Big Fish, Little Fish

I have officially been a college student for eleven days. I'm still dealing with some degree of culture shock, but I'm definitely enjoying my time in Washington. So far, I've moved in, gone through a week of orientation, and had three full days of classes. A lot has happened and while not all of it has made me feel like this will be a good school year, most of it has. For today, here is a summary of what my life has been like lately, as well as a realization I had before moving up.

I got to campus on the 15th, where I was able to move my stuff in a little early. This was good because it meant I was able to get to campus on the official move-in day without actually having to move all my stuff in. After moving in, having lunch with my mom, roommate, and her family, my mom and I walked back to the car where we said a tear-filled goodbye. Then we drove back to the building where I’d have a meeting and I had to get out of the car and go be a college student and stuff. If you’ve read a piece I wrote back in June called Not So Scary Anymore then you’ll know how much I hate leaving the car (and my mom!) to venture off on my own. But somehow, after many “last” hugs goodbye, I found a way to leave the car. I then got lost and dear Annaliese had to come find me, but I still left the car. Later that day I would also find a bug in my room and get myself locked out of my room, but considering it was my first day I think it could have been worse.

The rest of my week consisted of taking placement tests (I tested higher in French than expected, which was cool. Math went exactly as expected), learning my way around the campus, and getting used to living away from home (at least a little bit). I called my mom and then my dad, and texted my Grandmother and aunt. I FaceTimed my brother and one of my best friends all in an attempt to make the unfamiliar a little bit easier. I cried many tears, tried to look on the bright side, and have made many, many cups of coffee.

I think one of the biggest things I've learned so far is that even though I'm now a little fish in a big pond, I haven't actually shrunk any. I may be smaller than the other fish, but that's just because the other fish have had more time to grow bigger. At the end of my senior year of high school, I told one of my friends that I wasn't looking forward to being a Freshman again because I didn't want to feel young and small. But what I neglected to realize is I am still the same person I was after graduating, I just get another four years to grow into an even more mature, capable, and strong person.


The First Time I Didn't Want to Grow Up

I grew up by the beach. Although I didn't go as much as you'd expect, I loved being on the sand dunes. Jumping off them, rolling down them, sitting on them. I loved the sand, and I loved watching the water. There was a particular cluster of sand dunes that I loved very much, as they offered the perfect  height for jumping off, were steep enough to roll down, and had a lovely ditch in the middle for sitting in. One night, I was at the beach with my family to watch the sunset when I discovered that my favorite cluster of sand dunes had disappeared. As a third grader, I knew that of course nature changes things and wind will blow dunes in different directions, but as a nine year old whose parents were separating, this was the final straw on my little camel's back. 

I remember feeling like crying, screaming, and throwing sand around all at the same time. I don't remember what I ended up doing, but I do remember my mom taking me in her arms and talking to me about change. The first picture below was taken at that moment, and even though there are many pictures of us, this will always be one of my favorites. I remember not wanting things to change, and as silly as it may seem, this loss of those particular sand dunes symbolized to me that I was growing up. I realized (although I already knew it) that nothing was going to be the same forever, and certainly nothing was going to be the same as it had been when I five, six, seven years old. As I've gotten older, I've realized that it's a good thing life isn't the same as it was from 2014 downward, but as a nine year old I didn't yet have the gift of hindsight. 


That day on the beach is the first time I remember not wanting to grow up. Today, September 16th, is my first day of college. My first day of classes is next Monday, but today is the first day of orientation. When I wake up, I'll drive with my mom to the university and unpack all my stuff in a room that I'll be sharing with Annaliese for the next school year. I'll experience all the news things one experiences during orientation week and then I'll have four years of new stuff. This is not the second time I've not wanted to grow up, it's probably the fourth (16th birthday and 18th birthday were the second and third), but this feeling now is just as strong as it was when I was nine. 

It's been almost a decade since my mom and I sat on the dunes and she told me that change is good and growing up isn't a bad thing, and I would be very surprised if she didn't tell me the same thing on the drive to Washington. That day on the beach, I couldn't think of anything worse than having to grow up. But so many wonderful things happened in the past nine years that it almost seems silly how scared I was. That's what I'm reminding myself as I prepare to leave Sacramento. Right now I may be thinking that growing up seems awful, but there must be plenty of good things waiting on the horizon. There always have been. 

My mom will probably insist that this picture also be shown, so here you go. Clearly, I went through a wide range of emotions that night. 

My mom will probably insist that this picture also be shown, so here you go. Clearly, I went through a wide range of emotions that night. 

Trust Your Process

A couple weeks ago, I got my driving permit. Yes, I do realize that it may seem strange that I'm writing about this after only getting my permit, but this was a giant hurdle to get across, so you're going to have to bear with me. After two years of taking driver's ed, studying for the test, and failing it twice, I finally passed. I read the handbook four times, took dozens of practice tests until I practically had them memorized, and even tried meditating. I went to a different DMV and tried to breathe as deeply and slowly as possible. I sat down at the computer to take the  test, and tried to go as slowly as possible. As I went through the test, I realized that I knew the answer to al the questions. There were a couple questions I skipped because I wasn't 100% sure, and there were only two questions that I got wrong. I ran out of the DMV after being handed my permit, and I gave my mom a gigantic hug. I passed. I finally passed. 

I realized recently that in the last two years, I've decided to do things relating to getting my drivers license when there was a lot of other stuff going on. I started taking my drivers ed. course the summer before I started at a new school, and so much of my brain space was filled by thinking about that. When I took the permit test the first time, me, my mom, and my brother were living with my grandparents again because our AC was broken, and I was kind of focused on that. When I went to take it the second time back in November, it seemed like all my friend's lives were falling apart, and they were my priority. Basically, all my brain space had been filled with too much stuff. 

That's what this all comes down to- brain space. From February-July, I went to therapy once a week, with the exception of a Thursday here and there. Because of that, I was able to start peeling the layers of the onion away and dealing with a lot of stuff I'd been holding in for years and years. When you've been carrying a lot of emotional weight, your brain starts to store it and pay attention to it even when you don't think you are. When you start to process everything and start taking care of your mental health, your brain is able to open up space for more things. Since I was in therapy and dealing with some of my emotional weight, my brain was able to open space for me to focus on getting my permit. It may seem strange and a little too simple, but trust me on this, brain space is a huge thing. 

I had also begun to take care of my anxiety. I have always been a very anxious person, but the last year has been especially hard. After a rough month of May and a fairly stressful graduation season, I knew something had to change. I'm not saying I magically cured my anxiety, because I don't think that's possible, but I was able to reduce it greatly by doing a few things. I started exercising more, which released endorphins that made me happier. I stopped eating gluten as much as I was because, seriously, your gut is connected to your brain.

But the biggest thing I started doing was distracting myself in the middle of a negative thinking spiral. This was the hardest, but I think it's also what made the biggest difference. When I felt myself starting to spiral into a void of negativity, I did whatever I could to change my environment. Whether it was as simple as changing the genre of music I was listening to or the show I was watching, or something bigger like physically leaving the room I was in and going outside, I distracted myself.  Sometimes it doesn't work, and sometimes it's much harder to get myself out of the spiral, but I haven't stopped trying. It was (and still is!) hard, but now I can feel myself starting to think far more positively. 

I have friends who got their driver's license right after turning sixteen, and I know people who didn't start the process until half way through college. I have friends who are dealing with anxiety and depression who had no problem passing the permit test the first time, and I have friends who, like me, had to take it a few times before they passed. There are people who had to process a lot more before they could succeed at something, and there are people who haven't even started to process stuff and they may not realize how heavy a load they are carrying. 

What I'm trying to say is that everyone's process is different, and this definietly doesn't just apply to driving tests. If someone is getting somewhere at a slower pace than you did, don't call attention to it. It only makes the anxiety worse, so be kind to people, and believe them when they say they are trying as hard as they can. And if someone is finishing something faster than you are, don't worry about it. If you need extra help, let people help you. You don't have to do everything by yourself. You'll get to where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there. Make some room in your brain, and trust in your process. 

Juggling Balloons

Back in April, I had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. The first week of the month consisted of musical performances, lots of essays and assignment due dates, and a general feeling of anxiety the whole time. I spent the entire week on the verge of tears, and on the Friday afternoon I wound up in the office of my then Religion teacher/vice principal crying. 

Before I can get into the balloon part of this story, let's go through all that was going through my mind that week, shall we? My dad had just gotten married a couple weeks prior and my brother wasn't handling it well and I was worried about him. There had been hours of musical rehearsals and even though I was happy to be on stage, I was also not getting enough sleep. I was in the process of getting over a heartbreak and even though I'd been doing really well, a few things had happened that week that had caused me to step backwards a little bit. I had multiple assignments that were either due very soon or were a few days overdue. College was looming over me and I wasn't sure where to start with the enrollment process. My class had received multiple speeches about how some of us were in the red in terms of graduating, and I had taken all that stress and started panicking that I wouldn't graduate (even though there was no chance of that not happening). I hadn't had coffee that morning and even though it wasn't a big deal, it was the cherry on top of an awful ice-cream cone. And to sum it all up, I'd missed my therapy session that week. 

So there I was, crying into my sleeve while my teacher nudged the box of tissues towards me. I ignored the tissues as she looked at me in sympathy and said, "Have you ever heard of the balloon analogy?" I shook my head no. My teacher smiled softly and told me about an analogy that changed my entire outlook on the remaining weeks of the year: "Imagine you have a blown up balloon. You can hold it and deal with it just fine, and once it deflates you can move onto the next one without any problem. Now, imagine you're holding two blown up balloons. It will take you longer to deflate them both. It's doable, but a little harder.  You have so many, fully blown up balloons that you are trying to juggle. It's hard to take all of them and fix it by yourself, because you will inevitably drop a couple of them. Sometimes we need someone else to come around and take a couple of our balloons." 

"My problem is it feels like I need to keep all the balloons because I'm the only one who can deflate them."
"I know the feeling. Think about it this way: Some of these balloons belong to other people. You're trying to juggle all of your balloons while also trying to help everyone else juggle theirs. It's okay to let everyone deal with their own balloons until you've popped most of your own." 

I stayed in her office a little while longer, and after I left I felt much better than I had. When I went home I had some coffee and put the sunflowers my mom had got for me into some water. I did some work and then took a break. It had been a really long week, and taking a break felt really good. 

In my teacher's office that day, I learned two things. 1.) When you have too many of your own balloons, it's okay not to help everyone else with theirs, and 2.) Popping balloons is extremely therapeutic, whether figuratively or literally. In realizing that I didn't have to take care of everyone else's balloons, I was able to have a less stressful end to my school year. I didn't start avoiding my friends and I didn't turn into a apathetic friend, either, but I was able to listen to them talk to me without turning their problems into my balloons. 

I tell you this story because the balloon analogy was really helpful for me. It helped me put things into perspective, and that was something I really needed (and still need quite often). I have a feeling this analogy will stay with me for a long time, and I hope it was able to help someone reading this as well. 

A Hand Movement

In August of 2014, I was in church when someone started talking about the end of the world. That night, I had my first panic attack. I felt out of control, and I felt claustrophobic and paralyzed in fear. I couldn’t get myself out of that anxiety because I was certain I was going to die a terrible death simply for something that I believed. It took me three years before I could even hear the words “end of time” without feeling a tightening in my chest. This fear and anxiety isn’t as strong as it once was, but I still get nervous when I walk into a church and listen to a sermon/watch a video about Daniel, Revelation, or Matthew 24. 

In July of 2017, I was diagnosed with PMDD, which is a severe kind of PMS. This means I have about one week a month where I feel like myself, and the other three are covered in extra anxiety, extra insecurities, a sense of hopelessness, or all of the above. Because of this, I was on anti-depressants from July until December of 2017. I have failed two attempts at the written test for my driver’s license because of test anxiety. I had a panic attack on my last day of senior year because I felt out of control and couldn’t ground myself into logic. Sometimes I still get into anxiety spirals where it takes a while to get out.

I get nervous easily. When I’m driving with my mom and I see a car start to pull into our lane, my breath catches in my throat for a second. Worst case scenario is my default. Flying is scary to me because I feel out of control. 

During the last few months, all my emotions turned off. I didn’t let myself think of anything except the work that I had to do so I could finish the school year worry-free. What I didn’t expect was the lack of a return from my emotions. It took me until Friday night of graduation to finally let myself feel what was going on. Sure, I was sad and feeling nostalgic but I wasn’t really feeling those things. I just knew they were there. I was so preoccupied with taking control over something that I didn’t let myself focus on anything else, even if that something else was simply taking care of my own mental health. 

Still, I am very lucky. I have access to therapy, I have a very supportive family, and I have friends who understand these parts of me. I can count on one hand the amount of panic attacks that I’ve had, and I am able to move through spirals of anxiety after a while. I have coping mechanisms, and I’m working on doing those things regularly. I am generally a happy person. I laugh at things and smile every day. I don’t feel enveloped in sadness very often. But I know that the bad things are still there, because if I pay attention to them for even a couple minutes it can take a few days for the thoughts to go away again. 

Because of these things, I throw myself in writing. I write for this website, I write poetry, and I journal almost every day. I used to write songs, too. I act, I listen to music, and I go into stages of running a lot. I may get anxious in church sometimes, but I am able to separate God from the building, and that’s something that I have had lots of help with over the years. I may feel like I’m going crazy most of the time, but I have gotten to the point where I can recognize it and work through it. I may feel out of control sometimes, but I have a family who can ground me in logic. I may be afraid of flying, but I have been able to make my love for traveling greater than my fear. 

Lastly, we need to be more open about mental health. Everyone gets worried, scared, lonely, and unhappy sometimes. Some people have things worse than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it. Lend your ears to someone who needs to talk, and your shoulder to someone who needs to cry. Give space when they need it and be there when they can’t handle any more space. Be there for yourself. Do the things that you know are good for you. Don't sacrifice your own mental health to take care of someone else's. Don't let your fears get in the way of your living. I know that you have something to offer this world. I know that you will work through all of this. To quote Christopher Robin, "Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Madisen Kuhn, one of my favorite poets, recently started #AHandMovement. This is a project used to open up candid conversations about mental health. This piece was my reaction to that project. 

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