The Dark Place

It starts with a tightening in your chest. It feels like there is a brick lodged in the space between your lungs. You can’t take a deep breath. And the tightness feels like it is forcing pressure into your head, pushing tears out of your eyes… your skin starts to crawl and your soul wants to just leap right out of it to be free from its confines and restrictions. You want to flee, take the next highway straight out of town… but to where? Who knows, who cares.

And then the thoughts come. They race through your mind, seemingly illogically. It starts with one simple thing, something that didn’t turn out right or isn’t going how you would have liked and then it starts snowballing… all the what ifs and the things that could go wrong and the things that HAVE gone wrong and I have the worst luck in the world and things are so hard and I’m 31 and my life is shit and ohmygod I live in an EARTHQUAKE zone … and suddenly you can’t breathe and the whole world is crashing down.

That’s what anxiety feels like to me.

Feeling trapped in your own mind, trapped in your own body. Unable to see the light or even just beyond the next 10 minutes. For most of my life I struggled with this crippling depression and anxiety. It started when I was very young and still didn’t know quite what was happening or how to describe it. I just thought I was dark and weird and unlikeable. As I got older it bled into every area of my life, manifested itself as perfectionism, and caused meltdowns when things weren’t perfect or when I felt I wasn’t in control. It became such a part of me that I accepted it as normal, just a part of who I was, something that would always be there.

But that’s not true.

In fact, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

And thank God, in recent months I have found freedom. It has been a process of reading and writing, digging deep into my heart and the truth of who I am and what I stand for. It has been lots of coaching, and conversation and community. But there is something about this time of year, with its deadlines and its to-do lists, and its reminders that another year has passed and I haven’t checked all the goals off my list that brings it back. In the past few weeks I have felt my chest start tightening again and I have had to stop myself from going back to that place.

I call it “the dark place” (if you are a Grey’s Anatomy fan that is a reference to Meredith and Christina). And as I have been reflecting the past few weeks on my history with the dark place, I recalled a post from an old blog that I kept when I was fresh out of college… it was more of a diary really, with password-protected access for my closest friends. It perfectly depicts that desperation, but also the realization that there had to be a better way: 

When I ran away to the Dominican Republic, it was partly because I didn’t think that the dark place could reach me here. True, this place has always held its difficulties for me, but they mostly have to do with culture shock, and not with the dark place that has cast a shadow over my existence ever since high school. For me, the dark place springs from my lack of self-confidence and my low sense of self-worth. It rears its ugly head when I am rejected by boys, when I am at a loss for direction, and when solitude seems as permanent a fixture on my being as my 10 fingers, 10 toes and 2 eyes. But it seems that the dark place is a lot like Santa Clause—no matter where you are in the world, he can always find you. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to remember what I used to do to escape the dark place; I don’t remember how I used to deliver myself to the light… So here I am back in the dark place. I’m going to turn 23 in a few weeks. That marks 10 years of drifting in and out of the darkness with only a few months of sweet, happy relief. When is this cycle ever going to end? (5.25.2008)

When I read that, I just want to hug my sweet, 22-year-old self and tell her that it’s going to get better, that one day the dark place won’t be the norm, the light will be.

And then I would give her some advice, some things that I have found that help me get back to the light. So if you are in the dark place or if you know the dark place well and dread its coming, know that you are not alone. That you are not crazy. That you are not unlikeable. You are normal, but you deserve better. You were created in the image of the divine, but somewhere along the journey of life on this crazy earth we forget that truth and we have to remind ourselves of how to dust it off and step back into our brilliance. Here are my best tools:

1.       Create Community. When you are in the dark place, all you want to do is hole yourself away watching Netflix and chilling by yourself, trying to shut off your brain. And while some alone time and self-care is good, being in community with others does wonders to alleviate anxiety and depression. Surround yourself with people who are fun, who lift you up and make you feel good. Find a couple of people who you are close to and trust and share your struggles with them, often you will be surprised to find how many other people are going through the same thing. And even if they are not, they can always be an accountability partner for you. I had a couple of go-to friends that I used to tell, “Do NOT let me bail on this,” and they would hold me to it and not let me sit at home and wallow.

2.       Celebrate your wins. These days, we look for every reason to put ourselves down, beat ourselves up, or remind ourselves of why we aren’t good enough. We VERY rarely acknowledge how much stuff we actually get done in a day and how awesome we truly are. Instead of obsessing over your to-do lists night and day, start a win journal that you keep on your nightstand and write in every night with all the thing that you DID do that day, or the things that made you feel good. You will be surprised how many lines you fill up. And when you cross big things off of your list or complete major tasks—celebrate them! It is ok to acknowledge and celebrate yourself. In fact, you will find that you are even more motivated to keep moving forward when you fill up that celebration cup.

3.       Serve. It doesn’t matter how garbage you feel, when you do something in service of someone else you will get an instant lift. You don’t have to carve out 4 hours on a Saturday to go volunteer (although that is awesome if you can do it), you can just perform random acts of kindness throughout the day. Pay for the person behind you in line at Starbucks. Drop off a care package for a homeless person. Leave a voice message for a friend letting her know how special she is to you. Help an elderly person carry their groceries to the car. Send a handwritten note. Get some flowers for a neighbor. Not only does it feel great to serve, but it reminds you of just how small your problems are in the grand scheme of things. It helps you see the bigger picture.

4.       Train your thoughts. This is the hardest one, but the biggest one. The first step is just recognizing the thoughts that you are having. There is a quote that says, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” So when you feel the anxiety stepping in, take a step back and examine the thought. Is it a worry about the future? If so, is it something within your control? If it’s not, release it. Focusing on that negative thought is like inviting it in. And you don’t want that shit in your house, so push it out the door! Is it about your past? If so, remember that your past does not have to define who you are. You can decide each and every moment to be anyone you want to be. Release that junk from the past that doesn’t serve you. You don’t have to pick it up and carry it around… that is a choice. One of my favorite things to do when examining my thoughts is to ask myself: “How can I see this from a place of possibility?” Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, what if I thought about what could go right? Build your castles in the sky. Daydream about all of the amazing things that could happen, rather than allow yourself to stumble over the negative stuff that most likely won’t happen anyway.

5.       Take care of your physical body. Nourish yourself with whole foods. Move your body. Go on walks or hikes. Connect with nature. Literally, absolutely everything comes back to physical health. When we are living in strong, healthy bodies, we have much more energy to deal with other stressors in our lives and we have more confidence to banish limiting thoughts when they come through. PLUS, all that exercise releases the endorphins (or the happy chemicals) in our brains, which aids our bodies in healing itself.

6.       Breathe. Your breath controls every function in your body. When you are anxious, your breath is shallow and labored, up high in your chest. Oxygen isn’t flowing freely through your body, which causes it to tense up. Ground yourself and focus on taking deep breaths into your belly. Focus on making the belly expand with each breath in and contract with each breath out. Imagine the oxygen moving through your body. Send it to your fingers, send it to your lower back, send it to your knees, send it to wherever you have tension. I can almost guarantee you that within 20 breaths you will feel so much calmer. That is called getting present.

As I wrote that phrase “getting present,” I was reminded of how much it used to irk me. I had no idea what it meant or how I was supposed to do it. I feel another blog post in that. For now, please know that if you are struggling with the dark place, you are enough. And if you need a support system or an accountability partner, I am here for you.