Taking the full measure of life

The Big Question Marks

February 8th, 2009 · 20 Comments

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When I quit my job, it seemed so plain to me:  I needed to quit my job. I love to write.  I had already researched freelance writing extensively.  The plan fit.  I knew the path wouldn’t be easy, but I felt pretty euphoric about it.

And then I crashed into an emotional wall and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.  We had plenty of money in savings (not just in stocks), but when our investments took a nose dive within two weeks of me quitting my job, I found myself with twinges of panic flicking my sternum.  Perhaps that was the beginning—I don’t know; I can’t pick it all apart.  At times, I still felt fine:  felt solid about my choices, felt good about the future, felt silly and happy.  But other times, the panic grew to overwhelm me.  Twice, sobbing, I called my husband in such a fit of panic and depression that he came home from school to be with me.  Having him near me, even if he was still in the office at home working, kept the panic at bay just enough that I could function.

I couldn’t write about it; even though I knew it was thoughtful honesty that brought many people back to my blog time and again, I felt like a fraud for writing about self-care when I felt so awful, and I felt too embroiled in how I was feeling to have any clarity to write about it.  I couldn’t write, or at least I felt I couldn’t write very well, about anything, and the pressure I felt to be writing was enormous.  It was overwhelming.  Every time a person asked me how my magazine writing was going, I cringed.  Every time a person told me I should write a book, I felt trapped. Even as I realized my feelings weren’t logical, I felt like many of these very supportive people were really trying to trap me, to let me know they knew I’d fail. I stammered out half-true responses that felt utterly inadequate.  The truth was, I was frozen in my writing developments.  A sense of doom and anxiety overwhelmed me when I tried to move forward with writing.  Any time I could sense my husband was frustrated or annoyed (and that’s not infrequently right now, since he’s under the pressure of a Ph.D. thesis), I was certain—without even asking him—that he was mad at me, and rightfully so. Self-given epithets that I thought were gone from my mental vocabulary came creeping back in.  You’ve always been lazy at the heart of it all. I fought back with all the powers in my self-care toolkit, and still I felt inadequate for the challenge.  Time and money I spent on self-care (exercise, acupuncture, cooking), even though it was entirely legitimate, made me feel guilty and left my brain largely free to question my life.  Why couldn’t I write, after all? What did it mean about me? What was wrong with me? Was I doomed to cycles of deep depression for the rest of my life? What was the point of my life, anyway? If I wasn’t contributing by doing meaningful work, what was the point of me being here at all?

In the moments and hours and days I was overcome this way, I felt like I was spiraling downward, and I didn’t even know what to do.  One day I was mostly okay; the next I felt awful.  I struggled with the idea that I was even depressed.  Then the month we spent outside of town house-sitting for a friend left me even more isolated within my own mind. At that time, my husband began hearing back from the various companies and organizations who had been so gung-ho to hire him just a couple of months before.  “I’m sorry to tell you we have a company-wide hiring freeze.” ” . . . hiring freeze.” ” . . . hiring freeze.” “Not hiring right now.” “Don’t have funding to hire you.” “Would hire you in a heartbeat if I could, but I can’t.” Oh God, I thought. Have I given up the financial stability of regular employment just to ruin us?

(“You’re not ruining us,” he responded to my latest flood of tears, his arms around me. “We’ll get through this. No, I don’t regret marrying you at all—don’t be silly.  We’re going to be okay.” His own fears and stress, legitimate and irrational, had to take a backseat to soothing mine; knowing that deepened my guilt.)

I was taking the steps I knew to work through the anguish:  keep doing normal activities.  Don’t force yourself to do everything, but maintain your life’s rhythms. Reach out to people you feel you can trust. Exercise. Be gentle with yourself. It’s okay to take some time off to get to feeling better, I told myself determinedly.  I thought about going to apply for new jobs, but that thought panicked me as well.  I felt trapped within the vortex of emotions that tossed me around over and over, no matter what route I took.

In the vein of being gentle with myself, I went to the library to check out a couple of novels (randomly plucked off a shelf) to read.  When all else fails, escape into another world. I started one novel and finished it the next day.  I started the second novel on the third day.  At first, I couldn’t get into it, and I laid it aside.  Later in the day, with a heavy heart, I climbed into bed to try reading again.  A few more pages into it, I found myself more ensconced. My eyes darted across the lines, reading, to a passage within the book where the author interwove the lives of the characters with the theology of Paul Tillich.  Infinite possibility, Tillich said.  We have in our lives in every moment infinite possibility—the choice at any moment to choose from a broad set of choices the path our lives will take next.  Even when we feel trapped, we have options.  It’s what we choose in a given moment that gives us the next set of options that will appear before us. It’s the challenge of our whole lives to have the courage, over and over, to accept that our lives are broken by their very nature, but still to choose to lean into our lives to let ourselves become more fully the people we are meant to become.

My breath caught.  I reread the passages about Tillich, I considered how the author was weaving the meaning of his work into the book, and when I breathed again, I felt like my chest was able to open more widely than it had in months. . . .  That’s the task before us that brings us closer to God’s intentions, Tillich says. That’s why we are here—not to perform any one particular act, but to have courage in becoming more fully who we are meant to be. We are all afraid of death and fate, loneliness and guilt, meaninglessness. Those deep-seated fears are at the heart of many of our untrue actions.  What’s before us in our lives is to be as true as we can, accepting those fears but not letting them keep us from developing the best of who we are.

I fail at expressing these ideas adequately.  Despite being religious, I am no regular student of theological writing, and I am not a theological writer.  Nonetheless, when I gleaned the concepts from the novel, and later as I researched the concepts further, I saw the truth of Tillich’s theology reflected in my own life. And when I saw my life from that vantage point, where before I had felt stuck, I saw options spreading out before me.  I saw that I didn’t have to find the ultimate answer to any problem in that moment. I didn’t have to have the answer to the big questions. I saw that, instead, I had to make one good choice that would open up to me new choices, and then I had to choose a good choice again.  I had to choose true choices that would let me be more fully the genuine version of myself, and that action repeated would bring me more fully into the person God placed me here to become.  And I saw that, even when I stumble into decisions that fill me with fear, doubt, or uncertainty, the options again are before me—new options, but options that give me the opportunity to choose a true path for my life again.  I saw that those choices might—but wouldn’t necessarily—lead me to any enormous, grand action in life, but that they would lead me to be a more complete version of the person I was set on Earth to be—which is to say, to lead me to a good, purposeful, genuine life.

So . . . first things first. I knew I was feeling depressed. I knew that every year, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder: starting in about October and ending about March, I find myself feeling gloomier than I feel the rest of the year.  Okay, time to make a good choice, if an expensive one:  I did some research and found that the Mayo Clinic says that SAD lamps do clinically appear to create positive results in many depressed people.  Okay, the Mayo Clinic is good enough evidence for me.  I read a bunch of reviews of various lamps and ordered a mid-priced 10,000-lux, full-spectrum SAD lamp.  When it came in, I began sitting under it each morning for 30 minutes while I ate breakfast.  Within three days, my energy level began to improve, and my mood calmed a bit.  I began to crave sitting under the lamp, and on gloomy days, I started turning it on for as long as an hour.  I told my husband that I didn’t know whether it was a placebo effect or an actual result of the lamp, but I was glad we’d bought it.  If nothing else, the lamp made me feel proactive in treating my depression.

We moved back into town into our new, long-term house-sitting location—a block from the apartment where we’d lived for 2.5 years.  Back in my home base, I felt more connected to the community.  I felt soothed by the proximity of the large city park.  I was able to go to the gym more easily, and I returned to a more regular routine.

My husband, rather tentatively, brought up with me the book Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.  He’d read about someone who’d had great success in moving beyond depression with the book.  He asked me whether I’d be interested in him getting me a copy of the book, and I told him yes.  Lo and behold, the author’s premise is that depression, most of the time, isn’t just a mental state that’s brought on by or can be fixed long-term by taking a pill.  Instead, depression is our body’s way of telling us we need to make some changes in our lives.  Depression doesn’t mean something is terribly wrong with us at our core; depression just means we need to reconfigure pieces of our lives to fit who we are and what we need—to get ourselves, appropriately enough, unstuck.  The book offers a systematic approach to figuring out what might be causing us emotional issues from a purely biological standpoint (thyroid problems, food intolerances, sugar crashes, etc.); considering and enhancing what is working for us in our lives; and discovering what isn’t working so that we can work on changing our life elements that are not in line with who we’re meant to be. One of the tenets of the book is that we write prescriptions for ourselves to give ourselves permission to pay good attention to what feeds the best in us.

Between Tillich and Unstuck, I grew deeply aware of the fact that I have created space in my life for myself to heal if I will just take advantage of it.  I’ve spent many years sick and worn down.  For most of my life, I’ve been sick far more often than most other people I know (even during the last two years, wherein I have felt much better than before while spending more time, energy, and money on good self-care than most people I know).  Since I became an adult, the sicknesses have piled up at different times with financial stress, school stress, family stress, job stress, romantic stress, commuting stress . . . and—especially as someone who is very emotionally and physically sensitive—I’ve often been overloaded.  When I left my job, part of what happened is that my body began unloading some of that stress that I hadn’t been dealng with entirely.  I had been dealing with the stress in the best ways I knew how, yet I obviously hadn’t dealt with it fully, since upsets about past stressors rose to the surface within weeks once my time was free.  It’s no wonder I felt overloaded!

I began to see this stage of my life differently.  “I have to take care of me,” I told my husband I’d realized. “I’m the only me I’ve got.  For what it’s worth, I’m the only me the world’s got.  I’ve tried to care for myself, but things have just stacked up to reach critical mass, and I feel like my body is acting that out.  If I take care of other things well but don’t take good care of me, I may lose myself—I often lately feel like that’s what’s happening—and then I’ll have nothing. If I take care of me, even if it means focusing largely on taking care of me to the exclusion of other things I’d like to do right now, then that means I’ll be able to give more when I’m more healed.  And by the nature of what I’m doing—by learning what habits and actions I need in my life—I’ll be working on becoming a better version of myself as I go.”

Becoming deeply accepting of the idea of expending lots of time and energy on healing myself has been a godsend for me.  My regular exercise is a gift.  My new plan to nourish myself with a frequent-flyer-mile trip to see my best friend (who moved to California in the fall) is exciting. My energy spent on meal-planning and cooking is extensive, but nurturing. My slow breakfast under my SAD lamp is pleasurable. My energy is more relaxed, and my thinking is clearer.  My stressors, though still inevitably present, are easier to manage.  I’m starting to feel like I can manage life again.

Though my husband’s Ph.D. student salary is small, we have been careful to set up our lives so that we can live on what he makes for the time being. (If taking this step meant we depleted our savings, it’s less likely it would be healing. If it meant we went into debt, it’s likely it would be harmful to my self-care, as I know from the past that debt is a huge burden on me. But neither of those should happen with this set-up.)  Our set-up gives me the very fortunate opportunity to explore what feeds and heals me.  If I’m writing or contributing financially in other ways at this time, that’s great.  But I don’t actually have to be.  Even writing this, it seems almost blasphemously self-indulgent to state that it’s okay for just taking care of myself to be my first priority of my life at this point, but I have learned—my body has been forcing me to learn—that if I don’t remain flexible in learning how to care for myself, if I don’t make myself a priority, I will end up depleted . . . and lost.  Making good decisions about taking care of myself means making responsible, thoughtful decisions for my life, with an emphasis on being aware of my physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs. And those good choices will naturally lead me to other options for a trajectory toward a life that’s more healed, more fully developed, more meaningful, and more giving.


The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich—A series of talks given by Paul Tillich, in book form, about our purpose, the struggles therein, and how to cope with those struggles. I have done a bit of research on Tillich and his beliefs and existentialism since reading the novel that started me on this process, but I haven’t actually read all of The Courage to Be itself yet. It just arrived at my library’s hold desk for me to pick it up yesterday.

Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon, M.D.—The work that this book asks you to do is pretty intense, given that you’re probably depressed (or at least pretty down) if you start reading it, but if you want to avoid medication and think finding the ideas and strength to make life changes has the slightest possibility of transforming you, it’s definitely worth a read.

The SAD lamp I use every day—I originally looked at getting one that cost twice as much, but this one has mostly good reviews from several sources.  Research indicates it’s best for your eyes and for your depression to get a full-spectrum, 10,000 lux light to use for Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I like that this lamp can be put on a stand so that it’s a bit above your eyes instead of staring straight at you. I can read a book or use my computer while still getting the benefits of the lamp and without getting bad eye strain.

The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel—this is the novel I was reading that improved my perspective on life.  Perhaps I just read it exactly when I needed it, but I think Kimmel does an amazing job of tying the novel’s pieces together while keeping things real.  I’m looking forward to reading her other novels and her memoirs now.

Tags: gratitude · sturm and drang · winter

20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hannah Celeste // Feb 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Oh Yes…

    Sally, I hear you! And it makes complete sense. I kept thinking as I was reading your post that ‘healing comes before productivity’ and that ‘healing IS productive’.

    In fact, this is very similar to a lot of the feelings I’ve been having. Feeling completely yucky and out of sync and not being able to deal with Pele very well and all of these icky sort of feelings which lead to guilt and shame…and for what?

    What’s important is that you are healing, and I feel that’s the biggest and most important thing you can concentrate on, and the rest will fall in place. I wrote about having a crash after the holidays late last year where I got sick for weeks at a time. This was my body’s way of telling me to take a chill pill. I felt bad about not being productive, about not contributing financially, etc. But who was putting this guilt on me? Me!

    In years past, I had the surgeries, etc (which I know you’ve experienced as well). I know we’ve been trained to feel guilty about our healing but no more! It’s the cornerstone of our sanity to be well and in sync with ourselves.

    I wish you luck and continued healing…I hope you have a great time with your friend.


  • 2 Nikki // Feb 8, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Oh, Sal. I’m so sorry you’ve been going through all this. We love you.

  • 3 Laura // Feb 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    As always, you seem to be paralleling my life, twin. Your posts so often are exactly what I need to hear at that precise moment. I have been struggling with similar feelings of uselessness, worthlessness, boredom with my life, inadequacy, etc, etc, etc. I’m glad to hear that the SAD light worked… I might get myself one, as the winter really gets me down here. Interestingly enough, last week, I found myself feeling nostalgic for the light of Atlanta, which is much brighter than here at this time of year. I think I’m still struggling with this rough place, an it seems to be expressed mostly through my food intake…. and naps. I actually took a two hour nap yesterday (I am NOT a good napper!)! I felt like my body was trying to heal something on a very deep level, and I just needed to let it do its work. At the same time, I have added a regular yoga class back into my life, and I have started up with tango classes again. It’s totally indulgent, but I love it, and I feel like we always must be learning something new, whether it’s simply through a novel or whatever…. for me, it’s important to always return to that beginner’s mind place of exploration and learning.
    Lots of love to you! Thanks for the book resources. Tillich sounds really amazing.

  • 4 Meg Wolff // Feb 8, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    You took the bull by the horns once again. Those sound like great resources. Reading this, “My slow breakfast under my SAD lamp is pleasurable”, was great, made me want to go out and get a light. Anyone can get depression and these are excellent resources.

  • 5 Ricki // Feb 8, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Sally, your writing is so beautiful and so poignant. You have a knack for encapsulating exactly what you –and so many others–are going through. G00d luck with this next phase in the journey. I think I want to go out and get a SAD lamp!

  • 6 dojski // Feb 9, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Wow. This was a surprise. Last time I was here, I had no idea you were going through such a tough time. And for someone who has recently been questioning her own life’s purpose and meaning (me!!!), your post rings a lot of bells.

    Thanks for the honesty. I hope the best for you. And — I have to say, if there’s one other thing you have to be happy about, it seems that your supportive husband is it. =)

  • 7 sally // Feb 9, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Thanks, Hannah and Nik.

    Laura, I do highly recommend a SAD lamp! (The catch is finding a good one that has a reputation for not breaking and fits clinical requirements. That shouldn’t be hard, but there are lots of crappy but expensive lamps out there.) I’ve been surprised by how much perkier I’ve felt using one. Atlanta is fairly far south, of course, but I think maybe I’m someone who’d need a SAD lamp except in the tropics. I wish I’d listened to my body and bought one years ago.

    Thanks, Meg and Ricki. If you think you might want a SAD lamp, you’re probably right that one would be enriching for you. (That’s my take on it now, anyway.)

    Dojski—Yes, I do have a marvelous husband. I’m a fortunate girl. I have many things to be happy about; part of what’s been difficult is feeling bad despite knowing I have many things to be happy about. At the same time, I’ve had basically normal days much of the time—a bit down, but mostly satisfied. It took me until the last month or so to realize I was having a problem, not just a bad blip on the screen. I did write another post about feeling depressed earlier, but that was before I accepted this was bigger than just small blues. There HAVE been other things that have been going on in my heart and mind, and there have been things I have continued to believe throughout this process, so I’ve been writing about those things, and they have helped keep me grounded. Yesterday morning is when I felt peaceful enough to sift through all this to try to write about it.

  • 8 Nita // Feb 9, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Writing about your situation helps SO many of us who are dealing with similar elements. Thank you for this inspiring, insightful, encouraging post!

    I’ve used a SAD light in the past and it helped so much. Living in NH, after a childhood in Kansas, was a horrible loss of light! But post-menopause, I’m thankful to say that the SAD is MUCH better.

    You and another commenter mention self-indulgence as a judgment on taking care of one’s self. WHEN will women get over society’s message and (perhaps) parental teaching that self care is selfish and to be criticized? Again, post-menopause has brought a whole new attitude about that. I enjoy and indulge myself with healthful practices and supportive activities–and it feels wonderful to be able to give back out of Wholeness, not crippled emptiness.

    And spring is coming!

  • 9 sally // Feb 9, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Hi, Nita. I’m glad to hear my post resonates with you! Thanks for the supportive comments.

    I think my blog as a whole attests that I don’t believe that self-care is selfish. I do agree with you (and part of the reason I write my blog is) that many women in particular spend a lot of time caring for other people and feeling like self-care is just a selfish indulgence—when good self-care is at the heart of a good life. But realizing that, for a while, I need to focus on my self-care to the exclusion of being focused on being financially productive is a difficult step for me—as I think it would be for many women or (maybe especially) men. I lately have particular empathy for how my grandfather had to stop working in his 40s after having a heart attack. (He was badly wounded in WWII, which set him up for health problems to be serious early.) Fortunately, I’m not in the position he was in in a variety of ways, but deciding to take care of myself in this way isn’t easy. I feel much better having accepted it and written about it, though.

  • 10 elisa // Feb 9, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Like those above, I feel like you’ve been writing for me and what I’ve been thinking for the past few years. Finding my way, or my meaning or whatever you want to call it, has been something I’ve been trying to do for a while but have felt so busy or distracted or silly or worthless in the process.
    Thanks, again, for posting this. There are so many great ideas and reasons to take care of one’s self, it’s nice to be reminded.

  • 11 Meg Wolff // Feb 11, 2009 at 6:12 am

    Anytime I hear the word light I perk up. Fortunately I have sunny spots in my house, but this year I have been in the house ALL winter because of my leg (going for my prosthesis next week!), so my light deprivation is from not being outside at all. This post has given me the umph to get bundled up and go sit outside for 20 minutes everyday at noon! Thanks, Sally.

  • 12 Amanda // Feb 11, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Wow. I had no idea. *hugs*

    Glad you are on the path to healing yourself emotionally….and next time you get like that, call me and tell me when you don’t have the energy to make dinner or whatever, and you can just come on over and I’ll cook for you. 🙂


  • 13 Amanda // Feb 11, 2009 at 9:52 am

    And, coincidentally, the last two days with this lovely warm, sunlit weather, I have felt amazingly better. Haha…go figure.

  • 14 Lesley // Feb 11, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Awwww… *HUGS*

    Love you, Sally.

  • 15 Anna Lee // Feb 12, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Just a note to say thank you for sharing. It was lovely, real, and honest. I, like many others, am going through my own set of life challenges right now. It’s nice to see others who are embracing them as you have, even when it seems impossible to hold on. One of the hardest challenges is taking care of ourselves, so that we can navigate the rest of them. You are doing beautifully. Smiles, Anna

  • 16 Stephanie // Feb 13, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Wonderful post and a great reminder for people who feel trapped and out of options. There’s always choice.

    BODA weight loss

  • 17 Patti // Feb 13, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    You are such an awesome writer I can’t believe I just devoured that whole big long post! Everyone gets that feeling of being stuck, but few have the gift to be sensitive to it, to recognize it, and most importantly realize that each moment has infinite possibilities. Your writing is very inspirational and important. People need to know that the journey may be difficult be we are empowered to respond with good choices.

  • 18 margaret // Feb 13, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    i’m so glad you are starting to recover.

    i’ve experienced the emotional detox you speak of in physical ways (mostly headaches). and it upsetting as we gotten through stress to be beaten up by it’s effect our body or mind. i can’t imagine going through that for weeks or months.

    let me just say thank-you for taking care of sally. she is way too important not to be adequately cared for. love you.


  • 19 ElizabethG // Feb 17, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    It’s curious how we women need self-permission to take care of ourselves when we would of course be the first to be understanding and helpful if a co-worker or neighbor or family member exhibited signs of needing help. I am reminded of the three words I wrote instead of New Year’s resolutions on Jan 1st: breathe, reach-out, and self-permission. Take care of yourself.

  • 20 Kara // Feb 18, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Thanks for the great thoughts on my blog. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about depression (esp. since I seem to be going through a mild dose or at least a bit of SAD right now), but I do agree that it’s important be aware of what kinds of self-care works for you and to do that immediately when you aren’t feeling well!

    Also it sounds like you two are open to whatever interesting possibilities might present themselves. I have some friends in Montreal who just moved back to N. America after spending 3 or 4 years in Dresden on the husband’s posdoc. They loved it. And who knows what kind of writing opportunities might arise.

    Take care! I’m looking forward to hearing how your macrobiotic experiment is going.

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