At the beginning of October, my partner and I got in the car to drive from North Carolina (where my family lives, and we’d spent a few months) to Florida (where his family lives, to spend a few months).
Three hours into the twelve hour trip I started crying, and I didn’t stop until we got to Miami.
I wish I could tell you exactly what happened, and what was wrong, but the truth is that mental health is sometimes just like the weather. You can generally stay abreast of what’s coming and why, but occasionally a storm still comes out of nowhere and destroys everything.
My mental health got hit with a category five hurricane that day, and for many, many days after that.
It felt like I fell down a deep well of sadness; the kind of sadness that incapacitates and is physically painful. The kind of sadness that brings with it a sidecar of shame because you can’t function but you also can’t explain why you’re So Fucking Sad.
There were many factors that went into the creation of this particular depression hurricane, not the least of which was the global pandemic, some bad medical news rocking my family, and some old unprocessed trauma rearing its head.
I cried so much those first few weeks we got to Miami that I became terrified of pushing my partner away and fucking up our incredible (but still brand new) relationship. We had never even heard each other fart for god’s sake, and yet suddenly he was tending to me on a daily basis while my body was wracked with sobs; my heart inexplicably broken.
As someone with a long history of being told I was “too much work” and “too emotional” by previous partners, you can imagine how something that started as a random depression hurricane soon started to whip up anxiety and shame tornados. I started to feel guilty and embarrassed about letting my partner spend so much time and energy caring for me, and every day that I “wasn’t better yet” I felt worse.
Thankfully we talked about everything every step of the way; we unpacked, brainstormed, problem solved, healed, and held it all gently.
He let me know that my sadness didn’t scare or upset him in the slightest, but the way I pulled away sometimes to protect him from all that sadness really freaked him out.
I let him know that the feeling of vulnerability and shame over letting him care for me all the time was becoming in and of itself a trigger, and that I experienced that anxiety as a tribunal of mean trolls sitting around my mind trying to convince me of the worst possible things. I kept him abreast of what the fucking trolls were telling me—about him, about me, about everything—and we talked about why they might have come to that conclusion, and also about why they were mistaken.
Those few months were the hardest relationship-work I’ve ever done, and also the most rewarding and extraordinary. Together we found language for enigmatic concepts, feelings, needs, and experiences to help us understand each other. Together we found tools and resources and work-arounds to handle the storms with our access to ourselves, each other, and intimacy still intact.
By the end of November, I had started to turn a corner.
The Big Sad was still showing up on a regular basis, but the storms were getting less and less terrifying, and the in-betweens were getting lighter, easier, and more expansive. There were still flurries of anxiety and shame tornados, but we were so prepared to welcome them that they never got a chance to spiral out of control. With more time (and constant, endless, deep healing-and-acceptance work) I even found my way back to joy.
The thing is, I have a history of depression and anxiety.
By “history,” what I mean is that I grew up with a combination of genetic predisposition, a highly sensitive temperament, unprocessed trauma, and some underlying hormonal imbalances.
In short, this wasn’t my first depressive rodeo. It was, however, my first time navigating such a thing with a partner; letting someone fully into my head and heart while they feel so scary, broken, and out of control.
I’m sharing this because I want to normalize talking about mental health and illness, and also because this year has been pretty universally stressful, sad, lonely, painful, and just fucking weird.
Between the global pandemic, unemployment, Black Lives Matter protests, the election, zoom culture and endless isolation, so much daily death, and Trump’s attempts to overthrow our democracy, this year has just been so much to hold, handle, and process.
Mental health has been impacted on an unprecedented scale, and we need to globally acknowledge that fact as we step into 2021.
But I’m also sharing this because I think it’s incredibly powerful to reflect on the power of acceptance in these spaces.
I say this as a person whose life has been changed multiple times over through extensive self-acceptance work, and whose entire coaching practice is based on helping my clients access self-acceptance to heal and thrive.
What I’m saying is that I am no stranger to the ways self-rejection can cause pain and keep us from being able to access joy, connection, or a sense of peace.
And yet, rejecting and fighting against the parts of ourselves that we believe are unlovable and unacceptable is just sort of… part of the deal of being born into a human brain and body.
We’re wired for connection; we’re wired to adapt ourselves to the small tribal communities we evolved for. We’re not wired to live in big cities, be constantly accessible to everything via the internet, and be exposed to hundreds or thousands of other people’s faces every day.
In short, we are navigating an extremely complex global human community with the wiring to understand and value ourselves in the context of small groups, a brain that develops to adapt to cultural conditioning, and a natural desire to conform ourselves to the needs and desires of the people around us.
Which means every single one of us has things that we learned make us unlovable, undesirable, and unworthy of respect, connection, and/or belonging.
I call that stuff our “dark material.”
This is the work I do with my clients, whose dark material is often centered both around their body and appearance, and also deeper aspects of their personality or character. I help them identify, normalize, unpack their beliefs about, and finally accept their dark material, so that the simple state of being them becomes tolerable (if not pleasant).
We all have dark material; rooting it all out is a lifetime of work and healing.
I’ve been doing this work for decades, transforming my life and falling in love with myself bit by bit as I faced, healed, accepted, and released my biggest dark material pieces→ too emotional, too needy, too sensitive, too demanding, too difficult, too much work.
At this point I have to say it’s pretty rare to run into a part of myself I reject or feel shame about. I don’t even particularly feel ashamed of my emotional highs and lows—at least, not when I’m by myself.But that’s the thing. Relationships are a fascinating place where all your darkest material has a way of getting kicked up, triggered, exploded, and (if you’re lucky) unpacked and healed.
Once my partner was there bearing witness—once this person whose love, approval, respect, and desire I want more than anything was involved—my mental health issue kicked off a massive shame spiral.
I felt shame about the depression hurricane, and instead of embracing it (like I would have done if I had been alone) I rejected it with everything I had.
I thought I had to reject this part of myself, because that’s what we learn about our dark material:
That it’s not safe to welcome it or accept it.
That other people won’t love us, accept us, respect us, or desire us if we show them such a shameful part of ourselves.
That we have to hide these parts of ourselves if we want to stand a chance of getting our needs for love, connection, and belonging met.
I hated falling apart in front of my partner, and my shame voice told me it was only a matter of time before he decided I was “too much work.”
But our shame voice is a liar, and rejecting our dark material doesn’t actually keep us safe—it just keeps us trapped in shame, fear, anxiety, and contraction. Our dark material will always have power over us, until we accept and embrace it.
Looking back, many days the thing I was saddest about was the fact that I was sad again. I wanted so fucking bad for the hurricane to be over and be back to normal that I came to see my sadness as the enemy.
By a certain point, I was far more exhausted by fighting the sadness than by being sad.
I promise you, if the solution for dark material was to reject and hate it into submission, I would have done it. But it doesn’t work that way. (Side note: it also doesn’t work that way when it comes to body image.)
It wasn’t until I welcomed the Big Sad and recognized that it wasn’t dangerous, and didn’t pose a threat to my relationship, that it became manageable.
It wasn’t until I truly accepted and embraced the sad and anxious hurricane that I was able to access feelings of joy and safety again.
And it wasn’t until I stopped trying to get rid of it that the depression clouds thinned out.
As we move into 2021, please consider my story to be a reminder that rejecting and hating your dark material only has one possible outcome: feeling worse.
There is quite literally nothing about you which will be improved by rejecting it, and the only way to move through your dark material is ultimately to welcome it, accept it, and embrace it.
Wishing everyone a most wonderful New Year.
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