In a world where there is always content being pushed at you, it’s hard to notice when a particular author hasn’t posted in a long time. There have been so many times where it has taken me a year or more to realize that I haven’t heard anything from one of my favorite bloggers or newsletter writers. There’s no judgment there; it’s the nature of the medium. But I sometimes wonder about how that person is doing. Are they out living their best life? Have they just gotten tired of writing or have writer’s block? Or are they struggling?
While there have certainly been times when I haven’t posted in a while where I have been out enjoying life, this time around I have been struggling. And while I usually have no problem being open and honest about my struggles after they’ve happened, it’s excruciating for me to admit that when I’m in the middle of it. Because, no matter how much I’ve tried to live my life around the notion that I am enough, struggling brings up so much shame and self-blame for me. It’s hard to overcome our programming. I often hear my mother’s voice in my head when something bad happens saying “well that’s because you…” and list some reasons why I deserve this or caused this. Because that’s what I always heard growing up. Everything, down to my being “pigeon-toed” was a character flaw. I toed-in because I wasn’t practicing walking straight enough (not femoral anteversion which was the real culprit and something I was born with and still deal with in the form of hip problems). So when I experience chronic pain, as I have been non-stop for months, I hear that voice telling me that it’s my fault. Even when it’s cervical spine degeneration (one of several chronic pain problems), which I’m not even sure how I could have caused, somehow I feel like I’m at fault. And then comes the shame spiral.
I haven’t felt well since I got COVID at the end of October, though most of what I’ve been dealing with is not attributable to COVID. My long COVID symptoms started to go away when I started weaning myself off the migraine prevention medication that I’d been on for 11 years, which I was also convinced was not doing anything to prevent migraines. The medication also raised my heart rate, my blood pressure, and is known for causing cognitive issues and puts me at much greater risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other degenerative neurological diseases. I met with my doctor to come up with a plan for tapering off the medication and she give me no sense that withdrawal was really a concern; just that I might have more migraines (which I didn’t).
I finally got off the medication six weeks ago and while I was right that it was not preventing my migraines, it had changed my brain chemistry over those years in some pretty significant ways. Every night, I woke up between 12:30 and 2am and was as awake as I was when I’d wake up after an 8-9 hour night of sleep. Not shaky or nervous or full of racing thoughts – just awake. I’d finally start feeling sleepy again around 6 or 6:30, just before I had to wake up for work. I had no trouble falling asleep, but I’d always awaken roughly around the same time.
The first medical professional I saw was convinced it was just anxiety (because when your chart says anxiety, everything that’s wrong with you is anxiety, which I’d also heard when I was seen for some significant post-COVID symptoms) and lectured me about sleep hygiene and meditation. But I was able to convince her to write me some prescriptions. I took sleeping pills that were supposed to guarantee 7-8 hours of sleep. I’d fall asleep at 9 and awaken 3-4 hours later. I took antihistamines which were supposed to have the same effects on my sleep as the migraine medication I was taking. Awake at 1am. I tried taking meds when I woke up at 1am. That worked a bit for a few days and then I started needing more and more of the medication to get back to sleep at all (and even then, I was waking up every hour). I tried cannabis which actually helped me get back to bed when I’d awaken at 1am better than most things, but even that didn’t help much and, again, I quickly felt like I needed more and didn’t want to go down that road. I tried every strategy in the book regarding sleep hygiene and getting back to sleep. Nothing worked.
My regular doctor believed me, I think, but she thought that I would quickly recover from this. She told me that everything should be fine within two to three weeks of stopping the medication and that I should try to tough it out. When three became four and four became five, I did my own research and found that some people take six months, a year, or years, and some never get better without going back on the medication. The peer reviewed literature on this goes back to the 70s, but no one really understands why some people have so much difficulty getting off these brain-altering medications and others don’t. And they’re discovering new things about the drug all the time – good and bad.
At the same time, I was also experiencing horrific stomach issues that I didn’t realize were tied to stopping the medication (I had no idea how much those same brain chemicals that regulate sleep also regulate digestion), but worried it was what was waking and keeping me up at night. I was at the point of eating only rice and crackers and even those caused terrible pain as soon as they hit my stomach. I took every possible medicine to address it and none worked. I was barely eating, barely sleeping, and barely spending any time with my family because I’d go to bed at 7pm in the hopes of getting more sleep before I was awakened. Basically, all I did was work and try to sleep.
Finally, a few days ago, I was at the end of my rope. More than five weeks of sleeping 3-5 hours per night and barely eating had really taken a toll on me. I honestly felt like I was going to die. So I gave in and took half of the lowest dose available for this medication – a tiny pill cut almost infinitesimally small) around 8pm that night. I slept 11 hours. I took half of that (seriously, I could barely see the thing I was swallowing!) again the next night and slept 10. My stomach stopped hurting and, after two days, I could eat whatever I wanted again. The change was so fast and profound that it couldn’t be put down to anything but the medication, but still, I feel like I won’t be believed by medical professionals. And unfortunately, it also seems to be making me grind my teeth which is causing migraines (ironic that the migraine prevention med is causing them, huh?) and again making it difficult to eat anything, now due to terrible jaw pain. I haven’t had a good day since October, and it’s causing such a deep feeling of despair. And I’ve seen so many doctors and have been prescribed so many medications that simply haven’t worked that it’s hard for me to feel any sense of hope that any of this will improve. It feels like a game of medical whack-a-mole.
Also during this period, I was working with another person who had invited me to join them in a co-lead role on a team. I hadn’t known them prior to working together, but they were really enthusiastic and welcoming. I also made the error of mistaking their oversharing with me about their personal life for real friendship and intimacy. At some point, we had a disagreement about a seemingly small aspect of our work that turned into a much larger conflict. They brought up stuff they weren’t happy with me about that had happened months earlier and I immediately accepted accountability, apologized, and explained what I would do in the future to prevent it from happening again. I also brought up issues I’d had with them and, unfortunately, was met with denial where I’d expected an opportunity for us to both clear the air and improve our working relationship. They went into full resistance mode and I felt like my concerns were ignored. I felt gaslit, especially when they claimed things that I had emails to prove weren’t accurate and when I showed them the receipts argued that I was taking things out of context. I was disappointed, but honestly ok with moving forward with the assumption that everything was my fault and I offered to let them lead and I’d just play a support role. But then I learned that they were talking about me to others in the group in ways that brought up traumatic memories of the bully I dealt with in my previous job. I totally understand that they probably needed to vent to people they trusted and that we all have to do that sometimes, but when a mutual friend told me what they’d said, it took me right back to the feeling of having someone actively working to damage my career and how people saw me. I couldn’t sleep. I felt sick.
I’m usually a stick-it-out and try to resolve the issue sort of person. I don’t usually run away from things. But in this case, I quit and for two reasons. One, I had nothing to prove and this other person did. They are up-and-coming in their career and are clearly on a trajectory to do great things. I actually saw a lot of my previous self in them with the way they centered their work life and overworked, and I felt a strong sense of empathy for them and admired all they do. I definitely didn’t want our conflict to harm their skyrocketing career and I knew there was a lot of cross-talk happening among members of this team that didn’t seem healthy. I’m in a stable job that I have no intention of leaving and, while it makes me sad that others might think less of me, quitting the work wouldn’t harm my career. And two, I needed to prioritize my well-being and find some sense of peace, especially in the midst of all these health and pain issues.
While I can fully appreciate the impulse to grasp for innocence in a conflict (I know I did the same in the past when I was much more concerned about how others saw me), the pain, self-doubt, and anxiety it causes the other person is immense. Because, when you are grasping for innocence in a conflict, you’re pushing the other person into the role of the villain. The whole experience brought up trauma from my past. It clearly also brought up stuff from theirs. I recognized in hindsight that what was objectively a pretty minor decision in the big picture loomed quite large in their mind due to their own personal history, and they seemed to frame my disagreement as a personal affront or rejection. I, on the other hand, have significant experience in the area of that decision (which they did not) and I felt like my hard-earned wisdom was being totally ignored. And their behavior afterward took me back to the two most traumatic periods of my life. I wish I had understood earlier that this was so important to them as I would have responded differently. I wish they had wanted to understand my perspective and hadn’t made me feel othered and anxious by their own grasping for innocence. But also, I totally get it and I don’t blame them at all. No one is the “bad guy” here.
Grasping for innocence is such a natural impulse in our blame and shame society. It makes us rigid. It makes us incurious. It puts us into a defensive posture when we could be empathetic. It’s also very much an impulse that comes from our white supremacist carceral culture. The amazing teacher, facilitator, embodiment coach, and podcaster, Prentis Hemphill wrote about how the criminal justice system’s notions of innocence and guilt are often replicated in our interpersonal interactions in a 2019 post entitled “Letting Go of Innocence,” (that is unfortunately only accessible via the Wayback Machine now):
It’s time to let go of our interpersonal obsession with innocence and guilt and see those concepts as what they are. Having facilitated conflict and transformative justice processes I can feel how programmed we are to grasp for innocence. Innocence offers safety, while guilt leaves you at risk for expulsion and isolation. Neither are fixed states, identity traits, but we treat them that way.
In environments where these binaries reign, Hemphill explains, people grasp for innocence at all costs, because the only other option is guilt. This removes possibilities for recognizing and acknowledging harm, for growth, and for making amends. How can you reflect on what you’ve done if you’re too busy focusing on damage control and reputation management? As they write in the post, meaningful change comes from “the processes of making amends, incorporating another’s reality into our own, of knowing ourselves, our motivations, of being in practice that interrupts our unconscious and violent flailing. What changes us is vulnerability, acknowledgement, and responsibility.” It is nearly impossible to be vulnerable in spaces where you feel like you’re walking a narrow tightrope between guilt and innocence. And, let’s face it. We are none of us innocent. We are none of us perfect. And we are none of us evil. We were raised in an oppressive white supremacist society. We all have learning and unlearning to do. We all cause harm sometimes, unintentionally or not. When we’re in community with other people who truly understand all this, we can be vulnerable and accountable and generous with each other. But it’s rare.
All of this also got me thinking about the weight each of us carries every day. We all have experienced pain, be it physical or emotional and be it as an adult or as a child. The people around us have suffered because of abuse, neglect, parental rejection, bullying, poverty, loss of a loved one, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, fat phobia, ableism, war, accidents, near-death experiences, chronic pain, mental illness, physical illnesses, or other terrible things. And two people can have very different responses even to the same sort of hurt. Some of us hide our pain well, others less so, and I personally do not think hiding one’s pain is a badge of honor so much as a coping strategy. When we interact with people, we are interacting with all their baggage, trauma, and learned responses from those experiences, most or all of which we know nothing about. No interaction is free of our scars. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing to me that we’re not in tears or at each other’s throats all the time given how much we all carry and how often it comes into play in our daily interactions. I think there’s value in recognizing that everyone carries a lot more than we can see. I think it can increase our empathy towards others.
I think it’s important for us to be curious and surface our own impulses that are borne out of trauma or pain. You may feel like your responses to things aren’t informed by pain in your past or present, but we’re not rational-to-a-fault Vulcans and most of us are yanked around by big emotions we may only partially understand. My boss in my first professional librarian job was not my mother, but wow did I believe that getting lots of gold stars from her would heal the hole that my mother’s rejection and conditional love left inside me. And I continued trying to get gold stars from future bosses and chased accolades for the very same reason. And I think because of how much I was driven by trying to fill that hole from my childhood, I cared way too much about what people thought about me and took rejection (even by people I barely knew) very poorly. It mattered much more than it should have. While that person I collaborated with reminds me a lot of my workaholic past self, they are not me, and they have different baggage that brought them there and different goals for their career. I definitely saw in them a kindred spirit and because of that and their over-sharing assumed a closeness that wasn’t really there (overidentification with others can also be problematic). While they had every right to vent and talk to others about our conflict, what they said to others brought me right back to when that woman who hadn’t gotten the job we were both up for did everything in her power to damage my career (and succeeded). It caused me the kind of anxiety and rumination that interrupts sleep and makes you feel physically ill.
That I can better recognize these things now comes from being curious about why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling. I’ve learned a lot from the insight meditation community, particularly Tara Brach, her talks, and her books Radical Compassion and Radical Acceptance. Her RAIN method has helped me to be more compassionate towards myself which has also helped me extend more grace to others. I remember when I was so much harder on myself, I was much less forgiving of other people’s shortcomings and the harm they caused. I was much more rigid and judgmental. Choosing to love my imperfect self and to stop seeking approval from others honestly changed my whole worldview. But I’m a work in progress. I still get triggered by trauma from my past. I still hear my mom’s voice in my head when I’m struggling. But I am more aware of it and I don’t let it all jerk me around or impact my interactions with others quite as much as it used to.
So, yeah. I’m a quitter. I couldn’t hack more than 5 weeks of barely sleeping and eating and I couldn’t hack staying in a conflict that would almost certainly continue causing harm. Maybe I’m not strong. Maybe I’m not “resilient.” But I made these decisions with my well-being in mind. Making yourself suffer does not make you a better person. The women who brag about going through natural childbirth like it makes them a superior human and mother only end up shaming women who needed medical intervention. Sometimes the best thing we can do is take a step back or tap out, but our society so stigmatizes quitting that I find myself second-guessing myself and beating myself up every time I think about it. But I feel pretty strongly that I made the right decision in both cases and I’m sharing this in the hopes that if you’re struggling or in pain and quitting something can ease your pain, that the thought of it won’t fill you with shame. You don’t need to muscle through everything. Suffering won’t make you more worthy. And when you prioritize your well-being at work or elsewhere, you’re also setting an example for others that it’s okay to do so. You are enough. You deserve to feel well. May the Spring bring us all more beautiful, healthy, and mentally and physically pain-free days. Seeing the trillium out in the forest on one of the rare non-rainy days here yesterday instilled a little kernel of hope in me that things can be better.