Posted in Anxiety Disorder, Faith, Honesty, Self-Care

Mountain Tops.

The image you see here is from one of my favorite places in the world – the peak of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah. I made the hike to this peak with my dad and a group of friends almost 5 years ago, and it is by far one of the most beautiful and most terrifying things I’ve ever done. My fear of heights has not gone away after this accomplishment like I expected them to – but still, it was an incredible moment that taught me the meaning of “living on the mountaintop”.

I’ve had many mountain top moments in my life, some that were literal like this one and some that were metaphorical in my life. Standing on stage exchanging wedding vows with Kelly, walking across the stage in Dimnet Chapel to receive my diploma from seminary, and preaching at Zion Reformed Church for the first time were some “mountain tops” that I will always remember as big, important moments in my life. Even though I was only on a stage that was a few feet off the ground, I felt like I was on top of the world.

I haven’t had one of these experiences in a while. In fact, I’ve been living in a bit of a valley, a low spot in my personal life and at work where I’ve felt tired and worn out, like a failure in my ministry and my marriage. I won’t go into many details, because it’s not necessary, but it’s been a rough month or so. Spiritually, I’ve been drained, because pouring out my heart in prayer and searching the Scriptures for answers didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything.

(Yes, you read that correctly – I am a pastor and I am saying that praying and reading my Bible didn’t help. At all. In fact, most of the time they made me more frustrated!)

However, in the past day or two, some things have started to turn about and the valleys have started to seem less low. Nothing is a simple fix, of course, but I’m now starting to see that there is a way out of valleys that I’ve been stuck in. Things are starting to change. Am I back on the mountain top? Absolutely not, but I think I’m heading in that direction.

Do I like being stuck in a valley, feeling like failure and burn out are my normal life? Absolutely not. I don’t know of anyone who does. But, what I’ve realized recently is that living my life on a mountaintop isn’t the way to do things, either. Mountaintops come with energy and excitement and success – but no one can stay there forever. There is always a time to come down from the mountaintop, whether it is a slow climb back to the bottom or a crashing, tumbling fall straight down. The fall hurts, but it also gives us something to work towards, the memory of the mountaintop that pushes us to dust ourselves off and climb back up, no matter how injured we are or how far away it might feel.The mountains around us inspire us, and keep us going.

Maybe you’re feeling like me today, as grey as the Michigan weather is outside, wondering where certain things went wrong and why you’re feeling how you’re feeling. Or, maybe you’re up on a mountain top, feeling energized and proud and also terrified of how high you are and what it might take to get back down. Or, maybe you’re somewhere in between, traveling up or down and feeling the sore muscles and tiredness that comes with travel.

Where ever you find yourself today, I want you to hear this: IT’S OKAY. It’s okay to love the mountaintops  and the rush that comes with them, and it’s okay to feel the frustration of the valleys that surround them and the pain that can come with looking up and wondering how you fell. It’s okay to be in the middle, working to travel from point A to point B and wondering if it will be worth it. Trust me – whatever spot you are in, it is worth it.

Because, mountaintops teach us to work hard, set goals, and never settle for the place we are in. The path up teaches us to keep striving for better places and to never stop working. The path down teaches us to slow our pace and to be thankful for where we have been and for the journey that it takes to get there and back. The valleys shape us, teaching us about ourselves, what we are called to, and to hold the memories of the view from the top in the same hand as we hold the pain of being at the bottom. We need all of these places to be human and to be whole – to live into the space that God has created us for.

I’m not sure where you are today. I’m not even sure where I am today – somewhere in the middle of all of this, I think. But I do know this – no matter where you are or where you’ve been, there is beauty in the place you are and something to be learned from it. And, like you can see in the picture below – there are pretty good views from the valley, too.

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Posted in Anxiety Disorder, Honesty

Friday Night Lights.

Both my television and my computer screen are filled with Friday Night Lights tonight – a college game is on ESPN and a Twitter feed exclusively of high school football scores. I truly love football, and nights like this (when it’s cold and rainy and too far of a drive to Kelly’s game) make me happy. But, if you would have told me three years ago that nights like this would be good for me – I would have laughed.

You see, I’m quite the extrovert – surprising, I know! For as long as I can remember, I’ve gotten my energy and my happiness from the people around me. I have tried to fill every spare moment that I have with people, cramming in coffee dates and movie nights and sleepovers into my schedule whenever possible. My favorite places were always those that were full of people – Camp Geneva, college dorms, basketball arenas and downtown Holland. I talk loud and fast and laugh too much and sing everything I can – these are activities all done best in the company of others. I always centered my life around people.

If you take a look at that last paragraph, you’ll notice it is largely in the past tense. While my favorite activities and the speed of my speech have not changed, some of the rest has. In the past, I was scared of doing things alone, without the people I had come to rely on. I didn’t know how to do things on my own – I mean, I was totally capable of doing them, but if forced to do it alone, I was miserable! If there were nights when I was at home or hanging out by myself, I would feel horrible – completely inadequate, like something was wrong with me. There was nothing wrong – and there is nothing wrong with spending time alone – but my life was so full of things and people, and my identity was so caught up in doing things and being with people,  that it felt wrong to me.

I like to (jokingly) blame my introverted husband, but over the past three years or so, I’ve noticed a shift in my personality, especially in regards to alone time. I think that I’ve spent more time alone in the past 6 months than I have in years, and most of it has been by choice and really good for me. When I realized that I was choosing to spend time alone, and was actually enjoying that time, I was a little bit frightened and a little bit scared. So much of my identity was wrapped up in people – so what did it mean if it wasn’t that way anymore? Was I changing who I fundamentally was? Was I not Kara anymore?

The conclusion that I came to was this: no, I wasn’t changing who I was, I was simply changing how I recharged my batteries. My anxiety disorder has become worse in the past three years, and crowds and driving (especially at night) are some of my biggest triggers for panic attacks. My schedule gets busy and crazy and it can be difficult to find time to relax and re-energize. Sometimes, I am so tired from fighting through the day that all I can do is flop on the couch and turn on the TV. Sometimes, I need to leave my office and sit at JPs with my headphones in and a cup of coffee and not talk for an hour or so. If I need time to think, walking around downtown or through a store, where there are lots of people but none that I have to interact with, is really good for my brain. Sometimes, on Friday nights, I need to stream my favorite sport all over my house so that I can clean and write and take a break after a busy and long day (in the middle of a busy weekend).

Sometimes, I just need to breathe and be by myself in order to feel like myself.

AND ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE TOTALLY OKAY! 

It’s okay to recharge by yourself. It’s okay to recharge with other people. It’s okay to do both things – as long as you are staying true to yourself while you do it. Just because you are an introvert or an extrovert doesn’t mean there is one certain way to do it. It’s more about knowing yourself and what you need and how you work best than about what you think you have to do or need to do. Yes, I still pull energy from people and I love being around my friends and family – but I can also love being by myself and that is okay. It’s still a little weird for me, and I’ll be honest, my anxiety can still get really bad when I’m alone, especially at nighttime – the dark and I have never been friends. But, I’m learning, and I’m so thankful that I’ve found a new way to recharge and feel like myself that I didn’t know was a thing outside of these past years.

So, on nights like today when the only Friday Nights Lights I’ll have  are my computer screen and my television (and maybe a vanilla candle, because hello fall!), I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to be an extrovert that likes to be alone sometimes. Maybe, if you are surround by actual Friday Night Lights at a football game or a restaurant or a bar, you’ll read this later and be reminded that (extrovert or introvert), we all need the balance of being with people and being with ourselves. Maybe you’ll be reminded that changing how you recharge your batteries has nothing to do with changing yourself, even if something new feels a little weird at first. Because, whatever your Friday Night Lights are tonight, I just hope that they make you feel a little more like yourself.

Posted in ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, Burn Out, Faith, Self-Care

Rhythm, or Lack There Of.

Spiritual rhythms have always been difficult to form for me – as any type of rhythm is. I can’t keep a beat in music. I wait for others to clap first so I know I’m on the right note. I can’t keep a consistent schedule (no matter how much I would like to) and I am all over the place all of the time. 

Growing up in a home that was incredibly busy, I learned early on how to schedule my day and week as full as I could with school and friends and activities…but it had no type of rhythm to it. I had a different thing to do every day, and even with the “normal stuff” (Church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, Youth Group on Sunday nights, Basketball or Football Games on Fridays, practice after school, etc), it felt chaotic. There were some patterns that emerged from the afore mentioned schedule, but nothing that had a real rhythms to it.

Into high school, through college, and now in seminary – this is how I have continued to live my life. I hope from day to day, filling in the open holes in my schedule with extra work shifts and seeing friends and babysitting simply because I have the space to do so. I play a giant game of Tetris with my schedule – always arranging and shuffling so that everything lines up and there is little space or time in between events. When my time does open up, I fill it with little things – loads of laundry, homework, cleaning the house, working on crafts, etc. – simply because I do not want the open space. I don’t know how to handle the blank space, so I write in whatever I can to make it full. 

Looking back on this pattern in my life, I am realizing that I am always tired. I honestly can’t tell you the last day that I felt rested, and not exhausted or busy or stressed. There are moments of rest and self-care and sleep here and there, but there is no pattern and there is most definitely no rhythm to it. I do not have a routine that keeps me in line, and I have no guidelines of where rest and down time fall. 

I am not the type of person who is quiet, and I am not the type of person who is still. My brain, however, is the type of brain that needs just that. I hold the double threat diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)…which means that my brain rarely (if ever) slows down, and that my brain causes worry and anxiety to be a part of every moment I live.

I’ve found that after a day of class and work and whatever that I’ve packed into the hours of my day, my brain needs about two hours to breathe again and to take a break. It is such a task to keep myself focused and working during the day, that by the time I get home I am emotionally exhausted, and need time to recharge. My brain is constantly moving and jumping and spinning and dancing to places that I didn’t even know existed, and I need breaks from controlling it sometimes.

Growing up, I was so ashamed of needing this break, and so embarrassed about the extra time that I needed to work and to learn. Growing up with ADHD and GAD taught me that not being able to work as hard or in the same way as others was something to be hidden, and a disadvantage for my work and my academics. In college, I would go to the library for so many hours, between the papers and the breaks and the readings and the breaks…you get the idea. 

What I realize now though, as I’ve grown to know myself and grown in my faith, is that my brain’s need for breaks reflects the need for breaks that is in my heart, pushing me closer and closer to the God who made me – and made me with the crazy brain that needs breaks and can’t stay focused for long. 

I can easily fall into the busyness that I was raised in, and what I’m realizing is that I  use being busy as an excuse to avoid pretty much anything that I want to. One of the things that I find myself often avoiding is time sitting still and being quiet. In a conversation with a wise mentor in my life recently, I was asked what I was running from – because often, people who live at such a hectic and busy pace like I do are often running or hiding from something in their life.

I think I have finally found my answer – actually, I know I have.

I am scared of myself. 

I have always been scared of myself because I often don’t understand the anxiety and the spinning thoughts that take over my head. I’m scared of my own thoughts, and the places that my mind can jump to at a moments notice, because in the past I have not been very kind to myself. There are a lot of scary and dark places that my mind jumps to, and that can take the form of nightmares or daydreams. There is a lot of self-doubt in my head, because I see the worst in myself and it grows out of contrl before I even realize what’s happening. The harshest critic that I’ve ever known lives in my head, and she is ruthless and cutting and mean. When I open the door and peer inside of my brain, it feels like a scary jungle with no way out.

I want to run away from that jungle as often as I can. It’s not easy to do when it’s your own brain – how far can you run from yourself? I haven’t found many places to hide, and so busyness is what I use to distract from what I fear the most – myself. If I am busy thinking about school or what colors I will paint my future house or the pictures that my friend just put up on Facebook or really anything else in this world, that I am not thinking about the scary monster that is lurking around the corner. 

What I am beginning to realize is that even though I do not understand my own head, I can talk to the only One who does understand it. I am blessed to be able to be in a relationship with the One who made the spinning thoughts and understands the way that they dance in and out. And so, when I am scared of myself or lost in the self-doubt and the criticism and trying to run, I can run straight into the arms of Safety – safety in being understood and loved and still in the arms of the Creator. It’s not easy, and it’s not easy, but learning to face myself in the mirror each day is more than worth it. 

Posted in Achievement, Anxiety Disorder, Burn Out, Culture, Faith, Overworking, Self-Care

Journal: What are your limits?

This is another journal entry as prompted by my Leadership course at Western Theological Seminary. All prompts are based on a chapter from the book “Strengthening Your Leadership” by Ruth Haley Barton. This week, the chapter focused on living within your limits and the warning signs of not doing that. Coming at the midway point of the semester, this post is deeply personal and challenging for me…hopefully you’ll get a glimpse of why! 

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As any discussion on limits and burn out does, reading this chapter made me laugh to myself as I was reading.

Not because anything was particularly funny, but because I found Barton’s words to be describing occurrences that happen far too often in my own life. I have known for years (and maybe even my entire life) that I tend to function in the “too busy” section of the world, and that this has been my biggest weakness for as long as I can remember. I have seen the warning signs of burn out often, and many of my strategies for handling stress were mentioned by Barton as warning signs of breaking past our limits – and not in a good way.

I am a firm believer that limits are a good and necessary thing. We are human, and we are not super creatures that can function without rest and sleep and time to be still. Sabbath was created for a reason! We read in Genesis 2:2-3 (NIV) that “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Even in the creation of our entire world, God took a break. He had done good work and took time to rest before continuing on to do more good work. This is the example that we are given to follow – we are given time to rest and to recharge, because we need that in order to continue to do good work. 

However, our culture today has taken away our Sabbath and replaced it with a need for work. We are measured by our achievements, what we get done in a day and the hectic pace at which we live our lives. How many times in our day does a simple “How are you doing” turn into a competition to see who has more going on that day? We take pride in our busy schedules that we keep, and in the lack of sleep and fatigue that it causes in most of our lives.

I will be the first to admit that this happens in my life ALL. THE. TIME. As much as I believe in limits, I rarely follow them. I am a graduate student with 19 credits, a part time job, a an internship, a husband, a family, friends, and a townhouse. I am constantly under pressure to be doing SOMETHING – anything – to keep getting things done. Spare moments are filled with a quick skim of a chapter for class, or starting a load of laundry or putting away dishes. I have been taught to fill my time with productivity, not rest, and so that is how I live.

When we live lives that are this busy, we blast through our limits and try to live somewhere outside of them. We live in the unhealthy space of not sleeping and working too hard and never saying no, and are often overworked and overachieving at the highest levels at the cost of ourselves. In a conversation with my mentor a few days ago, he told me that “Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else – and that’s usually yourself”.

I think that this is true in all of our lives.

So, what does this overworking do to us? It makes us tired. It takes away from relationships with friends and family and church. It takes away from time spent with God and in silence. It takes away from the time we need to recharge and replaces it with work, which drains what energy we have left. We live in stress and anxiety.

Let me give you an example from my life:

I have known since my junior year of high school that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (G.A.D). This is something that I have learned to live with in my life, and have learned to recognize the symptoms and patterns that it has inserted into my life. Perhaps the area that my G.A.D. influences the most is in stressful places. When I get stressed, which with a full schedule happens more often than not, my anxiety is in full swing. It causes my mind to spin and spin and spin, and I can’t do anything to slow it down. I panic and work to attempt to get a break, but that usually doesn’t work.  Instead – I freeze. 

I don’t handle things, I don’t work, I don’t really do anything. This is my version of the “escapist behavior” that Barton mentions – I don’t have the energy even to escape into eating or drinking (which are “escape strategies” described by Barton), but shut down into someone who lays on the couch and stares at the TV, whether it is on or not. I feel exactly how it is described – “this becomes a vicious cycle, because escapist behaviors actually drain energy from us – energy that we could use to make life-giving choices – and then we just get more and more lethargic” (Barton, 105). Freezing is my version of running away from my problems. I don’t take off and disappear from them, but I don’t face them either. I kind of just melt into a puddle, and it takes a long time to be put back together.

When I enter this place, when I shut down and feel like I can’t function, I truly am disconnected my my identity and calling, and I can’t attend to any human needs – my own or anyone else’s. This is not a healthy place by any stretch of the imagination, and it is not somewhere that I enjoy being. This is not a place that I am designed to be in. As a seminary student and future pastor, I want to be an example to my congregation and ministry of how to live the best life possible, the one that God designed for us – and being so burned out that I can’t move is not that life. 

This is not a life that I want to continue to live.

I need to stop the glorification of busy.

I am not entirely sure how to resolve the busyness in my own life, but I am learning. I am learning that leadership is not a solitary activity, and while it does take a lot of responsibility to lead well, it does not mean that you have to handle it alone. I am learning that it’s okay to say no to good things, so that there is time to rest and recharge. I am learning that I cannot be everything to everyone, and disappointment is a part of life in leadership. I am learning that taking time to rest and do nothing is a perfectly acceptable use of my time. I am learning that God designed me to need sleep, and that there is no shame in sleeping instead of doing that last paper or last chapter of reading. 

I’m not saying this is easy, but it’s so worth the time.