we all need a tribe

I recently attended a talent show birthday party. It was EXCELLENT.

First of all, Shel Silverstein was there.

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Well fine, someone in a mascara beard reciting Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout and playing the guitar, but it was still amazing.

This was the second annual year of Impressa the Chessa- a talent show birthday party celebrating Chessa, a roommate’s-friend-turned-my-friend. Chessa is a musician and is friends with many other talented musicians, so there was a lot of that. Beautiful songs and instrumentals.

But, there was also a lot of total ridiculousness.

For example, a home movie of three-year-old Nicole doing a dance to the opening number from Gypsy.

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(Why yes, there is a beer prominently displayed in the foreground of that picture. Talent shows should always have supportive audiences, and my goodness, the audience really validated the performers thanks to all the alcohol consumed. I actually didn’t drink anything- was driving home- and still found the crowd to be the perfect mix of rowdy, easily amazed, and joyful)

There was also a sushi rolling competition (all the talents had a three-minute limit so these guys were under the gun, which was pretty hilarious)

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Also:

  • Two people who memorized the words to the Free Willy song (and one of them literally taught herself to play the keyboard just to play the chords to that song) and then displayed a lite brite Orca as their grand finale
  • A couple: he is an electronic producer and made a mix that sampled the sounds of crickets and cicadas from their backyard; she has trained as an Irish dancer and created this fascinating mixture of Irish dance, hip hop dance, and being a cricket
  • A science show, featuring liquid nitrogen!
  • A juggler who was good but not perfect (made a few perfectly understandable flubs) and then everyone was like WHOO BOY when he started juggling a machete in the rotation
  • A demonstration of a homemade geography game
  • A folk song performance with mandatory audience participation that involved me wearing a sign around my neck that said “Baby Fox #10”

My talent was this stellar red wine chocolate cake from Smitten Kitchen. I ended up pooling talents with a girl named Steph. Though she is an awesome musician and her new album came out, for some reason she elected to do fire starting (!) with a flint (!) for her talent, which was also awesome. So she lit the fire and then we used it to light the candle and placed it upon the cake. That cake is EXCELLENT, and handy if you are a lightweight like I am and tend to have half-empty bottles of wine floating around the house.

I also, when revealing the cake, quoted Julia Child, who said “A party without cake is just a meeting.”

The grand finale was… multidisciplinary performance art. There was a recording of these talented young women playing the recorder and singing a song about jellyfish. There was Enya, and Destiny’s Child. There was paper mache. It was EPIC.

jellies!

As you might have inferred by now, I had a LOT of fun.

And, earlier in the day, I was contemplating not going. I think sometimes we get so caught up in our own hype. Yes, some people get too caught up in their own positive hype (the Kanyes of the world). But some of us (maybe particularly women? Or particularly introverts?) tell a story to ourselves and the world, a story like, “Agh, I’m so socially awkward”, and then we start to buy it. And we go, “Ugh, I can’t imagine going to a party mostly consisting of my roommate’s friends and show up on my own and make small talk and get tongue-tied” and then we miss out on experiences rather than risk that.

Fellow introverts, I am a party survivor and can confirm it was fun. I ended up running into a friend who I hadn’t seen since my planetarium days, who was so nice to see! I had a long chat with one of Alli’s friends- with whom I’ve always had great conversations and who I’ve tended to forget about!- about her cool new social work job. I even welcomed an uncomfortable person who was new in town and tried to make him feel welcome!

Also, not to brag or anything, but I was having a pretty incredible hair day. I had some Forever 21 store credit and got this coconut oil sea salt spray stuff and I’m still learning how to best utilize it but I had really hot beachy waves this particular evening.

Now, further discussion about being alone:

I have been alone a LOT recently. And I have had a LOT of time to fill recently. I have no interest in ranting about my job search. Ew. But I have been contemplating the state of my mental health in this phase of life, and I have to say… I’m proud of myself! In past liminal phases of my life, I’ve been, well… cuckoo. Depressed. Angry. Tense. Melodramatic. Binge eating-y <- need an adjective for that. And right now I’m not.

The weather, as previously stated, has been gorgeous, so I’ve made many a visit to the beautiful parks and gardens and so on in my vicinity.

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But honestly, the main thing pulling me through is HAVING A TRIBE!

I think of past phases in my life as being characterized by profound loneliness. I think it really kicked off in college, when for whatever reason I didn’t make the kinds of connections that so many other people do. Maybe it was the fact that I was in overflow student housing away from campus my freshman year and I didn’t get to do that initial bonding? Maybe it was the character of my rather dispersed urban school? Maybe it was the ascendency of the smart phone which meant that everyone was too busy making plans with people virtually to spontaneously interact with the real life breathing humans in their immediate vicinity? I remember feeling like something was horribly wrong with me. I was reading through an old journal and found an entry from right after I went and visited bestie (shoutout to Lydia) in Western Massachusetts. It said “Oh my God, I’m likeable! I am capable of interacting with other people! It’s my school! It’s not me!” But back in Boston, I spent a lot of lonely days wandering around the town, earbuds in, feeling like an outsider looking at all the people who were doing life properly. Incidentally, this was probably a contributing factor for the horrifically unhealthy eating habits I developed around that time. Calorie counting and meal planning and calorie-burning activities helped fill my empty, empty hours and were probably also an attempt at punishing myself. To be clear, I was headed for a showdown with my relationship with food before college- again, from reading old diary entries, I’m taken right back to an age where I was so filled with dissatisfaction with my body and disappointment and anger with myself for not making it beautiful like it ought to be. But, if that dissatisfaction (and genetics, and American culture, and blah blah blah) loaded the gun, the lonely college years may’ve pulled the trigger.

I felt like I got the college experience I wish I’d had in the first year after I graduated, when I did an Americorps year. I made really strong connections (some of which still persist today!) and had a built in group (including a boyfriend). Our time with kiddos was stressful and we really relied on each other for support. There were weekly potlucks!

But, when that year was done, I went to a rather stressful job at a food bank. Then I had a really disorganized time when I was a part-time student taking prerequisites for graduate school and cobbling together random and inconsistent income sources. The Americorps group had spread out all over the country. I still had the boyfriend, but our relationship was having growing pains.

And mentally (and physically), I was a MESS.

I just wrote and deleted and rewrote and redeleted various bits about how I was a mess, but there’s but so much I want to/should share on this public blog.

Let me just say this: the thing that pulled me out of that mental mess was getting help, outside of myself white-knuckling it (<- not an approach I recommend). The way that help happened was through my TRIBE. My sister, because she is a really good person and also because I was fairly horrible to be around because of all my issues, said, “Yes hello here is the number for a shrink. She is accepting new patients and expecting your call. Go see her; she will help you.” I don’t think I had the wherewithal or motivation to do that research myself and will be forever grateful to my sister for making that connection for me.

I learned a LOT the year-ish I was in therapy, and trying to summarize it would be silly. But the nice thing about therapy, which I do want to state, is that you carry it around with you after it has ended. You have a new language and a new way of expressing things (and it’s hilarious, you can immediately recognize that someone else has been in therapy by the way they speak. Listen to Jillian Michaels’ podcast, for example!) And, there are some lessons that you learn that seem particularly relevant at certain points in time. And right now, the thing keep saying to myself is, “You are not alone and don’t have to do everything alone. It’s important to utilize a support system.” Thank God!

So, I’ve been calling my mom. I’ve been babysitting my cousin’s little baby nugget on a weekly basis. I’ve been trying to connect with friends I haven’t seen in awhile, from past jobs and neighborhoods. I helped a friend move and appreciated the combination of socialization and strength training. I’m cultivating newer friendships. I’m sending spontaneous texts for folks to come join me to sit outside on a warm night. I’m exploring the idea of phone dates, even though it’s not my usual style (and I had a great chat with a graduate school friend who’s rocking life in DC!) I shadowed an RD at UNC’s eating disorders center to get a look at another specialty- making a connection and building skills/knowledge. I’m doing long, silly text conversations with my aunt. I’ve been scheduling roommate dates. I’ve been saying yes to more social opportunities. Also, I asked my hot exterminator to have a margarita with me in the backyard when I was his last client of the day 😉

Many things, not just friendship, have made this gap in my life more doable. For example, I don’t want to discount the antidepressant I take every morning! I was someone who benefited enormously from therapy and also reached a point where my neurotransmitters were preventing me from making progress and a small dose of medication was the right choice for me, and I’m grateful to have it and will evangelize about Zoloft to anyone who’s interested.

Also, I’m very grateful to the local public library for having a wonderful selection- right now I’m reading The Emperor of All Maladies. I have a cat who’s stoked to see me when I come home which is really astonishingly good for my mental health. I live in a state with a temperate climate, allowing me to get outside and get my endorphins on most days, without having to spend money on a gym or some such thing. I have my cousin’s HBO password 🙂

But, a tribe. A tribe is great. If you feel very very wrapped up your own mind and like you can’t escape a cycle of your own destructive thoughts (<- this is called rumination and I learned all about it in therapy!), just try calling someone. Or texting someone. Or emailing someone. Or chatting with someone at the grocery store. You don’t have to spew about your mental anguish, you just have to connect with someone.

I promise, that for me, though it started with just texting someone a “How are you?”, that helped. Talking about a funny cat video. Quoting a stupid movie. Analyzing red carpet looks. Stupid little conversations really can break a cycle. When I connected with someone, it made the nasty thoughts in my head less huge. And then I was more capable of having the really deep intense conversations because I had built connections.

Since that’s apparently the topic of the day, some other resources, that I’ve found helpful for mental health:

  • Book: Drinking, A Love Story. I bought this trying to understand a family member with a history of alcoholism. But then I read it and, go figure, it made me understand myself more. If you are someone who hates being home alone with your own thoughts, this is a good one, whatever your poison may be, alcohol or otherwise. Also, every time I reread it, it makes me think of a new person and helps me build some understanding for them. I think the whole literature of addiction is useful even if you are not an addict. First of all, you probably know someone who is (it’s real common!) And, the kinds of skills people use in recovery (giving proper apologies, learning coping skills, SUPPORT SYSTEMS!) are useful to allllll of us.
  • Book: Life Without Ed. Shadowing with an eating disorder dietitian made me want to reread this. My state of mind was very different this time reading it than the first time I did. I.e., the first time I read it my therapist had recommended it to use to attack my own disordered eating habits. The second time I read it, last week, it was from a place of being recovered (an amazing miracle I was never totally sure was possible til it actually happened). The purpose this time was to access a perspective of potential patients.
    This book is a memoir and workbook from a woman who’s recovered from anorexia. Some people may find her (and her therapist’s) approach to disordered eating helpful: she externalized her eating disorder as a separate person (named Ed, short for Eating Disorder; thus, the title of the book). She talks about analyzing the criticisms and suggestions from “Ed” (like “you’re the fattest person in this room!” “skip a meal!” “binge eat and you’ll feel better!”, etc.) and learning to disagree with and disobey those thoughts. That approach didn’t resonate with me when I was struggling with eating, but maybe it would resonate with some of yall?
    Aside from “Ed”, something I like about this book is that it discusses behaviors that don’t necessarily have to do with eating but still indicate disordered thoughts related to food and body image (something I feel a lot of people likely have, even if they don’t have a formally diagnosed eating disorder).
    For example, she has an anecdote about being a completely different person in the mirror from one day to the next. Linked to this, she talks about the value of (at least temporarily) ceding certain powers away from yourself to give yourself a chance to recover. She quit weighing herself and gave her doctor and medical professionals the power to decide whether her weight was appropriate, whether she needed to gain or lose, and whether her weight was healthy. She knew she couldn’t trust herself or her perception of the mirror to decide whether or not she was at an appropriate weight.
    My question, for you to think to yourself- are there any behaviors or viewpoints you think would be better outsourced to someone you trust and/or love instead of yourself right now? Can you take a break from being preoccupied by your appearance and just let someone you love assure you that it’s fine and you can take a break from the mirror? Can you take a break from deciding what to eat and make an appointment with a registered dietitian to get a meal plan from him/her?  Use your tribe!
  • Book: The Gift of Fear. I am soooooo not a fan of self help books but this book really isn’t. Unless by “self help” you mean “something that actually gives you skills and confidence in your own abilities”, rather than the usual dumb lists of platitudes. The whole thesis of this book is that our subconscious mind has years of evolution that have contributed to its savvy about people and situations and whether they are safe or unsafe. Or, if you don’t like the idea of evolutionary psychology, that our “gut instincts” and “gut reactions” are actually smart. I feel like particularly as women we are told to override our instincts in order to “be nice” and this book really combats that. It’s hard to really describe, but you can get an intro to the author in this interview from Lenny. I particularly recommend this book for women.
  • Website: You can find a therapist/counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist at Psychology Today. My old shrink recommended this as a resource [note that I and everyone in my family says “shrink”. Not at all using it to demean the profession- honestly, in part I find it helpful to lump together all the previously mentioned professions under the heading “shrink”. FYI, the person I saw was an LPC!]. There are all kinds of mental health experts listed here, and you can read descriptions about their counseling styles/specialties. Something I’ve found helpful is looking up who’s in-network in your insurance and then cross referencing those names with Psychology Today. Just please, please don’t be discouraged if you get bad vibes your first appointment with someone. It’s okay to hop around til you find someone you better click with! That being said, it’s helpful getting some preliminary details from this site since obviously if you need therapy you want to connect with someone good for you ASAP.
  • For students: dude, take advantage of student health! Your appointments there are probably free- get a physical! If you are experiencing mental health struggles, get counseling! If you’re having issues with food, see an RD! These resources are usually available at larger schools and usually free to students. Get them while you can!

Hope you have all enjoyed these deep thoughts 🙂 If anyone is in need of a tribe member, shoot me an email at leleinthesky@gmail.com ! I don’t have a job right now! I can converse with you!