How to Look Up and Find Your Game Changer
The other day I was standing with a family friend in their kitchen. We only had a few minutes before we both had to go, so we were power-chatting about all the important things. You know, like the whole week wrapped up into 5 minutes. Something was amiss though, I could tell in his beautiful brown eyes. I know the kind of desperation and frustration that was looking back at me.
This is where I just annoy myself: for someone who births 1,500 words a week on social media, I was more than a little disappointed that I couldn't think of anything to say.
Later, while washing my face and getting ready for bed, I decided I should really try to remember what it was like to be in that place my friend is in now.
So much has changed, it took me a minute to get my head back in that place. I wiped off my little sink counter, smearing left over eye liner and lipstick everywhere because I'm secretly a mess when company isn't coming over, and looked up to my face in my vanity mirror, wondering why wet eyelashes aren't a thing.
Then I remembered the game changer of all game changers: I had looked up.
So there I was....on a night just like this....about two and a half years ago, sitting in the parking lot of my therapist's office, watching a gaggle of young-ish women walk in before me, sizing them all up to see where their weaknesses were.
I kept closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead the way I do when I'm tired and overwhelmed. How in the actual hell did my therapist convince me that a women's group was a good idea? I'm barely a woman, first of all. If there was an adolescent boy group, I might have almost fit in. Maybe.
The thoughts that had swirled in my head all day made me feel like my eyes were jumping around trying to look at them all. Everything was so loud in my brain. I never had a moment of peace in my head and it made me angry. Things shouldn't be this hard! I snapped at everyone, and just wanted to be left alone. There was no joy, there was no light, there was no quiet. No one wanted to be around me. I mean, I barely wanted to be around me. I would make dramatic exits and go be alone to brood or drink until my anger faded into the murky mist of embarrassment. Everyone around me would walk on eggshells, and when I would catch them giving each other looks, it would send me in another tailspin. The worst thing was, I knew how funny and engaging I was when I'm on my game. I knew I had every possible thing going for me, and just knew I was letting everyone down. Everyone else had it all together but me. Right?
It was a vicious and exhausting cycle that I do not miss in the least.
I was just weeks out of having my first series of panic attacks when I was sitting in that parking lot that first time and didn't know which end was up. I was slowly beginning to want my life back, though. I wanted back the sweet bliss of ignorance of the "Before." I wanted back the feeling that I was able to control the people and events around me. I wanted to feel my normal again.
I would have done anything to feel better. I would have done anything to feel like I wasn't spinning out of control.
That's why my therapist had wondered if I could make my world a little bigger. “There are many people who experience overwhelming anxiety and depression, and we have found that talking in a group can build a sense of community,” she said, looking at me almost imploringly, and handed me a pamphlet for a women’s support group, “at the least, it will get you out of the house.”
A women’s group? Come on.
“You only have to go to two of them, then you can make up your mind.” It was like she was trying to sell me a used vacuum. Didn’t she know that just yesterday I was lying in bed all day crying? Doesn’t she know that no one wants to be near me when I’m like this? Life isn’t supposed to be this way.
I said yes and, reluctantly, found myself in my first group therapy on that late Monday night in May. I came from yoga, which I thought I needed to survive, looking especially terrible. Body acceptance only goes so far when you’re wearing purple yoga pants.
As everyone took seats, I remember thinking that I was going to do anything I could to get out of being weak in public. Is that the normal I was craving? Exploiting weakness and putting on a mask? Hiding behind the façade of humor and judgment to ensure that all of my vulnerabilities stayed in the dark where they belonged?
Uh, yeah, duh. I absolutely wanted that again.
But even with that, there was a tiny part of me - somewhere in the depths of my little exhausted soul - that knew that my life had taken a turn, and this group might be my chance to stop the cycle of stress and silence as a lifestyle.
I took a deep breath, swallowed some pride, and took a seat in the conference room reserved for us.
We did the normal introductions. We all had a role. It was like the Spice Girls, but with anxiety and substance problems: The Jock; The Posh One with Daddy issues; The Stoner; The Workaholic; The Drinker; The Perfectionist; The Young One; Me.
The groups ticked on every other Monday without anything earth-shattering happening. I would be my old funny self and try to make people laugh. It’s the best superficial way to make people love you, and I’m good at it. Like, weirdly good at it. The only problem during the beginning of that women’s group was that I didn’t want to engage. I spent an impressive amount of time staring at the floor. I got to know everyone’s shoes very well. I’m pretty good at being funny and looking aloof.
Each week we started the group by checking in with everyone. One week sticks out in my memory like it happened this morning. One of the girls in the group was grieving the loss of a friend. It was significant, shocking, and really sad. It was one of those griefs that is compounded by the reaction by those around us that don't quite get it. It was a loss that was surrounded with questions and speculation, with judgement and fear. And it was a loss that could have easily been this girl.
I remember hearing her story, while I had my eyes fixed on her shoes. They were white Ked like sneakers. I remember thinking how white they were. White laces and everything. How does one keep their shoes so white? I didn't need to connect to this story because I hadn't lost someone, and maybe if they had made better choices...
But just as I was making judgements in my head instead of listening, she said something that changed the game completely: “I don't feel ok. I'm feeling lost.”
Those seven words, and all of their simplicity, bounced around in my fuzzy Xanaxy head, and surprised me so much that I looked up.
I looked up, and saw that girl's annoyingly beautiful face looking back at me was the first thing I saw.
I looked up for, what seemed like, the first time in my life, and what I saw stilled my brain.
I had looked up and I saw this girl's whole heart. I saw real, honest emotion for the first time. I looked up and saw the pain I felt too. I saw something of myself in her sadness. I saw in the defeated look in those whiskey colored eyes my own desperate longing to be accepted. I felt that desperation so viscerally that I'm pretty sure I just stared at her for the rest of the hour hoping she could see it in me too.
Those two simple sentences were my game changer. That's it. Of course it was something simple that made an impact. Recovery isn’t complicated. It’s looking up. It’s connecting. It’s finding yourself in someone else's story.
There isn't a magic bullet to finding your way out of the dark woods of the thing you're afraid of, but it does help when there is someone with you that can make the walk a little less spooky.
I'm not saying that joining any kind of group is the way to go. Actually, it really wasn't for me, as it turns out. But I am thankful that I went that day. I'm thankful every day of my new life that I looked up that day. I'm so thankful that I'll gladly drive to and from Boston twice to pick up Keds Magee from the airport. I am, however, never going to be so thankful that I babysit her cats again. #SoMuchHair
I can't tell you what to do, and wouldn't even if I had the answers. But I want to ask you to do something for me...just one dumb thing: look up.
That's what changed for me. I looked up. Looking up got me out of my own ass, to put it crudely. My world did get bigger. It turns out, shockingly, that the world is bigger than what I could see when I had my eyes down.
Try it. You might see a cool piece of architecture on a building, that you've never noticed. Or you might see the person attached to those shoes, that for some reason resonates on your same wave length. Maybe you'll see just one thing that gets you out of your nonsense. Maybe you'll see something really funny, or really sad, or really colorful, or really boring. Who knows. It's better than what you're looking at with your eyes on everyone's shoes, though. Trust me.
Every single day I am thankful for the person wearing those white Ked-ish sneakers. I wouldn't trade her for all the pepperoni in DeFazio's. And it turns out that those seven words that didn't make a difference for any one but me may have changed the trajectory of my life. That's the thing about looking up. You might see something that is seemingly unremarkable to anyone else but you. That's the best part. It's like a secret.
Find the thing that registers on your exact frequency. It won't make sense to any one else, and that's fine too. But you won't know what works until you look up and find it.
Good luck man.