When they misgendered you at your memorial.

There were drains hanging from my chest when I made the first phone call. Not even two days before, I was under the knife, having a surgeon — an artist — remake my chest. These are scars that you will never see.

“Hey,” I say softly into the phone. “I think you should come over. I’ll explain when you get here.”

When I hang up, I straighten my spine and I slap myself across the cheek. Our friends are coming over, and I remind myself that I can’t crumble, not now. I’ve never had to disclose that someone is dying, to shatter the world as they knew it with a single sentence. I guess because I was the one that was usually on the brink of death.

This was not the thunder I wanted stolen from me.

There’s a knock on my door, and the words are falling out of my mouth before I can think of how to say them. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper. “Cris isn’t going to make it.” We hold onto each other for dear life, the drains pressed between us, filling with my blood.

The color is already gone from my face; I’m waiting now to see your ghost.

/

You are difficult to contain. A neuroscientist, a poet, a drag queen, a teacher — queerness, for you, was simply your way of being in the world, the shimmer held in every cell in your body.

“They” as a pronoun was the most natural thing in the world, because I can’t imagine how “she” or “he” could hold everything that you are, that you were. They, as in, “I hold the contradictions and make them beautiful.” They, as in, “I wear my trauma as drag and spin it into gold.”

I never understood how anyone could look at you and not see “they,” or hear the mirth in your laughter and not believe it to be sheer magic or mischief, or look at your delicate hands and assign you any essence other than “everything.”

Everything, the totality.

You were the scientist who loved astrology. You were the poet who could seamlessly reference Grey’s Anatomy without missing a beat. You toiled in a lab with mice by day and wore eight-inch heels and glitter on a stage at night.

You moved between worlds, always chasing something — the secrets you found studying zebrafish, the catharsis in lip-synching pop songs in gay bars — and I fear that neither one was enough.

You could find the wisdom in a Kelly Clarkson song and in the DNA of a jellyfish. I remember thinking, I’ll follow this queen to the ends of the earth.

If only you had let me.

/

Your memorial is organized by email. This is, I think, the first time I really understood what it meant to die as a millennial. You’re just a few months shy of your 30th birthday, but if I think about that for too long, I want to set the whole world on fire.

It was foreshadowing, I realize, when you told me how your novel was going to end, just a few weeks before you died. How the characters, realizing the world is irredeemable, decide to burn it to the ground so something new can grow in its place.

You lit the metaphorical match in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, and I still don’t know if it was a smoke signal or a death wish. I’m not sure if you knew, either.

My whole world burns down with it. Your remains nourish the ground underneath me. Grief is a brutal and unforgiving teacher, offering lessons I never asked for. Your tombstone is a mirror reflecting back all the ways my story could’ve ended just like yours.

Your mother makes me promise that I won’t end my life like you did.

I have to grow in your place now, become something new.

You used to tell me that no one understood trauma quite like we did, like it was a language that we spoke fluently, sometimes morbidly and always earnestly. In that way, I’ll never stop hearing your voice.

/

Your graduate advisor responds to the email about your memorial. Gently, I remind him of your pronouns.

I think back to all the conversations we had about what it was like to be a transgender scientist — struggling to be seen, carefully measuring how much of yourself you could be and how much you had to hide.

Sometimes, over coffee, you’d admit to me, “I’m so tired.” The resignation in your eyes was like the dimming of a thousand stars at once.

Your advisor snaps back so harshly that the wind is knocked out of me. “That’s the side you knew, but Cris, the young man I knew, had many sides,” your advisor lectures.

How can you call it “sides” when you never asked to be deconstructed? When it’s the world splitting you apart, never allowing you to be whole in the first place?

How could he speak of you as though everything you were in life — all the magic that moved through you — was simply too inconvenient to acknowledge? How can you take a prism and demand one color?

I’m trying to find the words to explain to him how painful misgendering is, but my rage is boiling over — not just at him, but at a world that was never good enough for you, determined to take the beauty of your queerness and grind it to dust underneath a heavy heel.

I tell the professor that he should be ashamed. He calls me a “hectoring, self-absorbed, pompous twit.”

The aftertaste of the same poison that killed you is sitting on my tongue. The taste is familiar, metallic, and cold. I remember the anguish of being invisible, how it eroded your spirit, how it clipped your wings into pieces that neither of us could stitch back together.

Without wings, there was nothing to break your fall.

/

When a transgender person commits suicide, it’s almost always murder in slow motion.

When you cut a flower at the stem, no one is surprised when it wilts. When your petals fell, I tried to hold onto them as long as I could. The world might know you now as a statistic, but I knew you as you breathed and bloomed.

The morning memorial begins with a passionate plea about pronouns from a trans femme you knew, and I’m silently grateful for her courage. But I’m left trembling when I realize that you never lived to see the day when your life didn’t require a disclaimer — instead, your death now required one, too.

The professor gives the closing remarks. He stumbles over his words.

When he misgenders you, he tries to correct himself, stuttering. The pain in the room is palpable, a living reenactment of the pain you held in your last breath.

When he refers to you as a son, your mother — in a moment more powerful than my words can hold — adamantly corrects him.

“My child,” she says.

Her child who, after being flown to New York for a final time, would be turned over to ash. “I blew glitter over their body just before they were cremated,” your mother tells me.

And this is how you left us, anointed by the shimmering breath of your mother.

It was one final gesture to remind you that, while the world may not have seen you, we still did.

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selfcare

If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash.

5 important mistakes I made as a partner to someone with chronic illness.

About seven years ago, while at university, I fell in love.

Ray was easily one of the most brilliant and funny people I’d ever met — they stole my heart almost immediately.

While they can seem soft-spoken at first, they’re incredibly passionate and opinionated when you get to know them. They’re empathic, geeky, and tender. And they balance me out, too: their careful and considerate nature has tempered my impulsivity and reckless optimism many, many times.

In other words, we fit together wonderfully.

I knew Ray was special from the moment I met them. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that we later got married — and I’m very lucky to be able to say that after nearly seven years together, we are raising two perfect fur babies together (and more succulents than I can possibly count).

In many ways, ours is a love story that seems pretty typical. But in reality, it’s not quite.

Ray has a number of chronic illnesses, including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and arthritis. With this comes not only a lot of physical pain and mobility issues but total exhaustion day after day.

After years of being partners, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about supporting folks in my life with chronic illness. But as much as I hate admitting this, these were lessons that I often learned the hard way.

I want to share some of the mistakes that I’ve made, because I’m hopeful that other loved ones can learn from my experiences, and in doing so, they can offer the kind of support that chronically ill folks truly deserve — support that is unconditionally affirming.

So where did I mess up, exactly? Here are five of the big blunders I made, and what I learned as a result.

1. I assumed that we had the same definition of ‘happiness.’

I’m happiest when I’m busy. I know this about myself. If I don’t have several projects up in the air, a regular dose of sunshine, consistent friend dates, and a lot of yoga on the weekends, I’m not very functional.

Particularly as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD, the pace of my life and what’s on my calendar determines whether or not I’m functional on any given week.

Sometimes I would look at how my partner’s life was set up, though, and I’d wonder if they were making the “right” choices — just because their life didn’t look like mine.

How did they survive, I wondered, without regular social outings? Wouldn’t they feel better if they got out a little more? At first, I didn’t slow down to consider what happiness looked like for them. I used my own definition assuming that what worked for me would obviously work for them.

The reality is, though, that what makes me feel good is not necessarily going to make Ray feel good. What’s empowering or energizing for me could actually be completely draining, counterproductive, or even harmful for them.

I logically understood this. But even so, I’d still slip up at times, assuming that their life was lacking some key ingredient that their own recipe never called for.

In recent years, I started paying much closer attention to how my partner defines happiness. I work to support them in making whatever changes they deem helpful in pursuit of their goals, even if their goals look nothing like mine.

This means celebrating their successes, too, however they define success.

They get to steer the ship; it’s my job as a partner to support them in whatever direction they choose to go, and however they ask me to show up.

2. I had a lot of suggestions — but I wasn’t always making them accessible.

Ray and I have the kind of relationship where we do offer (solicited) suggestions to each other from time to time, always with the caveat that we aren’t pushing and we’re respectful when we offer guidance.

I began to notice, though, that sometimes my advice was consistently lacking something — accessibility.

If I was suggesting that my partner see a specialist, was I also offering to go with them? Was I making sure they had transportation covered? Was I helping them take notes on what questions needed answering?

Or was I just telling them what they should do without a plan of how we could make it happen?

If I was recommending that Ray join me for a particular (gentle) yoga or stretching class, had I spoken with the instructor first to ask if they knew how to work with clients with EDS? Was I willing to pay for a Lyft so that they didn’t have to walk to class with me? Had I researched if that particular activity was safe for their body in the first place?

Offering advice without consideration of how to make it actionable and accessible meant that my “advice” was useless — plain and simple.

Rather than creating additional work for my partner, it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m offering real support and not just ideas that will further overwhelm them.

3. I thought that nudging them to try new things would be helpful.

With my obsessive-compulsive disorder, I often need to stretch just outside of my comfort zone to improve my mental health. It’s helpful, then, when people in my life nudge me to go outside, try something new, and break out of my routine if I’m starting to isolate myself too much.

With Ray, it’s the total opposite. They need to stick to a reliable routine to ensure they have enough spoons to get their work done.

They have to mentally calculate whether or not they can afford to do something differently. If they stray from their routine on an average day, they risk exhausting themselves before they meet all their responsibilities, which can impact them for days or even weeks to come.

Earlier in our relationship, I did a lot of nudging — because I figured inching outside of their comfort zone would be helpful, rather than harmful, like it was for me. While my resistance to trying something new came from anxiety that I could work through, Ray’s resistance was a matter of survival.

That’s why, when we’re supporting any partner with chronic illness, we must always assume that they are the expert on their own experiences. I know now that my partner gets to determine the pace at which they move in and out of their comfort zone.

The best way I’ve found to navigate this is to ask questions! Some examples of what I would ask:

  • “Are you looking to brainstorm ways to feel a little better? Or do you just need the space to talk about what you’re feeling?”
  • “What is the most helpful thing I could do to support you right now?”
  • “Do you have the energy to try something a little different? Or are you on ‘power save mode’ right now?”

I know that sometimes, my partner feels stuck and needs a solid brainstorm to figure out how to address certain challenges. But they get to decide when that happens — not me.

4. I didn’t ask exactly how I should engage with others around their disabilities.

It didn’t occur to me for the longest time what about their experiences I should or shouldn’t disclose. Instead, I focused on whether or not I was comfortable having a conversation, rather than asking Ray what they did and didn’t want others to know.

An example: My partner was unable to work for a period of time because of their disabilities.

At first, I had no problem letting people know if they asked what my partner did for work. But after a while, the judgment from others made me uncomfortable — so rather than affirming my partner’s decision and pushing back on ableism when I encountered it, I eventually found myself being dishonest about our situation.

“Well, they’re preparing to go back to school, so they’re taking some time…”

“They’re freelancing at the moment…”

“They’re waiting for the right opportunity to come along…”

Here’s what I should have done from the start: had a conversation with my partner and asked them how they’d like me to speak about their situation if and when someone asked. 

Maybe they wanted me to have those tough conversations, explicitly supporting their decision to take care of themselves. Seizing those teachable moments could have been a powerful moment for allyship! Or maybe they wanted to keep that information private, and we could instead find a way to disengage in a way they felt comfortable with.

Either way, they should’ve been the one to decide on that narrative — not me.

I know now that it’s so important to check in with them and ensure that I’m having conversations around their disabilities in ways they feel comfortable with, rather than assuming that I know what those boundaries are.

(Which is why I first got their consent to write this article… and then we read through it together to ensure it felt empowering and accurate!)

5. I unconsciously carried the assumption that there was or someday would be a ‘solution.’

When it comes to chronic illness, there isn’t always a “solution.” There can be management, maintenance, even treatment… but in many instances, I’ve had to learn to accept that sometimes survival and self-care are the very best we can do.

Many of us grow up with the idea that if we go to a doctor, they have the answers, and that we’ll eventually be “better.” It’s a comforting thought, but it doesn’t hold up in reality, especially when we’re talking about invisible illnesses.

I had to learn quite early on that more often than not, doctors don’t have any answers for Ray — and sometimes they do more harm than good. Not every appointment was going to yield something helpful. No matter how persistently we advocate, there’s no guarantee that we will ever arrive at a “solution” that magically helps Ray feel good (or even okay) in their body.

Doctors don’t always have answers. In fact, most of the time, Ray knows a hell of a lot more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome than their doctors do.

I’ve had to stop living in this fantasy world where Ray someday arrives at a magical “cure,” and instead, engage with the reality of their disabilities. That often means waking up each morning, checking in and asking, “What’s the very best we can do today?”

The truth is, there are ups and downs with these illnesses — sometimes a lot more downs than ups.

Was I prepared for that? If I wasn’t, I had better get my shit together.

I love and support my partner not in spite of their disabilities, but as a whole person, which is inclusive of every struggle and identity that they hold.

Loving someone that way means letting go of the idea that “health” is at the finish line — or that there’s a “finish line” at all — and instead, I focus on whatever goals Ray aspires towards, even if that goal is simply surviving another day.

What do they need from me as their partner to make their goals and aspirations a reality? That’s where I devote my energy now, and Ray gets to set the pace and the path forward.

The assumption that things will someday “improve” or “get better” — and that we, as partners, are in some way responsible for making that happen — has to be dismantled.

Otherwise, we’re not really loving them, are we? We’re setting up an expectation, rather than loving the person who’s right in front of us. It’s an illusion that’s rooted in a very ableist frame of mind.

Our job is to love our partners as they are, body and soul, here in this moment. And that means embracing an uncertain future — knowing that while love may not protect us from every challenge we’ll face together, its warmth and light can sustain us.

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Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

 

Photo by Hunter Newton on Unsplash.

My parents and I survived my ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.’ This is our story.

Yes, it’s true.

I am a survivor of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, otherwise known as ROGD.

And if you’d talked to my mother back then, you would’ve gotten a very panicked account of how abrupt my coming out was.

But my story isn’t hers to tell.

(She, by the way, would totally agree with that statement. This is why she isn’t posting about me in online forums or participating in “studies.” Also: Hi Mom, love you.)

And while I wish I had the Perfect Transgender Narrative™ to convince you of my validity, I don’t. I didn’t always know I was transgender. I’m not even sure exactly when my dysphoria really started.

But if you knew my story, you might realize why that makes sense.

I was a sheltered kid growing up in suburban Michigan. And while I’d been bullied for being “weird,” and always felt like the “black sheep” wherever I went, I knew literally nothing about queer or transgender people… much less “gender dysphoria.”

There was no context to place that sense of isolation into. It never occurred to me that gender was a thing I could have feelings about, and I certainly didn’t know that I didn’t have to identify as a girl if it didn’t exactly fit.

Having an older brother that was so close to me in age, my androgyny wasn’t exactly odd, either.

I figured it was a natural product of being so close to him. We shared our toys as kids, played video games for hours, and my many interests — ranging from the stereotypically “feminine” to “masculine” — made me gender-ambivalent at best.

If you’d asked me how I felt about my body as I got older, I would’ve said I “felt ugly.” When asked to describe myself? “I’m just weird.” There was no other vocabulary available to me, because my world was incredibly, incredibly tiny.

Even if I did have some sense of dysphoria, I didn’t have the ability to place where it was coming from.

I was a kid with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD. As such, I was in a constant state of anxiety and agitation growing up. When it became unmanageable, I would get really depressed.

In other words, emotional overwhelm was a constant in my life. Teasing apart where any of it came from wasn’t a simple process.

It only became more complicated as I got older. When I was a teenager, I developed an eating disorder and then found myself in an abusive relationship. The disconnect from my own body from there only became more intense. I was numb to it in so many ways.

Gender was not my concern at that time — simply surviving my mental illness and that relationship was all I could muster.

But thoughts about it started to surface, slowly but surely. When I began considering taking on a more androgynous appearance, and started questioning gender in my late teens, my abuser told me that I “wouldn’t be attractive anymore.”

My self-esteem was already so diminished. His comment made me feel so deeply ashamed for ever having considered being anything other than hyperfeminine and cisgender.

So I didn’t just tiptoe back into the closet… I leapt back in.

At first, I put any kind of gender-related thoughts on the highest shelf in a locked box. I couldn’t handle the idea of destabilizing my life in the way that transition — and by extension, ending that relationship — would’ve triggered.

There just wasn’t room for questioning my identity at that time in my life.

Between my OCD and my traumatic relationship, I was repressing the hell out of any gender-questioning thoughts. I didn’t have the emotional capacity, resources, and support to work through it.

It wasn’t until I got out of that relationship and started therapy that I could begin to untangle everything.

As I started to better manage my OCD and heal from the relationship that had destroyed my self-esteem, those questions about gender start to find their way to the surface again. I begin to wonder.

And I started searching online.

That’s when I really began questioning if some of my earlier feelings about being out of place — especially among girls my age — meant something.

I wondered if being disconnected from my body might be connected. I wondered if being drawn to androgyny (and the little things, like enjoying playing as “boy” characters on my favorite video games) might have meaning, too.

And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know for certain if those aspects of my earlier experiences did or didn’t have a gendered significance. Very few of us do in actuality, because identity is complicated, and gender is, too.

Not to mention, my history was very complex and painful. The thing about dysphoria is that so much of it is very abstract. Feelings aren’t as crystal clear as a lot of cisgender people seem to suggest.

Dysphoria isn’t this obvious neon sign that appears from the minute you exit the womb, especially in a society that does everything it can to make transgender people totally invisible to begin with.

We often don’t know where our feelings are coming from, especially if our backgrounds include trauma.

Which is why changing circumstances externally — our clothes, our pronouns, our names — can be so important. We do it to see how our feelings change so we can better understand what caused them, and more importantly, what we can do about them.

So I came out as genderqueer when I was 19 years old. I felt uncomfortable continuing to identify as a “girl” when I was having all these questions about my identity and my body.

I cut my hair, started changing how I dressed, started binding my chest, and began to imagine what my future might look like. I wanted to see if I would be happier or more comfortable in doing so.

For my parents, though, we’d never really had a conversation about my gender. What they saw was their teenager going off to college and catching something quite an awful lot like “rapid onset gender dysphoria.”

Except instead of the internet, it was that dang liberal arts school corrupting me.

But it became obvious, with each step of my social transition, that something magical was happening — I was coming out of my shell. I was happier. I felt a little more adventurous. I felt a little more at home.

I sat with myself and I said, “Okay. There’s something here.” I knew there was because with every change I made, I felt a little lighter in a way I never had before.

I soon learned that a disconnect from your body or self, disordered eating, anxiety, and a sense of isolation can all be a part of the transgender experience we call “dysphoria.”

It seems to be something a lot of us share. And more importantly, when some people transition, those experiences improve or even go away entirely.

When I finally understood that a gender transition was making me feel better and brighter… I was thrilled. But I was also hit with waves of very acute, very new gender dysphoria.

My internal reality was solidifying, but my experiences as I moved through the world weren’t aligning at the same time. That gap became more and more stark — and much more painful.

This was the “rapid onset.”

And if you talk to transgender people, a lot of us have the same story — we know our truth, but it also magnifies our pain. There’s the new distress of realizing that no one else sees it but us. The pain of invisibility.

While you are becoming the person you are meant to be, you simultaneously become invisible to the rest of the world — even to the people you love.

That is traumatic — and it can come on gradually for some people, and quickly for others, depending on when you came to understand your identity.

I knew who I was and I wanted that to be recognized. But it wasn’t. And the more erased I felt, the more pain I experienced.

I found myself focusing more and more about the aspects of my body that kept me from feeling seen. I’d never felt comfortable in my own skin, but now I had a better understanding as to why — and I had a clearer idea of what needed to change.

That’s when I started considering hormones.

At 22 years old, I was now growing impatient and miserable. I didn’t share these things with my parents at first, though, out of a fear of being rejected. They were your typical Midwest “ranch dressing” kind of parents — they knew very little about what any of this gender stuff meant.

But I came out to them anyway.

They were, in the deepest sense of the word, confused.

But more than that, they were terrified, because they’d never once heard me talk about questioning my gender. For them, the pain I was describing was sudden and life-altering.

And, yes, “rapid.”

But it wasn’t the dysphoric feelings that were necessarily new. It was the urgency to address them that was new — because I learned there was a solution, a path I could finally take.

That urgency made the dysphoria feel stronger. But in all likelihood, it may have been there in some form all along.

But either way, it hardly seemed to matter when it began. I just needed to know if testosterone could help me. And if it didn’t? I could always stop.

So I held my breath, emailed my parents, and told them what I was prepared to do. And my mother especially — while she was terrified about what would happen next — did what every parent of a trans youth should be doing: she stood by me.

Rather than looking to change who I was, or digging for evidence that I was delusional, or blaming somebody else in my life… she pumped the brakes. She moved through her fears and came out on the other side of that as my biggest supporter.

And being supportive didn’t mean that she wasn’t afraid. It didn’t mean that she didn’t have questions, doubts, or worries. It didn’t mean that she understood everything that I was talking about.

What it meant was that she had the courage to walk through those fears with me, and do everything she could to support my own happiness, even if the path was totally unknown and even scary to her.

My mom didn’t see my coming out as a fluke, nor did she see my transition as a threat. She saw it as an opportunity for her to grow.

And while she stumbled and wasn’t always graceful, she did everything she could to be there for me, no matter what.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 11.46.18 AMWith my family’s support, I began my medical transition. I won’t lie — I was scared, too, at first. I wondered if I could be mistaken. I wondered if it was my OCD playing tricks on me. I worried that maybe trauma had led me astray.

But after years in therapy, and multiple gender specialists weighing in, this was the conclusion we had all reached. It was worth a try.

I’m grateful every single day that I took the chance. And I’m just as grateful that my parents were by my side, supporting me through it.

I started hormones, I got top surgery, and with each step, there was a light in my eyes that wasn’t there before. I came alive. I was happier, more confident, and the emotional overwhelm that seemed to buzz around me my whole life slowly began to fade.

As my parents saw this unfolding, even they couldn’t deny what was happening. I was finally calm. I was optimistic. And most importantly, I was ecstatic.

And one of the greatest, most unexpected gifts of my transition?

My mom (who I will freely admit, like most teenagers, was not my favorite person growing up) became one of my best friends.

Even as my mom struggled to understand me (and still does sometimes), that has never once been an obstacle in her loving and supporting me.

My parents are proud of their gay, transgender son. I know this because they don’t hesitate to remind me.

And looking at their example — two people who really couldn’t have been more unprepared for a trans kid — is what still gives me hope, even as proponents of this pseudoscience try to undermine and invalidate trans youth.

Hope even for the parents that participated in the Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria “study,” who may someday learn that their fear is worth embracing — that it’s an opportunity to grow, to love, and to listen.

An opportunity to better know this wonderful person that they brought into the world — to see, for the very first time, what lies in their heart, and to prove to them that they’re still worthy of love exactly as they are.

My parents embraced that opportunity despite all the grief that came with it. And when I ask them why, their answer to me is always simple: “Because we love you.”

We didn’t always know that I was transgender or that I even had gender dysphoria. But when my parents look at me today — and they see a happier, healthier adult — none of that really seems to matter anymore.

I hope that one day, we’ll live in a world where parents of transgender youth, no matter how “rapid” their coming out, will get to experience that same joy, too.

That moment when they look at their kids, brighter than ever, and finally understand that the journey is absolutely worth it.

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selfcare

If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

 

Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

If your ‘suicide prevention’ isn’t talking about the mental health system, you’re missing the point.

As both a suicide attempt and loss survivor, I need to climb up onto my soapbox for a minute.

Suicide attempts, from a “preventative” standpoint, are rarely, if ever, as easily prevented as calling a hotline or a loved one. “Reaching out” — while incredibly important — is not the be-all-end-all of preventative strategies.

Especially considering the fact that many of us have a history of asking for help, and not getting the care that we needed.

I understand the impulse to ask, “Didn’t they know they could call me?” I asked myself that many times when I lost one of my best friends earlier this year. But this shows a very big misunderstanding of the emotional experience that many suicide attempt survivors have described.

Speaking from my own experience, when you are in a very acute amount of emotional distress, your thought process is not as linear or composed as you might assume.

The pain in that moment can eclipse everything else — past, present, future. It’s a sort of tunnel vision in which the pain becomes too great; in those moments, I’m cognitively incapable of stepping back to get the kind of perspective I might otherwise have.

This is why I always try to remind folks that suicide attempts don’t necessarily reflect a person’s overall state, as much as it does their level of pain in that particular moment.

To put it as a metaphor, suicide attempts remind me quite a bit of heart attacks, in the emotional sense.

After a certain point, the body’s resources can no longer fend off a very acute and painful event. It is so pronounced that your brain’s reaction is to scramble and do whatever is necessary to combat that pain, as immediately as possible.

We have some autonomy when we’re in that kind of pain. But so many of our actions are ultimately driven by the visceral agony we’re in. Our systems are flooded and overwhelmed, made worse by the adrenaline, the stress hormones, and for many of us, whatever substances we might be abusing — like alcohol — in a misguided attempt to cope.

But more often than not, unlike a heart attack, it’s also a pain that’s been building for weeks, months, or even years.

When we talk about “suicide prevention,” we focus too much on trying to understand the actual attempt, and not enough on accessibility of care.

We don’t do much to ensure that the pain doesn’t become that acute in the first place. We don’t focus enough on quality of life afterward. And most importantly, we rarely interrogate the systems in place that have failed to support them long before they reached this place.

It’s as though we’ve seen someone having a heart attack, but we start asking what they had for dinner the night before, or kicking ourselves for not offering them aspirin that morning.

When we talk about addressing heart disease, we’re not just trying to intervene in the mere moments before they happen — we know that isn’t enough, which seems like common sense in this context.

We talk about the whole person, and all of the ways in which their wellbeing needs to be prioritized well before they reach a crisis point.

But suicidality is still not viewed this way. We treat suicide attempts as very deliberate choices, rather than complex reactions that we know are better addressed sooner, not just puzzled over later.

The problem is, our mental health system isn’t set up to intervene at the moment when it’s needed.

Therapists and psychiatrists are still wildly inaccessible. And if you can find one that has availability and is covered by your insurance (assuming you have insurance), it often takes weeks, even months before you can actually see them.

If that clinician isn’t competent or a good fit? That’s additional weeks, months, and even years until you find someone who meets your needs. Which doesn’t include the months it takes for those treatments to start yielding real results.

I recently wrote a reported piece about a veteran with PTSD, for whom the nearest mental health provider that took his insurance was a staggering four hours away by car. And if he hadn’t had access to a vehicle? I’m not sure he would still be alive right now.

And all this assumes that mental health care isn’t so stigmatized in your community that you feel empowered to get help sooner rather than later, which is simply not the culture we live in.

This bureaucratic nightmare, combined with stigma, is why many people with mental health struggles often don’t seek help for nearly a decade (or more) after their symptoms set in, if they seek help at all.

And that’s why I bristle at the questions I so often hear after a suicide attempt. “Why didn’t they ask for help?” is the wrong question to ask. “What were they thinking?” is the wrong question to ask.

“What did WE do to help them, as a society?” is the question here. And more specifically, what were WE thinking, when we set up our mental health system to be so inaccessible?

I want to challenge us to think about what we’re doing to change this on a substantive, systemic level. This isn’t about reaching out. This is a call-to-action.

My own suicide note years ago simply read, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”

Not, “I don’t want to do this.”

Not, “I don’t have any other options.”

Not, “I don’t care about my loved ones.”

I simply said, “I just can’t.” I had reached a point at which I truly believed that I could no longer physically withstand the pain that I was in.

This led me to the emergency room and, even there, I saw people desperately trying to harm themselves by any means they could, being stopped only because they were restrained by hospital staff.

And this was not because they didn’t have “help” or “options.” It wasn’t even because they weren’t asking for support. They were in the hospital — they were surrounded by people who, in theory anyway, wanted to help them.

But their pain was that unbearable, that all-consuming.

How do you bring someone back from that? And more importantly, how do you make sure they don’t return to that place?

Beyond preventing the act of attempting suicide, I want to know how we can assure them that the life they’re returning to is one in which they are truly supported.

No one should ever get to a point of experiencing that much pain. And if they do, there should be no question of what resources are in place to guide them through recovery. But our system isn’t built to intervene sooner rather than later. Our system isn’t built to create a reliable, consistent safety net afterward.

It’s certainly not interested in establishing any real quality of life, so much as it focuses on simply preventing death.

We have a “worst case scenario” mental health system, and it’s failing. Its efficacy is a game of luck at best, a roll of the dice.

If you have insurance; access to transportation; the right combination of clinicians, inpatient or outpatient programs, and/or medications; the time to commit to recovery; the persistence to keep following up with providers; the support system around you to help you when this becomes overwhelming; and the sheer energy to navigate the system that is already overburdened — maybe, just maybe you’ll survive.

No one’s livelihood or quality of life should be left to chance.

I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture. People can and do thrive, and I’m absolutely an example of that.

But not because our system is actually successful at what it does — it’s because I am one of the lucky ones that eventually, after many years, found my way through it.

I can tell you why I attempted suicide years ago, and it’s simple: the amount of time it took to “recover” exceeded the amount of resources I had to cope.

It took eight years to get the proper diagnoses for my mental health conditions from the time I started therapy at age 17.

Which means it took eight years to find the right medications to treat my OCD, PTSD, and ADHD. And it took eight years to find a therapist that specialized in those areas — a therapist that I had to pay out-of-pocket for, because my insurance wasn’t taken by any therapists in the area who had openings for new clients.

I’m less interested in preventing the act of suicide itself, and more interested in knowing why our system is doing such a terrible job of caring for people who are struggling before, during, and after.

When we know earlier and more compassionate interventions are so critical, and when we know quality of life is exceedingly more important than simply keeping someone alive, we need to start asking why our system is set up the way it is.

We need to start demanding that something change — because our lives depend on it.

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Hey there, friend. Before you go, I want to share some resources with you.

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If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

This isn’t just a generic “here are some numbers” plug, I promise. This is a “I want you to stay, we need you here, please don’t go just yet” plea.

Are you a loved one that wants to reach out to someone you think is struggling? Incredible. You totally should.

I have a guide here for how you can offer support in concrete ways.

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One more thing: I created this resource totally for free, but your donations help keep this labor of love going.

This blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

 

Some credits & gratitude go to… Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Artwork by Jessica Krcmarik.

An open letter to anyone else he’s hurt.

Seven years.

It’s taken me seven years to understand that what happened wasn’t my fault. To admit to myself that this person I trusted was never who he appeared to be. To look at that time in my life and see it for what it truly was: traumatic.

It’s been seven years, but when I see someone on the street that looks like him, it still feels like it was yesterday. My stomach drops. My vision blurs. My entire body tenses. And for a split second, I feel just as small and powerless as I did all those years ago.

I’m thousands of miles away from him but I forget that, sometimes.

I’m living my domestic life with a spouse, two cats, and the sweet little downtown flat. Sometimes I repeat the address like a mantra, just to remind myself of where I am. I keep a map of San Francisco in my kitchen. I collect tattoos to irrevocably mark the passage of time, a reminder that my body is my own, now more than ever.

But sometimes, he is the fear that still exists in the in-betweens spaces.

When someone walks too quickly toward me, when there’s a loud noise I’m not expecting, or when someone touches me and the word “no” is on the tip of my tongue, but I’ve forgotten how to say it — he still lives there, quietly.

It’s a word I didn’t learn how to say until long after he was already gone, when the acronym “PTSD” was passed down to me like a generational hand-me-down that I never asked for, when a psychologist gently said to me, “Sam, that was abuse.”

Seven years.

It took me seven years to finally feel angry. In hindsight, I’m astonished that I was ever kind (“it’s called a trauma bond,” they say). But when the rage finally kicked in, it was a fiery force, a beautiful blaze to behold. It was the perfectly scrawled signature at the bottom of my body’s manifesto — I am mine.

I imagined the smoke billowing out, an ominous warning that could be seen all those miles away: never again will any man’s entitlement grant him access to any part of me.

I am the surface of the sun and my rage turns predators into ash.

I smother every lie beneath my heel as it falls from his mouth. The pedestal I built him is nothing more than dust now, a pitiful reminder of what it felt like when he came toppling down, when I told him, “I don’t need you.”

Seven years.

Pain is an extraordinary teacher. It comes in waves, but as it passes over me, the darkness is replaced with clarity.

I’ve found the courage to dive underneath, even in the face of something so remarkably vast. I’ve learned to appreciate my breath, and to trust the buoyancy and resilience of my body.

And I know now the compass of my own heart. I come back to the surface each and every time — like a magnet that’s unquestioningly pulled to survival, to life — no matter how far I drift or sink.

No narcissist’s hunger (I imagine it as a mosquito drawn to ruby red blood) has ever taken away that instinct, however quiet it became.

I still have the inner wisdom that moves me when I am fixed in place.

It was once the raft that carried me back to myself; it is now the fleet that I call on, with every ounce of dignity, earnestness, and vulnerability, all at my command. What he took from me, I replaced with unwavering loyalty to everything I am and will become. He cut me at the stem, but my roots were always strong.

Seven years.

I still bloomed.

The path has been messy, but beautifully wild, and I love it all the more for that. To be whole and hurting, I think, is better than being a shell or a vessel or a hungry ghost.

He was a void that we mistook for depth, depth which he sold us as romance — but in truth, his soul was hollowed out long before he found us.

Ego has an appetite, and his will never be full, no matter how many ways he rewrites the story and casts the play. The truth about control and manipulation is that, so long as you need it, your power can never come from within.

That’s why he will never have what we have, whether he knows it or not.

We can cultivate our own power. We can tend to the garden within ourselves, basking in the light of our own courage.

Pain is a teacher, and persistence is our secret wisdom that we cultivate each day that we choose to live. With time, I’ve found new ways of growing, new ways of loving. While I’m not grateful for the violation that brought me here, I cherish the resilience that has unfolded in its place.

When I see our pain replaced with collective possibility, I am in awe of us and everything we can be.

And when the darkness washes over me again, I’ll look to this light to bring me back.

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It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them!

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11 important ways my loved ones supported me during a mental health crisis.

A few months ago, I wrote an article encouraging folks with mental health struggles to reach out, offering some concrete suggestions on how to do so.

And don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a critical conversation! So many of us want to ask for help, but we don’t know exactly what to say.

Yet… there’s another conversation that we need to have about reaching out. More specifically, we need to talk about how our loved ones can do better in reaching out to us.

In a perfect world, anyone who was having a hard time could issue the “bat signal” and get every ounce of love and support they deserve. But it rarely works that way, because mental illness is so stigmatized to begin with. Many of us are simply too afraid to reach out.

I’ve been lucky to have some loving people in my life who, in many ways, have modeled the kind of compassion that is so critical during a mental health crisis.

And I want to share what they did — because I think we all have something to learn from them.

If you have a loved one that’s struggling with a mental health crisis, there’s so much you can do to help, whether you realize it or not.

Here are 11 things that my loved ones did for me that made a difference — and why it was so important.

1. They did a lot more listening than talking.

I know this is cheesy, but it’s worth repeating: some of the most meaningful moments I had when I was struggling were when my loved ones just… listened.

There was so much to process during that time. Having a hot cup of tea and being able to talk about all the messy things I was feeling meant the world to me.

They didn’t pry, they didn’t lecture — they followed my lead and let me share what was on my heart. Sometimes, being there for someone really isn’t any more complicated than just, well… being there.

2. They were sure to ask what I needed instead of assuming.

No two people will cope with a mental health struggle in the exact same way. This sounds like it would be obvious, but so often, we don’t take this into account.

What helps one person isn’t always going to be helpful to someone else — and figuring out how to best show up starts with asking the right questions.

Some of my favorite things that people have asked me during a rough time:

“Is there a particular activity we could do together that might take your mind off of things?”
The goal here isn’t necessarily to make someone feel better, since they might not be in a headspace for that. Instead, offer up a distraction or an escape. And if they don’t know what to do? Suggest a few activities!

“Do you need help with anything around the house?”
That stack of dishes in the sink has a bigger mental health cost than you might expect.

“Have you been eating? Drinking water? Talking to people? Taking your medications? Sleeping okay? Would it be helpful if I…”
Can you send them their favorite takeout meal or a cute, reusable water bottle? What about a text every morning to say hello, or every evening to make sure they’ve taken their medications? Could you pay for a monthly or yearly subscription to a meditation app to help with sleep?

Whenever possible, pay attention to where someone is struggling, and tailor your support accordingly!

3. They learned more about my disorder.

In my experience, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a very complicated thing — a lot more complicated than people realize. And rather than asking me twenty million questions when I was diagnosed, my loved ones took it upon themselves to do a little research of their own.

This helped them not only better understand what I was going through, but it ensured that they didn’t unintentionally make things worse.

4. They sent me thoughtful gifts that I could hold onto.

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The necklace that my parents sent me. 🙂

I’ve saved every card, every letter, every care package (except for the chocolate, which I obviously ate), and every keepsake that my loved ones sent me to let me know that they cared. While it obviously didn’t magically lift me out of a crisis, it did make me feel loved and cared for.

One of my favorite things I received was actually from my parents.

They sent me a mental health awareness necklace when I was first diagnosed with OCD that I really cherish. They put a lot of thought into it, too — the pearl they chose was teal, the color that represents OCD awareness.

It was their way of letting me know that they supported me, and that they were with me every step of the way. It means so much to me to have a tangible reminder of that to this day.

5. They took a team approach.

One person can’t do it alone, which is why I appreciated my loved ones’ efforts to connect with each other, and at the very least, make sure that there was a healthy network of support around me.

If you’re not sure how to get that ball moving, here are some of the questions they asked me that could be helpful:

“Who else is supporting you through this and how can I get in touch with them if something comes up?”
Having some names and contact information means that, if there’s a crisis you’re not prepared for, there are others you can call on.

“Who do you live with currently and how can I reach them if I’m concerned about your safety?”
It’s often dangerous to call the police during a psychiatric crisis, so if there’s an emergency, make sure you know who that person is living with and how to connect with them if needed.

“Do you mind if I reached out to (mutual friend) if I need support?”
The buddy system is critical to make sure you have a safe space to process your own fears and frustrations, too.

“Can we compile a list of phone numbers that you can text or call if I’m not available to support you?”
Hotlines, local clinics, friends, a therapist — create a shared spreadsheet that’s easy to access, so that your friend knows there’s always someone available whether you’re there or not.

During any kind of crisis, the more support, the better. So if your loved one doesn’t seem to have a lot of support, that’s priority #1 — it’s time to figure out how to build out that network, whether that network is in the real world, or simply online.

6. They didn’t lecture me about what ‘treatment’ was best.

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I genuinely adore my friends.

No lectures about “have you tried yoga,” no misguided rants about antidepressants being overprescribed, and no recommendations for fad diets that would supposedly “cure” me. They just offered compassionate, gentle support as I did my very best to make the decisions that I felt were best for me.

When it comes to dealing with mental health — or any kind of health — that’s a decision that’s made between that person, their health providers, and whoever else they choose to consult.

Unsolicited advice is never appropriate, especially when dealing with something so personal.

7. They helped me navigate the mental health system.

The mental health system is a monstrous, complex, and frustrating thing. It can take months to secure proper support, even years — and when you’re already at the end of your rope, it can be discouraging enough to make you give up entirely.

I can’t describe how helpful it was to have loved ones who were willing to help me track down a therapist, drive me to appointments or clinics, pick up my prescriptions, stay with me in the emergency room, or connect me with support groups.

If your loved one is struggling with the system, ask if there’s a way you can lighten the load — chances are, they’ll be glad that you offered.

8. They worked hard to keep my trust, even when they didn’t approve of my choices.

Like quite a lot of people with mental health struggles, I have a history of substance abuse. Back then, it would’ve been easy (and pretty justified) to look at some of the decisions I made when I was in crisis, and say to me, “Sam, what the hell is wrong with you?”

But I was fortunate to have people close to me who, instead of criticizing me, did everything they could to make sure I remained honest.

When I wound up making decisions that weren’t in my best interest, my loved ones said a few things that really stood out to me:

“Do you have a plan for what you’ll do differently next time you’re feeling this way? Can I help you come up with one?”
Sometimes we made rash decisions because we felt we didn’t have any other options. Coming up with a plan for next time can make a real difference. I actually talk about some of my favorite “mental health hacks” that can be helpful in those situations in this article.

“I’m not here to judge you. I just want to figure out how we can keep you safe.”
Letting someone know that you’re not judging their behavior is so critical to ensure that they won’t isolate themselves.

“If there’s a next time, can you give me a list of three different people you’ll reach out to before you act?”
Remember the phone list I mentioned above? This is the perfect opportunity to remind them that it exists — and that they can and should use it.

These conversations aren’t easy, because sometimes, the decisions folks make in crisis can be downright frustrating. But the reality is, when a person in crisis is no longer honest because they feel judged, they’re less likely to tell someone the next time they’re in a dangerous situation.

Keep the communication as open as possible. And when needed, reach out to someone else in their support network to ensure you don’t burn out in the process.

9. They kept checking in, even when I seemed ‘better.’

Six days before one of my best friends died by suicide, they used the hashtags “#happytobealive” and “#happytobehappyagain” in an Instagram post.

The honest truth is, just because someone seems to be “better,” it doesn’t actually mean that they are.

In fact, many people who attempt suicide often appear to be at peace or even upbeat when they’ve decided that they’ll end their life — it can actually be a warning sign of something very serious going on.

Appearances are deceiving, which is why I’m so grateful that my loved ones know to check in on me, even if I “seem fine.”

10. They didn’t view me as disposable.

A person with mental illness is not disposable.

Let me repeat that again, with emphasis: People with mental illnesses are not disposable.

As someone who has supported a number of people in crisis, I understand the temptation to “ghost” or cut ties with someone who is in a very difficult place. Burnout is real, and we don’t have an infinite amount of energy and love to offer someone, no matter how much they’re struggling.

But there’s a difference between self-care and abandonment, and sadly, I’ve witnessed all too often that there are people who just don’t know the difference.

If you’re not sure how to take a step back from supporting someone during a crisis, here are some suggestions that were immensely helpful to me, both as the person struggling and as the person offering support:

“My life is getting a little bit hectic right now; I’m not sure how reliable I’ll be the next couple weeks. What other forms of support do you have in place?”
Remember the phone list? Pull it out. Make sure (as best you can) that if you’re taking a step back, there are other forms of support in place.

“I’m starting to struggle with my own mental health. If I hibernate a little bit this weekend, is there someone else that can check in with you?”
It’s okay to take care of yourself. Just make sure that you’ve let your loved one know that you’re taking a step back, and if possible, for how long.

“This isn’t at all a reflection of how much I care about you, but I’m running low on energy lately. I want to make sure you’re okay, though. Who else is supporting you right now and how can I get in touch with them?”
Avoid blame — the last thing a person in crisis wants to hear is that they’re a burden. If possible, connect with someone else in their support network, and let them know that they might need some extra check-ins, if they’re available to offer that.

“If I step back for a little while, can you promise me honestly that you’ll keep yourself safe?”
If someone can’t promise you that, it’s an emergency — and it’s time to call for backup.

“Let’s set up a time to check in on…”
If you set a deadline, it’s less likely to feel as though you’ve disappeared. If you can, set a date and time to check in again, so this person knows that you’ll circle back.

Simply bailing on someone in the midst of a mental health crisis can do real harm, and it’s not okay — unless your own safety is at-risk — to carelessly “drop” someone because you’re overwhelmed.

While there’s no perfect way to step back, it’s important to at least make an effort to do so thoughtfully.

11. They didn’t wait for me to ask for help.

I wish, more than anything, that folks with mental health struggles would feel empowered to reach out. But because of the stigma and emotional toll that mental illness can take, I understand that often times, they won’t.

What I appreciated most from my loved ones is that they didn’t wait for an invitation to check in on me, and they didn’t assume that somebody else would.

Lately, I’ve noticed something of a “social media bystander effect,” where we suspect someone is struggling with their mental health, but we assume they have an abundance of support and we disengage.

The sad reality is, though, that “heart reacts” and “hope you’re okay” comments on Facebook, however well-intentioned they are, often aren’t substantive and meaningful enough to carry someone through.

If every one of us is assuming someone else will reach out, chances are, no one will.

Whenever possible, we have to make the active choice to not be a bystander when someone is having a mental health crisis.

And my hope is that, by sharing how others have supported me, we can all feel just a little more empowered to reach out to someone who needs us.

You never know what kind of difference it could make.

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If your goal in therapy is to ‘be happy,’ you might want to rethink that. Here’s why.

When I first walked into a therapist’s office when I was eighteen years old, I had one goal and one goal only: “I just want to be happy,” I said.

Up until that point, I couldn’t really remember what that felt like. I didn’t know at the time that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (as it turns out, it runs in the family), and that my near-constant state of guilt, panic, and rumination wasn’t actually the way most brains operate.

I thought happiness was the whole point of this “mental health” thing. So I became something of an emotional hypochondriac — if I wasn’t happy, something was wrong.

Suddenly my very human experiences like sadness, anger, and anxiety were all “problems” that needed to be “fixed.” I had this unreasonable expectation that, if I worked hard enough, I could minimize the presence of every other emotion to become capital-h “Happy.”

That’s not exactly the healthiest mindset, if you really think about it.

Ask anybody what they want out of life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing I told my therapist all those years ago — it’s about being happy, isn’t it?

But happiness is just one emotion. And humans aren’t built to experience one emotion and one emotion only.

So we set ourselves up for failure. We internalize this idea that life is about sustaining something that can’t actually be sustained… but we pretend that, with the right attitude, it can be.

And then we wonder why we keep getting let down. It just doesn’t leave room for the whole spectrum of emotions every one of us is going to feel.

The thing is, if our goals for therapy (or recovery generally, or even life) are setting us up for failure, they aren’t really serving us. In fact, they’re probably going to discourage us. This becomes doubly true when we’re talking about marginalized people, where societal circumstances basically make it impossible to be happy all of or even most of the time.

And if your goal for therapy is impossible? You might give up before you ever get to the good stuff.

The really paradoxical thing about mental health recovery is that the goals that lend themselves to happiness usually aren’t about happiness at all, at least directly. A lot of people find that the less they focus on “being happy,” the more they’re able to make changes that contribute to their happiness.

Being happy with greater frequency and intensity just becomes this weird (and totally cool) side effect. At least, it was for me.

So if you’re not going to therapy or living life to become happy, what’s the point? I started asking the same thing. And what I learned along the way kind of blew my mind wide open.

If you’re wondering what might be helpful to work towards (whether it’s with a therapist, a life coach, a spiritual guide, in a support group, or even as prompts for your journal), that’s what I’m here for.

Here are five goals that I’ve found to be especially important for therapy — and why ‘being happy’ isn’t one of them.

1. I want to live a life that feels more meaningful.

Arguably every goal on this list circles back to this one. There’s an awesome TED talk by psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith unpacking this exact thing (I highly recommend it — it’s based off of a book she wrote that’s rooted in her work in positive psychology, pulling not just from research, but also from philosophical and spiritual traditions).

We can’t be happy all of the time, but if we can create a greater sense of meaning, it gives us something even better — a life that feels worthwhile. It can motivate us to invest in ourselves, our communities, and our world in a way that doesn’t depend on whether or not we’re happy in a given moment.

In other words, it’s more sustainable. Smith outlines the key pillars of a more meaningful life by breaking it down into four categories: belonging (feeling affirmed by people around you), purpose (serving others in some way that reflects our values), storytelling (which I’ll talk about a little more below), and transcendence (moments that fill us with awe or wonder).

I personally found belonging by joining groups in my local queer community and purpose by volunteering locally around causes I care about. I’ve found transcendence by going to concerts and becoming a drag performer (music and art have always made me feel like I’m a part of something bigger) and traveling a little more.

It’s worth mentioning, I was able to do this after I found the right balance of psychiatric medications to better manage my obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD.

So I do recognize that this requires a strong enough foundation on which to build — luckily, a shift in goals can help us determine what exactly we’re working towards which can inform what kind of support we need.

2. I want to create a better narrative for and about myself.

I’ve heard many times before that who we are is just a compilation of the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves — whether we realize that or not.

For the longest time, I’d written myself off as some neurotic, broken person that just needed to be “fixed.” And that deeply impacted how I treated myself and the choices that I made.

Working with a trusted therapist and even blogging about my experiences helped me construct an entirely different story for myself. In processing and unpacking my life experiences, I could see more clearly that I had done my best, learned from my mistakes, and emerged on the other side a stronger and more determined person.

I realized my identity was simply an interpretation of all the events I could remember. And as it turned out, there were many different ways to interpret those events that I’d never thought of.

Up until recently, I chose to interpret difficult events in my life as a reflection of my own inadequacy and failure, rather than a journey of personal growth and new insight. Practicing this reframing of my life, especially with a therapist, helped me construct a new story and a new appreciation for who I am and who I’ve become.

There’s actually plenty of research that backs this up, too; internalized narratives play a big part in our overall satisfaction with life.

The tricky thing is, we’re not always aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves (the fish in the bowl doesn’t always see the water, after all).

But when we uncover these narratives, and start to question where they came from and what we can learn from them, it can make a big difference in how we perceive ourselves (and by extension, how we feel and behave — cognitive-behavioral therapy, anyone?).

I don’t believe for a minute that we “choose” to be happy or unhappy. I do believe, however, that brains are pretty malleable things — and with practice and support, we can find a different story to tell ourselves and learn to believe in it, too.

And if our identities are really just the interpretation of a life story, those interpretations can change our whole selves.

3. I want to cultivate more intimate, fulfilling relationships.

Our relationships play a big part in our day-to-day. I’m constantly amazed, as I do more work with a therapist, at how often I’ve gravitated towards toxic relationships without fully realizing it.

Many of us have patterns in how we engage, the kinds of people we seek out, and in what ways we invest in others (or don’t). Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about one of my worst patterns as a people-pleaser. I suspect we’d be a lot more satisfied in life if we were more aware of these things, but that awareness takes work.

Being more aware of our relational patterns is an awesome goal, and it can wind up making us happier in the long run. It benefits ourselves, the people we care about, and the communities in which we live.

If you’re not sure where to start, there are some questions worth considering:

  • Who are the people I spend my time with? How do I feel before I spend time with them and how do I feel after? I wasn’t able to answer the second question at first, so I had to start being more mindful when I hung out with people. And let me tell you… it was mind-blowing to see how some of the people I invested in most made me feel worse.
  • How do the people closest to me express their care, investment, and affection for me? How do I reciprocate and how often? This helped me to become more grateful for the generosity that I wasn’t always the best at noticing, and also made me aware of the relationships in which I was giving a lot more than I was receiving. (Relationships are rarely an equal transaction, but being mindful can help us make better decisions around where we want to invest our energy.)
  • Who are the people, if any, that hype me up? And how can I find them or connect with them more regularly? I sat down and thought of three people that consistently make me feel good about myself. And no joke, I threw them in a group chat on Facebook and now we get brunch together most weekends. I even have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the relationships I’m nurturing. I can honestly say that my life improved instantly when I did this.

If you don’t have close friends or loved ones that hype you up or make you feel good, that’s also important to know. It might be time to start expanding your social circle, whether that’s online or off!

4. I want to develop resilience and healthy self-reliance.

I’m by no means saying that pursuing happiness is totally futile! It’s important to do things that you love and bring happiness into your life.

But I also think, along with seeking out joy, it’s a good idea to couple it with learning how to cope with the difficult stuff, too.

Being happy is awesome, but being able to roll with the punches becomes really important at those times in which happiness isn’t feasible or possible (because your boss is the worst, or the president tweets again, or life just happens to suck for a while — it happens!).

When there’s a setback, how quickly do you bounce back? Are there ways you’d like to be able to take care of yourself, but find are difficult to do? In other words, how often do you feel helpless or stuck, and are there opportunities to change that?

Rather than becoming unhappy and looking to “fix” it, berating myself for feeling negatively, or getting flustered as I tried to figure out how I got there, I started accepting how I felt in the moment. After all, thoughts and feelings come and go, because that’s kind of how brains work (they are super imperfect meat machines, basically).

So while waiting for the clouds to pass, I started grounding myself in the moment and asking, “What can I do, right now, to make this moment a little better?”

Therapy, for me, has been the best route in learning new coping skills (along with antidepressants, because sometimes our brains need an assist). But I realize not everyone can access super great therapy (a rant for another day).

That’s why I’ve written about mental health apps that can teach you some new skills, shared many of my favorite self-care resources for those that might need it, and am a strong advocate for self-help books, online communities, and support groups. The internet can open up access to a lot of these things. Go forth and educate thyself!

Resilience is an important goal (or process really). It allows us to live in a world that’s constantly changing, and gives our brains permission to be the finicky and unpredictable things that they sometimes are.

5. I want to uncover where I’m making life more difficult for myself.

Everyone on the planet has self-defeating patterns. I mean, I don’t necessarily have any research to back this up, but I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with some regularity.

Some people with depression make themselves sad on purpose because it feels “safe,” as an example (I explain more about why in this post).

More often than not, the coping skills we developed when we were younger aren’t so great for the adult world. The rules and environment are completely different (and also, we likely just weren’t as skilled in general at taking care of ourselves — wisdom and experience and all that).

Recently I noticed just how much avoidance makes me miserable. I’d avoid things that stressed me out (like going to the dentist or answering important emails), without fully acknowledging that I was only prolonging my pain.

But here’s a fun discovery: The momentary discomfort of facing what stressed me out was a lot easier than the lengthy, drawn-out anxiety attack that occurred while I put things off.

The more I plugged my nose and walked through the stuff that I hated but needed to face, the easier and easier it became to tackle my stress. Don’t get me wrong — I hated every freaking minute of it with a fiery, burning passion… but that misery was temporary. Never addressing the problem, however, was permanent.

This might seem obvious to you (like, hello Sam, you’re how old and just now getting this?), but when we’re in the midst of it, we don’t always connect the dots.

We might also assume that we’re helpless or powerless despite the circumstances of our lives being very different (read about “learned helplessness theory” at some point, it can be really helpful to know about).

And oftentimes, to notice and break these patterns, we need help — because this stuff is ingrained and most likely exists for a very good reason.

In the past, these patterns might’ve made sense to minimize your immediate stress as much as possible. But I think most of us reach a point when those old tricks start to interfere with the longer term stability we’re trying to achieve.

Learning more about these patterns, then, is what can help us start to unlearn them. And honestly? Every single person on the planet could benefit from working on that.

Yes, this is all easier said than done. But that’s why it’s a process!

Remember, the stuff on this list is meant to give you a sense of direction as you work towards mental wellness. They aren’t destinations or achievements — they’re simply part of a larger process that some of us call “personal growth” and others simply call “life.”

It’s ongoing, but in therapy especially, it’s always good to set up some goalposts where you can.

My goalpost of “be happy” wasn’t working for me. But the moment I stopped expecting myself to be happy all the time, my life got a whole lot better (and calmer, really) in ways I didn’t expect. Things like purpose, growth, intimacy, and resilience made a bigger impact than “happiness” ever could.

We live in a world in which happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. But the good news is, we can have meaningful lives — lives in which we grow and connect with others in meaningful ways — without being constantly happy.

Besides… no one needs that kind of pressure!

When we start thinking about happiness as the awesome byproduct of personal growth, rather than making happiness itself the goal that we chase, we wind up with a much stronger foundation for mental health.

And weirdly enough, when we’re not obsessed with happiness and so terrified of losing it, it becomes a lot easier to be happy — and appreciate it, too — than it ever was before.

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Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash.