall into a pattern of spending time with people who desperately and undeniably need me. This, of course, is not random or coincidental, and it absolutely reflects my desire to feel I can service others. It also shows a strong line of distorted thinking: the false belief that I will be the one who changes these people.

Thinking one can change another is a common but ridiculously unrealistic perception. The process of change is complex and difficult, and unless an individual decides he or she wants it, no movement or progress will last…at least not for very long.

This is not to say I do not have healthy friends. In recent years, I have accumulated a wonderful support system from all walks of life. I am never alone, and I cannot be more grateful for the deep connections I share with so many people.

And yet, part of removing myself from the toxicity enabling my shame, insecurities, and fears stems from cleansing myself from these unstable relationships. I firmly believe we are who surround ourselves with, meaning our interpersonal bonds reveal much about our personalities. If we have higher self-esteem, we tend to associate with people we enjoy, admire, and share interests with. This reinforces our happiness, keeps our spirits high, and creates a sense of contagious optimism and pleasure. When we have lower self-esteems, however, we may choose people who drain, upset, or worry us. We do not believe we deserve better; we rationalize that we are friends with them because we deeply, deeply care and because we need to be there for them. 

To a degree, this is true. But when we start assuming MORE responsibility for another person’s life than he or she does, we need to be careful. Furthermore, when we start assuming MORE responsibility for another person’s well-being and emotional stability than our own, then we have a real problem at hand.