When Life Doesn’t Look Like You Want

When Life Doesn’t Look Like You Want

Yesterday didn’t look the way I expected. Maybe you can relate.

By ten o’clock in the morning, I laid on the floor weeping in defeated surrender over frustrated plans for my first day with my newly homebound children. One stubbornly chose to clean her room rather than join me in kid-friendly yoga, while the other curled up in a ball of tears next to me, moaning because the movements were just too hard.

My best efforts to nurture their minds and bodies were failing. I had spent hours the night before, planning, organizing, and picturing the new rhythm of school at home we would embrace over the next six weeks. From the moment everyone woke up, however, it was clear that my expectations were not going to be our reality. I pushed, they resisted; I threatened, they melted down; I controlled, they rebelled.

It was too much, too soon. Yoga was the last straw–we all broke.

None of us were ready for life to look so different so fast.

Over the past week, one broadcast at a time, the things I depend on to keep my life stable, predictable, and healthy have all been shut down. It started out slowly, murmurs of disruption whispering quietly from places far enough away to feel removed from my reality. I mostly ignored the voices of fear and alarm, rationalizing that our quiet life was safe from the panic I saw elsewhere.

The murmurs grew into figurative shouts almost overnight. A mild discomfort stirring inside of me spiraled into uneasiness that threatened to morph into full fledged anxiety as I became more and more aware that I am not in control of what’s happening all around me. 

All at once, my life suddenly looks nothing like I expected.

Catapulted into the role of an educator, reorganizing my days around engaging my kids’ hearts and minds, and feeling ill-equipped and unprepared.

Fasting and praying and trusting God to provide what we had planned to raise at a now cancelled fundraiser, believing my husband’s job will remain stable.

Stripped of the outlet to move my body and teach other women to dance, to sweat, to persevere, to fight against the forces that threaten our mental and physical health.

Disconnected from the community that helps me process the big feelings all this stirs up, isolated out of fear of infecting others or contracting a sickness I can’t see and can’t fight.

Wrestling with shame over the number of tears I’ve cried already, over the sense of failure in realizing I have no idea if I have what it takes to survive this.

Life is harder than I feel equipped to navigate successfully on my own.

I’m fully aware that there are so many others struggling for reasons that seem bigger, more significant, more legitimate. One friend is facing a potential loss of her business; another has been blocked from traveling to bring home her almost-adopted daughter. And those are just two stories–people everywhere are facing unprecedented challenges that stir up real anxiety, real pain, real uncertainty. 

No matter how big or small the interruption looks for you as compared to anyone else, we cannot escape the fact that our reality has been altered indefinitely. Comparison does nothing to soothe the ache of disappointment that comes when life looks different than we want it to.

We are all reeling a bit, knocked off-balance and unsteadily trying to step forward into a world where nothing feels certain. In the midst of so many unknowns, here’s what I DO know:

1. I can’t do this alone. Left alone with my thoughts and fears and frustrations and feelings, I quickly work myself into a spiral of hopelessness. I realized yesterday that now, more than ever, I must reach out to my people in creative new ways. Technology has the potential to steal my peace, but it can also help me build a bridge of connection–Marco Polo, Voxer, FaceTime, Google Hangouts and even strategic social media, I’ve never appreciated you more!

2. I must get outside. I need the sun to shine on my skin, the fresh air to open up my lungs, my eyes to lift off of the screen and up to the expanse of sky, to the beauty of the world beyond the often constricting walls of my house. The moment you step outside, I’m told, the stress hormones in your body immediately begin to dissipate–I need this now more than ever.

3. I must practice healthy rhythms. My physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health all need extra attention when life spins out of control. Exercise is a non-negotiable. Quiet time in the afternoon helps our whole family reset. Nourishing meals remind me to eat for fuel and not for comfort. Protecting time to pray and meditate on Scripture shifts my focus and calms my heart. Without these practices that bring life, my days feel chaotic, anxiety spikes, and my soul shrivels.

4. I must prioritize both gratitude and authenticity. Choosing to name the gifts in this moment–even when I have to grasp to find them–builds my capacity for joy. But I also need to make space to admit what is hard, or I risk missing the chance to encounter God in the places I need him most. Telling the truth about where I’m struggling releases the hold of discontent so gratitude can do its work. I need both.

More than ever, I’m resolved to fight for the practices that help me thrive. The stress inherent in this season threatens to trigger either panic or despair, which could easily morph into full-blown anxiety or even depression. (Ask me how I know.) 

I’ve learned the hard way that I cannot neglect self-care when life presses in on all sides.

After a run in the sunshine, this morning brought with it new hope, new perspective, and new resolve to find the gift in this forced slowing. Today I didn’t coerce my kids into adhering to my schedule but decided to savor the freedom of releasing control. And we all breathed a little easier. We laughed a lot more, too. At the end of the day, I’d choose joy over control every time.

What practices help you stay grounded when life feels unsteady? I’d love to learn from you!

What’s Happening Inside Us

What’s Happening Inside Us

When he was two, our son had several episodes where he would simply freeze up and stop responding. Connley would stare at the ground, unmoving for minutes at a time, as if he had checked out of his body, leaving just an empty shell of a boy.

Terrified, we would do anything we could think of to snap him out of it, crouching on the ground and coaxing him with gentle words or grabbing him by the shoulders in hopes of arresting his attention, but unable to shake him out of whatever was going on. Finally, one of us would pick him up like a rag doll and hold him close; eventually Connley would wrap his arms around our neck and let us hold him until he came back to himself.

We had no idea what was causing our son’s body to shut down, and we had no idea how to help him.

A friend who worked as a pediatrician witnessed one of these episodes, and the concern on her face sent my heart into a panic. Fearing seizures or worse, we got a referral to a children’s hospital and made an appointment to have his brain monitored.

Feigning bravery, I carried Connley into a bright exam room, then restrained him through tears while two nurses adhered dozens of electrodes to his head. Each electrode was connected to a long wire attached to a machine that would monitor his brain activity while he slept. Once he was all hooked up, I cradled him in my arms and tried to act calm so he would fall asleep for the test. I stared at my baby boy napping with wires coming out of his gauze-wrapped head and wept, praying for courage and hating that we were doing this to our son.

But we had no other way to find out what was going on inside of him.

The first time I saw him freeze up, I had yelled too loudly, reprimanding him harshly for repeated disobedience. My response was disproportionate to his behavior; he didn’t deserve such a stern scolding. But frustration had been building in me all day for a million different reasons and I had held it in–until that moment. I snapped. I shouted. And he shut down.

It should have been a clear connection; the shame that flooded my body in the aftermath of my overreaction should have been a clue that my startling anger had scared him. Triggers for other episodes were harder to pinpoint: entering an unfamiliar house with lots of voices speaking at once; playing outside and being approached by a gruff neighbor; and countless other moments that seemed innocuous in isolation. 

The neurologist confirmed it, though: Connley’s brain showed all normal electrical activity. No seizures. Nothing medical explained what we had witnessed. The doctor explained that Connley was shutting down simply to get a response out of us. 

Connley needed comfort but didn’t have the words yet to tell us what he was feeling inside. His body found a way to protect his heart when it felt unsafe. 

My body does the same thing.

I notice a tightness in my chest, a churning in my belly, a clenching in my shoulders and I’m learning to pay attention. My body knows before my mind is aware that something is happening inside of me. It cries out for help, sending signals to get my attention, bidding me to stop and notice, to provide comfort and care.

It hit me hard yesterday, the old panic gripping my chest, wrenching my belly to the point of queasiness, constricting my lungs so my breath came shallow and quick. I didn’t pay attention until my heart started pounding, hammering from the inside like a fist banging on a door. 

My body was giving me clues, inviting me to notice my internal world, to pause long enough to get curious about why I was so anxious. 

I took a deep breath, lowering the phone that had screamed for my attention and choosing to suspend for a moment the people awaiting my response. “What is wrong with me?” I asked, berating myself for what seemed like irrational anxiety. (Condemnation comes easily when I feel overwhelmed, heaping shame on top of the fear that floats beneath the surface.)

But curiosity and judgement cannot coexist. So I exhaled slowly, surrendered, and changed the question. I wondered instead, “What is happening inside me right now?” 

The answer came quietly, like a frightened child peeking out from her hiding place to make sure the coast is clear. “I’m afraid,” I whispered. Somehow, naming it diffused the pressure inside my chest. “It’s all too much,” I admitted, gently allowing the little girl inside to have a voice. “I’m just afraid.”

A few minutes of breathing, a text to my husband to ask for prayer, and acknowledgement of my fear was enough that morning to get me through those moments of anxiety. It’s not always so simple, though.

Sometimes there are weeks or months or even years of feelings that have remained unnoticed, avoided, ignored. But when my mind tries to talk my heart out of an emotion, my body eventually finds a way to get my attention.

If I ignore my loneliness, I often find myself digging through the pantry after the kids are in bed, grabbing handfuls of chocolate chips but never able to satisfy my craving.

When stress overwhelms me, I sense pressure building inside my head until my brain feels physically tight, like a balloon that’s overly inflated. The tension I carry in my shoulders eventually progresses into debilitating headaches that demand attention.

Being hurt by someone I love feels like the blood draining out of my face. I often shut down and withdraw, unable to make eye contact and disengaging in self-protection.

We aren’t meant to carry our internal worlds alone. We aren’t meant to internalize or minimize or rationalize away the things we feel, especially the things that feel unpleasant or unacceptable. 

And we all feel things, whether we notice them or not.

The longer things have been buried, the more work it takes to excavate what’s beneath the surface–so I often resist. It’s muddy at first, hard to see where to start, and I need to be willing to sift through it slowly. But I can’t do it alone.

I used to think my neediness was a character flaw. Now I know that needing help to process what I feel comes with being human, and it’s necessary for my health.

We desperately need those we love to come close enough for us to whisper “I’m afraid,” or “I’m hurting,” or “I’m lonely.” We need to be held, fully accepted and embraced in our vulnerability, protected from harm in the safe arms of another. 

Sharing what’s inside of us is both terrifying in its vulnerability and healing in its intimacy.

It seems so simple, so easy. Name what’s happening inside. Say, “I’m sad” or “I’m scared.” Our words are the invitation for those we love to come near, wrap us in their arms and help the child inside (because there will always be a child inside us) feel safe.

But it’s anything but easy. 

Sitting still with ourselves long enough to notice what’s happening inside takes courage. And using words to name out loud all the things we feel in a given day–the fear, insecurity, joy, pain, disappointment, excitement, anger, doubt, and beyond–it may be one of the bravest things we can do.

Connley’s six now and still learning to put words to the big things he feels. I’m still learning too. We’ll keep practicing together, keep choosing to invite each other in, helping one another name what’s happening inside us.

And when we just don’t know what to say, a hug always fills in the gap where words fall short.