What You Seek is Seeking You
I’ve been feeling low lately. It’s come and gone by degrees, some weeks good, others not so good. But it’s been here, this heaviness, weighing me down for months now.
Fragile is the word that keeps coming to mind. I’ve been feeling fragile, like the tiniest thing can throw me off for days. So often I’ve found myself capable of just the bare minimum each day, and then retreating into a novel or Netflix, not having the energy to do anything else.
I’ve written about this a few times and contemplated sharing, but I’ve always talked myself out of it. I’m afraid of being patronizing somehow. Or overly vulnerable. You know, the usual fears that keep us from speaking our truths.
I know I don’t suffer from major depression and I never have. I can get out of bed in the morning. I’m functional. I can do my work with a sense of purpose and even joy, and even find myself energized by it afterward. I can get stuff done around the house and feel good ticking off small to-dos. I can even feel motivated and excited about the future for a day or two at a time, but after that it’s right back to feeling drained.
Talking to a dear friend about this feeling, she shared how much she could relate at different points in her life, and described it as “wearing a leaded vest”. Exactly. It’s not clinical depression, but it’s not ‘normal’ functioning either. There’s a heaviness.
Looking back, there are a bunch of things that brought me here. An unsuccessful food reintroduction left me feeling sick all over again and afraid I’ll never get better. Joint pain and a feeling of physical fragility returned after a period of feeling like I was actually making progress. The Kavanaugh hearings took the legs out from underneath me.
And the seasons are changing, darkness setting in earlier each day, making me want to start hibernating by 7pm. And I’m working from home more these days, not getting enough daily interaction with other humans.
So it’s not exactly a mystery, and yet is still surprises me. I’m surprised and confused to find myself here, and to find myself still here, despite everything I’ve done in the last few years to create exactly the life that I want.
I think the hardest part is that when we’re feeling low, it becomes self-sustaining. I’m much more likely to withdraw from exercise, something that almost invariably lifts me up. I withdraw from people, from any situations that require effort, when engagement and challenge are the very things that make me feel whole. And my mind runs on negative loops, comfortable with what’s familiar, and seeking out evidence from the world to sustain my current state. So now that I’m here, the tricky part is breaking the cycle, when everything in me wants to double down on staying exactly where I am.
I see this most in my relationship with my husband. Last weekend I was such a ball of negativity that we fought multiple times each day. I was oversensitive, looking for injury at every turn, and I was critical, noticing only things I could complain about. Looking for them.
At dinner we were talking about my website and his comment “You need to get your email list going” was enough to send me over the edge.
“Don’t you see that I’m trying? Don’t you see I’m doing my best? Don’t you see that I just started sharing my writing again, after months of not being able to? Don’t you see that I’m struggling right now? Why can’t you just let me be?” It went on from there, but suffice it to say, I completely flipped out.
I was incensed that he was ‘making me feel bad’ when I was already so low. I didn’t need it. Didn’t need to be reminded of yet another thing I’ve been procrastinating on, when I was barely holding it together.
He has a tendency to problem solve and offer solutions rather than just listening. Yes, this can be an annoying. And yes, it’s actually kind of selfish because then he gets to feel good about adding value, when him simply listening is what would actually serve me.
But the simple truth is that I was being wildly oversensitive. I’ve been feeling powerless and not on top of life, and I chose to hear “you’re not good enough” from a simple suggestion. That is 100% on me.
Isn’t it the worst when you know you’re wrong but you just can’t stop yourself? I was being so awful that I was literally having an out of body experience. I was sitting there, saying all these things with conviction, arguing my case for why I was so hurt and why it was all his fault. And I was also sitting outside myself, hovering just above my left shoulder, watching the whole thing go down, thinking my god Karen, listen to yourself.
I got up and took the dishes to the kitchen, my favourite way of avoiding a conversation and acting holier than thou, like I’ll do the clean up now so I have another thing I can hold against you.
Like I said, awful.
It was when I came back out to get the placemats that I saw him. His head in his hands, his face the picture of despair. My husband, the strongest person I know, absolutely defeated. By me. By my negativity.
It’s not an image I’ll soon forget.
That was my rock bottom. I guess I needed to get there. It was the wake up call I needed to recognize that my negativity has the power to take down not only me, but also the person I love most. The person who does nothing but support me and make my life easier.
I can be really negative and critical sometimes, and I remember struggling with that in the early days of living together. I knew I was being awful but I didn’t know how to stop. So I started a list in my journal of things I love about Jamie. I wrote about 20 things down when I started, and left lots of blank pages to keep the list going. Over the years I got into the hundreds, the list continuing through multiple journals.
Of course I repeated certain things, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was sitting down, on a regular basis, and actively looking for reasons to appreciate my partner. Looking for things to appreciate, training my attention for them and being grateful. It changed me. It changed our relationship.
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped adding to the list, but it’s been years. I must have thought that I was “done”, that I’d simply become positive enough that this no longer needed regular maintenance. And perhaps for a while that was true, but Sunday’s fight made it clear to me that I still have some work do.
Then Monday morning drove the message home. I like to cut bacon into pieces before cooking it. It cooks better that way, and it also makes me feel like I’m getting more bacon somehow, which is obviously a win. I mentioned this to Jamie Saturday after he’d made breakfast, holding up a full strip of bacon, saying “see, the ends just don’t cook right when you don’t cut it”.
Eating breakfast alone on Monday, I looked down at my cut up bacon and realized this is exactly what my plate looked like the day before. Jamie cut up the bacon Sunday morning, and I didn’t even notice. I noticed the day before, when he didn’t do what I liked, and paid no attention at all to when he did.
Yes I eat a lot of bacon, and this might seem like a silly example, but it had the power to jolt me awake. To make me see myself clearly.
I have not been looking for things to appreciate. Not seeking them out, recognizing and savouring them. No, I’ve been looking for things to criticize. Things to find wrong, lacking. I’ve been seeking them out, recognizing and savouring them in my own weird way. Something to complain about. Just because. Because misery loves company.
What you seek is seeking you — Rumi
I love this quote and have it tacked up on our bulletin board, and today it hit me how much it applies here. I have been seeking negativity, and it has been seeking me. I’ve looked for it, given it all of my attention, and my search has been rewarded. Because that’s how it works.
I’ve been doing this with my partner, and I’ve been doing this with life in general. It’s tough to look on the bright side when you’re feeling down, but not even trying to be positive is part of what’s keeping me down, I’m sure of it.
I need to practice gratitude. Actively and daily. Forever, I think, because I don’t think I’ll ever be “done”. So I’ve started a new practice. I’m three days in at the time of writing, and I already feel a shift. Every day, in my journal, five things I’m grateful for, and five things I love about Jamie.
I can’t say I’m magically “cured”, but I do feel just a bit lighter. And I have faith that it will build on itself over time, as I train myself to seek out the positive, give it my full attention, and appreciate it thoroughly.
And I’ve made outside time mandatory. Every. Single. Day. No matter what. The question is not “I wonder if there’s time to get outside today?” but “when am I going to get outside today?”
Exercise and time in nature are always the first things to go when I’m busy and stressed, despite the knowledge that almost nothing makes me feel better. It’s crystal clear to me now that I can’t continue like this, can’t keep putting last the things that matter most.
So I went for a bike ride yesterday morning. I wanted to do it and I didn’t want to do it in equal measure. It seemed more sensible to just get cracking on the day, hop in the shower and start tackling my to-do list, but something inside me was insistent. You know this will make you feel better. You know it. Even if it doesn’t, there’s not a chance you’ll feel worse. I couldn’t argue with that. I can’t remember ever feeling worse after exercising.
It was gloomy and cool, but I found myself grateful for the lack of wind. I’m grateful to live so close to the ocean, I said to myself. I’m grateful there is so little wind today. I’m grateful for this fresh clean ocean air, especially after all that smoke. I’m grateful my knees aren’t bugging me right now. I’m grateful I made myself do this. I’m so grateful I made myself do this.
When I got to my turnaround point, the ocean was roiling. Grey with just a touch of green, tossing itself violently against the rocks and crashing up onto the road in great white splashes. I looped around the parking lot at Fort Point and found a spot to stop where the waves were coming straight at me, where I could smell the sea and feel its mist on my skin.
I watched wave after wave peel perfectly around the point. God the ocean is beautiful, I thought to myself. Today it’s all angry and fierce, putting on a show of strength. But it’s beautiful when it’s calm too. When it’s nothing but soft lapping waves and blue as far as the eye can see. It’s always beautiful.
I rode home in a gentle rain and found myself smiling, enjoying the cold of the raindrops on my face, and the way the layers of cloud made Alcatraz look moody and stark. It hit me full force how much beauty there is in this world, always, even on gloomy grey days when all I want to do is curl up under a blanket and hide.
It feels so good to remember, to let some lightness back in.