Finding Normal Part II

Life on the Other Side of Suffering

The military has a slang phrase that I’ve always liked: “Embrace the suck.” Embrace that which is terrible – accept it, get through it, and become changed by it (hopefully for the better). 

And there is so much to embrace! I mentioned last time the tremendous amount of collective sucking there has been over the last few years, which has run from the extremes of contagious (and fatal) disease to the terribly deep distrust that many people have about the truth and where it comes from, to the degeneration of relationships and the literal fear of other people and suspicion of their activities. And also, war! So yes, much sucking. And yes, much opportunity for embracing.

Why embrace suffering? In my last blog post I wrote that suffering must not be the entirety of your life. Why not? A couple of reasons: one, because if it is, your life will feel as though it amounts to nothing, which feels terrible (and will continue to feel terrible if it is not addressed). If your life feels terrible, you will forget that you are a very important and needed part of the world, and so the world will be terribly shortchanged by your withdrawal from it. And two, because life was never meant to be all suffering. There is a lot of beauty and a lot of good in the world, and just as people have suffered since the beginning of time, so have they also enjoyed goodness. Your life does not need to be only suffering; and if it feels as though it’s all that is, please, please reach out to a professional who can help you work through those feelings. Life is not meant to be all pain; help is available to you. 

But if no one can escape suffering, what does the embracing of it look like? I think acceptance has a lot to do with it – looking it straight in the face and recognizing it for what it is. Accepting that things (like illnesses, like war) are realities, and we exist in that reality. Once we accept something, things get easier because we’re not mentally tired from the effort of running away from it. And there is a difference, I think, between acknowledging something and accepting it. “I totally acknowledge that there is a pandemic today,” I may say as I eat an entire pint of ice cream straight from the carton in a very panicky way, wishing I had a time machine in which to jump straight back to 2019; but without the acceptance of it, it just becomes a Very Scary Thing To Think About and doesn’t move on from there. (I also get Brain Freeze and sick of ice cream.) 

Acceptance of something that scares you doesn’t need to take the fear of it away, but it does allow us some greater sense of control over ourselves and our actions. “I accept that there is a pandemic that TOTALLY SUCKS and is stripping me of my basic desires to go outdoors and interact with other people and I am very angry and scared about it,” I may say. And then I can have one spoonful of the ice cream and get on with the day because I have vocalized my feelings and thus have taken ownership and responsibility for them. I have embraced that suck.

Embracing it also means understanding that things aren’t perfect. Viruses exist (in part) because we live in an imperfect world. War exists (in part) because leaders are flawed people. We suffer in our lives because sometimes the choices we make aren’t great. But embracing our humanity – our flaws – helps us to be empathetic to others and to develop an understanding outside of ourselves, which is always a good thing. If I am not perfect (and I assure you that I am not), and you are not perfect, there is a common ground that we both stand on together. Reconciliation happens out of that knowledge. Acceptance happens out of that knowledge – and the fruit of those things are life – changing for the better.

Embracing the suck, to me, means realizing that yes, terrible things happen. Traumatic, painful, unspeakable things happen that we need to heal from. But we can’t heal from them if we don’t face them, don’t see them for what they are, don’t do what we can to fix them. And we can’t do that if we’re hiding. 

I know that it’s really, really really hard to do, but we also don’t need to embrace suffering alone. It is good for us to be in a community, in a society. Talk it out. Find people who will listen to you, that will help you wrap your arms around it all and will give you the strength to do so. If we all do this together, we can collectively make such a tremendous difference, a positive one, in the world.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

Finding Normal Part I

Pandemics, Wars, and Giant Spiders

“Would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?”
“…And you won’t be angry?”
“I will NOT be angry.”
“Abby…someone.”
“Abby someone? Abby who?”
“Abby normal.”
-Young Frankenstein, 1974

Ah, normality. Remember that? Late February, early March 2020, before all of the lockdowns and the fear and the toilet paper that was impossible to get? What did it look like for you? For me, it was pretty simple: a husband, two kids, homework and preschool and dinner on the table. Weekend trips to see family in different states every now and then, day trips into the city to catch a ball game or to visit the museum. Going to the library, for crying out loud. And then, suddenly, in a large sweeping motion, it was gone. 

I won’t go into it. You lived it, too. But what was meant to be a return to normalcy this summer has sort of warped into this abnormal space that has the taste of what things used to be like, because we have all passed through this shadow that has changed us somehow, regardless of whether or not we actually contracted the virus. It seems we can have barbecues again, for example- but will they be attended by the same people that used to come to them, or have we stopped talking to them because they didn’t get a vaccine? No need for masks these days, but can we look at our neighbor the way we used to – with love, or affection, or affability – even though they still wear one? 

That’s just the coronavirus. Vacations can return now with less fear of catching Covid-19, but with the price of gas rising to unprecedented levels, is it practical? Gas is a concern for some; but what of the heavy psychic weight of possible nuclear war? And have you heard about those giant Joro spiders that are as big as a human palm?* 

But I’ve been thinking about this recently, about all of the suffering that has consumed our every point of media – both in the last couple of years with coronavirus and in the most of weeks with the war in Ukraine – and I’ve come to the realization that when it comes to suffering, it really doesn’t matter. Not in a nihilistic way, where everything is suffering and everything is meaningless, but in a way that suggests that there has never been a long time in our lives that was without suffering. 

We have all suffered together because of the global impact of coronavirus, the way we are all suffering together in one form or another (whether it be personally or emotionally or economically) because of the war in Ukraine, and so we have become used to suffering in the collective. But there have been sufferings in your life that were clearly demarcated by a Before and an After that haven’t been collectively shared. For my friend and neighbor, for example, it was before and after her breast cancer diagnosis; for me it was before and after my mother died. For you it has been something else entirely. And it will continue to be.

All of this is to say that life – any life, and most lives – contain a certain amount of suffering. Some suffering (I think, although people have disagreed with me on this) is objectively more tragic than others – I personally don’t believe all suffering is equal – but there is no such thing as a suffering-free life. It just doesn’t exist. That was always the case, stretching back across the millennia. So no, it’s not looking like this summer will be as it was before the Covid-19 pandemic, for a multitude of reasons. 

But – and this is a very big but – although suffering is a part of everyone’s life, neither does it have to be the entirety of it. In fact, it must not be the entirety of it, or it will be what destroys everything. 

This has been an especially difficult couple of years, and it’s not looking so great in a lot of ways moving forward. But just as we all suffered as a group, maybe in the coming days and weeks we can find ways to relieve it as a group. More on that next time!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

*I know those ridiculous spiders are harmless because their bite doesn’t break human skin, but come on.

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

Making a New Year Self-Care Checklist

My mom was an early riser. Up hours before the sun (and before anyone else in the house was awake), she’d be downstairs in our basement, the morning news sounding from a small portable TV. She would pore over her daily lists, notes and numbers she kept on legal pads; and with cigarette and coffee in hand, she spent all that time looking over her to-do list for the day.

It’s not a bad idea, making lists. It’s a good way to check in with yourself, to write down concretely on paper all the thoughts and feelings that may be floating around in your head. In these last waning days of 2021, making a list may very well be a good exercise in how to wring out the old year and ring in the new one.

If you’re so inclined (and have a few quiet minutes to yourself), grab a piece of paper (or a Word document). Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How have I grown in 2021? What have I done that has stretched me?
  • How have I shrunk in 2021? What has frightened me?
  • Whom did I grow closer to, and who have I drifted away from? How do I feel about that?
  • What books did I read/media have I consumed? Is it something I want to continue? Do more of, or less of?
  • What was my biggest accomplishment of 2021? What was my biggest regret?

Then, using the answers to these questions, write a letter to yourself. Give yourself some perspective – get it all out on paper. Keep it, if you want, in a journal or in a file, and return to it after some time. Did what you were worried about occur? What great things have happened since then?

I don’t know how 2021 went for you. I suspect, like it was for most people, it was a really challenging year, filled with steep valleys and cloudy skies. But maybe there were a few – and even more than a few – days where you felt happiness and joy.

My hope for you in 2022 is that those joyful days continue to increase, your path is more level and smooth, and you feel the rays of the sun on your soul.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

How to deal with Holiday Stress

Humans adapt, for better or worse. When times are turbulent, we grow more cautious and fearful, maybe even bitter. We learn how to scrimp and save, sometimes to a fault. Some of us become industrious, some of us become increasingly afraid. Some of us learn to ride the waves, and some even go with the flow.

I was thinking about adaptation recently as the holiday season approaches, about holiday gatherings and seeing friends and family. I’m sure you’ve seen the endless ads showing families happily reuniting, pre-Covid style, picking up where 2019 left off – I’ve seen them too. But what do you do if you don’t want to see other people? What if you don’t want to go back to normal because normal in 2021 isn’t what normal was back in 2019. What if it hurts to go back to normal?

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the people who are chained to the wall in the cave, once they are persuaded to go up into the light of the sun, are in pain at first. The sunlight burns their eyes; it’s not comfortable. In a similar way, we can be in pain this holiday season, because it can feel overwhelming to act like everything is okay when we’ve been told for a very long time that it is not. It’s a lot for a person to wrestle with, and we don’t all adjust and adapt in the same way.

All of this to say: before the hustle and bustle of the season really gets underway, before you make any travel plans or do too much shopping that it’s okay (and maybe even necessary) to check in with yourself first. How are you feeling physically? Emotionally? Where are you in pain? Where do you feel the most healthy? There is nothing wrong with going slowly, if you need to. There is nothing wrong with taking some time to think about what you would like or need from those you would like to visit with this holiday season, and there’s nothing wrong with asking.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, I know. It’s hard when other people are adjusting to life at a different speed than you are, even members of your own families or close friends. That can be painful, too. But just remember that you are worth the time you need to take to figure things out in your own time.

This holiday, give yourself the gift of listening – to yourself. Ask questions and really listen to your inner voice without judgment. I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season (no matter with how many people – or few! – you decide to celebrate with)!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

***

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About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.

Grounding Techniques to Help with Anxiety

Living in the Moment

I work as an aide in a Preschool, and this year’s class is bursting with energy. I’m greeted at the start of each school day with bubbly stories, eager 4-year-olds ready to learn and sing, and some of the cutest faces you ever did see.

One of those faces belongs to Mikey (not his real name), one of the sweeter kids in the class. He listens and does his best to follow along when the teacher guides them through forming their letters and learning about things like the weather and what day of the week it is, and he always has a story to tell about a place he went to with his parents or the things he does over the weekends.

Now that the school year has been underway for some weeks, he’s fallen into a routine. One of Mikey’s favorite things to do just before school begins is to sidle up to either myself or the teacher, look at us very seriously while holding up a finger, and say, “I have a question.”

“Yes, Mikey?”

“How long is it until I can go home?”

And we smile and tell him that he’ll go home at the end of the school day, listing off the various things that happen before then. “There’s a lesson first,” I’ll say, “then snack time, then art class, then playtime, then lunch. And then we have recess, then rest time, another lesson, and then we go home.”

He’ll nod seriously at that, furrow his little brow, and return to his seat. And for the rest of each day, he’ll stop and ask one of us when the thing we are participating in will be over. During the morning lesson, he’ll ask when snack time is. When snack is underway, he’ll ask when art class is. During art class, he’ll ask when lunch is – and so on and so forth, for the entire rest of the day.

“Try not to worry about the next thing, Mikey,” I tell him. “Just think about what’s happening right now. The day will go faster that way.”

He has yet to master that ability. It seems like an easy thing to joke about, but his routine does make sense to me – the little guy is trying to ground himself in the midst of a churning hullabaloo – and I can’t say that I’m unlike him in my own way. True, I don’t ask the teacher what our schedule is every hour of the day, but how many times have I looked at my own calendar ad nauseum, trying to figure out what else I have coming down the pike? How often, when I’ve been worried, have I thought about what will happen next; and once I’ve gotten there, immediately worried about the next event? Too many times. And, each time, just like little Mikey, I’ve furrowed my brow, not taking my own advice – not thinking about what’s happening right now.

I’m sure I’m not alone; maybe you feel the same way too. Maybe you feel swept up in the current of worrying about what’s coming next, and you want to know the future so you can corral it, subdue it, and have some sort of handle on it so you don’t feel completely out of control. But if you are like me, maybe we can try to figure out how to calm down, take a moment (or two, or a hundred) and try to truly live in the moment.

One thing I like to do is to listen to calming music and ambient sounds, so downloading a calming-type app may be helpful (or looking up videos of quiet and calming nature scenes on YouTube may do the trick). Taking time to just sit in quietude is hard to do but incredibly worthy of your time once you get in the habit of it. Maybe a yoga class is more your style, visiting a house of worship or talking a walk – so many things can help to keep you grounded in the moment that you’re in. Every moment is special, even if it’s mundane – and anything we can do to help us stay in the moment is sure to do us a world of good.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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eTalkTherapy - talk with a counselor online

About the author: Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. Christy also blogs at asinglehour.wordpress.com and tweets @agapeflower117. You can  follow her here on eTalkTherapy for inspirational articles and different perspectives as they relate to good mental health.