Sorry I've been awol these last two weeks. Been busy with a lot of stuff, not least of which is both my therapist and doctor diagnosed me with moderate depression/anxiety (no doubt triggered by how my life has changed post-separation/divorce).
For whatever reason, I found this diagnosis pretty surprising, even though the writing has been on the wall for a few months now. Beyond a brief period in the 7th grade when I was very socially isolated after my best friend went to a different school and all my other friends were in different classes, I've never really felt very down or low for more than a day at a time. But something has definitely been off for the last few months, something that goes beyond just the standard breakup grief.
I guess I didn't realize what was going on because I didn't expect depression to feel this way. At least for me, I can only describe it as this sense of hopelessness and feeling trapped. My brain gets stuck in these perpetual worry loops where I can see no way to solve my problems or change my current situation. I'm still able to get up and do the things I need to do, but mostly just the essentials, because everything feels so much more difficult and overwhelming than normal. And frankly, nothing has felt very fun. I've also been feeling generally nervous all the time, even when there's no reason to be, which I suppose is the anxiety - something that definitely runs in my family.
So on my doctor's advice, I've started taking Lexapro, which seems to be one of the more commonly prescribed SSRIs. I've only been on it for a few days now, and thankfully the side-effects already seem to be wearing off, though they were never that bad to begin with (just feeling a little "off," sleepiness, some mild GI issues, etc.). I know it's too early to tell, but I swear I already feel very slightly better (tbh, it's probably a placebo effect). For instance, today I noticed that butterfly feeling in my stomach had kind of gone away. I'm not exaggerating when I say I've been feeling that fluttery, nervous sensation on and off all day for weeks now. So it's been kind of nice to get a reprieve from that.
Sometimes I don't really know what to do with this blog. Do I narrow its focus onto reading and writing? Or do I open up and tell you guys a little bit about my life as well? I guess the only reason I decided to share this information with you is because I found it incredibly helpful when my friends and family openly discussed their depression issues and how much medication helped them. Honestly, if it hadn't been for two women in my life who told me years ago that they were or had been on anti-depressants, and how it didn't "change" them, but helped them get through some rough periods of their life, I don't think I ever would have felt brave enough to try it for myself.
So, I figured I'd use this blog post to share with you all that I'm giving anti-depressants a try in case reading about my experience is of any benefit to you. I don't expect to be on them forever, but right now I need the help. At first I felt slightly ashamed to admit that, to myself and especially to my parents, but then I thought about how we don't judge people for needing medicine when they're sick. I mean, I would never hold it against someone who needed chemotherapy, right? Well, my nervous system is just all out of whack at the moment, so why shouldn't I take medicine to help it get better? I'm still doing other things, like cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, journaling, and obviously talking to a therapist. I'm just also adding medication to that list because my goal is to get back to feeling like myself again.
So I'll let you know how the Lexapro goes. I actually have pretty high hopes for my case. Like I said, I already feel like I'm responding pretty well to it and it just remains to be seen how it goes in the longer term.
I keep thinking about how if this is what moderate depression feels like for someone whose living situation has only been upended (but gets a lot of family and medical support), I can only imagine how hard it is for someone who's experienced real loss and trauma without the same kind of safety net. In some ways I'm kind of thankful to be going through this, because it really makes me more empathetic to others who are going through depression. I just didn't get it before. So If you're feeling low or stuck, know that I'm sending you a big hug right now.
So if you're new to the blog, you might not know that I'm going through some pretty major life changes, including getting divorced and temporarily living at home with my parents to save up money to buy my own place (renting with pets is tough, and frankly, I've been ready to own a home for a while). Since I don't want to live at my parent's house for much longer, I'm working really hard to save up the last $10,000 or so I need for my down payment.
The biggest thing I've done to reach this goal is set up a strict budget, which has mostly involved fiddling with an excel spreadsheet for the last few months until I finally came up with some realistic numbers. This has required being really honest with myself about my expenses, including looking ahead to future costs and factoring that into my savings. I've found that opening multiple savings accounts for specific purposes has been really helpful to ensure I never need to dip into my down payment money. For example, I have separate accounts for pet meds and vet bills, car maintenance, reoccurring software and website costs, medical savings for upcoming copayments and deductibles, etc., and I contribute a small amount of money into each one of these accounts every month so that when I do need to pay for any of these items, I already have the money set aside to do so.
On top of that, I've started using another cool app called Daily Budget. Basically, you input your fixed expenses and your savings goals, and then it calculates how much remaining money you have to spend per day for the rest of the month. Every purchase you make outside of those fixed expenses gets entered into the app. If you over-spend one day, then you'll have less for the remaining days. If you don't spend any money one day, then you'll have more later. It's not a groundbreaking idea, but it is helpful to have a little app that instantly does those calculations for you so there's never any question about whether you're over-spending. I guess it helps me feel more accountable and aware of where my money is going. Because it's not like I'm saving 100% of my money. Living with my parents, I think it's pretty important I get out of the house at least once a week and hang out with people my own age. That means spending a little bit on gas, parking, public transportation, drinks, what have you, but using the Daily Budget app makes sure I never over do it.
If anyone's interested in a more detailed post on how I do my budget, particularly as a freelancer, let me know. I'd be happy to share some tricks I've learned.
To get me in this savings mindset, I've also been listening to the Dave Ramsey podcast. He's not 100% my cup of tea, I don't really care for his attitude at times or his political opinions, but I generally agree with his money principles. Basically, pay off your loans and then stay out of debt however you can (excepting a mortgage) by living within your means and keeping a strict budget. Again, it's not groundbreaking, but it works, and I find it's kind of helpful to have a virtual "cheerleader" for my savings and budgeting plans. I think his books are pretty good resources as well if you're looking for some money guidance.
So I'm feeling like I have a much better handle on where my money is going, and now I need to focus on increasing my salary. Getting divorced and having my household income suddenly cut in half has been quite a blow, and I need to make up for some of that loss. Increasing my hours with my university appointment has helped, but I need to take it a step further. I have ideas about teaching an online class and finishing my science writing book to sell on Amazon (and I have a pretty large Facebook group for marketing), but it's so hard to find the time to create new things when I feel like I'm always just barely keeping up with the freelance editing. Add to that my social life, which despite being fairly marginal takes up a disproportionate amount of time because of all the commuting I have to do to the city just to be around people my own age. Sometimes, it feels like I'll never have the time to work on these extra sources of revenue, but I guess if increasing your income were easy, everyone would be doing it.
My ultimate goal with all of this is to get back my independence so I can focus on the things that are important to me, like writing and other creative pursuits. I guess I think of this as the responsible road to life as an artist. Maybe you can relate.
How are your finances these days? Any savings goals or budgeting tips you'd care to share?
It's been almost exactly three months since we separated, and the days of debilitating heart ache may be somewhat behind me. Except for that little blip I experienced immediately after I moved out my things, I've been feeling much better, more hopeful. Occasionally, I'll get a lonely pang, but it passes, and before I know it, I'm thinking about something else besides him. I guess it's true, time heals all wounds. Not that I would declare myself "healed" exactly, just that some of the worst of it may be finally over. (Although I feel like I keep saying that...)
So besides time, what else has helped me get to this point? Honestly? Staying busy.
My editing work has picked up again. I have no idea why it trailed off like it did in April and May, but things seem to be back on track. Maybe it was a seasonal fluctuation? Or maybe it was the universe deciding I needed to take some time off? Who knows. Thankfully I have a part-time appointment working for a professor, so my work and funds didn't totally dry up during that period. And now my base-line salary has actually grown as I've increased my hours with that professor. My freelance workload has also returned to normal (if not a bit on the heavy side). I can't complain. Making more money is certainly better than making less.
I've also realized that I'm ready to start rebuilding my social network. I've licked my wounds, and now it's time to get back out there. Moving away and losing my friends has been one of the harder parts of this divorce. It took me years to find those people in Chapel Hill, and I'm really going to miss them. Now I'm starting over again, but at least it's in a place where I still have a few friends and family. And D.C. is certainly not lacking for thirty-somethings. I just have to find them.
To do that, I've joined (and attended) several Meetups. I've been going to a couple drawing related ones. I also joined two different book clubs, figuring I would try both and see which was the best fit (two men enter, one shall leave....). I also signed up for a studio art class at the Smithsonian, which I am super excited for. It starts in a few weeks. The Smithsonian was one of the biggest things I missed when I moved away from D.C. So now that I'm back, I figured I should take advantage of it again. Their classes are very reasonably priced when you consider all the studio time you get. I'm also now a proud member of the Smithsonian, so I get discounts on different events and lectures they're always running. Maybe I'm a nerd, but museum events and lectures are my idea of heaven. Hopefully I'll meet some like-minded people there, and if not, hey at least I got to do some cool stuff.
And then there's travel. This weekend I'm visiting my best friend in Dallas. We have big plans of drinking in the back yard, going out for brunch, and taking her dogs to the Arboretum. It's exactly the kind of relaxation that I need right now. I'm also going to pick her brain a bit about online dating. I really don't feel up to it at the moment, but I also don't want to close myself off entirely. Maybe she'll have some insights about it.
Then in a few weeks, I'll take the bus up to New York and visit my brother and cousins. I just want to hang out and maybe go to the Met or MoMa. And who knows, maybe I'll be a little crazy and get one of those disgusting looking milkshakes that have a cupcake wedged in them (seriously, so gross...yet so mesmerizing - must try).
Creatively, I've been writing a little bit, and I'm calling that a major win after going through a drought for several months. I just couldn't do it before. And like I said, I've been doing a bit of drawing, which is something I LOVED in high school. I've even taken the piano back up. I'm out of practice, but I'm also having a good time learning some of these Studio Ghibli pieces by Joe Hisaishi.
Finally, pouring my heart out to a counselor every two weeks has been incredibly helpful and cathartic. She's tough on me when I get hard on myself, and that's made a world of difference - just pointing out how negative I can be about myself. Now that I see the pattern, I'm finding it easier to shut down before it spirals out of control.
Other than that I'd say making time for exercise and yoga has made a big difference in how I feel physically. I'm eating mostly healthy foods and taking long walks with the dog. On the advice of my counselor, I've also taken up meditation again (despite my mixed feelings about it). I will say that at this moment, when I feel so emotionally out of whack, it has made a difference.
So yeah, staying busy, making art, and talking to a professional has helped me out a lot. Having the support of my family is another huge difference maker. I know I'm really lucky to have all of these things, so I'm going to make the best of it.
How about you? Any tips for rebuilding post-divorce or breakup? I'd love to hear your comments.
My ex and I were together for almost 13 years, and during all that time, I almost never dreamed about him. Maybe it was the familiarity of seeing someone almost every single day that caused it. But now that we've split up, and I haven't seen him or even heard his voice in several months (our relationship reduced to a series of logistics-based text messages), I find myself dreaming about him several nights a week.
I suppose it's my unconscious still trying to process what happened, or rather, why it happened. Why are we getting divorced? I'm still struggling with how a loving relationship and friendship soured the way it did. Something changed, and I can't really understand why. I mean, logically I know that we got together when we were very young and that we grew up into people who weren't necessarily the most compatible. But it's like my brain keeps trying to pinpoint the moment or the tipping point when we became too different to really get along or love each other as well as we once did.
So that's where I'm at. I thought I had gotten past a lot of those questions, which were my obsession in the first few weeks of the split, but then I finally moved out all my stuff last weekend, and revisiting the house that had once been our home seems to have reopened a lot of wounds I thought were on their way to healing.
I'm feeling better though, day by day, especially now that I have all my things back and that we've hammered out a lot of the necessary fiscal agreements. Thank god we didn't have much in the way of assets or kids to fight over. It wasn't a totally seamless transition, there were some hard feelings here and there, but I think overall we did really well in being respectful and fair. There are things I wish he had done differently, and I'm sure vice versa, but it's the kind of stuff that won't matter in a year.
That's my new mantra: "Will this matter in a year?"
It's hard to remember to ask myself this when a point of contention comes up (not just with my ex, but with everything), but when I do, the answer is almost always no, and that's helped me avoid getting wound up about stupid stuff. And right now, all I want is to feel calm.
But it's funny, that same mantra applies to the reasons why I'm getting divorced. Would those issues have mattered in a year if we had gone the more comfortable route and stayed together? Yes, absolutely, neither one of us denies it. So unfortunately, that means these issues are worth the pain and hardship of a breakup to resolve, and I can't avoid those feelings no matter how I much I'd like to.
When you broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse, did you dream about them a lot?
Buy this book and read at least the first four chapters.
I'm seeing a counselor to help me through my divorce and this was the homework she gave me after our first meeting. From what I understand, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, was one of the first books published on cognitive behavioral therapy that was aimed at lay people. It's very easy to read, but most of all, incredibly helpful.
The point is to teach you how negative thoughts create negative feelings and moods, like depression and anxiety. By learning how to identify various patterns of cognitive distortion (basically, mistaken, illogical thinking) through different exercises and activities, we can retake control of our mood and get back to feeling good again.
It might sound a little hokey from the way I've described it, but the book is most definitely not. When Burns explains cognitive behavioral therapy, the answer seems so obvious and clear: I'm going through a difficult time, my brain is filled with negative thoughts, and those thoughts are making me feel even worse. When I analyze those thoughts using the methods prescribed by Burns, I realized they weren't actually based in reality - they're distortions of reality. And as I realize this, it's easier to shut them down, and my mood has improved accordingly. It's really very cool. It's not a linear improvement, but I can tell I'm on the right track.
One of the coolest takeaways I've learned from this book so far is that the key to self-confidence is getting rid of these negative thoughts. I'm a child of the 90's, so I grew up in a culture of participation trophies and "good job!" at every turn in what I think everyone now agrees was a misguided attempt to boost self-confidence in kids. The idea that self-confidence may in fact be more about silencing that inner-critic instead of creating some kind of false inner-cheerleader was sort of mind-blowing.
So if there's any silver lining to my divorce, it's that it has encouraged me to seek counseling from a professional who has introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy, and I can already tell these are techniques I'll be able to use for the rest of my life to help me manage my anxiety. At the moment, it's really helping with my situational depression, which is hardly unexpected given the circumstances.
If you're curious about the different kinds of cognitive distortions we all experience to some degree, here's a link that lists the ones that Burns identifies as the most typical. One of the exercises you can do is write down your negative thoughts as you experience them, then identify which cognitive distortions they fit on that list, followed by a more rational response to each distortion (basically, explain to yourself why that negative thought isn't actually true). Study after study has shown that when this type of cognitive behavioral therapy is used in conjunction with medication, it's more effective at treating depression than just medication alone.
I've mostly written this blog post so I can come back to it and easily look up those cognitive distortions as I'm working on these kinds of exercises every day, but maybe you'll find it helpful too if you're struggling with negative feelings of any kind at any point in your life, not just divorce.
Also, I hope readers of this blog understand why I'm writing about divorce right now. It won't be forever, I promise. I hope to get back to discussing reading and writing again soon, but for the moment, I really need to do this in order to focus on getting better and figuring out the new "normal" in my life.
Last month I mentioned that my husband and I were in the process of separating. It's a sad, difficult decision, because it's mutual and we're both conflicted. We're not mad at one another, we're just not sure how to fix the same problems that keep coming up. In short, we just want and need different things. I suspect this is a fairly common problem, but that doesn't make it any easier.
So I've been doing a lot of self-care to help me through this. I've found it harder to write fiction, so I'm letting myself take a temporary break from it (the pressure to write was making me feel crazy), but I have been keeping a journal, which I find very useful to work through my thoughts.
I've also been doing a lot of other activities to help me feel more stable. In brief, here's my list of what to do during a breakup, just in case it's of any help to you.
1) Give yourself a weekend of "Treat Yo Self." Eat what you want, watch what you want, spend what you want. Not forever, but for those first horrible days it really helps to treat yourself. For me, I bought myself a new pair of shoes, watched Mad Men, ate at Taco Bell, and laid in bed all day.
2) When you're done with Treat Yo Self weekend, then consciously practice A.C.E. This works. Such a helpful tool. I keep track of my A.C.E. activities in that same notebook that contains my logistics list and my journal. It helps to keep this information all in one place.
3) Call or talk to your parents, but don't smother them. After those first few days, I made myself try to get over each emotional low for at least an hour. If I couldn't do it on my own, only then did I call my mom. It helped prove to myself that I was tough and that I would eventually be able to get through a day without totally relying on her for emotional support. It gave me confidence in myself.
4) Find a small notebook. Instead of calling your ex, write down what it is you would say. Write out your thoughts and feelings. Patterns will emerge. You'll realize what was really bothering you. When you have a weak moment, consult the notebook to remind yourself that there are real issues at stake and you are making the right choice.
5) In that same notebook, make a list of logistical things you need to do (e.g., where are you going to move, money stuff, possessions, insurance, etc.), then put it aside. Add to the list as you think of anything else that needs to be done, but don't worry about it yet. After the first week or so, only then begin tackling each item one by one.
6) Watch When Harry Met Sally. Excellent and very optimistic breakup movie.
7) Take long walks, go for a run, strength train, take a dance class, whatever. Just make sure you're getting regular exercise. For me, the best part of my day is taking my dog on her long morning walk. I always feel better when I'm outside with her.
8) Put away the junk food and make sure you're eating healthy meals again. For me, that means cutting out the processed food (or limiting it to the occasional treat). I love to make this soup.
9) Call your friends. Make plans to hang out. Remind yourself that you have a lot of people in your life who care about you and vice versa. I'm going out to Dallas this summer to see one of my best friends and it's the first thing I've had to look forward to in a while.
10) Smile and be nice to everyone you come across. I don't know if it's just because I've been wanting more warmth lately, but I've been dishing out the smiles and small talk with all sorts of strangers. And people are awesome. Without fail, they are so nice right back at me. When you feel lonely, a smile or kind word from a stranger can mean so much.
11) Make a list of people you admire who have gone through a divorce. It really shows you how normal it is. Here's my list:
The point of all this is only that there are positive steps you/I can take to work through this. It's a challenge, but not a disaster, particularly if we keep a good attitude.
For more tips, check out this google doc compiled by the Death, Sex, & Money listeners. There's a lot of great advice in there.
Pretending to be someone else, if only for seconds at a time.
Sometimes I like to think of myself asNora Ephron. I find this particularly helpful when I'm struggling with whether or not to write. If I'm Nora Ephron, the answer seems more obvious: sit down and write, because you're a writer, even when you feel like shit. That, and make sure you get something good to eat.
At other times I like to pretend I'm Eleanor of Aquitaine, who I learned about on this two-part episode of the History Chicks. She generally seemed to have her shit together (smart, rich, powerful), even while married to two different monarchs of varying quality. I like the fact that she and and her husband, Henry, King of England, got to a point where they had done more or less everything they had wanted to do together in their marriage, and then effectively went their separate ways. It's a valid option if Kings and Queens did it.
And sometimes I just pretend that I'm a normal person, going about my day. This helps me get through my editing work. I don't know why, but telling myself, "I'm a normal person, getting a can of seltzer water," somehow makes it easier to then sit down, work, and forget about the fact that I'm going through a divorce. It helps keep self-pity from getting in the way of productivity, because sometimes you just have to get your work done even if you'd rather curl up in bed and watch Mad Men. Also, it's true. I am normal person, even if I have to remind myself of it occasionally.
Have you experienced heartbreak? What helped you get through it? I could use some tips.
If anyone follows my reading list (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the books I've read in 2017), they might have noticed there's a lot of Nora Ephron in there lately. So why is that?
Well, it's because I decided to leave my marriage.
And to make a sad situation a little more bearable, I also decided that the late great Nora Ephron would be my "spiritual" guide through it all. I'm joking of course, but you know what I mean. I figure if you can write a story like When Harry Met Sally, then you might have some helpful thoughts to share about love and heartbreak.
My husband and I went through some problems about a year and a half ago. We even separated for a little while, but got back together after deciding we could work things out. Unfortunately, even though I thought we had made really good efforts to work through those problems, they kind of reared up their ugly heads again. I guess I finally realized that I had done everything I could think to do to save my relationship, but it wasn't enough. I know I gave it my best shot, which makes this time around marginally easier. Last time I felt like I hadn't actually done anything to fight for my marriage and that it wasn't fair to ourselves to walk away so easily. So we tried, we definitely did. At least I feel good about that.
It's one of those sad situations where no one has been "wronged." There was no bad behavior. I never stopped loving him, and I don't think he stopped loving me. We just wanted different things. We also needed different things and weren't able to communicate those wants and needs very well, if at all. Talking about hard issues was never our strong point as a couple. So it's nobody's fault, really, or maybe it's everyone's fault. I don't know. But that doesn't make it any less sad or frustrating.
I go through waves of feeling ok, and then waves of despair where I can barely function. And then more often there are the waves of numbness where it feels like I'll never be genuinely happy again. It's also really hard to let go of the good memories and what they meant to me. It feels almost impossible to say goodbye to a man who has been my best friend for 13 years. So yeah, to say this is rough is an understatement.
Anyway, what does that have to do with Nora Ephron again? Having been divorced twice and married three times, I find she has a funny sense humor and poignancy about it all that I'm finding very comforting. Of the three books of hers I've read in the last week or so, I enjoyed Heartburn the most, which is a thinly veiled novel about her divorce from Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) when she was 7 months pregnant. The other two are collections of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. Some of the essays are excellent, others are more or less blog posts, but this one really helped me put things in perspective:
"For a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now it's not." - Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing
I guess the point is, although this may seem like the end of the world, that everything I've ever known or worked so hard to build is falling apart (and I'm the one who's actively torpedoing it, which makes it feel even worse, even though I feel like there's no other way for us both to move forward with our lives and ultimately be happy) - well, this too will pass. There's going to be a new normal, even if I don't know what it looks like yet. And one day in the future, this divorce will not be considered the most important thing that ever happened to me, even if it feels that way at the moment.
So right now I'm just trying to be grateful for all the things I have and have had, and trying to be as hopeful as possible. I'm incredibly fortunate to have two supportive parents who've opened their home to me, my dog, and my cats while I figure out our next step and deal with the necessary logistics of the situation. I'm also incredibly fortunate to have a job that I can do anywhere, which makes it possible to move here for the moment.
And I also don't regret my marriage or our time spent together. We did, saw, and made some pretty amazing things as a couple. 13 years together and I wouldn't take back a single one. He's a wonderful person and I really wish him all the happiness in the world. So all things considered, I'm really incredibly lucky. The present is a challenge, to be sure, but I can work through this and everything will be alright in the end.