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Author Archives: Christy Barongan

Old School or New School?

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Did you know that record stereos and Polaroid cameras are making a comeback? I’m assuming they are meant to appeal to my generation, although my niece’s 10 year old friend got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. It definitely makes me nostalgic for my teenage years, when I would hang out in my room listening to my record albums for hours. I have considered buying one, since I still have all my old albums, many of which are so obscure you can’t even find them on iTunes. But I’m sure the sound isn’t as good, and it takes up a lot more room than my phone does, which has thousands of songs on it.

The same is true with pictures. I don’t have photo albums anymore because it’s a pain to get pictures developed. And you have to pay for them. Much easier just to have photos on your devices and scroll through them. I have my phone with me at all times, so it’s much easier to show someone a picture that way, rather than inviting them to my house and having them look through my albums.

My sister-in-law bought me the Michelle Obama book for Christmas, but I had just bought it on Kindle the week before. She asked me whether I preferred books or Kindle. I love holding books in my hand, flipping through the pages, seeing them on my shelf. I liked going to Barnes and Noble and seeing tables stacked and organized by type of book. And I liked the free cookie from Starbucks that I got after my purchase. Well, it was buy one get one free so it was more like half off.

However, my eyesight is not what it used to be, so I have to wear reading glasses. And if I accidentally take my contacts out too early, I have to do this goofy thing where I put my reading glasses on top of my regular glasses, which isn’t very stable. On Kindle, I can just increase the font. I can also look up words, highlight passages, and type comments. In a book, I just dog-ear one corner of the page, so it’s pretty hard to go back and find a quote. But I buy both, so I am middle school on books.

I really love the idea of writing by hand. In theory. Putting a pen to paper makes whatever you’re writing more meaningful. Last year when I read my old journals, seeing my handwriting gave me a better sense of what I was like at that point in time. It’s as though some of my personality got communicated through my script.

But all I ever write these days is my signature, and I usually just make a bunch of squiggly lines, because the merchants don’t check to see if you signature matches the one on the back of the card anymore. And I have a long name. I’ve tried to write journal entries by hand, but I can’t go more than a paragraph before my handwriting deteriorates. After a while, I can’t write in straight line. My script gets bigger, loopier, and finally completely illegible. It was impressive to see how small and straight I could write in my journal for pages and pages of entries without a single hand cramp. I’m definitely new school with writing. It’s much easier just to type everything.

I went shopping with my niece after Christmas. It was a great day, and it made me happy that Sadie said it was the best day of her life–so far–because we ate brunch and dinner at her favorite places, she found almost everything she was looking for, we got a pedicure, went to the bookstore, ate a buy one get one free cookie.

But I hated the crowds. People sometimes shout profanities at me in the parking lot because I’m not looking where I’m going when I’m driving. I hated standing in the checkout line. I refused to give my phone number to the salespeople, and sometimes they were downright pissed off about it. Apparently it threw off their script of talking me into getting a rewards card, where I could get cash back someday after I bought a lot more merchandise. Much easier to just buy it online. Especially if they have free shipping and returns. So I’m new school on shopping.

Actually, after writing all this, it looks like I’m new school in general.

How about you? Are you old school or new school?

Good and Evil, Part 3

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One of the things I love about my niece Sadie is that she believes that people are basically good. During our annual Christmas Eve dinner, we had an interesting conversation about Santa’s naughty list. Sadie believes that everyone deserves a gift because even if they are being bad at the moment, they have good in them, and that goodness can manifest itself at some point in the future. Although that’s not exactly how she said it.

I agreed with her that we are all capable of good, but reminded her that we are also capable of evil, and on a moment to moment basis, people have to choose between the two all the time. And once you cross that line and choose evil, it becomes easier to do so the next time around.

I was once more optimistic about the inherent goodness of people, but I have become less so, particularly in the last few years. Opinions about current events have become so polarized that it’s hard to distinguish good from evil. It seems so clear from each side’s perspective. How can they not tell the difference? How can their moral compass be so off? Maybe if I post a bunch of stuff on social media showing them how wrong they are they’ll eventually come to their senses.

I have wrestled with this question all my life, because I really want to be good. I don’t want to delude myself into thinking I’m doing good when I’m doing harm. I don’t want to make excuses to justify my behavior. But does being earnest make you see things more clearly? I try hard to see the other side’s perspective, try to understand how their idea of right can seem so wrong to me, but I can’t reconcile the discrepancy at times. Perhaps no one can be certain of their rightness.

Even messages that are supposed to be about kindness, gratitude, and acceptance–things that are meant to be said gently, lovingly–are sometimes shouted out like commands. Be kind, damn you! Be grateful, you selfish #&%@! Be more accepting like me, you terrible person!

Well, that’s how I hear them, at least. And I believe in the importance of kindness, gratitude, and acceptance. But it’s all in how you say something, isn’t it? It matters whether something comes from a place of love or judgment. It’s hard to take good advice that is not dispensed with compassion.

I do believe that it’s possible to bring out the basic goodness in people, but not by telling them what to do. If you want someone to be compassionate, show compassion. If you want them to be grateful, tell them how grateful you are for them. And if you want them to be accepting, let them know that you accept who they are, even if they feel differently. Goodness will not come about by telling people what to do. It has to be demonstrated by our own choices.

And ultimately, I do believe what Sadie said about Santa Claus, but for a slightly different reason. Every child gets a gift, not because they earned it by being good, but because someone loves them, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice. And ultimately, it is love that transforms us.

Falling Apart

I learned something about myself in 2018. I learned that I am not a superhero. I can’t do it all.

I mean, I knew that. I knew that I had reached my limit and I was going to fall apart, but I had kept it all together for so long, you know? I figured it was like knitting some complicated dress pattern. Or winning a tennis match after driving 10 hours and being injured. Just another crazy challenge that I could push myself through. But this time I met my match.

The past two and a half years have been tough for my brother and me. This was not intended to be a long-term living arrangement. I decided to get a new place at my therapist’s suggestion. It would at least give us more personal space–literally a wall between us–which was one small thing I could control.

And it is nice, the new place. But it caused 6 months of additional stress before I could benefit from it. Selling my old place. Moving out and running out of storage space. (How could I get so much stuff into 1000 sq feet?) Staying in a really expensive apartment for several weeks. Not knowing when I was going to have my new place. Changing my address multiple times. Trying to fit all my stuff in my new place. Which should have been easier with double the square footage, but for some reason it wasn’t.

The other thing I took on this year is that online therapy job, in anticipation of the added expense of buying a new place. Even though I can barely see all the clients in my primary job. Plus, it’s really hard to make a connection with someone who you don’t get to interact with face to face. So much of what heals in therapy is what happens when you literally sit with someone, being fully present to their pain, rather than the words themselves. In online therapy, all you have is words.

Plus, you know when someone doesn’t like you, because you get multiple emails telling you the person is transferring. They can even write a terrible review about you. Or file a complaint. And then you have to have a video conference with an expert who specializes in helping you be a less sucky online therapist. Fortunately, the last 2 things didn’t happen. But I did have people transfer. And thank goodness, because what was I thinking, taking all those new people?

Last semester had been particularly stressful at my primary job because one of my colleagues had to be out for the beginning of the term, so things filled up a few weeks earlier than usual. I usually fall apart some time around Thanksgiving, no matter how hard I try to practice self-care, but usually I can bounce back after a mental health day. So when I first fell apart, not surprising. After the second day, I started panicking a little. After the 3rd day, I knew I was in trouble.

I ended up taking an extended leave, and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I probably should have done it 10 years ago but didn’t because it felt like admitting defeat. An extreme version of retiring from a match. So I just sucked it up, even though I knew I wasn’t doing a great job.

This time I had no choice, because unlike in previous depressive episodes, I couldn’t think. I felt like I had a concussion. I couldn’t remember words, and had a hard time even having a conversation. If I had to make a decision, I would get overwhelmed. Even reading made me anxious, because it activated my brain. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to handle my job, so I accepted defeat.

Having this time to focus solely on self-care (and moving) made me realize how long I had been operating under duress. Some of it was beyond my control, but some of it I put on myself. I push myself relentlessly. I’ve gotten a lot better since practicing self-compassion, but my Drill Sergeant is still active, bossing me around every chance it gets. I was only able to stand up to it because it felt like life or death.

Today is my first day back, and I’m glad I’m the only person here so that I can just catch up on the things I have put on the back burner for the past 6 weeks. I’m feeling pretty good but I still don’t know how much stress I can tolerate, so I’m hoping I can slowly ease my way into the crazy schedule that awaits me.

But I have to do things differently. So this year, my New Year’s Resolution is to let go of as much as possible. Moving has taught me that. A lot of what I had been holding onto went into the trash or to Goodwill. I even gave up plants that I’ve had for over 20 years, because the idea of carrying them up 3 flights of stairs to the one bedroom apartment that my brother and I were going to share didn’t seem worth the effort. When you have to carry all of your belongings around with you, you to learn to let go of material possessions pretty quickly.

I’m going to let go in other ways, too. No more captaining multiple teams because they desperately need another captain. I’m cutting back on the number of people I try to save that are not a part of my job. I’m going to stop beating myself up about working out, sleeping abnormally, and being unlike other people in general. Any thought that causes me distress I will put aside. I will only do what I have to do, because that will still be plenty.

This year, rather than choosing some challenge that pushes me to the limit, I’m going to choose me.

Wholeheartedly

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I’m reading this book by Pema Chodron Called When Things Fall Apart.” She’s pretty funny for a Tibetan Buddhist. She talks about how she threw a rock at her husband when he said he was leaving her. She’s a nun now. Maybe that’s why.

But I digress. In one chapter she says

if we really knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure–how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence–then we would practice mediation as if our hair were on fire.

I thought that was hilarious! I mean, I meditate every day, but if my hair were on fire, that is not the first thing that would come to mind as to what I should do. But apparently that’s a popular phrase, because in this meditation conference I just went to, Bill Morgan talked about people’s hair being on fire all the time. Maybe that happened a lot in Asian countries.

The focus of this conference was on how to make meditation practice work for Westerners. He thinks that most people in the West can’t get into meditating because sitting quietly just feels like an opportunity to let demons and thoughts of unworthiness run amok. And our attention span is so short that it feels torturous to sit still for even a few minutes. Plus, because we are so goal-oriented that we spend too much time striving, trying to make something happen.

So we spent the weekend learning ways to start meditating in a gentler, kinder way. Morgan suggested that when we begin a meditation practice, we start by creating an experience of comfort. This is a way we can learn to soothe ourselves. Often we would begin by standing up to stretch, shaking out any discomfort. Then when we sat to meditate we would begin with a memory, sound, or image that we find soothing. The face of your grandmother, perhaps. The sound of the ocean. Thinking about your pet. Playing with your niece.

This was revolutionary for me because, as you know, I really struggle with self-soothing. For the longest time I really had no idea how to comfort myself. I’m still not great at it. I realized during this conference that I primarily try to comfort myself by creating chaos–a common strategy for people with histories of trauma. Peace and quiet feel strange, foreign, so we recreate the experience of the chaos we grew up with, because it at least feels familiar.

My version of creating chaos involves taking on too much–signing up for Talkspace, moving, volunteering to captain a team that I don’t even have time to play on because they need another captain. Or by obsessively trying to practice self-care, which ends up stressing me out more than it reduces my stress. I just did my health assessment for my job and all of my health markers were worse than they were last year. So apparently I’m getting an F in self-care. Sort of like when you study really hard for you Calculus but still end up failing all the tests.

After spending time in meditation during the conference, I think I’ve figured out why practicing self-care hasn’t been helping. I’ve treated living with anxiety, depression, GERD, asthma, and allergies as a chore. I had been practicing self-compassion, but my attempts at self-care were driven by fear of crashing and burning. My routines were done resentfully, begrudgingly. As if I had a child who I thought was a pain in the ass but I have to take care of her because that’s my job.

In the meditations he taught us, he told us to pay attention to ourselves with the heart of a caregiver. I do that for my clients but not for myself. I do not listen to myself wholeheartedly. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not just going to go through the motions of checking in with myself. I’m going to try to listen with an open heart, as though I were someone who I cared for deeply. Because I want to be someone who I care for deeply.

Five Years Later

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I’ve been so busy with work that I forgot that the 24th was my blog’s 5th birthday. So happy belated birthday, Normal in Training!

My birthday blog feels more like the beginning of the new year for me than January 1 does. It gives me a chance to reflect on the important thoughts, feelings, and events that have taken place over the past blog year. And now that I post an old post every Thursday on my Facebook page, I read some of my old posts every week, which really helps to put my life in perspective since I started my blog.

I have to say, when I look back at some of the things I have shared, I am surprised at my own bravery. Because I have no desire to share those posts now! But they’re still there, if you want to go back that far and read them. Having a blog is like having a motivational poster in your mind that says, “Have you shared your soul today?” It’s helpful to have that invitation to be vulnerable, because my first instinct is to hide.

Having a blog also reminds me of how unpredictable life is. I remember 2 years ago, before my brother moved in with me, I was thinking about getting Lasik surgery because my eye doctor said it was life-changing. I thought, well my life can use some changing. So why not? Turns out I didn’t need the Lasik after all. Life-changing moments get thrown at you, whether you want them or not. While I would have preferred 20/20 vision, adjusting to my new life is probably making be a better person than Lasik would have.

Now I’m about go to through some major changes again, a few short months after my Feeling Fragile post. I sold my patio home, 3 months after I put it on the market. And the townhouse that I wasn’t going to be able to purchase unless everything fell into place perfectly? Well, everything fell into place perfectly. And if all goes as planned, I should be moving at the end of the year. It seems too good to be true, and things could still go wrong, so I tentatively share this good news with you. Because it affirms what I feel whenever things miraculously seem to work out: God cares.

Having a blog is also a reminder of how some things never change. My first post was about my problems sleeping, my stressful bedtime routine, my overactive brain. Nothing has changed. It’s just as hard to regulate my sleep cycle now as it was 5 years ago. My depression, my anxiety, my stress level, my inability to say no, my crash and burn tendencies–all exactly as they were, despite my devotion to self-care.

There are positive things that have stayed the same, too, though. I still care more about eating after tennis and friendship than winning. Although I still want to win. I’m still a warrior: I don’t stay down for long. I still try to remain positive, see the good in people and in life.

But I’ve also learned that change is possible. I have become a better person in many ways. I am in a relationship for the first time after almost 5 years, which is perhaps my biggest act of bravery this past blog year. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. It forces me to face my fears, to be vulnerable, to choose love every day. To let go of the anxiety of not knowing what will happen. To muster the courage to accept whatever does.

I am a better person to myself, too. In this moment, I am most thankful for my blog because it teaches me to practice mindfulness–to be fully present to the unfolding of my life exactly as it is happening. And to practice self-compassion–to be loving and kind to myself, despite all of those quirks and failings that make me feel like I’m not normal.

Everything Ebbs and Flows

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One of the many things that’s helpful about having a blog that I’ve kept up for almost 5 years is that I see how much repetition there is in my life. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the reason why therapy doesn’t work in a day. Even if you can identify in that first session what the client needs to do, it takes a lot of repetition to change your mindset and your behavior. And yet, every time I reread an old blog post, I’m like, what the heck? I was doing the exact same thing 4 years ago?

Yesterday I published an old post I had written about my guilt over my sleep cycle on my FB page (which I encourage you to follow, if you aren’t already doing so). In this post my therapist had given me permission to stop obsessing about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle over the break and said that, when I needed to wake up early, I would be able to do it. Which was helpful in forgiving myself for what I perceived as my sleep sins.

And yet, guess what I did this summer? I obsessed about not being able to regulate my sleep cycle. I thought about it nonstop. Tried different strategies, all to no avail. No matter what I do, my sleep cycle naturally gravitates to its night owl pattern– falling asleep around 3-4 am, waking up in the afternoon. My brain is like a manic vampire–I cannot shut it up at night, and it cannot stand the light.

But now I’ve started work and, although I’m not sleeping any earlier, I wake up when I’m supposed to. I’m sleep-deprived, but responsible. So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK if I can’t change my sleep cycle. That when I have to wake up early, I will. The same conclusion I came to on July 27, 2014. The same conclusion that I’ve probably come to after every break.

Sometimes I still get caught up in thinking that if I were more disciplined, more of an adult, perhaps I could get this sleep thing under control. Perhaps I could be more like a normal person. But yesterday, in a presentation that I gave on resilience, I used the following quote from Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind:”

So much of what we are has, in a way, little to do with personal choice. Therefore it makes little sense to blame ourselves for some of our feelings, motives, desires or abilities or lack of them, or for how things turned out.

So I have stopped berating myself (in the moment) and repeat my self-compassion mantra. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I, though? Yes. You really are. You always do. (I have to go through the whole dialogue every time. Obsessive, I know, but I can’t help that, either.)

I also repeat my mindfulness mantra to remind myself that the cyclical nature of my sleep problems is just how it is. Everything ebbs and flows. Everything comes and goes. No matter how hard I try, how disciplined I am, it will always be like this–semesters filled with sleep-deprivation punctuated with periods of night owl syndrome over the breaks. This is the ebb and flow of my life.

So I’m trying to accept it, just as it is.

What I’ve Learned From Being Single

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About 4 and a half years ago, I wrote one of the most personal, painful posts about why I was choosing to be single called Solitude. I decided to be alone after dating almost non-stop since I was 15 because I was beginning to lose respect for myself. I knew I was running away from something that I needed to face, and it made me feel weak, pathetic. I had settled for unsatisfying and sometimes downright traumatic relationships because I thought anything was better than being alone. Four and a half years ago I finally decided that I would be alone or die trying, because the alternative was to hate myself. And it seemed hypocritical to write a blog about self-acceptance if you hated yourself.

And, as you know if you’ve been reading my blog since then, sometimes it’s been rough. I would often lie on the couch or in bed in a half-asleep, half-starved state because I was too tired to get food but too hungry to sleep. And when I did eat, it would be random stuff like peanut butter crackers because that’s all I had in the house.

I worried a lot about what would happen if I got hurt or died and no one found me for days. So I played tennis almost every day to make sure people saw me. And I told my friends to take it seriously if I posted something on FB that said I had fallen and I couldn’t get up.

I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my day, so I wrote in my journal a lot. But that ended up being a great thing. It really helped me to develop my writing. And I thought I was hilarious and loved re-reading old entries. And I was a much better listener than any of the people I had been with, so I allowed myself to go into as much obsessive detail as I wanted to, and to write about the same thing over and over again, without worrying about boring my future self.

Another reason why I stayed single was because I thought I was a terrible person in relationships. I was jealous and controlling. I was rigid, judgmental, and demanding. I was selfish, and nothing the other person did was ever enough. I figured those patterns were so deeply ingrained that there was no way I could forge new neuronal pathways in my brain. There wasn’t enough time. I was already in my mid 40’s.

Now I realize that a lot of those things that I thought were true about me were not me at all. They were thoughts, feelings, and fears that belonged to other people that I had assumed were my own. In psychodynamic theory, this is called projective identification. You unconsciously take on things the other person finds unacceptable to admit about themselves. Things like being jealous, or selfish, or demanding.

There was no way I could have known that these patterns were not as deeply ingrained as I had thought without being by myself. In fact, I am so different from the person I was before my solitude experiment that it’s a little shocking. People tell me that I’m unselfish. Not jealous at all. That I don’t ask for anything. Sometimes I look around and think, are you talking to me? Because that doesn’t sound like me at all.

I think my solitude has been something along the lines of a 4 year meditation retreat. (Not a silent one, obviously.) I’ve spent a lot of time practicing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion as ways to face my fear of being alone. And just like everything else, the fear itself was far scarier than the actual experience of being alone.

I have found that the hardest thing to do is to be honest about the things we are ashamed of. We do all kinds of things to avoid really seeing ourselves. Drink. Shop. Binge watch shows on Netflix. Date. Blame other people. Whatever your go-to strategy is, my advice to you is to be still, let things settle, and see what’s there. It won’t be as scary as you think. And the benefits are far greater than you can imagine.