I can be an intensely sad creature.
I don’t know if this is only an LA thing, but often when I am scrolling through online dating profiles I read the following instructions from potential suitors: “Good vibes only.” To which I promptly swipe left. My vibes are a veritable mixed bag.
I know the opposite is also true of me. I know that I can be more playful than many adults. That when something sparks my delight I can engage it with a public enthusiasm that most can only access with drugs or alcohol. That I have a loud laugh that others say brings them into laughter. But when I am hurting, there is no compartmentalizing or dismissing, it sets up a command center in my chest.
When Shannon Downey proposed the #makedontbreak challenge because she anticipated that January was going to hard–after everyone got over giving 2020 the middle finger and turned to 2021 and realized it looked exactly the same–I didn’t believe her. December was a hard month for me; I was saying goodbye to a lot of things. But I did believe that January was going to be different. I didn’t sign on to do the #makedontbreak challenge because I thought it would help me endure, I did it because I thought it was a way to engage the light of a brand new morning. It was going to help me step into the new year prioritizing my goal to bring creativity back into my daily life.
But the Prophet of Badass Cross Stitch knew better. January brought a slew of bad news, disappointments and closed doors. Somewhere in there sadness completely took over. I slipped fully into the well worn neural pathway that believes I am completely alone in the world. All my mental health tricks failed me and logic would not change the filter that colored my whole future blue. I tend to feel that being a good adult means that I should always be able to pop back up like Rocky after every hit, and laying on the mat exposes the truth of my pathetic nature, but once again, I could not get up.
Now I know this is how it works. I have a masters degree and a license to practice therapy. I have told many clients over the years about brain plasticity: how our brains develop neural pathways based on our experiences that create correlations which form belief systems that may cause patterns of depression or anxiety in our lives. For example, if money was never secure in your family as a child, your brain will create a neural pathway connecting money and fear. This pathway continues to exist into adulthood, even when you have a secure job and savings account that, logically, should stave off panic when you need to take a grand out of said savings to fix the car. But you do panic because your brain still connects these two things. The salvation is, we now know from brain scans that our brains never stop forming. No matter how old we are, we have the potential to experience new things that create new neural pathways that can be accessed as alternatives to the old ones. With some self awareness, positive relationships and possibly a good therapist, a neural pathway can be formed that connects money to a sense of agency and empowerment, so sometimes you can pay the mechanic a grand and actually feel okay about it. Which is the best. Experiencing moments where you see your psychological healing feels miraculous. BUT, and here is really the trickiest part, while our new neural pathways can grow and develop and become more of the default response, the old ones never go away. And sometimes something happens, something that may or may not feels like it justifies this response, and you’re back on the old path and money feels as scary as it ever did.
Often times this experience brings on a lot of additional fear and shame about having thought anything had ever healed in the first place. But, in the same way the old, painful neural pathway never goes away, the new empowered pathway never goes away either. As Jill’s therapist says, “You can’t unlearn what you have learned.” Money will never again only be scary and at some point you will feel that empowerment again.
All that to say, I have felt more depressed in the last month than I have in years. More than I thought was possible to feel again. But what is different this time is that I am holding out faith that those other neural pathways will eventually engage. In the meantime, I am surprised and glad to say that embroidery and soup making have been safe spaces for my sad little heart to rest. Pulling green thread through fabric and cutting up red tomatoes have been moments when I didn’t only see blue.
I’ve been reading studies about the mental health benefits of working with our hands. Some of the benefits are chemical–serotonin release and all that–but I think the more powerful effect was that this crafting was a place where my grownup self could show my inner kiddo a lot of patience and kindness. It helped me give myself permission to stay down, until it was healthy and safe to get back up–because how many boxers end up with crippling brain damage by the end of their victorious careers?!
It’s not that #makedontbreak meant that by making my heart won’t break, but that through making my broken heart won’t breakdown before we can get to the mechanic and get it the help it needs.
As I’ve stated before, it was also such a blessing to connect with my friends through making. It was a special window into their daily lives that I haven’t shared with most of them in many, many years. And a chance to bask in their talents again.